He was born with only one hand, but he won our hearts on his own terms: he wanted our love, not our pity. He’s seven now, with a brave battle won ...
I SUPPOSE LIFE is full of surprises for everybody, but I can never help thinking how unlikely it would have seemed, only a few years ago, if somebody had told me that my husband Mike and I would not only find ourselves raising two children belonging to somebody else, but would be facing (and, I like to think, coping pretty well with) the problems of being parents of a physically handicapped child.
I don’t consider myself an expert on handicapped children, but I do think I have learned quite a lot in the five years I have spent caring for our blond seven-and-a-half-year-old. His name is Dean, and he was born with only one hand. His left arm stops in a stump just short of his wrist, and for the past three years he has worn an artificial arm with a hook on the end of it to compensate for what’s missing. Dean has learned to tie his own shoelaces with the hook, and button his shirt. He can, with practice, do just about anything with that hook that a normal boy does with a normal left hand.
In fact it’s difficult to think of any way Dean isn’t normal. In summers he swims. In the fall it’s acorn fights and football. Through the winter it’s hockey, and we can tell when spring is here: that’s when he begins accusing us of having thrown out his baseball mitt — until he finds it under a stack of old toys. On sunny days he bikes or climbs trees; on rainy days he builds model airplanes and feels put upon for being cooped up. In short, he does what any other grade-two boy does.
Perhaps I feel freer to boast publicly about Dean than most mothers would because he’s not our natural child. Both he and his eightyear-old sister Tracey have been living with us in Toronto for five years. They’re the children of a relative of mine and his ex-wife who live in Vancouver. In the spring of 1961, we got word that my relatives were having marital difficulties and one logical way to help out was to bring the children to Toronto for a while. They’ve been with us ever since.
In the beginning I was somewhat hesitant about the idea. It was Mike who expansively suggested we take the children, even though they were my relatives, not his. I was afraid that two small children, acquired so suddenly, might be too much for a childless couple like
us. I knew Tracey and
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He worked tirelessly with his hook and one hand, learning to tie his shoes
DEAN CAN DO ANYTHING
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adored her. but I didn't know Dean as well and I couldn’t help wondering how I’d feel about his affliction if he came to live with us. But Mike was confident it would all work out, and something had to be done; so I finally agreed.
I flew to Vancouver and brought the children back by plane. In a few short hours of flight. Dean, who was then just two and a half, dispelled my fears. He was the same as he is today — blond, winning and beautifully determined. On the plane he cuddled up to me with his arms and face while the rest of him squirmed to get out of my grasp so he could explore the aircraft. He had won me over.
Since then I have watched that personality of his develop as it has helped him whip his handicap over and over again. The way he learned to tie his shoelaces is a good example. That’s something any child finds difficult at first. Dean learned it as a fiveyear-old by sitting for half an hour at a stretch, using his hook and one hand to tie and untie the laces until he picked up speed. Last summer, when Mike and I told him he wasn't old enough for a two-wheel bike of his ow-n, Dean borrowed a neighbor’s and spent hours digging ruts in the backyard as he learned to negotiate the turns all by himself. Sometimes I watched him from behind an upstairs bedroom curtain. Once or twice I shouted encouragement. But I never offered sympathy when he fell. I have long since trained myself not to treat him that way. Dean doesn’t want sympathy, and if he wants help, he asks for it. And that happens rarely — usually when he’s frustrated. Then he wants us to set him back on the track,
just to the point where he can take over again.
Mike and I have always treated Dean matter-of-factly. We’ve never pitied him, coddled him or sheltered him. Some mothers, I know, take quite a different approach with their handicapped children. But in my opinion, by overprotecting such children, they are unconsciously — and cruelly — neglecting to prepare their children to meet the tests and challenges they must face sooner or later.
On the other hand, Mike and I can also look back on mistakes we’ve made with Dean, and wonder sometimes how we could have been so wrong. I think our greatest mistake was not having Dean equipped with a prosthesis or artificial arm and hook much sooner than we did. You can’t really appreciate how useful a prosthesis is until you see it in use. It’s much more than just an old-fashioned hook, of course. The apparatus that supports the hook begins with a loop that runs under his right arm and over his right shoulder. From there a cloth harness trails across his back and up over his left shoulder. Attached to the harness is a nylon cable that runs down the natural and artificial parts of his left arm and is fastened to the metal hook at the base of the artificial arm. By flexing his left shoulder and arm, Dean can manipulate the cable which opens and shuts the hook.
Dean was five before we got him fitted w'ith his first prosthesis. Until then we had dreaded the whole idea, just through fear of the unknown, I suppose. We told ourselves that doctors don’t approve of such apparatus for tiny children. But, as we’ve learned since then — and this has been confirmed repeatedly in experiences with babies deformed by the thalidomide tragedies of the early 1960s — a phys-
ically handicapped child should get a prosthesis even while he’s still an infant in his crib. It gives him something to roll onto and to use for picking up toys.
Because of the late start he got with his. Dean found his first prosthesis more of a hindrance than a help. Whenever he could, he shrugged it off. We realized the need to be patient, and we could wait several days until he had forgotten the misery, and then we would get him to try it again. It was a tedious process that lasted almost a year.
By then, Dr. Alfred W. Farmer, surgeon-in-chief at the Hospital For Sick Children in Toronto, had told us how we could best take care of Dean’s prosthesis. Every three months since then, I have taken Dean to the prosthesis clinic at the Crippled Children’s Centre in the Toronto suburb of Leaside. Dean’s prosthesis is examined by an audience of doctors, physiotherapists, technicians and prosthetic manufacturers, who may ask him how
the arm-and-hook feels, whether it’s comfortable and whether he can manipulate it to his satisfaction. Every child has to have a custom-made limb, and the limb that worked well a few' months ago may be unsatisfactory today. At his last session Dean complained that the artificial arm which fits over his stump was scraping his elbow. And no wonder. His arm had grown an inch and a half since he was fitted for his present prosthesis just over a year ago. We’ll soon be buying him another one, his third.
