“Just let him die,” was the prognosis when Ricky was born with a 3-inch hole in his back. Every doctor, specialist, internist and technician at two hospitals felt Ricky Hendrickson could not survive the myriad of complications accompanying Spina Bifida. His parents, Blaine and Sharon, heard the advice and prayed, talked and considered their other five children, ages 5 to 15.
They chose life.
And because of that decision, a boy who doctors said would not live past his first birthday, lived a full and rich life for 24 years. They chose life. Thus, allowing Ricky the opportunity of a lifetime of choices.
Ricky’s life was far from easy. It was a life peppered with doctor’s visits, hospital stays, major surgeries, many illnesses, and a wide variety of limitations due to his handicap. But mom was always quick to remind him that he was “handicapable” and to not let these things get in the way of his ability to learn, dream and live his life. Ricky’s surgeries ranged from having a shunt put in his head to having every vertebrae in his back broken so a metal rod could be inserted in his spine, allowing him to sit up straighter and breath better. When Ricky turned 8, we stopped counting his operations. The total at that time was 40. But never once did I hear Ricky complain He never grumbled or whined about having to have another surgery, another visit to the doctor, another tube, another medicine, another limitation placed on him. Ricky was not afraid of what lay ahead or what he had to go through to get there. Ricky chose courage.
Also at the age of 8, Ricky was chosen by the Make A Wish Foundation to have a special wish come true. Ricky’s wish was to have his whole family together in Las Vegas to see the Oak Ridge Boys, Siegfried and Roy, and “Starlight Express”. He rode in a private jet and limo, ate great food, stayed in a hotel for the first time, and was able to meet the cast of each show backstage. All of this he chose to share with his family. There is nothing Ricky wouldn’t do for each one of us. He loved having family over to visit, taking his nieces and nephews bowling, and playing monopoly with his big brother Greg (or anyone else he could con into playing with him). Ricky knew and understood the value of eternal families. Time with his mother always ranked at the top of his “to-do list”. Whether it was going to the movies, riding the rollercoaster’s at Disneyland, or just snuggling on the couch, the two of them were inseparable. There was nowhere he would rather be than at home with the people he loved. Ricky chose family.
Ricky was not ashamed of who he was. He made no excuses for his handicap and was never embarrassed. In fact, he would often use it to his advantage. It was not an uncommon sight in our house to see Ricky run over someone’s toes only to laugh hysterically after. He made the most of riding the elevators when everyone else was walking up the stairs and had no problem cutting in the front of the line at Disneyland. Another one of his favorite things to do was race. He, of course, always won. I can still remember the time when our family met soon after taking a family picture to look over the proofs. The photographer, with what I’m sure where the best of intentions, had taken Ricky’s trachea out of the picture. I don’t know if I have ever seen him so angry. He wanted that trachea back in the picture right away claiming, “That’s who I am!” Ricky chose confidence.
Ricky is by far the kindest and most generous person I know. I had the special privilege of being able to be his caregiver for several years. During this time I came to know Ricky better and more intimately than ever before. He loved to talk and sing. Though he was very much not a morning person, when I would wake him up singing and dancing around the room it was not long before he broke into a big smile and sang and danced along with me. Ricky was also an amazing listener. During this time he became one of my best friends as we shared our thoughts, dreams, triumphs and heartbreaks with one another. I saw first hand as I cared for him how there was no room for pride in his life. There were few things he could do without assistance, and he always accepted the help with grace and dignity. One of the things we often spent time doing was going out to serve others or buy thoughtful gifts for friends and family. Ricky loved to give. And one of the things he gave most freely was his warm and infectious smile. He was kind to every one he met and I can honestly say that I have never heard him say anything bad about anybody. Ricky chose love.
But the one thing I will always remember and admire Ricky for was his positive attitude. Ricky was a fighter to the end. The phrase “give up” was not in his vocabulary. In a newspaper article written in 2000, my mom told the reporter, “Ricky is the happiest of my six children and has brought our family the most wondrous, love filled, tender years.” The one with the most problems, the hardest trials, and the greatest limitations, was always the happiest. He truly embodied our family motto “Hendrickson’s Never Say Can’t”. In that same article, Ricky, at 15 years old, puts life into perspective. “I have learned you have to be happy”, he said. “If you aren’t happy, nothing is worth it. You just have to deal with your problems and get on with it.” How much we have all learned from Ricky and his positive “can-do” attitude. Ricky chose to be happy.
When Ricky was in elementary school he memorized a poem by William Ernest Henley. This poem titled “Invictus” quickly became his favorite and he never forgot it. At anytime you could ask him to recite it and this is what he would repeat:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit form pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Ricky truly was the captain of his soul and the maker of his destiny. With God beside him, he made good and righteous decisions throughout his life. Because of his choices and the opportunity we had to know him, we will never be the same. Ricky had the ability to imprint himself on everyone he came into contact with. Whether we needed more courage, confidence, perspective, love or cheer, Ricky helped us to achieve it. Ricky lived his life to the fullest that it allowed taking us all along for the ride. Ricky chose life.