Years ago, one of my first as a reporter in Oregon, I went to a Gresham-area high school to work on a story. The district was in the middle of a big budget crisis, so I was visiting classrooms to learn how the cuts might affect kids. A student met me in the office to show me the way to the writing class I’d arranged to watch. His name was Aaron.
He was funny and polite, the rare teenager who held nothing back when we talked. He was a quadriplegic, and he told me that he was trying to figure out how he could write a book when he couldn’t move any of his limbs. Later that day, I told the office secretary how much Aaron had impressed me, and she scoffed. She told me he was “evil,” a brat who tried to mow other kids down with his wheelchair. Her comment annoyed me so much I made sure to track him down on MySpace. I considered writing about him but decided I’d rather be his friend. He was 16 when we met, already more mature than most of the people I knew in my 20s. He’d been abandoned by both of his parents and lived in a foster home with a dozen or so mostly nonverbal kids. His dad eventually came back into his life, and I tried (but failed) to help him find his mother.
That first year, I visited him every other weekend. He liked antique swords, black Converse and strawberry red soda. When he turned 18, he moved across town into an apartment called “Quadriplegics United Against Dependency.” When he turned 21, I bought him a bottle of Jack Daniels, and we drank it through bendy straws. He wanted a cat, a girlfriend and a job in radio. He talked about writing a book and enrolling in college, but he never did either. Still, he taught me a lot in my early 20s. He introduced me to Korean instant ramen (and persuaded me that it tastes better with an egg poached in the broth). He taught me a good deal about politics and more than I wanted to know about anime. Few of North Portland's streets had curb cuts, I learned traveling with him, and if two people in wheelchairs were already on the bus, Aaron couldn't ride.
I pushed him too hard at times. He was so smart—and more than that, he just saw the world in a special way—that I wanted him to go to school and write that book. I was young then and probably grew too impatient when he didn’t have the strength to follow up on things like registering for classes. I made mistakes: I got his hopes up every time I found a new address for his mom. He’d dictate a letter to me, and I’d write it and send it, and he’d never hear back. I’d help him fill out an online dating profile, touching up the descriptors to render him the way I saw him—not the way he saw himself. Still, girls wouldn’t write. Life really isn’t fair, he told me. Sometimes things just suck and no amount of willpower can overcome that.
Eight or so years ago, he decided he wanted to try to make a documentary of his life. We did maybe three long interviews, and though we never did edit them into anything, I always felt grateful that we’d taken the time to ask each other real questions. We occasionally went out to eat or to see a movie, but mostly we just sat in his room and talked.
He died a few months ago, I found out tonight. I hadn’t emailed him since December, back when I was in New York and distracted by the flurry of pages to read and write. I’m so sad that I missed a chance to see him again, but I’m grateful we made all those videos. He had other friends, better friends, than me, but I cherished him as a person and as a thinker. Though he was often depressed, I never saw even a sliver of the “evil” boy that school secretary described. She was wrong, I knew then and learned over and over again. Here he is at 18, talking a tiny bit about what his life was like.