Every week, Lake Voice features work from the Storytelling Project. This project is a storytelling partnership between a group of young Duluthians who live with some kind of disability (mostly traumatic brain injuries) and various UMD students who help these people write their stories.
One hour spent with this group shows how important it is to build community connections and execute service-learning projects the way they are really meant to be done.
This week from the Storytelling Project comes the personal story of David Wesley Freed told through a casual airport conversation with a stranger. Freed talks about his experience as an adopted child growing up with seven brothers and sisters, being admitted to a group home, his girlfriend of five years, playing basketball, and life confined to a wheelchair.
Strangers Become Friends
By David Wesley Freed, in collaboration with Tessa Beckstrom
The Minneapolis-St. Paul airport was bustling with people traveling all over the world. Many people were escaping the dreadful Minnesotan winter. One person stood out in particular. He was sitting by himself in an island of leather chairs, trying to hide the tears that were welling up in his eyes, but his anxiety was clearly expressed on his face.
While he was staring into space, a stranger approached him. “Hey, are you okay?” the stranger asked.
“Yeah I’m fine,” Will mumbled while trying to remain calm.
“My name is David,” the stranger offered.
“Hey, I’m Will,” the boy answered, looking up at David for the first time with worry on his face. “I’m seeing my uncle for the first time in twelve years; he lives in Minnesota. I don’t know where he is, though, and I can’t call him because he doesn’t have a cell phone.”
“It’s okay!” David responded, “I bet he is just held up because of the weather. Have you ever experienced a Minnesota winter before?”
“I’m from California,” Will answered. “I’ve never really had a real winter before. I am starting college in the fall, so maybe I’ll pick a school where it snows!”
David pulled up next to Will’s chair and asked, “What are you going to major in?”
“I’ve been thinking about Special Education; I think I’d really like that.”
“That’s really cool,” David responded.
Will turned to face David. “Thanks, what about you? Tell me about yourself!” David got really excited and turned to face Will. “Yeah, sure! I was adopted from South Korea, because my older brother Matthew didn’t have anybody to play with; he had three sisters and no brothers. Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“No, I don’t; I’m actually an only child.”
“Well,” David continued, “the first time my mom saw me she said, ‘Not that one, not that one!’ She said that I was so skinny you could see my ribs! I ended up in a family with seven brothers and sisters because right after I was adopted my mom found out she was pregnant with twins; two boys!”
Will’s eyes were huge with surprise. “That’s crazy, David! What was it like growing up with a lot of siblings?”
David laughed. “Growing up in a big family was interesting. One time while it was raining, my twin brothers stole my wheelchair. They short-circuited it while going around the block; it must have been down-pouring! My dad had to come pick it up; he got so mad he almost went crazy!”
“Do you still live with your parents?” Will asked.
David’s expression changed from carefree to more serious. “No, I don’t. My biggest regret happened when I was eighteen. It was the Monday after Thanksgiving and I was mad at my parents. The night before, they had asked me to clean the bathroom floor, and I had said no.
My dad told me “if you live here you do chores.”
I said, “I am an adult!” That day at school I was supposed to take the school bus home but I didn’t; instead, I went downtown. That night the skywalk employees called the police because they didn’t know what else to do with me. I kept giving the officer the run around when he asked for my phone number and address. My dad had to come down with the van. I kept opening the passenger door before he started driving. Then officer said that I had earned a ride in the back of the squad car, so I left the door closed until I got home. They had to have police cars follow the van home and two officers had to carry me inside because I was so mad. I threw cans from the pantry because I didn’t want to be home.
“What happened when you got home?”
The cops said they were going to take me to the hospital and they put me in the psych ward for the night. The next morning a social worker came and said he was arranging for me to go into a group home. My parents didn’t want me to go, and they were so mad they didn’t talk to me for a while. They only went to my graduation because my sister was graduating at the same time. After a month in the group home, teachers and friends said that they had seen a big improvement.”
“Wow, I am really glad that you like where you live now. What do you like to do in Minnesota?” Will responded.
