As most of us have experienced, the best kind of Christmas present — either giving or getting — is one that costs nothing. It is the gift of service, talent and self to someone who needs something money can’t buy.
Such is the gift that a friend and fellow writer, David Chartrand, gave Saturday night to a Prairie Village woman whom David wrote about 37 years ago when she was young and facing a lifetime of harsh physical limitation.
The woman, Dana Wray, has been a quadriplegic since a terrible 1974 car crash — and her life is as difficult as ever.
Having reconnected with Dana through Facebook a couple of years ago, David arranged a reunion aimed at lifting Dana’s spirits. Besides being a writer, David is a musician, and he staged what amounted to a personal concert for Dana at Kaldi’s Coffee, 79th and State Line Road.
The only other people on hand were me, caregiver Kathy Kelly and a few coffee shop patrons who drifted in and out.
I played a small role in the reunion. Earlier this year, I reconnected with David, who worked at The Star in the early 1980s. We met for coffee three times this year — once in Overland Park and the last two times at Kaldi’s, which is in Prairie Village. After David got the idea for the reunion, he asked a manager at Kaldi’s if it could take place there, and the manager kindly obliged.
So last night, while the rain came down steadily outside, David performed a variety of songs, including some great oldies like the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have To Do Is Dream”; The Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four”; Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover”; and Blood, Sweat & Tears’ “And When I Die.”
In between songs, the three of us talked about a variety of things, including Dana’s condition and quality of life.
In addition to her ongoing disability, Dana has had surgery for bladder cancer, and last month she had surgery for colon cancer. On Monday, she will start chemotherapy, which will be administered by pills. No questions about her condition or circumstances are off limits; she talks about all of it openly, and at one point said with a smile, “If you’re around me, you get more information than you need.”
Dana lives in a house owned by her stepmother. She has round-the-clock care and has Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare benefits. Despite her struggles, she enjoys the good times that present themselves, such as last night’s reunion. She especially likes to go to concerts. When I asked her point-blank if her life was extremely difficult, she replied simply, “It’s hard to find good caregivers.”
Her focus, it seemed to me from a few hours around her, is on the practical ramifications of getting through one day and moving on to the next.
The crash occurred July 26, 1974, near Savannah, MO, not far from Maryville, where Dana was an education student at Northwest Missouri State University. She was a passenger in a car being driven by her roommate. The car went off the road and flipped onto its side after the roommate over-corrected. The roommate, who was wearing a seatbelt, wasn’t seriously injured. But Dana, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was thrown toward the back of the car, and her body smashed through the rear window. Two cervical vertebrae were broken or severed. At age 20, life as she had known it — and had not foreseen it changing drastically — was over. She had planned on becoming a teacher but was never able to do so, even though she got her bachelor’s degree and later got a master’s degree in social work from KU.
David did not become familiar with Dana’s case until 1978, four years after the crash, when she was living in a Lawrence, KS, nursing home. David was a 24-year-old reporter covering the statehouse for the Lawrence Journal-World, and Dana’s life was in more than ordinary crisis. The nursing home was threatening to evict her because it did not have the finances or resources to care for a person with needs as extensive and time consuming as hers.
Alerted to Dana’s case by a nursing home reform group, David wrote a story about Dana’s plight. Even though the story didn’t even make the Journal-World front page, it caused a firestorm.
A Lawrence resident set up a trust fund and began raising money to benefit Dana. At the state level, several Lawrence members of the Kansas Legislature brought pressure on the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services to do more to help Dana. In a matter of days, SRS came up with funds to pay for a private nurse to tend to Dana eight hours a day while she was in the nursing home. A few months later, a special legislative committee embarked on a study of services to people with severe disabilities.
David’s initial story won a second-place award from the Inland Press Association, an Illinois-based organization with about more than 1,000 daily and weekly newspaper members. “It was pretty heady stuff for being a young reporter,” David recalled.
David stayed at the Journal-World for two more years, until late 1980, when he was hired by The Star (actually, The Kansas City Times, the longtime morning edition of The Star). He worked at The Star — where I got to know him — for a few years before going out on his own. He now writes about mental health and does humorous commentary. Currently, he is writing a book about the epidemic of adolescent suicide and depression in the U.S. in the 1990s — an epidemic that he says was not recognized as such at the time. The book revolves around an Olathe youth who was severely depressed and committed suicide at Stull Park in Overland Park.
David and Dana were both 24 when David wrote his story about her. Now, they’re 62, and their relationship, if you will, has come full circle.
There are places I remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places had their moments
With lovers and friends
I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I’ve loved them all
But of all these friends and lovers
There is no one compares with you
And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new
Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more