Summertime, 1969. She was treated like she was a witch by family members because she had coal black hair. She lived in an isolation unit in a children's cottage at a state hospital where I worked one summer during college.
No one ever heard Valerie speak. Labeled autistic, she stared as she rocked and rocked and rocked. All the cottage's children were given melaril and thorazine twice daily. Most were not allowed outside their isolation units. All rooms were kept locked. Meals were taken into the rooms for each child.
Valerie, 9, had beautiful dark eyes. I tried countless times to connect with her in a verbal way without luck. Looking into her eyes was nothing short of looking into an abyss in the dark of night. Nothing could be connected to or seen.
Sometimes I would just sit by her hoping she would feel my presence and not feel alone. If I could draw what it felt like to see her in her isolation, rocking and rocking ceaselessly, it would be a grayish black circle that she existed in. Not lived, mind you. She just existed in some far-away world where no one could touch her. My mind had to stay away from imaging the abuse she endured at her tender age. I so wanted her to feel at peace, to feel alive and loved.
In the third and final month of my work at the children's cottage, an image kept entering my mind repeatedly to take Valerie outdoors to water. After numerous meetings with doctors and writing letters of request, I was granted the opportunity to get a toddler wading pool to bring to the cottage grounds. It was a hot Kansas afternoon and I planned to take Valerie outside for a soak.
She had been locked inside for more than two years. As we left the building, Valerie rocked vehemently but she didn't refuse to walk through the doorway. When we got to the little pool, I sat on a wooden stool and put my feet in to soak. I told Valerie she could get into the pool and sit down. She stared at the pool, then rocked back and forth for a moment before entering of her own accord. Once in the water, she sat and rocked, creating endless ripples in the pool. She kept staring up at the tree that shaded us.
After about half an hour, I heard a weak voice. “I wish I could eat worms.” Valerie spoke! My wooden stool tilted and my butt landed on the ground due to the shock of her speaking words.
I saw an extraordinary opportunity here. Lying with my half-cocked legs hanging over the edge of the wading pool, I said very quietly, “Valerie, why do worms sound good to eat to you?” Without looking away from the bird sitting on the branch in the shade tree, she replied with her heart's desire. “Because then I could be a bird and fly away and be free.”
My eyes filled with tears. All I could do was be with her in that moment. Eventually, I spoke. “I understand your feelings, Valerie. Thank you for sharing how you feel.” She continued to stare at the bird. Two weeks later I left for my senior year at college. I am told Valerie never spoke again. What an honor to be trusted with her innermost wish. Thank you, Valerie.
Countless times I have reflected on this saga of a soulful, imprisoned little girl, wondering why I was chosen to be her confidante. The only thing that makes sense to me was that my own inner peace touched her being, opening a door for her to trust and be heard. We never know what good we can do by generating our own inner peace. I am grateful to know how to tap it within myself and touch others in healing ways.
Some of this article was excerpted from “The Grandma Boom Chronicles ... More Alive at 65.” Janai Mestrovich, aka Grandma Boom, lives in Ashland, and is an international speaker. Her books are available at Bloomsbury, Renaissance Rose, Amazon.com and www.grandmaboom.com. See her Awesome Aging blog at www.dailytidings.com.