If you follow my blogs at all you probably know I don’t do too many. I certainly don’t focus on them in the Summer as I am trying to focus on some time off at our cottage. I excel at doing nothing. Yet, I had a nice surprise at a recent event where I was asked to say a few words and it prompted a discussion with my wife and business partner, Darlene, and thus a blog. I realize the title is a bit onerous and far reaching so I’ll try and keep a small focus on a big subject. First, the event.
There are a couple hundred cottages at Crystal Lake, Saskatchewan. Much has changed out here in the fifty plus years I have been visiting this amazing place and yet some things are exactly the same. This is a very close knit “community” and it has played a huge role in my life and that of the Law family. A week or so ago, 125 people broke bread together (it was actually grilled steaks and chicken) at the beautiful Crystal Lake Golf Course club house in support of Camp Easter Seal. There are two families who have a history out here who happen to each have a child with special needs and they attend the special camp at Lake Manitou by Watrous, Saskatchewan. I went there myself for a week in 1976 and thus the premise for our attending as I am a big fan of the camp and of course there is a bit of a career I have carved out as a speaker, so two and two…you get the idea. I spoke for about ten minutes as the evening was not “about me” and perhaps only a quarter of the crowd didn’t know my story so I didn’t go through my usual routine. I also had another focus in my heart.
My adopted Dad, Jack Law, owned a gas station in Canora, Saskatchewan where he and my Mom, Hilda, were married in 1930. Other than a short stint in Melfort, my parents lived there until they moved to Yorkton, a half hour down the road from Canora. Of course, their move to Yorkton where Dad became service manager for Mickelson’s Truck & Implements is what led them to buy their first new home and prompted my Mom to get into foster care which led to my coming to stay there in the Summer of 1960 which as you probably know, ended up becoming my permanant home and my becoming a Law. But long before that profound connection, my brothers, John, who just turned 83 and Terry, who is 79, grew up in Canora and when they were young, Mom and Dad would sometimes take them to a beautiful lake 20 minutes North of Canora called Crystal Lake. There wasn’t the same infrastructure then but it was not needed as the average cottage was more like a fishing shack used for ice fishing. There aren’t many of those left!
Somewhere around 1950 (there is conflicting information on the exact year), someone with a hut of their own and a friend of Mom and Dad came into my Dad’s service station with an offer. He knew my family visited Crystal on occasion and wanted to know if Dad wanted to buy a cottage. Money was always tight in my family and though not the same extravagance as today, it was still a non-essential item. But, it was the last Friday of the month and some people had come in that day to pay their bills so Dad reached in his pocket, had $180.00 cash and said this is all I have and just like that, the Laws owned a place that sits about two blocks up the road from our place at Crystal Lake.
Mom and Dad are long gone and my brother, John, bought the family cottage twenty years ago or so and it is bigger and completely different than the place I came to as a child but still sits right on the lake for a great view! From 1961 until 1978, I spent my Summers here. It shaped me. In my talk at the event, I joked about Mom and Dad making me go to Camp Easter Seal when I had my “own” lake right here. I realized, they wanted me to go to get rid of me for a week!
So that was the idea for the short talk. Giving the audience some dots to connect. There is fourth, maybe even, fifth, generations of families out here who all know the magic of this place. I know I am biased, but bias or not, my summers here were the stuff of novels and movies. Sure, it was mostly Mom and I as Dad didn’t take holidays very often so he’d spend weekends here but it was two months of bliss for me. There is that saying…”It takes a village to raise a child”. Well, “my little lake village” definitely played a role in raising me! When I looked out at the people at the dinner, I got shivers recalling them, their parents or even grandparents from my youth. I talked about how too many people, specifically those with disabilties, aren’t as blessed as I was and am. How thankful I was to have the love and support of a family, of a community and how I try to “live’ that Gratitude every day of my life. As I spoke, I reminded people to recognize their blessings and be generous as the event had a “live” and silent auction portion. So typical of this place, the majority of items were “baked” as it was a Pie & Cake Auction! Brilliant! One Saskatoon Berry pie made by four visiting teens with deep roots here sold for $400! Awesome!
