For our first appointment, Albert* showed up at my door, fidgeting nervously. He shook my hand, and then reached into his pocket, pulling out a candy bar. A gift for me. He explained that he was taught to be nice to his teachers.
I was coaching Albert through some required annual education. He had lost some executive and motor function due to a brain injury when he was young. As a result, he had trouble completing reading and writing tasks, retaining information in long term memory, and using the computer. His supervisor in the kitchen had told me he was a hard worker who was eager to learn.
We had set up several appointments to go over the required material and complete several tests. As we went through the PowerPoint slides and discussed fire safety information, he leaned forward, his pale blue eyes fixed intently on me as I went through the steps of responding to a Code Red and asked him questions like: “What type of fires does an ABC extinguisher put out?”
I thought he’d only last an hour or two. The material was as dry as dust, but he wanted to push on. During a break, we stepped out of my office for a drink, and when we returned, I pulled out my keys. As I searched for the right key, I made an off-hand comment that my home key and office key looked alike and I had trouble telling them apart. I had been fumbling for months.
Albert’s eyes flashed. “That’s easy,” he said, explaining that I should go to the hardware store, buy a plastic key cover, and slip it over the key for easy identification. He was right. The answer was obvious, but it had eluded me.
“That’s a great idea,” I told him and I meant it.
As we worked through the other presentations, we paused from time to time to talk. He told me about his identical twin brother, who was smart and lucky because he had never had a brain injury, and had never lost any intellectual or motor function. “But he’s angry all the time,” Albert said.
“Why?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. You know I could be angry like him. But I decided I was going to be happy and I am.” And then, to confirm this, he smiled.
The wisdom in his words was startling. The frisson of truth made me shiver a little. Happiness is a choice. Happiness is a gift that we can treasure or discard. The choice is always ours. Albert had every right to be angry– at the loss of his intellectual power, at the necessity of taking a lower-level job in the kitchen, his difficulty remembering and retrieving new information, and his limited chances of upward mobility and finding a partner who would be willing to share his life. But instead, he had made the choice to be happy.
I took a deep breath and told him I admired him. He shrugged and said he wanted to go back to work.
A few hours later, we were finished. Albert shook my hand and thanked me. I told him it was a pleasure to work with him and I meant it.
From time to time, we see each other in the cafeteria. Sometimes, he hands me a Tootsie Roll. “For you,” he says.
I thank him and say, “How are you Albert?”
“I’m good,” he always says with a smile and I know he means it.
*Albert is not his real name.