My Best Friend Had Muscular Dystrophy. He Taught Me More About Life Than Anyone.
Jack Cook was my closest childhood friend. And then he died. He deserves to be remembered.
(Note: Jack Cook was my friend’s real name. He passed in 1976, the same year as his mother. He had no siblings; his father was out of the picture. This piece is a personal effort to leave behind a cherished memory of a special childhood friend.)
In 1971, my parents moved the family from Brooklyn, New York, to Aurora, Colorado, to save a life. Mine. I was a most severe asthmatic, in and out of doctor’s offices and hospitals since the age of 2. When I turned 7, I was wheeled in a baby stroller from our apartment to an awaiting cab. I could not walk; I may have collapsed like I did three weeks prior.
We were moving to Aurora, and the cab was taking us to the airport. Dad’s job granted him a transfer. The doctor told my parents that Colorado’s climate was much more favorable than New York’s for my chronic condition, and relocating would be prudent. He also told them that if we stayed put, I may face a life of chronic hospitalization, and possibly long-term care.
Once we settled in Aurora, I didn’t have a single asthma attack for the four years we lived there.
“The Crippled Kid Down the Road”
I was popular with the other boys in our new neighborhood. Together, we swapped comic books and shoveled snow from driveways for $5 a pop. School was great; my grades were high.
In the midst of my first year, a disruptive new student entered my classroom.
The other students did not like him because they did not know what to make of him. He had a strange gait; he walked as if he forced his waist and legs to drag his upper-body, and he wobbled with every step as though he was going to fall.
All that, and he seemed to have a monster-sized chip on his shoulder.
As days passed, the other students began making fun of the new boy, whose name was Jack. They threw paper and candy into his shoulder-length, stringy hair when the teachers’ backs were turned, and Jack, though visibly incensed, simply removed the garbage thrown and said nothing. I admired his restraint.
One day over lunch, I told my parents about “this new crippled kid.” My mom asked if I tried to be friends with him. My dad asked if that was the boy he saw down the road moving in with his mother a few days earlier.
“There’s a crippled kid down the road?” I asked. I had no idea. I recall opening the curtains, and seeing nothing. “Which house?”
My father pointed. It was snowing, and I could barely see anything.
A few hours later, I saw the kid. Jack. He was sitting bundled up on a chair, on his porch, watching the snow fall.
My mom had prepared peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for her three sons’ school lunches, which were already packed in our lunchboxes for the next day. I quietly opened the lunchboxes and stole them all. The plan was to leave the house while my parents and brothers were upstairs watching TV.
“Caught you,” my mom said from the stairwell. Before I could respond, she added, “Introduce yourself to him like a gentleman and be nice.”
“He knows me from school already.”
“Introduce yourself, anyway.”
“Thanks,” I sighed, before running out the door.
It was still snowing, but lightly. I arrived at Jack’s house, and knocked. His mom opened the door. “Yes?”
“My name’s Joel. I live down the street. Your son is in my class and I wanted to introduce myself.”
His mom smiled, but in the background I heard an angry, high-pitched shout: “Tell him to leave!”
“I’m sorry,” she said to me. “Best you come back another time.”
As she started closing the door, Jack appeared just under her arm. “Wait,” he said, coming into view and staring at me as if trying to figure my true intentions. “No, let him in. I think he’s okay.”
Just like that. His mom let me in.
“I’m sorry what they do to you in school,” I said.
“Why don’t you ever help, then?” he asked. I was about to answer when he did it for me: “I get it. You wouldn’t be popular anymore. I wasn’t always like this either.”
As his mom watched, I did the gentlemanly thing to make my mom proud. “We’re not in school, now.” I said. “I’m Joel — ”
“You’re the Jew,” he responded. “I’m Jack Cook.” We shook hands. I wanted to respond to the Jew comment but he wasn’t finished. “Do you like Alice Cooper?” he asked.
“Who is she?” was my sincere reply.
“Sick things in cars rotate round my stars.” — Alice Cooper, from the album “Billion Dollar Babies.”
Jack loved Alice Cooper. As my new friend came to know me and my story about being a sickly kid in Brooklyn, he considered “Sick Things” to be an anthem about our “brotherhood.” I was unfamiliar with Alice, but I can say this: All these years later, having not heard that wacky song for decades until I elected to write this piece, I still know the lyrics by rote.
My friendship with Jack deepened. The quip about me being “the Jew” when I first visited him was because we had a “common enemy,” he explained — a 10-year-old school bully who I was told elsewhere had learned to be anti-Semitic from his uncle. The kid, whose name I don’t recall, called me “the Jew” for months before Jack adapted it. Though I hung with a popular crowd back in my pre-junior high years, the guy couldn’t stand me due to my culture.
As he had always thought about dying, Jack wanted to get back at him for both of us before “meeting the devil in hell.” He wanted me to help.
We never had that chance, however. That threat dissipated as the weeks went on and Jack became part of my clique. He slowly became accepted by our peers, and very well-liked. The bully simply stayed away. We thought he had found a girlfriend.
Jack’s mom was thrilled with our friendship. My parents were thrilled with me, but I did nothing. I was just curious, at first. That’s all. As time went on, if anyone called him “the crippled kid” — like I used to — I had his back.
He helped me grow up, without my realizing a thing.
I spent great times with Jack at his house. He rarely came to mine, as walking was becoming that much tougher for him by the day and he refused to use a wheelchair. I asked him to describe his disease to me. He told me to “look it up.” I asked him what the disease was called, and then I would. “I liked you because you never asked,” he said. “Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy if you need to know,” he followed.
