The Seven Lessons Charley Taught Me
A quarter of a century ago, if you where a member of a middle class family and a thirteen year old boy, chances are you where selfish. It wasn’t your fault. You where thirteen and didn’t have to think about a roof over your head or whether you where going to be able to eat dinner that night. You didn’t have too. Your concerns, as they should be, where about you. Are my clothes popular, is my haircut cool enough, does that girl in Science class like me. The typical things that thirteen year old, middle class boys do and should be thinking of. That’s who I was the summer I met Charley.
It was maybe mid June and I had just arrived home from Boy Scout camp the day before. I remember sitting on my front porch in the morning. I was up earlier than normal, probably because of the schedule I’d had to keep at camp. I was enjoying the shade of the big oak trees, as well as the lack of mayhem that usually ensued when my little brothers and I where together. The quiet was nice and I was just letting my mind wander when I spotted him.
He didn’t belong in the neighborhood. I know all the people on our street and he wasn’t one of them. He was older than me, maybe in his twenties, I thought. His hair was very thin even for his age and he had a very flat face, with high pronounced cheek bones. He walked with his arms held out away from his sides and it gave him an even greater look of strength. He didn’t need to walk that way, he was a good size regardless of how he held himself. Even from where I was sitting fifty, sixty feet away I could see the chords of muscle standing out on his neck and arms. He was barrel chested and broad-shouldered with a narrow waist. At six feet tall and one hundred eighty pounds, with not an ounce of fat on him, he might have been considered by some an intimidating figure. In contrast I was about five foot three inches, stick thin and a hundred fifteen pounds soaking wet.
As he passed by he must have caught me watching him out of the corner of his eye. Without pause he turned and started straight at me up the hill, that we called a lawn. He paused on his trip across the lawn just long enough to pick a Dandelion. He came right up on the lower steps and held the yellow weed just a few inches from my face, saying “Here”. I took the preferred flower and he leaned even closer to me as a barrage of words came pouring through the huge grin on his face.
I would like to stop here for a moment and talk about my new friends grin for just a moment. It is important to mention it, as it was never off his face for even a second of the time I spent with him. In fact I think his face may have lacked the muscles required to frown. His grin I would describe as “toothy”. By that I mean that when he smiled you could see all his teeth. Not like you might if you where to think of a model or actor with perfect teeth. No my friends teeth where there and straight but, it was as if they where a little to small for his mouth. There where small gaps between them and it seemed as if maybe they weren’t quite long enough to meet each other when he closed his mouth.
As I was saying he started to spout words at me. I managed to eventually understand that his name was Charley, he was new to the neighborhood, he liked my house, he liked me, he liked flowers and that flowers where pretty. It was obvious to me, from listening to him talk for just those few minutes that Charley was Mentally Challenged. A quarter of a century ago we would have said Mentally Retarded but, it is obvious to me now, that the way Charley lived his life it was far from retarded. In fact I imagine it to be more fulfilling and richer than the lives of most people.
I asked Charley if he could show me where he lived. I was worried that maybe he had wandered away. In what I came to think of as Charley’s style he grabbed me by the wrist and began dragging me down the hill, shouting repeatedly for me to follow him. I followed Charley to the end of our street, about two houses down from mine. With the grip he had on my wrist I didn’t really have a choice. We went up the drive of the house on the corner and through the front door into the living room. Charley was shouting the whole time that he was home.
It only took a second for Charley’s Mom to appear from the kitchen and his Dad to appear at the top of the stairs. I think they where as shocked as I was to find me attached to the end Charley’s hand and standing in the middle of their living room. After getting some help to extricate myself from Charley’s grip, I explained what had happened. They had a good laugh and said they would talk to him about just grabbing random people and bringing them home. I learned that Charley was 17 and was indeed mentally challenged. The doctors figured that he was going to spend the rest of his life looking at the world through the eyes of a four to six year old. They where renting the house for the summer and then moving. Apparently Charley’s Dad was then starting a new job. Maybe in Massachusetts, I can’t remember.
