PATRICK LEE CHAPMAN, 1954-2018
I grew up in the era of generational porch sitters. The Greatest Generation was nudging into their fifties and would sit on their porches in the evenings, visiting with family and friends. As I rode my bike up Pike Street, crossed on Church, pedaled down Smith and whizzed down Harrison, a chorus of big hellos would sound from each porch. Supper hung in the air.
Everybody knew everybody. In fact, there are some people that I don’t remember meeting because I can’t remember a time without them.
I do, however, remember meeting Pat Chapman.
I was in the fourth grade and was on my way to the restroom during class time. Did I need to go to the restroom? No. Was I heading to the one directly across the hall? No. I was going to the bathroom built as part of the new addition because I wanted to check out the new hand dryers. They sounded like tornados. I wanted to press all three at the same time.
As I passed by a classroom, I noticed a boy leaning against a door jamb. His head was tilted at an awkward angle while his arm was held high and tight against his chest. From his wrist, the hand dangled. I’d no sooner noticed him than a thin, high-pitched scream ripped through the air. It came from the red-headed girl standing across from him and still holds a place in my tonal memory. The teacher came to the door.
“He got a hundred! He got a hundred!” The red-headed frenzy was jumping up and down, holding a paper in her hand.
Mrs. Pope replied, “Debbie, I know you’re happy for him, but you can’t disturb the class like this.”
So, one minute after “meeting” Pat, I’d met Debbie Chapman. She’d been giving him his spelling test orally because his grip wouldn’t allow him to write. She could also understand his labored speech because she was his neighbor and fast friend.
Pat’s 4th grade class. He’s standing next to Mrs. Eloise Pope, teacher. Debbie is front row, second from left.
Pat’s suffering began at birth. He cried continually due to a sensitive digestive tract and could only tolerate goat’s milk. His first steps were to his sister, Carla, but they were taken when he was six. He was thought to have spastic cerebral palsy. This type of CP causes more pain than the other types because of enhanced muscle strength. A trip to St. Barnabas Hospital in New York would rule out CP. There were certain things he could do that CP patients weren’t supposed to do, and certain things he couldn’t do that he should have been able to. Pat would remain without a primary diagnosis all his life, but the spasticity was real and he was strong. Once his arm was cast straight up behind his back, but he began to complain of pain so his father cut it off. Underneath was a huge skin ulcer. In addition, he had arthritis, bursitis, and a sensitivity to barometric pressure. When he ate, he was forced to throw his head back in order to swallow so he wouldn’t choke, and as he grew older, his teeth would have to be pulled. His speech, which was always laborious, would deteriorate, and when he did speak, it cost him. A simple sentence would leave him shaking and sweating.
There’s a special type of pain involved when people who are extremely handicapped are extremely bright, and to say Pat was intelligent would be an understatement. He had an auditory memory as well as an eidetic one, and there wasn’t a subject, if given a chance, in which Pat didn’t excel. Special education was far on the horizon and I’m glad for two reasons: our class wouldn’t have gotten to know Pat and he wouldn’t have gotten to know us.
We weren’t the most scholastic, athletic or even cohesive class. In fact, we were the group that most teachers dreaded. I remember asking Doris Neal, the school secretary, what was “wrong” with our class, and after a long moment, she said, “Your class was loud.” She looked like she had something to add, but this was at a funeral and Doris, ever a lady, wouldn’t say more.
Yet, no one teased Pat who, by this time, was also known as Rosie or Pickles.
Today I read horror stories of special needs students being bullied, mocked or excluded. I can’t remember one instance when he wasn’t, to the best of our abilities, treated like one of us. Coach Bernie Stone made him the football team manager in Junior High, and he treasured the acceptance of guys like Harry Purdue, Steve Daniel, Jerry Leggett, Jim Scheidler, Terry Jordan, David Martin, Tim Bias and others. I know this because he told me. In a junior high photo, he is surrounded by a group of cheerleaders, one of them giving him a kiss. He kept our high school yearbook within arm’s reach, and if you attended the Milton Baptist Church and were close to his age, he knew your baptismal date.
After graduation, Pat’s social life was curtailed, but he wasn’t a recluse. He knew his neighbors and friends still visited. The schools in our town hadn’t been torn down, and schools have bands and band practice. His house was their stopping point, and he’d wait on the porch to talk to band members. I don’t know how many years this went on. Church people visited, he had music, television, and family, but he wasn’t out and about like he’d once been.
Pat’s condition was worsening. This was after he’d had extensive testing at St. Barnabas. While his diagnosis was inconclusive, the doctors tried to override the synapses in his brain —those flares that caused him to contort and spasm—with electrodes. Unfortunately, these were powered by a backpack, and his flares were so strong that when the attached electrodes tried to override them the impact would knock him off his feet.
His sister-in-law, Sharon, urged me to go see him. It had been a while, and I wasn’t sure how I’d be received, but Sharon kept saying, “Go over and visit. He’d love to see you.”
So I did.
Actually, I was going through a painful journey of my own. I was questioning my faith. Or rather, I was questioning everything I’d been taught, because I wanted to know for myself. I was also wanting immediate answers to all the hard questions in the universe, and at the top of my list (right after “how did evil enter the world, if God is good) was suffering. Why do people suffer? Why is this world full of pain? Unlike Pat’s, my experience could be classified. I was going through a dark night of the soul.
Pat was the focal point in my argument with God. Here was a person who had done no one any harm, never asked for pity, and always had a smile on his face. I think I was hoping I’d learn something that day which would allow me to let go of the whole business.
