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My dad and I were wild about extreme sports. My son with cerebral palsy helped me understand why

KATY LEMAY/The Globe and Mail

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I grew up the son of a wild man. When I was 3, a bright yellow 50cc dirt bike awaited me under the Christmas tree.

When I was 6, our family had the biggest BMX and skateboard ramps in the neighbourhood.

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By the age of 8, I had become accustomed to accompanying my father to the hospital for various injuries (his or mine) from his full-throttle approach to life.

At 12, I had unsupervised access to a 350-horsepower ski boat complete with every conceivable waterskiing apparatus with which my Grade 6 pals and I could wreak havoc upon ourselves.

So went my childhood. I grew up in the era before "extreme sports" became a marketable lifestyle, but snowboarding, motocross and barefoot waterskiing were my favourite activities – the more dangerous, the more my dad beamed with pride.

I grew up a product of my father's wild ways, quietly learning to base a man's worth on how far he would push himself, how quickly he could progress in a sport.

My idols were the original action-sport heroes. Glen Plake, Tony Hawk and the late Craig Kelly plastered my bedroom walls. I followed these forerunners to a short-lived career as a professional snowboarder.

Living in the mountains of the coastal range, my wife and I built our lives to be lived outdoors.

When our daughter was born, I imagined adventures in heli-skiing for her sweet-16 birthday and family vacations at surf camps in Nicaragua.

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Three years later, our son was born. We named him Beau Danger Elliott. His middle name paid homage to his hectic entrance to the world, nine weeks premature, which included air-ambulance helicopter rides both pre- and postnatal.

Beau spent two months in the "toaster" at the neonatal intensive care unit before he was freed. We were stoked: We now had the enviable million-dollar family.

Growing up, I had by the age of 17 surpassed my father's athleticism, proven inconsequentially by an arm wrestle over breakfast. I now vowed I would train harder to ensure that Beau would have to wait longer and dig deeper to challenge me. I would push him the way a father does a son.

When my wife mentioned the term CP, I only vaguely recall hearing it.

"Cerebral palsy," she repeated. "The pediatrician said it may be cerebral palsy."

I knew this term loosely, as many might, as a condition that renders some wheelchair-bound – or, if ambulatory, often with a limited range of motion. I wasn't sure what caused it.

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Beau was still eight months old, and we had more questions then answers.

My wife immediately wondered, would Beau walk, live independently or fall in love? All fair and pertinent questions when a parent learns of a child's disability of unknown severity.

I had dark questions of my own: Would he ever know the feeling of surfing an overhead barrelling wave, of beating the crowds for first tracks on a 30-centimetre-powder day down Ruby Bowl, or of racing his friends down the loamy, flowing single track of Squamish?

My preconceived notion of my family's direction wavered.

The Internet is the rabbit's hole of those with open-ended questions. I became a lurker on every cerebral-palsy-related forum and mommy blog.

When I couldn't sleep I would scour these sites for clues to our son's physical future. I cataloged all present and future experimental treatments available, from Shenzhen to St. Louis.

I learned that outcomes, both clinically studied and anecdotal, ranged wildly but that treatments were all a form of management rather than cure. There would be no silver bullet for Beau.

I would wake some mornings in anguished disbelief that this was Beau's reality. My son would live a very different life from my own.

Two years later, when my wife and I started to rise out of the fog that engulfs all parents of young children, it became apparent that Beau had the same wild ways as my father. He would work so hard for every step, always wanting to go faster. He would get up from hundreds of falls a day without ever complaining.

At 3, and just barely walking, he would seek maximum thrill at every opportunity. He was fierce.

It wasn't until I overheard my wife tell Beau that he was the bravest guy she had ever met that it all changed for me.

I realized the metric that I had used to measure both myself and others was not actually the athletic results of faster, higher, stronger, but rather the underlying relentless pursuit of overcoming. The relentless pursuit of pushing harder. It is the desire, the need to feed the beast, that lives inside us. This is what I hope for Beau.

I still have many unanswered questions about how the future will unfold for him, but these are for the most part common worries shared by all parents.

I wake every morning now with the knowledge that I can answer yes to my wife's questions from those dark days.

As to the answers of my own dark questions: Those will be up to Beau Danger, and his wild ways.

Kris Elliott lives in Squamish, B.C.

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