It was sixteen days before Christmas 1963. The nation had buried President Kennedy just two weeks before. As they drove to the grocery store, three-year-old Richard was standing in the front seat of the car next to his mom. This would be a quick trip. She wanted to get back before her husband Thomas got home from work. Because her son was relentlessly inquisitive, Anita was patiently explaining, yet again, how Santa would soon be coming to their house.
Less than two miles away Jessie started his pickup truck as he thought about how much he hated his job. The only way he got through the day was to know that he could go to his favorite bar after work and drink until he no longer cared about how messed up his life was. He had gotten into an argument with his boss during the afternoon, and he left the warehouse early. After several hours of drinking, he decided to head home. He had driven countless times while drunk, and he had always made it back to the house, but today all the recent late nights seemed to be catching up with him. He could barely keep his eyes open so he sped up to get home quicker.
As Jessie weaved back and forth in his lane he took the last puff of a cigarette. Reaching over to put it out in the ashtray he missed and dropped it on the floorboard. With his attention diverted he didn’t realize he had crossed the center line. When he looked up it was too late. There was no time to react as he slammed head-on into Anita’s sedan at 60 mph.
Because the accident happened so quickly there was no sound of screeching brakes, just the thunderous roar of grinding steel as two 4,000 pound vehicles crashed together with such violence that only one of the three occupants survived. Anita was killed instantly, her torso ravaged by twisted shards of metal. The horrific force of the impact hurled Richard through the windshield shearing off part of his scalp and fracturing his skull in multiple places leaving him with the severe brain damage that would dominate the rest of his life. Jessie managed to live for 36 hours without regaining consciousness. He never knew of the misery he had caused.
Over the first six months of 1964, Richard’s fragile life hung in the balance. During that time his father was barely able to function. Although only in his mid-twenties, Thomas felt as if his life was over. He was consumed with bitterness and resentment for what had happened to his family. It seemed unbelievably cruel for his beautiful wife to die so needlessly and for an innocent little boy to be forced to endure so much pain and suffering all because one man’s negligence.
It was summertime before Richard really began to stabilize. However, because the brain damage was extensive, he was affected physically, mentally and emotionally. Every available medical option was attempted, but in the 1960’s the technology was insufficient. Surgical techniques were crude and invasive by modern standards and physical therapy was not nearly as effective as it is today.
Over the next 18 years of his life, Richard averaged a major operation every 20 months. Many of them were complex and extremely risky. Each procedure was physically painful for Richard and mentally exhausting for his father. Every new health challenge was terrifying for Thomas, but he somehow forced himself to cope with the constant fear of losing his son.
By the time Richard reached his 21st birthday his progress had leveled off. For the next three decades, he lived within the physical constraints of his reconstructed body. His cognitive function was severely compromised, and he had difficulty comprehending the world around him. During much of that time, Thomas also struggled mentally as he attempted to come to grips with the tragedy that had struck down his family. His initial feelings of rage slowly gave way to recurring bouts of depression which were exacerbated by the fact that he was so focused on his son’s needs that he neglected his own well-being.
Throughout their long torturous medical journey, Thomas dealt with many surgeons and specialists, but there was one neurologist in particular who had a profound effect on his life. After consulting with him about Richard, the doctor paused as he studied the deep creases on Thomas’s face and the dark circles under his eyes. After a few moments, he leaned forward in his chair and said, “Now let’s talk about you.” The exhaustion and despair that enveloped Thomas made it quite obvious that he was depressed and sick with worry over the health of his son. Thomas was startled. No one had ever asked how he was doing. Although embarrassed that his discouragement was so evident, he slowly opened up and unburdened himself of all the fear, anger and sadness that was pent-up inside. The neurologist listened carefully without interrupting, and then he responded with a simple piece of advice that Thomas never forgot. Very gently he said, “Try not to think of your son as a reminder of all you’ve lost, but rather treasure him as a living breathing miracle – because I assure you that is exactly what he is.”
From that point on, despite the countless setbacks and seemingly endless adversity, Thomas began to view each day as a gift that could not be wasted. Slowly his attitude changed as his mindset moved from anger and regret to unconditional love and admiration. Instead of missing the child that was taken from him he began to appreciate the power of Richard’s spirit and his indomitable will to live. He realized that confined within his child’s fragile body was the strongest human being he had ever known. At times it seemed like Richard’s courage was almost limitless.
