Bedridden but bountiful life

By Dionne Christian

For 44 years, James Lynch lay in Tauranga Hospital, unable to move or utter more than a few words at a time. Given this, it doesn't sound as if Lynch's life would make great material for a play, but his is a remarkable story which proves that old chestnut "life is what you make it".

From his hospital bed, Lynch befriended All Blacks, charmed politicians, including Prime Minister Helen Clark, played hospital matchmaker and inspired dozens of others who marvelled at his serenity, humour and zest for life.

Now theatre newcomer Pauline Grogan brings his story to the stage in 500 Letters.

Interwoven with her own equally astonishing life story, 500 Letters is a one-woman show which combines music and song, drama and comedy, shadow puppetry and old-fashioned story-telling.

It started life as a book called A View from Within, based on the hundreds of letters Grogan, a long-time friend of James Lynch, received after his death in 2001.

The letters followed a newspaper advertisement she placed asking if anyone knew Lynch. Grogan was amazed at the ways he made his mark on the lives of so many.

"James Lynch was a remarkable man who never seemed bitter about what had happened to him and never, ever complained," Grogan says.

He had been completely immobile since the early 1930s following a mysterious accident on board the naval ship HMS Veronica. The story goes that Lynch, who was on a school trip, suffered extensive nerve damage after trying to help a sailor who had been electrocuted.

Grogan has been unable to verify the incident but in any event, the then 14-year-old was bedridden for life. Initially Lynch lived at home before his ageing family admitted him to hospital.

"He had an attitude of thankfulness about him and managed to make sense of total disability and incapacity and turned it into a life of reaching out and touching other people's lives."

She recalls he played matchmaker for some of the hospital staff who, after the wedding ceremonies and before the reception, made a point of visiting and thanking Lynch. When their children were born, they brought the new babies in to lie on his stomach so he could meet them.

"James loved rugby and always watched the All Blacks, so more than a few players popped in to see him during his time in hospital. He met Helen Clark, who remembered him years after they met.

"I approached her at a book signing after his death and said, 'Excuse me, do you remember the man who had been in Tauranga Hospital for 44 years?' and she instantly replied, 'You're talking about James Lynch'."

Grogan met Lynch in 1986 after her then 10-year-old daughter collapsed at school following a stroke and became an outpatient at Tauranga Hospital. A friend asked Grogan to visit Lynch who had been hospitalised since 1957.

It was a turning point for Grogan who marvelled at Lynch's ability to listen and offer sage advice. He quickly became a mentor for Grogan, who has had a life as active as her friend's was still.

She grew up in a large but sheltered Catholic family and entered a convent when she was 17. Twelve years later, Grogan was at the centre of a scandal involving a priest and was expelled from the convent with a handful of belongings and nowhere to go. A teacher, she married a year later and had four children in as many years.

Lynch inspired Grogan to return to university and write her 1996 autobiography Beyond the Veil about her convent experiences. The book was the subject of a TVNZ documentary.

He continues to inspire her from beyond the grave. Grogan says his memory has given her the courage - at age 60 - to take to the stage for the first time.

Just as Lynch was a good teacher, she has found another mentor whom she originally inspired. 500 Letters is directed by Margaret-Mary Hollins, who Grogan taught at intermediate.

"I have had two great teachers in my life and Pauline was one of them," says Hollins. "She made learning fun and you just wanted to go to school because of her. She was such a creative teacher who sang to us and read to us."

"But we did do the curriculum," Grogan reassures, "just along with everything else ... "

* 500 Letters at the Herald Theatre, Oct 20-30

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