From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

Without a Word

Words are sacred. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.

Tom Stoppard

As a young girl with a disability, I know firsthand that growing up can be very challenging. Like many teenagers, my perception of the future was a bleak one. I had envisioned myself in “sheltered workshop” situations, living a life of isolation. However, I found my refuge in volunteering, as it offered me a safe place to discover my wings.

In my early days of volunteering, my path crossed with a little eight-year-old girl named Sara. She was full of life and had a great love for nature and animals. Sara lived on a farm and spent endless hours with her rabbits and horses. One bright summer day, something spooked one of the horses. It bolted out of control. In the mayhem, Sara was crushed against a fence post causing extensive injuries.

As a result Sara lapsed into what is called a “locked-in” coma. In this state, people are aware of their surroundings. They can recognize voices. They can hear the world but cannot reach out to it.

I was asked to be a member of the volunteer team working with Sara. The team would work with Sara to help her use her senses as a means of reaching her. Each visit I would chat with Sara and her mother, who rarely left her side. With scented markers and textured toys we worked with her each day. I would talk about the aromas she smelled and the tactile objects we put in her hands. Although her eyes remained closed all the time, Sara gradually learned to communicate “yes” or “no” through the movement of her eyelids. These small steps in communicating with Sara were greatly celebrated.

Using her love for animals, we introduced Sara to the Pet Therapy Program at the hospital. One day as Sara reclined in her wheelchair, I placed a rabbit on her lap. I described the rabbit to her, talking about the softness of his fur and the twitching of his nose. Suddenly, Sara began stroking the rabbit and feeling his fur. Oh, how excited everyone was. We danced with joy that day.

Many times at our team meetings, we would speculate about whether we thought we were getting through to Sara. We wondered if she was really hearing us. It was like seeing someone you loved and had known all your life trapped behind a wall of dark glass. You know they are in there, but you aren’t sure they realize you are out here and near them. At times, this would not only break my heart but also touch my soul.

As summer drew to an end, I was getting ready for a vacation to Australia—a trip that was planned long before I met Sara. As is true for most people, I find good-byes very difficult. Sara had woven her way into the very fabric of my world.

Even though she would be in good hands, leaving was the hardest thing I had to do. As a good-bye gift, I bought a koala bear to give to Sara, so she could hold onto and love it while I was gone. I kissed her cheek, told her I would miss her and started for the door.

My emotions began to get the best of me. I stopped with my hand on the doorknob and looked at the very dear mother and daughter who had come to mean so much to me. I glanced again at Sara, and I could see there were tears running down her face—real tears and real feelings. Suddenly, it hit me: We can deeply touch each other’s lives without ever sharing a word. The sound of a voice, the gentle touch of a hand, a soft furry koala bear and a kiss on the cheek carries a loving message that can help heal the wounds of life.

Nancy Blain

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