I had what some might term a very uncomfortable experience last Thursday at our local Galveston Island Walmart. My husband, Ted, is quite the shopper, and he always stays in the stores longer than I want to be there, so I usually take a book along with me and read while I wait for him. There is usually at least two or three benches near the doorways of the bigger stores and I don’t mind at all sitting, reading or chatting with a new friend I’ve met that is waiting on someone, too.
The island was crowded with vacationers and many families were tugging the hands of small children as they rounded up beach towels, sunscreen, water toys and food items. Some of the kids were tired from playing on the beach and in the surf and their little sunburned faces showed that the night would night be much better for them. I thought in my own mind, “Man, it takes a lot of work to have fun on a family vacation.”
Realizing I had not checked my cell phone messages in a couple of hours, I got my new phone out and was reading e-mail and Facebook postings when I felt, rather than saw, someone sit down next to me on the mesh wire bench. I did not look directly at the person at the moment, but continued checking my messages. I again sensed that the person was looking directly at me and perhaps at my phone, so I looked over and smiled. Thank God for years of professional training and for the many hospital visits I have made over the years in connection with serving on a church staff.
I looked into the face, or what I could see of it, of a child between 11 and 12 years old, but I mostly saw a weird facial bandage. I could see his little eyes looking out and as I allowed my gaze to move downward, I saw immediately that both arms, his hands and even his legs were encased in something that looked like hard plastic or a heavy knit stocking type bandage. Looking anywhere that skin was showing, one knew immediately that this child had suffered a horrible burn over most of his young body. The flesh that was exposed was red and bunched up looking, and just seeing this child was painful.
I mustered my inner strength and rather than looking away, I smiled and waved a bit toward my new friend. As best he could, he tried to smile back at me. I noticed that the child was still sneaking looks at my phone in my hand, and so I pushed it over closer to him and said, “Would you like for me to show some things it can do?” He made some motions that let me know he could not speak or that he could not speak English. I smiled again and said, “Oh, OK, I will just show you anyway,” and I proceeded as best I could under the circumstances to show him various photos on the phone and a game or two. He was enthralled. Again, he tried to smile, but it actually looked more like a grimace.
By this time, I noticed an older and a younger women in one of the register lines and they were staring directly at me. I smiled back at them and tried to indicate that he was fine and that I was a nice person and not bothered at all by their child. I also thought that this family must be in Galveston to be treated at UTMB where they have a huge burn unit.
What troubled me most about this encounter was not the young man and his family, but by the sheer rudeness of the other people in the busy store. And sadly to report, it was not the children that were so mean and rude to the child. It was the adults who came by openly staring, and one even had so little home training that he pointed to the child and jabbered something to his female friend. I wanted to put my arms around this hurting child and shield him from their ignorance and absolute ill manners.
We looked at the phone for a little while longer and the two women came toward us with their buggy of what appeared to be essential food items. I noticed several loaves of bread, some fruit, cereal and a few canned goods. What I had not seen were two more children, both younger, and both more horribly disfigured that this brave young man I had met. The two children, both boys, appeared to be about five and three and both had very little skin exposed from heavy bandages. My heart was breaking and I smiled at both the mother and grandmother, but fearing I would burst into tears.
Not wanting to embarrass them further, I simply kept smiling and nodding. As the young man who had been sitting next to me got up to leave, I felt compelled to say or do something, but no bright ideas dawned in my mind. I could not apparently speak his language and I could not touch him for fear of hurting him. So, I simply resorted to grandmother things. I blew him the biggest kiss I could muster up at the moment and smiled even more. He seemed startled at first and then as best he could, he lifted one of those terribly bandaged arms up and though his fingers never touched his lips, he returned my blown kiss to me.
The family left and I sat and cried for them. Alone in a strange land, trying to feed three hurting children, and obviously having to deal with the stares and taunts of ignorant people around them, I could not imagine what they had endured. Thank God for the Shriner’s Hospitals and UTMB that provide helpful and healing services for these families. If you are on Galveston Island, stop in and visit the patients being treated and you will get a sense of just how grateful you should be for your health and for that of your family.
And, for Heaven’s sake, folks, teach your children that all people are human and all people need unconditional love, no matter how marred they might be or what may be wrong with them physically. Say hello in a normal tone of voice and offer a smile, and pass this information on to the pitifully trained grown people who do not know how to behave very well, either. Showing God’s love and human kindness to others should be a part of our normal actions.
Brenda Cannon Henley is an award-winning journalist and writer living on the Southeast Texas Gulf Coast. Having enjoyed more than four decades in ministry, Brenda shares her columns with our readers and works with churches and faith-based programs nationwide. She can be reached at (409) 781-8788 or at brendacannonhenley [at] yahoo [dot] com.