49: Do You Want to Talk?

49: Do You Want to Talk?

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Do You Want to Talk?

There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up.

~John Holmes

“Do you want to talk?” She shook her head from side to side as her long, dark hair caught her tears. Her task was to draw how she felt since her loved ones had died. She continued to push a black crayon back and forth. I tried to make out any images, but all I saw was one big, black blob.

We were sitting on a concrete floor at Camp Kenan in Barker, New York, where Niagara Hospice annually holds Camp Hope, a free weekend event for grieving children.

Eleven-year-old Alyssa was a former student of mine. She was there because she had lost both her grandmother and mother within a few short months.

“Alyssa,” I spoke softly. She raised her eyebrows. I caught a quick glance of her dark brown eyes, which seemed to be focusing on an unknown spot. “Let me tell you what I remember about your grandma.” Her coloring slowed. “She’s the person who encouraged you to tell me the truth when we had that incident in school and you couldn’t sleep. Remember?”

She nodded. “Your mom,” I paused. “Well, I never told you, Alyssa, but when I had a workshop for parents to teach them how to help their children…” I paused again because I needed her full attention. I wanted her to hear the magnitude of my next words. “Your grandma and mom were the only people who showed up.”

She dropped her crayon. “Really?” She looked at me uncertainly.

“Really,” I said with conviction.

“I didn’t know that.”

I spoke very gently. “You didn’t need to then, but now you do.”

I continued. “Your mom and grandma loved you so much.” I had to steady myself as I silently prayed for the ability to continue. My heart was beating fast.

“I know there were problems. Everyone has them, including me. But one thing I’m one hundred percent certain of is that your grandma and mom loved you very much. Know what your mom said to me?”

“No,” she looked at me quizzically. Her whale earrings bobbed up and down as if gasping for air. She brushed aside her long bangs. I could see her brown eyes. They shifted right to left as if expecting someone. Eventually we made eye contact.

“Your mom said, ‘Mrs. Torreano, please help me teach Alyssa how to read better. I want her to become whatever she wants in life. I want her to have a better life than I do.’ ”

Alyssa smiled. She cautiously put her arms around me. Our tears blended together.

I have been an adult volunteer at Camp Hope every year since 2006. The first year, I went for myself. I had just experienced the death of my father. His passing was gradual, a result of congestive heart failure. I craved tranquility. I wondered if the camp would help me with the grieving process. It did.

Now, as I quietly listened to the voices of the children around me speak to volunteers about their loss, I realized my memories are the glue that keep my father alive.

Pointing to the black blob on Alyssa’s paper, I said, “Tell me something you remember about your grandma.” I paused. I placed my hand as much as I could over the black. “Something good, Alyssa.”

Alyssa suddenly giggled. “She made me eat my vegetables or no dessert,” she said with a hint of indignation.

“Peas?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied.

“Me too, Alyssa. I hated those green things.”

Finally, communication.

“What about your mom, Alyssa?”

She scooted away from me. She put her head in her hands and cried.

Barely above a whisper, she said, “Grandma raised me. I don’t remember much.”

“I do remember.” I spoke my words carefully. I reminded her what I told her before. “Your mom was the only mom who came to my workshop.” I paused while she processed that. Ever so slowly she moved her hands away from her teary eyes. She focused on me. I put my arm on her shoulder.

“Your mom loved you.” Her body shook as I placed my other arm around her.

A year later, I received a phone call from her dad.

“Mrs. Torreano, Alyssa wants to go back to Camp Hope. It really helped her.”

There were a few seconds of silence. I could sense him choking up.

I thought back to the cold concrete floor where I sat with Alyssa.

He continued, “She wants to help other kids like you helped her.”

~Joanna Montagna Torreano

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