Building Bridges, Linking Lives, and Healing Hearts

By: Elayne Pearson, Special Needs Preparedness Specialist, Author/Life Coach/Motivational Speaker

February brings to my mind cold and prickly weather, but also warm and fuzzy thoughts of Valentine’s Day. It’s a favorite holiday of mine because I think we all need to express our love and appreciation more. Okay, at home, more love and at work, more appreciation.

“Ah love, it’s a grand thing,” Lady Cluck wistfully observes, while gazing at the dreamy Maid Marion in Disney’s Robin Hood, and I truly agree with her.

For years, our home rang with the delightful music and scenes from that show and many Disney classics, because Heidi, our beloved little girl with Down syndrome, adored all things Disney. A few years later her sweet personality shifted into anxious and baffling behaviors (before most had even heard the word autism) and our videos went from being a simple joy — to a deep need of Heidi’s to collect and constantly carry with her.

Fast forward to Heidi’s teen years. It seemed like a true emotional addiction to perfectly line up all her movies on the floor and stare at them, while emitting an odd sustained growl. If we moved them, she freaked. Life looked perfect at the Pearson home on the outside, but inside, life was complex and draining. (Thank goodness our family generally enjoyed hearing her movies play constantly, and today are sane individuals.)

Looking back, I’m grateful Heidi saw examples of make-believe characters portray principles of perseverance and that love conquers all. Actually, this happened in her daily life, but her mind affected by autism and Down’s syndrome couldn’t relate to the examples around, so I slowly built bridges by referencing life experiences and emotions to Heidi through her movies — because they were more real to her — than real life.

Countless times when her movie finished I’d say, “See, Heidi, everything turns out great when we keep going and are brave. It always works out in the end.”

I still believe “happily ever afters” can come true.

There are other great examples which inspire me to be a little better person. I especially felt that as I cared for my very ill husband with acute kidney failure on Christmas Eve. (Believe me, it’s quite different caring for my “disabled” spouse, than both of us helping our handicapped daughter.) Our difficult experiences gave us deeper admiration and “built bridges of the heart” to individuals who take care of their beloved spouse for months, years, and even decades.

I’ve been amazed at the remarkable historical accomplishment of the building of the mile-long Brooklyn Bridge, suspended over the East River between Brooklyn and Manhattan New York in the 1880s. Yet, it’s become more relevant lately when I learned more about the woman behind the scenes.

John Roebling, a brilliant bridge builder attempted a seemingly impossible feat, and after explaining future obstacles and goals, convinced his son, Washington Roebling, an up-and-coming engineer to partner with him. They finally convinced bankers to finance it at an estimated 18 million dollars, and hired huge crews of men to create the “impossible” road (and walkway). The bridge was to be finished in five years, but a few months into the job, an accident, crushing John’s foot resulted in partial amputation. Some believe tetanus was a factor, because within days, he died, leaving his son in charge. Only Washington Roebling, and to a tiny degree, his wife Emily, knew John’s lofty vision and complex strategies. The venture was about to be scrapped, but together they persevered.

With no electric lights, power tools, or cell phones to complete all the elements of bridge building, such as creating massive steel/wire cables, molding cement underwater, rigging pulleys with animal teams, figuring counter weights for granite slabs, as well as estimating wind and water factors, it’s a marvel it actually came to fruition.

At the construction site, while frequently going up and down the caissons (the water tight chambers used to dig into the sand towards bedrock, pour cement, and anchor cables, etc.) Washington Roebling got “caisson disease” as it was called. Today it’s known as the bends or decompression sickness, a complex illness affecting the nervous system, joints, and spine. He became too weak and ill to go to work. Using a telescope from the couple’s Brooklyn home, he watched over the project while Emily became his secretary, eyes, ears, and voice. She took care of him at home and symbolically built another bridge as the messenger of detailed instructions to the various crews of men at work. Under his assistance, Emily Roebling studied higher mathematics and bridge engineering, and soon became very fluent in the construction of bridges.

Around the 10 year mark, the cables were completed and the roadways were beginning to be put down, but the extreme delays, defective materials, public outcry, and several deaths during construction, and the fact that Washington Roebling hadn’t actually set foot on the bridge in nearly 10 years due to his disability, made him a convenient scapegoat. He narrowly missed being voted off as chief engineer.

Different versions indicate that after Washington became homebound, there were periods where he was unable to speak, yet with his mind sharp as ever, he created a method of communication with Emily by lifting his finger.

Wow. After being around people with limited speech/language for decades, I truly admire this amazing couple. With so many limitations, they still made it work. It thrills me to realize this incredible suspension bridge of 3,460 feet took almost 14 years to finish, but thanks to Emily’s astonishing efforts, her husband remained chief engineer of construction. Together, they created a crowning accomplishment.

It was said of Emily Roebling, “She is a woman of infinite tact and wisest counsel” and “invaluable.” Washington suggested his wife be the first to cross the bridge, and as she passed by in an open carriage, hundreds of workers raised their hats and cheered.  Against all odds, this valiant husband and wife team literally changed the world.

In my comparatively simple world, I’m thankful my husband is doing excellently under my diligent care, and his doctors’ recommendations. We’re both very grateful for bridges carefully built over the years by teachers, therapists, bus drivers, and care providers of our darling daughter with many special needs. Miss Heidi is 28 and lives semi-independently from us with remarkable, big-hearted “professional parents” and staff, plus her beloved dogs and cat. (Bless ‘em all, they listen to Disney’s Robin Hood a lot).

Remember, even a simple valentine or thank you note can build bridges within difficult situations, link lives or organizations together, and heal homes with hurting hearts. Happy Valentine’s Day, from my heart to yours.

This article may be copied, with attributes to author, Elayne Pearson. She is excited to be working towards credentials with IBCCES. As Special Needs Preparedness Specialist, Elayne has decades of commitment to the disability community and presents at various preparedness expos or other events. To invite Elayne, email [email protected]


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