Before the coronavirus threat closed down the Alabama pickle ball court where I’d played while on vacation, I’d watched the sour-faced man bang the pickle ball back to his opponents time and time again. He never smiled, talked, or looked like he was having fun. When an opponent returned the ball with a winning shot, he never said “well done” or “great shot.” Sour-Face had no personality. Was he even having fun?
When it was time for me to play with Sour-Face, I ended up being his partner. I tried the “kill them with kindness” strategy. After introducing myself, I shook his hand. (As noted, this encounter was before social distancing.) I kept up a running banter that included apologies for my many mistakes, and several compliments for his winning shots. Afterward, he looked me in the eye. “Nice game.”
So there was hope for Sour-Face.
Players crowded the gym, and I had to sit out so others could play. A short time later, Sour-Face approached me. “Would you do me a favor?”
I studied him, clueless. Did he want me to take pickle ball lessons before I wasted his time again? Or maybe he planned to tell me to cut the crap with the cheeriness.
But it was neither of those. Instead, he said, “I accidentally dropped my gum, and I can’t bend down to pick it up and I don’t want anyone to step on it.”
“I’ll get it,” I said.
He handed me a tissue, and I quickly disposed of the gum.
I had noticed that the man hadn’t bent his knees, but I hadn’t realized the extent of his disability.
“I’ve had three joint replacement surgeries and got a terrible staph infection,” he explained. “I almost lost my leg. In fact, I was so close to having it amputated, I’d researched how I could drive a car with a prosthetic leg.” He paused here, and I could tell the memory and fear was still fresh. “But the doctors ended up saving it. They hospitalized me for months, and was on strong antibiotics for a year and a half. The staph infection interfered with my rehab, though, and I’ll never be able to bend my legs.” These later statements came out in a rush, as if he needed to get them out before he broke down.
“I’m so sorry to hear that, but you must be thankful, too. You can move around and you have incredible power when you return the ball.”
I saw a flicker of a smile that grew and transformed his face. He described how a friend had told him about pickle ball a year ago. “I took to it, and it’s helping my mobility and energy level.”
“That’s fantastic,” I said.
It was my turn to play, and I had to wave goodbye to the man I now thought of as Mr. Survivor. Imagine the stress of nearly losing a leg. I was glad I’d heard his story and especially thankful for the life lesson. This wasn’t the first time I’d formed an impression that was totally off base. I appreciated the reminder that if we look beyond the surface, we often find the true story.
So thanks for the lesson, Mr. Survivor. Maybe next year when I return to Alabama we can partner up again. I look forward to our chance to share a story and a smile.