As a mother, my job is to take care of what is possible, and trust God with the impossible.
—Ruth Bell Graham
At the end of his first week of kindergarten, my five-year-old son, Adam, came home very excited and declared to us all that he'd just met the "greatest new kid."
"His name is Max Englund, and he's my new best friend," he exclaimed. "Can he please come over, Mom?" he pleaded. "Pleeease?"
"How great you found a new friend, Adam." Curious as to what he found so appealing about this boy, I asked, "What do you like about him?"
"He's just so fun to be around. He always makes me laugh. We do everything together and like all the same stuff," Adam explained. "Can he please come and play?" he asked again.
"Of course Max can come over. I can't wait to meet him," I said in all honesty.
It's always interesting to meet your children's friends and see what attracts them. This boy sounded like a perfect companion for my son, who loved to have a good time. I didn't have to wait long.
The following week was my turn to carpool. I arrived at school a bit early, hoping to find Max's mom. Most moms were chatting while waiting eagerly by the kindergarten door for their children, but one was standing off by herself as though she didn't know anybody yet. I wondered if that could be her.
"Hi," I greeted her. "I'm Adam's mom."
"Oh, I'm so glad to meet you," she replied in this great Southern accent. She was drop-dead gorgeous. "I'm Bonnie En-glund, Max's mom. He's been talking about Adam all week."
"The same goes for Adam. It's so great that the boys seem to be getting along so well."
"Let's plan to get them together some time this week," she said.
Just then the classroom door swung open. I quickly scanned a mass of five-year-old heads for Adam—and heard him before I saw him. His giggle is unmistakable, and he was laughing with another boy who I figured must be his famous "new best friend" whom I couldn't wait to meet. But I must admit that when I finally saw Max I was taken aback.
First, Max was darling: big blue eyes, a head full of blonde tassels, a sweet little cherub face, and a huge infectious Cheshire Cat grin that seemed to go from ear to ear: the kid was just plain adorable. What I wasn't prepared for was that Max was in a wheelchair and severely disabled. His legs were clearly immobile, and he kept his hands on the arms of the chair so that he could work the buttons on the electric motor. In all of Adam's conversations, that little fact had never come up. But my son was clearly oblivious to that detail: his only interest right then was making sure I met his buddy. And to achieve that goal he was hanging on to the back of Max's motorized wheelchair as his new pal drove him to me while both boys laughed the whole short way.
"Mommm!" yelled Adam. "Meet my friend, Max!"
Without missing a beat, Max waved at me happily. "Hi, Mrs. Borba!" he said. "Can Adam come over? We like the same stuff."
Within seconds I knew why Adam was drawn to this child. Max had all those attractive qualities kids (as well as their parents) like: he was fun, polite, kind, genuine, and "just plain nice." No doubt about it: this was the all-around great kid—exactly the type of friend a parent hopes for her child. His classmates obviously recognized those traits—each went out of his or her way to say good-bye to him. As I watched those kindergartners that day, one thing became very apparent: Max was a kid whose company they clearly enjoyed.
From the moment Max's doctors told his parents their son would never walk, they vowed to raise their child as normally as they could. And so Max did everything—almost everything—that "normal" kids his age did: there were swim lessons, Boy Scouts, sleepovers, field trips. Though Max had to undergo several painful surgeries and faced countless obstacles, his parents never excused him from anything nor made him dependent on them. That was how they felt Max would be able to "fit in" and live life to his fullest. His parents' standards would apply to any child: Max was expected to be polite, responsible, respectful, and cheerful.
The basic parenting philosophy they conveyed to Max was, "Yes, it's tragic that you're handicapped, but it can't be changed. So let's focus on the wonderful qualities you do have, what you are capable of doing, and the things you are fortunate to have." There weren't any special favors or treats because Max had a "rough night" (which he sometimes did); he was never let off the hook from homework or chores because he was confined to a wheelchair; and a "woe is me" attitude just wasn't allowed.
Adam's introduction to Max that week was the beginning of a close friendship between these two boys. I can't begin to describe all the fun times these kids shared, and the amazing thing was that Max's being in a wheelchair was never a problem. Thanks to his inherent cheerful personality and the great attitude of his parents, we all just loved Max for what he was. When he'd come over for a play date, he'd ask to be taken out of his chair, and I'd prop him up on the floor with some pillows behind him so and he and Adam could build Legos. And whenever he slid down or flopped over on his side by accident, he'd just smile and say in this darling little kidding tone, "Ah, Michele, can you put me up again?" And we would.
On Adam's sixth birthday he wanted a swim party with all the kids at the pool, and of course Max was at the top of his invite list. I was concerned. How could Max feel like he was part of the party when all the kids were swimming?
"Don't worry, Mom. Max can swim no problem."
Sure enough, as soon as Max arrived with his mom, Bonnie slid him into the water, where he floated face down. Whenever he wanted some air, he'd shake his head back and forth and someone nearby would flip him over.