David smiled. “Now I do things like play on the power soccer team and spend time with my girlfriend. My parents joke that I’m robbing the cradle because she is five years younger. I don’t care if I’m robbing the cradle. She is neat and very nice; I like her a lot. We met through power soccer. The first time I asked her out I was a little nervous. I asked her out in the hallway away from the coaches and volunteers and other teammates. I was nervous, but it turns out she was as nervous as I was. We’ve been dating for five years.
Will interrupted: “Wow, that’s such a long time! What do you guys like to do together?”
We like to go out to eat and we like to watch movies together. One movie I never thought I would see is the Muppets, but I decided I’d rent that one just because Catherine and I needed a movie. I actually liked it. But I like to watch action movies with her sometimes. The main reason I want to watch them is because I hope she gets scared and wants to cuddle up to me. I say, “I’m a guy! I just want to scare her once in a while!” This way she will cuddle up to me and I can show her that I can handle scary movies. Except the Freddy Kruger movies, I can’t handle those. Guess what? I proposed to Catherine. We decided to go with promises. She kind of already knew.”
“How’d you ask her?” Will implored.
“The way I did it was at the restaurant, Backwoods.”
“She sounds like a really cool girl, David.”
“Thanks, do you have a girlfriend?” David asked.
“No, I don’t,” Will said. “I just like hanging out and playing basketball with my friends.”
“I like sports too. I played wheelchair basketball. I got too old for the little kid’s version. I tried the wheelchair basketball team for UMD but they are too fast! I like playing soccer. You have to kick the ball with the guard, not your feet. Most people have metal guards but we have plastic ones. Soon they are going to change the rules so everyone has to have the metal ones. They are loud, though; you can hear a crash. You can also feel an aftershock that goes through your whole body; it’s like bumper cars. If you use your feet that is a penalty. Some people have to have their feet tied down because of the spasticity. Like my feet have to get tied down. I cannot stay sitting straight up. They just gave me a new knee strap to keep me straight up and a butterfly seatbelt because I would slide underneath the seatbelt during the game.
One time my girlfriend accidentally got tipped, upside down and backwards, because one of our teammates accidentally went full blast at her. At our tournaments we have a person with a speed gun to make sure we don’t go over the speed limit because they have so many rules to keep us from getting hurt. Because you can only go so fast. So far, I have been under the speed limit.”
“I had a friend in elementary school who used a regular wheelchair. What’s it like to have a power chair?” Will asked David.
“My very first wheelchair used to have belts and that’s what the wheels were on. Like a chain, for a tank. My dad did not like it because he spent a lot of time having to put the belt back on.”
“Have you ever hurt yourself while you were in your wheelchair?”
David shook his head. “I have not broken a bone yet but I have cracked my head open about four or five times. One time I was at a school called Lincoln Park and it was raining. I had to go to the old gym and they had not built the way to the gym on the inside of the school; instead you had to go through the playground. I guess my wheelchair lost control. There was a big hole in the blacktop with a tree and a rock. I cracked my head open. My aid had a white shirt on but she did not care. She picked me up screaming and ran to the nurses’ station.”
While David was talking, a kind looking man with gray hair on his head and a scruffy beard speckled with white walked through the automatic doors of the airport. “Will?” he asked hesitantly while walking closer to the pair of new friends. The old man approached David and Will, his scuffed work boots squeaking along the linoleum. He was wearing a faded flannel shirt rolled to the elbows and old jeans; the ripped hems tucked casually into his boots.
“Hi Uncle Ben,” Will responded. “It’s good to see you.” Will turned to David and shook his hand. “It was really nice to meet you David, thanks for keeping me company. When you get to California make sure you spend some time at Disneyland!”
David replied, “Thanks, it was nice to meet you too. Make sure that you spend some time making a snowman before you leave Minnesota. Have fun!”
As Will and his Uncle walked away, Ben said to Will, “looks like you made a new friend. Can you look up his Face on that Internet Book?”
“Are you trying to be funny?” Will laughed. “Do you mean Facebook, Uncle?”
“Oh that’s its name? I don’t understand all that new technology,” Ben said while waving his hand through the air, swatting the invisible word away. “I just hope you boys exchanged cellular telephone numbers.”
As they walked out the doors of the airport and into the snowy night, David could already tell that his new friend would enjoy Minnesota after all.