From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

Residuals from Roger

You can’t do anything about the length of your life, but you can do something about its width and depth.

Evan Esar

It was a beautiful Southern California day in the summer of 1988. It was the kind of day that makes you feel everything’s right with the world.

My oldest son, Wally, who has dyslexia and visual difficulties, called to say he’d enrolled at a local university. Fourteen-year-old David, who has learning disabilities, was on a plane to Canada where his chorus was on tour. And my daughter Angela, twenty, had just arrived in Iceland with a teenage missionary group that planned to build a Bible school. With her severe visual impairment, she felt honored to be on the team.

For the next month, the only child at home would be eighteen-year-old Roger. His fine voice and upbeat attitude overshadowed his learning and attention disorders. He was elated at being accepted in his high school’s elite choir and at landing a summer job.

As a single parent for eleven years, I couldn’t ask for more loving children. Money was tight, but thankfully I taught Spanish that summer and had signed my teaching contract for the fall. Yes, all was right with the world!

. . . Up until eleven o’clock that warm Saturday night.

Roger should have been home from work hours before. When the phone rang, I prayed it would be him.

“Your son is in a coma, critically injured,” the administrator from a hospital trauma center crisply informed me. “Come quickly.”

Roger had been riding on the back of a friend’s motorcycle when it collided with a van. Doctors said if he lived, which wasn’t likely, he probably wouldn’t regain consciousness.

“One thing is clear,” a neurologist stated. “He will never be a candidate for rehabilitation.”

But Roger triumphed over all their predictions when, fourteen months later, he was able to come home. With some support, he walked right through the front door. And while he was thrilled to return to his high school, he had to be placed in a different area: a special-education program.

Ironically, although he had trouble seeing, speaking, walking and using his right hand, he became extraordinarily concerned about other people. With all his challenges, everyone found his extrasensory caring absolutely amazing.

His memory and thinking skills were poor, and violent seizures sometimes caused even more cognitive loss. Nevertheless he’d still remember to buy a birthday card for an elderly neighbor or to bring extra food for a school friend who frequently forgot his lunch. Teachers greatly appreciated Roger’s voluntary help with students who had more severe disabilities than his own.

One day, a newspaper reporter who was writing about Roger’s miraculous milestones asked him, “What kind of job do you want to strive for?”

Although Roger often stuttered and took inordinate time to cobble together a sentence, this time he spoke clearly and succinctly.

“All I want is to some how really and truly help mankind,” he smoothly answered. “That’s what I want to accomplish.”

But Roger’s seizures were getting more severe, requiring frequent ambulance rides to emergency rooms. Now, four years after his accident, he needed to have someone with him at all times. One day, I had to fly out of town for a convention. I felt secure leaving Roger with Angela, David and a paid caregiver in the house.

But when I arrived at the hotel and the clerk told me I had an urgent call from home, my hands trembled dialing the number. The voice that answered was my oldest, Wally.

“Mom, Roger had a seizure . . . and he aspirated . . . fluid got in his lungs . . . and . . . he . . . he’s gone . . . he died.”

The grief was overwhelming; I prayed for guidance and understanding.

A few months later, in my sleep one night, God’s message ignited every cell in my brain and body. I jumped from the bed, ran to the kitchen, picked up a notepad and began writing. The noise awakened my daughter.

“Mom! Are you okay? It’s three in the morning,” Angela shouted.

“I know what I must do,” I answered quickly.

“Remember Roger’s ambition, his dream of doing something that will ‘help mankind’?” Angela nodded.

“Roger didn’t know that he had already begun,” I continued. “I’ve received dozens of letters and phone calls from people telling me how he made a difference in their lives. One of his friends had a lonely, grumpy grandpa who hardly ever talked. Apparently, Roger spent many hours with Gramps, listening to his war stories and laughing at his anecdotes. He made the grandfather feel important and cheerful. The family was very grateful.

“And the school-bus driver told me how Roger volunteered to help him every day, assisting students in wheelchairs on and off the bus, even though Roger himself limped and had poor vision.”

More of Roger’s acts of spontaneous kindness and assistance had been related by teachers and parents of his friends with disabilities. After reading some of them to Angela, I said, “What better way is there to honor Roger than to continue his work, carrying out his goal, his dream?”

No, I couldn’t help “mankind,” but certainly I could reach thousands of people.

During twenty-six years dealing with my children’s disabilities, I knew firsthand the frustrations of getting accessible transportation, housing and hotel rooms . . . the red tape involved in getting healthcare and insurance . . . the exasperating discussions to get appropriate educational services.

And I understood the challenge shared by disabled people everywhere: being treated with dignity and equality. I’d met and conquered many of these obstacles on behalf of my own children with disabilities—now, it was time to help others.

“Angela,” I said finally, “I’m going to start a newspaper column with information and inspiration that will help people with disabilities to achieve their goals, become more independent and achieve a higher quality of life.

“And I’ll volunteer to help people personally, in the same way that I’ve helped you children; our experiences will serve to help others with similar situations.”

Angela nodded. “You’re going to dedicate your life to this, aren’t you?” she asked, knowing the answer.

“Yes,” I answered. “It will take time, research, patience and all my energy to make it work. But I guess I’m committed to this challenge.”

A few months later, I started a weekly column, “Challenger,” in Southern California’s Orange County Register. Upbeat and positive, it covers disability-related topics about social, educational, healthcare and legal issues, sports, recreation, products, events, resources, care giving and volunteer opportunities that benefit people with disabilities.

Readers call and e-mail requests for help; often, it is overwhelming. Kyle is in jail and fears he has schizophrenia; he wants to be evaluated. Will I help find a doctor? Mike is seeking a support group for single fathers of special-needs kids. Can I recommend one or help him start one? Kim’s apartment manager won’t put in another disabled parking space. Will I talk to him? Mrs. Schmidt wonders if there’s a religious education class for her daughter with Down’s syndrome.

With each volunteer mission, I thank God for the opportunity to continue my son’s dream to “help mankind.” Surely, Roger is smiling.

Diane Rodecker

You are currently enjoying a preview of this book.

Sign up here to get a Chicken Soup for the Soul story emailed to you every day for free!

Please note: Our premium story access has been discontinued (see more info).

view counter

More stories from our partners