How My Disabled Son Fooled Everyone

by Donna Kirk on February 26, 2016

4734262662_643418baf6_zOur son Matthew loved an audience; especially when he could create his own brand of shock. He didn’t give a damn about social convention and made fools of learned naysayers.

After a difficult birth in 1970, Matthew was born not breathing. Doctors predicted that he would die before morning. Two weeks later, they said he could stop breathing any time and would never celebrate his first birthday.

One doctor at Sick Kids called him a vegetable with a heartbeat.

During the first weeks of his life, Matthew couldn’t suck or swallow. He was fed through a nasal tube and had to have his saliva suctioned to avoid drowning.

The only suitable place for him, doctors said, was an infant home located at the far end of our city. Forget him and have another baby as soon as possible. We refused to sign the consent form.

After a two month stay at Sick Kids, we brought Matthew home to the nursery we’d painted and decorated. To the soft toys in his crib, the mountains of clothes on his shelves and to the family and friends who adored him.

He took his milk slowly from a bottle and loved rice cereal. He could hold his head up and recognized our voices.

By the time Matthew was five months old, the infant home would have kicked him out. He no longer met their criteria. He rolled over both ways, smiled for the camera when it suited him, went to sleep at night like and angel and woke up at two a.m. just to make sure I was still breathing.

At eighteen months, Matthew’s muscles were stubborn. He tried but couldn’t hold himself in a sitting position. We enrolled him in swimming classes for children with disabilities at a local community centre.

He learned the route to the pool and cried piteously all the way there. Even though I tried every geographical variation possible he recognized them all and cried harder. After swimming class, he laughed all the way home.

I cried driving to the pool because he cried. And I cried driving home because he was so happy his ordeal was over.

But after a few weeks, I saw him smiling at his instructor, who loved him. He began holding his arms out to her when it was his turn. She’d release him under water and back away. Eyes open, he’d swim to her outstretched arms and she’d lift him out.

Six months later, at age two, Matthew was chosen to show off his swimming skill on national television. For the filming, his instructor stood on the edge of the pool and threw him into the water. The camera man ran along the deck, capturing Matthew as he turned around under water and swam to the side. His little hands reached for the deck. He pulled himself up and sat perfectly straight on the pool deck, grinning at his adoring audience.

At age seven, Matthew was still not walking but could pull himself into a standing position. On a cottage holiday that year, other families admired his extraordinary swimming skill in the resort’s Olympic sized pool. Many of these new friends spent hours walking with him around and around the shallow end, trying to encourage him to walk on his own.

On the last day of our holiday, I was drying Matthew off at the edge of the pool and putting on his socks and running shoes. Other families were saying goodbye to each other, with promises to reconnect the next year.

Matthew sat on the grass beside me. He reached up, took my hand and stood. With a mischievous laugh, he let go and walked away. All his fans clapped and cheered. Some wept, including me.

Years later, on the first day of a holiday in Florida, we’d finished unpacking the suitcases and decided to take Matthew for a swim before lunch. As we approached the pool area, all eyes were on us. Matthew’s scoliosis and palsied gait marked him as a person with serious handicaps.

An elderly gentleman clambered to his feet and dragged a lounge chair close to us. A woman next to him smiled sweetly. We thanked the man for his thoughtfulness and introduced ourselves to the couple. The woman began chatting to Matthew, who replied with his own brand of sign language, because he didn’t use words to communicate. She nodded; a perplexed expression on her face.

Matthew rose from the chair and took the lady’s hand. He led her to the pool and sat down on the stairs. She sat beside him, swished water over his legs and told him not to worry, she wouldn’t let him fall in. Matthew glanced at the woman. He let go of her hand, stood up and plopped belly first into the water. She let out a horrified gasp. Chairs clattered as sunbathers scrambled to the poolside.

“Wow! Who would have guessed?”

“Swims better than me!”

“What a smart kid!”

My husband and I stood back, soaking up the praise and admiration being lavished on our son. But we were used to it. And we never tired of his “look at me” attitude.



Photo credit: steve p2008 (via

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Michelle Sim February 27, 2016 at 10:15 am

how very beautiful Donna! God, how I wished there were more of you out there….


Donna Kirk February 27, 2016 at 2:51 pm

Michelle, Thanks. Hope our Paul is okay.


Liz Bryant February 27, 2016 at 11:50 am

Great story, Donna! Love it.
Matthew was one of a kind, but you are, too.


Donna Kirk February 27, 2016 at 2:52 pm

Thank you, my friend.


Julie Foss February 27, 2016 at 12:05 pm

Matthew was very lucky to have you provide him with such wonderful opportunities. No matter how hard it was for you and for him, neither one of you gave up. Very inspirational Donna.


Donna Kirk February 27, 2016 at 2:53 pm

I know some other mothers who haven’t given up either!


Sheila Gale February 27, 2016 at 12:12 pm

Michele and Liz have expressed exactly how I feel. You inspire me, and I know you inspire many others as well.


Donna Kirk February 27, 2016 at 2:53 pm

Sheila, thanks you for being so loyal to the blog and to me.


JENNIFER MOOK-SANG February 27, 2016 at 4:53 pm

great storytelling, donna! brought a big smile to my face!


Donna Kirk February 27, 2016 at 9:50 pm

Thanks, Jennifer.


Mary Stewart February 29, 2016 at 4:44 pm

Great story Donna, Matthew was one smart cookie!!


Donna Kirk March 2, 2016 at 7:38 am

Thanks, Mary!


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