Sunday, September 10, 2017

11 year-old boy comes to terms with disability 50 years later

Disability comes in many different flavors. As an 11 year-old child it was a mental disability due to a tragedy in my family.  As an adult, it was a physical disability due to a surfing accident. Let me explain.

It has been 51 years since my father was shot and killed in New York City, in the borough of Manhattan. He was killed in October 1966 at the age of 28.

At the time, I was living in a South Bronx project development called the "Moore Houses," adjacent to St. Mary's Park. We lived on the 19th floor, apartment 19L, at 525 Jackson Avenue. We had a great view of the East River and could see LaGuardia Airport from our bedroom windows.

My sisters, Lisa and Debbie, were ages four and two respectively, and shared a room at the rear of the apartment. My younger brother Victor and I shared a room, as well as memories we would never forget.

Although we were on the 19th floor, we could hear the sounds and chatter on the street. The sounds of music, people talking and singing, sometimes fighting and on rare occasions, gunshots. We also heard the sirens of fire engines, police cars and ambulances throughout the night. Each had a distinct sound. Yes, the South Bronx was part of New York City, full of adventure and danger.

As Vic and I hopped into our twin beds one ominous night, oblivious to all the noises on the street, I remember having a dream, a confusing dream, that turned into a nightmare.

I was dreaming that my Dad was driving a white van and a mattress somehow appeared on the front driver's seat and the vehicle flipped over. As with other dreams or nightmares, which can be frightening, my heart was pounding and I was tossing and turning in bed.

As I struggled to wake up, I heard a loud noise coming from the front of our three-bedroom, lower income apartment. Someone was banging on the front metal door of our apartment, and, a second or two later I heard my mother scream, and then cry.

She wailed, "Oh my God, I can't believe it, he was with her, he was with her."
Not more than a few seconds later my
My Mom, Alma, in happier days.
brother and I were sitting up in our beds. My sisters were awake as well.

My grandfather, Poppy, and my Uncle Mike, walked into our bedroom and said, "Jimmy, we have to tell you something."  And before they could speak, I blurted out, "I know, Daddy's dead, he was killed in a car accident."

My Uncle said,"How do you know that Jimmy?" I replied: "I just had a dream that he died in a car accident."

"No no," my Uncle said, "he was shot and killed tonight, in Manhattan. At that point, we all started to cry. I don't remember much after that.

Today, as I sit in my wheelchair inside my rented Midtown apartment on the 31st floor in Manhattan, I still have much in common with that 11-year-old boy in the South Bronx. In 1981, I "broke my neck"  and became quadriplegic, due to a surfing accident in Puerto Rico, which resulted in paralysis from the chest down to my legs.

As I did as a boy, 51 years ago, I can see the East River from my apartment window today in Manhattan. As I think about my father's murder, I now know that I was paralyzed with fear and the uncertain life that loomed before me. I saw no future. My father, protector and role model, was dead.

After my Dad was killed, I didn't know who was going to protect us. Who was going to feed us? How would we pay the rent? Who would shield us from the "bad people" on the streets? At the age of 11, I took it upon myself to "figure out" how to protect my mother, my brother and two younger sisters.
Mom, Dad,Victor (in red) and me.
Try as I may, I was inadequate. I did what I could, with the limited knowledge of an 11 year-old. As the eldest brother of our brood, I did my best to hold us together. I went with my Mom to cash the Social Security checks each third day of the month. This check, my father's death benefit, was all the income we had. We barely had enough money for my Dad's funeral.

In 1966 I budgeted $30.00 for food shopping each week -- for the five of us. I made sure the rent was paid and "paid down" the credit chit we had at the local "bodega" (grocery store). I also nagged my brother and sisters to get home early and off the streets.

After Dad's death:Vic, Deb, Mom.Lisa, and me.
We avoided street gangs. Each neighborhood had a gang -- The Latin Souls, Savage Skulls, Black Spades and Golden  Guinea's still come to mind. The South Bronx was dangerous.

I was too young to make decisions, but I had to. My mother had a drinking problem, she was an alcoholic and fell apart when my father was killed. It was hard for my Mom, I'm sure, as he died in the apartment of another woman -- shot by the woman's estranged husband. Looking back now, this was a classic life tragedy -- which also plays out today in our society. I didn't know that in 1966.

As I look out my 31st floor window, that 11-year-old boy remains close to my heart.  

I went to college at 16, and then went on to graduate school at New York University. While in college, however, I had to transfer back to New York City, with permission from my upstate college, Colgate University, to finish my senior year. 

Why? My mother was assaulted in an elevator in our housing project, and I thought it was best to be with my Mom and siblings at that point. I received my degree from Colgate as planned. Lisa and Victor also attended and graduated from Colgate University. Debbie is a graduate of Syracuse University.
 
After a year with the New York City's Mayor's Office, as an intern with the Urban Fellowship Program, under former Mayor Abraham Beam, I worked at IBM for the majority of my career and dealt with my disability as best I could. Last year, I joined JPMorgan Chase & Co. as the Head of Disability Inclusion.

I eventually married and helped raise a family as a paralyzed adult. Together, my wife Maggie and I, also provided for our family as best we could. We have a daughter, son, and two gorgeous granddaughters.

As an 11 year-old boy, I could not envision a future of success -- I couldn't see it -- I was angry and frightened. In my mind's eye, I hope that boy could now smile and know that we did as well as we could -- given the "hand" we were dealt.

My Mom died two years ago.  May God rest her soul.

As an adult, I see the glass half full

My challenge now, however, is predominantly physical, rather than mental. My life experiences have taught me how to cope with my paralysis.

I've learned to cope, and I know how to tackle fears that still plague me and everyone else with a visible or hidden disability.

As I write this blog, the singer, Whitney Houston, is singing "Didn't We Almost Have It All" on my Bose radio. As I listen to her lyrics, I ponder America. I think about the discord we face as a society today. The protests, the fighting, the unrest, the mistrust, anger and fear.

This is all disturbing to me, given what that "boy" in the South Bronx had to overcome, and what that soon to be 62-year-old adult (your humble blogger) did to try and make a better life for himself and his family.

My hope is that this country will get over our differences and get on with building a better life for ourselves and the people we love.

That 11-year-old boy in the South Bronx, as well as boys and girls around the world, facing fear and uncertainty today, should also have the opportunities to build a better life, just as that boy began to do 51 years ago.

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