Blair Anthony Robertson
There’s nothing to it, really. They get on their specially made bike, with their helmets, sunglasses and matching jerseys, and then they go, riding together mile after mile, the faster and farther the better.
Dad, who is 59, pedals smoothly and efficiently while going 20 mph or more. His 30-year-old son sits in front on a custom-made seat, as if on a throne, smiling as the wind washes over his face.
When he hears his father grunt and groan going up an especially steep hill, he bursts out laughing. When the bike goes fast – they have topped 60 mph going down hills – the happiness races with it.
In 1992, Don Webb gave up competitive distance running and began looking for a new activity that he could do with his son Dustin, who was born with cerebral palsy, has never walked and taps out messages on a specialized computer to “talk” to his family. In the nearly 20 years since, father and son have traveled an estimated 70,000 miles.
It’s a different world once the bike gets moving. All of the challenges of everyday life – with eating and getting dressed and figuring out how to express oneself the easiest and best way – are behind them. Ahead is the simplest way of looking at life. You point. You pedal. You breathe. You move. And you just keep going.
This father and son possibly hold the secret to happiness: Those challenges and heartbreaks and shortcomings everyone else sees are actually opportunities.
No one in the Webb family has ever dwelled on Dustin’s physical disabilities or used them as an excuse. Don Webb’s two able-bodied daughters, both older than Dustin, have watched their father and their brother take to the bike with a special passion and devotion, embracing the simple joy of a ride.
“It is absolutely a metaphor for life,” said oldest daughter Megan Fera, referring to the frequent bike rides. “My dad exhibits so much on his bike that he exhibits in his attitude about life. He just doesn’t quit. He’s really a hard worker. He doesn’t take time to feel sorry for himself about the challenges that come up.”
Don and Anne Webb, who have been married 37 years, moved to Sacramento, Calif., with Dustin two years ago. Don credits his wife with being the primary advocate for their only son, from the time he was born, through the school years and now, well into adulthood.
When Dustin’s not on the bike with his father, he listens to audio books. He’s a jazz aficionado and major sports fan – following professional bike racing and rooting for the San Francisco Giants and Duke University basketball team.
His sisters, both married with children, also live in Sacramento. Don Webb owns a thriving project management company, Cordell Corp., which oversees the development of large sports, entertainment and cultural facilities. Among the company’s successes is Raley Field in West Sacramento. He figures he rides 7,000 miles annually, about half it with Dustin.
Since their arrival in town, father and son have become a familiar presence on the American River bike trail and on roadways throughout the region. To see them for the first time is to be moved in ways powerful and immediate, with the 75-pound Dustin strapped in a harness and often beaming as his dad powers the bike forward.
On a recent Sunday, the two enjoyed a 35-mile ride. Though the bike trail is relatively flat much of the way to their turnaround point at the Nimbus Hatchery, Don Webb worked extra hard on even the slightest hill. Their custom steel bike, with Dustin aboard, weighs 115 pounds more than a standard road bike.
During the ride, Don Webb told the story of Dustin’s birth, of hearing from the eminent pediatric neurologist who explained to the young parents that their newborn was missing part of his brain and would never walk or talk, that he wouldn’t live beyond 20, and the best thing for all concerned would be to place him in an institution. They would eventually have to do so anyway, the doctor advised, so doing it sooner would make it less traumatic.
“This recommendation – or rather, his rationale for the recommendation – seemed so unthinkably wrong to us that we assumed that his prognosis might be equally flawed,” he said. “But even if it were not, our son was our son, and he was going to live with us.”
The couple took Dustin home. That night, they went out to eat. With dad clutching the newborn, they waited for a table at a diner.
“Being a person of faith, you look for signs,” Don Webb said. “Two elderly ladies standing behind us were adoring our adorable newborn son who had just been diagnosed as missing part of his brain. As Dustin struggled very noticeably to look at the ceiling light above us, one of the ladies smiled and said, ‘He’s not missing a thing, is he?’ That meant a lot, and I’ve never forgotten it.”
He said he and his wife have never been angry or resentful that their son suffered such severe physical disabilities.
“This is just who we are. I don’t remember any bitterness,” he said. “I just remember, on a daily basis, the sense of joy that we have. It’s not a heroic or special thing for a father to be happy and love his son and enjoy doing things. This is not a sacrifice. We do fun things.”
Said daughter Megan: “To me, the best thing a dad can do in this world is model the love of God for his kids so we can understand what love is.”
Every so often during the recent ride, Don Webb would grab a water bottle and give his son a drink as they sped onward. Dustin would laugh when he felt like it, but most of all he just took in the sights, felt the wind on his face, listened for his father’s breathing.
“He loves the speed. He likes it when we are mixing it up with a good group in a paceline,” Webb said with a chuckle. “And above all, he likes it when I’m suffering, which means he gets a lot of joy when we go up a big hill.”
Dustin expresses himself with facial gestures and expressions with his eyes. He routinely uses an iPad and can write in Morse code with the help of a special computer attached to two paddles that he taps with his head – one for a dot, the other for a dash.
As an 8-year-old, Dustin already had a sense of humor about his physical condition. In an essay, “If I Were President,” he wrote: “I am a small he-man with full pain … total feeling. Senses being sane. I feel that strength is being fundamentally sincere.”
Then he ended with, “If I were president, national security would be safe. High confidentiality. I am not talking!”
On the bike, Dustin wasn’t talking, but he wasn’t missing a thing. He smiled often and kept going forward, like father, like son, with so many more miles to go.