There are times when I see a blog post like this as completely predictable yet as we head up to the annual homage to Mothers, I decided to be predictable…and perhaps not so much, just like me!
This is a big subject. I will get to some of the more unpredictable observations in a bit but must provide some “predictable” background on my mom story, just on the off chance you don’t actually know my story, a story I have been telling as a speaker since 1976. Its as if my life was meant to be a story, and I state that with zero arrogance. There are even times that I wonder if my audiences really believe me. Well, it is real and I find the most difficult element “choosing” which stories to tell on stage but if you want the whole deal and haven’t yet done this, buy my book “Alvin’s Laws of Life”. It is written as a training style of book, thus the “Laws”, but it really is autobiographical and who would I be without my Mom! If you just shook your head and thought, “Duh”, I don’t think everyone would necessarily agree, but I will adress that not-so-inspiring observation later.
I was, of couse, born without arms and I was, of course, given away by my birth parents when I was about a week old. I need you all to know, these factoids can even bore me! Seriously. I have given over 7,500 talks in my career and I have told people off-stage the same story probably hundreds of thousands of time. Look, I don’t stand on a street corner shouting out my story to anyone who will listen and I don’t start the conversation on airplanes, in restaurants, at gas stations or hotels, where I find my working life takes me every week. People ask. It is a good question. What happened to me?
Again, the answer began boring me as a child but to me, there is one factoid that even I still find fascinating to this day. When I grew up, it was just, “I was born this way”. I had a more profound subject to me; I was adopted. You see, I never knew exactly “why” I had no arms until I was almost 30 years old. I didn’t care. Really. That was the first gift Hilda Law gave me. By the way, I want to acknowledge my Dad was also huge in my life, but this piece will focus on my Mom. My parents both worked miracles but they were a very traditional couple in that Dad worked long days as a mechanic and service manager for International Harvester Trucks & Tractors in my hometown of Yorkton, Saskatchewan and Mom stayed home with me. They had already raised my brothers, John & Terry, who were born in the 1930’s, and in 1960, I came to stay with them as a foster child, and never left. Old factoids, but timeless truth.
In 1989, I was invited to join a task force looking into the plight of Canada’s surviving Thalidomide Babies. In my first meeting with an assortment of “Thalidomiders”, officials from War Amps of Canada and a couple of medical experts, I had to face a cold truth; did I have no arms because of Thalidomide? The fact is, I didn’t know. The other fact is, it didn’t matter. Yet, it did and this is the heart of this blog and my story.
I learned from this task force, and this is a much longer story, that a significant number of the 127 people born with limb deficiencies in Canada were struggling. There were lots of reasons, but the primary one, and I mean absolutely no offence, was the mothers. It was like a perfect storm. It was the late 1950’s when there became suspicions about this new wonder drug that relieved morning sickness and nausea in newly pregnant women in Germany and the U.K. It should have stopped there but this was the beginning of the storm. It was a different time. Pharmaceuticals of any kind were new and novel and research into their side effects were practically nil. Just think about it. Pregnant women being given free drugs from a doctor? Crazy today, completely acceptable then. The news was also different…no CNN! No Internet! Thalidomide crossed the ocean and began its creep across Canada. In fact, it was 1963 that Health Canada, following the lead of the World Health Organization, banned Thalidomide.
Ironically, new standards for everything in the field of pharmaceuticals were created in response to Thalidomide. Governments in Europe promised and delivered compensation which offered a degree of support to the babies, but more importantly in my opinion, to the parents and specifically, the moms. Every thalidomider in the first task force meeting told the same stories, with varying degrees of impact…how difficult it was for their moms. I could not relate!
I have countless times stated that I was never surprised I was given up for adoption, but I was always surprised somebody would want me. This was an almost historical observation, a somewhat “cultural” entity. It directly addresses the reason society was so shocked. Does that mean we have become desensitized towards disability? I believe we have become the opposite. We have become inspired by people like me. I say that without arrogance. I have seen the shift. In fact, I have lived it! That’s exactly why I continue to speak about my life, not because of what I have done, but what society has done. If society can shift and grow its consciousness like I have seen it do, why can’t it continue to grow? That is what drives me. Not the supposed fame, not the applause, not the attention, but the knowledge that people can be so much more than they believe they can. My Mom proved it!
But here is the key. My Mom made me do it! She didn’t do it for me. Obviously, she did so many things for me and her sacrifice was beyond description. Let’s also remember she was 55 years old when she took home an armless child. I wasn’t even hers! That is huge. And that is ironic. Again, no offense, but my take on so many of the stories we studied through the Thalidomide Task Force in the late ’80’s and early ’90’s had one consistency…guilt! Understandably. The mom’s got pregnant. They had morning sickness. They were given a cure, for free. It worked! It was a different time. Just think. The saga of Thalidomide will never be repeated…ever! But it happened and instead of the pharmacutical company taking the blame, or the doctors apologizing because to most of them, it was the pharmaceutical company’s fault…it became the moms. To me, that is unacceptable!
