Excerpt from "CHASING MIRACLES: The Crowley Family Journey of Strength, Hope, and Joy"
The Kindness of Strangers
In 2004, we went to New York City for a three-day weekend to celebrate Thanksgiving. Even though I had grown up just over the George
Washington Bridge, I had never seen the parade. It was Aileen’s mantra, and it had prodded and inspired us many times before: The
Crowley family was going to, in every way possible, be normal. And every few years, normal families in New Jersey make it into New
York to see the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. So would the Crowleys. It would just mean traveling with a few more cars, people,
pieces of equipment—and uncertainties—than the typical family. The three days in November that year were to be filled with memory-
making opportunities: a Broadway show, shopping on Fifth Avenue, dinners out, a carriage ride around Central Park, and, of course,
watching the parade.
The Crowley minivans pulled up to the Plaza Hotel in less than regal fashion. A silver Buick and a red Dodge minivan with handicapped
hang-tags overloaded with people and medical equipment don’t exactly trigger the New York paparazzi. (Try telling that to Megan.)
After having settled into our rooms, the Crowley Fun Machine began to roll. Megan broke out a map of Fifth Avenue stores and set about
plotting her Wednesday afternoon “spree.” It was to begin at the Disney store, three blocks south. Walt never envisioned a seven-year-
old shopper as seasoned and savvy as Megan.
Aileen and I set out with John, Megan, and Patrick in tow. We had given them each a crisp $100 bill as “their money” to spend as they
saw fit. Like ultra-marathoners, we knew that we had to pace ourselves. John, always shy in public, stuck close to us. And we pushed
Patrick’s nonmotorized wheelchair, so that was not an issue. Megan, however, blazed her own path down the great shopping avenue in
Manhattan. She had found her mecca. Her electric wheelchair was in turbo mode and she wasn’t stopping until she reached the Disney
store at Fifty-fifth Street and Fifth Avenue. You don’t notice just how rough the sidewalks are, or how bumpy and uneven the
handicapped street-crossing cutouts are, until you try to follow a seven-year-old Danica Patrick driving a 300-pound wheelchair.
Megan found the Disney Store in record time. After an hour of deliberate shopping, she proceeded to the checkout counter. The
checkout girl rang up Megan’s items (Barbie was her strong preference then), and the total came to $98. I was so proud of how Megan
had calculated the amount of her purchases in her head to ensure that they came in under her allotted cash. I was overly optimistic in my
assessment of her intentions.
Once the purchase total came up, I waited for Megan to reach for her purse, where she had secured the $100 bill I had given her an
hour earlier. There was no visible movement. Not because she couldn’t—Megan’s arms worked just fine. Instead, she moved her eyes in
my direction. At first the look said, “Daddy, did you not hear the young lady?” I waited. Megan glanced again. This time the look was
more intense, more frustrated. It conveyed, simply, “Please put your right hand over your right butt cheek and pull out the small leather
wallet with the magic plastic card, like you’ve done hundreds of times before.” I sensed a negotiation. I uttered: “Megs, take your
hundred-dollar bill and pay the nice young lady with your money.” Megan’s face registered the complete spectrum in quick succession,
evolving from shock to grief to denial to amazement.
“Are you serious?” she finally asked.
“Yes, Megan, that’s the deal,” I rebuked her, proud of my father-knows-best tone. Begrudgingly, she complied. Megs is no brat, just a
shrewd negotiator. I had won, for once. Aileen and I were feeling very satisfied. We had defined the limits of extravagance and
maneuvered our special gang through the city with a certain deftness, even including Megan’s chair getting stuck in the elevator and us
having to pack into the cargo elevator to leave. For once, things were going our way. For once, a Crowley family outing may actually
have been going according to plan.
The next day, I took John Jr. and Megan to visit my aunt. We were standing on the street corner and Megan kept nudging into my leg
with her wheelchair. I looked down and told her to cut it out and she said, “I’m not doing anything.” All of a sudden we realized a New
York City bus that was making a wide turn had somehow latched its bumper onto Meg’s chair. The bus started rolling and the next thing I
knew it was pulling Megan down Fifth Avenue! I ran screaming down the street and caught up to the front and was pounding on the door
as it rolled. Finally, the driver stopped the bus and we detached Megan’s wheelchair.
