August 24, 2006
When someone demonstrates the perseverance of the human spirit, you become acutely aware that they are living more than ordinary lives. Even if you don’t need a reminder you know instinctively these are people who are examples to others.
“The Elephant Man” opens this week. It is an award-winning play that gives us a glimpse into the life of Joseph “John” Merrick. Merrick suffered from an abnormality, yet to be completely diagnosed. His affliction caused masses of flesh to grow all over his body in folds, thus his side-show moniker became the Elephant Man.
Merrick lived in the Victorian era, and he brought to the English upper-class something they needed, the ability to accept and not fear the strange. He maintained his dignity in the face of adversity. As Michael J. Fox has said of his Parkinson’s disease, “One’s dignity may be assaulted, vandalized and cruelly mocked, but cannot be taken away unless it is surrendered.”
As I re-read the script, my mother continued to cross my mind. To the Victorians Merrick showed perseverance in the face of affliction. My mother did the same for me. I recall a young, vibrant woman of four-foot, ten who taught me to play softball and who went with me for long walks on country roads. We would visit my elderly aunt a few farms down where we helped her during canning season.
When I was in middle school Mom was diagnosed with chronic rheumatoid arthritis and by the time I was out of high-school she had undergone several surgeries to replace both hips, knees and to have her elbow defused. She said it was the best diet plan in the world to not be able to move your arm for a few months.
By the time I was out of college, she was severely disabled. It would tear anyone up to see the one who cared for you and who loved you be forced to bend her head down to the table to sip her coffee rather than lift the cup because her joints were so twisted that she had trouble holding the cup. Her hands were unable to make a fist, or hold any small item let alone her silverware.
Somehow she would send a letter every week with impeccable penmanship. She was very persistent and kept living her life, loving her family, supporting her church and encouraging her nieces to be the best women they could be. Cancer was her final battle, and her spirit fought as hard as her body would let her.
Everyone has flaws. Some are more visible to the world as my mother’s and Merrick’s, yet we all contribute to humanity and the world around us. My mother’s encouragement to her nieces led them all to take up careers in the medical fields and in the healing of others. Merrick helped to bring the best out of those around him.
“The Elephant Man” celebrates these frightened, yet caring and loving individuals who help to make us better people. Join the celebration of the human spirit. For tickets to “The Elephant Man” visit our website at peninsulaplayers.com or call the box office at 920-868-3287. Perhaps I’ll see you by the bay, where the sun sets, the curtain rises and the stars shine and you’ll share who encourages you.
Audra Baakari Boyle is the Peninsula Players Business Manager.