Mary Lapsley Daly came into this world three months early, weighing a little more than two pounds. She would soon be burdened with staph infection and cerebral palsy. Yet her mother calls her God's greatest blessing.
"She might not move like everybody else, but she's going to be able to go places because she has the mind to do it."
As a child, she liked visiting her grandmother Gloria Daly on Hilton Head Island, where she posed with Gregg Russell beneath the Liberty Oak like all the other kids, except she was in her first little walker.
As a 23-year-old, she scooted across a stage last weekend in a cap and gown, graduating summa cum laude from the University of South Carolina Lancaster. Her mother delivered the commencement address.
In part, it was because Elizabeth McElwee "Beth" Daly moved down from Richmond, Va., to be her daughter's aide and scribe, going with her to every class through all four years of college. But Beth Daly has a message all graduates should hear, not just those at a college that welcomes special-needs students or is a 26-mile commute from her parents' home in Chester.
"You can certainly choose to give in to your challenges, claiming 'poor me,' 'life is not fair,' and you would be right," Beth Daly said, 30 years after her own graduation with honors from Converse College in Spartanburg. She told them their diploma proves "no matter how difficult life can be, no matter how many times you fail, no matter how many times the world says, 'You can't do that,' OH YES, YOU CAN!"
Mary Lapsley is a twin. Her brother, Christopher Hume Daly Jr., is a student at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.
Mary Lapsley arrived first and got infections and complications from infections that her brother avoided. That was something of a blessing because doctors say girls have a better chance than boys to survive such complications. Mary Lapsley also has always been a fighter. She spent her first three months in the hospital, and when she got home, she was kept active with so much prescription caffeine they called her "Perky." They also called her Sissey. And when Sissey was a year old, she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
"The doctors told us then that she's going to have fine-motor and physical delays, but he tapped his brain and said, 'She's got this,' " Beth Daly said. "She might not move like everybody else, but she's going to be able to go places because she has the mind to do it."
After graduating from Northstar Academy for special-needs students in the Richmond area, Mary Lapsley worked a year at the school's front desk. Her brother pushed her to go to college, and she did. At college, her mother wore her backpack, opened doors, helped her get in and out of desks, took notes for her, and transcribed her dictation on essay tests. Mary Lapsley is good with a computer keyboard, but not writing by hand. Her mother understood. She knew about conquering hardships.
"From kindergarten on, I had a lisp, I had to wear corrective shoes, and then when I was 9 years old I cut my toe off," Beth Daly said. "I think all these little things I had to go through were God's way of preparing me for the future. That and the fact that I've always been strong as an ox. God prepared me for when I needed to have a lot of physical strength and I needed to know what it was like to be different and to get laughed at and made fun of."
'STILL IN AWE'
The mother at the podium in a garnet and black robe was almost not a mother at all. After trying for years to have children, a doctor told her not to count on it. "And to this day, I am still in awe of the fact that not only did I get pregnant, I got pregnant with twins, and a boy and a girl," she said. "And I thank God every single day."
No one would think the greatest blessing in life would come in this tiny, challenged package. "It has made me see the things in life that matter and that are important," she said.
To take her daughter to college, Beth Daly dropped leadership roles with the Richmond Symphony Orchestra League, the Junior League, the Presbyterian church, Girl Scouts and Northstar Academy.
And now the mother-daughter team is coming back. Mary Lapsley has been accepted into the master's in social work program at USC in Columbia. She learned horseback riding while in college, and it opened a new world for her -- physically, mentally and emotionally. She now wants to run a horse-therapy program for children with disabilities.
As her mother told the graduates: Do not be defined by what you can't do, but by what you choose to do.
This story was written by David Lauderdale of the Hilton Head Island Packet.