It’s raining on Saint Patrick’s Day. Birmingham is caught in a mess of grayish fog. Sort of the way you’d imagine Ireland might be.
I went to a tavern to meet friends so that we could engage in the cherished American pastime of drinking green beer.
I’ve been drinking green beer on Saint Patrick’s Day ever since I was old enough to watch Mister Rogers. I am Scots-Irish. We are beer fans.
My mother’s roots come from Northern Ireland where beer was probably invented. Which is why my mother chose a traditional Gaelic first name for me.
As a boy, the name Sean was always a source of great confusion for classmates who didn’t happen to speak second-century Gaelic. They couldn’t figure out the pronunciation.
In third grade, for example, on the playground, a young street tough named Vinny Stepnowski asked, “Why do you spell your name like that, dorkface?”
“That’s what my mother named me.”
“It’s a stupid name,” Vinny said. “Why would anyone name their kid Sean?”
“Because if she’d named me Vinny, I would’ve had to wear a bra.”
I was in a body cast for nine weeks.
I walked into the beer joint. The place was packed for Saint Paddy’s Day. TVs everywhere. Music blaring. My friends weren’t there yet, so I waited at the bar.
I sat next to a guy who was using a wheelchair. I’ll call him Patrick because this is my column and I can do whatever I want.
Patrick was drinking beer through a straw because holding the glass proved to be a chore with his weakened hands. He was alone.
“Pull up a stool,” said Pat.
Patrick and I shook hands. His grip was light, but he squeezed. He had a thick beard and he wore a UAB Medicine sweatshirt.
“Happy Saint Patrick’s Day,” he said.
“Same to you.”
“You Irish?” he asked.
“So you must like Guiness?”
“If it’s on sale at Walmart, I do.”
I ordered a green Guinness. I toasted Pat’s stationary glass. And Patrick told me a story between sips from his straw.
He has Becker muscular dystrophy. I didn’t know what this disease was, so I asked him to explain it to me using layman’s terms.
“My muscles basically get weaker every day,” he said. “It’s been happening for a long time. I didn’t start using the wheelchair until I was in my thirties.”
Patrick is in his late 50s now. He is lighthearted, irreverent, and jovial. He is self-effacing and quick with a joke. During our brief conversation, he attracted people like fruit flies. Strangers gravitated toward him as though he were the mayor of Birmingham.
“You’re a popular guy,” I said.
He shrugged. “I believe life’s all about personality. That’s what my mom always said. You can choose your personality. You can be quiet and shy, you can be a victim. Or you can put yourself out there and meet people, and be funny and happy and live your life.”
Patrick’s mother was a single mom. She was his primary caregiver until she developed an illness of her own. Whereupon Patrick became his mother’s lead caregiver. He saw her through until the end.
“It was the greatest privilege of my life,” he said, “caring for Mama. I tried to give her the same love she’d given me all my life. I changed her diapers, I cleaned her accidents.
“One time, Mama was watching me clean up her accident in the bathroom, and she was crying. She said, ‘Nobody should have to do this for their own mother, Patrick,’
“And I just looked at her with tears in my eyes, and I said, ‘Mama, you’ve been caring for me for thirty years.’”
I had a hard time conceiving how a man in his condition could care for an aging woman in her final stages. So Pat explained, “You can do anything if you love someone enough.”
Before the night was over, Patrick’s ride had arrived. He bid me goodbye. We shook hands again. After he left, the bartender informed me that an anonymous donor had paid for my next beer. The bartender then asked to see my ID to make sure I was actually me.
So I gave him my driver’s license.
“Your name’s Sean, huh?” the barkeep said. “Nice to meet you, Sean. My name’s Vinny.”