Most Americans know of Charles Krauthammer as a conservative commentator and writer — appearing on Fox News and penning columns for The Washington Post. They may not know his impressive story of recovering from a broken neck and debilitating paralysis. But on Friday I came across an email Krauthammer wrote to a friend who had recently become paralyzed, and this letter will break your heart. It also reminded me of my grandfather and namesake, Tyler Kaus.
Nash Jenkins, himself a writer for TIME magazine, shared the story on Twitter. In October 2016, Jenkins’ father met with Krauthammer and Robert Reich at an event. He snapped and shared this photo.
Until that point, Jenkins did not know of Krauthammer’s struggle with paralysis. “I looked it up and learned that in his first year of medical school at Harvard, Krauthammer was in a swimming accident that left him largely paralyzed. Despite this, he found success as a psychiatrist and then as a political writer,” Jenkins explained.
Last year, on June 25, Jenkins’ father broke his neck while surfing in Nicaragua. He was and remains paralyzed from the waist down.
Jenkins reported just how traumatic the experience was for him and for his father, but one glimmer of hope and light shone through the experience: the email Krauthammer sent to his father.
Here is the text in full:
Dear Mr. Jenkins,
I heard about your accident. I’m so sorry. I enjoyed meeting you last year and am deeply sympathetic to your new and most harrowing situation. As you know, I’ve been there.
I know full well how difficult things are at the beginning and often how hopeless they seem. I also do know what’s possible. And it turns out to be quite a lot.
I don’t pretend it’s everything. But a good and productive and deeply enjoyable life is possible. What it required in my case was the simple determination to keep going in the direction I was headed. I found that I could do psychiatry and then a journalism career at a totally even par with my colleagues.
Your accident is occurring much later in life than mine. (I was 22.) Which presents its own challenges. On the other hand, you have so many years of experience and much respect and admiration from friends, colleagues and family accumulated over a lifetime. They will serve you well and help you through what will, at first, be significant challenges.
I write you because I know the challenges firsthand. I know how discouraging they can be initially. But I also know, with absolute certainty, that they can be accommodated and even overcome and that a good life is possible.
I’m fully aware of how terribly discouraging [it] is to have to put in twice the effort for gains that seem so meager at the beginning. But I can assure you that it can be done. And then it is rewarded.
I don’t mean to sugarcoat things. Life is more difficult with a spinal cord injury. But the obstacles are not insurmountable.
I know this is all scant consolation, and it is not really meant was [sic] that. It is simply meant to give you a different perspective on your future. Mine is from the rearview mirror. I know what actually can be. I also know that for you, so soon after your accident, it is prospective — you are looking into a future that is necessarily unclear to you. I wish only to assure you from my own experience of 45 years post-accident that it can be a very good life indeed.
I hope this is helpful. I wish you all the best in your recovery.
For me, this letter echoes the experience of my maternal grandfather, Tyler Kaus. At 5 years old, Tyler Kaus contracted polio and lost the use of his legs. He was devastated: his athletic dreams seemed dashed.
But my grandfather persevered. As his legs weakened, his spirit grew strong. He lifted himself up on crutches, and mastered the art of wheeling himself in a wheel chair. He went on to win medals in wheelchair sports, play the oboe and clarinet in nationwide symphonies, and publish books of puns (“Too Gross Puns,” “Rocky Mountain Haiku,” “Waiter! There’s a Guy in My Soup!,” and “Puns-A-Poppin” are all available on Amazon).
Charles Krauthammer and Tyler Kaus prove that lifelong, debilitating injuries — while incredibly painful — can bring out a heroic spirit. Let us never forget what they suffered and what they achieved, taking solace in the message that paralysis is not the end and gaining a new respect for those who are paralyzed or otherwise bodily disabled.