Father and Son: A Lesson in Love

updated 09/15/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/15/1986 01:00AM

It was well past midnight, and after 17 hours and 53 minutes of all-out effort, Dick Hoyt was only 100 yards from completing an astonishing feat of courage, endurance and love. To a full-throated roar from the spectators, he tightened his grip on the racing wheelchair before him and broke into a rubbery-legged run toward the finish line.

Dick, 46, and son Rick (Richard Jr.), 24, his 92-lb. wheelchair charioteer, had been competing in the Iron-man Canada Triathlon Championship since 7 in the morning. By the time they had finished the 2.4-mile swim, Dick was already gray with fatigue from towing his son in an inflatable dinghy, and during the grueling 112-mile bicycling event that followed, Rick was strapped into a "racing basket" mounted on the front wheel assembly of Dick's bike. During the ordeal, Rick—who has cerebral palsy and is a virtual quadriplegic—withstood acute discomfort, while his father suffered through severe cramps that knotted his stomach and weakened his legs. In the last stretch of the 26.2-mile run, Dick's strength was ebbing, slowing him to a walk.

Several miles out of town Chariots of Fire was played through loudspeakers. Dick heard the applause begin to build up ahead in the little town of Penticton, British Columbia, and Rick threw his head back to give his teammate a look that spoke of encouragement and of delicious, unadulterated delight.

The race was officially over by that time—David Kirk of Canada had won more than eight hours earlier—but spectators were four deep as the Hoyts sprinted down the main thoroughfare of Penticton. People knew about the Hoyts—knew that in the space of a half-dozen years the father had run with his brain-damaged son in some 250 road races, six Boston Marathons and 15 previous triathlons of a less taxing nature. Moved by the sight of them here and now, many of the spectators stepped off the curb, seeking to touch them as they passed. At the same time the PA system blared, "Isn't that the finest sight you'll ever see in your life? What a man! What a family!"

Ordinarily, Judy Hoyt, 45, who had been following her husband and son in a support van, would have taken exception to this display of sentiment. But she was too overcome with the emotion of the moment to hold back her tears. At home in Holland, Mass. a few days earlier, in a reflective moment, she had said, "We're not saints because we brought up this handicapped kid and made a life for him. We're not the perfect American family. We're not different from any other American family. We've made what could be a 'poor me' experience into a positive experience. This isn't the Brady Bunch. I have not dedicated my life to my kids. Sometimes I hate Rick."

On Jan. 10, 1962, just seven hours after Judy went into labor with Rick, a doctor phoned Dick, a career officer in the National Guard, to tell him there had been "some complications" with the birth of their first child. Yet it was not until Rick was 8 months old that doctors diagnosed cerebral palsy. The Hoyts had been young when they got married. Dick, who had been captain of the football team at Massachusetts' North Reading High School, was 20. Judy, the school's head cheerleader, was 19. They had never heard of cerebral palsy before, or even known a handicapped person. Dick remembers the pediatrician calling Rick a "vegetable." He had never heard that word applied to a person before. A stoic military man who has always held his feelings at bay, Dick says that driving home with Judy from the hospital that day was one of the few times in his life that he cried. Judy remembers the doctor telling them to put Rick into an institution and go on with their lives. "He said we were young and could have more children. We said, 'Damn it, we're going to parent this child.' "

It was, in retrospect, an almost reckless decision. Rick would never be able to speak, to feed or wash himself, or to use the toilet. He drooled, he was spastic, he needed constant attention. "Sometimes," says Judy, "I said, 'I just can't take care of this child anymore.' One day I was so angry I went into a closet and screamed and cried."

Nor could Judy find much solace from her friends and neighbors. They believed Rick was retarded; Judy was certain he wasn't. As he got older she was able to teach him the alphabet, and she began to see in him the signal trait of a fully sentient human being: a sense of humor. When Judy said something funny, he would erupt into convulsive laughter. When the time came, Judy tried to put Rick into the public schools. They wouldn't have him. "Because his body wasn't working, they didn't want him in the school," she says bitterly. "They offered him four hours of home study a week."

Judy was outraged—so much so that she made up her mind not only to get her son into a mainstream school but also to devote her life to championing the handicapped.

Even as Judy was getting deeper into her son's plight, her husband was becoming increasingly aloof. He stayed away from home as much as possible. If he was not at the missile site in Lincoln, Mass., where he was a radar control supervisor, or moonlighting at free-lance masonry work, he was playing in a local hockey league. "I took care of Rick as a kid" is the way Judy puts it. "I fought all the battles."

Only in 1970, when Rick was 8, did the Hoyts find a way to communicate with him. They had met some engineers from Tufts University who built them a computer and developed a software program that enabled Rick to type words through the use of a switch mounted near his head. If Rick, while viewing a pattern of letters, could merely tap his head against a narrow metal bar affixed to the right side of his wheelchair, the computer would register the chosen letter on the monitor. In this way Rick could put together complete sentences, although it might take several minutes to spell each word. The Hoyts began thinking of the computer as "the Hope Machine." "Everyone," remembers Dick, "was betting whether his first words would be 'Hi, Dad' or 'Hi, Mom.' " Instead, Rick chose to write, "Go, Bruins," in homage to Boston's professional hockey team.

When he was 19 and a senior at Westfield High School, Rick composed an essay titled "What It Is Like To Be a Nonvocal Person." "At first I felt cheated and angry," he wrote. "Even though my parents talked to and treated me the same as my brothers [Russell, now 18, and Robbie, 22], I felt and knew I was different.... I understand all the things said to me. Being a non-vocal person does not make one any less of a human being. I have the same feelings as anyone else. I feel sadness, joy, hunger, love, compassion and pain."

