Sidebar – Judge Jim Burns Remembers A of Grit and Grace

Sidebar – Judge Jim Burns Remembers A of Grit and Grace

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Family photo of John and first lady, Beatrice Burns with "miracle son", Jim Burns

Editor’s note: At an October 1997 March of Dimes fundraising dinner, Jim Burns, then chief judge of the Hawai‘i Intermediate Court of Appeals, shared the inspiring story of his mother, Beatrice “Bea” Burns, with the audience. The text of his speech was published in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin a few days later and was called to the Herald’s attention by former Star-Bulletin and Honolulu Star-Advertiser reporter Gregg Kakesako. The following is an excerpt of that speech.

“In 1935, when she was 29 years old and pregnant with my older brother, Bill, Mom was infected with polio. In her words, ‘I was completely paralyzed. I couldn’t even sneeze. I couldn’t brush my teeth or any of those things. I was a prisoner in my own body.’

“Bill was born on Oct. 11, 1935, but he lived only nine days. When my mother was told that Bill had died, her thought was, ‘If I cry, I’ll die because I can’t breathe, so I won’t cry. And I didn’t.’

“In my experience, people afflicted with severe disabilities either feel sorry for themselves and become a major pain to live with or they accept it, rise above it and become a pleasure to live with. Fortunately for all of us, my mother chose the latter course.

“I was born in April 1937. In other words, in 1936, while my mother was paralyzed, she became pregnant with me. Now before you jump to the conclusion that Father should be faulted for his inability to control his sexual urges, let me tell you their explanation.

“My mother was extremely worried that she could no longer be a wife in the truest sense of that word. She was especially worried that she could no longer be my father’s sexual partner. I am the result of their successful effort to prove her wrong.

“While Mom was pregnant with me, no less than seven medical doctors in Hawai‘i refused to become involved in her case because she refused to abort me. Fortunately for both Mom and me, the impasse led to a very special man coming into our lives. His name was Professor Henry Seishiro Okazaki. As a result of his care and treatment, my mother lived, regained the normal function of everything except her legs, and my Japanese name is Seishiro.

“When my father ran as a delegate to Congress and for governor, many people were of the opinion that Mom would not be able to perform her role and would handicap my father’s efforts. Yet for three years, this very special lady was the wife of Hawai‘i’s delegate to Congress. For more than 10 years, she was the first lady of the state. In both positions, she quietly excelled.

“Contrary to popular belief, Washington Place was not altered for her. When she arrived, there already was an elevator to the second floor. The problem was that the elevator was too small for Mom’s wheelchair. As was typical of her, rather than change the elevator, Mom found a better solution. With the help of an expert at the rehab center, her wheelchair was modified so she could temporarily adjust it to fit into the elevator.

“In spite of the physical disability she endured for 53 years, Mom lived a long, interesting, productive and rewarding life. She died of cancer in 1988 at the age of 82.

“During our lives together, I saw my mother in all kinds of situations and with all kinds of people. Whether in the presence of those who were the salt of the earth or national and international dignitaries, Mom was always the same — a person of grace, charm, wit, spirit and class, who happened to be in a wheelchair but who never, ever let it bother her or the people around her.”

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