2014-06-26 / News

‘He Plays A Harp’ Tells Uplifting Story of Noah Miesch, and Bay Cliff

By Paul Gingras

Roberta King Roberta King In defiance of sadness, Roberta King of Muskegon made a list of things she loved about her son Noah, and from that came her first book, “He Plays a Harp,” the story of a boy uplifted by his parents, whose spirit shines in the pages of his mother’s memoir. This summer, as she travels back to Bay Cliff Health Camp in the Upper Peninsula, Ms. King retraces the steps of Noah’s short but meaningful life. On the way, she will read a selection in his memory Tuesday, July 1, at 1:30 p.m. at Les Cheneaux Community Library in Cedarville.

Five years after his death from the complications of cerebral palsy, Ms. King set out to commemorate the life of a clever, astute boy with a strong memory and sense of humor. “He Plays a Harp” illustrates how he reacted to a life in which “we were his hands and his legs,” she said, “but he had is own thoughts and ideas. And we saw them.” The book describes the stark realities faced by Ms. King and Noah’s father, Mike Miesch, as they grappled with raising a disabled child. There are stories of love and humor, including the mayhem caused when Noah pulls a fire alarm and gets himself in trouble at school.

With a rich list of experiences to choose from, certain stories stood out, especially Noah’s five summers in the Upper Peninsula at Bay Cliff, where he received the most intense physical and psychological therapy of his life. The Bay Cliff staff fostered independence and courage through disciplined therapy and inspiration. They enabled the campers to parade through Big Bay, experience powwows, visit motorcycle groups, ride horses, even spend the night on the beach under the stars at Lake Superior.

Had it not been for a day at Pictured Rocks, the family may not have had the opportunity to offer Noah these experiences.

“It was one of those magical moments,” Ms. King told The St. Ignace News. “He had a lot of them.”

Noah’s parents strove to make his life fulfilling. In 1999, while he was away at Indian Trails Camp, they were at Pictured Rocks ready for a kayak tour. They stood on the beach trying to determine the feasibility of getting Noah into a kayak and noticed that everyone else in the group seemed to know each other. Mr. Miesch introduced himself and briefly described their goal to a woman named Nancy, a chance encounter that changed Noah’s life.

“I’m an adaptive paddling instructor at Bay Cliff,” she said. “Everyone here is from the camp. Today is our day off. Bay Cliff is a camp near Marquette for kids with disabilities like your son.”

Struck by the odds of meeting a staff of professionals dedicated to helping young people like her son, on their day off, in such a remote place, Ms. King applied to Bay Cliff. It was designed to accept Upper Peninsula youth, so there was no guarantee Noah would be accepted. It was also clear Bay Cliff is not a recreation camp. It is a place of intensive therapy as well as varied experiences.

He was accepted and, starting at the age of 13, Noah spent five summers in the U.P gathering uplifting experiences as he labored to improve control over his body.

For the family, it was a bittersweet stroke of luck. To encourage independence and focused therapy, the camp continues for eight weeks without visitation. For five summers, the family endured heartbreaking rides from Lower Michigan, across the Mackinac Bridge, and through Marquette. Each familiar landmark they passed reminded the family that they would soon separate. Noah was stoic as they passed the Superior Dome, turned onto County Road 550, and wound their way to Big Bay. Every time, the family was filled with sorrow and apprehension.

“We were all weeping,” Ms. King explained, “and he saw that. It was hard because it was a long period. We tried to play cheerful music, but we had to face reality.”

Bay Cliff enabled Noah to focus in a way he couldn’t at home or at school. Every day was filled with physical, occupational, speech, music, swimming, and other forms of therapy. On Independence Day, they joined in a parade to celebrate their achievements.

“Bay Cliff is unlike anywhere else,” Ms. King said. “Anyone who doesn’t know about it should understand how impactful it is. Parents put their trust in amazing people, and the kids always come back better.”

Working with his body and mind was like practicing an instrument. Although Noah received plenty of attention at school, it didn’t compare with the steady therapy in the U.P., where he couldn’t rely on parents or teachers. He managed his wheelchair, fed himself, and took on other tasks that empowered him. Ultimately “it sparked in him the knowledge that he could do for himself without us,” Ms. King explained.

Immersion in the community offered Noah a break from being a minority. Surrounded by campers with walkers and wheelchairs, youths facing problems ranging from hearing and vision limits to more serious challenges, “they became their own society, found leaders, and learned from each other,” Ms. King said.

Parents of children like Noah are very involved in their care. Bay Cliff offered them the chance to rest, and “just be adults without children for a little while,” she added.

Ms. King did not set out to produce a book about Noah. Already a published author, she spent a full year creating “Fearless,” an essay about raising her son that was published in an online magazine called The Rapidian in 2011.

She began to write a journal about her son, but that increased her sadness, so she changed tactics and developed her “love list,” a series of memories that led to the essays and stories refined to become “He Plays a Harp.”

Now that he is gone and the book is complete, she will return to Bay Cliff. In addition to her reading at Cedarville, she will read at Falling Rock Café and Bookstore in Munising Wednesday, July 2, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

For the first time, Ms. King will witness the Independence Day parade conducted by the campers in Big Bay, where “he will be in spirit,” she said. “That much I know.”

She expects visiting the staff members who knew her son will be an emotional experience highlighted by her final, private reading. It will be directed to teenagers at Bay Cliff, where she will address others involved in the same program that enriched the life of Noah Miesch.

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