20: The Most Important Day of My Life

20: The Most Important Day of My Life

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: For Mom, with Love

The Most Important Day of My Life

You are never given a wish, without also being given the power to make it come true.

~Richard Bach

“He has suffered brain damage,” the doctor gravely told my mother after I was born. “We’re not sure about the extent, but he will never walk or speak. He’s probably severely retarded, and I suggest you find a suitable institution in which to place him.”

That’s what people did with their developmentally disabled children in 1960. They called them “retarded” and they put them in institutions. Mom’s response was a stubborn determination to prove him wrong.

Due to a prenatal injury, I was born with a subdural hematoma on the top right side of my head. It was the size of an orange, and the blood put pressure on my brain. Doctors assumed the injury was severe enough to significantly limit my muscular and cognitive functions. They had not, however, met a mother so fiercely devoted to her children.

My mischievous four-year-old brother had played a role in this saga. He had asked why the baby hadn’t arrived as scheduled. Mom had shrugged and told him I just wasn’t ready.

“What would make him ready, Mommy?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “Perhaps if I slipped and fell…”

You can guess what happened next. Billy spread magazines all over the tile floor. Then he yelled “Mommy, Mommy, come quick!”

Mom flew through the door, slipped on the magazines, and fell. I was born the next day.

The next year should have been one of firsts, but mine came slower than average. I lacked any muscle tone. The lump gradually melted away, and portraits show a healthy child. What you can’t see are Mom’s hands supporting me from behind because I couldn’t sit up. Although my motor skills were lacking, my cognitive abilities convinced her I was normal.

Mom began to exercise my flaccid limbs. She cross-patterned left arm to right leg, reversed, and repeated after each diaper change. Challenging me to push and pull against her pressure, she coaxed my muscles to work. Progress was slow, but she persevered.

Several trips to “crippled children” hospitals didn’t convince specialists of any progress. At eighteen months, I refused to speak to doctors. This convinced them I was also mentally disabled. During one visit, after the doctor left the room, I asked, “Go home now?”

Accelerating the “workouts” earned dividends. At age two I could sit up and scoot around on my behind, yet I didn’t crawl. A torturous device was added: the “standing box.” Locked into an upright position, I screamed for freedom. Mom had to reassure the neighbors I wasn’t being abused. Gradually, my leg muscles strengthened. My brain learned balance. After each session, she would hold me close, reassuring me I would someday walk. She was gentle but firm in her resolve.

For six months this device was my daily nightmare, but it worked. One day, as I was mimicking TV cartoon characters, I jumped up and started running around the room. Laughing and jumping around, I called out to Mom. She watched silently from the kitchen doorway, nodding through a veil of tears. Finally, her little Patrick had defied the “experts.”

Although I don’t remember this specific moment, I’m told this bright March day became the most important of my life.

Mom took me back to the hospital, where I walked for the stunned specialists. Her dedication had trumped their expertise. They remained convinced I was mentally deficient because I still refused to speak to them. Mom’s disdain had evidently rubbed off on me; it would be a while before I spoke to a doctor.

Although the doctors stubbornly disagreed, my parents enrolled me in preschool. Already able to read and write, I excelled. Therapy improved my slurred speech. I grew into a happy and healthy little boy.

When I reached third grade, I did not get along with my teacher. I decided she was a worm-faced monster. She was mean and insulting. I lost interest in school.

“He’s retarded, Mrs. Coomer,” Mrs. Battle-Axe said. “He doesn’t belong in my class.”

My mother responded fiercely, in front of the school principal and psychologist. “No, he’s not,” she exclaimed. “You’re the one who’s retarded. Patrick just doesn’t like you, and I don’t either. He’s plenty smart enough to succeed, but he needs someone who inspires him. You are right about one thing: he doesn’t belong in your class.”

I was transferred into a class taught by a young lady who was sweet and patient. My grades soared.

As I grew into adolescence, my legs grew stronger. I played basketball, but my upper body remained weak. I ran twenty miles daily on my high school cross-country team, which won two state championships. An honor roll student, I wrote for the school newspaper and participated in several clubs.

During my first year of college, I was editor of our award-winning student newspaper. Mom urged me to keep writing when I left journalism. She encouraged boldness, refused to accept excuses, and cheered every success.

Ornery yet fun, Mom was intelligent and opinionated. Her love of history and literature inspired me to read the classics. She respected diversity and resented bigotry. As our political beliefs diverged, our debates were spirited but respectful. Her grasp of history demanded I argue with facts, not rhetoric. We became close friends, even during some rough stretches. Although she could make me angry, I knew her love for me was steadfast. Many who were diagnosed as I was were indeed forgotten. Because of her, I’ve challenged my own children to never say, “I can’t.”

Mom passed away nine years ago, but not before I provided my parents with plenty of grandchildren, including my first child, Anna, who even gave them a great-grandson.

Knowing Mom would be angry if I melted with grief at her passing, I coached my son’s basketball team that evening. Later, on my nightly walk, each step was a memorial to her devotion. Tears of gratitude mixed with the cold Oregon rain, and I lost track of my lap count. It seemed fitting to walk for hours. It was the best memorial I could give her.

At her service, I recited Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Less Traveled.”

Thanks, Mom… the road you chose has made all the difference.

~Patrick B. Coomer

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