Merry Christmas to you all! May you find a way to share the blessings of the “I Can” with the children in your life!
The “I Can”
What does it mean to believe “I Can” when everyone else tells you, it’s impossible? Christmas is the most exciting time of the year when you are six-years-old! The anticipation escalated for me when the town fathers installed decorations on the light poles on Main Street, and the tree was lit and covered with sparkly trinkets in the living room. Holiday programs at school and church only added to my eagerness for the arrival of Christmas Day!
One of my greatest joys during the holiday was the arrival of Grandma and Grandpa the week before Christmas. The house became a flurry of activity when they arrived. They brought the first presents and placed them under the tree. Our house burst with the aromas of oranges and apples they brought from the big city. The biggest-reddest apples I had ever seen were carefully transported into the house in large sacks from Grandpa’s car.
Life changed unexpectedly for me in 1953, the year of my sixth Christmas. Grandpa found me leaning over the back of the sofa looking out the window at my school across the street. All the other kids played in the school yard. I wept as I watched all the fun and activity. I was no longer allowed to participate.
Grandpa walked slowly over to the sofa and sat down beside me. He smoothed my hair back from my tear-streaked face and asked, “What’s wrong, Peggy?”
“Everything’s wrong!” I sobbed and wiped at my nose. “I can’t go to school. They won’t let me go outside…I can’t do anything!”
The strep throat I’d contracted in November escalated and the doctor diagnosed me with rheumatic fever. He ordered that I stay home and have my school work delivered by the teacher at the end of each day.
By the week before Christmas, I had already been home on bed rest for nearly a month. It didn’t look like my imprisonment was going to end anytime soon. All the other kids my age were in school participating in parties and playing games.
Grandpa reached down and took my hand. He led me into the kitchen, where he motioned for me to sit down at the kitchen table. Then he went over to the garbage can and rummaged around until he found an empty vegetable can. Carefully, he washed it out in the sink, dried it, and carried it over to the table placing it in front of me.
He instructed me to stay put while he searched the house for additional supplies. Then, he pointed to things in the magazines that he wanted me to cut out with the scissors he provided.
I did everything he asked.
Grandpa was pleased with the pile of colorful images I had cut out and placed next to the can. He pushed the glue in front of me and told me to start gluing the shapes on the can. For the next thirty minutes, I glued as he pointed to where I could glue the images.
He held up the finished product and asked, “What do you think this is?”
“I don’t know, Grandpa.” I was smiling now. His joy and excitement were catching. My grandfather, the man with the kind heart, could make even the most damaged child smile.
“This is an ‘I Can’!” He explained to me lovingly. “Look closely at what we cut out. It is the letter ‘I’ in all different colors, shapes, and sizes. Your artwork is now your very own ‘I Can’. I don’t ever want to hear you say you can’t do something again. You can do anything in this life that you want to. It’s simple; you just have to believe in yourself, your talents, and your strengths.”
He smiled at me with unbridled love and compassion. Grandpa was always my hero. But on that day he offered a gift to a broken child. His gift would turn out to be one of the most important gifts an adult can ever give to a child, the gift of unwavering faith in oneself.
I recovered and finally returned to school. The doctors did not allow to participate in gym class or to go outside on the playground in the winter for many more years. I learned to live within the restrictions the doctor placed on my activities in order to protect my heart.
The little can sat on my dresser and held my pens, pencils, and rulers over the following years. I didn’t think much about it, but I touched it and saw it every day. As I grew, I had no interest in competing with anyone other than myself. I believed I could accomplish anything I wanted to do, thanks to Grandpa. It was important to do everything to the best of my ability. Perfection was never my goal.
I excelled in music through the years and was a good student. In the end, I graduated from high school and went on to college. I married and had two sons. Life was good, and I never again allowed myself to believe that I couldn’t do something. The ‘I Can’ had long ago been left at the old house and forgotten.
When Mother finally sold her home and moved up to Minnesota to be near us, I collected many boxes she’d packed for me from the old house. We stored them in the basement closet of our new home. I was too busy with my job and family to take the time to look through those boxes of old memories. There were children to look after and sales goals to meet for my employer.
In 1979, my family was on the way home from an appointment in a neighboring town. A truck came over a hill in front of us. The nose of the truck suddenly crossed the center line in a direct path to our car. I lifted myself off the seat and twisted my body to reach my arms over the seat to place one hand on the back of each of my son’s heads. With no time to spare, I pushed their faces down into the backseat as I kept my eyes on the truck’s trajectory.
My boys were only five and seven-years-old on the day of that wreck. Back in those days, we did not have booster safety seats for our children. They were secured only by an adult seat belt.
In a heartbeat, my life changed forever. I don’t remember the collision. My husband yelled to get my attention. I opened my eyes and realized our car landed in a snowdrift by the side of the road.
The world seemed to be moving in slow motion. My first thought was to check the children. I quickly turned to look at them and pain shot up from my shoulders into my head. My husband tried to explain that he had already checked them. He wanted to know if I was okay.