I walked through the door, and there sat Pat, looking glad to see me.
There were new lines of pain on his face, despite his smile, and he seemed smaller than I’d remembered. Older, thinner, more bent. I didn’t intend to talk about God, but Pat mentioned the Milton Baptist Church and within minutes we were off and running.
I don’t remember how the general topic of God moved into the specific area of suffering, and even more specifically to Pat. I voiced all the questions about suffering mentioned above and then some. Mildred, his mother, said she’d never understood why Pat had to endure so much. There never seemed to be any answers. She spoke from a mother’s heart, and I spoke from the viewpoint of an idiot. A seeking idiot, but an idiot nonetheless.
Pat was quiet. For a while, he didn’t speak, but when he did, it was a long, labored sentence that cost him because he was sweating profusely by the end. No, he was not mad at God. He loved God. God loved him. God had told him that when he died, He would send a chariot with six white horses to take him to heaven.
Pat looked for my reaction.
I looked for the chariot because I wanted God to come right now, and take him to a place where pain, and the memory of it, would fade forever.
I’d visit several times more before I moved to Wichita. After that, every time I came home, I’d visit Pat. Richard, my husband, got to know him as well.
Pat’s life changed dramatically after he got a computer. He got a good one and good people to help him, specialists from Marshall who were accustomed to helping the handicapped, and the computer was made to fit his specifications. That meant Pat could use the one finger that spasticity hadn’t folded, plus the mouse could mostly be controlled by his feet, where he had the most mobility.
He loved communication. He emailed several times a day, stole email addresses from emails I sent him, emailed strangers and got replies, wrote poetry, played computer games, and endlessly browsed the net. Pat was most interested in the planets and space. His father, Carl, said he was up every morning at six-thirty and didn’t go to bed until midnight.
He was free.
Meanwhile, I was in Wichita and under strain. An illness had invaded our family that had turned our life upside down. Anxiety was the new norm. No news was good news, but we got bad news every day. I was in Mildred’s shoes, for though the circumstances were different, all mothers suffer the same. I didn’t confide this to Pat for quite some time and then one day, it spilled over.
He told me he would pray.
I said fine.
Every day after that, I’d get an email telling me that he was praying. Sometimes, several a day.
He flooded our family with prayer. I was grateful, but I also began to feel guilty. Why should someone with so much suffering of their own (the computer made him happy, but it didn’t change his physical condition) pray for my needs? I felt needy, greedy, and shallow. I felt that he should use his energies to pray for himself. I think what I finally said was, “Don’t worry about it.”
The answer was unacceptable to Pat.
I’m going to quote something although I don’t have the text beside me. It’s an email from Pat. I could put my hands on it if I wished because I ran them off and saved each one before we moved, but I don’t need to. The words are burned in my brain. He wrote:
Every morning for as long as I can remember, I wake to two things, light and pain. I mean real pain. Sometimes it’s so bad it makes me cry. Then, I pray to Jesus and he takes it away. You’re not used to this. Let me pray for you.
I’ve always thought that one of the highest points in Christian thought occurs in Psalm 51:4 when David cries out, Against you alone have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight after his spectacular sin with Bathsheba, the murder of Uriah the Hittite and the doom of his child. Sin is horizontal because it hurts others, but it starts out vertically because it is scorn of God.
But that’s inspired text.
This was from someone whose personal suffering had been a block to my faith.
You’re not used to this. Let me pray for you.
Pat’s comment presupposed a lot of things. He acknowledged there a spiritual battle going on and I’d never had so much at stake. There was spiritual interference due to fear, and I couldn’t pray with any measure of assurance. It was a matter of life and death. Finally, his determination was born of love.
He’d learned this through pain.
But let me be clear. I don’t believe God put Pat on this earth to suffer so that he could let fall a spiritual gem, or to write a particular line to me at a particular time because God knew I’d blog it and someone else would have an Aha! Moment. I think God suffered with Pat, and with his family because “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our suffering . . .” (Hebrews, 4:5). I think his deep spirituality was produced not because of, but despite the pain. He willed his spirit to work with the Holy Spirit and so produced words that, years later, still bring tears to my eyes.
Also, a little anger at what passes for Christianity today. The syrupy sweet slogans or stickers referencing a holy God. Jesus likes country music best. Since when? Angels visited and left star dust on my pillows. Wash your sheets. Then there’s the health and wealth gospel. The name it and claim it tribe. The puffy haired tele-evangelists with the Gulf Streams. The wacky teachings directed at women. Christians debating the existence of aliens, which is beyond stupid. No creature intelligent to wade through time and space would come here.
You’re not used to this. Let me pray for you.
Every time I recall those words, a blade of truth cuts through the muddle, and I’m reminded of what my spiritual journey is about. It’s about glorifying God and praying for those put my path.
My dark night of the soul is over. Pat will soon be dead two years. The questions which troubled me don’t trouble me anymore because I know that, even if told the answers, I wouldn’t understand them. Besides being mortal, my mind has been dimmed. “Why do you ask my name?” said the angel of the Lord, “since it is beyond comprehension?” ( Judges 13:18.)
I’ll see Pat again, but I don’t know exactly when. Different theologians have mapped out different graphs for when time ends, what judgements occurs when, and who belongs where; but in the midst, I hope there’s something like a recess. I can well imagine Pat sneaking off to watch the formation of a new universe.
He’ll be back in a couple of million years.
Pat with childhood friend, David Martin. Probably the last picture taken.