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November 2011

Listening for silent screamers

For most of my childhood we lived in an old two-story house that my dad spent weekends and evenings remodeling. It seemed like the tallest house on the block, although I think it was an illusion based on pale-yellow color of the siding. The color made the house stand out among the one-story houses on each side, and the few other two-story houses on the block that had either brick or brick-patterned asphalt siding.

A large porch stretched the width of the front of the house and was inviting with an old, comfortable, glider that once belonged to my grandparents. My dad’s workshop sat on the edge of the back yard between two rustic carports, and a dog-pen that never held a dog.

The house was narrow, probably not more than 25-feet wide. The yard existed only in the front and the back of the house, though a fence ran along the property line on all four sides. If I were to face the front of the house I could clearly see that it sat to the right of the lot, just enough, for the narrow concrete walkway to go down the left side and make it easy for someone to get from the front yard to the back yard. Wasted space to be sure since few ever made such a trip. Those who knew us came directly to the kitchen door in the back.

The interior floor plan mirrored the exterior layout, with the three rooms on the main floor—living room, dining room, and kitchen—sitting to the right of the house. From the small front entry, stairs led to the second floor, and to right of the stairs a small hallway came to a dead end at one of our two bathrooms. Upstairs were four small bedrooms and a wide hallway that was still covered in grey, wool carpet that was printed with dark, red floral pattern and was likely put down when the house was originally built.

I think it would have been a creepy place to live for most any child. For me, and my overactive imagination, there were times the house could be downright frightening. It probably didn’t help matters much that I had overheard my mom tell someone that one of the previous owners had died, or was murdered, in the house. True or not, this prompted me to sleep with my bed facing the door and the hall light on so I could get a few seconds jump on any apparition that had me in its sights.

Though I never saw a ghost, there was one night that stands out in my memory as one the most frightening times of my childhood.

I woke up to find the hall light off that night, which meant that mom and dad had gone to bed. The house was really dark and quiet. I began to hear the stairs creak as if someone were slowly walking up and trying not to make noise. I broke out in sweat and started yelling for my dad, but nothing came out of my mouth. There was no sound at all. The harder I tried to scream, the more panicked I became; I was certain someone, or something, was coming for me and no one could hear my cries for help.

I’m not sure what happened next. I suspect I had a panic attack and I passed out because I don’t remember anything more from that night. Obviously, whatever was on the stairs, or that my imagination had put on the stairs, did not pull me away into the darkness that night.

My dad didn’t come to my rescue either; he hadn’t heard my silent screams.

I think it was this experience, along with losing my hearing, which has helped me to be more aware of the silent screams of others. Through body language and intuition, I can usually pick up when something’s wrong in someone’s life. I don’t often know the cause of their screams, but I can almost always “hear” them screaming.

It’s hard to explain how I know they’re crying out. I just seem to know. And I want to do something to help them.

I fall short in my ability to help those people whose silent screams I do hear. I have a tendency to smother them because I want to help them avoid that frightening helplessness that comes from being a silent screamer. As much as I may want to help, or as much as I may try, some are not ready to accept help; others need to move through the experiences on their own to gain the greatest life value.

I am learning that I cannot help everyone, but knowing this won’t stop me from trying. So, I want them to know this:

I hear you and I am here for you.

Whenever you’re ready.

“I had a tank of tropical fish. Someone turned up the tank heater and they all boiled. I woke up on a Friday morning and went to feed them, and there they were. All my beautiful fish floating on top. Most of them split into, others with their eyes hanging out. It looked like violence. But it was such a quiet night. And I remember wishing I had the kind of ears that could hear fish screams, because they looked as if they had suffered, and I wanted so badly to save them.

And that Sunday in church, I heard that Christ had told his apostles to be fishers of men. And from then on, I looked upon all the people in the church as fish. I was young, so I saw them as beautiful tropical fish, and so I knew they were all quiet screamers. The church was so quiet. I thought everyone was boiling, and I wanted the kind of ears that could hear what they were screaming about, ‘cause I wanted to save them.

As I got older, the people lost the look of tropical fish. They became catfish to me – just overdressed scavengers. So I drowned out whatever I might be able to hear, and made my world my tank, so hot that I almost split. And so now I am back listening, listening for the screams of angels.”

~ Mark Dolson, a character from the play, Mass Appeal

Be more happier

He showed up the door of the room on my third day in the hospital during the summer of 1971. He came by, he said, because had heard me cry-out the night before and wanted to make sure I was okay. We were both on the rehabilitation floor of the hospital; I was being fitted for a bent-knee brace and learning to walk on crutches as part of my treatment for hip dysplasia.

