Morris, by Chris Kuell

“Jesus Christ, why did Chris have to die?”

That question, and other similar things, have been going through my head since the night I got the news that Chris Kuell had died. I had an article under consideration at Breath & Shadow, and it was taking much longer than usual for Chris to get back to me. He also had not responded to the two query letters I’d sent to see if he’d received the article.

So, I went to the Ability Maine website to see if there was anything going on. That’s when I saw the post about Chris’ death. One of the last emails I’d gotten from Chris was back in December. He emailed because he hadn’t received my response to a contract, and he thought Covid might have kicked my ass. A couple months later, it’s Chris who’s taken.

Chris told me about Morris in an email he’d sent earlier that same month.

I told him his book sounded like something I want to read and that I put it on my to-read list. I was eager to get to it. But I’m a slow reader and by the time I got to Morris, Chris was gone.

Now that I’ve finished Morris, I want to tell Chris how much I love this book, how much it means to me, how much I appreciate that someone finally wrote a book like this, someone who truly gets it and isn’t just pretending to understand what it’s like to be a person with disabilities.

I also want to tell him how honored I am that a couple scenes in Morris were inspired by works of mine. There’s a police detainment scene that’s similar to the police detainment I wrote about in my article Walking with Cerebral Palsy.  Chris’ fictional cop even says the same thing that my nonfictional cop had said.

Another scene had a description of how a combat veteran still sees the war years later as he goes about his life. The description of this, how it happens, how it works, and what it’s like, was so similar to how my character in my still unpublished story Memories of War continued to see the war years later.

Although Chris didn’t buy that story, he had seen it a few years ago. Those descriptions in my story had come from my own experiences with flashbacks and the reliving of things, that often have me screaming in the middle of the night. My descriptions were not created from research on the subject. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure no one could have described it that way without having read my work. Other people experience such things, but I think they would describe it their own way.

Morris is a collection of stories, but I don’t think “collection” is the right word to describe this book. Though each story in Morris could stand on its own, all of the stories are connected, and Morris reads more like a novel, with each story being a chapter.

It starts in the Vietnam War era. Johnny comes home from the war in a wheelchair. He goes through a crisis stage, heavy drinking, anger, wondering how he’s going to get through life, hating how people see him and feeling that he’s not a man, or that the woman he loves, Allison, doesn’t see him as a man. All very accurate feelings, that I often feel myself.

I think every person with disabilities needs someone like Johnny’s uncle Ken. Someone who knows we can do things, who gives us the opportunity to do things, and is willing to make the accommodations so that it is possible for us to do things. The opposite of people who hold us back, treat us like children, give us reasons for why we can’t do things and why we shouldn’t bother trying.

Whatever our disabilities are, we can do all kinds of shit. The problem isn’t that we can’t do things, the problem is the opportunities are often not there, and people are often unwilling to make the accommodations. We can do things, but we often have to do them differently and it can often take us more time to do it than it would take a nondisabled person.

But we can do it. In our own ways, in our own times.

Uncle Ken believed in Johnny, and he gave him an opportunity with accommodations. Uncle Ken owned a furniture shop, where he made furniture, and he modified his shop so Johnny would be able to work there and build furniture himself.

While working for Uncle Ken, Johnny is struck with the idea to build a guitar for Allison. This guitar links the stories in Morris together, as it changes hands and is carried from place to place, through the generations.

Jesus Christ, why did Chris have to die? The stories in Morris are brilliant. They are amazing. They say things that need to be said, that people need to hear, to understand. Much of it is things that I have tried to say myself, many times, but I’m easily brushed off. I don’t think people brushed off Chris so easily.

The author notes at the beginning and the end of this book make it clear that Chris did not expect he was going to die anytime soon. He had plans to write and publish more books. He was the guy we needed in our corner. He was a fierce advocate for people with disabilities.

He understood the pain, the anger, the exclusion, the loneliness, the struggle. But he also understood that people with disabilities can have happy lives too. All of that, and more, is communicated in Morris.

There were times when I had thought to ask Chris, how was it that he seemed to have it all together? How was it that he didn’t seem beaten down like me?

I feel that I got two answers to those questions from Morris.

After Brian, who’s condition is more severe than Tony’s, helps Tony improve his guitar playing, Tony asks Brian how he has it all together. Brian, who doesn’t talk much, tells Tony, “I play the blues, I don’t sing them.”

I take that to mean Brian doesn’t have it together any better than Tony does, and he feels all the things that Tony feels. But instead of expressing those feelings with words, Brian expresses those feelings by playing the guitar.

Later, Isaac tells Tony how his anger, if he doesn’t keep it inside, will result in him losing the woman he loves. Isaac knew, because he had been there himself.

The closing chapter of Morris filled me with hope.