As his stiffened hands, slow and deliberate, struggled to remove the festive wrapping, I stifled the temptation to impatiently swipe the Christmas gift from his gingerly grip and open it myself.
I couldn’t wait for him to see what was inside. I knew “Radio Karl” would love it.
It was one of those shortwave receivers that could get signals from anywhere in the world.
When Karl finally tore away the last piece of paper, his face beamed. “Oh boy!” he uttered with a smile.
Karl always had a ready smile. Every weekend when I visited him in his dingy nursing home room, Karl smiled that whimsical, joy-infected grin of his, regardless of how he was feeling.
I didn’t give him the nickname “Radio Karl.” He earned it over the years by daily calling all the local radio talk shows to offer his opinions. That’s how I came to know him, back when I hosted one such program. Karl was my biggest fan. We’d often chat on the phone after the show. He’d even frequent a live broadcast … when his body would let him.
Karl was born with cerebral palsy 57 years ago. A military brat, Karl spent much of his early childhood in Germany. He ended up in the states by his teen years, graduating from high school in 1968.
He fractured his right leg eight years later, but still, over the next 25-plus years, worked and even went to school. He’d eventually spend a decade as a caregiver at an adult care home, helping psychiatric patients, despite constantly struggling with his own condition.
Ultimately, I moved on to a different job, but Karl still called my office every few months.
A few years later, when my parents were moved into an assisted living facility due to their failing health, I learned that Karl, too, was there. Surgeries and complications had left him largely confined to a wheelchair or bedridden. So, every Saturday, when I would spend the day with my parents, I’d also stop in and see Karl. We would talk, laugh, our relationship grew — and I came to love him.
I lost my father in 2002; my mother in 2005. Karl was my dear friend through both of those passages. After my mother died, I continued to visit Karl every weekend. I’d take him his request of a double cheeseburger, fries and a Pepsi.
In early 2006, it was discovered Karl had esophageal cancer that, despite chemotherapy, gradually spread to his liver. It was now my turn to be with him during his final passage.
The day he died, I was fortunate enough to be there, at his bedside just hours before he passed.
I miss this man who, given a life of constant pain and debilitating setback, managed to keep himself looking forward, modeling that same determination to me, a man 15 years his junior. I miss seeing and marveling at his faith in God.
Yet I’m glad — glad that I prioritized time from a sometimes seven-day-a-week work schedule to be with Karl. Many of my friends saw it as a sacrifice. I look back upon it as a labor of love … especially at Christmas, when I think of him opening that present and once more giving me that whimsical smile.
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