“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 “retarded” children back then. Mom’s response was loud and littered with colorful suggestions as to where he could stuff his medical degree. Muttering furiously, she walked out of his office with a stubborn determination to prove him wrong.
The problem was due to the large subdural hematoma on the top right side of my head. It was the size of an orange, covering portions of the frontal, parietal, occipital and temporal lobes of my brain. The doctors assumed the injuries to these areas was severe enough to significantly limit my body’s movement and cognitive functions. Given medical knowledge of the brain in 1960, their diagnoses are understandable. However, they had never met a woman so fiercely devoted to her children.
While I’m loathe to suggest it’s his fault, my mischievously-brilliant older brother may have had something to do with my being born a two-headed monster. At four-years-old, Billy asked why the baby hadn’t arrived as scheduled, on our oldest brother Johnny’s sixth birthday. Mom shrugged and told him I wasn’t just ready.
“What would make him ready Mommy?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” a likely tired Mommy replied. “Perhaps if I slipped and fell or something.”
You can guess what happened next. Billy spread magazines all over the 1950s era tile floor. Then he yelled “Mommy Mommy come quick!”
Mommy flies through the door. Mommy slips on magazines. Mommy falls down. Hard. Baby Patrick is 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 hematoma gradually melted away, and studio portraits later show a seemingly-normal baby. What you can’t see are Mom’s hands under the blanket, holding me upright from behind because I couldn’t sit up. While my motor skills were lacking, my cognitive convinced Mom I was just “a bit lazy”.
Mom began to exercise my flaccid limbs. She cross-patterned left arm to right leg, reversed, and continued for several minutes after changing each diaper. Then she would pull my arms toward her, willing my muscles to work. She challenged me to push and pull against her pressure. No matter if my progress was negligible, she refused to give up.
Countless trips to specialists at what were called “crippled children” hospitals were followed by even more determined “workouts” with Mom. Noting every bit of progress, she was constantly looking for more exercises to try. As I neared 18 months, I refused to speak to doctors. Perhaps I could feel Mom’s disdain for their doomsday attitudes. This further convinced them I was developmentally disabled as well. During one such visit, after the doctor left the room, I asked, “Go home now Mommy?”
By age two, Mom’s efforts were earning dividends, but I still didn’t walk. I could sit up, and had taken to “scooting” around on my behind. But I didn’t crawl; my upper body muscles were still too weak. Mom believed that with the proper exercises, my leg muscles would eventually support my body weight. She found a new torture device in the form of a “standing box”. Locked into an upright position, Mom would close the bedroom door to my screaming pleas to be out of this prison. Each day for what seemed an eternity, she willed my leg muscles to grow stronger. Forced into a standing position, my brain learned balance and my leg muscles gradually strengthened. I would make such a horrible racket she had to reassure the neighbors I wasn’t being abused. Still, I didn’t walk. After a prescribed time, she would release me, hold me close and speak soothingly until I calmed. She encouraged me to bear with it, told me I was making progress and would someday walk. Gentle but firm, she retained her resolve.
For six months or more, the standing box was my daily nightmare, but it was working. One day as I sat watching cartoons, I was mimicking the characters. Suddenly, Mom tells me, I just stood up and started running around if it were the most natural thing. Yelling and laughing as I realized I was upright on my own, I called out to Mom. She walked out of the kitchen and just leaned against the doorway, nodding through a veil of joyful tears. Finally, her little Patrick had defied the “experts”. Although I don’t remember this specific moment, this bright March day became the most important one of my life.
Later that week, Mom marched me back to the doctors who had given her my diagnosis of doom. To their amazement, I walked down the corridor and back. Her dedication had trumped their expertise. They were still convinced I was mentally deficient because I still refused to speak to them. Perhaps Mom’s disdain had rubbed off on me, because it would be a while before I spoke to a doctor.
Dad’s mother was ecstatic to hear I was walking. Watching proudly from a window in the hospital where she fought her losing battle with cancer, she saw me walking with Dad in the hospital gardens below. Grandma had prayed for this, and a few weeks after seeing me romp around like a normal child, she passed away.
Although doctors stubbornly advised against it, my parents enrolled me in pre-school. I could already read and write. As Mom believed, I excelled in school. My voice was slurred and I went to speech therapy until the third grade. Other than that, I was a normal, happy and healthy little boy.
When I entered a new school for third grade, I had Betty Battle Axe for a teacher. We did not get along. I saw her as a wart-infested, garlic-breath, worm-faced monster. She was mean, and she was insulting. I lost interest in school. Mrs. Axe’s reason: “He’s retarded, Mrs. Coomer. He doesn’t belong in my class.” My mother’s response to this teacher, in front of the school principal and psychologist: “No, you’re the one who’s retarded,” she said to the shocked group. “Patrick just doesn’t like you. He’s plenty smart enough to succeed, but he needs a teacher smart enough to inspire him. You are right about one thing: he doesn’t belong in your class.” It was agreed I would be transferred into a class taught by a young, attractive lady who was sweet and patient. That did the trick, and I made good grades the rest of the year.