With the help of the Tufts Interactive Communicator, TIC, and his PCAs—Personal Care Attendants, whose salaries are paid for by Medicaid—Rick completed high school in four years, getting mostly A's and B's. He is currently working toward a degree at Boston University's School of Education.

Yet for all his pluck, the youngster could not break through his father's reserve. "Until we started running, Dad had very little to do with me. Once we began running, our relationship began to get better."

The running was strictly Rick's idea. In 1978 he heard that a nearby college was sponsoring a five-mile race to raise funds for a lacrosse player paralyzed in an auto accident. Rick told his father he wanted to enter and asked Dick if he'd push him.

Dick said yes. "When we showed up," he says, "everyone thought we'd run down to the corner and turn around. We finished next to last. Total strangers were cheering for us. It felt really good. I could hardly move for two weeks afterwards, I was so sore." That night, after the race, Rick went straight to his computer and banged out, "Dad, when I'm out running, I feel like I'm not even handicapped."

Dick, who was undemonstrative with Rick and his other two sons, was deeply moved and began training, logging 15 miles a week on the road. By 1980 the Hoyts were entering 50 to 75 races a year. "We'd often run three races a weekend," says Dick. In the heat of a running duel, Rick would sometimes get so excited as to alarm his partner. "He begins to move his arms and legs," says Dick, "especially if he sees someone in front of him he wants to beat. He has a real killer instinct. I'd tell him, 'Take it easy. You're going to tip the chair over.' " For his part, Rick does his best to keep his father in stride. "If he hears me breathing hard," says Dick, "he turns around and gives me a kind of smile. Rick and I can talk together by me just looking at his eyes."

Recalls Dick: "Once we had a bad race, and he wrote on his machine, 'Dad's getting old. Maybe it's time for a new pusher.' " Dick loves this sort of needling byplay, the verbal equivalent of the rough-and-tumble times that normal fathers experience with normal sons, and he gives it back: "No matter how fast I run, he always beats me by a second."

In 1980 the Hoyts decided to run in the Boston Marathon—never mind that they weren't officially entered. They simply showed up at the start of the race and took off behind the wheelchair runners. "I thought I'd die," says Dick. "The farthest we'd ever run was 18 miles." The pair managed to finish the race, and in later years qualified to run. Since then the Hoyts have become a road-racing legend in New England, and Dick's best time of two hours 45 minutes while pushing Rick (in a marathon in Washington, D.C.) impresses fellow athletes as an extraordinary achievement. "It's a world-class effort," says Bill Rodgers, four-time winner of the Boston race. "Everyone involved in marathoning is inspired by the Hoyts."

Three years ago a Massachusetts-based sports promoter asked Dick to enter a triathlon. Dick said he'd participate only if he could do it with Rick. The promoter thought not. A year later the two men talked again, and an agreement was struck. Fine. All Dick had to do was learn how to swim and bike competitively. "I got in the water one afternoon, and I couldn't swim 100 feet," says Dick. "Well, I thought to myself, I started out running and I couldn't run. I can't swim, but I can learn. I had bought a home on a lake. Within two weeks I could swim pretty good." Their first triathlon was a one-mile swim, 40 miles of bicycling and a 10-mile run.

Dick stepped up his training in readiness for the far more brutal rigors of the Canadian Ironman. In addition to biking 175 miles a week, he worked out on Nautilus machines, swam and ran every day. Rick prepared in his own way. For the last couple of weeks before the Ironman competition, the skin on his bony rear end was toughened up with repeated applications of rubbing alcohol. Judy, meanwhile, was looking upon these preparations with wonder. "I thought they were totally nuts," she says.

There is no doubt in her mind, however, that the whole adventure has been worthwhile, not just for Rick, but for Dick as well. These days Lieutenant Colonel Hoyt does what several years ago would have been unthinkable: He toilets Rick, feeds him, changes his clothes and almost every night cradles him in his beefy arms and carries him to his bedroom, laying him down gently on his waterbed. "It has bonded Rick and me," says Hoyt. "It has bonded the whole family." The benefits have carried over to the other two boys as well. Robbie, who moved out of the house several years ago, says that until recently he had "no relationship at all" with his father. But now he has "the utmost respect for who he is. I don't know what drives that man. He is incredible. My father is the best athlete in the world." Russell recalls that several months ago, when he won a state wrestling tournament: "My father and I embraced. It was the first time he'd ever hugged me. I had to step back and absorb the moment."

It turns out that the only one who has any reservations about Dick Hoyt's new closeness is Rick. He confesses to having mixed feelings about all the affection his dad has been lavishing on him of late. "I am having a tough time trying to balance between being independent and having my dad running my life," he writes. According to Judy, Rick has talked about settling down, finding a mate and starting a family of his own. "That's going to be hard," she says. "The physically disabled scare a lot of women." Rick seems undaunted. "I would like to try being able-bodied sometime," he writes, smiling as his head jostles the computer's control lever. "But having cerebral palsy has its good points—I don't have to wash the dishes."

After pushing themselves to their limits in last week's Ironman epic, nothing seemed beyond the reach of the Hoyts. They toasted one another in champagne at a private "victory" celebration, and Judy happily splashed some over Rick's freshly styled Mohawk haircut. As they soaked in the hot tub, Dick turned to his son and said, "Congratulations, big man." Rick beamed with pleasure as his once-distant old man took one of his knotted hands and said, "You did real good out there, real good."

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