The next morning, Thanksgiving Day, we woke the kids up early to get them ready to go to the parade. The parade travels from
Manhattan’s Upper West Side, around Columbus Circle, and down Seventh Avenue. The Plaza Hotel, where we were staying, is two
avenues east of Columbus Circle. The daily ritual of waking Megs and Patrick, cleaning them, giving them an array of medicines and
breathing treatments, dressing them, and getting them settled in their wheelchairs takes about two hours. By the time we got them
settled in their chairs, it was going on 11:00 a.m. We never thought we would make it for the entire parade, but hoped to see as much as
we could. Those hopes were quickly fading. The Crowley Fun Machine was in danger of being derailed.
By 11:20 we were on Central Park South opposite the Plaza Hotel. It was a blue-gray sky, brisk but not too cold. Perfect for parade
watching. We could hear the music of a marching band, the sounds of helicopters buzzing overhead, and the sound of people. Lots of
people. As we turned toward the west in the direction of the parade, we looked out at a sea of people. There were maybe a hundred
yards ahead of us of relatively open space until the wall of people and police barricades. Aileen and I looked at each other and it hit us
both at the same moment. Unlike at the Saint Patrick’s Day parade, apparently you just couldn’t saunter up and get a curbside view of
this New York parade. Our Irish pride had told us that there was no way any parade in New York could ever be as popular and crowded
as St. Pat’s. We were wrong.
John Jr. was the first to ask the inevitable question: “How are we going to get up front and see the floats, Daddy?” We told him, “We will,
just walk. Follow me.” The Crowley family got about two blocks from Columbus Circle, where the action was, and…dead stop. There was
no getting past the throngs of paradegoers. We told the kids to just look up to see some floats. Megan and Patrick sitting in their chairs,
however, couldn’t see anything above all the people in front of them. We were at a loss.
There was a blue NYPD police barricade adjacent to where we were standing. My mother-in-law, Kathy, moved toward it and asked the
lieutenant standing there if she could move it just a few feet so her grandkids could see some floats in the distance. Without even
looking, he said, in a tough Brooklyn accent, “Hey, lady, don’t even think of moving that—” And then he stopped.
His eyes caught Patrick’s. And then Megan’s. His look, and posture, changed in an instant. He put on his police hat, tapped the two
young patrolmen next to him, instructing them to move the barricade and “Let these nice people through.” We looked up and a gigantic
Bart Simpson loomed overhead. Patrick really liked that. That was very kind, and all we were expecting.
New York’s Finest, though, weren’t done helping these “nice people.” The lieutenant, flanked by the two patrolmen, looked at us and
said, “Follow me.” For the next five minutes or so, he marched through the crowd, saying firmly, “Move. Make a hole. NYPD coming
through. Get out of the way.” At first, Aileen and I were a bit embarrassed by all the commotion and attention. The kids, however, shared
no such discomfiture. They were on the move and with each minute they drew closer to a better view, closer to Santa’s imminent arrival.
We pressed on.
We got about a hundred feet from the parade line. Hundreds of people sat on the street enjoying the wonderful view that they had staked
out, some as early as the evening before. The lieutenant instructed them to let these folks through. We were at the barricades. Not a
soul stood between us and the high school band marching by. The noise was both deafening and exhilarating.
As we stopped, I turned to the cops to thank them. The lieutenant was looking at the kids and smiling. He noticed that the barricades
themselves were at about eye level for Megan and Patrick. With the single motion of a cop long seasoned in New York, the lieutenant
instructed the junior officers to move the barricades. They were immediately moved. We had arrived. We had the best view in New York.
I put my hand on the lieutenant’s shoulder and said, “Thank you.” He stood staring at the kids. Megs mouthed “thank you” to this tough
cop from Brooklyn, and his eyes watered. Mine did, too. I told him, and the two patrolmen, that they had made our day. He just looked at
Megs and Patrick and said, “No. They made mine. Happy Thanksgiving. God bless.” And he turned and walked back to his post, the two
patrolmen in tow.
Santa appeared just then, looked at the kids from his big float, not twenty feet away, and waved. This Santa in a red suit made the trip for
the kids—because another Santa in a blue suit with a gold badge gave them the chance. We could not do this for the kids without the
help of these perfect strangers.
Excerpted from "Chasing Miracles: The Crowley Family Journey of Strength, Hope, and Joy" by John F. Crowley
Copyright © 2010 by John F. Crowley. All rights reserved.
Reprinted by permission of Newmarket Press, 18 East 48 Street, New York, NY 10017, www.newmarketpress.com
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