Family, disability inspire South Portland man's memoir

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Mitch Sturgeon was an active outdoorsman and engineer when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 35.

It was the same age his mother was when she was hurt in an accident that left her a quadriplegic in 1969. 

He said sharing a similar experience of disability at a young age helped him to see his mother as more than the woman who ran a household and cared for him and his two brothers, despite the unique challenges she confronted.  

Sturgeon, now 54, has written and published a memoir, “Enjoying the Ride: Two Generations of Tragedy and Triumph,” crafted from his life experience and the story of his mother, Vernice. It’s available at Cia Cafe on Ocean Street, from Amazon.com, and from Sturgeon’s website, https://mitchsturgeon.com/.

Sturgeon was only 5 when his mother was injured, and said he remembers visiting her in the hospital, where she remained for nine months.

When she came home in a wheelchair “it was just the way life was,” he said, adding he didn’t realize how remarkable she was until he was an adult leaving home for college. 

“She ran the household, took care of everybody’s needs, rarely complained or asked for help – she was better than I am,” he said with a laugh. Vernice remained positive and was able to gracefully manage her disability, a lesson instilled in her son. She died in 2008 at age 74. 

Sturgeon and his mother overlapped for several months when they were both in wheelchairs, although they didn’t discuss it.

“Stoicism was the primary goal,” he said. 

He said his memoir is ultimately a story that includes advice about how he has dealt with adversity, and also how Vernice dealt with it in her way. The book is self-published by Casco Bay Publishing, an imprint created by Sturgeon and his wife, Kim.

The couple live in Knightville, where they have created a home and are involved in civics. The community is close, supportive, and allows Mitch easy access to amenities, they said.

The Sturgeons both grew up in the mill town of Lincoln, where they met on the high school track team. “She was very fast, and I was very impressed,” Sturgeon said of the first impression he had of his future wife. 

“She was very tricky – she sat with me on the bus, said my shoulder was in the way, leaned into me when I moved it, and pretty soon I had a girlfriend,” he said during an interview with his wife of 32 years on the back porch of their home. 

They have raised two adult children, Amy and Zach, and now live with their pets, Phoebe, a Westie, and a cat named Oreo. 

The couple acknowledge their marriage has changed since Sturgeon’s diagnosis in 2001, with Kim adopting a caretaker role and limited time apart, but they operate as a team.

“It’s been a burden on us, but we’ve stayed close,” Sturgeon said, with Kim adding it’s important to not only love one another, but to like each other, too. 

Kim, a middle school counselor, said they each have their own interests and identities, although she provides editing advice for her husband. It helps her to understand what’s going through his mind at times, she said. 

Sturgeon said he is better able to express himself through writing, an interest he has had since taking a creative writing class in high school. He said it allows him to compose his thoughts and provides a freedom of expression not found in verbal communication.

As the valedictorian of his high school class, Sturgeon was obliged to write a graduation speech about not losing perspective. As a teen he thought he did pretty well, and was a good writer. But he and Kim unearthed it a decade ago, and as an adult, he said, it was well intentioned, but boring; at least the grammar was correct, he said.

Studying to be an engineer, and then working in that career, left him little time to develop his writing. He returned to the craft in 2009 when he retired from working as a chemical engineer. 

Sturgeon started by writing 1,000 words a week using the dictation application Dragon, which he said is about 95 percent accurate. (He said the percentage seems high until the author has to go back and fix 4,500 words in a 90,000-word memoir.)

His blog posts were receiving positive feedback, with people saying his writing helped inspire them, which Sturgeon said was the best feeling, that in some way he was able to help others. 

When Kim invited Sturgeon to speak to a crowd of rambunctious eighth-graders, she was surprised how attentively the class listened to his story, and she told him if he could keep that demographic engaged, he would do just fine with adults. 

“He’s a natural storyteller,” she said. 

Sturgeon said he felt his story alone was not enough for a memoir, but then considered his mother’s experience intertwined with his was worth telling. He interviewed family and friends of his parents. He also went through the journals he wrote when he was first diagnosed, and reminiscenced at length with his brothers about their childhood.

The process led him to discover the circumstances surrounding his mother’s injury were not the same as he had been told, which was a shock. For decades, the truth had been hidden. 

From the conception of the idea to the information-gathering and the writing, the memoir took him four years to write with the aid of writing coaches, courses and editors.  

Sturgeon said before his diagnosis, he was a busy engineer who didn’t recognize the disabled population the way he now does. He said he was not unfeeling before, just preoccupied with his career and family.

“I didn’t know what a curb cut was before this, or about the 22 steps it takes to get me out of bed,” he said. 

He added he is fortunate to have a support system, financial resources, and is able to advocate for himself, but that others struggling with disease and disability do not, and said there should be more programs to aid people with disabilities. 

And When asked how Sturgeon thinks his mother would have reacted to his memoir, he said she would have loved that he wrote about their family, and about disability.

But she would have been appalled, he said, by the candor of his work. 

Juliette Laaka can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or at jlaaka@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JulietteLaaka

Kim and Mitch Sturgeon with their dog Phoebe at the couple’s South Portland home. Mitch Sturgeon’s memoir, “Enjoying the Ride: Two Generations of Tragedy and Triumph,” is about his experience with multiple sclerosis and his mother’s life with a disability.

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