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'Can I help you?': My mother, my fierce and loyal warrior

Jennifer Race's mother fought for her daughter, who has spastic cerebral palsy, from day one

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There is nothing more loyal than a mother’s love.

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I am told that when I was an infant, when someone’s glance lingered too long on me in my stroller and my mother detected the nascence of a stare, she would give them a dirty look and sometimes pointedly ask, with a sarcastic smile, “Can I help you?” At which point they would inevitably turn and quickly walk away.

My fight for acceptance had only just begun.

I am a 51-year-old disabled woman with Spastic Cerebral Palsy, fully wheelchair-bound, depending on others for assistance with all tasks of daily living, such as eating, dressing, and bathing. But here’s the surprise: I live independently. And the story of how I do so begins with a fierce mother.

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As many other disabled people my age will attest, being a disabled person in the early 1970s to early 80s was even more challenging than it is today, with societal discrimination being the universal and largely unquestioned norm. As a disabled child, I needed an advocate and that is what my mother was for me.

When I started pre-kindergarten, my mother was to be found beside me on the accessible school bus or smiling back reassuringly at me from the rear of the classroom or feeding me my mid-morning snack. All of that was at the insistence of our smalltown school board in Webbwood, Ont., west of Sudbury, which had been petrified that I would take up too much of the teacher’s time or be too disruptive. Although after that first year of pre-kindergarten and our move from our small town to the bright lights of North Bay, my mother was no longer required to attend with me, for the next 12 years and beyond she remained my warrior.

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A photo of Race.
A photo of Race. Photo by Peter J Thompson/National Post

In Grade 3, when other students were learning to write longhand, my Occupational Therapist fashioned a splint for my left hand, which enabled me to grip a new, unsharpened pencil, the eraser end of which I could use as a pointer to depress the keys of a typewriter. However, there was no typewriter available for the use of an eight-year-old student. My mother found this unacceptable. After this she could be found so frequently in the office of the superintendent that he would be forgiven if he had thought that she was staging a sit-in.

A month later, I could be seen in the classroom beside the other students with their pens and papers, methodically tapping away on my brand-new IBM Selectric with a special key guard. My mother had prevailed once again.

It was during these years I would learn there is nothing more loyal than a mother’s love.

After finishing high school, I went on to George Brown College in Toronto, after which I was given an amazing opportunity to work part time as a clerk for Durham Regional Police Service, a job I held proudly for 25 years. However, none of this would have been possible without my mother. The first year of my employment with the police, my mother would again step up, coming into my workplace to provide my personal care, which entailed assisting me in the washroom and helping me to eat my lunch, until the service acquiesced and agreed to hire an agency to take her place. By doing this, she allowed me to become a productive member of society.

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Jennifer Race (right) with her mother.
Jennifer Race (right) with her mother.

During this time, I would continue to live with my parents, and it wasn’t until the summer of 2015 when I realized that things needed to change. My mother was in her late 70s and my father was in his early 80s and I began to think what this would mean for me in the future. Unsure as to whether anything would come of it, I decided to take a bold leap and see if I could find a companion or someone to love. I did not tell any members of my family what I was doing, not even my mother, because I did not want any of them to try to stop me. Not long after registering on a dating website, I was matched with a good, kind-hearted man named Andrew, who I very quickly came to care for. Soon it became clear that I was going to have to tell my family about this man if our relationship was to continue.

Race (L) and her mother in Oshawa.
Race (L) and her mother in Oshawa. Photo by Peter J Thompson/National Post

I received a great deal of resistance to our relationship — as I expected — but I hadn’t realized at the time how universal the resistance was going to be. At first even my mother was not supportive, because her first inclination was to protect me. She did not want anyone to hurt me, but it didn’t take her long to see Andrew’s fine character and how much he was beginning to mean to me. One evening, while we were all chatting after one of Andrew’s first dinners with my parents, Andrew, doing something that had become natural to him now, cupped his hand over top of my atrophied hand. Soon afterwards I noticed my mother wiping away a tear.

“Mom, what’s wrong?”

“It’s OK, Jenn, it’s OK. I’ve just never seen anyone outside of the family do that with you before.”

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“Do what?”

“Make such a loving gesture.”

After that evening, she helped me fight tirelessly against the members of my family who were not supportive, until, finally, Andrew and I were married in November 2019.

Race (C) and her husband and family on her wedding day.
Race (C) and her husband and family on her wedding day. Photo by Peter J Thompson/National Post

My mother walked me down the aisle alongside my father, each with a hand on a handlebar of my chair. When we reached the front, she took her seat and smiled reassuringly and triumphantly to me from the front row, just as she had done 44 years before from the back of the pre-kindergarten class.

This Mother’s Day, 2022, will be the ninth Mother’s Day since my husband Andrew lost his mother. I cannot imagine my life without my mother, my warrior, and, for me, it makes each Mother’s Day now even more precious than the last.

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