By Liz Lundberg
NEWELL, W.Va. — I met Donnie Kirkpatrick not long after I moved to Newell Heights. Looking out the kitchen window one day, I saw a slender figure limping past a snowdrift. Most of the snow had melted but there were one or two mountains where the plow had piled it high. The rest of the driveway was bare. He was collecting aluminum cans.
At the time my aluminum can receptacle was sitting under the front steps—a plastic milk crate about half full. I had begun collecting them thinking that if I was too busy to bother taking them to recycle myself, I’d likely find someone who would, and there he was. I ran outside and hollered for him to come over. Sure enough, he was thankful for the cans. Together we placed my contributions in his plastic bag and introduced ourselves. I told him I would save all my aluminum for him from then on, and he could pick it up whenever he wanted.
Over the last few years we’ve developed this relationship focused mainly on the transfer of cans. Now and then we swap a few words about the weather or life in general, but it’s mostly about the cans. Donnie typically stops by with the family tractor, trailing a cart for the metal and leaving tracks and an empty container to tell me he’s been here. He lives about a half mile down the road. Sometimes if I don’t see him for a while and the cans pile up, I drop them off at his home. As a result, I’ve met his mother, his father, and his sister Connie.
Though we’d only had the cans in common, I couldn’t help but reflect on the value of the trust I have in him. He made a seamless transition from stranger to friend by virtue of his positive personality. I would see him limping along the roadside, picking the treasure from the trash along the shoulder, dragging his left side like an indigent Siamese twin. I can tell you right now your spouse complains about back pain more than he does. Did I mention that Donnie is partially paralyzed?
By no means am I Donnie’s only supplier. He apparently has friends and acquaintances all around Newell Heights who leave cans in plastic shopping bags hanging on a fence post or a doorknob. After I gave him that first crateload of cans, he was never shy about coming to my door to check. Whenever he would see me, he’d ask again if it was all right for him to come into the back yard when we weren’t home. I came to find out he brokered a deal for the aluminum siding from the fellow who lives across the street from him. By that I mean he offered his father’s services to haul it away in return for getting it for nothing. That was a pretty big haul.
Though our lives only cross casually, I have always wondered if Donnie had always been handicapped, or if there was a time when he had not been. What was going on inside this happy fellow beyond what our metal-exchange relationship allowed me to see? I didn’t want to be rude, of course, but I figured as long as we’d known each other he wouldn’t think I was being too intrusive if I just asked. He stopped by the other day with the tractor long enough to get beyond small talk, so I took the opportunity to ask him what had happened. He let me inside his life casually and confidently, as if reading a grocery list.
Donnie Kirkpatrick was born in Sept. 17, 1974, which makes him 32 years old. He was growing and developing just like all the other kids in school until 1984, when he developed an infection on his lower leg. It got deep into his flesh, so he had to have surgery to cut it out. The surgery apparently went fine, but the doctor closed the wound without getting all of the infected tissue, so the infection grew and traveled through his blood to his brain. This caused him to have a stroke, and doctors had to remove a section of his skull to save him from further injury or death. For whatever reason (I didn’t ask) they replaced this portion of his skull with a rigid plastic plate. He was just 9 years old at the time.
I didn’t take photos of his skull and wouldn’t show them here if I did, even though he did not mind showing me. Let’s just say you would gasp if you saw what had been done. The incision harks back to the days before modern medicine. A hunk of cranial bone the size of a slice of cantaloupe is completely missing. The side of his head, just above the temple has the contours of a sidewalk curb; the cut drops down a solid half inch from the bone to the brain. The ball cap he wears, like so many of us, hides it, and unless you were to see him with it off, you wouldn’t know that this was the source of his atrophied left side.
Donnie went through many months of rehab to gain back some simple independence—that is, learning to walk and move his limbs. He eventually went back to school and earned his high school diploma like other kids. I didn’t ask him whether he considered college or not. I suppose he could have gone; he is by no means feeble-minded, but often head injuries leave invisible, less-obvious damage. It’s possible that even if he had wanted to attend college, he might not have been able to. I cannot say. Maybe he’ll tell me about that some other time.
I didn’t ask how he got the original infection nor why his parents didn’t sue for malpractice. Maybe filing law suits against doctors wasn’t as common then. Maybe Donnie’s parents just saw the whole thing as an unfortunate accident. But that will be another conversation for us. We both have lots of time, and I’ll always have cans that need picked up.
As it is, walking is a major undertaking for Donnie, and more than a little painful. Gravity has twisted his back from years of effort. “I make myself walk, even though it hurts,” he said. “If I didn’t, I’d have to sit around and be depressed.” How true. Life doesn’t care how you feel, so the only thing you hurt with bitterness is yourself. And it’s all relative; we have a different set of problems than Donnie, and ours may be as difficult for us as his for him. Of course, I’d still rather have my problems than his.
Instead of letting depression and self pity rob him of what he has, Donnie keeps himself busy. Going out to walk every day is hard, but collecting the cans makes it a game and gives him a purpose. He gives the cans to his father, who takes them with other recyclables to a center in Hammondsville. He also keeps a small greenhouse, and gives flowers and plants to friends and family. The yard always looks nice. He likes fishing, and during the season he goes hunting, using a tripod to steady his gun. He is good at getting around in the woods. He doesn’t just hunt for sport; he eats everything he shoots.
Donnie has two sisters. The youngest, Connie, still lives at home. The older one, LaDawn, is married and lives downstate. He enjoys visiting her and her little boy and girl. When extended family visits, he has a great time. I’ve seen him out riding quads with his cousins. If he could have it his way, he told me, he would have a job, a wife and kids. At is it, he enjoys playing with his sister’s kids. I agreed that having children would be very fulfilling, adding that I had unfortunately let my chance pass. He said he is still holding out a hope while he has time, even though he has no social life. When you have no job and don’t drive, you have little opportunity to be noticed or to overcome the physical disfigurement, let alone the economic circumstances. As a potential husband, he has only a disability check to offer, and no home but that of his parents. It’s a squeeze, but if he is willing to hope, it’s worth me hoping for him.
If his injury had caused him to be mentally simple, this man probably wouldn’t register for me beyond the can exchange. I would assume that the aluminum alone was enough of a reward. Or if he were a fat alcoholic jerk who felt the world owed him something because he was crippled, I wouldn’t give a rat’s ass. I think of all the able-bodied people spending their lives on the couch, watching TV and waiting to die. It’s not their legs, but their heart and head that stops them. They have to deal with the cumulative effect of all the frustration that life has hurled their way, or the hopelessness of poverty they were born into, or the lack of sufficient intelligence to put together a game plan.
But for Donnie, that’s not the case. He’s all here, and the game plan—complete with wisdom, self-respect, humor and resourcefulness—is part of the package. Even though he’s been relegated to the bench, Donnie shows up in life prepared to play like the team is depending on him. It’s made a powerful impression on me. Life is a gift to us, yes, but we are a gift to life, too. If we play our lives, such as they are, from moment to moment, with the personal integrity that dignifies that gift, it means something. We make a powerful impression, and we make a difference in everything we do. He has internalized a lesson that most of us spend a lifetime missing.
Writing about Donnie is my way of acknowledging that he showed up in my life this way. He probably doesn’t need the reward, but I need to share the experience and pass it on for what it is worth, which is certainly more than the stack of aluminum cans I gave for it.