Finding joy in simple things

Kohlbecks take life one day at a time in dealing with son’s disability

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KELLNERSVILLE, Wis. – Life is anything but ordinary for Ron and Shirley Kohlbeck. As parents of a 19-year-old disabled son who requires constant care, each day for these dairy farmers is filled with challenges above and beyond those typical of farming.
“Mitchel is completely dependent on us,” Shirley said. “We have to feed him, change his diaper, change his clothes, change the TV channel for him. That’s the hard part; he can’t do anything on his own. His life has been so limited because he is seriously disabled, but I don’t think in those terms.”
The Kohlbecks milk about 100 cows and farm 625 acres near Kellnersville with the help of one full-time employee, Kendall Grimm. Ron and Shirley also have a 33-year-old daughter, Kelly, who lives in Winnipeg, Canada. Shirley’s cousin, Richard Resch, is Mitchel’s caregiver, watching him for several hours each morning and night while Shirley and Ron do chores. Richard also helps feed calves, and even though he is 74, he and Mitchel are the best of friends.
“Having a disabled son affects a lot of things in your life,” Ron said. “For example, it’s hard being at an auction and seeing another farmer there with his son. There are many places I won’t go because it’s depressing. We have a big extended family with lots of kids and that can be hard to be around too.”
Mitchel is suspected to suffer from mitochondrial disease, a rare disorder in which cells in the body do not receive proper oxygen. At 6 days old, he started having seizures but was never officially diagnosed with the disease. Mitchel saw many neurologists, but none could provide the Kohlbecks with a diagnosis of their son’s condition.
“We were told there are so many things about the brain we don’t understand, and nothing could be done for him,” Shirley said. “A lot of people are scared of Mitchel’s handicap. They won’t approach him, and that makes a handicapped person sad. It depresses Mitchel when people don’t talk to him. As a result, he withdraws from the world. Mitchel won’t look at people because he is always ignored.”
Mitchel has never walked and only once said the word da-da. At one point, he was able to sit and had some motor control, but his condition has deteriorated over time.
“He used to be better, but he gradually lost abilities,” Shirley said. “Mitchel used to sit and play in the soybeans, but he can’t do that anymore. He doesn’t have any balance.”
Showering Mitchel with love and compassion, the Kohlbecks pour their hearts and souls into caring for their son. Mitchel is the center of their world, and including him in their work day is part of Ron’s and Shirley’s regular routine.
“Mitchel can’t play sports, so we don’t get to go to baseball games or other kids’ sporting events,” Ron said. “Therefore, we try to find joy wherever we can in the simple things.”
The farm provides an outlet of stimulation and happiness for Mitchel, who enjoys being around the animals and going for rides. He likes cutting hay with his dad and riding in the truck with his mom while she hauls wagons. Mitchel also spends time with Shirley in the barn in the afternoons.
“Mitchel could ride in the tractor for 10 hours straight; he loves it so much,” Ron said. “He never sleeps the whole time he’s in there. He has stamina. I’m not that great of a singer, but Mitchel loves it when I sing too. He laughs and smiles. ‘Take me out to the ballgame’ is his favorite song.””
To communicate, Mitchel says yes or no with his hands. In the past, yes was signaled by putting his hands down. Because he lost the ability to lift his arm, Shirley now lifts Mitchel’s hand up, and he applies downward pressure if the answer is yes. If the answer is no, then no pressure is applied.
“I can read his yes or no well,” Shirley said. “I can also tell a lot from his face. Mitchel has good days and bad days. Mitchell has a very soft heart, and he’s intellectual too. He likes the game channel on TV. He also likes rhymes and cartoons.”  
Shirley struggles with depression as a result of the stress caused by Mitchel’s condition.
“I’ve learned to work through it,” she said. “I let myself cry and be sad for a little while, but you can’t feel sorry for yourself. You shouldn’t be afraid to cry, but you don’t want it to turn into self-pity because that’s going to drag you down.”
Over the years, Shirley has come up with several ways to effectively deal with her depression. First and foremost, she offers prayers of praise, thanksgiving and petition to God.
“It’s about more than just having faith; instead, I focus on Jesus’ suffering,” she said. “Jesus gives us grace when we contemplate on his sufferings before he died on the cross. But sometimes I’m angry at God and wonder, why does Mitchell have to be this way?”
Thinking about the positive things in her life like healthy calves, an ambitious husband and the beauty of nature also helps Shirley cope.
“Talk to someone who understands your situation,” she said. “One cannot expect family or friends to understand what you’re going through. In my case, I vent with my husband, but only briefly because I know he also has subjects that he wants to converse about. Sometimes, a calf, dog or cat listen well too. To verbalize is healing.”
Shirley said she likes talking to her cat, Dirty Paws, who then comforts Shirley by patting her on the shoulder. Another factor Shirley does not take for granted is the importance of eating healthy.
“Diet is everything in combatting depression,” she said. “I try to limit sugar and bread in my diet and eat a green salad every day with onions, garlic and celery. I take a lot of antifungals like apple cider vinegar, garlic, olive leaf and black seed oil.”
Shirley finds it therapeutic to work outside whether in sunshine or rain. She also finds satisfaction in starting or accomplishing a job she has been putting off. Shirley has learned that when little things bother her, it is best to say something.
“Don’t let it all build up, or you could blow up,” she said. “Share your pain with someone else, and they, in turn, can share their pain with you. Sharing your misfortunes is part of life.”
Shirley hopes by sharing her experience with depression, she might be able to help someone else who is also dealing with illness. As a devoted mother and wife, she always finds the strength to keep going.
“Positive self-talk is important,” Shirley said. “Also, try to put happy thoughts in your head.”
Ron can relate to the feelings of dismay Shirley faces.
“As the parent of a disabled child, you never really get to see the sun,” he said. “There are always clouds between you and it. You see a bit of sunshine sometimes, but then the sun pulls back in and the clouds cover it once again.”
The Kohlbecks refuse to see only the negative in their hardships and view their circumstances as opportunities as well.
“There is knowledge in pain and suffering,” Shirley said. “You gain knowledge and discipline by suffering, at least I do. Some days are better than others. But over time, I’ve gotten smarter and stronger.”
Ron and Shirley accept Mitchel exactly as he is. Despite their heartbreaking situation, the Kohlbecks remain positive and optimistic, taking each day as it comes and finding happiness in the smallest of things.

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