When the Spirit Takes Wing

updated 05/15/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/15/1989 01:00AM

It's a big day for 10-year-old David Able. One of the most popular students at Satchel Ford Elementary School in Columbia, S.C., he has been absent for seven weeks having his esophagus repaired. But he's better now and raring to go.

"I just hope they don't have cold pizza for lunch, Mama," he teases, as C-Anne—-the C is for Cecelia—lifts him from the front seat of their Chevy van. C-Anne hugs her little boy, who was born with no arms and legs, then sets him down in the wheelchair he hasn't driven since early February, when she and her husband, Danny, took David to Washington, D.C., for the surgery. He wiggles with anticipation; his body, shaped like a capsule with two three-toed feet attached, squirms into position. C-Anne bends over and tucks his T-shirt into his jeans shorts. Then he grips the chair controls with the toes of his right foot, concentrates, pushes, and the chair moves forward.

"David's back!" shout his fellow students, rushing to greet him as he motors through the front door.

"Hey, dude, what's happen in'?" says David, giggling, spinning his chair in a circle-popping a wheelie. He motors on into the cafeteria, then he's off to Miss Brown's classroom for the handicapped, where he spends part of his day.

"David!" a pretty girl exclaims.

"I'm glad you're feeling better," calls out a boy.

C-Anne, watching this scene unfold, feels the tears well in her eyes. "I'm about to throw up," she whispers. "I'm so scared something's going to happen to him."

"Make room!" David shouts at his schoolmates, who by now are packed around him. "Make room, you guys," he laughs. "I got places to go."

Children. God put us here to produce and love them and see them through until it's their turn to do the same. Growing up in Columbia, Cecelia Anne See by and Daniel Albert Able felt as deeply about this as they felt about their Lutheran faith. They first dated on the eve of Danny's high school graduation in 1969 and married in 1971. Four years later, they produced Patrick Ryan, a perfectly formed brown-eyed boy. Shortly after that they moved into their present four-bedroom brick house on Paxton Street, right across from Danny's parents.

Danny was pursuing a degree in pharmacy at the University of South Carolina, so it fell to C-Anne to support the family by working as an administrative assistant at Southern Bell. When Patrick was 3, C-Anne missed a period. She thought she was pregnant, but her obstetrician, Dr. James Blair, disagreed. He prescribed Provera, a female hormone derivative that helps regulate the menstrual cycle. C-Anne remembers taking five tablets over three days.

A month later, Dr. Blair determined that she was pregnant after all. C-Anne says he never suggested there might be a problem, even though the risk of taking the drug during the first four months of pregnancy is spelled out in the Physicians' Desk Reference, a doctor's bible: "There is evidence of potential harm to the fetus," the book cautions, "...including congenital heart defects and limb reduction defects...."

It is Saturday morning, and Patrick Able, 14, is in his brother's room. David's bed, a tiny mattress, lies on the floor in a corner. On the wall hangs a drawing of the Statue of Liberty, for which David won an award from the local chapter of Sertoma International. The Lady is all torso, with short little legs and hardly any arms.

David is lying on the floor, playing Nintendo with Patrick. David's "chicken leg," as he calls it—a stunted six-inch limb extending to his left foot—is bouncing back and forth between the Nintendo joystick and a push-button control unit. On the TV screen, missiles are firing and animated vehicles are racing across a track. "Whoopee!" screams David. "I got ya."

The phone rings. David rolls toward it (rolling is his favorite way of moving himself) and pushes the button on the speaker phone with a toe. "Columbia Police Department," he announces, dissolving in laughter before yielding the phone to his brother.

During the 37th week of C-Anne's pregnancy, Dr. Blair told her the baby was in the breech position and ordered X rays and an ultrasound examination. The next morning his nurse called to say that the doctor wanted to see C-Anne—"not without Danny." When the Ables arrived, they found Dr. Blair's office unnaturally quiet. C-Anne remembers thinking, "Something must have happened to someone's baby. Bless her heart, I hope she's okay." To Dr. Blair she said, "I know I have to have a C-section and that's why you called us in here. But I'm a big girl, and I'm not going to throw a fit."

The doctor said, "Sit down, Cecelia. It's not that easy." He flicked on the X-ray viewer. "I've got really bad news. Your child has an underdeveloped heart and kidneys, and we can't find any limbs on the X ray." When C-Anne, weeping, asked why this had happened, the doctor replied, "Cecelia, it's just an act of God."

When she left his office some time later, C-Anne found a group of nurses clustered around, several of them in tears. "You all don't get upset," she told them. "I'm fine. And this baby's going to be fine."

David is getting a bath. His mother is untaping the bandage covering a hole where, for nearly 18 months, a feeding tube was inserted into his stomach. Because David's esophagus was constricted and he was prone to choking, doctors had inserted the tube and left it in place. Six weeks after the February surgery to repair David's esophagus, doctors removed the feeding tube.

C-Anne picks her boy off the sink top and sets him on his back in the tub, in three inches of warm water. A plastic boat and a cup float before him. He kicks his "chicken leg," creating a current that brings the cup toward him, then hooks his toes through the handle. Making a scooping motion with his foot, he fills the cup with water, swings his leg up and dumps the water onto his tummy. C-Anne bathes David, picks him up and sets him back on the countertop, where she pats him dry with a towel and combs his hair. He rolls sideways and checks himself out in the mirror. C-Anne powders his wound and tapes on fresh gauze. She places a toothbrush between his toes, squeezes toothpaste onto it, takes the brush from his grip and does his teeth, then helps him maneuver close to the faucet. Rolling over, David catches the water in his mouth, rinses and spits. C-Anne pulls a T-shirt over his head and a pair of shorts over his feet, carries him into the den and plops on the couch with him on her lap.

