I met him for the first time in a disability centre where he had been living for some period of time. Perhaps, he had been there longer than my time, until then, walking on this earth. I would soon start my Australian university and my English was in its early stage. It so happened that my dormitory was in the same establishment as he lived. From his age, he could be my father but that, along with our language barrier, did not prevent us from connecting to each other.
During his teen, his parents emigrated from Holland to Australia and brought him with them. One day, when he had grown into a sturdy young man, he had a fight which, sadly, resulted in his spinal injury. It rendered him invalid and confined him to wheelchair for the rest of his life.
He shook my hand for the first time from his wheelchair. Our shaking hands were not perfect. The guys that fought him not only had broken his spine but also his fingers. But we shook hands nonetheless.
Whenever I wanted to chat with him, I just walked to his ward. But it was rare to find him in there. He was always busy with his own things around the centre. Sometimes, he spent his afternoon painting on another floor of the building. No, he did not paint with his fingers. He painted with his mouth. Before he got the accident he loved to paint, with his hands. Now he should use whatever things that could help him channel his artistic force. He did not tell me why he chose his mouth instead of other parts of his body. True, his paintings may not as good as professional artists’ but I have to admit that I, or other occasional painters, can not produce paintings as impressive as his. And consider that it was his mouth that produced those paintings as such.
Once, I saw a newspaper clipping that featured him talking to students and showing them his mouth-painting ability.
His other hobby is amateur radio. Several times, I helped him locate channels where he would talk to his on-air mates. Once, he called me urgently to come to his ward because he got connection to a man in Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia, and asked me to talk to him in Indonesian. It seemed that he knew that it brought me joy if I talked in Indonesian; that perhaps I was homesick and that perhaps would help me in some way.
He loved talking about Indonesia, a place he had never been to. On his wall, he hanged several postcards picturing Indonesian girls. As far as the girls are concerned, he and I were no difference. I knew that. Looking at those postcards, sometimes, I thought of him and the way he had been controlling all his desire. Male primitive desires actually. And I think this is another kind of suffering that while you have perfectly normal sexual desires, your circumstances deny you of this earthly pleasures.
However, one thing that he has touched my life is his spirit of living. I will never forget on one fine day during the spring when we talked in the lawn about his hope of recovery. He said:
“If came a doctor and told me that he could operate me but the chance is only 10 %, or even lower, I would take it, as long as there is any hope that I can walk again.”
At the beginning, I assumed he said that because he had suffered so much that he would prefer to die. That it was perhaps a good camouflage for committing suicide. But I was totally wrong. As time went by, I realised that this is the man who loves to live. He often talked about how he wanted to live forever here on this earth, a paradisiacal earth where no more sickness, suffering and even death. A paradise where he certainly will walk again. He did not keep this hope to himself. I often saw him share his hope to people around him even call them in their homes, direct with his wheelchair.
At the end of my study, I came to say goodbye to him. He gave me one of his paintings. It is a naturalist one: a typical Australian outback farmhouse with a river runs through at the back. The river is clear, like the sky above it, that the shadow of the house reflected on its surface. By the river bank, a small boat is tied. In the sky, birds are flying.
The painting is still hanging on the wall in my study. Whenever I feel down and tired with life, I just lift my head and look at the painting and once again the painter’s spirit of living lifts mine.
(Jakarta, December 20, 2006)