As I was leaving Charley surprised me and asked me if we could go walking together. Charley liked to walk. The selfishness of my, to cool, thirteen year old self and the lessons that I had been taught by my parents about dealing with the less fortunate battled momentarily. Thankfully for me the lessons won out. I agreed to go walking up to the old bus garage in the middle of our street and back once a week. I think I agreed to Saturday mornings but, I’m not truly sure of the day we finally settled on. For the sake of the story where going to go with Saturday.
I am not going to bore you by describing every walk went on with Charlie. We simply walked to the bus garage and back every Saturday. It was maybe a half mile round trip and took twenty to thirty minutes tops. Charlie would talk, ask me questions and show me things that he thought where cool or pretty. For me that meant looking at a lot of flowers, bugs and things like tree lichen. I spent 5-6 hours with this young man in total all summer and I can’t think of one thing he said, that taught me anything of value. Because Charlie didn’t teach by telling you what you should do. He taught by living his life in front of you. So that is what I’m going to tell you, how Charley lived his life and how I woke up one day and realized all the life lessons he had taught me.
I would meet Charley at his house. Meeting Charley was almost always the same. I would knock on the door and Charley’s Mom would open it. She would call Charley and tell him I was there for our walk. Charley would appear from another room at a run. He would scoop me up in a giant bear hug and half crushing me, swing me back and forth saying Hello Jon, Hello. He would then set me down so I could breathe. He would reach around and kiss my cheek the way a little kid might and say I love you Jon, let’s go. He would take me by my hand and we would leave for our walk up the street. I saw Charley once a week for 30 minutes. I was a small part of his life and yet when I came I was the only thing that mattered. I was the center of his universe at that moment and the following 30 minutes it took us to walk to the bus garage and back.
That was Charley’s first lesson to me. Living in the moment. Charley always lived in the moment. When you where with Charley you didn’t think about what happened before and you weren’t worried about what was going to happen later on. All you worried about when you where with Charley was what the two of you where doing right there and right then.
Charley and I would leave the house holding hands. I think it had been ingrained into Charley that when he walked with someone he held their hand. I can imagine it was the way that Charley’s Mom kept him from running out into traffic while at the grocery store. But Charley would hold my hand and always stopped in the yard to pick me a “flower” as we headed down to the street. When I say flower, It might be a dandelion or clover or some other small flowering plant that caught his eye. What ever it was Charley would find something to give me as a present. And here’s the important part he would always thank me. He would tell me this flower is for you. “Thank you for walking with me today.”
For me that is Charley’s second lesson. The lesson of gratitude. He was thankful to get 30 minutes of my time each week. At that time, and at that age, there where so many things I wanted or could think of doing, that would have had far more meaning to me than 30 minutes of time with Charley. I couldn’t understand then what that 30 minutes meant to Charley and how he could appreciate it so much.
Charley and I would walk up the street together and he would talk about the houses we passed. Things that you and I might find unremarkable. Things like the house has shutters and its color. But here’s the thing. Charlie saw everything. I mean everything. We would be walking and he would say something like that house has pretty purple flowers. Before you could comment on that he would be off and standing above the flowers, his back to you. He would sneak back over to you hands gently cupped together and when he opened them. Magically a small blue butterfly would be sitting in the palm of his hand slowly beating it’s wings. I wouldn’t mention this if this where a one time deal. Charley would do this kind of thing again and again. It might be a chipmunk peering from inside a hollow log, a beetle or a small toad that had been shading itself under the low hanging leaves in someones garden. Every time this happened his eyes would light up. It was as if what he was seeing or holding or touching what was the most amazing thing he had ever seen for the very first time.
