**WARNING: This email contains graphic depictions of ignorance, lack of intelligence and stupidity in the areas of theology, philosophy and psychology—not to mention English, if you count redundancies.
Last Friday in my FYS class we Skyped-in Jeffrey Galli as a guest speaker. It was a day I had been anticipating for over two years. Jeffrey’s answers to two of our questions resonated with me the most. I thought I’d share my thoughts with you on this, especially in light of the email I sent you last week.
By way of background, Jeffrey Galli is high-level quadriplegic. On July 4, 1998, he broke his neck diving into a swimming pool, sank to the bottom and basically drowned to death. Upon being told by other children that his 17-year-old son was motionless at the bottom of the pool, Jeffrey’s father ran to the pool, dove in, drug out his son and resuscitated him.
After saving Jeffrey’s life, his father then spent the next 10 days contemplating killing him. Jeffrey was alive, but a spinal cord injury rendered him paralyzed from the neck down. He would never be able to breathe on his own without the help of a machine. His life would be one of extreme dependence, never of independence. So Jeffrey’s father debated whether to disconnect his son from the ventilator.
Rescuing Jeffrey is a book written by Jeffrey’s father about this 10-day period and details why he ultimately decided not to kill his son. (Sorry to give away the ending; it’s still a good book.) I read it during the summer of 2009 and told myself that one day I would use it in an FYS class. Last Friday that dream came true.
Of these two questions, one was asked by a student and the other by me. The following is a summary:
Student: Did you ever pray to God during all of this?
Jeffrey: No I did not. I don’t believe in God. And I didn’t believe that praying would cure my paralysis. Many people visited me in the hospital and prayed over me. I allowed them to do it because it seemed to make them feel better. But it’s just not something I believe in.
Bob: Why do you want to be alive? You wanted to die shortly after your accident, and your dad obviously considered killing you—what changed and has your decision vacillated over time?
Jeffrey: I was under a lot of medications shortly after my accident. When I got off the medications and was around friends, I decided I wanted to live. But I’m also glad I possess the right to choose to die if I so desire. [Jeffrey lives in Rhode Island and believes state law would permit him to instruct someone to turn off his breathing machine. I don’t know if that’s correct.] I want to live, however, for the possibilities of the future. I hope that things will get better in the future. And you have to live to be a part of those possibilities.
What struck me about Jeffrey’s first response is that I couldn’t help but wonder whether he would have prayed to God if, in fact, there was some assurance that praying would cure his paralysis. But then again I guess that’s just the whole point of faith. You have to pray even when you don’t know for sure. Otherwise, what person in a wheelchair wouldn’t pray? And for that matter, what person wouldn’t pray for a million dollars if they knew they would get it by praying? [See disclaimer above.]
And as to Jeffrey’s second response, I couldn’t help but think of the movie Shawshank Redemption. I could easily hear Red and Andy Dufresne talking about hope. But there was something about Jeffrey’s belief in hope—dare I say faith in hope—that rang familiar.
At this point I must confess to being particularly contemplative on this issue, especially today. Twenty-two years ago today, on November 21, 1989, I also became a quadriplegic. During my freshman year at St. John’s, I walked across the hallway on the fourth floor of Tommy Hall and was paralyzed by a student who put me in a full-nelson wrestling hold and broke my neck.
Like Jeffrey, my injury was an accident. And like Jeffrey, people prayed over me. Oh yes, Lourdes water was washed over me in waves, rosaries festooned my ICU room, prayer-cards filled the daily mail, and many an Abbey monk stood vigil at St. Cloud Hospital. Unlike Jeffrey, however, I prayed to God with unbridled intensity for my paralysis to go away. Prayers so pointed and persistent they could bore holes into diamonds.
Yet fast-forward to 22-years later, and Jeffrey and I both sit in our wheelchairs. Two different paths to the same result. Don’t get me wrong—I still believe in God. But that’s my own personal belief. I don’t try to push that on anyone who believes otherwise. And I’m often as reluctant to talk about my faith as the next person holding a can of Spot-Shot, wanting to avoid cleaning the white carpet after stepping in the freshest steaming pile of political correctness. But Friday it occurred to me that maybe Jeffrey and I aren’t so different in our faith. And maybe Red and Andy were just keeping the carpet clean.
Early in the book, Jeffrey’s father openly doubts the philosophy being pushed on him that “Life meant there could be hope, and hope meant there could be a life worth living.” To be sure, issues surrounding right to life and right to death are extremely complicated, highly politicized, and very personal. And those on both sides of these arguments are inevitably left scraping the bottom of their shoe. But maybe there’s plenty of common ground, too.
My last question to Jeffrey before ending the call was whether he had ever thanked his father for not killing him. To my surprise, the question caught him off guard. He said he never had, but he seemed to like the idea of doing so. I felt like I had just nailed a 60 Minutes moment.
I’ll try to spare you from a cheesy ending to this email, and refrain from including some lame reference to being thankful this Thanksgiving Day. But I would be remiss if I did not mention all that I am thankful for. After 22-years of being in a wheelchair, I am without a doubt thankful to be alive. Jeffrey and I may have taken different paths to get there, but on that we both agree. But more importantly, when I reflect on all the wonderful things that have transpired in my life over the past 22-years, I am most thankful that so many of my prayers have been answered. Most of which, I never even knew to ask for.
Have a happy Bird Day!
Bob Bell is an assistant professor at the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University