This isn’t going to be a normal blog

Aloha, I am Wendell’s daughter, Wendy Roberts.  I am the one who takes care of his site.  This blog is going to be about Wendell, but unfortunately, he cannot write it since he passed away in 1996.  I will write it for him and about him as inspiration strikes.

I have this site online for several reasons, but the main one is to give encouragement to others who are facing problems that seem insurmountable.  Especially people facing paralysis.  There are so many tragedies. Whether it’s a car crash, a fall, or one of an infinite number of other misfortunes, the effects of these traumatic events affect the lives of the families involved in a way that is impossible to place into words.  Life can change in sobering, forever-ways in just the blink of an eye.   When faced with this level of tragedy, what can you do?  Is your life over?

My Dad’s life is an example of choosing to persevere against all odds.  After a diving accident at the local swimming hole left his spinal cord severed,  and with no motion in his body from the neck down at the age of 16, I can only imagine the grief that overcame him.   He was placed on a striker frame to heal for months – immobile, unable to go to school.  Then later sent to the only type of rehabilitation center that existed at the time – a nursing home.  The depressing kind full of sad and lonely octogenarians, devoid of modern philosophies of care.  His drawings recalling this time period of his life are a remarkable portrait of his emotional landscape.  They show a deep feeling of depression and of uncertainty of what life might hold for the future.  When the accident first happened, he could not move, so these drawings were done years later, but they are his pieces that most encapsulate the struggle.  They remind me that even when life feels like this :

or this:

or this:

Desolation by Wendell B Johnson


that better times can be ahead.  Nothing is insurmountable. Life is not over.

My Dad had his accident back in a different time that was devoid of so many helpful inventions that we, even those who lived through it, can barely believe we lived without.  A time without computers.  A time with far more primitive medicine.  A time before disability legislation (no accessible restrooms, no wheelchair accessible curbs, no rules about elevators, no mandated building ramps, etc…).  So many things were missing that we now have. His life was a series of improvisations made from duct tape, wire, and ingenuity that must have made his condition seem all the more impossible.  His father’s welding and wood working skills went a long way toward enabling Wendell to live a productive life, but it was his endurance that carried him through, one day at a time.

Every tiny thing in Wendell’s life had to be problem-solved, from getting a drink when he was thirsty and home alone (A big jug of water with a flexible tube tied in a place where he could reach it as needed), to answering the phone (a hook was added to the receiver so he could pick it up using his brace), to eating (my mother heated and bent the handles of a set of spoons so the handles could fit in a loop on his arm brace, and then she cut every meal into bite-size pieces).  Every little thing was hard for him, and each aspect took time to solve so he could do it independently.  Nothing was done without some sort of adaptation.

And yet, look at what he managed to accomplish under these harsh circumstances.  It is a marvel.  He overcame the expectations of his Doctors, accomplishing so much more than they ever could have dreamed. From complete paralysis, he worked very hard to rehabilitate a small twitch in his shoulder so he could eventually control his shoulder and bicep.  Doctors did not think he would ever move below the neck again, because the spinal cord was severed at C4/C5, but somehow, his body recovered those two miraculous sets of muscles below the break.  He became an artist, patiently using his bicep muscle and gravity (to control the downswing that would normally be performed by his non-functioning tricep). Every stroke was improbable, but he completed an impressive portfolio of paintings and drawings.  Each one took a long time to complete.  His painting completion times were usually measured in months, but he developed enough technical skill to win top honors at art shows. He lived much longer than his prognosis. He was supposed to be dead at 24, but he lived to be 48 years old. He co-wrote two books on local history.  He was Justice of the Peace and later Mayor of the small town where he lived.  He married against all odds, and fathered and raised a baby to adulthood.  All of this was impossible.  But it happened anyway because he kept working at it a little bit each day and also because these types of gifts beyond our control tend to be given to people who keep reaching for every opportunity.

If you have been given a terrible prognosis, or have insurmountable odds against you in any aspect of life, try your best to stay positive and patiently work toward the things you want, even if they seem impossible. Thwart that grim future.  Work toward what you want in small ways every day. It is amazing what can happen if you do not let predictions stop you from trying something.  A can-do attitude is an amazing force for change.  Your goals might not happen quickly, but over time, you will make gains that no one could have anticipated.  Keep on keeping on, no matter who you are and no matter what you are facing.

Maple Mountain at Dawn

Maple Mountain at Dawn

This was among my Dad’s last paintings. I like to contrast it with his early works and note the vibrant colors and increased technical skill. This image, in my opinion, captures something about his overall attitude after all those years of refinement through adversity.