“When I first became Gail’s representative payee I got a lot of people out of the picture who didn’t need to be there. I was young then and I could tell people to go, and they did,” says Nick.
That was in 1981. Nick O’Connor had his own growing family and a promising commercial real estate career. Gail Walker was a lovely twenty-two-year-old mother of a six-month-old baby girl named Liema. Gail needed a responsible ally to assist in managing her disability benefits. Nick accepted the role of Gail’s citizen advocate.
Together, Nick and Gail have navigated some complex circumstances. Nick has protected Gail from drug dealers, robbers, abusive and self-serving acquaintances, bureaucracies and the people that work within them.
Gail and Nick have also experienced moments of great joy. They have shared three decades of family Christmas’. Their children spent summers together growing up. Nick recalls some unforgettable moments like helping Gail and her children plant a garden in the back of their inner-city home, and discovering that Gail could read. He learned this accidentally when Gail read him something from the Bible “perfectly.” Both families celebrated Liema’s accomplishment when she became president of her elementary school class. And Nick still feels proud to have taught Gail’s niece to read when she was in the third grade. Now he is encouraging Gail’s grandchildren to read and do well in school. Nick’s connection to Gail’s family continues to be a significant part of their relationship.
Real relationships are resilient. They are sometimes messy and require some risk on the part of those involved. Yet real relationships survive – not just over time, but through troubled times.
The need for protection is often lifelong for people who face discrimination because of disability. Therefore, the idea of a long-lasting relationship is something that citizen advocacy coordinators will frequently ask a potential advocate and protégé to consider. What we hope for, but cannot ask of them, is what Gail and Nick have now: a lifelong relationship. Seeing what these two people have come to mean to one another is, indeed, a great gift.
This spring Nick had double hip replacement surgery and was not able to drive himself to work. In the spirit of true relationship, Liema, now fully grown, drove her “godfather” around for several weeks while he recovered. Some of their drive-time conversations focused on how to continue to support Gail in the event that Nick’s involvement needs to change as he grows older. Some of the conversation was on a more immediate issue. Would Nick be recovered in time to give Liema away at her wedding in September? He was, and he did!
For now, Nick will continue to play a formal role in Gail’s life. He holds the money, which is important. But Nick’s informal role is far more important. He holds Gail’s story, which is priceless. It is a story in which he and Gail share a past, present, and the hopes of a bright future.