I first met Teddy Pendergrass in 1983, a year after his accident. He had just been released from rehab, and called my office for therapy. He was feeling hopeless and didn’t think he wanted to live. I didn’t tell him that it had been just four years since the accident in which I was paralyzed, and I was suffering my own clinical depression.
Teddy said that I was the only one who could understand what he was going through, and that if anybody could help, it was me. I knew he was right about understanding, but because of my depression, I got our boundaries confused.
Teddy was the first quadriplegic I could identify with. Not only did I feel alone and different from everyone else, but I also felt different from the quadriplegics I had gone through rehab with. I was 33, and most of them were around 18, so I really had no one to identify with. Same with Teddy. When he talked about his life and fears, he understood that I knew what he was saying.
Sometimes, in our work together, it felt as if saving his life was the same as saving mine. Even after I sought help from Geraldine Grossman, a teacher at the Family Institute of Philadelphia, where I had studied, it felt as if part of me was sitting in the other wheelchair.
Although Teddy said he was suicidal, he really didn’t want to die. He just didn’t know how he could live. After several meetings, I had him and his family gather one Saturday at his house to organize their own support networks. Nearly 100 people turned out. Once they learned about his fears and hopes, they organized small groups, each addressing one of his concerns. I watched Teddy’s eyes brighten. For the first time in the six months since we had met, I knew he was finding answers to his question: “How can I live with this terrible disability?”
Even though it’s unusual, I am comfortable telling this story because Teddy was so comfortable telling it, and he told it often. A few years ago, my daughter called to say she was thumbing through an article about Teddy in Jet and saw his description of our work together.
We became friends shortly after treatment ended, which is also unusual. Although I always felt protective of him, I also felt we were kindred spirits. In 2007, on the 25th anniversary of his accident, he organized a “celebration of life” at the Kimmel Center. Many celebrities were there praising his accomplishments, but he wanted to thank the people who had helped save his life. I was honored to be one of them, but as I was receiving his beautiful award, I thought that I could be giving him the same award.
Six months ago, he told me he was putting together a ministry to teach the lessons he had learned about life and love.
Teddy lived his life in a way I wish for everyone I care about – with gratitude, compassion, joy, and love. The day he died was the anniversary of my father’s death. The word brother is probably used too often, but today I mourn two family members.