Jonathan on the road*

Christian Appalachian Project

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By Julie Rattey


Jonathan, 15, felt the rush of warm wind around his body as he drove through his small town of Revelo, Kentucky, the streets spread out before him invitingly in the dark. Sitting astride his lime-green all-terrain vehicle, feeling the buzz from the beer and drugs he had taken earlier that evening, Jonathan felt the cool certainty of one thing: Life was too short not to have a good time. Watching the planes crash into the World Trade Center a little over a week ago had been another reminder of how life could slug you in the jaw when you least expected it. So why waste time worrying about the future?

As he continued to drive, Jonathan felt himself becoming hypnotized by the road, which seemed to grow slippery like water beneath the wheels. He lazily watched the street swerve back and forth, back and forth. Then, something large and blurry seemed to appear in his path. What’s a building doing in the middle of the road? Then, his whole body seemed to jolt awake as two realizations struck with terrifying force: One, it was he, and not the building, that had gone off course, and two, he was speeding directly toward a solid wall of brick.

***

“One… two… three… up!” Kathie placed her arms around her 19-year-old son to lift him from his bed and place him in his wheelchair to begin their daily routine. Her mind searched for some joke to toss out at Jonathan so he wouldn’t see the strain on her face, but the effort was too great. Between worsening fibromyalgia and arthritis, and damaged disks that had rapidly developed from lifting Jonathan, who was partly paralyzed as a result of the accident, Kathie’s body ached so much that some days, she didn’t want to move at all.

Jonathan’s wheelchair was too big to fit in the bathroom. Kathie brought out a washcloth and a bar of soap and watched her son begin to wash his face. In addition to partial paralysis and traumatic brain injury, the accident had also caused facial disfigurement and partial blindness. It was ironic, because the accident had also opened Jonathan’s eyes. He’d become more tenderhearted, more mature, even more spiritual. And he no longer abused alcohol or drugs.

God, Kathie prayed, why does it so often take a tragedy for people to wake up?

“I wish… I wish I could help out more,” Jonathan said guiltily, catching the pained look on her face. “Like with the cooking and laundry and everything. This house…” The house Jonathan and Kathie rented was not equipped for Jonathan’s needs, making mobility extremely limited. “The way things are, I just don’t see much of a future for me.”

Kathie bit her lip. She knew that even with all her family scraping money together, they didn’t have the resources to get Jonathan the help he needed to live more independently — a new bed, a van with a lift , tutoring to put him back on track for school.

“It’s not always going to be this difficult, I promise,” Kathie said, trying to convince herself as well as him.

Just then, the phone rang in the other room. “Carl Jay is not doing so good,” her brother Norbert informed her. Carl Jay, their brother, had both a mental disability and Tourette syndrome. Both brothers lived next door to Kathie, who was in and out of their houses a lot more since Momma died of cancer and heart failure.

“I’ll be over as soon as I’m done with JonJon,” Kathie said, feeling weary already. “How are you doing?”

“Had better days.” Norbert was coping with skin cancer.

“I’ll be there soon,” she reassured him, and hung up. This family just can’t get a break. She stared at the phone, her shoulders sagging under the weight of her struggles. I know I promised you I’d take care of the family, Momma, but I don’t think I can do this on my own.

“Mom?”

Jonathan was calling from his room. Kathie started walking toward the door when the phone rang again. Looking from one to the other, Kathie let out a half-sob, half-scream of frustration.

Today, she told herself, I’m going to write a letter. Tell somebody what’s going on. Maybe to my state rep. That’s what Momma always said I should do if I needed help. Well, she thought, trying to compose herself before heading back to Jonathan, I need it now.

 

***

 

“You’re getting creamed, Uncle Carl.” Jonathan laughed as he racked up points against his uncle Carl Jay on PlayStation 2. Since the accident, it had been one of their favorite ways to spend time together.

“I’m playing nice today because we have a visitor,” Uncle Carl retorted playfully.

Jonathan’s eyes flicked over to the kitchen, where his mom was sitting with Debby Nolan, a program manager for the Christian Appalachian Project. Ever since his mom had written a letter to State Representative Ken Upchurch, and Upchurch’s office had gotten in touch with CAP, things had begun looking up for both him and his mom. Kathie was now good friends with Debby, who, along with fellow CAP workers and community organizations, had helped make life a little easier for the family. Th ere was the automatic bed they’d brought in for Jonathan, and the mattress set that helped Kathie cope with her arthritis. Jonathan was now being tutored so he could attend college. And thanks to some conversations he’d had with people at CAP, he now knew what he wanted to do with his life — become a drug and alcohol counselor.

Female laughter erupted from the kitchen. Jonathan grinned. It felt so good to hear his mom laugh again. CD

*Based on the story of Jonathan Cooper. Research for this story was conducted with the assistance of Debby Nolan, program manager.

Managing Editor Julie Rattey

Julie Rattey is a Boston-based writer and editor. She is the author of If I Grew Up in Nazareth, available from 23rdPublications.com.