Birmingham, Alabama—Jeremy sits behind a volunteer desk at Children’s South Pediatric, greeting visitors.
You can’t miss him, he’s the only black man in a wheelchair who is smiling more than the legal limit.
Jeremy is a soft-spoken, thirty-one-year-old. He has cerebral palsy. His speech is labored. His eyes are strong.
His birth-mother put him up for adoption as a newborn when she discovered he had problems.
“Had fluid on my brain,” says Jeremy. “My mother couldn’t deal with it. So, I was on my own, so to speak.”
So to speak.
He’s always been on his own. Nobody adopted him. Jeremy became part of the Alabama foster machine. He underwent God-knows-how-many operations in his lifetime. He learned to be tough and tender at the same time.
Our chat is interrupted by a mother with a sick baby. Jeremy rolls into action. He greets her, then tells her which doctor is on which floor.
“Nurses raised me,” he explains to me. “Spent almost my whole life in Children’s Hospital, from ten months old until twenty-five. They my real family.”
It was in the wings of Children’s Hospital that nurses, doctors, and therapists took turns loving the sweet-mannered baby with the big eyes.
Women in scrubs became his mothers. Men in lab coats became his brothers. He taught them about the human spirit. They taught him to smile.
And he smiles a lot. Even though life has been a battle.
He doesn’t mind battles though. In fact, that’s how he earned his degree from Lawson Community College. It’s how he survived childhood.
Recently, he moved into his own apartment. It was a major victory. After a lifetime of hospital beds, foster homes, and rough neighborhoods, Jeremy is a first-time bachelor.
“I LOVE it,” he says. “But sometimes at night, it gets creepy. Ain’t used to being alone.”
His coworkers threw him a housewarming party. It was a real shindig. They loaded his pantry with with goodies, essentials, coffee, sandwich grills, and gift cards.
Jeremy’s biggest goal is to one day have a paying job.
“Ain’t no businesses wanna hire me ‘cause how I look. But I ain’t giving up.”
I ask what Jeremy’s dream job would be.
“I’m made to help people. My whole life, people have helped me time and again. I wanna do something to give back for once. Make my own way.”
The public bus arrives. Jeremy clocks out. I bid him goodbye.
I shake his hand and tell him I hope he finds a job.
“Thank you SO MUCH, sir,” he says.
And his words cut me. I haven’t done a damn thing worth thanking. I haven’t fought to keep living, I wasn’t given away as a newborn, I wasn’t reared in foster homes.
I don’t ride public transit for two hours just to volunteer. I don’t fall asleep each night, praying for a job.
The bus wheelchair ramp lowers. Jeremy wheels onto the platform. The door closes. He waves goodbye.
He’ll be back tomorrow.
I’ve met a lot of people. I’ve traveled this state from top to bottom, and been fortunate enough to interview people from many walks of life.
But I have never shaken a stronger hand than Jeremy McNair’s.