by Stephani Nur Colby
From the memoir Walking with the Ineffable by Green Writers Press
Sometimes the clinical unit felt as if, rather than being rooted on mothership earth, it was idly circling in the meteor belt deep in space. The twelve severely and profoundly cognitively impaired children who lived in its cinderblock and linoleum capsule seemed to ramble – those who could ramble – in a kind of Brownian movement, unfocussed, drifting by walls and chairs as if impelled by eccentric, unseen gravitational forces that sent them hither and thither, reasonless. The children themselves often seemed like lonely asteroids, shot out of the shattered core of some larger planet where parts of them – the parts that gave speech, sight, hearing, linear reason, functional ability, even varying degrees of physical motion – had been left behind. And here they were, still trying to live out their lives – butterflies with only one wing.
Vegetables, some people rudely called them. And inaccurately. Even the least functional child among them, Nina, who was blind, could not speak or move, and lay on her frail side in a fetal position most of the time, would emit small, happy purring sounds, rough and deep in her throat, when her “grandfather,” a volunteer older gentleman, would sit beside her and hold her hand or stroke her head, murmuring “good girl, good girl, good girl.”
The “vegetables” view had a contrasting but equally brutal companion in the fashionable “liberal” policy of 60s social services called “normalization.” Normalization was an attempt to force a blending of this seriously challenged population with the mundane run of society. While certain elements of creating participation in the greater society were workable, others sprang out of a kind of cold-minded fundamentalist cruelty. As in the dark Night of the Teddy Bears, when ninja squads of counselors rushed into adult units, ruthlessly relieving aging grown-ups of their beloved stuffed animals, and “replacing” them, over the shrieks, with “normalizing” wristwatches. A night – and weeks to follow – of weeping and wailing, as adults, some of them with mental and emotional processes revolving at a three- or six-year-old’s level, dropped tears on the bland faces of watches affixed to their wrists, and went to bed wretchedly with nothing comforting to cuddle in the lonely dark. Those in favor of this policy said it would make our inmates “look better” to the “normal” population on excursions and be, after all, more “age-appropriate.”
Most of us, the counselors in daily contact with the children on the juvenile units, found that social engineering and the big, willful, crude backhoes of enforced lifestyle change were useless in promoting quality of life or even ensuring a successful basic level of functioning. Those of us working on the ground were forced to learn to actually pay attention to these suffering people in a noncoercive way and also to develop more subtle senses and approaches in our interactions with our charges out of necessity, as well as desire. For example, being bathed was upsetting for many; the coldness of the big tile bathing room did not help. We could not control the thermostat, so I would try to pile up towels on counters so that when a child was laid upon them, she would not feel the shock of the cold. But some of them still wailed and jerked when taken to the bathing room, no matter how reassuringly we spoke.
One day I struck upon something that worked for me. I began to sing as I carried an upset child into the bathroom. She calmed and began to smile. Singing proved a soothing magic for each child. The odd thing, though, was that there had to be a different song for each child. No one-size-fits-all, no substitutions, and always the same song for each child, her own particular theme. Or else the usual flailing upset would ensue. I wracked my memory for little songs in French, Spanish, Latin, Hebrew, Greek, as well as English – short and cheerful or haunting, depending upon each child’s temperament. Like a tailor cutting to measure, I had to find the particular melody that matched the mysterious hidden inner curves of each soul. Even without speaking, without knowing, the children were training me in listening, in inner quiet. Like a kingfisher hovering above a stream, I learned to concentrate until the subtle glint of fish scales signaled me to dive on the particular melody that would soothe and nourish that particular child. Peacefulness, harmony, could not be forced. But instead of resentfully and forcibly making the children submit to being cleaned in order to check another task off the too-long list, I learned to slow down, breathe, and become receptive like the crescent moon, ready to receive any available light that would reveal a workable and healing answer. It would be there if I were in a state of true, and not feigned, patience. It was natural to be gentle in such a state. I felt as if the melody even came through my hands. Each child and I found our own particular and real harmony. And the task was accomplished. Bath time became pleasant for us both.
There was one exception. She was nine years old but had the shriveled, hard-bitten demeanor of an aggrieved ancient crone. Wilma looked as close to a stick-figure drawing of a person as I’ve ever seen: skinny as a pencil, all awkward angles without an ounce of softening plumpness, she skittered around the unit like a nervous water bug, never making eye contact with anyone, never touching anyone or allowing touch. Her dark, expressionless eyes, tiny and close-set, made her look like a remote, sad android. With a mouth like an almost lipless slit, smiles were foreign to her. Her hair, chopped a couple of inches above her shoulders, flopped around her paper-white face, thin, lank, and a greasy-looking dark brown. Wilma could move around but not speak. According to the records, there had been a period when she had fed herself but eventually she stopped doing even that, for unknown reasons, and now waited grimly while a counselor spooned or forked food into her reluctant mouth. At night in the privacy of her room, Wilma would beat herself, tearing with her nails, and emerge in the morning with blood streaming down her face. Even though we were not supposed to, some nights we counselors would tie soft cloth gloves on her hands so that she could not hurt herself as badly.
The one exception to Wilma’s no-touch habits involved the sweetest child on the unit. Laurie was eleven but looked younger. She sat upright and motionless all day in her wheelchair, completely paralyzed except for being able to move her neck. She had huge, beautiful pale blue eyes that shone with the light of a fathomless love, warming anyone who approached her. And her smile was like a rainbow after storms. Laurie could not speak but she would make a happy “Aaaaaaahhhhhhh!” sound of delight and welcome when anyone approached her. Her dark blond hair was cut in an elfin pixie style around her pretty face. She was also very slender, like Wilma, but the effect in her case was that of a delicate fine-boned doe.