A new prosthesis costs about three hundred dollars, and at Dean’s current rate of growth and activity, he’ll work his way through three or four thousand dollars’ worth of equipment before he matures. I remember when Dr. Farmer first tried to explain to me how expensive the arms would be. When he said community help was available to reduce the financial cost to us, I was frankly insulted. But he tactfully explained that service clubs are willing to finance part or all of the cost of artificial limbs to ease the burden which the families would otherwise have to carry for many years. Since then, Rotarians have been paying half the cost of each prosthesis, and we have paid for any extra hooks or repairs needed. (Dean is hard on his arm-and-hook. He often dints it by using the hook as a hammer, sometimes banging it so hard on things that he wears away the rubber from the inside edge; and often he loses screws out of the hook.)
From the moment he got used to his prosthesis, we all thought Dean was marvelous the way he could operate it. Tracey brought her friends into the house and insisted, “Dean, pick up a plate,” or, “Dean, pass a piece of paper to the kids.” Mike and
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I privately complained to ourselves that Tracey w'as showing him off too much — until we realized we were commanding Dean to perform in front of our friends, too.
Old friends, I think, forget about Dean’s handicap just as often as we do — which is most of the time. But new acquaintances and strangers have a habit of reminding us about it; and they are, unwittingly, constant hazards to Dean's well-being. Their first reaction, too often, is, “Oh, poor little fellow!”
Mike tells them, “He's not poor. We don’t pity him. Why should you?”
We never tell people about Dean’s hand before they meet him. The idea seldom occurs to us anyway; but even if it did, we wouldn’t mention it. They might think that since we’re going out of our way to prepare them. Dean needs to be treated in some special way. He doesn’t. And besides, we owe it to them, and to Dean, to let strangers react naturally to him.
Dean certainly knows how to react to them. He learned very early to become sensitive to morbid curiosity, to defend himself against it but at the same time to respect any healthy interest in him. When he moved to a new school part way through grade one, his new teacher asked me how she could best integrate him into the class. Without Dean knowing it, I told her to introduce him and then ask him to demonstrate how his hook works. Apparently my instincts were right: he came dawdling home from school that afternoon with new friends.
On the other hand. Dean can be quickly sensitive to impending morbidity and usually manages to veer away rather gracefully before the questions start. Once, however, when we were out shopping Dean got trapped by a little boy who kept chanting after him. “What happened to your hand? What happened? What happened?” Finally, mimicking the boy’s chant. Dean answered, “I bit it off, I bit it off!”
But that’s not to say Dean isn’t capable of asking plenty of questions himself. He’s fascinated by the world around him, and he wants to know all about it. He likes to study the way water flows in crazy patterns around a washbasin before it goes down the drain. At bedtime he may want to know where gold comes from and how it's mined. One evening we heard a loud pop in the bathroom. We rushed in to see what was wrong. There was Dean, in the dark, with shattered glass all over the floor. A short time before, in answer to one of Dean’s countless questions, Mike had said that if you put a wet washcloth over a lighted bulb, the bulb will break. Of course Dean just had to try it to see if Mike was right.
Strange as it may seem, one question Dean has never asked us is why he doesn’t have a left hand. Yet Mike has overheard him humming to himself, "I wish I had a hand. I wish, I wish.” And one night when I was putting him to bed. he took up my left hand, looked at it and said, “1 wish I had that hand.”
“If I could give it to you. Dean.” I^told him, "I would.” He was horrified. “Oh, I don't want your hand. Mummy,” he said. “I want one like it.”
When I asked him why, he would
only say, “Because I could do so many things with it.” But he said it without a trace of self-pity.
His realistic attitude is so familiar to us by now that we take it for granted. But every once in a while we get a reminder that every new experience poses a special set of problems for him. Yet we're confident that he’s capable of solving each problem as it comes along. Last summer, for instance. Dean enrolled in a swimming class at a public pool only after we had promised him he’d be allowed to keep his prosthesis on in front of the other children. A couple of days later, the people who manage the pool retracted our promise, but on very good grounds: Dean’s hook had almost
clobbered several other swimmers. We told Dean his hook was a safety hazard and said he didn’t have to go back to class if he didn’t want to, but if he decided to go, he would have to take off the hook. Dean understood and agreed to go. The first time he took off the arm-and-hook, the kids stared at him, and Dean asked, “What are you looking at?” The kids turned back to their swimming, and so did Dean. Afterward, he told us rather absently, “Well, I solved that problem myself.”
With incidents like that, Mike ana I have become incurably proud of our Dean — and pretty unabashed about showing him off to people when we think it will do him no harm. At a supermarket one Saturday, while Mike took time out for coffee and Dean explored the toy section, a stranger said to Mike, “Watch that young fellow over there with the artificial hand. He manages very well.”
“Yes, I know,” Mike said. “He’s my son.”
Embarrassed, the man began to apologize. But Mike cut in and asked if he’d like to see the way Dean operates. The stranger agreed, and so Mike called Dean over and put him through the exercise of picking up a cigarette package, a box of matches and finally a single match, meanwhile explaining how the nylon cable is flexed and relaxed to get the job done. The man left impressed. Mike came home proud.
But Dean didn’t think anything of it. As he told me, “I do everything good.” ★
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