By Scott Westerman
Listen to an audio version of this message.
“No matter how bad things may seem, there’s always someone else who has it worse.” Kelly Finger McNeela
There is a new Superhero in my life. I met her, as often happens, because I am a Spartan. And so is she. Her life story diverged from the common path when she discovered, while still in high school, that she had trouble walking. It soon became clear that Kelly Finger McNeela had an early onset of the most virulent form of Multiple Sclerosis. By the time she came to Michigan State she was in a wheel chair. Today, she is unable to do most of the simple things we take for granted, without help.
But that’s just the pathological part of her story. Kelly was determined to live a life, not just an existence. She was a high school homecoming queen. Played wheelchair tennis. Inspired improved accessibility in campus buildings. Moved to Atlanta for her internship and chose a profession that helped others in similar situations learn to find fulfillment within bodies that others would describe as disabled.
Kelly married. Even as her mobility became more limited, she and her husband traveled to Guatemala to adopt a daughter. She built a circle of close friends, women with parenthood in common, who came to understand that Kelly’s spirit had more energy than an olympian.
Imagine being the primary caregiver to a young woman, under the age of 40, who was quickly requiring your 24 hour focus. Someone you had to carry from bed to wheelchair. From the wheelchair to the bathroom and back. Someone for whom every activity required Herculean effort, for whom each ensuing day would be more and more taxing to your own mind, body and spirit.
It was an environment that became too much for her husband and one morning he decided he could no longer exist in it. Without warning, Kelly found herself in what we would call an “old folks home”. Thirty years separated her from the next youngest resident. She was alone and without a spousal advocate.
It was then that Kelly decided to take her future, once again, into her own hands. Rallying a support team from her fellow soccer moms, she overcame obstacle after obstacle, moving at last into a better, if not perfect living situation.
Kelly Finger McNeela was on a mission. But it wasn’t just about her. She now had a dream of creating an assisted living facility for others of her age group, for whom mobility was a major challenge. A place where the mind could conceive and achieve things that the body could not. A place where an individual could continue to make a difference, even as their physical powers might diminish.
“My most challenging moments,” Kelly says, “are when I have to watch the world as a spectator.”
“She is determined,” her biographer, Doreen Rickert-Radamacher says, “to stay in the game.”
At some point in our lives, we will come to the limits of our physical powers. We will all eventually endure a disability. If my Superhero’s life teaches us anything, it’s that we still have the capacity to engage, to care, to make our own decisions and to make a difference.
“I hope,” Kelly told WKAR Current State host, Mark Bashore, “that people will learn to slow down and think about what others are going through.”
While Kelly’s battle is viscerally clear to everyone who meets her, most of us bear invisible scars. Our own weaknesses are crystal clear to us. Fear is ever present and the unknown is the realm where our mind’s darkest nightmares play out. As Kelly might say, “Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind.”
Kelly’s super powers are rooted in the simple truth that life isn’t meant to be easy. It’s meant to be lived. Our days are dances with pain and pleasure, with achievement and setbacks, with anticipation and despair. But we are the dancers. Everyday the stage is ours. The quality of our existence depends on the art we can create on that stage.
“Stop focusing on what you can’t do,” Kelly would say, “and focus on what you can do.”
Kelly Finger McNeela taught me that whatever ability you have, channel your energy, your skill and your lessons learned toward making the path a little easier for those who follow. Hope, determination and tenacity are your super powers. Focus them in the pursuit of truth, justice and a better life for all.
And perhaps you can become a Superhero, too.
Hear “Observations From the Spartan Life” on MSU Today, Thursdays on WDBM and Sundays on WKAR-AM.