'Reality' show: 2 men, a wheelchair, friendship

January 14, 2012 - 1:05 PM
Two Men One Wheelchair

ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, JAN. 15, 2012 AND THEREAFTER - In this Monday, Dec. 12, 2011 photo, Mike Berkson, a sharp-witted, movie-obsessed 22-year-old college student, smiles as he watches a sports commentary show on television in Glenview, Ill. Berkson and long time aide and best friend, Tim Wambach, team up for a reality presentation that has Berkson declaring on stage "I have cerebral palsy." (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

SKOKIE, Ill. (AP) — In the hushed darkness of a crowded theater, the spotlight finds a young man in a wheelchair at center stage, his hands clenched, his head tilted, his motionless body leaning to one side. His first words are a declaration, uttered with a sense of urgency.

"I have," he says, "cerebral palsy."

A second man bounds out stage left, introduces himself and adds: "... And I don't."

So begins a one-of-a-kind reality show starring Mike Berkson, a sharp-witted, movie-obsessed 22-year-old college student, and Tim Wambach, his aide, champion and sidekick on and off over the last decade. They're on stage this night to celebrate their friendship, reminisce about shared experiences (the good, bad and unforgettable) and offer theatergoers what they call life lessons about perseverance.

It's familiar territory for Berkson, who has learned (with Wambach's help) to find laughs from the awkward stares of strangers, cope with a body where he can control just a single finger and fend off those darkest of days when he wants to end it all.

It's a story heavy on unvarnished truths and light on political correctness ("gimp" is in, "challenged" is out).

It's a story designed to motivate, educate and inspire.

But most of all, it's a buddy story.

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They bonded about 10 years ago in a suburban Chicago food court mall when Tim Wambach, recently hired to help a young Mike as his aide in elementary school, took him on their first solo adventure.

Mike wanted to eat at Taco Bell. Fine, thought Wambach, not realizing that feeding a crumbling-gooey concoction to a 12-year-old who can't use his arms or hands wouldn't be easy. Soon, there were tortilla bits on Mike's torso, lettuce in his lap, cheese in places where there shouldn't be cheese. Wambach was horrified.

Mike broke the ice. "There's no need to cry over spilled Taco Bell," he assured his exasperated helper. "It was quick-witted, boom, out of the box," Wambach recalls. "I was hooked." (The scene, substituting yellow Post-It Notes as food, is replicated in their show.)

It was the start of an enduring friendship that has transformed Wambach from aide to unofficial member of the Berkson family. "We think of Tim as our lot-older brother," says David Berkson, Mike's identical twin, who is able-bodied.

Mike, born two minutes after David, was briefly deprived of oxygen and diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a disorder that affects body movements and coordination. He was not expected to talk, but talk he does — albeit with some difficulty — about everything.

His words sometimes sputter out in a spray, so he jokingly warns the audience: "People in rows A through J: I apologize in advance" and if that's not good enough, he adds with a gleeful grin, 'Duck!'"

Berkson and Wambach say they came up with the idea for their show — "Handicap This!" — to dispel myths about cerebral palsy and disabilities and encourage others to overcome obstacles. But there are personal reasons, too: The show satisfies Wambach's yearning to be a motivational speaker. And it gives a voice to someone who often is ignored.

"People don't think he can necessarily accomplish a lot," Wambach says. "Physically he really can't, but mentally it's overdrive. He's got more between his ears than anyone I know. He really enjoys proving people wrong."

Berkson compares himself to a blind person whose other senses become sharper. "My mental state is not better or stronger, but it just fires a little quicker or goes a little faster than the average person," he says. Or as he tells the audience: "My body is in a wheelchair, my mind is not."

That's clear from the get-go in their 80-minute show.

"Within the first 60 seconds, you see Mike as Mike and not in a wheelchair," Wambach says, and the audience — about 650 people this night — "immediately knows Mike is intelligent and funny."

Berkson insists he can mine laughs from the most painful situations and he has plenty of material, having endured about 12 surgeries, including having two 18 -inch rods implanted in his spine so his organs won't be crushed.

As part of the show, Berkson offers a Top 9 tongue-in-cheek list of advantages of living with cerebral palsy. Among them: Never wear out a pair of shoes. Always have a place to sit. And one that seems funny, but is uncomfortably true — lower expectations.

Sometimes, though, there are those rare people who see him for what he is. One eighth grade history teacher, for instance, helped Berkson by rigging a light at the top of a pole, attaching it to the back of his wheelchair and installing a button on the arm rest. Berkson was able to answer questions in class by using his left index finger — the only one he can control — to press down and turn on the light.

This night, Berkson demonstrates, concentrating intently, knowing that maneuvering his finger into the proper position is a monumental achievement.

Watching in a front row is Denis Berkson, his teary-eyed father. "I'm pulling for him," he says "I'm rooting for him. I don't want him to be disappointed."

