In July of 1983, I was doing supply work in St. Patrick’s P. I almost passed it but then I saw, The Autobiography of Alf Saltarelli as told to arish, Markham.  One day I was glancing through the books on the rack in the lobby of the Church and my eye caught the title, To Be Alive Jim Jalsevac. Jim is a friend of mine, so I purchased the book.

Fascinating story

It is the really fascinating story of the life of a quadriplegic named Alf who lives at Participation House just outside Markham Township.  With Jim Jalsevac as his “ghost writer”, Alf tells his life story in simple, unaffected words, which leave the reader deeply “affected.”

To my mom

Alf dedicates his book to “My Mom, without whose love and perseverance I would not be today.”  He was born on December 27th, 1951 and this is how he describes his alive birth.  “I underwent a breech birth, which means that my hips and bottom came out first with my legs bent toward my chest – the added force of delivery caused the blood supply in my umbilical cord to be cut off.  This caused damage to my brain cells which caused cerebral palsy or paralysis to the brain,”

He goes on, “All four limbs were affected so I am described as a quadriplegic.”  In addition to this, his collarbones were broken and his lungs were filled; he could not utter the usual cry, and his colour was deep purple.

Alf continued his incredible story as follows.  “For nearly a month I was fed with tubes into my stomach. After my mother left me in the hospital, she used a breast pump to supply her own milk for me; my father brought the milk to me every day.  Perhaps it was that and my strong heartbeat that pulled me through, despite the doctor’s saying that I might not live much longer.”

More children

When Alf was born, he had an older brother named Mark.  After Alf’s birth his mother had four more children, but she still found time and energy to give Alf all the attention he needed.  The other children were all normal.  Although Alf does not say so, reading between the lines, it is obvious that he became the focal point of the family.

When he was nine he had some operations to strengthen his hamstring muscles.  His parents spent a lot of time with him at the hospital and his brother Mark, who was then 14, looked after the other children until their parents returned home.

A hard life

Writing at the age of 28, and looking back, Alf says, “Only recently have I realized how hard a life my mom had.  Not only did she constantly cope with my special needs but she also raised five other children.  She endured various health problems all this time but has overcome them with her great determination and faith.  In my mind she is a real saint even though we sometimes have our disagreements.”

Participation house

When Alf was 19, he realized that he was too much of a burden for his parents and personally made arrangements to go to Participation House.  He was accepted there in February 1972.

At that time this very handicapped young man held the following positions; he was a public relations man for the Ontario Federation for the Cerebral Palsied, serving as a liaison between the Federation and five local radio stations and three newspapers; he visited and helped out at Senior Havens, a home for the elderly; he was on the board of the Niagara Parents’ Council for Cerebral Palsy.

He was very reluctant to leave Welland, where his home was, but Participation House was the only place that could cope with his condition, and he was determined to spare his parents any further trouble.  He was now a man and wanted to make decisions for himself.

Meeting Alfie

Having read the book at one sitting, and realizing that Participation House was quite near, I decided to pay a visit to Alfie.  I was directed to his room, and as I walked along the corridor I could hear a typewriter banging.  There was Alfie typing away with his “mouthpiece pointer.”  He immediately pressed a button on his electric wheelchair and came into the corridor.

I told him that I was a friend of Jim Jalsevac and his whole face lit up with a beautiful smile.  He is really very handicapped but he lives a full life and told me that he is happy.  I spent half an hour or so with him, and when I was leaving he drove his chair out to the car and, sending his regards to Jim, he waved me goodbye.

Men who play God

As I drove slowly along the section road, my thoughts ran very deep and there was a distinct lump in my throat.  A few days before, I had read the following book on the future of Euthanasia in North America:  “Many qualified observers are the same signposts in the U.S. today as were present in Nazi Germany forty years ago.  And well they might.  Nobel prize winner Dr. Thomas Wilson has proposed that legal status be withheld from infants until three days after birth in order to allow for the killing of deformed and retarded children.”  The same book tells that some years ago a mongoloid baby at Johns Hopkins Hospital was deliberately allowed to starve to death.  It took fifteen days to die. And this is by no means an isolated case.  We have all heard of Baby Doe.

Equal rights

If Alfie Saltarelli had been born today instead of twenty-eight years ago, he might have suffered a similar fate. I believe that at least one small area of the world have been a poorer place.  My last thoughts before merging into highway traffic were there:

Alfie Saltarelli has exactly the same light “to be alive”-no more but no less-as Queen Elizabeth of England, Pope John Paul of Rome, Pierre Trudeau of Canada, Ronald Regan of the United States and even Dr. James Watson.  For every human being is made to the image and likeness of God.