Isn’t That a Shame?
The first time I remember meeting Doug was in the spring of 1972, just after getting out of the Army. My mother and I went to hear Ahmad Jamal at the Statler in downtown Buffalo. Before the concert started a young man in a wheel chair approached our table. My mother obviously knew the young man and invited him to join us. It was Doug McComb, a real Jazz Lover and one of my mother’s biggest fans. She later told me that he would show up everywhere she would play. Doug had Cerebral Palsy and suffered from a great deal of spasticity. His speech was very difficult to understand. Like most people, I think, I was quite uncomfortable being around him at first. I suppose just seeing someone struggling so much is enough to make you uncomfortable—Lots of feelings, fear, sorrow and, most of all, not knowing how to relate.
Over the next few years, I would see Doug at various musical events and I remember always wondering how he would get to the various places, seemingly on his own. We would always say hello, sometimes we would talk a bit but, I must admit, I really did not understand most of what he would say. How many times did I think to myself, How does he deal with it? I could never do it. I had a great deal of mixed emotions about Doug. Little did I know that one day we would have a very special connection.
Time passed, and I left the Buffalo area for several years playing with various groups. Upon my return to the Buffalo area, I did see him on occasion and his condition seemed to be deteriorating. Getting out must have been getting more difficult, so our paths crossed less and less.
In time I married and our second son, Cameron, had a stroke at birth. CP was the diagnosis. As Cameron got older, I began to see many similarities to Doug. I can remember wondering what ever happened to Doug and how I wished that I could see and speak to him now. I had so many questions I wanted to ask him. I wanted to know all that he could tell me about how Cameron did and would feel etc. Well, I thought this is what I wanted. Anyway, several years passed and I would ask people in the music community who knew him if they had seen him … He seemed to have disappeared, I actually thought that he may have died or possibly moved to a warmer climate or something. He was nowhere to be found.
Then, one summer day I was playing a jazz concert at Bidwell Parkway. During the 1st half of the concert I looked out over the crowd and guess who was in the audience? Doug was there; I was close to being able to ask him the questions, which I thought at the time, would help me help Cameron. I remember being very, very distracted. There I was trying to play and I’ve got tears running down my cheeks in the middle of a beautiful summer day. I could not wait for the break so that I could run out and speak to him.
My first question for Doug was where on earth had he been? He explained to me that he had been in and out of hospitals because of back problems caused by the years of spasticity. Oh, then it hit me; Seems that because of Cameron, I am now able to understand Doug much better and I am a lot more comfortable being around him. Isn’t that a shame? Do we all need to have children with severe disabilities to be able to see that Doug and others are not to be feared and actually may have a lot to say?
My second question was, how did you get here. He told me that he left at 9:00 AM, and it meant a combination of walking (driving his wheelchair) and taking the bus. It took him over 3 hours to get there. It was only a couple of miles. Upon hearing that, I told him that I would give him a ride home after the concert. I explained that I had a van with a wheelchair lift for my son, Cameron. He was overwhelmed at the thought of me being able to take him home in such style and ease.
After the concert we talked, and I told him about Cameron and what he was going through. Then came the lengthy discussion of what meds and doctors they had in common etc. As I was driving him home (he was living in a group home on Grant St. and N. Forest near Buffalo State College) I asked him if he had any family in the area? He told me about growing up with his parents and brother here in Buffalo. Well, it turns out, his parents were the type that refused to believe that Doug had anything wrong with him physically. When things got really bad, they put him in a home and left. He said that he would hear from his brother once in a great while, but he was not really sure where he lived now.
I was in a sort of state of shock trying to comprehend Doug’s situation. I know, first hand, how difficult Cameron’s life is with all the support that we give him … I mean our whole family and all of his teachers, nurses, doctors, aids, and his case workers (quite an extensive team). How had this young man survived and even still showed a love of life even through all the pain he was in? I do not understand, how weak and self centered most of us really are. As I was dropping him off at the home, he asked me if I was going to see Marian McPartland at Buff State? I told him that I was not aware that she was going to be here in Buffalo. He went on to tell me that he was one of her biggest fans now that my mother was gone. I told him that I would have to check and see if I had a job that evening. We ended up by exchanging phone numbers and I told him that I would let him know.
I left and had a very, very emotional ride home to my beautiful home in East Amherst. I checked and I was free that night. I also found out that there was going to be a private reception after the concert in honor of Marian. In addition, I found out that the drummer she was bringing in was from Rochester and I had just worked with him a few weeks ago. To make a long story short, I got Doug and myself great tickets. I called the drummer and told him the story and how much of a fan Doug was. He got us invitations to the reception.
You can imagine how excited Doug was when I told him that we were going to the concert and that he would be attending the special reception for Marian. Plus, I would transport him in the van! He was beside himself with joy! It was a wonderful concert and Doug got to meet and hang with Marian and her trio. It was just a very memorable evening for both of us, even more so for Doug I would imagine.
After that I began taking Doug to places occasionally, and in our conversations, I found out that he was living with people who had all kinds of serious mental health issues. So unfair, it really was bothering me. I actually was trying to figure out some way that he could stay with us. Obviously, that was simply not at all possible. We already had more that our hands full taking care of Cameron. Eventually, I had to discontinue my contact with Doug. It simply was too much for me to deal with. Sadly, I have not seen him again.
Some of Cameron’s doctors were familiar with Doug, but they were never able to share any information on his status due to the HIPPA laws. To this day, I still find myself looking for him at musical events, but given his declining condition, I suspect that Doug is no longer with us, and hopefully has moved on to a much happier and kinder place.