I believe that the most meaningful communication does not require words. As a graduate student in Philadelphia in the early nineties, I labored under debilitating and dangerous bouts of depression. Because I was becoming increasingly isolated as a result of my disease, in desperation I volunteered at a children’s hospital. I was hungry to touch and be touched as a reminder of the humanity I had lost to my illness. For several years, I went to the hospital and spent two hours in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit in the quiet of Sunday mornings. I loved spending time with infants who demanded nothing more than what I was craving – a gentle human touch.
One Sunday when I arrived, a nurse directed me to a rocking chair and told me that she had someone particular for me to hold. As she laid a child in my arms she simply said, “Sammy is a little floppy.” This boy, only several months old, was a quadriplegic. I was used to holding sick babies, but most of them seemed likely to recover and live a close-to-normal life. It did not appear that Sammy had any hope of even surviving the next few months. I imagined the physical pain he had already experienced during what had to be many medical procedures. Both his past and his future were almost certainly bleak. I spent the entire two hours that day rocking Sammy and looking into his eyes; eyes that were far too old for this tiny little child. As we stared into each other’s eyes, it was obvious to me that this old soul understood anguish in ways that others could not. Sharing personal knowledge of pain with Sammy brought comfort to me that I had never found before.
I have no idea what happened to Sammy. I never saw him at the hospital again. Now, a dozen years later, I have no doubt that he has left this world. However, then, as now, I needed to keep the experience I shared with Sammy that Sunday morning free from cold certainty.
I still fight depression every day and live with the limitations it imposes on my work and relationships. In my worst moments, I often think of that day when Sammy comforted me without words, but instead with his knowledge that most suffering is undeserved and arbitrary and tests each of us to our very core.
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