It had been an extraordinarily long and exhausting day, and Maggie Johnson was letting everyone know it in all the ways that she can communicate. Shaking her head. Grunting. The cold shoulder. That frown.
Gone was the sweet smile and sparkling eyes that the brunette uses to convey all is right in her world.
Her mom, Jennifer Bruyere, began to wonder if this had been such a good idea after all.
She badly wanted Maggie to walk across the graduation stage at Blossom Music Center with her fellow seniors from Cuyahoga Falls High School. She’d spent all year dreaming of her achieving this one thing that her older and able-bodied siblings, Nick and Danielle, had achieved.
But a step so many students take for granted would require a perfectly timed burst of willpower and determination from Maggie, who was born with cerebral palsy, is legally blind, doesn’t speak and is unable to stand without support.
And it didn’t appear Maggie was in the mood.
As the minutes ticked closer to the ceremony, Jennifer could only hope for the best and think of the journey that had brought her daughter to this moment.
It took awhile for the doctors to diagnose the condition of the third child of Jennifer and her first husband, Bruce Johnson. At first, they chalked up baby Maggie’s frequent jerks to being startled by her two loud and energetic toddler siblings.
But after Maggie failed to reach some developmental milestones — a year in which she cried daily and around the clock — a Cleveland Clinic neurologist delivered the news. Maggie wasn’t being startled; she was having hundreds of seizures every minute.
Life changed for the Johnson family that day, but it didn’t end.
Maggie was enrolled into the Cuyahoga Falls school district, and two new players joined her story. Over the years, physical therapists Ronda Beery and Michelle Sivek learned all the subtle nuances it takes to read Maggie’s mind.
So when Jennifer and her second husband, Mark Bruyere, moved to West Salem two years ago, there was no question that Maggie would commute to the Falls. Jennifer invested four hours of travel time daily to keep her with her friends, in a familiar environment, and in the care of her beloved therapists.
Last fall, Maggie’s parents filled out one final Individualized Education Program (IEP), a goal-setting document required for students with special needs. Jennifer’s top priority was for Maggie to walk across the graduation stage, flanked by her therapists.
“Just like her brother and sister did,” Jennifer said. “This is why I drove her back and forth to school. I wanted her on that stage.”
Graduation day was May 24, and it began with a morning practice session. Jennifer and Maggie made the hour drive to Blossom, knowing that they would have to return again that evening for the ceremony.
But the family had just returned from a weeklong vacation two days earlier, and the last thing Maggie wanted was more stimulation. Practice didn’t go comfortably, and after the long trip back home, Maggie objected to being disturbed again when it came time to bathe, dress and return for the evening event. After arriving at Blossom, she was in full “meltdown” mode.
And then, something extraordinary happened.
Seated in her wheelchair, Maggie was pushed up a ramp to the stage to wait her turn. It was anyone’s guess what she would do when it came time to walk.
“If she doesn’t want to walk, she’ll just go limp as a noodle,” her mom said.
Maggie’s name was called, and Beery and Sivek each took an arm and lifted, waiting to see how she would react.
In the audience, her family held a collective breath. Twelve years of school, 12 years of therapy, 12 years of learning how to communicate and how to move. This was the celebration they wanted for her. Did she want it for herself?
Maggie did not go limp. Her knees locked, and she took a step. And then another.
A crowd that had been admonished not to cheer for each individual member of the graduating class threw the rule book away. They stood and applauded. First Maggie’s classmates. Then their parents. Then the stoic administrators and educators who had been trying to set a good example.
And as the pavilion echoed with their joy and good will, Maggie smiled. Bright. Big. Contagious.
She accepted her diploma, took a seat next to her fellow students, and patiently allowed photographers to snap their cameras.
“It still gives me goose bumps,” Jennifer said a week after the ceremony ended, the family still coming down from a high that was 12 years in the making.
Jennifer admits she doesn’t know for sure what was going through Maggie’s head as she flipped the switch and gave everyone the dreamy ending they had been hoping for.
“You can’t make her do anything she doesn’t want to do,” she said. “But it was like, she knew this was it. She just knew it was showtime.”
Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/paulaschleis.