What's wrong with Ben?

Sunday, April 25, 2004

The day is March 27, but it might as well be Christmas morning. Ben Rushin sits patiently on the wooden bleachers inside Jackson High School's gymnasium. The rustic gym could have been a perfect setting for the movie "Hoosiers," a classic film about an overachieving high school basketball team riding hard work all the way to a championship.

The sunshine beams in from the gym's high windows, spotlighting three wrestling mats on the wooden floor. Two are black mats reserved for the consolation matches. The other is a spacious red mat like the high-schoolers use, reserved for the championship matches.

Today will be Ben's first visit to the red mat on Championship Saturday. Last year he took fourth place, his best finish ever. No matter the outcome of today's match, Ben will walk away a winner. It will be one of many milestones along Ben's 10-year journey.

The 103-pound wrestling fanatic, the lightest of five boys in his weight class, will have to wait. The matches are running behind schedule. Schedules are important to Ben, but not as important as they used to be. He sits patiently but eagerly, like an obedient child anticipating permission to unwrap the biggest gift under the tree. As the minutes tick by, he internally reviews his strategy for his upcoming match against a boy who pinned him earlier this year.

Ben's parents, Richard and Debby, are among the hundreds of parents and youth wrestling fans who pack the gymnasium on this Saturday afternoon.

They are both wearing camouflage T-shirts, the official T-shirts of the Badgers' wrestling team.

Debby, a 5-foot-3, short-haired blonde, is sitting about halfway up the bleachers with 20 friends and relatives who have come to watch Ben wrestle today. Richard, more of an extrovert, is mingling with the youngsters. Once a wrestler himself -- and the proud owner of the Jackson High School discus record since 1982 -- the big, sporty guy likes to coach children, especially his own.

Richard and Debby have four children now. First there was Rachel, then Jill, then Ben and Jackson.

Richard and Debby, of course, love all their children, but they have a bit more time, work and heartache invested in Ben. Nothing has ever come easily for their oldest son. And that makes Ben's shining moments even brighter.

First son

Richard and Debby discovered Ben was on the way in 1993. Ben was their first planned child; their first son.

At the time, Richard was a police detective and Debby a teacher. The couple had been married for nine years.

Debby knew the drill when it came to pregnancy. The checkups. The iron supplements. The caffeine-free diet. She did it all for Ben.

When Ben's time came, Debby rode shotgun as Richard drove to the hospital on U.S. 61, past the waterslide and on to Cape Girardeau.

As with her first two births, Debby would have this one, a 9-pound, 3-ounce, 21 1/2-inch healthy boy, via Caesarean section.

Richard Benjamin Rushin met all the typical infant benchmarks. Debby made sure Ben received the required inoculations on time, and his vocabulary was fine up to about 20 months.

He recognized objects and occasionally heard the distant drone of an airplane before it became visible. Head down, he would point to the sky without saying a word until either Richard or Debby looked up and realized what their son was gesturing at.

"Oh. An airplane?" Debby asked.

And Ben lowered his arm.

When Ben started talking, Richard began a bedtime ritual with his son. Just before putting Ben to bed, Richard would go over words the little boy had just learned, like "Momma," "Dadda," or "cookie" and have Ben repeat them.

Every night, Richard would add another word or two to the vocabulary list. Ben would repeat the words.

Six months after Ben's birth, Debby learned she was pregnant with a fourth child. Jackson was born in January 1995.

By all appearances, Richard and Debby thought 14-month-old Ben was abnormally clever. They would often find him in his room, lining his toy cars up by color or methodically stacking blocks.

Ben screamed if anyone moved the toys out of order.

Hearing without feeling

Ben lined up his cars in that same color-coded manner one evening while Debby washed dishes a few feet away. Jackson was asleep.

From the kitchen sink, Debby couldn't see Ben playing. As she peeked around the corner with wet dish and towel in hand to check on him, the spaghetti pot she was drying slipped from her wet fingers and fell to the linoleum floor.


Ben didn't move.

Why didn't he jump?, Debby thought. How could he not have heard that?

Debby slowly picked up the pot, held it waist high and let it drop to the floor again.


Ben didn't move.

Something's wrong with my son. Is he deaf? No, can't be. He could hear the airplanes before we could. What's wrong with you, Ben?

Debby went back to washing dishes, frightened.

The strange symptoms continued. During nighttime chats, Ben repeated fewer words each night. Ben seemed distant and Richard wondered why.

"Debby, is Ben angry about something?" Richard asked.

"No, not that I know of."

To Richard, the symptoms were like a bad circuit, and Ben's lights were flickering. The lights were going out and Richard was losing his son.

Relatives said Ben was jealous of his new baby brother. He would grow out of it.

To one well-intentioned relative who insisted that her own son showed similar behavior and turned out fine, Debby replied, "Yeah, but did your son punch himself in the face?"

The explanations didn't make sense to Debby. She knew her son, and she knew that jealousy wouldn't have kept a normal child from jumping through the roof when that pot hit the floor.

Within a week's time, Ben's vocabulary regressed to zero.

On July 4, 1995, the Rushins visited Richard's parents' house for a family gathering to eat and shoot off a few firecrackers before the city's fireworks show.

Ben toddled around while the older children set off the Blackcats several feet away.

Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!

The firecrackers crackled on and off as the adults sat in lawn chairs and carried on conversations that warm summer evening.

One of the older children lit another set of firecrackers and scattered for cover. Inexplicably, Ben waddled toward the burning fuse.

Debby looked up, saw where her son was headed and shouted.

"Ben, stop! Ben!"

But Ben paid no attention. He kept walking toward the firecrackers.

They began exploding near his feet.


Ben didn't flinch. He kept walking like a programmed robot, impervious to the sound and the danger.

The adults and older children were frozen, hoping Ben was OK.

Ben was not hurt, but he wasn't OK.

Debby looked around at her relatives. Finally they saw what she saw.

"See," she said, curtly. "I told you there was something wrong with my son!"


335-6611, extension 128



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