On Wednesday, March 2, 2011, Phillip James* Bennett passed away. I’ve known Phillip since elementary school. I can’t claim to have been a close friend or even a good (more-than-Facebook connection) friend to him after we all graduated from high school, but he’s been a symbol in my mind ever since my most vivid memories him were formed.
I am incredibly saddened by our loss.
Phillip had Friedrich’s ataxia, which destined him for a wheelchair from high school (Or was it junior high?) onward. The signs of this neuro-muscular disorder started showing in grade school, though. Back then we were all at Weibel Elementary School, and though I can only hope that us Weibel kids were kind to him, I’m sure we stared when he tried to jauntily run from one end of the volleyball court to the other during physical fitness tests in PE. From Weibel, Phillip transferred to Chadbourne Elementary. That’s where my memories of him upright, on his own two feet, end. Paths crossed again when five Fremont elementary schools fed into Hopkins Junior High. And then we all graduated together from Mission San Jose High School. Phillip went on to Chabot College, and then majored in Psychology and Magazine Journalism at San Jose State University.
By the time I got the news that Phillip had passed, he had thrown competitive shotput for Mission, gotten four tattoos, posted a hilarious picture of himself sandwiched between girls in nipple pasties, and even gone skydiving. All of the preceding while in a wheelchair. He was deeply active in the Friedrich’s Ataxia Research Alliance (FARA). He hosted numerous events to raise funds for FA research. If you go to FARA’s website, his face will even pop-up in the header graphic.
Phillip’s service is taking place this Saturday:
11:00 am – 2:00 pm
First United Methodist Church of Fremont
2950 Washington Boulevard
Fremont, California 94539
The family will be collecting favorite pictures and stories of Phillip, and a lunch reception at Outback Steakhouse will follow.
In lieu of flowers, Phillip would prefer donations to FARA: http://curefa.org/donate.html
He was 26 years old and working on his autobiography. He was more than just that token “wheelchair kid” you knew when you were too young to learn that it’s not entirely proper to say “wheelchair-confined.” I think by the time we all reached high school, we felt this protectiveness over Phillip, but we were probably somewhat guilt-ridden patronizing minds to think it. Phillip had pretty big birthday parties and he still told off-color jokes. It would surprise me to hear him swear, but then I’d get over the fact that high schoolers do that and Phillip was, indeed, a high schooler. He’d have no problem leveling with us so that we weren’t fabricating this invisible wall between us and him. Sometimes you need to meet someone who doesn’t need your well intentions to realize that you’d do better as a friend if you were just natural.
I remember him as positive. I remember his childhood home had an “elephant plant” in the front yard. We called it an elephant plant because its large leaves resembled elephant ears. It was good for hiding things. I’m annoyed that I can easily picture his house’s entryway but I can’t remember what we did during actual playtime…It’s strange what your childhood mind deems worthy of storing for twenty years later.
I’ve been wondering since Wednesday if we did anything outwardly awful to him. If we picked him last for dodgeball or called him names. I just wonder if we treated him as badly as kids can treat other kids. If I did, I have no excuse. What I can do now, at least, is benefit his cause in his name. Sorry I was not more involved earlier, Phillip.
*I’m not sure why I think his middle name is James. I could be wrong. It’s been a long week.