"Balance," she teases, pulling her arms away. As he starts to crash toward her, she hugs him. Both of them laugh.

"Who do you love?" she asks.

"Mama!" he shouts.

When C-Anne and Danny saw John David Able for the first time, he was in an Isolette, wrapped in a blanket like a papoose. The nurse handed him to his mother, who began to unwrap the blanket.

"Mrs. Able," the nurse said, "don't do that to yourself."

C-Anne ignored her, removed the blanket and held her limbless child up to her husband. "He's not ugly," she exclaimed to Danny. "He doesn't look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. He's pretty. He looks just like you."

"It was emotional," says Danny. "In a way, you were prepared for it. But it was also a shock. What David had was perfect and normal. It was what he was lacking that made him different. We tried not to look at what was different about him. He was a part of us." C-Anne began calling friends to tell them she was bringing her beautiful baby home—"the beginning of what I call 'selling David,' " she says.

It turned out the doctor was mistaken about the baby's heart and kidneys: They were not underdeveloped, merely small, like him. Still, the Ables were warned that he could be blind, deaf or retarded. Some doctors and friends suggested putting the child in an institution. The Ables wouldn't hear of it—and they decided to call the boy by his middle name: "David slew Goliath," explains C-Anne. "And we thought David would have a lot of giants in his lifetime to slay."

David loves to be the boss. He finds a place in the center of any activity, and by watching, he can understand how things work, whether he can do them himself or not. This afternoon, David, his younger brother, Brandon, 6, and some neighborhood kids are playing in the Ables' yard. David asks Brandon to set him on the steps, where the others gather around him. They've decided to play football, and David is automatically the coach.

He divides them into two teams and huddles on the steps with one. "You go this way," he says. "You, run around the end and cut back. They won't see you coming. Okay, go, team!" As the action begins, David's cheering fills the neighborhood.

"I wanted David to be like everyone else," says C-Anne, "and probably that's too much to ask, but that's what my goal is. It's hard because the first picture people take is, 'He's handicapped. He can't do anything. He doesn't have any hands—well, I know he doesn't have a brain.' That's just not true." She got proof of that early. At 18 months, David wasn't talking, and C-Anne took him to a hearing specialist who removed some fluid from his ears. Within hours he said "Mama" for the first time.

When David was 4, the Ables enrolled him at the W. Clark Brockman School for the physically and mentally handicapped. From the first day, the Ables kept asking, "When is David going to be mainstreamed in a regular school?" but now they feel David learned a lot at Brockman. He learned to cover short distances in a special walker designed for him by the Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children in Greenville, S.C. He learned to feed himself using a block-and-clip apparatus to hold a spoon. And he learned to hold a pencil between his toes or in his mouth to write or draw or use a typewriter.

David didn't require much special medical attention until 18 months ago, when he had a severe choking attack at school. When the doctors opened David up, they found that his sphincter muscle, which connects the stomach to the esophagus, didn't work properly. Last February David went to Washington for an operation to create a makeshift sphincter that works better than the one he had. According to the doctors, his prognosis is good. They say David could live well into adulthood, and one calls him "a tremendous young fighter."

Emotionally, David has always seemed remarkably well adjusted, but C-Anne and Danny worry about the family's bills. Shortly after David was born, Danny, stressed and distracted, gave up pursuing his pharmacy degree and now manages a gourmet grocery for a modest salary. To defray the costs of David's surgeries and equipment, the Ables have created a fund for donations. Four years ago they sued Upjohn, the makers of Provera, and their doctor, who has since died. They lost the Upjohn suit and are uncertain whether to pursue the suit against the doctor's estate.

C-Anne also struggles with feelings of guilt. Two years ago, David finally asked C-Anne why he didn't "get hands and legs" like the other kids. C-Anne explained that she had been sick early in her pregnancy and that she had taken some pills. "He hugged me," C-Anne recalls, with tears in her eyes. "And he said, 'I'm not mad at you, Mama.' But the bottom line is that I took the pills. Nobody knows how that makes me feel. I worry about when he gets to be 20 and says, 'Damn you, you did this to me.' "

In 1986, the local newspaper did the first of a series of stories on David, and the publicity seems to have helped. Instead of gawking, people began telling him they had read about him in the paper. "No autographs, please!" David likes to respond. In February 1988 he was partially main-streamed in school, and Lisa Brown, his teacher in the handicapped class, predicts that by junior high he may be taking all regular classes. Last quarter he made the honor roll. His mainstream teacher, Sandie Ellis, sees him "going on to college and being anything he wants to be."

That would be the fulfillment of C-Anne's fondest hopes, but she worries that at some point David may be overwhelmed by the giants he still has to slay. For now, David seems oblivious to such concerns. Ask him to describe himself, and he'll answer, "Happy, cheerful, girl-addict, a going-crazy guy! I feel all right the way I am. You all pick up things with you all's hands. But I can pick things up with my handfeets. I'm just different. I can roll. It's fun. And I can scoot across the floor on my heinie. I bet you wish you could do that."

What does he want to be when he grows up? "I don't want to be a lawyer," he says. "It's too boring. I want to be an airplane pilot. Drive the plane by computer. Tell someone else what to do. Yeah!"

It is 7 A.M., and David is still asleep. Everything about him looks peaceful except for the jagged surgical scar running down his middle.

In the kitchen, C-Anne sips her coffee, moving quietly so as not to wake her son. She is tired, she says, but it doesn't show. Then, suddenly, a tiny shape comes rolling down the hall, over the heating vent, through the living room and into the kitchen. "Good morning," David giggles.

C-Anne grabs her boy, lifts him into the air and hugs him. She kisses him all over. "Thirty pounds of sugar," she says. "Mama always loves you up in the morning."

David giggles some more, giggles and kisses. Then he rolls on out of the room and into the day.

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