He isn't. When Berkson turns on the light, the audience erupts in applause

On stage, Mike Berkson looks triumphant. Tim Wambach beams.

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Those are happy memories to savor. The story of their 10-year friendship also has a raw side — for both men.

That moment is recreated as they recall the anguishing day in Berkson's freshman year when he told Wambach that his total dependence on others — he needs help eating, dressing, even scratching his head — made him so depressed, he wanted to commit suicide.

"I'm so sick of it, I want to kill myself, but I can't," he says in the scene.

Wambach — now 37 — then reveals that as a 20-year old, he dropped out of college after suffering bouts of depression that made him feel the same way, but gradually he worked his way through them. Wambach says it's his way of showing that everyone has problems.

After the show, Wambach explains that Berkson also told him if he could harm himself, then of course, he wouldn't want to because he wouldn't be in the same situation. "We both stopped, looked at each other and started laughing," Wambach recalls. "Here's a body that won't allow him to do anything, but it saves him from himself."

And yet Berkson says he sometimes still feels that way and believes it's important to address it in their show. "I don't think of depression as being private," he says. "There's nothing about me that's private."

Berkson's father, Denis, says those disclosures hurt.

"To hear my son still has those thoughts was terribly sad for me," he says. "Part of me wanted to yell and scream. But the more I thought about it, the more I realize that everybody's life is their own."

That's where Wambach's friendship helps.

"In my situation, it's hard to figure out what's genuine and what's not," Berkson says. "I know Tim's genuine. ... He helps me see the good in things. Sometimes it's as simple as making me laugh when I'm in sick or in pain."

There's a different reward for Wambach.

"What I get out of the friendship ... is helping Mike see things he wouldn't necessarily see or do things he wouldn't necessarily do," he says. "And the show took an idea that we had and turned into something that's opening people's eyes."

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They've dubbed themselves two men and a wheelchair, but their show is really about the journey of a disabled kid with enormous smarts who grows up — and the friend who has helped him navigate along the way.

Still, Berkson says Wambach can only do so much to make life easier.

"I've come to terms with the big stuff that I'll never be able to do but I have yet to come to terms with the daily everyday things I can't do," he says. "When I wake up in the morning, I know it's going to be somewhat difficult. I know I'm going to get from point A to point B, but what unforeseen obstacles are going to arise?"

Berkson's preferred retreat from frustration is the movies — at least one a day at home ("Pulp Fiction" is a favorite) and at least one a week at the theater, often with Wambach at his side. Once, while recovering from spinal surgery, Berkson left the hospital on a gurney and his father and uncle rolled him down Michigan Avenue, potholes and all, so he wouldn't miss a movie he wanted to see.

"It's escapism," Berkson explains. "It also gives me a common ground to do something with people and to talk about something with people that has nothing to do with my disability." He knows some folks like films they can identify with, but he's the opposite. "I want movies to make me forget how I'm feeling," he says.

Near the show's end, Berkson introduces what he calls a movie he dreams about at night.

The lights fade, the strains of k.d. lang singing "Hallelujah" fill the theater and a young man in a wheelchair appears, his hands splayed, his body stiff. It seems to be Berkson, until something unexpected happens:

He rises, walks to the center of the stage, and embraces his girlfriend. It's David Berkson, Mike's identical twin.

David says he first thought this scene sounded too sentimental for his brother but they decided the show should have a serious message that disabled people "want the same thing everybody else wants. ... We all have the same hopes and fears."

So is this Mike's dream? Yes. And no.

"In the spirit of my wanting to be like everybody else," he says, "it is. The details aren't the same, but the message is."

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Berkson and Wambach receive a standing ovation.

They've performed at middle and high schools, on college campuses and for the public. They're now trying to find a sponsor for a national college tour

Their fans include Carl Ratner, an associate professor of voice at Western Michigan University, who attended an earlier show.

"It broke down walls," he says. "It wasn't so much the intellectual content. It was the emotional connection with Mike and Tim. I think you go through life and you see people and you just think that perhaps it's better to stay in my little group and they stay in their little group. This show made it clear how we're all losing by not connecting with all different kinds of people."

Their show is part of a larger partnership they have that includes a foundation that helps others with disabilities. Wambach also has written a short book chronicling their experiences.

He says he knows one day he'll move on, have his own family and do something else but expects Mike will always be in his life and their show, for now, will go on.

"I don't see any end to our friendship,'" he says. "We'll be forever linked. I've kind of accepted that this is our wave and we're going to ride it as long as we can and wherever it takes us."

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Online:

Handicap This productions: http://handicapthis.com/

Keep on Keeping On volunteers: http://www.keeponkeepingon.org/

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Sharon Cohen is a Chicago-based national writer for The Associated Press. She can be reached at scohen(at)ap.org