by Jon Bateman
The fact that Russ and Glenda Bateman have been able to maintain a marriage for more than 53 years is an impressive feat, but for my parents to do so while also raising a child with a significant disability is even more extraordinary. Yet, as I spoke to them as the 35 year old man I’ve become, I found out my disability was surprisingly more of a positive influence on our family and that the shared values my parents had from the outset of their marriage was the key ingredient in what helped them to guide their lives and decisions as a couple.
“Even though we were surprised to have a baby with Spina Bifida, we never once found ourselves feeling guilty over it or blaming each other for the situation. By the time you were born, we had already had five children and your mom was also a trained nurse so I knew I could trust her to make the best decisions for your health while I worked to support the family financially,” said Russ. “Most importantly, I think the key thing that kept us together during the challenging parts of our marriage was the fact that we could trust each other to make decisions and take actions because we both had the same personal faith and the same goals in mind for our family.”
Those goals were so ingrained in their attitudes and actions that the severity and the significance of my disability never even dawned on me until I was an adult. This isn’t to say that I didn’t experience difficulty growing up with Spina Bifida, it’s just that my parents never seemed to act like it was much of an issue, so I didn’t either. I played little league baseball, I played street hockey with my brother and his friends and I swam all the time at the local pool with my older sister. I was enrolled in public school, I got my first job at 16 years old as a disc jockey at the radio station and I wrote a weekly column in the local newspaper as part of my high school student’s council. Even though I walked with crutches, all things to me seemed very normal because the expectations my parents had of me were not significantly different than what they expected of my siblings. I moved out on my own at the age of 20 to begin journalism school and later graduated with a communications degree and a social work diploma by age 25.
“We nicknamed you ‘the family glue’ for a reason because as your father and I worked together to help support you in your development we sort of forgot about any of the smaller problems or petty disagreements we would have had,” said Glenda. “I guess you could say that our marriage became a cooperative effort to problem solve so that we could come up with practical ways of handling the challenges you faced. As we did that, there just wasn’t much time to be worried about much else especially with all the other children we were raising.”
As a child, one of the key things I remember about my parents is that they never excluded me from decisions that were to be made about my life and they didn’t shield me from experiencing the realities that go along with being one of the few people with a physical disability in a rural Alberta town. My mother would often say to me, “If people are going to stare at you, you better give them something to look at,” which let me know that she expected me to be known for something more than my disability and that not backing down from people who think you’re different is often the best way to earn respect. This is the same mother who watched me fall down 45 times as a toddler as I tried to look out the window of our family room. Not because, she enjoyed watching me struggle but because she understood that conquering those struggles would eventually mean independence. The beauty of it was that as a youngster, I just thought that’s what every kid did.
As I grew older though, I began to appreciate my father’s influence more. He understood disability from a different perspective, having contracted polio as a young child before a vaccine was readily available. His own mother nursed him back to health and while he didn’t develop any visible long-term effects, he knew what it was like to have an illness, to be the smallest kid in school and to deal with emotional aspects of being singled out for something beyond your control. This provided a much needed buffer for me as I got older and needed someone to talk to when my Mom’s expectations became more difficult to manage and our own opinions of how things should be began to clash. Yet, even as I’d go to my father for occasional support, he always shared the same overall view that my mother on the important issues of work, independence and self-reliance. He might have been the voice of reason and a calming influence but he supported my mother’s efforts and didn’t allow me to back down from what needed to be done.
“Despite its challenges, the best part of raising you was that each of us developed a very strong individual relationship because of the uniqueness of the shared experiences we had. It’s a relationship that has changed as you’ve aged because your experiences have given you maturity, wisdom and experience that actually is benefiting us more as we are now facing some of our own health challenges as seniors,” said Russ. “I think back on the many conversations we had when I was first diagnosed with cancer and I know that having your perspective in mind helped me to face it with more hope than maybe I would have had on my own at the time.”
In that sense, perhaps the gift of living well that my parents gave to me has been returned to them in some small measure as I’m able to offer them similar support in their golden years? Regardless, their commitment to each other and their commitments to the goals they set through their own personal faith and value system will always be a guiding light for me as I move forward in 2013 to start my own marriage and one day maybe even be so lucky to raise my own children half as well.