Sometimes during the setting of the Blue moon and the running of the gauntlet, I have to stop and remove the flotsam that has gathered around me. Not the little bits of wood kind of flotsam but all the debris of ill-conceived thoughts and actions. Those of us who walk our paths on earth with the froth of life’s impurities and limitations have to dump them sometimes. Cleanse ourselves of the bullshit to see the real again.
I know a guy who makes me see beyond the daily, makes me realize life’s values, makes me clarify the mind and re-energize the soul. He is 37-year-old Julius Van der Wat, who lives his life on Jozi’s beautiful Valley Road.
The first time that I saw him I was heavily under the influence of Bacchus’s fermentation. He appeared as this half-focused, odd figure tied to the inside of a wheel chair. In my boozy way I peered down on him and said, ”What on earth is wrong with you?” During the silence that followed I could hear a Boeing pass up high, up heaven’s way. Then he said, “I have spastic Quadriplegic palsy”. Just like that, just like it was, just how it is and how it will be till the end of his days. Gee-whiz, that was all of twenty years ago.
Through the years that followed I slowly realized that inside this man grew a field of flowers beneath the sun, inside his outer shell of captivity, his physical jail, buzzed a beehive of intelligence, creativity and humor.Someday, back a while, I found myself driving around on a large saltpan in the Northern Cape. This wasn’t a place for the Bacchanalian or the dagga smoker or the flotsam gatherer. This was the place for the existentialist, the truth chaser and separatist.
You see, I wanted to find what happens when you separate the body and the mind. This is not new; this is the ancient quest of trying to fly the mind, separate it from the physical restraints of the body. I achieved this by using my Willy Nelson bandanna as a blindfold, then driving my bakkie on a large Northern Cape saltpan at full speed until the physical loosens its grip on the mental, till the body floats away from the mind. After 6 minutes of darkness at 150km per hour on the Verneuk Pan, a kaleidoscope of images flashed in front of me, a thousand thoughts overtook my body and for a short time there was a sensation of floating, a feeling of knowing. When I had stopped, in a sweaty panic, when all my parts had filtered back into a single me, I realized just a little —– the feelings of Julius Van der Wat, whom I have come to name, the Inside Man.
He must know this way of separation, the way his stiffened body holds a mind straddled by a great hall of thoughts and a different interpretation of life. I have never told him this, but perhaps, one day I will. Over conversation that followed with Julius I came to realize that these thoughts were mere extensions of my awkwardness, my feelings towards his outward oddity and not the greater being that resides within his mind.
He speaks to me. I watch only the expressions in his eyes and not the light that clothes his deformities. “Disabled means broken, but I am not broken, I am ‘differently-abled’ and I just do and see things differently”.
Being born a twin to his able- bodied brother Koos and one of 5 sons, Julius often reflects on the frustrations and hardships of growing up. He fought not only societies preconceived standards of expected normality and conformity, but also the prejudices towards his disability. He looks odd, so people stare at him without engaging him at all. They often speak only to his helper, many afraid that he will answer the way that he looks. Once, waiting outside the toilets in a shopping mall, he was approached by a young, unsupervised child, who touched his spastic hands and asked him why his hands were different. Julius, delighted to be recognized beyond his wheel chair, explained to the 8-year old: “This is the way that God made me”. The boy’s eyes reflected his wonder and fascination. Is there a standardized normality in the society that we live in? ‘Yes and no’ —- is the broad answer and in that lies the abnormality of normality.
Julius’s ‘normal’ is foreign to most able-bodied people, so many see him as being ‘abnormal’. His differences were especially emotional growing up with his twin brother, Koos, who is considered ‘normal’. During his teen years, he often questioned God: “Why me, why not Koos?”
One night, lying in his bed, he remembers God’s reply:
“Why are you testing me? I have a purpose for you in your wheelchair and when that purpose has been fulfilled, I will take you up to heaven and you will walk”. At this stage I want to say something but I don’t. I hide the fact that I am not so tuned into the ways of the Lord; I hide it at the back of my mind. Then the observational genius of Julius the Inside Man finds it there and says, “I know what you are thinking, just remember that the voice came to me and not to you”.
Now, at the age of 37, Julius is content with who he is. His youthful jealousy is something of the past and although he still has daily frustrations, as we all do, he has various coping mechanisms. He sees a psychologist regularly, which is very important for him. He can discuss his frustrations. Julius’s way of life, or better said, his advancement beyond his limitations have been nurtured, in great proportions, by the love and dedication of his parents, brothers and family. They have continuously helped him to keep that light burning within him. His previous and present helper, Jacob and Jafta, are entwined in his life like the creeper that hugs a tree. They are his arms and his legs, his wheels, his assistants, his feeders of food, his bathers and where he goes, they go. His twin brother is so wonderfully normal that it’s almost boring. You know, great achievements at school and varsity, great engineering job, nice car, big Jo’burg flat, expensive suburb, lekker person —- almost boring. Then Koos married a French woman and it all went suave, normality became fashionable clothes with a lilt in his gait and a smile on his face. The wedding was held in Paris so Van der Wat’s clan went off to Paris. Julius went to Paris and Jafta wheeled him down the Champs- Elysées.
Julius has two hobbies, the collecting of small model cars and teddy bears. I lie not —– cars and teddies. His father, a fanatical collector of vintage cars, was responsible for starting the model car collection and Winnie-the-Pooh was responsible for the teddy bear collection.
Technology has contributed tremendously to his personal empowerment. Since Grade 2, he has been computer literate and now, thanks to a headset designed by Izak, one of his brothers, this has progressed way beyond the odd email. He punches in the keys on his touch screen iPad using a stylus (a plastic or metal stick with a conductive tip to which an iPad reacts in the same way as a finger). I have stood and watched him do this on many occasions and each time I have been humbled by this remarkable achievement. Just imagine typing out a letter with your head. But of course, mister smart-ass ‘Inside Man’ wanted a lot more.
Something much deeper and visual had been lurking around within him; something visually strong, locked inside of him, needed liberation. He wanted to illustrate his feelings, his love and often his sadness, in graphic images. So the man, with his near total loss of all motor functions, found another voice through digital illustration. Using the APP called Sketchbook Pro 1 for iPad, Julius can now draw his art works using the touch screen Stylus pen on his iPad.
These illustrations are not photo-shopped ready-made stencils or computer generated art, these art works are drawn and designed from a blank screen. They spring from a mighty heart that feeds a unique mind. They are laments from the soul. They project and express the thoughts of a man who is shackled in the physical outer, handicapped by the lack of every motor movement except a small tilt of the head. They are laborious in their execution, taking hours to complete, but on completion they move mountains in the mind of the creator.
Jessie, the Boerboel comes to lie on the chair next to Julius. She seems to know how to wriggle her head under his spastic hand. I take a picture, that’s all —– just a picture. Far above, close to heaven, a Boeing rides the sky to Europe.
The Inside Man and me just sit.
Sometimes sitting together means more than words.
After a while Julius quotes from one of his favourite books, Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne. “ Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That’s the problem”