I ignored his pleas in my attempt to check the kids. The boys sat up in the back seat, wide-eyed and frightened. The little one forced out a nervous giggle when I looked at him. He pointed at the windshield.
“You’re just like Superman, Mommy! You have a head of steel!”
I followed his finger and was stunned at the damage to the front-end of our car and the shattered windshield where my head had acted like a battering ram. Apparently, I was the only one with visible injuries.
When we arrived at the emergency room, the doctor immediately placed a collar on my neck. He explained that I had severe whiplash injuries to my neck and back. They did no tests that day to determine whether or not I had a skull fracture.
By that evening, I had two black eyes. When I parted my hair above the deep bruise and lump on my forehead to look in the mirror, I discovered every pore in my scalp above the hairline displayed a small pinprick of dried blood. I remember how odd I thought it looked as I repeatedly returned to the bathroom mirror to make sure the blood was dry and not fresh.
One week after the accident, I was rushed to the hospital experiencing blinding pain. They did a spinal tap, and the horrifying diagnosis was meningitis of the brain lining. The doctor believed that one of the children probably had a viral infection, and the germs had been able to transfer into my brain lining through the skull fracture sustained during the accident. I slipped in and out of consciousness. The pain was unimaginable, beyond anything I’d ever experienced in life.
I remember numerous times when I nearly reached consciousness. Before I even opened my eyes, I could see the light. I did not see the light of heaven; it was the light of life as I tried to wake up and open my eyes.
There was one particular day in the hospital when I struggled to wake up. The pain was overpoweringing. I heard doctors and nurses talking, calling each other by name. They surrounded my bed and attempted to pull my body out of the fetal position. My arms were tucked up against my chest, and my hands were bent backward in a horrible, claw-like manner under my chin. I remember my knees curled up to my chest.
They finally pulled my arms and legs out straight and strapped them to the bed. I wanted to scream at them that they were hurting me, but nothing came out of my mouth. It was impossible to open my eyes in the overwhelming bright light. The light was now my enemy!
I remember the feeling of being perched on the edge of a diving board. It wasn’t possible to continue to try to get to the light where the pain was unbearable. I could simply dive back down into the dark waters of oblivion where there was no pain, no thought, and no risk.There was a sensation as if I raised my hands above my head to make the perfect dive back into the black waters.
The medical staff was astounded days later when I mentioned the names of the people who had been in the room when I first tried to wake up. They believed that it was impossible for me to remember anything while unconscious, and yet I did. I would love to be able to tell people that I had experienced a brief moment in heaven, but I know the truth of that day.
There are no words to describe the excruciating pain I had to endure over the following year. I had massive migraines that lasted for days on end. Back then, I couldn’t bear to have the curtains open or look at any light.
My words came out scrambled and unintelligible, but in my head, I knew what I wanted to say. I couldn’t figure out why the words that came out of my mouth scrambled, no one could understand me. Throughout the entire experience, my mind struggled to remain sharp and alert. It was my body and mouth that I couldn’t control.
I tolerated only a few hours of activity a day. Eventually, I would lose the ability to control my left arm and my left leg if I became over-tired or if the pain levels escalated. The damage to my brain was intense. I would be walking one minute and the next fall on the floor because I couldn’t control my left leg. There was total frustration when I had no sense of taste and smell.
My short-term memory was non-existent. It confused the children and caused innumerable problems for my husband. My employer tried desperately to protect my plan to purchase the business so he could retire, but he now faced not only doing his job, but mine too. Doing the work of two people was not a sustainable position for him.
Back in 1978, there was no definitive treatment for my traumatic brain injury. The doctors concentrated only on my pain and the pills they prescribed further reduced my ability to function. With the loss of my ability to earn wages, we started charging groceries on our credit cards. Life continued to spiral downward, and I couldn’t find a way to get out of the constant descent into doom and pain.
After nearly two years, my doctor announced that the determination of all the experts was that I needed to sign up for social security. He considered me to be totally disabled. My doctor also stated that he was going to send me to Sister Kinney Institute to “learn how to live like this”.
I cried all the way home. The house was silent when I arrived. My husband was at work, and the children were at school. Looking back I find it amazing that they still allowed me to drive a car. My vision became seriously compromised when the migraines hit, and they were frequent and without warning. For the second time in my life, I believed I could no longer continue to fight through the pain of living. I wanted to die! Unfortunately, I had tried everything the doctors had told me to do, and nothing worked.
My oldest son struggled to help fix meals, take care of his little brother, and help me with the house and laundry. He was just a kid and didn’t deserve the responsibility of replacing me in the house.
My husband couldn’t keep up with all the bills. I watched as his hope declined every day. I was a burden who couldn’t hide under a rug. No matter how he felt, I existed, and I made a wholesome and happy life for everyone in the house nearly impossible.
I had a life and death choice. More than anything, I wanted my children to have a mother who could attend their sporting events, help them get ready for their first date and be there to support them on a daily basis. It didn’t seem like I could manage to do those things ever again. Those two children were my reason for living. I had painfully watched how my disability had destroyed the good times in our house for the past few years. Like any mother, I wanted more for them!
