One morning last week I had terrible trouble buttoning the top button on my dress shirt. My right arm and hand are largely decorative, as opposed to functional, so such simple tasks can be difficult. It may strike you as a silly frustration but for the briefest moment I felt just a little sorry for myself.
As suddenly as that emotion hit me it was replaced by the thought of my friend Jennifer Longdon who struggles with the very genuine difficulties of navigating a wheelchair and the debilitating troubles brought on by a random highway shooter several years ago. Jennifer recounts her challenges often on Facebook and any friend of hers quickly comes to realize the real pain of disability.
I felt foolish for lamenting my trivial challenge when many people like Jennifer know genuine pain and obstacles from hell.
Actually I learned that lesson very early in my life and I tell the story in my book, “Some People Even Take Them Home.”
When I was 11 or so and still in a pediatric ward I contracted an infection and was placed in protective isolation to protect against the dangerous spread of mysterious bacteria to other patients and staff. Everybody who came into my room, from nurses to doctors to Mom, donned surgical robes and masks.
As I wrote in the book: “The desolation and loneliness of that imprisonment were suffocating until two surprising teachers arrived to show me how fortunate I was.
In the room next to me were two young people I never met. They had as profound an effect on me as anyone else in my 64 years. They were two-year-old twin boys and they had been severely burned in a Saginaw, MI house fire. I knew the boys only by their constant and hideous screams. They were critically injured and their skin was obviously gravely tender. I listened to them yell in agony for hours on end. Horrible, piercing cries communicated unbearable torment.”
Even at my tender age I was sharp enough to realize that my own infection was small potatoes. Those boys taught me the true meaning of suffering but I vividly remember the slow dawning of a vital truth.
I have no idea if those little boys survived. I pray they did. What did survive was the belief burned into me that somebody down the street, or around the corner, or in the next hospital room always, always, has it worse than I do. That’s why I try so hard to smile through tough times. I hope those screaming, crying boys have made me more caring and more generous.
A little thing like that damned shirt button serves to remind me how grateful I need to be.