Year after year Thomas faithfully cared for his son. It was suggested on several different occasions that he should consider placing Richard in some type of institution or nursing home. People always pointed out that it would allow Thomas to live his own life, but they didn’t understand that Richard was his life. When Thomas looked at the twisted body and the fragmented mind, he did not see an invalid, he saw the son that he loved completely, and he knew he could not live with himself if he did not embrace the responsibility to do everything he could to help him experience the most fulfilling life possible.
Of course, all of this came at a personal price. Because his time was dominated by Richard’s health, Thomas never remarried. Although he occasionally had the opportunity to date, his heart just wasn’t in it. He loved Anita, and no one could take her place. He also had difficulty remaining in a job for very long because he was constantly forced to miss work in order to deal with the endless stream of issues that consumed his son’s life. His unstable employment situation added, even more, strain to his already precarious financial situation. The enormous cost of Richard’s lifelong medical care had destroyed any hope he ever had of financial security. He had long ago adjusted his focus to just making ends meet each month. But no matter how many sacrifices Thomas was required to make, it did not matter. His first priority was always his son, and he allowed nothing else to get in the way of that commitment.
Over the decades Thomas did everything in his power to give Richard the highest quality of life possible, but as he aged, time slowly wore him down and his own health began to deteriorate. He continued to care for his son as long as possible, but eventually, the struggle became too much. The heartbreaking realization that he could no longer meet all of Richard’s needs was not easy to accept, but he knew the time had come to make the most difficult decision of his life. After devoting more than fifty years to Richard’s care, he reluctantly moved him into a facility that could provide the 24-hour support that was required. He could only take solace in knowing that it was in the best interest of his son.
So today Richard was spending his 55th birthday in his new home.
Thomas, who was now slowed by the effects of his own age-related health problems, walked carefully into the large activity room and broke into a smile when he saw his son sitting in his wheelchair. As he got closer, Richard opened his eyes and jerked with delight at the sight of his dad. His laughter began to fill the air. It was the sound his father lived for. Thomas kissed his son and sat down next to him. After a few minutes Richard’s excitement subsided, and they sat together quietly for a while. Thomas held Richard’s hand and from time to time he gently rested his forehead against his son’s.
Over the years the nursing staff had observed many family relationships, but they had never witnessed the kind of dedication that Thomas had for Richard. He never missed a day visiting, and he never failed to light up his son’s world. The joy that would spread across Richard’s face when he saw his father was touching and the tears that filled Thomas’ eyes each time he left his son was heartbreaking.
As they sat together Thomas thought about the milestone this birthday represented. In his heart, he knew his son should not be alive. Because of the severity of his injuries, Richard should have died 52 years earlier in the winter of 1963. The medical community had always been at a loss to explain his son’s survival.
The memories of everything they had gone through together came flooding back to Thomas. He remembered the first time he saw Richard after the accident. His small body was unrecognizable as he lay in the hospital bed. Thomas had completely lost control and broken down when he saw the gruesome trauma to his son’s face and head. He was absolutely certain that Richard would not live.
Thomas’ mind sifted through the continuous stream of medical procedures each filled with great danger. Because he was bedfast for extended periods of time, Richard was always susceptible to respiratory infections. On multiple occasions, doctors had warned Thomas that they could not guarantee his son would pull through. But somehow, time after time, Richard found the strength to rally. Each of these harrowing experiences had taken a toll on Thomas’ nerves, but they had also reinforced his unending admiration for his son’s ability to fight through the most desperate of circumstances.
The accident had left Richard with no vision in his right eye and limited vision in his left. He was unable to walk, and he could not use his right arm and hand, but through years of painful surgeries and therapy, he regained some use of his left hand. One day, after months of excruciating effort, Thomas watched with tears in his eyes as his son shakily picked up a cup.
Because he understood the discipline and determination it required, he could not have been more thrilled if Richard had just thrown the winning touchdown pass in high school. Thomas knew that although it took courage to be a great athlete, it took far more courage and commitment to endure what his son had gone through just to be able to pick up that cup. It was just another example of his son’s inner strength and resolve.
As he sat with Richard, Thomas thought about some of the individuals he had encountered in life who believed that his son was less of a person because of his challenges. Often they did not consider him to be an equal human being. People who did not know Richard only saw someone with a body that could not be controlled. They only saw someone who was nonverbal, so they assumed he had no thoughts to express. They only saw someone who was dependent on others for their basic daily needs. Unfortunately, they only saw someone they believed should be pitied. For many years Thomas had harbored a deep anger towards those people, but now he just felt sorry for them. He had finally realized that their narrow-mindedness was their own form of disability.