We all loved Laurie – how not? – and this Wilma noticed. And hated Laurie. Perhaps feeling Laurie’s endless outpouring of love and seeing others responding with love to her warm glow, made Wilma feel her poverty. She neither had love to give nor allowed anyone to express love or affection toward her. When our backs were turned, Wilma would sidle over to Laurie and pull her hair. We would hear the soft “Aaaahhhh,” turn to an anguished “Oooowwwww!” and whip around to see the pained, bewildered look on Laurie’s face and the vindictive look on Wilma’s as she pulled and pulled.
Although I could get Wilma to submit to bathing, woodenly, I could never find a melody to bring her gladness. There seemed to be a wall or, when the kingfisher side of myself tried to look in, only roiling water obscuring wherever the quick, bright, elusive fish in her being might lie.
We counselors felt that Wilma was getting worse over time. She beat herself harder and more frequently. We resorted to the forbidden gloves more often. I asked advice of my supervisor. Gruffly, he said that he didn’t think anything could be done and just added with a grunt, “Just be sure to cover your ass and write down everything” in the record book. Therapy came a distant second to institutional politics.
A night came when I had put Wilma to bed but felt somehow that I could not leave her. The other bed in her room was empty; she had no roommate. I sat near her in a chair while Wilma sat up in bed, compulsively rocking back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, sucking a red thumb, her eyes hard and miserable. There must be some way to help, I thought. There must be. Getting quiet within, I tried to reach for whatever that mysterious something was, my kingfisher hovering over a bigger stream than ever before, where huge fish must be swimming. Somewhere. But nothing. Nothing. And then I heard myself, staring fixedly at the girl and saying to her, “Wilma, you must understand – if you want to receive love, you must give love. To receive love, you must give love.” I felt somehow as if I were speaking to her adult soul, craftily concealed in the tortured cave of her rigid body and blocked in most of its outward function. An Eastern sage had referred to impaired people as “beautiful birds in ugly cages.” Some part of me was trying to speak to that bird. Some part of me must have believed that there was a melody it could hear. But Wilma rocked on, staring into space, an oblivious, out-of-control marionette. I blushed with embarrassment, feeling despair. Whatever was I doing? That was a crazy thing to say to her. How could she possibly understand? And what would the other counselors think? I was just so relieved that no one else had heard me. Sighing, I stood up, patted Wilma on the shoulder, turned off the light, and went out.
Three days passed. And then, beyond hope, Wilma came out of the tomb. We three counselors and all the children were in the main room during a time for afternoon relaxation. I was sitting in the big rocking chair. Wilma angled her way over to me, and stopped in front of me, like an uncertain heron. She turned with her back to me and stood in indecision for a moment. Then, very carefully and slowly, stiff in every limb, she lowered herself into my lap. We were all stunned. All three counselors burst into tears. I wrapped my arms around Wilma, kissed her head, and began to rock her, saying, “Good girl, good girl.” She heaved a tremendous sigh of relief, more like a body blast releasing infinite sorrows, and collapsed back against my chest, limbs softened and natural at last. It was the first time we had ever seen her relax.
After a good long cuddle and rock and us all telling her we loved her, Wilma clambered out of my lap and made her way over to Laurie. A wave of habitual apprehension passed over the counselors. But, when Wilma reached Laurie, instead of pulling her hair, she tried, in her awkward way, to hug her, holding her stiff arms elbows-up in the air, hands together, in a pointy ring around Laurie’s neck. “Aaaaahhhhhh,” said Laurie, for us all. “Aaaahhhh!” Wilma was new to expressing and receiving love and perhaps she wasn’t very good at it yet, but she had, alone, climbed over the vast bridge from not loving to loving. And now she was giving it all she had, a small shining beacon of beautiful daring.
These children, regarded by some as society’s refuse and by some others as pitiable nonentities, had given me lessons that were to fuel my whole life – Laurie’s selfless love: its unflagging, unquestioning, glowing radiance, even under daunting conditions, and its great transforming power flowing like sunlight over all of us. Wilma’s lessons of courage and the overcoming of what could easily have been described as impossible obstacles, of the depth and power of the human soul and its warrior ardor to live in whatever fullness was possible, both giving and receiving. I have sat at the feet of various spiritual teachers since that time, and for that I am grateful. But among the greatest whom I have ever been privileged to know are these two, Laurie and Wilma – miracle-workers who showed you how to fly with one wing.
Stephani Nur Colby has felt fleeting touches of grace since childhood, like the brush of unseen bird of Paradise wings from another world. They drew her on in search of healing for herself and others from a great ineffable harmony she sensed at the core of everything living. Spiritually seeking, she was already bathed in the powerfully mystical atmosphere of the Greek Orthodox Church from birth but over time explored other Christian expressions as well, a rich and subtle Sufism open to those of all faiths, a Native American transmission carried through hawks, owls, and falcons, herbal apprenticeship, and the study of various gentle but dynamic forms of energy-healing—trying always to follow the leading and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Now a Greek Orthodox Psaltria (Psalmist/Cantor/Reader) and Inayati Sufi Order initiate, graduate of the Suluk Academy, and energy-healer, Stephani is uniquely positioned to help those who are spiritual explorers, striving to make new connections with the power and beauty of deep-rooted, life-giving ancient paths.