The year was 1994. A young 32-year-old Catalan man, who was the country manager in Portugal for the world's largest cereal brand, was driving his car to or from his house. It really doesn’t matter. His life was perfect in the most conventional sense possible. Beautiful wife, prestigious job, age on his side.
And then, that car met an accident. I can go in details about his injuries but to keep it simple, he could barely move again. Except for his sharp brain and his glowing face, he was not the same anymore. He remained in hospital for a long time. Somewhere around the 9th month of his morbid phase, his wife couldn’t find the strength in her to stick with him. She left.
He had survived death but was left with a life which many would consider worse than death itself. It was as if he was in Disneyland, on a roller coaster, at the very top and then suddenly, the power went out, he fell down.
For months, maybe years, Francesc remained somewhat angry with himself, with the world, with his wife. He was not angry with his wife because she had left him when he needed her, but because she didn’t leave him immediately after his accident. She left him after instigating hope and expectation.
His company also remained sympathetic for some time, but sympathy was not enough. It was the last thing he wanted from people.
When I first met Francesc in November, I had just travelled back from being one of the “100 most inspiring MBAs in the world”. I was a little bit on a high. There was a sense of accomplishment that seeps in irrespective of how humble you try to be. You want to believe that this high will never end. When I first met Francesc, I had my own assumptions about him, about the way he would look, the way he would talk, the way he would be. “A man in a wheelchair”.
The person I met however was someone else though. He was a successful author, motivational speaker, and a fairly active human being who likes to go to the beach to have lunch with his friends. He likes to smile, to laugh, to empower others and talks about sex and sexuality at the age of 60.
This is despite the fact that he is basically numb below his neck, that he can’t even use his palms and fingers to move his chair. This is despite the fact that he has been in this vegetative state for over 28 years. 28 years. That is almost the entirety of his adult life.
He orders coffee in glass tumblers instead of cups and mugs so that he can hold them with his forearms and wrists. He has learnt how to use his phone with his elbows.
When he was younger, he was able to spend 6-7 hours outside his bed. Now-a-days, as old age mixes with his physical condition, he can spend only 3.
He chose to spend two out of those three hours with me on one precious Sunday. The other hour was reserved for his friends.
Francesc Granja, in those two hours became “the man who chose to live”.
Being with him sent shivers down my veins, made me feel vulnerable, broke down every ounce of surety in my being.
I have taken a lot of time to write this story because I was not sure which man I wanted to talk about. Is it the successful 32-year-old “corporate guy” who once used to be married? Is it “a man in the wheelchair”? Or is it “the man who chose to live”?
Francesc seemed most interested in talking to me about sexuality.
He asked me about my opinions on sex among specially abled people. I didn’t have an answer. I had never thought about it. He asked me whether people like him had sexual urges or not. I didn’t want to guess.
He confessed that after his body stopped responding completely, it remained a big reason for his anguish for many years. It bothered him, triggered him, kept him bitter. And then one day he met a woman.
And then they kissed. After many years, Francesc felt a current running through his mind. Yes. He felt a certain sexual energy but not in his body. It was an out of body experience if one might say so.
He remained in a state of bliss for some time after that. This was a new beginning. There was no bitterness, just a sense of being that he had failed to find since his accident. It made him think about others who were like him. He realized that feeling sexual is not just a physical condition. Suddenly all the restrictions he had created for himself because of his physical condition, disappeared.
He would talk to women again, expressing his likeness for them when he felt that way. When they smiled, touched his face, kissed him, it made him feel all sorts of things one feels. He felt bliss, more than once, in more ways than one.
He began talking about it one day. Then one day there were more people who wanted to listen to his experience. They wanted to experience the same thing. Then more people wanted to know about it, and he realized that he should write a book. And then he wrote it, and wrote again and again. He realized that he could write without needing to use his hands. He would record his voice and then someone would publish books.
There was always a way out of his limitations. He had started to smile more, and had started to influence people around him. He could meet his friends again, without feeling less. By empowering others, he was empowering himself.
He would still think about his wife at times. They had not talked since she left him. There was a sense of longing mixed with a sense of curiosity mixed with a slight bit of anger maybe. It is hard to decipher feelings at times when you feel so many things for a person. When you make a person that much more important in your life.
Then one day, he received an email from her. It was three years ago. She apologized and confessed her weakness. She was just a human being.
I asked Francesc, “Did you forgive her?”
And he replied, “There was nothing to forgive. When she sent that email, I realized how insignificant we are as human beings. I wanted her to be something other than that. Out of normal. But to be honest, if I was her, I would have perhaps done the same thing. In books people do great things for other people, life is different. It is not easy. It is not fiction.”
We kept looking at a distance and then after a stint of silence, he said, “Yes. I forgave her. Because I could understand her. It made me happier, more peaceful. I felt light.”
“What about your parents?”, I asked.
“They were always very supportive. They wished that it would have happened to them instead of me. Just like all parents are, you know.”
We had finished our coffee and he wanted to sit in the sun for a while. We walked for a bit, took a break, a breather of sorts.
There was a nice spot next to a tennis court where kids were practicing.
“If you could change one thing about your life before 1994, what would that be?” I asked.
“I would take it easy. I was your age. I felt a sense of high at all times. Everything went my way. I worked really hard, earned a lot of money. I only cared about success. When I look back, I could have cared a bit more about myself, about my family, about my wife, about my parents. All those things that we tend to ignore when everything is going our way. That’s how we are, that’s how most young people are, have always been.”
I didn’t interrupt because he wanted to continue talking.
“You know, that is what I tell young people. I look at them and they look like me from 1990. They are excited about success. It is a good thing. But that should not become the only goal. I know that I was driving faster than I should have that day. I was too high on my youth and success.”
He looked at the sun and closed his eyes, as if capturing some light for his soul. I did the same. It felt nice.
“Have you watched that movie? The one about mercy killing?”
“Which one was that again?”
“The sea inside. About a man not very different from you, who wanted the permission to die.”
“Oh yes. I have watched it many times. It is a great movie, one of my favorites.”
“What are your thoughts about that?”
“About his wish to die?”
“I can understand him, completely. He was in that state for 26 years and he was worse than me physically. It is hard. It has been 28 for me. It is really hard to keep living. And it was a beautiful movie. Great acting. But I can move my hands a little bit, unlike him.”
“Do you ever feel that way as well?”
“About being dead? No. Not yet. But I understand why someone would want that. And I want people to respect that. But I have not had that feeling yet. I love to live.”
I felt it right to stop talking at that point in time.
It was a lovely afternoon, perfect for taking pictures.
I took some pictures of him. Then we took a selfie because he wanted to. Then we hugged because we both wanted to, and that was it.
I wanted to walk to the sea afterwards. It was not far from where I was.
At the beach, I saw kids playing, running, laughing, shouting. There was a sense of excitement. Only in a few days there would be winter. Beaches would be empty, just water and sand. When the wind would blow, the sea would sing, “The man who chose to live”.