A Republican who’s run twice for governor and was the Iowa GOP’s nominee for lieutenant governor in 2006 has written a book dedicated to his disabled son, Lucas. Bob Vander Plaats sat down at a Des Moines coffee shop with Radio Iowa’s O. Kay Henderson this week to talk about the book.
Vander Plaats of Sioux City, a former teacher and coach who’s currently a business consultant, is now an author, too. His book, titled " Light from Lucas ," talks about the life lessons he’s learned from his severely-disabled 13-year-old son, Lucas. "It was always my goal with Lucas, where a lot of people would question his purpose, that his life would have impact. His life would have purpose," Vander Plaats says. "That’s part of the reason for writing the book."
The book started out as a sort of family diary for the other three Vander Plaats sons. "I really wanted them to catch the impact of Lucas’ life on our family. I knew they were experiencing it, but I really wanted to put it down in black and white what (were) the life-lessons that Lucas has taught us," Vander Plaats.
It wound up being an intensely-emotional journey, according to Vander Plaats. "Because of being the man in the situation — the dad, the husband — there were many times when I was called upon to have the strong face and to be the strong symbol," Vander Plaats says. "(Writing the book) was a time to let down my guard and really experience some of the emotions that I may not have experienced when I was actually walking through it."
The journey with Lucas began on June 13th, 1993, when Darla Vander Plaats went into labor and her baby boy came out of the womb with an abnormally-large head. Sixteen months later Lucas was diagnosed with an extremely rare brain disorder. Lucas has never walked or talked. He’s stopped breathing on many occasions — some of which are chronicled in the book.
Vander Plaats also writes in the book about a friend who advised that since he and his wife were caring for Lucas in their own home, they were becoming a family wholly-centered around Lucas and the other boys weren’t getting enough attention. Right after that — since the age of six, Lucas has lived in a facility in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, that specializes in caring for people like Lucas who have severe disabilities. In the book, Vander Plaats describes the outings as they drive to and from Sioux Falls as important family bonding time.
The book is arranged in chapters, each outlining a lesson that Vander Plaats says Lucas has taught his family. Each chapter concludes with a letter written to Lucas. One letter is written by Darla to her son. Another letter is written from the oldest Vander Plaats son, Hans, to his brother.
The rest are written from father to son. "The letters were extremely emotional for me because I was thinking: ‘I wish he could read this. I wish he could hear these words. I wish he could understand,’ and even though I believe he understands so much more than I give him credit for, I wish he could read," Vander Plaats says. "I wish we could communicate with one another in that way."
But Vander Plaats says Lucas does communicate — freely and openly — without wearing the "mask" that most people do, so you know when Lucas is happy and when Lucas is sad because Lucas doesn’t hold anything back. "Lucas is not concerned about your social status, your political clout. He doesn’t concern himself with what home you live in, what car you drive, how much money you have," Vander Plaats says. "Lucas is Lucas all the time. That’s what I love about him is his authenticity…He communicates volumes to us, all the time, which many times has our family in stitches."
Vander Plaats says the passages in the book that touch him most are the chapter his wife wrote, and the open letter his oldest son wrote. "Hans’ letter continues to touch me because he was very real, even to the point of questioning, ‘Does God really exist?’" Vander Plaats says. "I think that’s a fair question. I think that’s a question all of us have asked from time to time — we just haven’t admitted it."
Vander Plaats says his own faith had been tested by the deaths of three siblings before he even began a family of his own. "I truly had come to grips — before Lucas — that there is a God and Jesus is my Lord and Savior," Vander Plaats says. "But it was really Lucas that I think God used to bring me to my knees to say ‘Bob, you can’t fix this. You are not tough enough to go this journey alone.’"
Vander Plaats says he hopes the book inspires — and he’s asking readers to write to him and tell their stories. Vander Plaats signed a publishing deal with "Focus on the Family" last spring. He was running for governor at the time and resisted requests to have the book released this past fall while he was the running-mate of Jim Nussle, the Republican candidate for governor.
"A lot of people ask, you know, ‘Boy, were you sad?’" Vander Plaats says, referring to the loss in last November’s election. "Obviously, you don’t work that hard for something and not be disappointed, but we never missed a beat…We believe there’s other plans and other journeys that we pursue — this (book) being one of them." [ More on Light from Lucas at Amazon ]