I was raised in a home where I was forced to burn my Christmas presents and watch my younger siblings endure brutal beatings. Had I not ended up a ward of the state and a foster child, I may well have ended up like my half-brother, who died in prison while serving his second murder sentence. A childhood of relative isolation, and no real teaching of any social skills, turned me inward. My passions, and my preferred methods of communication, became the often-solitary pursuits of music and the written word. I grew up to become a professional journalist and award-winning business writer, and I played music in the entertainment capitals of America. I didn’t make a lot of money, but in my mind I had succeeded. I had survived.
Then, in 2002, the unthinkable happened. I had a severe attack of Meniere’s disease, one that involved much more than just the vertigo and nausea the malady is most closely identified with. Suddenly, things didn’t sound right. My ears were ringing like a fire truck, and everything just sounded, well, off. I decided to test my ears with my land line. I held the phone to my right ear and then to my left. I did it again and again. I didn’t understand. My left ear was hearing something completely different than my right. My ears were hearing different two dial tone notes.
The Meniere’s disease, which can basically involve every area of balance and hearing and the inner ear, my left cochlea was damaged, leaving me with a condition called diplacusis. I had essentially become tone deaf. I did all kinds of clinical trials and visits with top audiologists. But the damage was done, and, barring a true praise-Jesus miracle, I’ll never be 100% again.
This ended my performing music career. Over the years the problem has improved some, to the point where I can now play acoustically with one other person and hear and play and sing almost in tune. But because of this, believe me, I’ve whined. I’ve continued to write songs, and I give guitar lessons to beginners. A decent day job, and my writing skills, have allowed me to make a living and to enjoy life. But it’s been easy to whine about what has happened, and really hard to battle the depression that comes with losing a part of one’s identity.
But I’m not here to whine. On to my point.
On a cold, misty day last winter, I saw a man standing on the median at an intersection, selling the Nashville homeless newspaper. As I drove by I noticed that his coat didn’t fit quite right. That was because his left arm was missing. After driving about a block I sighed and pulled over. Forget about my ears, I thought. If I only had one arm, I wouldn’t be able to play AT ALL. I wouldn’t be able to work at a computer, at least not very effectively. I couldn’t make a living. I might be out here selling the homeless paper.
I got out of my old truck and walked back to where the guy was standing. I gave him money for a paper, and I just had to ask, “So how’d you lose that arm?”
“Got hit by a train right over there, about four years ago,” he said, nodding toward the woods where railroad tracks ran through an area near a homeless camp. I didn’t detect any sense of regret or self-pity in his voice.
“Wow, man,” was all I could come up with. “That’s rough. That had to be quite an adjustment. I don’t know what I’d do.”
“Well, what was really bad was when I got hit by a car up there last year,” he said, nodding the other direction to the busy street where my truck was parked. “Got a fractured skull. They didn’t think I was gonna make it.”
I kind of grunted and laughed at the same time in disbelief. “You’ve really had a tough time dude,” I said, shaking my head. “It’s great that you’re out here doing this, some people would have given up.”
“Oh, it’s no problem,” he said matter-of-factly. “It could be a lot worse. I ain’t even worried about it, ‘cause I know God’s got a plan for my life.”
God’s got a plan for my life. Whether you’re a believer or not – and I totally am, by the way – I don’t know how such words from the lips of an amputee could make anyone do anything but consider what the plan is for you, and what you’re doing with the gifts, and limitations, you’ve been given. This encounter haunted me until I decided that, broken ears or not, I was gonna do what I believed I was put on this earth to do: play music. Somehow. Maybe it wouldn’t sound all that great, but I had what I considered to be some awesome material, some songs I believed people needed to hear. I began to practice relentlessly, especially my singing, because the sound that makes its way from my brain to my vocal chords to the air and then to my faulty ears isn’t always exactly on pitch. But I believed that, with practice, and some help from technology, I could make a good digital acoustic album to distribute online. I saved my money, quit my job, and spent the summer recording, tweaking, mixing, and shooting cover photos and YouTube videos. I finished my album, and people either like it or they don’t, the same way they do or don’t like John Coltrane or Buck Owens or U2. And I named it Songs You Need to Hear.
I could be a whiner. The one-armed man could be a whiner. Anybody can whine. It takes no talent and accomplishes nothing. Unless the whiner simply wants to get things off of his or her chest, there is no kind of benefit. The post-whine world is still the same as the world that helps produce a whiner’s problem. But ask yourself this: What am I whining about that I can actually do something about? And if you know you can do something about it, what steps do you need to take to get that process started?
I still whine, but maybe not quite so much. And I’ve never seen the one-armed guy again. It looks like he was part of God’s plan for my life.