“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.