All he wants for Christmas is his two front feet.
You'd wish for that too if, like 2-year-old Micah Diffee, you were born with disfigured legs bent backward and twisted like pretzels, the soles of your feet pressed against your bottom.
"By far the toughest thing I've ever gone through," says Jon Diffee of attending his son's birth. "My wife asked me how he looked. It was hard to hold back the tears, but I told her, 'He looks beautiful.'"
Says Michelle, "Nothing can prepare you for that. The way you look at things—everything—goes right out the window. But I'm a believer in things happening for a reason. Micah's turned out to be my gift."
While the elite runners at last Sunday's Wellstone's White Rock Marathon ran for money, Jon and Michelle walked and walked and walked some more for Micah. They crossed the American Airlines Center finish line of the half-marathon in 3 hours, 18 minutes and 41 seconds, perhaps the most meaningless final score in the history of sports.
It's not important how the Diffees finished. Just that they got started.
"This," says Michelle, "is going to become our annual Christmas tradition."
This year's Rock was the biggest and best in its 36-year history. Men's and women's course records were smashed. A record $150,000 awarded. Kenyans ran fast. A guy in a Santa Claus suit ran slowly. There was a 68-year-old finishing his 27th consecutive Rock, a blind runner and even a conquering of the Dolly Parton hills by Mayor Laura Miller.
Twelve thousand runners, 100,000 spectators, 2,300 volunteers.
One Team Micah.
Wearing bright yellow T-shirts made by Micah's Aunt Bree Bree, the Diffees were talking, walking Livestrong bracelets. Jon, Michelle and 12 friends finished the half-marathon while five of his Garland Fire Department co-workers—Lonnie Green, Phillip Smith, Joe Clark, Steve Brown and Andrew Edmondson—ran the marathon's 26.2-mile relay race. Maneuvering around the scene in a wagon toted by Tanner, his 4-year-old "Bubba," Micah never stopped smiling.
"Running for him was a no-brainer," Clark says. "That kid's been through so much, but he's always so happy and so warm. Nothing seems to faze him."
Like The Rock, Team Micah is giving the money it raised—almost $5,000—to the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children. Micah may want Santa to bring him some cowboy boots, a pair of hiking shoes that blink or a new train set, but he'll never forget it was Scottish Rite that gave him new legs.
"They've done so much for him, and never charged us a penny," says Michelle, who estimates Micah's care and equipment would've already surpassed $100,000. "Without them he wouldn't be able to sit in a chair."
Though Bubba was born healthy, doctors discovered something abnormal about Micah just 18 weeks into pregnancy. The first guess was Down Syndrome. At 26 weeks, Michelle's OB/GYN gave the parents the offer to terminate.
"To us, that wasn't an option," Jon says. "We were determined to enjoy the pregnancy and make the best of whatever happened. And now...he's already touched so many lives."
On the family's Web page Micah has 55 MySpace friends, so he must be doing something right. The parents, too, are not just surviving, but thriving.
"Jon's a pretty tough guy," Clark says. "I have two kids and you just don't know...you just shake your head at the thought of putting yourself in his situation. He has everyone's admiration."
Micah wound up being born with club feet and Caudal Regression Syndrome, a condition that prevents development of the spine's lumbar section from the L2 vertebrae down. He can feel his legs but can't move them.
Micah spent two weeks in Medical City's Neonatal Intensive Care before going home to the family's house in Forney. That's when a specialist told Michelle about Scottish Rite.
"I'd never heard of them," she says. "But after one visit we were in love. It never felt like a hospital. They took him under their wing and showed him he was not in a world by himself, that there were other kids like him getting better too."
Doctors at Scottish Rite, widely regarded as one of the nation's best pediatric centers, began the painful, precise process of straightening Micah's legs when he was 4 months old. They'd use their hands to stretch his legs as far as they could, then affix hard casts. Two weeks later he'd return and they'd repeat the process. Each time the legs stretched a little farther, got a little straighter, until—finally—they were out in front of Micah and he could sit down.
Just like Bubba.
Turning 3 in February, Micah is adjusting to the braces that will likely become as routine to him as underwear. During the day he wears orthopedic ankle braces to keep his feet safe and comfortable, and at night he sleeps in a contraption that resembles a snowboard with a connector bar attached to his ankles to prevent his legs from trying to curl back under.
Barring an unforeseen medical miracle, Micah will never be able to walk. But if you think that's going to slow him down, just try to catch him.
"He refuses to be babied or pampered," Michelle says. "He climbs up stairs. He falls down stairs. He does things his own way. Nothing stops him. He's amazing."
Likely the only cool side effect of not being able to move your legs is that it gives you really strong arms. Using his upper body muscles, Micah can lift his 25-pound body up the ladder to his slide in the backyard. He can ride a bike using hand pedals. Can even drive a 4-wheeler that Jon rewired to have a thumb throttle. Sometimes, alone in his room with just his imagination, athleticism and John Deere decorations, his parents will catch Micah standing on his head, using his arms for balance.
Just wait until next week, when he gets his first wheelchair.
"We won't get to see him take that first step like most parents do," Michelle says. "But there are other creative milestones that make him such a joy. He's so happy and determined. If I have a bad day, one glance at him and it all melts away."
Says Jon, "One way or another, he finds a way to keep up with his brother. He's a great role model for kids who don't see themselves as handicapped."
Wondering what to get him for Christmas? Join Team Micah (www.active.com/donate/tsrh/teammicah), or at least make a donation to Scottish Rite (www.tsrh.com). Because while The Rock gives Dad sore muscles and Mom goosebumps, it gives kids like Micah hope.
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