I walked out into the backyard, looked up at the heavens, and screamed at the top of my lungs, “Why have you forsaken me?” For several hours, I wept until I could cry no more. I don’t know if any of the neighbors were home to see me, but no one approached as my depression escalated.
After there were no more tears, I finally went back inside the house and picked up the phone instead of the pills I planned to take to end everything. As I look back on that day, I have no idea why I did that. I called the only neighbor who could understand how desperate I had become and how engulfed I was in self-pity. Her husband had recently been killed in a plane crash leaving her to raise their three daughters alone.
For hours, I shared with her everything the doctor told me. My words spilled out jumbled, and some came out backward. My final plea to her: “Lois, I can’t explain it, but I need you to stay with me today. All I know for sure is that I don’t want to learn to live like this!”
She spent the entire day with me. We cried. We talked. We prayed. I had sufficient narcotics in the house to kill me. Even with her there, I couldn’t stop thinking about how easy it would be.
The next morning after the boys went off to school, and my husband went to work, I went downstairs to get a small suitcase to pack for Sister Kinney. As I walked past the closet in the laundry room, I had a sudden need to explore those old boxes from Mom’s house. I wasn’t looking for anything specific in all the old memories. My brain couldn’t hold a thought for more than a few seconds. Perhaps I just wanted to view a part of my life that had been good and normal.
It was Christmas time, and my heart would like to believe now that Grandpa came again to visit his broken child. I want to believe that he led me to that closet to find the hope he had once shared with me.
I sat on the floor in the basement for hours going through old boxes and reliving snippets of my childhood. There were both good and bad memories.
My hand suddenly hit something cold and round. I pulled it out of the box. Once again, I was looking at the ‘I Can’ that my grandpa had helped me make decades earlier. He had died over ten years ago, but as I sat and held that old can I could feel him standing beside me.
The old pencils, pens, and the ruler from the 1950’s still sit in that old tarnished can. I turned it in my hand. Then, I held it up to the light, and something changed in me.
I carried the can upstairs and placed it where I could see it daily. All I knew for sure was that if Sister Kinney could “teach me how to live like this”, that I could work harder and learn to live better. “This,” as the doctors described it, was no longer acceptable! Sign up for Social Security and admit I was totally and irreparably damaged? Never!
I put the specialists on notice that the debilitating narcotics used to control my pain were no longer acceptable. Against their wishes, I demanded diet and exercise. I needed anything they were willing to offer except pills. There were two children to raise, and I intended to do it. I would be the one fixing lunch, not my seven-year-old!
It took nearly five years to learn to control the pain and my brain before I could work part-time again. I used a Simon Says electronic game to help reprogram that part of my brain damaged beyond help. I spent hours and hours daily with that little game in my hands. For the longest time, I could only remember a sequence of two colors, two tones. Then suddenly one day I got up to four. Weeks later, I was up to eight. Nearly a year later, I could remember a sequence of over twenty.
I learned relaxation techniques and biofeedback. Again, I didn’t just pray; I talked to God constantly. I was beginning to realize that he had never left my side. Quite the opposite! He had repeatedly saved me from numerous tragedies. I was finally able to admit that although I didn’t know what he was preparing me for I believed that when the time came that I would be ready.
Through the years since the accident, I have faced multiple challenges that I know I could not have managed if I had not first experienced the darkest side of life. Today, I no longer feel damaged. I feel a deep sense of release and gratitude that I am a much better person today as a result of the challenges I faced and conquered during my lifetime. The abuse of my childhood was nothing compared to the challenges of a brain injury!
To this day, if I am overworked or overstressed, I can lose control of my left leg and left arm. The migraines only hit a couple of times per year now, not on a daily basis. I have learned to endure and control the pain in my back and neck. Words still come out scrambled when I’m overtired, and I struggle to make the words I put on paper meet the rules of writing. I have recently retired from a very successful and productive professional career. My children have grown into remarkable men.
The ‘I Can’ sits in a prominent place in my home. It signifies the best a man can offer to any child for hope. My grandfather gave me the faith to believe in myself. My God had never forsaken me. I had simply given up on myself for far too long. My prayers brought answers when I became humble enough to listen. I was finally able to see beyond myself and understand that my two sons were my finest achievement in life and that their future was worth fighting a nearly impossible battle to redeem myself.
What would this country become if every child were allowed to make their very own “I Can”? What if they could do it with an adult who could share the undying love and support it takes to help a child believe it could work for them too?
I took the cans and “I’s” from magazines to the local women’s shelter. My Christmas gift to the children there is their very own ‘I Can’ to place on their table or dresser. Every child deserves to hear they can do anything they wish in this life if they are willing to believe in themselves and to work to achieve their goals.
What is stopping you right now from finding a can and making one for your desk? You never know when life will bring you to your knees. If life ever does that to you like it did to me, you will be in the perfect position for reflection and prayer.