Thursday, May 21, 2009

Stepping Up

Boredom, pangs of guilt, jealous of what I perceived were the productive lives of normal Americans, perhaps even the beginnings of altruism that I was learning about in my studies of Tibetan Buddhism--for an amalgam of reasons I volunteered to work in the classroom at the Shriner's Hospital for Children.

The year before, I had volunteered to feed baby birds at the rescue center in Sacramento, a small neighborhood house that had been converted to a nursery filled with the chirpers, strays, wounded and abandoned critters that dropped onto lawns or ended up in suburban backyards by the thousands. It was a stinky, noisy house, with hundreds of bins of hungry chicks that came through the massive flyway of California's Central Valley and were left to die or provide food for snakes, coyotes, and feral cats. In the end, I cut short the commitment, growing weary of stuffing worms into the endless open mouths, watching dead babies go into the trash.

So, in the spring of the new year, I filled out the paperwork for the background check and clearance forms to volunteer at the Shriner's. Since the 1920's, those men in the red fez hats have opened free hospitals across the country for the treatment of orthopedic conditions, burns, cleft lip and palates, and spinal cord injuries in children. In Sacramento, the hospital treated children from around the country and Central American countries, flying them in by helicopter, putting their family members in adjacent dormitories, restoring lives and lending hope to helpless amputees, kids scorched in home fires and automobile accidents, keeping up their schoolwork, teaching them how to play again, educating kids back home that when their disfigured friend came back how horrible it would be to make fun of them.

I had always wondered what kind of fools paraded around in silly red hats, smoked stogies at small town pancake breakfasts, or shot hands of cards while seated around the table at country fairs. They're angels. In Sacramento, they drove vans for hours on end to local and distant airports, picking up unfortunate accident victims and their families and ferrying them to the hospital. They put on clown make-up and dazzled bed-ridden kids with magic tricks, or they brought in specially trained animals to sit bedside and put smiles on faces--faces grimly webbed with burn scars or on those who had no arms to cradle a kitten.

In my first year out of school, I had taken a job on a daily newspaper in a college town just a few miles from Sacramento on the wide delta. I worked a 50-hour week for $85, and went home to pass out. I rode around the town's sprawling bike paths, coached a Pop Warner football team, but had few friends except for the fellow from San Francisco who sold me grass. That was until he passed out one night on his couch, his burning joint setting fire to the paisley tapestry that hung overhead, and ended up in the hospital burn unit, unable to regain consciousness.

He hung on for a few days, and I ran a blood drive in the newspaper, but after learning about the extent of his wounds, would not go out to visit him and he died in the middle of the night with his family at his bedside. I felt badly about it for years... .

The Shriner's Hospital in Sacramento is built in a wide circle, with bright sunlight streaming down the center into a spacious hall with comfortable couches and luscious foliage. A grand piano sits to one side, etudes played digitally by computer. Music without hands.

There are patient rooms up above, looking more like hotel suites, with family rooms nearby, cozy meeting rooms, cafeteria, laboratories, treatment rooms and gymnasiums, motion-study labs, a prosthesis shop where workers tirelessly create legs with brightly painted sneakers or shiny patent leather shoes attached on the ends, seamstresses completing detail work in sequins and flowers as for a debutante ball. A room filled with legs and hands and shoes and dresses.

But even the training sessions and pep talks I received could not prepare me. Here was a seven year-old girl from Mexico, where the building codes were slack and the scalp was blown from her head in a sudden arc of electricity, passing out the bottoms of her feet and taking the toes along into the ground. And later, in the classroom, I attempted to teach subject-verb agreement to a teenager who, now rendered motionless from his neck down by a dive off of a pier in Kauai, answered multiple choice questions in a clear, steady voice with noble acceptance until it cracked when he told me he had leaped off that pier for years, swimming in the blue bay with dolphins and turtles, but on the singular day miscalculated the wind.

And I, with few troubles in life save for the ones that constantly arise of my own making with want, and expectations, and a constant thirst for more, more, more of that, please....

"I don't know what to do," I told the volunteer coordinator one day. "I don't know what to say, how to act, nothing."

"Just look them in the eye," she said. "That's all they want from you."

But in the end I couldn't do it. I went a few times afterward, then stopped going. It was feeding birds all over again. No instant gratification in it at all, just endless open mouths. Perhaps I'm being a little hard on myself, but I doubt it. It takes character to follow through. I imagine normal people do it all the time. Guys in silly hats, smoking cigars for crying out loud. But fewer and fewer young men today are drawn to fraternal organizations and, some day, this may all go away.

"Normal," my friend Don says, "is a setting on a clothes dryer."

But I was thinking the experience would give me something else, something more tangible, maybe something to boast about. Maybe I'm boasting now. Like leaping off a tall pier in front of my friends.


Bill Stankus said...

It does seem as if hands-on volunteerism and other almost thankless jobs, such as, hospital orderly or caring for the terminally ill haven't the glamour many people want.

Another factor is, compared to 1960, there are many more charities and causes - and with so many there's a kind if dilution in the public's eye.

I recall the Shriners as a major Sacramento entity, back in the day. Parades, circuses, football games and lots of media attention.

I always thought they looked alot like Governor Pat Brown ... someone's loud, happy, backslapping uncle ... the guy who dressed old fashioned, was a big tipper at restaurants and seemed generally glad to see you and enjoyed meeting new people.

That image disappeared in 1969 when Ronnie Raygun showed up at the Capitol.

Glad to hear the Shriners are still making an effort, even if they are out of fashion.

Mandy's Kidding said...

I spent several years as a volunteer at a school for the severely mentally impaired, and another stint at nursing homes and adult day cares.

It took me quite a while to get past the discomfort and depressing aspects of the work before I found the joy. Now that I work with the homeless and the mentally ill, it is much the same thing. There were quite a number of nights this winter where I went out to my car and wept and wondered if what I was doing was good for me.

It's kind of like meditation. You have to get past all of the discomfort and the struggle and the wild monkey thoughts before you can get to something still.

Maybe by writing this, you are trying to write yourself back into action?

A Cuban In London said...

'"Just look them in the eye," she said. "That's all they want from you."'

What was that sentence about the men in silly red hats again :-)?

Yes, it brings it all home, doesn't it?

My voluntary work in Cuba was compulsory. There used to be a phrase we used in the old days (maybe they still do now) where a student in school would approach you and say: 'We have to come tomorrow Sunday to the school to do some voluntary work'. Whilst he put his forefinger to his temple as if he was about to blow his brains off.

What a tale, mate. I hope the birds never gave you much trouble, I hope they never wore red hats:-).

Many thanks for the poem you left on my blog, that was truly beauiful. And as soon as I finish with Herr Bach, I will start with your essays.

Yoli said...

What a touching post. Beautiful writing as always.

dutchbaby said...

You are a very good person with a huge heart.

Yes, it does take character to follow through and I think you have plenty of it. You were young and you had to protect yourself. The first rule of life saving is to make sure that you will make it back to shore before you jump in to rescue someone. Your volunteerism, even if cut short, is so much more than many others'.

No, I don't think you are boasting.

I think it is very healthy to affirm your accomplishments and to exorcise your demons.