A Life Lesson Learned from Jimmy

How a bike and a man with a mental disability deepened her marriage.

Posted in , Mar 20, 2013

Sheri Zeck and her husband, Curt

This was not how I’d wanted to spend our Sunday afternoon—waiting in the van with my three daughters outside a rundown apartment building in a sketchy part of town. But here we were. Again. Waiting.

“How long is Daddy gonna be?” my three-year-old asked.

“Yeah, I’m hungry!”

“Me too, Mom!” her older sisters cried out.

“Girls, we’ve been through this,” I said. “It’s easier for Dad to swing by Jimmy’s on Sundays. Please try to be patient.” I wasn’t sure who I was trying to convince, them or myself. This project of Curt’s had taken on a life of its own.

It all started a year earlier when Curt signed up for an ethics class at church. One of his assignments was a community-service project. Curt had helped his grandfather manage his finances and realized that other older folks might need that type of help too.

A local organization matched him up with Jimmy. But Jimmy was not at all what we’d expected.

For starters, Jimmy wasn’t elderly—he was only in his fifties. His mental age was much younger, like that of a third-grader. Curt introduced us outside Jimmy’s apartment a few weeks into the project. I tried not to stare. But Jimmy’s scraggly beard and missing teeth were tough to overlook.

He tried to smile but ended up staring at the ground. Then he flicked his cigarette with a long, dirty fingernail.

“Nice to meet you,” I said, taking a step back. It was one thing to drop off donations or sponsor a friend in a charity run, but I wasn’t so sure about this deal. Still, wasn’t Curt’s kindheartedness one of the reasons I fell in love with him to begin with?

It didn’t take long to find out that if Curt gave Jimmy spending money for a month, two days later Jimmy was broke and calling for more. He didn’t leave messages, either; he just kept calling and calling until Curt picked up.

“What are ya’ doin’?” Jimmy would ask cheerfully.

“I’m eating dinner, Jimmy.”

“I’m at my daughter’s softball game, Jimmy.”

“I’m on vacation with my family now, Jimmy.”

I knew it was unkind of me, but Jimmy’s constant interruptions were getting on my nerves. Did he really have to rely on Curt so much? Or was he just looking for attention? Lord, I’d pray whenever Jimmy called, please give me patience. Lots and lots of patience.

Eventually, Curt and Jimmy came to an agreement. Since Jimmy lived near our church, Curt would stop by every Sunday to give him his money for the week. Sometimes Jimmy watched and waited for us outside. Other times, Curt went inside. The girls and I preferred to stay in the van.

Now here we were again, on another Sunday afternoon, parked outside Jimmy’s building. It seemed like forever before Curt tapped on the van window. I unlocked the door.

“Sorry,” he said, tossing some papers between our seats. “He had a huge stack of mail I had to look through.” Curt got in the van. I wrinkled my nose and fanned the air with my hand.

“I know,” Curt said. “His apartment reeks of cigarettes. And speaking of apartments...”

I knew the look on Curt’s face all too well. “Yes?”

“It’s just...I’m going to have to move Jimmy on Saturday. His sink and fridge are broken and his toilet doesn’t flush. It’s not safe for him to stay here.”

I folded my arms. “That’s very sweet, but why do you have to move him? I thought you were just there to balance his checkbook. Weekends are supposed to be family time.”

“I’m sorry,” Curt said. “I signed up to manage his money and he’s paying way too much for that dump. Besides, he’s got no one else.”

My heart softened...a little. Lord, please give me more patience and compassion for Jimmy.

Curt didn’t stop once he moved Jimmy. He arranged for a visiting nurse to make sure Jimmy took his medications correctly. He bought groceries for Jimmy through a food-distribution nonprofit.

He even signed Jimmy up for a domestic-care program that provided a volunteer three times a week to clean his apartment, cook him dinner and persuade him to take a shower.

By Jimmy’s sixtieth birthday Curt had finally helped him save enough money to buy something he had always wanted—a bike.

“I’m taking Jimmy shopping,” Curt had said on his way out the door that day. “I’ll be home for dinner.”

Dinnertime came and went. Finally, Curt called. “Just leaving Walmart now,” he said. “Sorry, it took longer than I’d planned.”

“Of course it did,” I muttered.

“You should have seen Jimmy,” he said. “He was so excited, like a kid on Christmas!”

I didn’t want to hear about Jimmy. Dinner was late and our kids were grumpy. But Curt kept talking.

“He picked the cheapest bike he could find and rolled it through the store, grinning every step of the way. But then we went outside and I realized something.”

“What?” I asked.

“I realized,” Curt said, starting to laugh, “that I had no idea if Jimmy could ride a bike!”

I plopped onto a chair. “So what did you do?”

“I made him prove it,” he said.

“You’re kidding,” I said. “You made him ride his bike there in the parking lot?”

“That’s right!” Curt said. “Jimmy climbed onto the bike, and his feet slipped against the pedals...”

“Oh no...”

“He finally got his feet under control, but he started wobbling and weaving all over the place.” Curt was laughing so hard he had to stop to take a breath. “Then he straightened out his steering and took off!”

“What a sight you two must’ve been!” I said, laughing, giving in to the sweet absurdity of the scene. I could just picture Curt in his button-down shirt and pressed khakis chasing after Jimmy as he weaved his bike through the Walmart parking lot, flashing his big, toothless grin, dodging shopping carts and shoppers.

Jimmy must have been so thrilled, I thought. Amazing how a little thing like that could make his day, maybe his whole year. In that moment, my heart shifted. All this time my problem hadn’t been Jimmy— it was my attitude.

Jimmy didn’t mean to take Curt away from us. Maybe he didn’t want attention as much as he needed companionship. He just appreciated all that Curt did for him...and took joy in each moment God gave him. Wasn’t that what God wanted for all of us?

My resentment melted away and I said a new prayer: Lord, please help me appreciate and enjoy the blessings around me as Jimmy does.

Things changed after that. We would still stop by Jimmy’s every Sunday, but I didn’t mind. I even laughed when Jimmy called and asked, “What are you doin’?”

A couple of years later, Jimmy passed away. Curt and I went to his funeral.

There was a small crowd—a couple of Jimmy’s distant relatives, a few friends from his apartment building, some of his caregivers, nurses and volunteers. Everyone there to celebrate Jimmy’s life. A life that taught me that if you take the time to understand people who are different from you, it makes you a better person, a better child of God.

I reached for Curt’s hand and he squeezed mine back. Funny how helping Jimmy had been my husband’s class assignment, but I was the one who had learned the lessons.


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