A couple of weeks ago we marked the fourth anniversary of my mother’s passing. She led a wonderful life as a disabled person. Allow me to share some memories with you.
One September morning in 1969, when I was only five years old, I bounded out of my bedroom expecting to find Mom preparing breakfast. Instead, Dad was sitting at the kitchen table, looking quite haggard. But he was a shift worker, so although his appearance that morning was not reassuring, it wasn’t particularly unsettling either.
"She’s in the hospital. Broke her neck."
“Fell down some stairs.”
That's all I remember of that day.
We lived in a small town without a proper hospital of its own. So whenever we visited Mom for the next year we had to drive an hour to the Big Hospital in Bangor or five hours to the Really Big Hospital in Boston. Toward the end of her time away she lived in a convalescent home in Bangor, where she was drilled in the essential skills of surviving as a quadriplegic in the year 1970.
My memories of these events are few, but I vividly recall two aspects of my initial visit with Mom after her accident. First, she had some sort of a steel rod protruding from the top of her partially shaved head. I’m sure this was a traction device used to stabilize her fractured cervical spine. That was disturbing. Second, my mom had a genuine smile on her face when she saw me, just like she always had, and she spoke to me with that same comforting, maternal voice that she always did, as if nothing scary was happening at all.
Although that visit must have been traumatic for me as a five-year-old boy, kids are emotionally resilient. I cannot imagine how difficult this conversation must have been for a 35-year-old mother of three who had gone from a vibrant young woman to a permanently crippled quadriplegic, literally overnight. From where did she summon the strength to offer her youngest son, in a convincing manner, the very same expressions and tone of voice that I had missed only a few mornings earlier at breakfast? And it worked! I didn’t care much for the hardware apparently screwed into her head, but it was clear to me that this was indeed my mom, pretty much unchanged in the ways that mattered most to me.
To a child, having a mother in a wheelchair was a bit of a novelty. She was never ashamed or self-conscious in public, and so neither were we. But there were these extra tasks associated with her movements. Each day of her life was sandwiched around the early event of “getting her up”, and the late event of “putting her to bed”. On those days when she ventured from the house there were a myriad of additional movement tasks required to get her to where she was going and then back home again. Since we were so accustomed to completing these tasks, they became chores, something like washing the dishes or sweeping the floor. We completed these chores without giving them much thought. Other than her unique needs, she was a mom like any other mom. She took care of us, guided us, reveled in our successes, and shared in our sorrows.
To her credit, my mother never complained about her lot in life. She espoused no particular theory of good living that she adopted after reading a book or listening to a talk. She never gave us lectures about how well she was overcoming her obstacles. She didn’t subject us to sermons about the advantages and disadvantages of living life one way versus living life another way. She didn’t even acknowledge that her positive attitude in the face of great challenges was anything above and beyond the normal. She simply led by example.
Oddly enough, freakishly enough really, my major MS lesion load is at the same cervical spine location as my mother’s injury was. Therefore, my disability is steadily becoming more similar to hers as I continue to progress. I’m sure it saddened her to see this happening to me near the end of her life. But if I am able to match her courage and strength of character going forward then I will be honoring her memory in a very special way.
If asked to summarize what I learned from my mother in a single thought, it would be this. No matter what happens, just dust yourself off, adjust to the new realities of your life, and carry on. Whenever possible, do this with a smile.