When Janie (my first cousin’s five-year-old daughter) was born and diagnosed with achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism, my Uncle Tommy’s first and only response was, “She’ll make us all better people.”
That she has.
Last night our family had the honor of attending a benefit dinner for Dr. Ben Carson, the world-renowned neurosurgeon who saved Janie’s life by performing a delicate surgery to reduce the swelling and fluid on her brain.
While Carson has performed thousands of groundbreaking surgeries (including the first successful separation of twins conjoined at the head), the one patient invited to introduce him to a room filled with 1,700 fans and supporters was our very own Janie Hite.
And boy did she deliver. And so did Dr. Carson.
In addition to his remarkable ability to save lives (Cuba Gooding, Jr. played him in Gifted Hands), his rags-to-riches story is almost unfathomable.
Carson’s mother, who had 23 siblings and only a third-grade education, became a single mother when she discovered her husband was married and had another family.
Living way below the poverty line, Carson watched his mother work three jobs every day, leaving the house at 5:00 am and returning after midnight. While he says he “detested” school and was a subpar student in elementary school, his mother’s work ethic rubbed off on him, and he kicked it into high gear in middle school.
He wanted to make his mother proud.
Last night Carson gave an impassioned speech about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and making the most of what life hands you.
Just the way his mother did.
Just the way he did.
He overcame poverty, abandonment and growing up in a violent apartment building (filled with boarded-up walls and windows) to became the most renowned neurosurgeon in the world.
His message was clear: nothing should stand in the way of what we can achieve in this life.
In his closing remarks he referenced the lyrics of the “Star Spangled Banner:”
“We sing the lyrics, but it’s important to stop and think what they really mean,” he explained. “There’s no question that this is the land of the free and the home of the brave. But let us all recognize and remember that you cannot be free unless you are brave.”
And the tears came down.
What a remarkable sentiment. Bravery does lead to freedom.
I see it in Janie all the time. He saved her life, and what a remarkable life she’s lived.
Nothing keeps Janie down. She takes dance and gymnastics, just as every little girl should.
And she certainly does not sit in the house when we all go skiing.
Her name is Janie Yvonne. But we like to call her Janie “Beyond.”
- She sees beyond her physical limitations.
- She reaches beyond what people think she’s capable of.
- She proves we can all reach beyond where we are right now.
I could also see Carson’s message of bravery in the woman I sat next to at dinner.
Carolyn lost the use of her left arm after suffering from a stroke at age 23. She graduated from JMU in 1976 with bright eyes and a big future and then, one day, she blacked out. She went into a coma and never lifted her left arm again.
When I asked her what her greatest challenge has been she responded, “Buttering bread. It rolls all over my plate and gets on my thumb.”
Carolyn told me she has no real limitations. She plays a guitar (just think about that for a second), she can put on earrings with one hand (which she promptly taught me how to do) and she can fold a dollar bill into a bow tie.
With one hand.
“Prove it,” I said.
OK. I didn’t say, “Prove it.” That would be rude. But I’m pretty sure that’s what Carolyn heard me say when I said, “Really?”
She asked me how many kids I had, then hit her husband on the shoulder and told him to hand over two one-dollar bills.
And away she went, bending and flipping and folding her way into my heart.
You cannot be free unless you are brave.
Dr. Carson’s bravery led to his freedom and the same is true for Janie and Carolyn. And it dawned on me brave isn’t just necessary for overcoming financial and physical challenges, but emotional ones as well.
As the tears were rolling down my cheeks, I thought of my own journey and what it took to walk away from everyone else’s definition of success and finally create my own version of it. There’s no question that emotional freedom has been my reward.
My small spark of bravery doesn’t begin to compare to the bravery Janie Beyond exhibits every single day of her life, but I’d like to think my uncle Tommy was right: Janie was brought into our lives to make us all better people.
I’m thankful for her bravery.
And now it’s my job to make sure my own children experience and embrace brave stories like those of Janie, Carson and Carolyn.
By sharing their stories (and bow-tied dollar bills), I hope that I can help Layla and Alex will find their own, unique, ways to prove to themselves and the world that this truly is the land of the free and the home of the brave.