When a doctor told Muff Elstran that her son, Will, was mentally retarded, she was so shaken she felt as if she had lost her arms and legs. But after she got over the shock, she looked at her son and said, "No way."
When doctors told her that Will would never walk or see more than light and shadows, she didn't believe them either.
And she was right.
There was a lot she didn't know--including the fact that the stresses of raising a handicapped child would eventually contribute to the breakup of her marriage. But from the time Will was born--three months prematurely, weighing just 2 pounds, 5 ounces--his mother believed in his chances of not only surviving but leading a happy, productive life.
Today, although he struggles with multiple handicaps resulting from his premature birth, Will is a bright, inquisitive 14-year-old who sees well enough to read and not only walks but often runs because he is in such a hurry to enjoy life.
And Muff is a 42-year-old single parent who has a special kind of closeness with her only child. She, more than anyone, has been able to break through Will's language and visual impairments and communicate with the boy the world would see if his handicaps didn't get in the way.
Will is capable of comprehending as much as any average teen-ager, but because of his language problems, it takes him longer to process information and he's easily distracted. Muff often has to try several different ways of explaining something in order to reach him.
He's completely blind in one eye and legally blind in the other and has trouble with fine motor skills, which makes it even harder for him to keep up with his peers, a number of whom have asked him if he is mentally retarded.
"He gets real frustrated, but he does a great job of dealing with that," Muff said.
Often, when he's trying to grasp an idea, "the outside world doesn't wait," she noted. But she does. And she said the fact that Will needs more explanations about his universe than other children has brought them closer because "we talk about everything."
Muff never expected motherhood to be such a challenge. While she was carrying Will and his twin, who died a week after birth, she nurtured the fantasy that she would eventually have at least nine children and make a career out of raising them. A handicapped child whose special needs would leave her no time or energy for other children was never part of the picture.
Neither was divorce.
Her 10-year marriage ended in 1985, and she has since learned that she is one of many parents of handicapped children whose marriages have failed.
Gladys Gleason, co-founder of the Speech and Language Development Center in Buena Park, where Will was a longtime student and Muff has worked for 10 years, estimates that only about 20% of the handicapped students served by the center live with both parents. The others come from broken homes, live with other family members or have been placed in foster homes, she said.
Gleason, who is a marriage, family and child therapist and runs the center's counseling service, points out that the tremendous stress of having a handicapped child is especially hard on marriages when one or both spouses suffer from low self-esteem.
"For example," she said, "if a man is insecure, he might not be able to deal with a daily reminder that he has a handicapped child. He can't react to the child, so he reacts to his wife."
Muff said the problems in her marriage to Tom Elstran were there from the start but didn't surface until after Will was born.
"We had a lot more things to talk about with this kind of kid, and that wasn't always easy to do. That added a lot of stress," she explained during an interview at a Buena Park coffee shop where she smoked steadily and hardly touched her food. "I don't think we were good communicators from the beginning. Suddenly, a lot of things had to be covered. For a lot of years, I took his silence for agreement. We found that we had basic philosophical differences.
"I believe in changing and moving with new challenges, and he didn't see the need for so much change. I'm not saying I'm right and he's wrong, but those two philosophies don't make a smooth marriage."
Tom, who lives about two miles from his ex-wife's Long Beach home and sees Will often, said his son's difficulties not only brought out the differences between him and his wife but also probably kept them together longer because they tried harder to make it work for Will's sake.
Will spent the first nine months of his life in the hospital, including an uncertain six months in intensive care. Tom and Muff visited him every day. But they dealt with the crisis in very different ways.
Tom turned inward and kept his feelings to himself. "I don't show a lot of emotion," he admitted in a phone interview arranged by his ex-wife. "That can be a problem. But I didn't go on the emotional roller coaster Muff did. It was easier for me to accept it and roll with it."
Muff, an extrovert who is as loquacious and analytical as her ex-husband is quiet and logical, plunged into the high-tech world of medicine that was keeping her son alive, asking questions, pushing for comprehensible answers and resisting every gloomy prognosis.
She also grieved. "I had to say goodby to the non-handicapped child I thought I'd have before I could accept the different bundle of joy I did have," she explained.
Meanwhile, Tom was struggling too. "It was the first time in my life I had lost control," he said. "I couldn't do anything about it."
Caring for the fragile baby they brought home from the hospital was a 24-hour-a-day job for a while, and Muff, who had left her job as a fiscal manager for an aerospace firm, took charge.
It was what she wanted to do, but she had little choice because Tom was working during the day and drinking heavily at night.
"He didn't have to face the reality of the situation because he could drink until nothing mattered," Muff said.
Tom--who proudly notes that he is now a recovered alcoholic--said that while he "fell in love with the bottle," Muff became completely immersed in her son's development, particularly after she enrolled him at the Speech and Language Development Center when he was 2 and then began working in an administrative job there full time.
Muff admits that for a long time it was hard for her to have any conversation without discussing Will. But she doesn't believe Tom would have been ready to face their problems if she had shifted her focus to their marriage.
When they finally parted--long after the marriage had ended, they agree--they were able to remain on friendly terms, and they continue to share a commitment to helping Will make the most of his life, Muff said.
She and Will have grown closer since the divorce. They often go to movies together--"Rain Man" is one of their favorites, and they always sit in the fourth row so Will can see--and they share a love of blues music, which Will plays so well on his harmonica that people often ask him to perform. He and his mom are even taking guitar lessons together.
Seeing how teachers at the Speech and Language Development Center deal with handicapped children has helped Muff resist the urge to be overprotective. "I try to be reasonably protective and at the same time push him to meet his potential," she said.
Will, who now attends a public junior high school, seems to be doing just that. He has a girlfriend, also disabled, and hopes that he will soon be able to ride his bike to her house with help from the "mobility instructor" who is working with him on ways to overcome his visual handicap.
Sometimes his sensitivity to his mother's feelings startles Muff. He senses when she's reached her limit, the point at which, she says, "I'll lose it if one more light bulb burns out."
He'll say, "Mom, can I do something for you?" Or he'll rub her shoulders. And that helps her to take a deep breath and put her problems in perspective.
"I'm lucky," she said. "I have a house and a job, and I'm doing a good job of getting through every day--and having a good time doing it. And I've got a great kid with whom I have a terrific relationship."