That was Charley’s third and fourth lessons rolled into one. It was to open my eyes and see everything. That there is always something to see. It may be hiding under a leaf or peering from around the corner of a building, but it is there and you keep your eyes open you will see it. The fourth is that everything is special and wonderful and amazing in its own special way. I learned that by listening to the amazement in Charley’s voice as he talked about what he had found and by being allowed to see these things through his eyes the way he saw them. It doesn’t matter if it’s a little blue butterfly sitting calmly in the palm of a young mans hand or the person sitting next to you on your bus ride to work in the morning. They both have something special about them and it’s your job to see it.
Most of our walks go something like this. We would spend 30 minutes walking half a mile. With Charlie darting back and forth pointing out this thing or that. The chatter of his voice running with only an occasional pause to pull an answer out of me. A half mile in 30 minutes. That’s one mile an hour. You would think that we where moving at a snail’s pace. That the walk lacked energy or drive. That is the furthest thing from the truth. The energy of those walks were frenzied. It was like Charley had somehow absorbed the energy from a lightning bolt and was able to doll it out as excitement for everything in the world around him. I was no slouch physically at this point. A 30mile bike ride was nothing for me. But there where days I would get back from trying to match Charley’s energy for that half mile walk and would be exhausted.
This was Charley’s fifth lesson to me. Excitement. To be excited about everything. Everything I see and do. Whether it be rocking out with friends to a favorite band or having to drag in wood to heat the house, while the wind drives the rain against your face so hard it stings. Both are exciting, both are proof that you are alive and kicking. And Life itself, when really lived, is exciting.
We would get back to Charley’s and he would invite me in for a glass of water and a final bone crushing hug. Then I would take my leave of him and go about my week until it was time to go for my next walk with Charley
Charley’s sixth lesson is simple. Charley loved me. It was palpable when you where with him. He really was a 5 year old stuck in a mans body and he loved like a 5 year old boy. He loved me with a kind of innocence, that is born of never having love requited. Whole heartedly and without fear, requiring and asking nothing in return. The kind of love that we should all do our best to attain. Love fearlessly with no thought of that love not being returned.
You might at this point, think that I am a lucky man to have learned such important lessons at the age of thirteen. What an enriched life I must have led up until now. Well…You would think wrong. As I said in the beginning, thirteen year old, middle class boys are selfish. And I was. After going on a walk with Charley I thought, what a great person I am. I mean for ME! to spend a half hour with someone like Charley makes me a true saint. In my mind I was likely to be categorized with people like Gandhi or Mother Theresa. In a word I was an idiot.
In fact it wasn’t until I was reviewing my life about 9 years ago now, that I realized how important Charley and that summer was. That Charley had truly taught me some amazing lessons and what an idiot I had been to have spent all this time ignoring them. That was the point where I became truly sick from my CHD and was facing the possibility of a heart transplant. I had received a packet talking about the survival rate of transplant at ten years out. I had worked out that the survival rate was in fact slightly below 50%. Sobering statistics like that make you rethink much of what you have done with your life. For me it made me think about Charley, the time we had spent together and what it had meant. It was only until then. Until I took the time to remember the things he had said, done and the way he had lived his life that I realized what an incredible young man Charlie really was.
It also brings me to lesson seven. An important lesson that would transform our world if we could all learn it and remember it all the time. That is that everything on this planet has value. That there are lessons to be learned from all things and every person if we are open to the possibility. If you don’t believe that’s true, then you haven’t read this story. The story of how a young man, who will always have the equivalent intelligence of a kindergartener, taught me through the simple living of his own life, seven of the most valuable lessons I have ever learned.
I now carry those lessons with me every where. I do my best to practice them every minute of every day. More often than not I fail at it. Sometimes I fail at it miserably. Sometimes my head gets in the way and I over think things. Sometimes my inner grumpy old man shows through and my emotions get the better part of me. I have yet to remember to practice all of these lessons all at the same time. I’m not perfect and I expect I am normal in that I never will be. But I carry theses lessons with me and I try to exercise them as often as possible. I am certainly no Charley but, on occasion things come together in just the right way and I have a moment of true happiness.