On Super Bowl Sunday, Ferris Jackson, 72, crossed the finish line of the Galveston Mardi Gras Marathon in Galveston, Texas. He had done the same just three weeks earlier at the Chevron Houston Marathon. Jackson has been running the Chevron Houston Marathon every year since 2007. Last year, he added the Sugar Land Finish Line Sports Marathon in Sugar Land, Texas. In all, he has run more than 40 races and has two more scheduled for this March. “I can’t keep up with him. I do hope to have the pleasure of running one with him this year so I can have that memory of him beating me,” says his niece Karen Nethersole, Esq., CEO of Full Circle NY, a branding and marketing company, and a 2010 TNJ 40 Under Forty Achiever honoree.
What made the Guyanese-born Jackson take up marathon running at his age? “It’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years,” he responds, quoting Abraham Lincoln.
He started walking around his neighborhood to exercise, but soon realized he could cut in half the hour it took him to walk four miles by running. He could use the extra time to take care of his son and other matters. He found that he enjoyed running so much that he joined The Bay Area Fit running club, which also dubs as a social outlet for him, allowing him to meet a number of “terrific” people. “Life is great and I want to take advantage of all of it. Being in great health allows me to do that. I’m thankful for each day and my many blessings, especially my family. I try to make the most of my time and enjoy it to the fullest. With each passing year, I’ve learned what’s most important and not to sweat the small stuff. When you wake up each morning, know that it’s another day that you can,” Jackson says.
Behind those words is a story of love, triumph and tragedy. “Just when you think you’ve heard it all! What others would see as misfortunes, my uncle Ferris Jackson and his quadriplegic son (my cousin) Daniel saw as life’s blessings. I will never view the world the same,” Nethersole says.
Jackson tells his story below.
From about the age of 11 in Guyana, I have been fortunate to get scholarships to further my education abroad. On one of my educational trips, I married Pauline Nethersole, a Jamaican, and we went to Guyana to live. In 1970, we migrated to the United States, where I enjoyed an outstanding engineering career. My wife and I agreed that even though we did not understand why we were so fortunate, we had better find out and make sure we kept doing it. Nevertheless, I took all this good fortune almost for granted and rarely thought of how it could be different. All this was about to change.
In 1984, while employed as a nurse in the intensive care unit at the Veteran’s Hospital in Houston, Texas, my wife of 18 years passed, leaving me with two sons. The older one was 15 and the baby was just 3 months old. I struggled with my new responsibilities. After about four months, I fell ill and my parents came from New York to assist me. At their recommendation, I hired a nanny to take care of the baby and handle light housekeeping. Life became a lot easier. The perennial optimist, I continued on my merry way thinking that things would soon get back to their usual level of good fortune. It was about this time that I became a Buddhist. Further tragedy was yet to come.
Just before his 17th birthday, my younger son, Daniel, fell and broke his neck. The surgeon at Ben Taub Hospital said he had a C4 complete spinal cord injury. He would be paralyzed from the chest downward and would not be able to walk or move his arms again. My Buddhism supported me throughout this new ordeal. I came to accept that suffering and enjoyment were a part of life. My son spent five weeks in Ben Taub before they were able to pin the vertebrae around his neck together with a metal rod — an intricate operation, lasting several hours. Daniel spent another six weeks at TIRR Memorial Hermann, a rehab and research institute, where they put in a “voice box” that allowed him to speak and then weaned him off the respirator.
Daniel’s friends threw him a 17th birthday party in his hospital room, complete with balloons, ice cream and cake. In bed, with all kinds of tubes hanging from his body, Daniel told me he would finish high school and go to prom and the Sadie Hawkins dance. I am deeply grateful for his personality and that of his friends. They accepted him as he was; almost as if they did not notice that he was disabled. He was discharged from the hospital in August 2001 and delivered to my home in a wheelchair. I was now fully responsible for his care. I buried my insecurities and resolved to take one day at a time.
My older son immediately volunteered to spend his Saturdays taking care of Daniel so that I could do whatever I wanted with that “relief” day. He has been steadfast in this over the past eight and a half years. I marvel at how close he and Daniel have always been, how solicitous he is of Daniel’s welfare. I was also very fortunate to have a friend who was suffering from MS advise me on the amenities my son needed. We tiled one-half of the family room and outfitted the entire room as his personal “apartment,” where he could entertain his friends. Wooden ramps made by my neighbor got him into and out of the house. I could not count the number of times friends and neighbors have helped us with some aspect of my son’s care.
It was not lost on me that my economic circumstance at the time made this possible. While not by any means rich, we could afford minor adjustments to the home, incidental medical charges and specialized equipment. My older son frequently chipped in to defray the cost. The school district said Daniel could return to finish high school. They provided busing to and from the school and hired someone to wheel him around and take care of him in general. Daniel selected his dates for the prom and the Sadie Hawkins dance. I dropped him off at these parties and his friends took over as if wheelchair duty were the most natural thing. Daniel also attended weddings, dinners, parties, movies and church activities and even went on weeklong church camping trips to Austin and Cleveland. My role was simply to get him to these destinations and take care of his daily needs at home. Once he was out, his friends took over.
My son graduated from high school and “walked” at the graduation ceremony. The school district provided someone to wheel him up to the podium and accept the diploma for him. He took the SAT and achieved scores that got him into the University of Houston and others. The U of H is one of only four schools nationwide with a Patient Care Attendant system that provides round-the-clock assistance. After about five years, Daniel graduated in December of 2007 with a communications degree and a major in film production. I was amazed to see him type all of his reports, essays and tests with a pen in his mouth. In September 2008, Daniel became a substitute teacher with the school district.
So when you see me going through life with a pleasant disposition and even smiling, it is because I am filled with appreciation for all the good things that have happened to my family and me.