November 21, 2014

Thanksgiving homecoming: Family will celebrate the strength, love and faith that binds them through blessings, challenges

The Ruckelshaus family poses for a photo outside an inn in Oxford, England, where Jay Ruckelshaus studied at Oxford University during the summer of 2013. Drew, left, John, Jay, Mary and Maggie will all be together again on Thanksgiving in the family’s Indianapolis home. (Submitted photo)

The Ruckelshaus family poses for a photo outside an inn in Oxford, England, where Jay Ruckelshaus studied at Oxford University during the summer of 2013. Drew, left, John, Jay, Mary and Maggie will all be together again on Thanksgiving in the family’s Indianapolis home. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

As parents, John and Mary Ruckelshaus believe that one of the greatest blessings of their life is when their grown children all return home at the same time.

As a college student who lives away from home, 22-year-old Jay Ruckelshaus knows there’s something special about returning to the place where you grew up and being embraced again by family and friends.

And the homecoming will be even more meaningful this time for the Ruckelshaus family, including Jay’s older siblings, 27-year-old Drew and 26-year-old Maggie.

For the first Thanksgiving in four years, they will all be together in the family’s Indianapolis home, celebrating the strength, the love and the faith that has always bound them—especially through some of the most challenging and devastating times a family can face.

“I think what I’ll give thanks for is that we’re all together, that we’re all here,” says Mary. After a pause, she adds, “Because very easily we couldn’t be.”

In those words, there’s a hint of the challenges and heartaches that have confronted this family from St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis.

When Drew and Maggie were little, they were both diagnosed with congenital glaucoma, a condition that led to about 20 surgeries each to prevent blindness.

When Drew was 9, he was struck with leukemia. Six months of chemotherapy followed. So did five years of waiting to see whether the cancer would return.

Then, in the early morning hours of a summer day in 2011, more heartbreaking news came.

“We got a phone call at 1:30 in the morning,” John recalls. “It was every parent’s worst nightmare.”

Two months removed from graduating as a valedictorian at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, Jay dove off a dock at Geist Reservoir—into water that was much more shallow than he anticipated. Friends rescued him. An ambulance was called. But the damage was already done when his head hit the bottom of the reservoir. His severe spinal cord injury left him paralyzed from the middle of his chest down.

From darkness to light

Many parents try to teach and show their children to have the spirit and the strength to continue on through the sometimes-harsh realities of life.

For children who have absorbed that lesson from their parents, a personal core often develops that makes them believe they can overcome any setback.

Then comes a moment that no one ever imagined—a moment that not only tests those lessons and beliefs, but threatens to crush them and the people who hold them.

There were moments like that in the first days and months after Jay’s accident. Instead of starting college on a full scholarship to Duke University in Durham, N.C., Jay began the tough, painful process of rehabilitation in the Shepherd Center, a highly-regarded facility in Atlanta known for treating people with spinal cord injuries.

In the beginning, everything—from breathing to coping with the change in his body—was excruciatingly hard for Jay, who was a member of the swimming and cross-country teams at Cathedral. The emotional toll of the accident also touched everyone in the family.

“When an injury like this occurs, everyone in the family is injured,” John notes.

While it doesn’t do complete justice to the dark days the family initially endured, one moment in John’s experience is revealing. It happened when he was on a deck overlooking Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta where he had come to visit Jay and Mary at the Shepherd Center.

“It was [on] Oct. 7, 2011—a beautiful day in early fall,” John recalls. “I broke down and cried. It was the raw emotion of all the anxiety, fear and sadness. And they all came together.”

As the tears flowed down his face, he looked ahead and saw “the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen in my life.”

“When I looked at that sunset, everything drained out—all the fear, the anxiety, the sadness. Right after that was the most incredible, calming influence in my life. From that moment, it was all positive. I had this feeling—it’s going to be OK. And it’s not only going to be OK, Jay’s going to get through it and have a great life.”

The first glimpses of that new life for Jay shined through in the months that followed.

“When he went down to the Shepherd Center, he was exposed to all these other injured patients,” John recalls. “It was inspiring to watch Jay wheel into other rooms, giving them hope and inspiration. He just touched so many of those kids through his generosity, his compassion and his inclusiveness.”

John stops and shakes his head before he continues: “In a strange way, in a fantastic way, the accident has taken Jay to another level.”

Reaching beyond

It is the night of Oct. 28, 2014. Jay is in his room at Duke University, preparing for another round of exams, papers and commitments that are an ever-present part of college life.