I don’t remember what I discovered back then, or how I looked up the definition, but I found this earlier today in preparation for this article, from the MDA.org website:
Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) is a genetic disorder characterized by progressive muscle degeneration and weakness due to the alterations of a protein called dystrophin that helps keep muscle cells intact. DMD is one of four conditions known as dystrophinopathies. The other three diseases that belong to this group are Becker Muscular dystrophy (BMD, a mild form of DMD); an intermediate clinical presentation between DMD and BMD; and DMD-associated dilated cardiomyopathy (heart-disease) with little or no clinical skeletal, or voluntary, muscle disease.
In the early stages, DMD affects the shoulder and upper arm muscles and the muscles of the hips and thighs. These weaknesses lead to difficulty in rising from the floor, climbing stairs, maintaining balance and raising the arms.
For further information, see here:
Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) | Muscular Dystrophy Association
Download our Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) Fact Sheet Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) is a genetic disorder…
I realized Jack suffered greatly. That’s why he always seemed so angry. Or, if he wasn’t angry, he was edgy. But he was my best friend … and somehow, we needed each other.
He began lying to me, though, about his “real” best friend, a kid named “Teddy.” This was a brand new dynamic which I found puzzling. No one knew “Teddy” in school, and his mom didn’t know of anyone named “Teddy.” I figured, even back then, that Jack was starting to lie to me to keep me at a distance. The invitations to visit him and listen to Alice were becoming less and less frequent.
I knew something was going on, but I didn’t know what.
On The Bus
Jack and I were on our way home from school. We sat together, as of late I was assigned to help him get up from his seat upon exiting the bus. He was particularly upset on this day, and had been lashing out at our friends since morning.
I had it with him and told him so, telling him his attitude sucked. He asked me to move away and take another seat. I complied when he told me he’d help himself off the bus.
Though we lived on the same block, the driver made two compulsory stops — Jack’s house first — due to his condition. The doors opened; I watched as Jack exited.
His body gave out and he fell to the ground. “I can’t walk!” he cried. “I CAN’T WALK ANYMORE!”
He knew. His mother came rushing out of the house. I hopped off the bus and tried to help him. Though he was swinging and hitting me, blaming me for the loss of his legs, I stayed with him as his mom ran back into the house to call an ambulance.
Jack was right. He would never walk again.
We made up the next day when he invited me over to “listen to some Alice.” No apologies were necessary, and none were offered.
Jack explained to me that for the last year, he had nightmares about losing his ability to walk. He stayed away from a wheelchair for as long as possible, and now I was with him as we waited for a new chair to be delivered.
He became more depressed once he sat in the chair for the first time, as if the blood drained from his body and he had lost the will to continue his fight.
The analogy proved accurate. We stopped speaking as much as we had. My ensuing visits to his house seemed forced, as if he didn’t want to lose my company completely, but he wanted to spend more time alone. I asked him about “Teddy.”
“Teddy died,” he said, without saying another word about it.
Soon, the calls stopped entirely, and Jack stopped going to school. His frame of mind, his mom told my mother, was not good. He had grabbed a knife to stab himself one night, his mom said. “I was thankful to be there to take it away,” she followed.
My life went on as it had before we met. Making money shoveling driveways, no more asthma, and then … my dad told me and my brothers something we were not expecting. A few weeks earlier, my grandfather — my dad’s father — had suffered a heart attack at his home in New York. He survived, but was unwell. Dad, telling me my doctor said he was confident as to my long-term health, said it was “time to move back east.” He had requested, and had been granted, a return job transfer.
I was surprised but was actually looking forward to returning to my native Brooklyn. We all were. But first, I had to do something. As he was no longer returning my phone calls, I needed to try to see Jack one last time.
Jack’s mom was told that we were returning to New York. When I went to visit my old friend, his mom tearfully told me that Jack was very sick, and she would give him a message. She hugged me before I turned away.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
My family soon arrived back in New York. Life resumed, and yet I could not shake the special friend I left behind. Though we had not spoken at this point for several months, in Jack’s honor I solicited pledges the following August and September for “The Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon.”
I found out from a former neighbor that Jack died the year after I left, as a result of pneumonia. I was devastated. His mom died a few months thereafter, of an aggressive cancer.
When I was old enough, my cousin Randy and I volunteered for the MDA Telethon, answering pledge calls at all hours.
I felt that I had come a long way from my “crippled kid down the road” remark. I must have been an emotional cripple for dismissing the unique Jack Cook in such a matter, the sick kid who taught this former sick kid the real value of living and cherishing life while you can.
“Sick things” indeed.
I think about Jack today, in late 2019, and what he’s missed. He especially would have loved the internet, which would have given him the ability to lessen his emotional confinement and virtually travel at the touch of a button. As a fellow “Star Trek” fan, he would have gotten a kick out of cell phones — “Trek” communicators for all intents. We used to wander around with walkie-talkies, which only worked 50% of the time.
He would have gotten a kick that I actually got married.
And, I would hope, he would have smiled at this article. I could hear him now: “Joel … let’s listen to some Alice.”
I miss him. He was special.
Thank you for reading.
P.S. If Jack was here today, I would present this to him: I found this video online. It was recorded 11 years after we last saw each other. I miss you, buddy, and think about you often. This one’s for you.
Cheers, my old friend ...
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