Sunday, April 12, 2009
Missy Willard is special
I originally wrote this feature in early March of 1987 while working at a paper in Saratoga, Wyoming. My story is interspersed with a short piece by Erma Bombeck that the mother in this story, Carol Willard, gave me to help explain what she was going through. Bombeck died in April, 1996.
Did you ever wonder how mothers of handicapped children are chosen? Somehow I visualize God hovering over the earth selecting his instruments for propagation with great care and deliberation. As He observes, He instructs His angels to make note on a giant ledger.
“Armstrong, Beth son Patron saint Mathew. Forrest, Marjorie, daughter, patron saint Cecelia. Rutledge, Carrie, twins … give her Gerald. He’s used to profanity.”
___ Erma Bombeck
Missy Willard is special. Everyone who is in contact with her knows that. Her parents, her teachers at the Playing and Learning Center here in town, the children at the center, everyone knows how special.
Missy has a disorder known as Cerebral Palsy. “Cerebral Palsy is a general term used to describe a wide variety of conditions which result from damage to the infant brain before, during, or in the year or two following birth,” says Parents Magazine’s Mother’s Encyclopedia and Everyday Guide to Family Health.
Missy struggles with movements that you and I take for granted. It is hard work for her to muster enough strength to knock a stack of play blocks down.
Born two months premature, she spent the first three years of her life on oxygen. After her birthday in May, it was July before her parents, Mike and Carol, could even hold their child in their arms. She has additional problems with her sight and has spent more time of her four and half years in this world in the hospital than out. But everyday she makes progress.
Finally he passes a name to an angel and smiles. “Give her a handicapped child.” The angel is curious. “Why this one God? She’s so happy.”
“Exactly.” God smiles. “Could I give a handicapped child a mother who does not know laughter? That would be cruel.”
Having a handicapped child is difficult but rewarding, say the Willards.
“It has torn us apart and brought us together,” comments Mike. “It’s a big responsibility.”
“We have learned to rely on the family more. The family becomes much more important,” he said.
And they have felt their marriage stressed. “Our relationship has been through a lot but right now, I don’t think there is anything in the world that could pull us apart.”
The Willards have another daughter, Joy, who is 10-months-old and they say the little one has help a lot with Missy’s development.
“They play together all the time and they really miss each other when they are apart,” said Carol.
Carol has to spend much of her time at home with Missy and at first, she says she felt isolated. “Sometimes I felt like I just had to get out and see someone.” Mike said she was even a little jealous of him for being able to work.
“But has she the patience? Asks the angel.
“I don’t want her to have too much patience or she will drown in a sea of self-pity and despair. Once the shock and resentment wears of, she’ll handle it. I watched her today. She has that feeling of self and independence that is so rare and so necessary in a mother. You see, that I am going to give her has his own world. She has to make it live in her world and that is not easy.”
Patty Butler, who works with Missy at the Playing and Learning Center, notes her unique way of grabbing your heart.
“She is so special, the kids and the staff just have to fall in love with her. She is doing more for this school. The kids compete to be with her. They say, ‘Please, can I help you with Missy,” Butler says.
Missy began working at the Playing and Learning Center last July when her parents moved here, says P.A.L. director Dawna Erickson. She has been involved in the Home-bound program since she was about 18-months-old.
The staff at P.A.L. works with her for two-and-a-half-hour intervals Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and Bulter visits her for and hour at home on Tuesday and Thursday.
Bultler says“it is a give-and-receive” situation. “It is rewarding for me when she does respond.”
The school uses a number of tools in Missy’s training; A swing, to stimulate her sense of moving, a huge beach ball for the same stimulation, and various toys to develop her other senses, such as sound and smell. Missy is even working with computers at the school.
Mike and Carol notice any and all improvements in their child’s life. “Any little progress is wonderful,” said Mike and they live for the day-to-day progress. “She can go anywhere,” he said.
God smiles, “This one is perfect. She has just enough selfishness.”
The angel gasps, “Selfishness? Is that a virtue?”
God nods. “If she can’t separate herself from the child occasionally, she will never survive. Yes, here is the woman whom I will bless with a child less than perfect. She doesn’t realize it yet, but she is to be envied. She will never take for granted a ‘spoken word.’ She will never consider a ‘step’ ordinary. When her child says ‘Momma.’ for the first time, she will be present at a miracle and know it! When she describes a tree or a sunset to her blind child, she will see it as few people ever see my creations.”
The Willards say they really like living in a small town but it has its drawbacks for Missy’s care. The respirators used to sustain her life after she was born damaged her lungs and she is still very vulnerable to colds and other sickness. She often has to be hospitalized for the slightest ailment. And with the closest hospital 40 miles away, that can create a problem.
One thing they find particularly welcoming about Saratoga is acceptance.
“Staring is a problem,” said Carol. “People stare at her and ask questions. Here they only ask once and that is it. They accept it.”
I will permit her to see clearly the things I see … ignorance, cruelty, prejudice … and allow her to rise above them. She will never be alone. I will be by her side every minute of every day of her life because she is doing my work as surely as she is here by my side.”
Missy also has a lot of contact with the Willards pets, Zues the cat and Spike the dog. “In a way,” Mike said. “The animals are a part of her therapy. They play and the animals are very protective of her.”
What hurts her parents the most is their child’s suffering. “The biggest thing was that she was so sick for so long that she no longer reacted to pain. She no longer cried. They would stick needles in her and she didn’t even flinch. She became so used to it.”
With the help of her parents, her little sister, the animals and training at school, Missy continues to progress.
Mike, holding his little girl in his lap on the sofa at home, reflects. “We have come a long way, haven’t we Missy?” She flashes her heart-tugging smile and responds.
“And what about her patron saint? Askes the angel, his pen poised in mid-air.
God smiles. “A mirror will suffice.”