His first name was Dempsey, but I never caught his last name. He was ten-years-old, although much smaller in stature that I was at eight-years-old; the top of this head barely rose above the handle of my door. He had impressive cowlick above his left eye that caused his short-cropped blonde hair to stick straight out in the front. He seemed to vibrate with the energy of boy who had caffeine coursing through his veins rather than blood.

I told him that was upset the night before because two male orderlies woke me from a sound sleep and carted me down to the basement of the hospital for tests and measurements. The kindly, older woman nurse who had been taking care of me was not around. She explained everything; the guys explained nothing. I was so afraid because I didn’t know what was happening.

After hearing my story, he smiled and bounced into the room. He spent the next hour with me watching me draw and telling me how hospitals actually worked. He told me about hospital shifts, the grumpy nurse to avoid after lunch, who to ask for ice cream and get it every time, and what “physical therapy” really meant. Dempsey was hospital pro. He had already been there two weeks learning how to use the hooks that he called his new “hands.”

“He is a Thalidomide baby,” my mother told me when I asked about him as a teenager.

Thalidomide was a drug marketed as an over-the-counter sedative but was often used by pregnant women in the 1950’s and early 1960’s to treat morning sickness. Many women who used the drug found unfortunately discovered that their newborns suffered from limb deformities, including shortened or missing arms, among other more life-threatening and debilitating deformities.

Dempsey was missing his arms from the elbow down as I recall, but I don’t believe he had other challenges; at least none that were visible, or none that kept him from doing the things he wanted to do for those ten-days we spent in the hospital together. By the time I met him, he had mastered the large movements with his new “hands,” but still could not hold a pencil or spoon, let alone use one. Until he could write his name and feed himself, he couldn’t go home.

He did not seem to be in much of a hurry to do either.

Our daily routine at the hospital was similar. The nurses would wake us at 7:00 AM for breakfast and the orderlies would show up about 9:00 to take us to physical therapy. Physical therapy was a couple of hours, and we were back to our rooms in time for lunch. Our afternoons were “free,” if you could call them that. It only meant that we weren’t scheduled for any tests or therapy, and could spend that time doing whatever we wanted in our rooms, or in sometimes the out in the hallway. Dinner was about 5:30 and the hospital’s only visiting hours were from 6:00 to 8:00 PM. Lights were out at 10:00 PM for us.

My parents and grandparents visited every evening, and I talked to them at least once each afternoon on the telephone. My favorite aunt even sent me a care package or two from Kentucky to help me pass the time. Dempsey’s mom visited him a few times while I was there, but I don’t remember other visitors or care packages for him. I wondered why his mom did not come every night and why he didn’t have a dad who visited, too, but I never asked him. He didn’t seem to mind not having many visitors.

Dempsey and I became fast friends. We did everything together including, afternoon races down the hallway in wheel chairs (that grumpy nurse was always yelling at us), coordinating Jell-O®-slurping contests with the other kids on our floor at lunch, and making happy drawings for the terminal kids on the floor below. Of course, Dempsey could not draw or color because of he had not mastered the fine-motor skills with his hooks. Instead, he told us what to draw, or how to make our pictures, “be more happier” looking.

By my eighth day in the hospital, I had received the bent-knee brace and mastered the art of walking up and down stairs on crutches. Two days later, I said goodbye to the nurses and raced Dempsey one last time in the wheelchairs to the finish line where we met that grumpy nurse who somehow managed a smile.

Dempsey walked us to the elevator and said, “Be more happier! You get to go home today.”

I was sad to leave him.

That was the last time I saw Dempsey, but he has never been far from my mind. Throughout my childhood, I thought of him every time I faced a physical or mental challenge I wasn’t sure I could overcome, when I played basketball, and when I ran track.  As an adult, he comes to mind whenever I’m feeling sorry for myself, when I’m do something unexpected for someone that brings a smile to their face, and of course, whenever I slurp Jell-O®.

Dempsey taught me that life’s adversities could be easily overcome with a change of attitude and perspective.  He showed me that it was okay to take on the grumpy in the name of a little fun and that it is much better to help other people “be more happier” than it is to wallow in my own self-pity.

Having a handicap is a life challenge, but being handicapped is merely a state of mind.

Thank you, Dempsey. You made a difference. Wherever you are, I thought you would like to know that I’m still trying to follow your lead.

_____

Photo credit: Pubescent Boy in the Light by Lynne’s Lens

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