i have to admit, with Canadian Thanksgiving approaching, this subject was so predictable it just seemed too obvious to blog about it, but a personal experience yesterday changed my mind for me. I was invited to speak to the students of the Alberta Children’s Hospital school in Calgary. It wasn’t my first time, but it had been a while. I must be completely honest: it’s rare for a talk to stay with me! Ironic because that is my main objective for my audience but for me, once it leaves my mouth, it’s gone. That’s not to say I’m just hitting the “play” button because that “never” happens. I’ve actually been told by countless people who have heard me multiple times that every time seems new, but old at the same time, in a comforting way. In fact, I was the opening Keynote for the Canadian Student Leadership Conference in Edmunston, New Brunswick last week and I’m pretty sure I’ve been on the main stage at this event over twenty times, including the very first one in 1985 at the high school I graduated from in 1978 in Yorkton, Saskatchewan. That was a life altering hour!
Following my talk in New Brunswick, I was approached by several student advisors in attendance who’d heard me several times before stunned that I could take a thirty year old talk and make it seem brand new. Just to clarify, the speech isn’t one I “wrote” thirty years ago and still read from the same piece of paper. In fact, I haven’t “written” a speech since I was Easter Seals “Timmy” in 1977! Believe me, I have crafted more new talks than I can count, but the core message of my life has never changed so why mess with that? In fact, I was recently given a cassette tape of a speech I gave in Muenster, Saskatchewan in 1981 and listening to it made the hair on my neck stand up! Granted, it was “dated” and being 21 years old at the time, so was I! Yet it intrigued me that even 35 years ago, I was “preaching” a very similar message…Gratitude!
Sounds so nice, doesn’t it? Being grateful. Sounds even nicer when you have no arms! Seriously! Someone hears me talk about how lucky I feel with my life and they look at me like I’m so special! Well I am special! My parents taught me that! In fact, of all the memories I have of growing up without arms, that sentiment is the strongest one. We focused on it every single day. We vocalized it when we said “grace” before dinner, a tradition that is suffering from the hyper-sensitive politically correct! But these weren’t just words. There was a fundamental belief system in my home when I was growing up and it all focused on what I “could” do, not what I “couldn’t” so “Gratitude” wasn’t a popular cliche or buzzword, it was a life altering state of being! It was also a good subject to discuss right from the infancy of my career in 1981 but not because it was “nice” or “trendy”, but because it was “me”. But here’s the problem. It sounds so “nice”, does it sound “too predictable”? Am I For Real?
Yesterday reminded me of how truly “real” I am. Actually, yesterday reminded me of the last time I was in the same room but it wasn’t the room I recalled, it was the feeling. Last time was several years ago and was not long after this brand new facility opened. If you haven’t seen it, the architecture is stunning. It is ultra-modern. It’s painted in several almost neon colors and the last thing it looks like is a hospital. But it is a hospital. It’s a Children’s Hospital. A hospital for children. What a bizarre truth! A truth for too many children. A truth for too many parents of those children. A truth for me! A truth with several points of my own view.
The last time I was at this same building in Calgary, I had broken a promise I made to myself in 1976. It was the day I left the Shriners Hospital in Winnipeg having convinced the various doctors, therapists and specialists I didn’t need artificial arms and that they should give them to someone who did! I have written about this sixteen year saga in my book, “Alvin’s Law’s of Life”, so for greater detail check it out, but I started going to hospitals for “crippled children” in 1960 in my mother’s lap as my lack of arms was a medical curiosity, but not in a polite, new age way of thinking. I was a freak, a product of a morning sickness drug, and I was a living specimen of what can go wrong to a human being! Think about that! And it lasted sixteen years! Why did it even happen? Because I had no choice. My parents had no choice. I was not only one of the first “Thalidomide Babies” in Canada, but I was a foster child so in a sense, the government owned me and they were leasing me to Hilda and Jack Law to raise me! So if the people who owned my pink slip wanted me to go to a clinic so the doctors could see me, touch me, talk about me, so be it. No discussion. Honestly, my parents had no choice so that meant I didn’t either. I hated those places. But here’s what my Mom said every time I went and every time I came home…”Think of all the people you will help by being studied, but more importantly, think of how lucky you are that you never have to stay there forever. I know you hate to go sweetie, but did you notice, you always come home”. See what I mean? Gratitude!
The thing was, at sixteen, I was, well…sixteen! I didn’t have a lot of gratitude in my life. I couldn’t see the wisdom of my mother’s words then, so I vowed I would never set foot in a hospital for freaks ever again. Some promises are meant to be broken. Keep in mind that when I broke that vow to visit the Alberta Children’s Hospital the first time, it wasn’t exactly easy. And that was the emotion that hit me yesterday. It was as clear as clear gets. The last time, I was invited by the school’s principal after a colleague of hers heard me at another “normal” school. “Of course I’ll come, it would be my pleasure” I said. I lied! In fact, as the day approached, I grew anxious but being a professional, I sucked it up and went, did my 45 minutes and escaped as fast as humanly possible. I vividly remember the roller coaster of emotions. It wasn’t new. In fact, it was very old. It was my routine for sixteen years, but back then, the visit wasn’t 45 minutes, it was between three and six weeks, twice a year. It was never in Yorkton. It was Regina, Toronto, Winnipeg. And they didn’t have a Ronald McDonald House either, so my parents, or more specifically, my Mom, couldn’t stay, so no visits and only one 15 minute phone call a week. I had tried desperately to forget about those years because I believed that’s how I would heal.
Yesterday, I changed my mind. I realized that the way to truly repair damage done to us by any manner is to be grateful. To give thanks that we are not where the pain occurred. To understand that being alive means experiencing hurt, and loss and confusion and most of all, anger! So many people are so angry. So was I! It can still creep up if I’m not careful. But yesterday reminded me of where I travelled, how long it took, how difficult it was and how much I appreciate where I am now!
Happy Thanksgiving Everyone! ????