HURRICANE DONNA

HURRICANE DONNA

From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

Hurricane Donna

Truly, it is in the darkness that one finds the light, so when we are in sorrow, then this light is nearest of all to us.

Meister Eckhart

When I named my daughter Donna after the hurricane that swept up the East Coast in 1960, little did I know that one day she would have to pass through a hurricane of her own that was every bit as devastating as Hurricane Donna.

The storm in Donna’s life began in the summer of 1988. Donna had married four years earlier, and now she was to give birth to a baby. My husband and I, as well as Donna and her husband, began to anticipate a happy time in all our lives.

But things didn’t turn out how we had hoped. Although Donna was healthy and strong, and the pregnancy had gone well, Austin was born with a very rare, incurable syndrome. It was very unlikely that he would be with us for long. Perhaps a year, the doctors said.

All of a sudden, the warm glow of having a new son, and for me a grandson, turned into something very different. It was a stern, heartrending challenge for everyone.

Of course, Austin stole all our hearts. He was a courageous little boy, and he helped to teach us the lessons we needed to learn. Donna was a tower of strength for the family and all our friends. As she cared for her son, she made his every breath count. It was extremely taxing for her, but she seemed to gather strength from it. If a hurricane was going on around our Hurricane Donna, she seemed to have found a way of remaining calm in the midst of it.

When Austin was one year old, he was enrolled at Child Development Resources, Inc., a preschool for special-needs children in Norge, Virginia. This gave Donna a break for a few hours a day, and she would frequently go to the school to watch the way the therapists worked with Austin. He received wonderful care and was totally accepted by all the staff. Austin was not an easy child to care for—he was almost always in pain—but at CDR they loved him and for all the right reasons.

Austin battled hard to make the best of what he had been given, and he managed to outlive his predicted life span.

But it could not last forever. Donna’s little boy died when he was three years old. We knew that what had kept him alive for so long was the wonderful nurturing and care he received.

It is hard to explain how it feels to lose a grandson in such circumstances. Or how it feels to lose a son. Donna managed to cope, I could only guess how, but I knew there was an emptiness in her life. There had to be.

One day, a few months after Austin died, Donna called me. It was one of our regular mother-daughter chats. “Mom,” she blurted out, eagerness in her voice. “I’m going to volunteer at the school!”

“Oh,” I replied, puzzled. “What school’s that, Donna?”

“Austin’s school!” Her excitement was fairly buzzing down the phone line. “It was where he was happiest. I want to help other special-needs children feel loved, too.”

I was speechless. How could Donna have the strength to even contemplate doing that? Reviving all those sad memories. Seeing all those other children with similar conditions. To be where Austin used to be but wasn’t any longer.

“Donna . . . “ I began. I wasn’t sure she should expose herself to all that pain again. I had difficulty just looking at Austin’s pictures or the video we had of him from his first birthday.

But Donna knew with certainty what she wanted to do. “He loved being there, with all the other children, remember? He felt so accepted there. I can help because I know what it feels like to be a parent with a special-needs child.”

There was a lump in my throat. I was so proud of her. I knew then that she was making the right decision.

And so it turned out. Donna lent her special, hard-won skills to those special-needs children. She knew how to give strength to the parents, too. She had walked in their shoes, and they knew this and loved her for it. Donna felt strongly that the parents should know that the people who were caring for their children loved them. “Not for what’s wrong with them, but for what’s right with them,” she told me.

And although Donna never told me this directly, I think she felt once again connected to Austin during the time she worked at the school, as if his spirit was still present. Austin may no longer be in this world, but he was still making an impact, through Donna, on hearts that needed strength and comfort and inspiration.

Donna’s volunteering turned out to be a life-changing event. After discovering the fulfillment in serving others, she decided to train as an occupational therapist. There was nothing in her background previous to this that would have indicated such a course in life. But her precious son Austin had given her the means to discover where her gifts lay. And as an occupational therapist at Norfolk General Hospital, Donna’s been giving the gift ever since.

Arline McGraw Oberst
Dedicated to the memory of Austin Lee Hanning

[EDITORS’ NOTE: For more information on Child Development Resources, Inc., contact P.O. Box 280, Norge, VA 23127-0280; 757-566-3300.]

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