And for that primary reason, I went through the exercise of locating, contacting and eventually, meeting my birth mom, Sophie. I have written and spoken about this before, but need to do it again here. I never, ever, had a desire to track down my birth family. I wasn’t bitter. I wasn’t even that curious and that goes straight to my comment on never wondering why I was given up. But I now knew what so many of the birth moms who kept their “deformed” babies went through and even though she gave me up, my birth mom must have had her own demons. With the profound encouragement, assistance and support of my wife, Darlene, we met the Pacholko’s in May of 1993. I will leave the long version out, its in my book, but I will tell you it was very difficult for “all” of us. My birth father, Peter, had died in the 1980’s. He and Sophie had two children before I came along, a boy, Allan, and a girl, Elaine. That day, in Sophie’s modest home in Melville, Saskatchewan, Darlene and I met the three afformentioned family and Allan’s wife, Karen and Elaine’s husband, Bryon. Allan and Elaine also had two children each at the time, but they weren’t there that day. Sadly, a few years ago, Allan and Karen’s son, Michael, was killed by a drunk driver.
There was a tension I struggle to explain. It probably had to do with a less “inspiring” motivation for meeting. One of the goals of the task force was to, through the extensive research, prove to the Government of Canada, need for financial support, just like the governments of other countries who sanctioned Thalidomide had already done decades earlier. It wasn’t “greed” on my part. I simply had no proof. It was a safe assumption I was a “Thalidomider” but for government purposes, I needed “physical proof”, which for 99% of the other victims, was found in health and doctor records, which were thankfully required even back then. When Sophie and Peter gave me up, my health records were sealed and in another archaic policy that thankfully has also since changed, neither party was allowed contact. I did obtain those records in 1981, but any reference to Thalidomide was absent, although it confirmed what my Mom (Hilda Law) shared with me when I was 18…the identity, but not location, of Sophie and Peter Pacholko. Mom always knew but kept it to herself. She never shared why. I refuse to speculate but for one observation.
It takes more than giving birth to earn the title “Mom”. How could Hilda Law have not felt some insecurity and trepidation in revealing what she knew? She “was” my Mom, and I have shared that sensitive subject with Sophie a few times. Talk about complicated! I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for Sophie but because of what she innocently did, I have no arms! And what I observed, learned, and had a profound conversation with Darlene about following that heavy meeting in 1993 was incredibly powerful. Hilda Law made me who I am!
There is no way to prove this, call it intuition, but if you do anything, don’t call it contrived. It goes all the way back to my observing what an incredible true story this is. I knew while on the 90 minute drive home to where we lived back then (Regina, Saskatchewan) that my suspicions were confirmed. I was so blessed by Hilda and Jack Law! I suppose I would have turned out okay. Allan and Elaine are great people, although they had to struggle with their own parent’s mental health challenges. I didn’t die but in the eyes of the family back then, that’s what it was like. I was there, albeit for less than a week, but then I was gone. My new knowledge of that in 1993 bothered me a fair amount at first but we have worked through it since. But what kept resounding in my head, the unanswerable question…why me?
When I observe how lucky I am, I mean it! It’s not melodrama or speaker hype, it is simply the truth. But please keep in mind, it has never been easy. Plus, my life has gone far from perfect. My son, Vance, who will be 30 years old this August (Unreal!) was from my first marriage, which lasted less than three years and the wake of that disaster took me to behaviour I cringe to contemplate…not my best form to say the least.
Yet, I then met Darlene in 1991. Knowing I had a child, and also being witness to and living with the “Alvin back then” makes it that much more remarkable that she not only married me, but has hung in there with me to this day! She became Vance’s stepmom, although only technically. Darlene was always adamant Vance only had one real mom but sadly, he hasn’t seen her in 15 years, but I digress. No matter what the truth is, my version of it is Darlene became yet more proof of my belief in earning the title, “Mom”, although Vance has always called her “Dar”, and not mom…semantics!
And now to my point. In so many ways, “Mother’s Day” is yet another marketing scam. It sells greeting cards, a billion brunches, a gazillion flower deliveries and a lot of lawn ornaments! These gestures aren’t necessarily wrong on their own, in fact can be profoundly meaningful. But for me, it represents something I do every day of my life. Honouring the woman that gave birth to me. Honouring the woman who took me home from the hospital when I was only three weeks old and then sacrificed so much to not just raise me, but excel at it! Honouring the woman who has never been called Mom, but has completely earned the title nonetheless, and on top of everything is a carbon copy of Hilda Law, Darlene. And honouring every human being that has taken a child, fed it, cleaned it, nutured it, loved it and hopefully had the courage to push it from its nest to give it the freedom all human beings crave and deserve!
HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY!!!