Friday, April 15, 2011

Wheel of Fortune

M.K. and I bonded over "Wheel of Fortune," not the TV fare with Vanna and Pat but the online version with poorly-animated "contestants" and a wheel spun by pressing "Enter" or "Return."

M.K. was a member of the group for which I volunteer every Wednesday afternoon at Misericordia --- a residential community of care for people with mild to profound developmental disabilities, many of whom are also physically challenged. M.K. was frightfully thin, his matchstick legs and arms appearing as if they might snap and break at the slightest provocation. Unable to walk unaided for more than a few steps, he moved about in a black wheelchair that required someone pushing on the back end. His dark, straight hair was matted under a baseball cap that was absent only after a bad fall necessitated a slew of stitches.

M.K. sat quietly at the conference table in Room 201. He rarely interacted with other classmates, so I had no idea what was brewing under that baseball cap of his. Then one day when the topic of discussion was Japan, he spoke up, anxious to know exactly where Japan was. I eyed the globe sitting on the window sill, raced over and grabbed it, and returned to point out Japan's exact location.

"Where are we?" M.K. said.

I turned the globe until I fingered Chicago. "Right here."

"What is this place?" M.K. said as he placed his slender finger close to Denver.

"That's Denver, Colorado."

"What do they do there?"

"Well, lots of people like to ski in the winter and hike in the summer."

M.K.'s questions would have continued unabated, but the instructor needed to guide the discussion back to Japan.

But I'd discovered there was quite an inquisitive mind lurking under that baseball cap and made a mental note to use the globe with M.K. whenever the opportunity arose.

A week or two later, I walked behind M.K. as he sat at a computer. Unlike some of his classmates who returned to the same computer game time and time again, M.K. liked to experiment. On this day, he was playing "Wheel of Fortune."

"Can I play, too?" I said, grabbing a chair and pushing it next to his.

Startled, M.K. sat there, frozen. He pretended not to have heard me.

"I used to love watching that show," I said. "Sometimes I could solve the puzzles. Sometimes I couldn't. How about you?"

"I'm pretty good," he said in a whisper.

"Wanna show me?"

M.K. wasn't one to bend to pressure. He did exactly what he wanted. His silence made me uncomfortable. Maybe I'd pushed too hard. Maybe I should have left him alone.

After a long pause. "Sure."

For the rest of my time that afternoon, M.K. and I played "Wheel of Fortune." When I couldn't complete the puzzle, he'd blindly start punching in letters on the keyboard, often sending the game into overload. My inclination was to shout, "No, wait a minute. Let's think this through." And I'm sure I said that a few times. But more often, I just let him type away, hoping that by some miracle the puzzle would be solved or that that the game wouldn't crash.

Week after week, I'd make my rounds, chatting with everyone, answering questions, making supportive comments. When I got to M.K., I'd say, "How about a few rounds of 'Wheel of Fortune?'"

There was never any doubt. M.K. was always anxious to play.

I don't remember talking about personal things. Well, maybe I asked where he was going for vacation (he was staying at Misericordia) or what his favorite foods were (hamburgers and fries). But our focus was on amassing as much play money as possible and dreaming about what we might want to do with all that moola. A trip to Disney Land? Maybe an ocean voyage? Perhaps a visit to Japan?

And whenever possible, I'd grab the globe and show M.K. our fantasy destination.

But the globe was small and difficult to read. I had to squint hard to make out most of the names. For someone like M.K. with poor eyesight (he'd broken his glasses, and it took what seemed like months to get them replaced), reading the words was impossible.

I decided to buy a bigger globe and donate it to Room 201. After a thorough online search, I purchased a 16" inflatable globe and couldn't wait to gift it to Room 201 in M.K.'s honor. But M.K. was absent that Wednesday and the Wednesday after that. He'd been hospitalized but for what and for how long was information to which a volunteer like me was not privy. His roommate visited him, took him his favorite hamburger and fries, and said he was doing "okay."

"I miss him," his roommate said.

"I'm sure you do."

"I just want him to get better. He's my roommate."

But M.K. didn't get better and died in the rehab center where he'd been transferred after his hospitalization. "His body just gave out on him," I was told.

The inflatable globe sits on the window sill next to the older, smaller globe. The person who would have enjoyed it most never got to grasp it in his hands, spin it around, and discover the exact location of some exotic country or to reaffirm his place in the world. But he was able to reaffirm his place in my memories and in my heart.