Christmas is a season of hope, and a time we think of a specific infant, and His mother. I feel this story belongs.
A baby boy was born in a small Irish county hospital in 1965. The birth was a tremendous struggle, and the baby was deprived of oxygen for such a lengthy time that he should not have survived. The resulting brain damage left the child completely paralyzed, with one tiny exception: He had the ability to move his eyes.
The boy’s name was Christopher (Christy). His parents were Bernadette and Joseph Nolan. After Christy’s birth, the family moved to Dublin, to be closer to medical help. The doctors could do nothing. He was diagnosed with severe cerebral palsy, brought about by the extended oxygen depletion.
Christy’s condition did not change. He was mute, quadriplegic and confined to a wheelchair. His body was wracked by spasms, and his attempts at speech were merely senseless sounds and dribbles of saliva. Bernadette once said he was “gagged and in a straightjacket for life.”
One doctor told Bernadette that the six-year-old Christy had the brain of a baby.
Bernadette refused to believe this. She was his mother. She knew him better than anyone. She could see recognition in his eyes. Intelligence. She wanted more for him than to spend his life trapped in a wheelchair, and inside his head.
So she taught him. She posted the alphabet around the house and maintained a steady stream of conversation to keep him occupied. His dad read to him, his sister sang songs and performed plays. They knew that there was something going on inside of Christy’s head, and were determined to help it develop.
When Christy was eleven, he was given a new drug that provided a small, but significant result: It relaxed his neck muscles to where he could move his head and inch or two.
They fashioned a device he could wear on his head – essentially a stick attached to a headband. Bernadette would cradle Christy’s head in her hands, and he would use the end of the stick to press down the keys of a typewriter.
After eleven years, Christy could communicate.
Mom would hold his head for hours as he labored to type the shortest of notes and letters. Bernadette had been right, as mothers usually are. The family soon learned that Christy had eleven years of pent-up thoughts and ideas that he wanted to express. The stick and the typewriter were his freedom.
He began attending school, then college, and he wrote.
He wrote as his mother stood with him, cradling his head in her hands. Herculean – for both of them.
At the age of 14, he published his first book. A collection of his poetry called “A Dam-burst of Dreams,” From there, Christy began attending college, but dropped out to focus on his writing.
He wrote two more novels, received an Honorary Doctorate of Letters, Whitbread Book of the Year, and the medal of excellence from the United Nations Society of Writers, and was named Person of the Year in Ireland. One of the novels was 120,000 words, and took 11 years to write. He continued to write until his death in 2009. He was 43 yeas old.
The brain of a baby? Bernadette knew better. She had looked into the eyes of her son and saw what no one else could see.
She had hope. A mother’s hope.
Why do I know the story of Christy Nolan?
A song. I wanted to understand the gorgeous lyrics of a U2 song, so I researched it. It turns out that Bono and Christy attended the same High School at the same time . Bono later wrote the song called “Miracle Drug” which is told through the eyes of Bernadette. It is one of my favorite U2 songs, and I have included it at the end of the post.
Why this matters to me?
My older brother was born in similar circumstances. He suffered severe brain damage in childbirth – half of his brain was completely destroyed, He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. He was not as severely affected as Christy – my brother could walk and talk and do many things.
But his life was a constant struggle, hampered by physical and mental deficiencies, surgeries, cruelty, and the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations.’
But my mother had hope. I watched her as she taught, fought, and struggled with my brother. I watched her fight like a lioness as she took on all challenges and challengers when it came to his care and education, and opportunities. She saw something that most did not see. She had a greater hope for him. His accomplishments were all beyond the wildest dreams of most everyone – except my mother.
Miraculously, my brother went on to graduate from High School, and serve a full-time mission. (Something that would be impossible by today’s standards.) He lived most of his life on his own, held down several jobs, and was happy.
He passed away almost a decade ago, where I’m sure the first person to greet him on he other side – was my mom.