"Oh, thanks," he'd say matter-of-factly. "I was almost out of breath." Then he'd float on his back awhile. The point for him was to be in the pool with all his friends, and to be sure that he could, Bonnie had taught him how to float.
The next year, when the big "in-crowd" kid craze was to decorate the spokes of your bicycle with bright, colorful plastic reflectors, Bonnie did the same for Max's wheelchair. So he zipped around the neighborhood and schoolyard as flashy and shiny as everyone else.
For most of us, Max's wheelchair really became invisible. Patty Service, Bonnie's neighbor, recalled how her five-year-old, Pat, came running into their house after school one day frantically looking for her. "I just heard a terrible thing about Max," her son cried. "Some kids in my school said he's handicapped!" Then Pat added, "He's my friend, Mom. We play together every day. Why didn't anybody tell me he was handicapped?"
Those years created cherished memories for me, and that's because your children's best friends often hold such a special place in your heart. Everyone in our family loved Max: we'd always tell him (half kidding, of course) that any time his parents wanted to get rid of him, we'd adopt him. No chance on that one though; his parents adored him.
Of course, life wasn't always so easy for Max. He made regular visits to the doctor and was hospitalized several times. He also endured a few painful surgeries. I'm sure there were even more difficulties that we never even heard about. But none of this burden ever dampened his spirit, optimism, or positive outlook on life.
Don't get me wrong: Max wasn't a little angel with a permanent halo. Max was a regular kid, and his mom wouldn't let him get away with anything. I remember one time his little brother, Graves, made some crack that upset Max, and he tried to run Graves over with his wheelchair.
"Max Englund," his mother said firmly. "Stop that immediately and apologize to your brother." Which of course Max did right away. Bonnie had high expectations for courtesy and behavior, and there were no excuses.
As time went by and Max felt more comfortable, he shared some of his disappointments with us. His secret dream, he once told me, was to walk: "Sometimes I dream I can fly," he'd say. "Then I'll be like the other kids." But of course he knew that this was one dream that could never come true.
What made Max different from many kids is that he was able to handle his frustrations when he couldn't do things other kids could. He had a glorious sense of resiliency: even when the going got really rough, Max could bounce back and always seemed to keep a positive outlook about life.
All the fun, carefree days of a fond friendship between Adam and Max continued through the years. Their times at Katherine Finchy Elementary School were soon over: the boys were older, and now it was "big stuff," so they were off to Raymond Cree Middle School. Then one terrible afternoon in February when the boys were in sixth grade, I got a phone call that jarred our lives.
Bonnie's friend, Judy Baggott, was sobbing so hard I could barely make out her words. "Max passed away unexpectedly this morning," she said. "His lungs just finally gave out. They couldn't save him." Max was only eleven years old.
I can still remember that exact moment when I heard the news—it was as though all the air was sucked out of me. I was hit with such overwhelming sadness, it took a minute or two until I could breathe. Adam was devastated—at first he couldn't say anything and then he walked around the house in a daze for three days. I noticed when I went into his bedroom that he'd pinned up a photograph of him and Max when they were in kindergarten, dressed in their Tiger Cub outfits—orange and white T-shirts, bright orange baseball caps, a tiger cub patch on the crown— arms around each other and those big, big grins of theirs.
But none of us could even begin to fathom how Max's parents could deal with such a loss—the obvious depth of their grief was just beyond comprehension.
It's been almost twelve years since Max passed away; this would have been the year he graduated from college. I was going through my son's old school scrapbook recently and found photos of Adam with Max that seem like they were taken only yesterday: that special kindergarten class and that very first time I met him (I can still hear Adam say, "Mom, meet my friend, Max!"), their Lego building extravaganzas, all those great birthday parties they attended. How could that have been so long ago? One picture took me back: there was Max with his infectious great smile eating his favorite chocolate ice cream that he loved so much. As usual, chocolate was smeared all over his little face. ("Do you have any chocolate ice cream, Michele?" he'd ask me in that kidding tone. He knew I always had some in the freezer saved just for him.) I wiped away the tears that always come when I think of this child.
I swear that Max came to our lives as a gift. So I can now honestly say that the more I think about this child today, the more I know how blessed we were to have known him. I know I'm not alone in that feeling.
I remembered a conversation I once had with Bonnie about Max. "If you could give a parent one piece of advice, Bonnie, what would it be?"
"I know exactly what I'd say," Bonnie said. "I'd tell parents that when your child is given a life sentence, you make sure you live each day you spend together as though it's your last one. That's what we always tried to do with Max."
So here's to you, Max. What a treasure you were in our lives.
A plaque on the wall of Raymond Cree Middle School reads:
In Memory of Our Friend, Max Englund July 1,1982-Feb 18, 1994 And all children who have left us before their time Dedicated June 9,1994, by the RC Class of 1996
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