Another Death

It is a truism since the dawn of man that a huge cost of getting old is the incalculable pain of losing friends. I have lost two dear friends in less than three weeks, one of whom I want to write about at length. His name is Dr. Robert Slayton, Professor Emeritus of History at Chapman University and for the last fifteen years of his life, paralyzed by the same rare disorder responsible for my own paralysis, transverse myelitis. Dr. Slayton read the book I wrote about my own ordeal way back in 2008 and picked up the phone and called me. We began meeting for lunch about once month at a Panera’s halfway between Chapman and LA and became fast friends. Though he was from the Bronx and I grew up in a small oil town in Oklahoma, we had a lot in common: paralysis, writing, and endlessly curious minds.

Birds flying

Bob’s condition was much worse than mine. Initially, his myelitis was not specifically transverse, i.e., across the spine, but down the left side of his body. He was a hemiplegic, with both his left arm and leg without feeling or function. This didn’t seem to slow him down a bit. He continued teaching at Chapman, writing one book after another, and driving his custom-made Honda Element and lowering his power chair with a power lift and zipping across the Panera parking lot. He never complained about his condition. Not once. He complained about the accessibility problem at Chapman and the state of American politics, constantly, but never about the paralysis.

As all paralytics know, this is the kind of fellow paralytic you want to hang out with. The whiners and complainers and self-pitiers can sap your energy and erode your spirit. Except for pushing tables around to fit in two wheelchairs, one a monster power chair, paralysis rarely came up in our chats. Usually I just ate my panini and listen to him tell me about the historical nuances of 20 Century America. I could have gotten college credit for those lunches. In turn I often spoke to his class in “The History of Everyday Life.”

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Then something awful happened. The right side of his body started losing strength and mobility and soon he only had the use of his right arm. The doctors kept giving this new condition the name of a different esoteric neuroimmune disorder – there are many much rarer than transverse myelitis – but ended up apparently just calling it TM. This caused a huge change in Dr. Slayton’s life. His loving wife, Rita, couldn’t manage his daily care. No longer able to teach, he retired from Chapman, sold both their condo and his zippy car, and moved into a skilled nursing facility. Again, I kept waiting to hear a litany about his miserable fate, but never a word. He did mention, only once, that he had to keep busy because he was surrounded by zombies, but that was it.

What was so remarkable -- he kept researching and writing at a pace of a 25-year-old associate professor shooting for tenure. During his final years, he wrote op-ed pieces, book reviews, and books – award-winning books. His most recognized work, written much earlier, was “Empire Statesman,” a highly-lauded biography of Al Smith, the first Catholic to run for President. Deep into his paralysis, he wrote another award-winning book on the New York “Ashcan School,” called “Beauty in the City. In his worst state, he wrote a spy novel about Russia and Ukraine. The last time I talked to him, days before his demise, he was elated to announce that a book he wrote on the depiction on New York in American film had just landed a publisher. I kept shaking my head at his amazing capacity and enthusiasm for work.

Dr. Robert Slayton died from sepsis brought on by influenza. He developed septic shock and died within hours of reaching the ER. He was 72 and a giant of a man.

About the Author - Allen Rucker

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.

Allen Rucker

The opinions expressed in these blogs are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $10,000,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement by, ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.