Friday, October 28, 2005

A Gift of Grace.

Lately, I have been hearing and reading the word grace. Somehow, the word has quietly slipped by me unnoticed, until this week. And once I finally opened my ears to hear it, my interest was piqued. So far, this is how I would describe my understanding of grace.

  • Grace is so light, no one knows where it may land
  • Grace represents the virtues that we try to live by: Honesty, goodness, love, integrity, goodwill, generosity
  • When you are touched by a moment of grace, you are touched by a rumour of transcendence.
  • Grace is multi-sensual.
  • Grace is compassion and forgiveness.
  • The emotional power behind grace is something outside of yourself.
  • You know when you've experienced a moment of grace.

Instead of trying to dissect the word any more than necessary, I will try to convey it through a story - one that I hadn't thought about for years. Interestingly, it was the first example that popped into my mind after comtemplating grace.

Years ago, I had the golden opportunity to work at an Extended Care Hospital in Victoria, BC. I was hired to start a new day camp program for the residents of Queen Alexandra Hospital. It had never been tried before. The whole field of "Child Life programs" was brand new and experimental with the goal of providing sensory stimulation through various means of intervention. Along with 2 others we started from scratch to design a program on the grounds of the hospital for multiply handicapped children and youth that would provide them with new experiences and connections with neighbourhood able-bodied children. Armed with years of experience running camp programs, and some knowledge and experience working with disabled children, I felt challenged and confident in taking on the task.

Each week, we had a new group of residents attend. New themes, outings and activities were planned. There were a lot of firsts for these campers. Some had never been off the grounds their whole lives, so a trip to the park to experience movement, people, activities, colour, sounds, smells was monumental. Swimming, campfires, Bar BQ's, crafts, wheelchair relay races, lying on a big beach blanket by the shore, listening to music..........basic camp activities. A new world to these kids. The highlight of each week, however was Thursday night when everyone camped out in big army tents that the Armed Forces had provided, on the grounds of the hospital.
It was a lot of work, especially arranging the necessary "MASH" unit that accompanied the sleep out. One Thursday night early in the summer, I had worked all day, physically arranging for the sleepover to occur, carrying and moving kids in and out of their wheelchairs, changing them into their bathing suits, and holding them in the water so that they could float. I had fed some of the kids who weren't able to feed themselves, made hot dogs for the ones who could. I had entertained, sang songs, organized and supervised all day long. It had been a fulfilling and remarkable day, but I was running out of steam and it wasn't over yet. By the time bedtime rolled around, I had been working straight out for over 12 hours. My enthusiasm was waning knowing that I had a potentially long night ahead of me overseeing my camper's comforts and needs. I found myself wondering if I had any stamina left.

One of the campers that week was 11 year old Matthew. Ambulatory, though he had a mild case of cerebral palsy on his left side, Matthew's needs were much less physical. His needs were all involved in connecting with him. He was a good looking kid, with pencil straight sandy brown hair, a face full of freckles and far away eyes. He was born with a severe form of autism and cognitive delay. He was completely non-verbal. No attempts at connecting with him had been effective. It was like Matthew was linked to another galaxy, or that an invisible bubble encased him. He seemed to have no ability to interact with others. If we were involved in doing a craft, Matthew would simply sit there lost in the heavens until you physically place your hands on his and "walked him" through it. If we were involved in relay races, you would have to hold his hand and go through the motions with him. Everyday, we had involved him in all activities, talking and singing and encouraging him, but never was there a moment of recognition. He didn't seem capable of it. He appeared to be a physical shell, void of emotion.

When Thursday night rolled around, Matthew was by my side as I helped the other campers get settled into their makeshift beds inside the spacious army tents. There was lots of excitement, giggling and talking between the staff and the campers because the whole experience was so fresh and new to them. I was at a point, however, where I wasn't taking their excitement in and partaking in their enjoyment. I was exhausted. I had started thinking ahead to the next morning when I could hop in my car and head home to my own comfy bed to catch up on my sleep.
Going through the motions, I helped Matthew put his pyjamas on, brush his teeth, clean him up and walk him over to his tent and bed. By the glow of a small flashlight, I tucked him in as I continued to make small talk, though not expecting a response.

But there was a response. Wide eyes, and wide awake for the first time that I had seen, Matthew was looking around at his new environment, soaking it all in. He connected. I stopped in my tracks, fully transported back to that present moment and watched him look around. Then, Matthew turned his head, looked me straight in the eyes for the first time and grinned from ear to ear.

A moment of grace. And it resonanted through me.

Now that I examine it, that summer was jam-packed with moments of grace as it was also a summer of emotional transitions and personal growth for me as an individual. New experiences, new city, new people, risk taking and lots of memories.......... But by far that one somewhat simple second I experienced with a little boy with faraway eyes will always stand out as extraordinary.

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