His car was literally wrapped around a tree. They saved his life, but he was left paralyzed from the waist down with limited upper body movement. He was classified as a quadriplegic. He was 23. My mother was 22.
Back in that day, many quadriplegics gave up. That was never my father’s story. He wasn’t going to let the accident determine his life. He was ambitious. He had goals. And with my mother right there with him, nothing was going to deter him from returning to work, getting a house and adopting me. It’s funny. Some people might think having a father who was a quadriplegic is not a blessing. But to have parents who lived with such determination was the best blessing I could have ever had.
As a child, I thought it was cool that he had an electric wheelchair. I’d ride on his lap through the neighborhood to go get ice cream. When I got bigger, I’d ride my bike and he’d zoom along with me. I didn’t realize that people with disabilities could be discriminated against until we were at a restaurant once when the waiter came to the table, looked at my mother and said, “What would he like to order?”
My father didn’t raise his voice. He didn’t bat an eye. He just said, “Well, I will have the prime rib, medium-rare, horseradish on the side,” and made it very clear that his disability was not in any way connected to his mind.
That was my first recognition that people might feel sorry for my father or look down on him in some way. But I never did. And my dad never showed any sign of self-pity. He believed there was nothing you couldn’t do if you were focused and determined.
It’s not that there weren’t obstacles, but he believed that obstacles were meant to be overcome.
When I was in sixth grade, there was an oratory contest. Everyone had to recite a poem or speech. I thought I’d do the “I Have a Dream” speech. But my father said, “No, everybody is going to do that,” and he suggested the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling.
It’s been my mantra ever since. I have a framed copy of it at work, right behind my desk. Whenever I’m dealing with a stressful situation, I turn around and read it. Even if I just get through the first lines: If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you / If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you / But make allowance for their doubting too; I’m like, “OK. Got it. I can do this.” Not just because the words of the poem instill confidence, but because my father taught it to me. He was my hero. In my mind, he was 7 feet tall.