Mother attended every college class with disabled son who graduated from Duquesne University
When Grant Stoner learned that he had won Duquesne University's Liberal Arts General Excellence Award, and that he would be addressing his classmates Friday at commencement ceremonies, he wasn't sure what to talk about.
In time, he decided to focus his speech on strength.
"But not physical strength," he said. "Because I don't have any."
Throughout my life, I have been told that I will never amount to anything, simply because of my physical limitations. If I had listened to every negative word, I would not be here, speaking before you. I would have given up, shut myself in my room away from the outside world.
Yet, here I am.
Something is wrong
Claudia and Hudson Stoner knew there was something wrong. Their baby boy could not sit on his own. He never rolled over or crawled. Every benchmark their older son had hit, Grant missed.
Their fears were confirmed in 1995, when Grant was 13 months old. Doctors diagnosed him with Spinal muscular atrophy type 2, a genetic disease that affects the muscles. Grant cannot walk or use his hands. "As a father, when you hear news like this," said Hudson Stoner, "your thoughts turn almost immediately to: 'What have I done?' But it's not me, it's not him, it's not Claudia. It's just the way life deals the cards sometimes."
Strength allows you to rise above when life wants to pull you under. ... Strength allows you to resist compromising on who you are and what makes you, you. It affords you the opportunity to preserve your integrity and to not conform to what others may want you to become. Individuality is not a bad thing.
Something else is right
His body was disabled, but his mind was not.
On the contrary, Grant excelled in the classroom, where, on the first day of school, every year, he would explain to his classmates that he was more than a disease. Look beyond the wheelchair, he told them. There's a real person sitting here.
But kids can be cruel, and Grant was bullied by children who called him names and found courage in picking on the one kid truly unable to defend himself. Grant struggled to accept his fate. In the 10th and 11th grades, dark thoughts entered his mind.
He fought through it, though, because Grant Stoner knows the true meaning of strength.
Strength allows you to recognize and accept assistance. ... As I have grown older, my disease has slowly taken away my physical capabilities. I require assistance to eat, take notes or even give a speech to a graduating class. I cannot live my life without help.
Shortly before the ceremony began Friday at the A.J. Palumbo Center, Grant had trouble breathing. He wanted to deliver his speech, but he lacked the physical strength to do so.
Dr. Sarah Miller, chair of the Classics Department, spoke for him. With Grant by her side in the center of the stage, she read the list of people Grant wished to thank.
• The journalism department, for offering refuge to a "disabled student who wants nothing more than to write about video games, and jokes of becoming an Olympic athlete."
• The Classics Department, who taught him about ancient societies "and how poorly they treated people with disabilities."
• His academic advisor, Bill Klewien, "for putting up with my relentless amount of wheelchair jokes."
• His friends, without whom "I would not have been able to survive."
• His family for "their continuous love and support."
A special "thank you"
Then it was time to thank his mother.
For five years, Claudia Stoner had driven Grant to campus, attended every class and taken notes for him. She never asked for thanks. She did it because she is his mother.
"It took me some time to get used to the fact that this is what we have to deal with," Hudson Stoner said. "I give to my wife credit for getting me to that point. She was always the optimist. We have two children and she treats them equally in terms of unconditional love. Both boys have benefitted from that relationship."
Claudia Stoner watched from the audience. She smiled at his jokes, beamed at his courage and tried her best not to cry.
For five years, you have sacrificed everything to make sure I could succeed. The countless hours of sleepless nights, the long car rides stuck in traffic, and our occasional arguments never deterred you. Thank you for being my nurse, my scribe, and my mother. Also, thank you for buying satellite radio. I love you, but sometimes I just have to drown you out in some music.
As the ceremony neared its end, James Swindal, Professor and Dean of the McAnulty College of Liberal Arts, asked her to stand, and she did.
"Of all the people in the audience who didn't receive a diploma tonight," Swindal said, "no one deserves one more than Claudia Stoner."
The crowd roared.
For three uninterrupted minutes, they stood and cheered for Grant Stoner's mother.
Chris Togneri is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or email@example.com.