What’s Good That’s Left
- Sivaram Srikandath
Story Dated: Friday, March 9, 2012 17:21 hrs IST
I was recently reading the obituary of the former U.S. athlete, Jill Kinmont Boothe, who died on February 9, at the age of 75. She had been a champion skier - the reigning national champion in slalom, and a sure prospect for a medal at the Winter Olympics in 1956 - and was on the cusp of true athletic greatness, when tragedy struck. Just a few weeks shy of her 19th birthday, on 30th January 1955, Jill suffered a near fatal accident while competing in a tournament in Utah. The accident left her paralysed from the neck down.
I remember Jill Boothe because she was the subject of a film, The Other SIde of the Mountain. It was one of those human interest movies that make you feel warm and gooey inside. The film featured the gifted but under-rated Beau Bridges in a major role, and I had caught it on cable on late night television. There was nothing phenomenal, nothing exceptional about the film. But something about the story stayed in my mind. The film focused on Jill Boothe's will and fortitude, as she went after "her tenacious pursuit of altered dreams."
Rather than wallow in self pity, Jill, after a brief period of rehabilitation, went on to graduate from UCLA with a BA in German, and followed it up by getting her teaching credentials from the University of Washington. For nearly three decades, she had a successful career as a teacher.Never one to be cowed down by life's vagaries, she learned to write, type and paint using her neck and shoulder muscles. As she said in an interview in 1967, "To get mad doesn't get you anywhere. You sort of look for what's good that's left."
Looking for what's good that's left. What a remarkable take on life!
Some individuals display a lot of grace under pressure, and it is a privilege to know them. I didn't know Jill Boothe at all. I have only read about her But the story of her life indicates she was such a person. Someone, who looked at the glass as always half full, rather than half empty.
But, I was fortunate to have known intimately another individual who was a true embodiment of the spirit of displaying grace and tenacity under pressure. That was my late father. He always had a smile on his face, a gleam in his eye, whatever be the obstacles he faced. As a child, he had lost his father, and therefore, could not pursue his education to the level he wanted. He had aspired to be a doctor; but had to be satisfied with just a graduate degree. So instead of turning into a doctor, my father became a scientist in the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.
Not that he allowed it to matter. True to his nature, my father never complained about his lot nor held any grudge towards the family elders who had unilaterally decided that the family coffers need not bear the burden of the additional expense incurred to educate him further. After all, his mother was a widow, and in a typically feudal Nair family managed according to the strict rules of marumakkathayam, she had no one to speak up on her son's behalf. However, my father was quite stoic about it. "Maybe, it was all for the better," he would tell me, without any rancour or bitterness.
But it was during the last five years of his life that he showed his true character. In 2005, a rare ailment called polycythemia vera, which leads to a thickening of the blood and possible thrombosis laid him low with a stroke. After that he never quite recovered and we could see him slowly wasting away. At first, he could walk around a bit with the aid of a walking stick; then he was confined to a wheelchair, and later on he was completely bed-ridden, before he finally passed away in late 2010.
But throughout the period of his illness he never lost his indomitable will and his cheerful take on life. My father just refused to be cowed down by the fact that had lost his mobility, or that he was bed-ridden. He greeted every day, not as a burden, but as a gift of life. Freshly bathed and shaved, with a chandana kuri adorning his forehead and dressed neatly in pressed clothes, he would come to the breakfast table in his wheel chair, full of vim and cheer, and ready to engage with the world on his terms. He was a gourmand who loved his food. He was also enormously fond of entertaining and looked forward to having friends and relatives over to our house to share a meal. And he never allowed his illness to stop him from doing that. He insisted that every festival, every birthday, ever family occasion be celebrated in the manner it ought to be. His made sure illness was never an excuse for the family to not celebrate the good life !
Towards the end, when he was completely bed -ridden, he would have long, philosophical chats with me. "I am a very happy man," he would tell me."I never thought I would have such a complete life. I have a wonderful family - a wife who takes care of me as well as anyone can, children who have done me proud; and friends and relatives who regard me well. Really, can a man ask for more? I am truly thankful to God."
The American writer and philosopher Eric Hoffer said that the "hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings."
Certainly, my father taught me that arithmetic well. I miss you, my dear Achan !