This is a story about two very different people – a man and a woman – on completely different life paths. Although they never met in person, they intersected for a brief moment in time.
The man is Rick Hansen, BC’s own “Man in Motion”. I’ve had a crush on him for many years, ever since he reached out to make a difference in the life of the woman.
The woman is my mother. She died in 2002 at age 71 from complications related to Pick’s Disease – an ugly stepsister of Alzheimer’s. I can’t begin to describe the many personality-altering characteristics of this form of dementia, other than to say that victims in its pernicious grasp are usually younger than Alzheimer’s sufferers – my mom starting showing signs of the disease in her mid-50s. Progressive, disturbing changes in her language skills and social conduct were hallmarks of her steady decline.
Pick’s is not a pretty disease: over a relatively short period of time, Mom morphed from charming, generous and caring into a tactless, uninhibited woman, largely void of empathy and good judgment. She was challenging to be around, and long-time friends gradually stopped calling. There were few bright spots in the long goodbye.
My “Pick’s mom” was also impulsive and obsessive. This behaviour presented in many ways, but one of the quirkier was her fixation on Rick Hansen. She initially became fascinated with him when she found out they shared a birthday: August 26th. I don’t know how she figured that out, but once she had, she made an illogical leap of connection with him.
Throughout the ‘90s, every August 26th Mom sent Rick a birthday card. I didn’t know this was going on for the first few years; Dad mentioned it one day. He went along with Mom’s harmless obsession, driving her to London Drugs so she could pick out a special birthday card for Rick. She could be counted on to select the card with the most sparkles and sappiest sentiment. In shaky cursive lettering, she’d sign it, “Happy Birthday Louise”.
With Dad’s help, she’d address the envelope and mail it. She never heard back from Rick. I don’t know if she expected to, really. But the absence of acknowledgment didn’t deter her from continuing with the birthday card ritual year after year.
It was during this time that I happened to attend an IABC luncheon event where Rick Hansen was the keynote speaker. It was a large crowd and the Man in Motion held us all enthralled with his inspirational story of commitment and courage. He had just released his book, “Going the Distance” and spoke about it as well.
At the end of his presentation, he announced that he had a free book for someone in the audience. Rick told us that the winner of the book would find a sticker under their coffee cup. I don’t know how to describe this moment without sounding balmy, but I knew with every fibre of my being that the sticker would be under my cup. Such was my conviction that I started to push my chair back as I checked the underside of my cup , readying myself for the victory lap to the podium to pick up my prize.
And there it was – a bright blue dot. I yelled out – probably too loudly – “Yay, it’s me!” and threaded my way through chairs and tables to the stage to accept the book from Rick. He suggested that I pop by the lobby afterwards to get it signed.
I took him up on his offer and while he was autographing my prize, I sort of let it drop that I knew his birthday was August 26th. He, of course, expressed surprise, so I gave him the lowdown on Mom, her obsession and the birthday cards. Rick listened intently with genuine interest and compassion. When I finished the story, Rick said he wanted to send her something. He asked for her address, we finished our chat, and he went back to signing books.
A week or so later, I popped by my parents’ house for a quick visit. My mom could be very playful and childlike, and this day when I walked through the door, she was grinning broadly and clapping her hands with obvious glee. Her ability to express herself in words had all but disappeared, but her nonverbal communication spoke volumes.
She told me to “Come see!” and I followed her to the bedroom, curious to know the reason for her animated delight. Mom stopped at the doorway and pointed.
My eyes swept around, taking in the sight. The bedroom had been turned into a shrine to the Man in Motion: colourful posters of Rick Hansen were taped to every wall. His book and a video were displayed prominently on the dresser. A white logo-ed t-shirt hung from the headboard.
One more item caught my eye. On the night table beside the bed was a card. I reached for it and looked inside. It read, “Happy Birthday Louise from Rick Hansen”.
When I asked Dad for the back story, he said a big package had arrived in the mail for Mom a few days after I’d had that fateful conversation with Rick. He described the look of wonder and pure joy on Mom’s face as she opened the parcel and discovered each of the gifts inside. It had been long time since Dad had seen Mom so excited.
I mentioned that there were few bright spots as Mom’s mental and physical health deteriorated into the Pick’s abyss. This was one. And there’s more.
It makes sense to me now that through the mists of dementia, my mom was intuitively trying to honour someone special in her life because he represented hope, despite all odds.
Rick Hansen has made a huge difference throughout the world in the care and quality of life for persons living with a spinal cord injury. His reach is global. And local.
Like the intuition I felt when I knew I was the winner of his book, Rick intuitively knew that a small act of kindness on his part would close the link and make a huge impact on my mom.
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch,
or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the
potential to turn a life around.” Leo Buscaglia
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