My legs were strong as I grew into my teenage years. I played basketball with my classmates, but my upper body remained weak. Entering high school, I joined the cross country team. We ran 20 miles a day, and Mom loved watching me run. Even though I was the seventh member of a seven-member team, I never came in last. We won two state championships and were runners-up the other two years. My grades earned me honor roll status, and I loved to read and write from an early age. It seemed Mom’s early devotion had filtered into me, because I excelled at nearly everything I attempted.
During my first year of college, I was editor of our award-winning student newspaper. Mom encouraged boldness, refused to accept excuses, and cheered my every success. When I left their nest, my parents remained my biggest fans. Soon after, they were rewarded with their first grandchild, a beautiful girl we named Anna in honor of Mom’s grandmother. As I advanced into my 20s, I came to appreciate my parents’ wisdom. Through Mom I learned to love history. She encouraged me to keep writing when I left journalism. Whatever challenge confronted me, I knew never to say “I can’t do it” in her presence.
Mom was ornery but fun, intelligent and opinionated. She respected diversity and resented bigotry. As our political beliefs grew divergent, our debates were spirited yet respectful. Mom’s 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.
Eight years ago this month, Mom left this world. She had persevered through several illnesses in her lifetime that should have killed her, but survived to see her first great granchild in his toddler stage. I lived several states away at the time, and couldn’t be with her when she died. Knowing she would be angry if I melted away in my grief, I kept a normal schedule that day, coaching my son’s basketball team that evening. Afterward, I went for my nightly walk. Each step I took was a memorial to her refusal to believe I couldn’t do it. My tears of gratitude mixed with the cold Oregon rain and I lost track of my lap count after an hour. It seemed only right to walk until I couldn’t any longer, out of respect for what she had accomplished over 50 years ago.
I shudder to think of what might have been. Many who were diagnosed as I was were placed in institutions and forgotten. My words cannot begin to express my appreciation for Mom’s devotion. Perhaps because of her, I’ve always challenged my own children to never say “I can’t”. My kids roll their eyes when I tell them they’re capable of anything they set their minds to. I often recite a verse by Richard Bach, that Mom once read to me: “You are never given a wish, without also being given the power to make it come true“¹.
¹Richard Bach, The Bridge Across Forever: A True Love Story
Copyright ©2014 by Patrick B. Coomer. May not be used without author’s written permission.
Doc didn’t just emerge from the barn that evening, he exploded from it, like a greyhound in its frenzied rush to catch the rabbit. He cradled his tattered straw hat, turned upside-down to hold his precious bounty, as he scrambled down the path to show us what he had found.
As he reached the four of us and excitedly showed off the eggs in his hat, I ducked behind a tree. A 12-year-old’s giggling spree would have easily ruined the plot, and to that point, everything was working to plan.
Doc migrated to southeastern Arizona from the midwest in the early 1970s, settling into a cabin on a small ranch in the vista-rich Sulphur Springs Valley. My father and I occupied the other cabin, and the main house belonged to Ron and Miss Pat. Doc, Ron and Dad all worked together at a nearby juvenile correction center. Nearly every evening we’d sit outside enjoying the scenery, while I played with the dogs and the adults sipped their burgundy. Doc was a nice guy, a brilliant psychiatrist who had befriended Ron and Pat before they all moved west.
We thought it was passing fancy when Doc had Salvador, the ranch hand, start refurbishing the barn. First he had the horse stalls spiffed up, and he brought Ol’ Blue, a stately 15-year-old Appaloosa, to enjoy retirement at the ranch. A few months later, a pig named Myrtle joined the cast. But when he asked Salvador to spruce up the chicken coop, we started wondering if Doc was changing occupations. Salvador had one word to describe his boss: loco.
“Doc seems to be trading in his shingle for a pitchfork,” Dad told Ron one evening.
Pat had somehow tamed the rocky land between the barn and the cabins into a respectable vegetable garden, and now Doc had his growing menagerie. As soon as the Poultry Taj Mahal was complete, Doc proudly brought home a baker’s dozen of fluffy yellow chicks.
Oh, how Doc spoiled these birds! Only the finest feed would suffice. Each day, I would hear his International Scout rumbling down the road about a mile away. A few minutes later, he’d roll into the ranch. Then he’d go inside and change out of his work clothes into his overalls and hat, grab a beer and head up to the barn to check on his “babies”. We were all amused by Doc’s dedication. Neighboring ranchers took to calling him “Farmer Doc”.
Weeks passed, and the feisty chicks grew rapidly. Doc couldn’t determine the sex of the birds, as roosters of this particular breed didn’t stand out until later. So when a neighbor dropped by one evening, he asked for help in determining what their gender was and why there were no eggs yet. With a grin, ol’ Joe Bull informed Doc he had 10 roosters and three hens.
“Just give ’em a little more time, Doc,” Joe said. “Hens are still a bit young and a bit harried by all those cocks, but they’ll start laying soon.”
