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  • John Kuhlman

A Kind of Thanksgiving Story

The Day an Old Man and a Little Girl Met an Idiot

Photography by Sharon Sampsel of Sampsel & Preston Photography

“Did he just say what I think he said?”


“Yeah,” Sharon the photographer said, “He did.”


Our model, a dapper yet slightly disheveled older gentleman, hadn’t said much during the first few minutes of the photoshoot.


He didn’t say hello when he walked into the studio.


He didn’t say a word when he sat on the stool, waiting for his picture to be taken.


But he did know how to say goodbye in a way I’ll never forget.


John, Meet Fernando

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Fernando was the head concierge at Caesars Palace. He was the man during what was arguably the casino’s golden era. The days of Frank Sinatra and The Rat Pack, Evel Knievel’s infamous fountain jump, Hollywood A-listers, and the Mafiosi.


Fernando’s brain was the epicenter of knowledge when it came to luxury guest services. He was responsible for the wellbeing of thousands of guests and treated each with a warm smile. He even learned to be fluent in seven languages to do his job better.


Three decades later, he could only remember his native Cuban Spanish and could no longer get dressed without help.


His smile was also disappearing. He was getting agitated.


After Sharon asked him for the third time to turn his head toward the camera, this former icon of politeness and professionalism suddenly jumped off the stool.


He stared at Sharon for a second and offered her a bit of parting advice.


Then he stormed out of the studio.


As Fernando barked, “chinga tu madré!” Sharon pushed the camera’s shutter release.


To us, that image perfectly captured Fernanod’s plight. Once a powerful, vibrant, and healthy man, he was now confused and frail, ravaged by Alzheimer’s Disease. His memories and knowledge were slowly peeling away, layer after layer, to disappear forever.


Fernando was one of several volunteer models we were using to show how donations to local nonprofits were helping people in need.


In Fernando’s case, donations partially funded an adult daycare program where he could stay during the day when his daughter went to work.


Our job was to share Fernando’s story with the community in the hopes of moving them to make a donation to the nonprofit.


It’s the week of Thanksgiving, so why am I sharing this story?


In one sense, Thanksgiving is about sharing stories with friends and family. The overabundance of food simply provides the backdrop for that exchange to take place.


Fernando’s story helps remind me that we should learn from those who went before us. Our parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents. They won’t always be around, or able, to share their experiences with us. We should make a point to listen to them when we can.


And Fernando’s story also sets the stage for the next story. A story that has stuck with me nearly every day for the last 20 years.


John, Meet Cody

Our next photo subjects were a young mom and her eight-year-old daughter Cody.


Cody arrived at the studio strapped to a motorized wheelchair. The frail girl with blonde hair and big glasses showed no signs of being able to understand or communicate with us.


As Sharon was adjusting the lighting, I tried to talk to the mom and Cody to learn more about their lives.


Cody was born with Cerebral Palsy, a debilitating disease that affected her ability to move or maintain her balance and postural control. There is no cure for the disease, and it affects about 1 in 345 children.


Her prognosis to make it to her teenage years was not good.


I learned the mom was a single parent who was struggling to make ends meet. Cody required specialized care -- expensive specialized care.


Since she couldn’t hire just any babysitter to watch her daughter during the workday, the mom turned to one of the local nonprofits that specialized in providing daycare to disabled children.


I really didn’t know how to converse with kids at that time, let alone someone like Cody. I couldn’t get a response from her, so I talked at her. I even babbled in pseudo baby talk because I figured she might at least understand my tone if she couldn’t understand my words.


It was the best I could do at the time. I was out of my social interaction league, so I walked to the side and let the magical charisma that is embodied in the form of Sharon take over.

As usual, Sharon got them to relax like they were all old friends. She captured their story -- a story of a mother and daughter’s love -- in a single photo. And it saddens me to know I no longer have a copy.


Trust me when I say it was beautiful.


John, Meet Hubris

Telling these kinds of stories for a living, I have to admit many of them kind of run together. The CEO, the politician, the homeless vet, and the disenfranchised kid all tend to morph into the same person after time.


Eventually, Fernando’s and Cody’s stories fell into the same callous framework: Sometimes, life just isn’t fair.


I was still solidly immersed in that world view when I was walking down the halls of a daycare center doing research for another marketing project. It was about a year after the nonprofit photo shoots.


A social worker was giving me a facility tour and explaining how different needs were met in each of the classrooms.


I remembered Cody was supposed to be here and based on what her mom had said months earlier, I wasn’t sure if she would still be alive.


I asked the social worker if she knew of a little girl named Cody who might have attended the special needs daycare program.


To my delight, she said, “Yes, she’s still here,” and walked me over to a window a little farther down the hall.


It was nap time, so the room was dark except for one corner. There, the glow from a television screen danced across the face of a little contorted blonde girl strapped to a wheelchair.


Cody’s chin was resting on her chest like she was sleeping.


As we watched her, I told the social worker about the photoshoot and how I had talked at Cody, not to her. I explained how I felt like an idiot because I knew so little about the disease at the time. I made assumptions based on what I was seeing and later learned I was wrong.


“I am so sorry,” I said. “When I first met her, I didn’t fully understand what Cerebral Palsy was.”


“What do you mean?”


“I thought Cody’s brain mimicked her body,” I said. “I thought she was also severely mentally disabled.”


At this point, Cody’s head slowly started to move up and down. She struggled to raise her chin off of her chest but could only hold it for a second before it fell again.


“Oh, quite the opposite,” the social worker said as the little girl’s head started moving faster.


“Cody is quite intelligent. She’s a very bright little girl. She’s just trapped inside a body that doesn’t want to listen to her brain. She can’t talk, but she can communicate.”


“Poor thing,” I said, watching her head bob up and down. “She can’t even hold her head up to watch the cartoon.”


The social worker turned to look at me. “She’s not watching TV. She’s saying hello to you.”


“What?”


“She remembers you and is saying hello.”


I lost it.


The little girl I felt sorry for and whom I thought was a physically and mentally scrambled mess, just recognized me from a one-time encounter 12 months earlier.


John, Meet the Idiot

I had talked down to Cody like she was a slow two-year-old, not like the smart 8-year-old she was.


Why?


Because I didn’t know how to communicate with her. I didn’t know how to understand her story because I was an idiot.


We sometimes oftentimes get so absorbed in trying to get our heads wrapped around our own scripts that we fail to listen to what someone is trying to share with us. Even when they can’t share it in a way we’re able to understand immediately, we don’t put in the effort.

Yet, I believe stories are who we are. They’re all we have from our past and all we have to share with future generations.


We should make a greater effort to unplug from our internal monologues and open our ears.

“There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.” -- Flannery O’Connor

When it comes to a story like Fernando’s, it’s challenging to find an upbeat ending. You can easily see it as a story of loss. A loss of identity as disease slowly erases his memory.

Part of me, however, likes to think a younger Fernando would have found great humor in the delivery of his expletive.


Cody’s story can also be about a heart-aching loss of what could have been. Hers can be a tale of pain and suffering. One of missing many of life’s great experiences...made even more tragic because she will never be able to share her version of that story.


Her story can also be one of the unconditional love between mother and daughter and the courage they have facing a world full of endless obstacles.


As you are surrounded by family and friends this week, I encourage you to listen to those stories. And, if asked, maybe share a few of your own.


You may be surprised by what you learn about the people in your life. And what you might learn about yourself.


If you need help sharing your story, let’s talk.

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