Guest blog: Nicholas Besta, 17, and his family know first-hand what living with a disability is like. That’s why they participate in Mary Free Bed’s peer support mentoring program, which is designed to give patients and their families access to people with injuries similar to their own. Nicholas, whose father, Pat, has used a wheelchair since injuring his spinal cord in a 1990 car accident, shares how his father’s disability is not a barrier to living a full and happy life.
My father was in a horrific car accident before I was born. He was in a coma for months and died once, but was revived. As a result of this, Patrick Besta was paralyzed from his hips down. He has not been able to use his legs since 1990. Despite this, he married my mother, Maria, in 1998. The next year, my twin brother, Joseph, and I completed the family unit. There is nothing odd or unusual about our household. The Bestas are your average suburban, medium-income family. We just happen to have a member in a wheelchair. I do not think of my father’s handicap as a disability, but more as a doorway – a doorway to a life I would have had no idea about.
When I look at my dad, I don’t see a guy in a wheelchair. I see a strong and independent man who I’ve looked up to my whole life. He can do nearly everything an able-bodied man can and then some. My father has ridden horses, plays basketball, tennis and softball, skied, gone charter fishing and a million other things. He was voted a “GR Hunk” by Grand Rapids Magazine. And while I could list the literally hundreds of adaptive sports and activities my father has done and the many accolades that he has received, that would be doing him an injustice. The best thing about Patrick Besta is not what he has accomplished, but how he has helped others find hope in times of distress.
When my parents first said we were going to Mary Free Bed, I was a little nervous. My mom soothed my brother and me by telling us we were going to help a couple. The husband had an injury that left him paralyzed in the same area as my father. She said we were going to comfort them and let them know that life goes on. Just because your life has changed doesn’t mean that it is over. I was much younger at the time, so I nodded yes but I had no idea what she meant. While what happened was horrible, I could not understand why the couple would be sad about the husband being paralyzed. My dad had been like that since forever, and we were a happy family. I had no idea what being paralyzed truly meant. All I knew was my father sat in a wheelchair, because he could not walk.
Another thing I didn’t know was that my parents had done this many times – my mother manages the Therapeutic Recreation department at Mary Free Bed and its Wheelchair & Adaptive Sports program, and my dad is a WAS coach and athlete. While this was the Besta Twins’ maiden voyage through the sea of counseling the distraught, my parents had experience helping several families, anguished with the definition of their loved one’s disability: Life becomes as bland and active as a frozen vegetable. The couple’s recent calamity had brought this definition into their hearts, and their expressions reflected that pain. As soon as we had introduced ourselves, my father tried cracking a joke with his usual dry humor. It warranted an even dryer laugh that was more of a sigh than anything. A few ice breakers later, my parents began working their magic. There were tears, frustration and anger. I could not relate. I was too young. But I had eyes, and I could see the eventual relief on the couple’s faces.
And while I can say that my mom is a huge part of my life and has helped my dad more than anybody throughout his adult life, Patrick Besta was the star of the show that night. The couple began to see how a man in a wheelchair can lead a successful life and have a family. It was something spectacular to see, especially to me. My father was just stating the obvious. Of course you could lead a normal life without limbs. Of course you can still enjoy your usual activities. Of course your family will still respect you. Why was losing the use of your legs such a big deal to these people?! This was a 12-year-old’s logic, and it was justified by my ignorance. After we left that night, the words of my parents and proof of my father’s dominance over his disability lit a fire in the couple’s spirit. They no longer had that haunting definition of “paralyzed” in their hearts. They remain family friends to this day.
That night, my father touched the lives of more than just the depressed couple in the room. I began to question the seriousness of my father’s accident. His success and do-anything attitude blinded me to the fact that he relied on four wheels and his arms to get around. He cannot change the lightbulbs in our living room. We have to put his wheelchair in the back of the car every time we go somewhere. And that is about it. Even now that I know the seriousness of his accident and disability, nothing has changed. Every time somebody tells me they’re sorry my dad is in a wheelchair, I tell them not to be. Why would he need anybody’s sympathy? He has done more in his lifetime than most able-bodied people.
A wheelchair is just another one of life’s hurdles, and instead of jumping, he built a ramp and pushed over his obstacles. I have never underestimated my father or anybody else with a disability. My father saw the promise in that couple, and while he might be remembered for the sports and adaptive activities he’s done, I’ll remember him for the people whose lives he has impacted and the eyes he has opened, including his own son’s.