Sunday, June 25, 2000

For everything, there is a reason - well, maybe

        On Dec. 23, 1998, Dennis Lapp's left arm went dead. Blocks from his Montgomery home, he lost control of his car and crashed it into a bus. He'd been Christmas shopping with his son.

        Everything happens for a reason. This is what you hear, usually from people untouched by catastrophe. God doesn't give you anything you can't handle. You hear that, too, generally from well-meaning folks who haven't handled much.

        Dennis Lapp was 42 years old that day. A blood vessel ruptured in his brain. The resulting stroke put him in one hospital for a week, in another for a month. He'd had no family history of stroke. He was not in poor health. He'd been a lawyer for 15 years until 1998, losing his job when his firm down-sized, but Lapp had grown cynical of his profession and had been looking for a change, anyway.

        Then the left side of his body died. This wasn't the sort of change he was looking for. Eighteen months later, he's still seeking a new direction in his life. And the part about everything happening for a reason? He's still looking for that, too. The reason, I mean. What was the reason?

        You are not supposed to have a stroke at age 42. Not with a wife and three kids, ages 7, 8 and 11. You don't wake up in the morning and stagger to the shower thinking, “It's going to be a great day today if I can only avoid a stroke.”

        Dennis Lapp doesn't think he's especially courageous; victims of personal catastrophe rarely do. But to have your life yanked out from under you and to wake up one day realizing what you had before you'll never have again — and to start all over, a brick at a time — that's terrifying. That takes guts.

        “I just think of it as living,” he says. “You can choose to live or you can give up. I choose to live.” He started taking classes at UC, thinking he might like to teach high school. Then the stroke hit.

        Mr. Lapp is back to near-normal, or as normal as anyone can be who has nearly no use of his left arm. “I'm left-handed. I can't play catch with my sons,” he says. A few months ago, he was able to shell a soft-boiled egg with one hand, for the first time. “A little victory,” he said.

        Mr. Lapp took a few more courses at UC. He spent a few days at a local high school, where he discovered he couldn't cope with rowdy students. “I'm not to the point where I feel I can hold my own with 30 or 40 tough kids,” he says. One effect of the stroke was to make him quicker to anger.

        He is a sports fanatic, great with numbers. He wonders how that might be put to use. He doesn't know.

        He works with a placement specialist at Goodwill Industries. Mary Stradtman knows about bad luck and things happening for a reason. Her 20-year-old son Nick was born with multiple birth defects. He wasn't supposed to live past the age of 7. Nick has had 15 operations. He has been hospitalized 29 times.

        The day I talked with Dennis, Mary was late to the interview. Her car had broken down. Nick had fixed it, by replacing the alternator.

        Another little victory.

        I asked Mr. Lapp about optimism. I asked him about bitterness and pity. I asked him if he believed things happen for a reason.

        He said, “I think there is some place I am meant to go. Some set of things I am meant to accomplish. It will happen if I am patient. You have to be patient or you'll fall to pieces.”

        Most of us don't ponder our own mortality. Not when we're 42. We don't have time. We don't value what we have; we want more.

        We want to slow down, most of us. So we say. We make pledges every so often to spend more time doing things that make us happy. Fewer hours working, more at home. Because years from now, what might we remember?

        We almost never follow up on it. Only now, one of us will. Thank you, Dennis Lapp.


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