Look, I have to be completely honest here as this sounds pretty egotistical but there were lots of tears shed during my talk because so many people in the audience were having mega dejavu. They watched me from being an infant, to a child, to an awkward teen to a 55 year old man with an amazing and beautiful wife, an almost 30 year old son and a life story that has given me, quite frankly, celebrity status. It was a special night. But the most special part for me happened at the end of the evening.
A woman I have known for a long time came over to our table. She scored a great hand-made quilt in the auction, one of the few non-baked goodies. I would call her and her husband “acquaintances” of mine as for whatever reason, we never had the circumstance of becoming “close friends”. Coincidentally, before moving to the lake full time, they lived in Yorkton and also concidentally, my not being “normal” made a public figure out of me, albeit, unintentional and so did their lives. Everyone in town “knew” about this couple because in the early 1960’s, they caused a bit of a stir in our little town. Angie is White and Willy is Chinese and they got married! Completely acceptable today, not so much back then. Kinda the same with me!
So Angie came over with her quilt and gave me a hug and a thank you for my little speech and she told me a story I had never heard. I could tell when she sat down with moist eyes she had something on her mind and not the quilt. For a brief moment, I thought it might be about her son, Kevin. Again, an odd circumstance had made the Mark family the talk of Yorkton when a teenaged Kevin was made a qudrapalegic after a vicious body check in a competitive junior hockey league game in town. But she surprised me when she said…”I don’t know if you were ever aware that I was a student nurse in Yorkton when you were born!” I didn’t know that. She asked me if I wanted her to go on and what she said planted the seed for this lengthy blog. A week after I was born and after my birth family gave me up for adoption, I was still in the hospital. Nobody had claimed me yet so the wise Chief of the Medical Staff had a nurse bring me down to a lecture theatre where all the hopital medical workers, but more importantly for Angie, all the student nurses, had been summoned for a discussion about…well, me! Angie recounted how there were audible gasps when they took off my blanket. By the way, it would much later be confirmed I was a “Thalidomide Baby”, deformed by the anti-morning sickness medication but that day, the teaching moment was to the point. Look how horrible a medical story I was. It seemed to me that Angie was right back in that lecture theatre. She went on to describe the mood in the room. It was extremely sombre. There was the predictable medical diagnosis of how I could have been born without arms. It is extremely rare but does happen. It was as if…”We don’t get to see such a freak of nature very often so good for us, we have a real live specimen right here!” Angie didn’t say that but I remember hearing similar words at clinics when I was three years old and including this memorable day for her, the doctors collectively concluded that my severe disability would present no opportunity for any quality of life and one spent institutionlalized with no hope for any other outcome! I visited almost a hundred of these clinics as a medical specimen before I was five!
What Angie did say, and got very emotional saying it was how she could so clearly remember as someone barely out of high school thinking these are expert doctors who knew so much more than she did and accepted how terrible my life would be! And now look at me! Wow! I let her hug me as she dried her tears. We talked some more about how that day created a buzz around the hospital and around town. How I became an unwilling celebrity. She also made mention of how much my adopted parents changed the doctor’s prognosis and I paid her a compliment back about how much of a difference her and Willie made in Kevin’s life as a quad (he turned 50 this year) and then we promised to carry on this conversation another more convenient day.
I have a career based on my story, which is for so many, a very personal connection. I told you at the beginning this is a complicated subject and I’d try to be brief…too late. I want to abruptly ask you a question. How do you see people our society has labelled as “different”? Ironic, huh that a White woman married a Chinese man in my hometown and all the petty “gossip” of mixing races was all you heard instead ofthe most important question… did they love each other? Well, they are still married, probably close to fifty years. To see them together is truly inspiring. I doubt they’d make a big deal out of it because that’s the kind of people they are. But just imagine what they went through? Then to have one of their amazing kids end up paralyzed from the neck down and the stigma associated with that? I have very often spoken and written about how tough it must have been for my parents to take me out in public. Using my feet to have a hamburger or an ice cream cone and the stares from strangers and negative, hurtful narrative of being a “mistake”. I ask again. When you walk through your life, perhaps even your workplace, how do “see” those around you? Do you label them based on their race, religion, language? Or have you challenged yourself to see “human beings” where their differences are not what is noted but their “similarities”. Our human heart beats the same in every chest around the globe and I am so blessed to have the joy of a “happy heart” simply because the people who mean the most to me do not see what I don’t have but celebrate every day what I do!