Now in his junior year, Jay has embraced Duke, and Duke has embraced him. He has joined a fraternity, started an undergraduate humanities academic journal, and cheered at home men’s basketball games in the “Cameron crazies” student section.

“I’ve had a phenomenal experience at Duke so far,” notes Jay, who is majoring in philosophy and political science. “Academically, I’ve been able to engage and conduct research with some of the foremost scholars across the country, which has been truly thrilling. Socially, I’ve made some fantastic friends. I couldn’t be happier with my choice to come here.”

To navigate his life at Duke, Jay still needs help around the clock. That’s where his “wing man” Joe Witchger comes into play.

A longtime friend from Indianapolis, Joe has been at Jay’s side since Jay’s freshman year at Duke. Joe, who is pursuing a nursing degree, helps Jay get into his wheelchair, cooks meals for him, and gets him into bed at night.

While challenges continue for Jay, so does his natural tendency to look past his own concerns to help others.

Remembering that his transition to life at Duke was initially overwhelming—even with the support of his family and friends—he realized that other students with similar disabilities and less support would likely struggle even more in making the transition.

So in 2013, he started a non-profit foundation designed to help other young people with spinal cord injuries achieve their goal of attending college. Called “Ramp Less Traveled,” the foundation represents his belief that “the college experience and society at large should be not just physically accessible, but broadly open and actively welcoming to students of all abilities.”

The foundation has already provided scholarships to three college students with spinal cord injuries. Even more importantly, Jay and his mother have served as mentors to students and their parents in helping them make the transition to college.

Looking forward

Taking his mission a step further, Jay organized and led a national conference on Oct. 22-23 at Duke called “Beyond Disability, Beyond Compliance.”

“The goal of the conference was to move the national conversation about higher education and disability away from the negative language of obligation and legality, and toward more proactive solutions that put students in the center of the conversation,” he says. “And that’s exactly what happened. I’m looking forward to see where these conversations lead in the future.”

That focus also includes plans for his future.

“While I’m uncertain of the exact path I’ll take, I know I’d like to work at the intersection of political theory and public policy,” he says. “I’ll be attending graduate school of some sort, potentially working toward a Ph.D. in political theory. I’d like to be a publicly-engaged academic—perhaps working at a think tank so I can keep one foot in the world of research and one foot in contemporary affairs.”

Then Jay adds a future goal that will make everyone who knows him smile and laugh.

“I also plan on owning at least two dogs at a time throughout my life.”

Jay’s mention of the dogs reflects an approach to life that he embraces more and more: “While disability advocacy does occupy a portion of my time, it does not define it. Many days, I like to enjoy some of the other hats I wear—those of being a student, a friend, a family member.”

That leads the conversation back to the upcoming Thanksgiving dinner in Indianapolis, his first one there in four years.

The true measure of a person

“I’m really looking forward to spending this Thanksgiving at home,” Jay says. “It’s my favorite holiday—free food and no obligation to buy gifts. What’s not to like? And I really enjoy spending time with both my immediate and extended family, so it will certainly be nice to do so in Indianapolis.”

Fifteen people will gather for Thanksgiving dinner at the Ruckelshaus’ home. Joining John, Mary, Drew, Maggie and Jay will be the children’s four grandparents and several aunts and uncles.

As Jay looks around the table that day, he will see the people who have been his greatest support through the joys and the struggles of his life. He will see the people who have given him one of the foundations he has relied upon these past three years: his faith.

“I think my faith has helped me remain grounded and connected with those around me as I transitioned from the hospital to Duke,” Jay says. “It’s enabled me to appreciate all that my family and friends have sacrificed for me to be where I am today.”

Jay’s attitude has helped his parents as they have sometimes struggled with the challenges their children have faced.

“Our faith is strong,” John says. “I feel as strong as ever in my relationship with God. He showed me the way through Jay. The sky is the limit for his potential.”

Mary adds, “I think the true measure of a person is how you deal with adversity rather than how you deal with success. I keep going forward because I have my kids. They’re still here, and they’re still developing their gifts. Our children are very strong. And we get a lot of strength from each other.

“What’s important is that Jay’s story gives other people encouragement. If somebody told me three years ago that Jay would have a good life, I wouldn’t have thought that. But three years later, he has a great life. That’s what perseverance does.”

She can’t wait to have everyone together for Thanksgiving.

“There will be lots of reminiscing and laughter. That’s the best part of Thanksgiving for me. It’s always great when we’re together. It’s priceless. When Jay’s home, the circle is tight.” †


Related story: John Ruckelshaus receives first ‘Joseph Tobin Award’ for fatherhood

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