Thomas and Richard had never played catch in the front yard. They had never shot baskets in the driveway. Thomas had been denied the chance to show Richard how to ride a bike or drive a car, and yet in many ways, they were closer than most fathers and sons. They had needed each other completely, and through their very special relationship, they became inseparable. There was the very real likelihood that neither one of them would have been able to go on without the other in their life.
Through the years there had been no Father’s Day gifts, no ugly neckties or a coffee mug with “World’s Greatest Dad” written on it, but rather Richard’s life itself was a gift that Thomas was profoundly grateful to receive each day. Although he never had the chance to teach his son so many of the things that only a father can, each day his son taught him about life. From Richard, he learned how to be patient. He learned how the simplest moments can be the most extraordinary. And he learned the value of tolerance and the importance of accepting every person just as they are, without judgment.
Richard never spoke another word after the accident, but spending so much time together in silence seemed to have brought them closer than all the activities they could have shared if there had been no crash. The bond between them was unshakable and could not be broken. It was a bond that others sensed but did not truly understand.
Finally, Thomas collected his thoughts and began to speak slowly and tenderly to his son. “Richard today is your birthday, and I am so thankful I can celebrate it with you. We’ve been fortunate to share many more years than I dared to hope for.” As he spoke he gently stroked Richard’s hair.
“I hope I have not failed you. I tried to be the father you deserve, but I know I’ve made many mistakes along the way. Please forgive me. I did the best I could, but it was so difficult being alone.”
Thomas had never fully recovered from losing Anita. Just mentioning his loneliness made him remember his favorite picture of her on their wedding day. In his memory, she remained forever beautiful in her gown with her long auburn hair up. Her smile was as radiant as the day they had met 18 months before. Even after all this time it still hurt too much to think about what might have been. If he had only known they would be together for such a short time he would have spent every moment he could by her side.
As Thomas struggled to maintain his composure he softly said to Richard, “I know I’ve told you many times before, but I want to tell you again how wonderful your mother was. She was the sweetest, kindest person I’ve ever met. She adored you, and she would be so proud of how brave you are. She loved you with all her heart, and I would give anything if she were here with us now. But even though I still miss her every day, I am so thankful I have you.”
Thomas fell silent for a time as he thought about just how much his son meant to him. He knew in his heart that, even if their lives had been different, he could not possibly love him more.
“I want you to know that you have given my life meaning. Having you as my son has changed my perspective, my outlook and my attitude. Being your father has made me stronger and more compassionate. I’m the person I am today because of you. And although our lives changed forever in an instant, it did not change my love for you. You did not deserve this fate, but you have fought with all your strength, and you have never given up.”
Thomas took a deep breath as he felt the emotion of his words welling up inside of him. “In your own way, you have shown me what it means to be human. Your life matters just as much as the lives of those who do not have intellectual or physical challenges, but most importantly you matter to me. You are my world.”
His father hesitated and then whispered, “Unfortunately, Richard I could not slow down the march of time, and I’ve grown old.” Because age had taken its inevitable toll, Thomas had finally grown weary from their unending struggle. With his voice faltering, he looked lovingly at the person who meant more to him than life itself. “But I want you to know how incredibly blessed I feel to be your father. I love you, son.”
Thomas leaned over and hugged Richard. As he held him in his arms he could not help but wonder how many birthdays they had left to spend together.
As a society, we rightfully memorialize the incredible courage it takes for a person to willingly give up their life for another human being. When a police officer dies in the line of duty while protecting an innocent citizen they are hailed as a true hero. When a firefighter loses their life rescuing a child from a burning home they are honored and mourned by the entire community. When a soldier is killed as they save their buddy’s life they are posthumously awarded our highest medals. In these examples, all of the accolades are richly deserved. But in each one of these cases, the exchange of one life for another is made in a brief intense span of time.
What consideration should we give to a person who spends decades giving up their own life day after day, month after month and year after year so that another human being can simply live? Don’t they deserve our respect and admiration as well? Just like the courageous men and women who decide to risk everything in a moment of crisis, they too have made the decision that another life is more important than their own. But, unfortunately, their sacrifice often goes completely unnoticed. And while it does not compare to someone who physically loses their life, the fact remains that they give up relationships, careers, financial security, educational opportunities and many other meaningful things so that they can help someone they love enjoy the most enriching life possible.
That is the kind of lifelong sacrifice that Thomas willingly made for his beloved son – and it should not go unappreciated.