On Thursday I mentioned to someone that I love very much how I was asked to do this and that I was a little nervous about the responsibility and wanting to say something meaningful. She told me, “You shouldn't be nervous because I know you will speak from your heart and everyone will feel that.” I hope that you find what I say meaningful but I will promise you this, especially you Rob, Heather and Denny – every word I say and every second I speak will come from the heart.
Human nature is a funny thing, you see someone in a wheelchair and the first thing you see is the chair, not the person in the chair; and typically, your first thoughts are why and your first interaction has this awkwardness to it as a reflection of those thoughts.
It wasn’t long after the first time I met Mary that I realized how well she understood this common behavior. So much so, that she had a clever distraction - one that altered the landscape of that first interaction with her – that distraction had a name - Mandy.
Who here remembers Mandy?
Mandy was a service dog, a very special service dog. You know how it goes when you see someone with a dog, the attention gets focused initially on the dog and the next interaction is with the person holding the dog, like magic, the wheelchair disappears, at least for a little while. Certainly for a long enough period for Mary to work her infectious and unique charm on you…that Mary charm.
Mary was okay with breaking the rules of service dogs, typically it’s frowned upon for people to fuss over a service dog like they would with any other dog, but Mary let it happen and Mandy considered it part of her job.
I was always convinced that Mandy knew that this was unusual and not covered in the service dog training program but she was loyal to Mary. Mandy also knew how to keep it, and Mary, in check – she knew just how much to give back to visitors and when to reign it in. It was always pretty incredible to witness the bond between Mandy and Mary; they are together again.
Earlier this past week, I was driving up route 126 and stopped at a red light at the intersection of route 30. If you are familiar with that intersection, you know that it is somewhat menacing and infamously treacherous. As I came to my stop and was observing the intersection activity, I spotted a blind woman with a walking stick, all alone, waiting to cross route 30. My heartbeat rapidly increased as I felt this immediate sense of concern and I thought, should stop my car right where it is and run over to help this woman cross the street? It was one of those moments where everything kind of slows down around you except your thoughts and your heart rate. I noticed the light turn green, and as usual, a car or two had to speed past to make the light and add unfortunate credibility to both adjectives I used earlier about this intersection. I saw the woman do a little move with her walking stick and just cross the street as if it was no big deal.
I was relieved, then all I could hear were the car horns, and that other stuff you here from drivers behind you. As I moved on, the next thought I had was whether I had prejudged that blind woman’s ability based on my perception of her disability. It haunted me for a few minutes. The reason I bring up this story is because one of the things Mary leaves us with are the lessons she learned about overcoming obstacles and the lessons she taught us about how much one can do, and that how much one is able to do should not be judged by anything other than their shear will and desire to do it.
Mary fought her share of battles, most would see the wheelchair and were at least able to have some sense, maybe, of the physical challenges and the battles she had to fight to ensure that she had the necessary accommodations to physically get through life. I’d for one vote to put her picture next to the word persistence in the dictionary. Mary was also a champion for all who demand and deserve equal access and when something was not right, especially for those who didn’t feel confident enough to demand for themselves, whether or not it affected her personally, she spoke up, she was willing to stir the pot and she got results. AS I write this, it reminds me of the last time I saw Mary, right here in this church on the day that Denny was baptized. At that time, the lift we had that goes up into our church hall had not been in the best condition and of all people for it to not work for, I didn’t want it to be Mary – mostly because she’s family at St. Andrew’s but also, I couldn’t be certain that she wouldn’t rat us out J.
I should probably mention how I know Mary, I work at MassBay Community College, not too far from here, at the Framingham Campus. Mary was a student there from the fall of 2005 until she achieved her dream of graduating in the spring of 2013.
Mary was given the honor of being the student commencement speaker and I’ll share with you one of the stories she told. Math was her nemesis, but she was as determined as anyone to win yet another of so many battles, to her, this was just another can’t that she knew she could…she did!
Mary would sometimes spend a few hours at a time working with our math specialists, after she was done, she would give them candy. In her words, “after two hours of teaching me math, I figured they deserved a treat!” I remember her doing this, she would often slip me a piece of candy , which is pretty cool because I didn’t have to sit through two hours of math to earn it…I guess she liked me J.
It’s important to recognize that Mary was so grateful to all who gave her the love, the respect, the help and honored her dignity not as someone with a disability but as someone.
In her commencement speech, Mary revealed that she had a number of learning disabilities growing up and this was during a time when such disabilities weren’t recognized publically, there were no learning specialists, no Americans with Disabilities Act; in fact, she spoke of being ridiculed and ignored. During that speech, Mary mentioned how people would call her “stupid”, then she looked out at the large commencement crowd and with a pride that beamed so bright it could light up the entire town, she said, in that gritty, I’ve lived this life voice that was recognizable from anywhere within hearing range, “I proved them wrong”…the crowd applauded.
It’s almost serendipitous that we here at St. Andrew’s are amid construction to make our facility more accessible to all people. I ask that you take this with you when you leave here, it may seem obvious but we all need a reminder every once in a while, especially in the times we are living in right now. When you look out into a crowd of people, see just that, a crowd of people. Mary was a constant reminder of that, I saw her share her heart with countless numbers of students in the years she spent at MassBay. Mary was a fellow student, a mother figure, an ambassador, a woman of faith and a friend to all.
I’ll close with the words Mary closed her commencement speech with and suggest that Rob and Heather play back that speech for young Denny down the road, where he can hear his grandmother say “If you want something, really bad enough, you can accomplish your goal with hard work and determination. Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t do it, just say you can do it…and do it.”