An Injured Athlete, A 70-Something Therapist, A Very Surprising Friendship

Filled with energy, even after a very long day, I hopped into his black Range Rover. Well, hopped is a bit of an exaggeration. At 5 feet 1 inch tall, I actually strained to reach the floorboards, but I was pleased to be with him once I settled into the passenger seat. The two of us seemed to have nothing in common, other than having been raised in the Midwest. But there we were, huddled in his car, looking like a 21st-century version of the title characters of “Harold and Maude.” For those too young to remember that movie, he could have passed as my blue-eyed boy toy.

That day, Matt was mid-conversation on his cell phone, in speaker mode, ruminating with one of his partners. “His father died two weeks ago,” I heard the partner say.

Alava shalom,” Matt responded.

“Now the son’s ready to make a deal. I told him we’d get right back to him.”

“Give me an hour.”

“It’s sundown in an hour. We’ll have to reschedule for Monday.”

“Okay. Good Shabbos,” Matt responded as he hung up. “I could have told him that, as the office Shabbos goy, I’d be happy to make the call without him,” Matt said, laughing. “But the client’s Shomer Shabbos, too.”

Having grown up in a small town in Michigan, and having attended a small rural college nearby, Matt hadn’t met a Jew until he moved to Chicago after graduation. But by the time we met, his conversation was laced with Yiddishisms, some unfamiliar to me.

I took off my sunglasses, and we sat quietly, parked beside the palisades overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I’d told no one about our meetings. He’d told a few close friends. We laughed and cried together. Sometimes we argued.

At first I felt uneasy sneaking out in the middle of the day to meet him. Now it feels natural sitting inside his car. Ours is an intimate relationship, an unusual and poignant one between a 70ish-year-old woman and a handsome, charming, intelligent former athlete whose spinal cord injury left him unable to walk without support, unable to navigate without a wheelchair. That inability made it too difficult for him to come to my office, though he managed to venture out into the business world in partnership with two Orthodox Jews — becoming highly successful at his young age.

I’m Matt’s therapist and have his permission to tell our story, though I’ve changed his name. I’d known intuitively that Matt wouldn’t tolerate any sympathy — until he was ready to receive it in his own particular way. Though we somehow had a deep connection from day one, I was afraid of the depth of his unacknowledged pain. I was insecure about my ability to penetrate the wall he’d built around himself, brick by brick, in order to shield himself from both disappointment and hope. I was afraid of disappointing him, but I was even more worried about his losing hope — though he put up a great front. It seemed as if he could charm most people, especially women. During our time together he’d seduced more than a few. But once they committed to him, he always found a reason to back off.

Matt had stopped going to physical therapy. “Why bother?” he’d ask. “People with my injuries spend so much time doing it, and in the end, not much changes.”

“Buy a camera. Take Spanish lessons. Go to museums. Get involved in something,” I pleaded.

He bought a Leica MP camera. Made some calls about Spanish lessons. Started physical therapy again. But his dedication was short-lived. Then suddenly I began to see a shift in Matt’s attitude and behavior. Recently I asked him exactly why he’d come back to life. “The reason was twofold,” he explained. “I was exhausted waking up in the morning only to look forward to falling back to sleep that evening. The emotional struggle of shutting everyone out, in a world where I needed to interact, became very lonely. I committed to you when I couldn’t take it anymore.”

Eventually, Matt bought a house, adopted a huge dog and made friends.

Then Jess, an old girlfriend, sauntered back into his life. She forced him out of his constricted “safe” space and into the world. They traveled to Europe, to Mexico, to Turks and Caicos. True to his modus operandi, however, Matt broke off that relationship, too. But every now and then, when he’d mention another woman, I’d ask, “You know who always had your back?”

“Yeah,” he’d admit.

Last January I went to Matt’s wedding. Before the ceremony he sat in his wheelchair at the back of the room, surrounded by 150 friends and family. I walked over to him, and we leaned in toward each other, forehead to forehead, for a long moment. After all these years, we didn’t need words.

After the ceremony, I introduced myself to the radiant bride. We both burst into tears. “Thank you,” she whispered.

The last time we met, Matt pointed to one of the many tattoos blooming on his arm. “Did you notice? Got a new one,” he said as he pointed to a Buddhist symbol. “It represents hope,” he said.

As I was stepping out of his car that day, I turned back. “If you get one on your tush, you’ll have to show it to someone else. Preferably your Jewish bride,” I said.

Marilyn Levy is the author of the novel “Chicago: August 28th, 1968. She is also a therapist, practicing in Santa Monica, California.

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An Injured Athlete, A 70-Something Therapist, A Very Surprising Friendship

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