Old friends never die

Originally published in The Ottawa Citizen December 18, 2001

I remember my first day in my new school grade six class a soft spoken friendly boy who sat behind me tapped my shoulder and introduced himself. It is one of those times in one’s life that you remember as if it was yesterday. From this blossomed a true friendship. We quickly became the best of friends. It was the best school year I ever had.

The school was the Mackay Center for Deaf and Crippled Children located in Montreal. I was part of an integration program that took students from the surrounding schools to come and learn with handicapped children. It was intended to foster understanding of handicapped children and to break down the apprehension and barriers that exist because of crutches and wheelchairs. I remember Anthony with Cerebral Palsy, Jeff who had Muscular Dystrophy, Sandra who suffered recurrent bone fractures because of a brittle bone syndrome and my best friend Marshall who suffered a spinal cord injury two years earlier when his uncle drove the car into a lamppost. He also had to self-catheterize his bladder because of the nerve and bladder wall damage from the accident.

Any barriers that existed between us melted away within a matter of weeks. Wheelchairs and crutches lost their stigma. We lost the fear of asking what was wrong with them. My friends were not offended by the questions. In fact they were quite open about it. It only served to foster further understanding and sated a child’s natural curiosity. Thereafter we did what any schoolmates would do.

In 1975 Marshall left the Center and enrolled in my high school. He became an instant celebrity. He wheeled around the school giving rides to the girls. He did walk with crutches but in a limited capacity.

By the time we were sixteen, he had bought a 1976 Monte Carlo customized with hand controls. Freedom at last. He loved the Beatles and would blast his music while driving. We would cruise around town trying to pick up girls. His life blossomed.

On high school graduation night the principal called his name. He slowly ascended the stage stairs to receive his diploma. At first all the girls stood up and cheered followed by the rest of the auditorium. It was a sweet hard won victory.

Marshall and I knew what each other was thinking. This only made things worse when he began to get sick. His father had a history of Manic-Depression. The disease begins to express itself from about age 16 onward. Over the next few years Marshall’s mood gradually deteriorated. He refused treatment because did not like the medication’s side effects. It tended to dull the manic phases which he said he enjoyed. He used marijuana, alcohol and cocaine as his means of escape during the cycles of depression. I tried in vain to get him to stop but without treatment the disease destroys rational thought.

He saw no future for himself. He would always ask me what drove me to live. Why did I get pleasure from living? Where did I get my motivation? How is any 20 year old supposed to answer that question in a manner that could save their friends life? Soon after, Anthony and Jeff died. This made Marshall more despondent.

There were flashes of his old self but these times became increasingly rare occurrences. He even took a 6 month trip through Europe and Israel in his mid twenties. He came back happy and healthy. But it was short-lived.

He gradually began to isolate himself from the world. He tried different new-age therapies to cure his illness; all in vain. All the while I was in medical school and residency I would tell him of some of the new promising medications to treat manic-depression. He remained skeptical.

On December 11, 1990 I received a call from the OPP informing me that Marshall was found dead in his home in Alexandria of an apparent overdose. He had been planning this for some time. All his material goods were labeled with the names of myself and a few others. He had written a will on his computer. He begged me to forgive him for being a “coward”. I buried my friend and with him part of myself.

Manic-Depression can be successfully treated. The sufferer is not responsible for its occurrence. It is a cruel disease that can destroy families and friendships. Those medications I told him about are now reality. He would have been around to be an uncle to my two sons. They would have loved him as I did. They would have seen that sweet 11 year old boy. Rest in peace my friend.

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