I’ve written about angels before. (Faith and Angels: Parts One and Two.) I truly believe they exist, taking on all kinds of forms. They touch our lives and sometimes alter a given person’s life trajectory. At times we’re aware of their presence or the forces/events they evoke. Sometimes, we’re angels to others and may or may not know about it until ages later—possibly never. (BTW, knowing is a humbling experience, but a blessing too. Just another reason I have to believe.)
Doesn’t matter whether we’re aware or not; kind of like that tree in the forest falling and making a sound. Sound waves happened. Just because ears weren’t around to perceive the noise doesn’t mean there was none.
Quick disclaimer: I speak only for myself, from MHO and my experiences. Take what you like and leave the rest.
Sigh. Almost three years ago, I was assigned to a child who received home instruction and related services (i.e., occupational therapy) due to a combination of significant medical conditions incurred when he was a little under two years old. Until I entered the home the first time, I didn’t realize he was my neighbor too. He was pretty-much wheelchair-bound, and I had already seen him being wheeled around by his nurse on many occasions in my neighborhood. One more thing: this guy was roughly my younger son’s age.
That day I showed to meet him, his dad told me to expect the boy to cry. He did not. We shared our first session, engaged in a couple of activities and set our schedule.
I saw him once weekly for a full school year and during our extended school year summer program. I’ll never be sure how much he looked forward to me in particular coming (I really believe he preferred my colleague who also saw him once/week), but we hung in there just the same.
During many of our sessions he did cry. But during others, he tolerated me doing things hand-over-hand. He put up with me getting him up to dance to my favorite on his I-pod, The Jackson Five’s Rockin’ Robin. (On one occasion, I hit REPEAT so many times, the boy’s dad came in, wondering if something was wrong with the device, lol.) We practiced dressing, getting out of bed with as little help as possible, then wheeling into his adapted bathroom to do grooming and hygiene tasks (i.e., washing face, brushing teeth, combing hair—you know, getting handsome.)
He didn’t speak but signed for me here and there: mostly yes/no via clapping (or not) to indicate whether he wanted to do a given activity. He never verbalized directly to me but loved one nurse in particular and engaged in “conversation” with her. She’d say words and he’d repeat them—always immediately after my session, while I prepared to leave. He also talked to his dad. (I didn’t get to see too many interactions with his mom, but he always cried when she left for the day. She works a day job while his dad stayed home as primary caregiver.)
I didn’t know then that his condition was already deteriorating. By last January, his oxygen levels had already started declining and he often looked very blue. I spoke to his dad about this; he stated the doctors were very aware of the condition and that only so much could be done to stabilize and/or improve it. (For confidentiality purposes, I’m not at liberty to disclose more details.)
My student hung in there and we switched more to activities and tasks I hoped he found fun. Although I believe he enjoyed at least some our sessions, he still cried often, so this past September I asked my colleague if she’d be willing to take on the second session. He rarely cried when she was there. (The running joke was I did the show tunes; my colleague went by Mary Poppins.) Since she’d become his all-time favorite kid, she went twice weekly and always stayed longer than the scheduled time. He wasn’t work.
This boy didn’t have functional speech. He had physical challenges and was cortically blind. His ability to use his hands and walk was very limited and he was dependent in nearly all aspects of self-care. Yet, he was very aware of those around him, knew what he wanted and how to communicate that in his unique way.
He loved music and signed for it. He preferred kiddy tunes but his dad slowly transitioned him to more age appropriate, contemporary hits. As per my colleague, he’d tug at his hair to be told how handsome he looked. He did a Stevie Wonder impression and indicated his desire to engage in his favorites of the activities my colleague brought to their sessions. I’d tease him about ‘defecting’ to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ camp (from my newly beloved NY Giants) after one of his nurses’ sons joined the former NFL organization. (I’m thinking he was big on Elmo too. The floral arrangement pictured here is the only image I could find to give an idea of the full-body one made of red-dyed spider mums (?)—it was amazing!
Here are some of my colleagues thoughts on their interactions: “He loved his routine and would start signing or pull on his hair if I went out of order, or forgot his favorite activity. He knew. He had the most beautiful smile I ever saw. As you mentioned he had a great sense of humor. If I laughed with favorite nurse or his father he would join in. I believe he sometimes understood what we were laughing about. Wanted his music on immediately and his water ready. Could be stubborn as well, when I was ready to leave and asked if he would miss me he always refused to sign. I could go on and on.”
His parents obviously adored him and dedicated their lives to making his the best they believed they could. I’m thinking he was their angel and vice versa. Recently he took on the abstract form we associate with those spiritual beings. He took a very bad turn after a recent medical procedure and passed away. (He turned my younger son’s age a little over a month ago.)
At his wake, I met the physical therapist who’d worked with him longer than any of us. She gave me more background on how many things this boy had been able to do before his health started its downward decline. I marveled at how much I’d missed coming into this boy’s story late as I did. From what I understand, he had a pretty cool sense of humor. (Think he showed it to my colleague more.)
Why am I writing this? I attended his funeral the day before and found myself tremendously listless the rest of the day. I’m still can’t stop thinking about him today. He crossed my mind every time I passed his street and will do so even more in future days. I think of his parents and how they handled their trip to Holland when they believed themselves Italy-bound. I’m looking to write a tribute to give to his parents and hope the best words come as I explore my thoughts and feelings. I won’t tell you he didn’t touch me before. These past two days I realize just how much and very deeply affected I am with his passing.
I’ve worked in my current school district (where I reside, too) for a very long time. I’m sure other children have passed away during my stretch-in-progress, but any who may have weren’t my students, so I wasn’t aware. In the past fifteen months, five have gone on to become angels. Four of those five were mine in some shape or form.
Makes me sad.
Makes me think.
Teaches me to see this particular population of earthly angels in a completely new way.
Thank you for taking time to read this.