Joe and Cajun John

It’s Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month. And March 25 is National Cerebral Palsy Awareness Day. My son is a person with cerebral palsy. This story is about him and his best friend.

I spend more time than is healthy wondering about whether or not my son Joe is lonely, and what that feels like for him. For me, like a lot of people, loneliness can feel shitty. But everything is relative. Right? One man’s trash is another man’s treasure and so forth.

So I wonder about Joe. He doesn’t have friends who visit him, friends who are inclined to just hang out with him and do the things he enjoys, like go for a long walk-n-roll, maybe sit quietly and take in a movie or music, or let loose a sudden series of vocalized notes, and fling them joyfully into the room for no particular reason at all, or because it was time (his timing, and his pitch, are usually right on).

But I’m not sure if he’s lonely, per se. I have a sense, based on my observations of him and the feedback that he can muster, that Joe is well-adjusted to his social situation, and is comfortable in his skin.

He’s got a winning smile and when he can open his hands, a firm handshake — qualities that might get him elected to something if he tossed his hat into the ring. The problem is, he’s more of a listener than a talker, and he’s 100 percent honest, so he’d probably be a terrible politician.

This is a quiet young man with a magnetic personality. People are drawn to him, like he’s some kind of beacon, and it’s made him some interesting friends. Take Cajun John.

Two years ago, I wrote a blog post about Joe called “My Son Is.” Later on, Atlanta magazine picked up the essay and ran it in their pages as a kind of glorified caption to some spectacular photography by Matt Moyer. That’s the version that Cajun John saw. The photos (and I’d like to think, the words) touched John’s heart and inspired him to reach out.

What followed has been an ongoing letter exchange between Joe and John. We’ve sent John some of Joe’s artwork, and John sends us heartfelt, handwritten letters from the Florida prison where he is incarcerated.

In his most recent letter to Joe, Cajun John explains that he’s been researching Joe’s “situation” (cerebral palsy), so he could, “understand better what you deal with daily. What I found out is what a strong person you are. I see some men that have less issues with weaker minds. You are my super hero Joe. I am so glad I saw your article. Man, it changed my life in so many ways.”

When he gets a letter from our house, Cajun John shares it with his fellow prisoners. He writes, “all the guys want to know who wrote me. Then they ask what’s up. Man, when I show them the photo they see why I’m so lucky.”

John is 50 years old, a Christian who found religion in prison, where he works in the chapel, making sure church services are ready to run on time. He speaks at orientation, when anxious new arrivals enter the facility, and he helps guide them toward, “programs we offer here, so they can get involved with positive people. I really do enjoy people and seeing people accomplish goals.” He wants to help others, like the therapists and other professionals in Joe’s life. “It’s a daily work to do all I can,” he writes.

John prays for Joe and our family and wonders in print, “who knows what God will allow you to accomplish,” then closes with, “Your Best Friend, Cajun John.”

And here I was, trying to convince myself that I was Joe’s best friend (thanks a lot, Harry Nilsson). I’ll gratefully settle for being his dad. And it’s that guy, Joe’s dad, who is happier than a three-tailed puppy that these two friends – these treasures – managed to somehow find each other.




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