Doc waited. We’d watch the ritual every night, and Doc seemed depressed. While the hens weren’t laying, the roosters started celebrating the beginning of the day. To a growing 12-year-old boy, this commotion was very annoying.
We took to teasing Doc unmercifully.
“Those birds wake me up early one more time,” I growled, “and we’ll fry a few of ’em. Don’t need roosters for eggs anyway.”
“Mmm,” Pat added. “Chicken soup sounds good.”
Doc took the kidding in stride. “One day you’ll see. It will all pay off when we have fresh eggs for breakfast every day.”
“Sure Doc,” Dad said. “There’s five of us and three hens. We could starve before you get enough for an omelet.”
One evening as we sat waiting for Doc to arrive, the egg-laying dilemma was the main topic of discussion. Wine and beer had loosened the adults a bit, and once again I enjoyed listening to their banter.
“Now, what if Doc came one day, and…” Ron mused with his trademark dry laugh and wry grin. He laid out a hypothetical dirty rotten trick. We all laughed at the possibility, especially me.
“He might die from the shock,” Pat warned.
The conversation shifted, but my adolescent mind was already planning the next day’s activity. Those darn roosters had been getting on my nerves, having wakened me early one too many times. It was time to play a trick on Farmer Doc.
The next day, I jumped off the bus and went right to work. Borrowing a few eggs from Pat, I added a few of our own until I had 13. Next, I mussed ’em up good with spit and dirt, a boy’s specialty. I began my mission, taking a long, roundabout way to the barn. I’d run a few steps, then crouch down low and make sure nobody was watching. I skirted around the stock tank and slipped into the barn from the back door.
Five ornery roosters accosted me as soon as I entered the chicken coop. Having previous experience with these feisty birds, I prepared for battle. I shooed them back with a straw broom, locked them outside, and set about my task. Chuckling with delight and anticipation, I placed eggs in each of the nine nests.
Doc was later than usual that evening. I could hardly control my glee as he rolled down the hill and through the ranch gate. We watched him don his ritual farmer’s attire and head up to the barn, promising to join us as soon as he “checked out the chicks”. My wide grin and uncontrolled giggling alerted the adults I was up to something. Ron and Pat exchanged glances with Dad, and they all looked at me in unison. Pat said it first, but they all realized it simultaneously.
“Oh no, Patrick,” Pat said. “You didn’t!”
“Yes, I did,” I said with a delighted laugh.
All three of them burst into laughter, but hushed each other as we heard Doc shouting from the barn. Moments later, he was stumbling down the path, thrilled to show us his prize. As he reached us, his hat nearly fell out of his hands.
“L-l-look at all these eggs!” he bellowed. “I told you they’d start laying soon! There’s over a dozen in here, they were all over the place! In some nests, I found two!”
Doc was so excited, I had to turn my head so he wouldn’t notice my amusement. He was so excited, he had no clue the joke was on him.
“Yep Doc,” Dad said, “looks like you hit the jackpot.”
We all managed to share his excitement without giving away my secret. In fact, I was surprised nobody told Doc what I had done. Unfortunately for Doc, the confession waited until he had bragged his chickens up one side of the valley and down the other. Doc’s Amazing Layin’ Chickens were the locals’ favorite topic that week.
“Them birds been real busy up to Doc’s barn,” Joe Bull was heard to say. “Next thing you know, he’ll be sending them roosters out to stud.”
The story spread so quickly I even heard about it at school. Still, I kept my secret. Actually, I was nervous about what might happen when he did find out the trickery he’d been a victim of. It was even more difficult to note his failure to find eggs the next few days was starting to perplex him. Perhaps I had waited too long. It was time to confess.
“Doc,” I said sheepishly that evening, “I need to tell you something. It, well…”
“Yes?” Doc said with a confused look.
“I… I put those eggs in the nests,” I stammered.
As the magnitude of what I had said sank in, Doc’s face lost all color. His features sank in disbelief. At first, his mouth moved but no sounds came out of it. At a complete loss for words, his face then began to redden. He seemed unable to grasp this had all been a prank pulled off by the mischievous boy facing him. As he realized how much grief he was about to absorb for his bragging, he displayed an embarrassed, tight-lipped smile.
“I don’t care how long it takes,” he hissed, “but I’ll, I’ll get you for this, I promise. I don’t know how and you won’t know when, but I’ll get you back.”
Looking back, 40 years later, I feel guilty knowing what a cruel trick it was. Doc never did get his revenge. Within a few years, we had all gone in different directions. Until Doc passed away a while back, I often wondered if he would make good on his promise. Even so, I believe there are still some ranchers who remember Ol’ Doc’s Amazin’ Layin’ Roosters, and I still enjoy telling the story.
I’m sure, though, Doc’s spirit lies in wait.
© 2002, 2014 by Patrick B. Coomer. May not be used in any form without the express written consent of the author.
I have some pieces written over the years I’ll eventually share on here. But a writer is never satisfied with earlier drafts; I’ll have to brush them off and spiff them up a bit first. Stay tuned…