As September is Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month, we would be remiss in not honoring those with spinal cord injuries who came before us, whose contributions to healing and thriving despite injury have made life a little easier for our families living in the present. A complete spinal cord injury is a contract for life. Of course, there are days we might forget for a little while, and then we are reminded. Life goes on.
On a family bike ride in Franconia State Park, past Cannon Mountain and the former Old Man on the Mountain, there is a sign which reads, “Please walk bikes.” The area is both a bike path and walking area to the Old Man Visitor Center. I remind our 7 and 8-year-olds to get off their bikes to walk them through this section, and our son shakes his head and says, “Mom, it’s just not fair.”
Confused, I ask, “What isn’t fair?”
“Daddy doesn’t have to walk his bike, but we have to walk.”
“Carver, your dad’s legs don’t walk, REMEMBER?”
“Oh, yeah,” he smiles, “I just forgot.”
And it’s awesome that we forget from time to time about Daddy’s spinal cord injury. That sometimes, when we arrive home from an outing, we all just walk in the house and forget that his wheelchair is in the trunk of the car. Sometimes he calls me on the phone to remind me or lets me realize after a few minutes that he still hasn’t come inside with the rest of the family.
Times like that remind me of this guy, Bruce McGhie, the dad of our friend Jack McGhie. Bruce is the author of Ascent, a remarkable autobiography about the life he built with his wife, Barbara, following his spinal cord injury in 1955 as a 22-year-old during an Air Force training session. Back then, few believed that Barbara could remain in love with a man with a spinal cord injury; yet she did. Back then, few believed that a person in a wheelchair could live a productive full life, one who even had to travel long distances for work, yet he did. Back then, few would have believed adoption would have possibly given his level of disability, yet they did. When I first read Ascent, I could not stop reading because both Bruce and Barbara seemed like such “world of disability badasses” in terms of tackling the challenges in a world that had a very limited scope of accessibility. Bruce flew on airplanes long before it was easy to do so. Mind you, I use the word “easy” lightly here as Geoff is always the first on the plane and the last off and rarely do rental cars come equipped with the hand controls he has already requested ahead of time, often adding hours to work trips he must make as a member of the Professional Ski Instructors of America National Demonstration Team.
According to the back of the book Ascent, “As one follows McGhie through the years, his disability quickly blends into the background as his accomplishments mount. The book helps to defuse the fear and awkwardness others feel in the presence of the disabled while simultaneously inspiring every person to make the most out of his or her life. A compelling story, the book strives to illuminate the amazing accomplishments of one man and his highly supportive wife while also providing an example of the inherent power people have to transcend handicaps–physical or otherwise–and live full and meaningful lives.”
His wife Barbara is one of my personal heroes, yet we’ve never met. However, whenever her son Jack comes to visit us for dinner, I make him tell me stories about his parents. There are so many good ones, and I’m grateful he is willing to share them with me, and with our two children. When his mom’s family threatened to disown her if she married the newly paralyzed Bruce, she believed her partnership with this incredible man remained a partnership of love and friendship despite his spinal cord injury. As a caregiver, I wonder what her life was like when their children were little. Bruce McGhie passed away in 2009 after 53 years of marriage, 77 years of life, a graduate of Harvard University, 55 years of being a quadriplegic, the first quadriplegic sailplane pilot in the world and an accomplished photographer and artist; yet perhaps his greatest role was that of father to Jack and Anne.
So tonight as I tucked our 7-year-old daughter into bed, which is generally when all the big questions come alive. “Mommy, why doesn’t Daddy wear cleats and shin guards to soccer practice when he helps you to coach?”
I thought for a minute. “Well, I don’t wear shin guards or cleats either when coaching. How would cleats help Daddy since he doesn’t run?”
“Oh, yeah, I forgot,” she remembers.
Heather Krill is a writer- wife- teacher-mom who lives in the White Mountains of NH with her husband, Geoff, a paraplegic and professional skier, and their two children, Carver, and Greta who are 8 and 7. Please check out her novel “True North”, website http://www.heatherkrill.com, author FB page Heather Krill, and @heatherkrill1 on Twitter.