A blog entry Donna wrote the other day brought back memories of two children whose lives have crossed my path. I feel deeply blessed to have known them. I wrote this a few years ago on my original blog:
I worked as a lunch lady in a middle school for several years and I met thousands of kids during my ‘illustrious’ career. Many of them touched my heart but none of them touched it like Andrew and Ashley. I think by the time I'm done telling you about them, they'll have touched your hearts, too.
Andrew was a student the first year I worked at this particular school. He had so many disabilities his aide didn't know where to begin to list them all. He was in a wheelchair. His teeth were all disfigured. He had cerebral palsy. He'd had countless surgeries and shunts installed in his brain. He was a feisty little red-haired Scotsman who couldn't speak but he wasn't shy about letting anyone know if he was unhappy! He wouldn't focus or make eye contact with anyone but that didn't stop me from loving him and talking to him every day as his aide would bring him into the cafeteria. I'd hunker down by his wheelchair and take hold of his hand and talk to him like he was any other kid in the school. One day his aide brought him into the kitchen for a snack and asked if we had any yogurt. I told her sure, we had strawberry and blueberry...which kind did she think Andrew might like? She shrugged and said, "Oh, I don't know. Strawberry, I guess." I looked over at Andrew and I said, "How about if I ask Andrew what he'd like?" She looked at me like I was crazy because he never talked and she said rather flippantly, rolling her eyes, "Sure, go ahead and ask him." I did. I went over and crouched down in front of him and I MADE him look at me by sheer will power. As our eyes connected I asked, "Andrew, we have strawberry and blueberry yogurt. What kind would you like, sweetheart?" It took him a few moments but he spoke out: "Bloooooooooooooberry!!" I patted him on the knee and said, "Blueberry it is, buster," and stood up. Well, my co-worker and the aide were standing there staring at me open-mouthed from shock. I just smiled and said, "Has anyone ever asked Andrew what HE wanted before?" and I went and got his yogurt.
From that day on, Andrew was all mine, heart and soul. I taught him a simple song, an old ball-bouncing song I used to sing when I was a kid called "One, Two, Three, O'Leary". When I'd see him I'd call out, "There's my baby Andrew!” and he would smile from ear-to-ear and call out "Baby Krissy!" If I'd crouch down by his chair to talk to him, he'd reach out with his wobbly hand and pat me on the cheek. He'd tell me "I love you."
The last year I worked there, Andrew became critically ill. He spent most of that year in a children's hospital here in the city. He had a leg amputated, the foot on the other leg taken off, too. His mother cleared it for me to have security access to the ICU camera to Andrew’s room and nursing reports so I could check up on him online when I got home from work. I shed a lot of tears. I sent him cards and photos. I sent up a lot of prayers. And then at the end of that school year I lost my job. I lost contact with Andrew. And it grieved my heart.
I remember the first day I laid eyes on Ashley. It was the first day of school and I was busy putting money on the kids' lunch accounts. I looked up to take money from the next student in line and I froze for a moment...then forced myself to smile and keep on talking. Ashley was the most horribly disfigured child I'd ever laid eyes on. She literally looked like a monster. I had seen a lot of things, working in schools, but nothing had ever prepared me for my first glimpse of Ashley. But she was so happy-go-lucky, so confident, so full of grit...I fell in love with her. We formed an instant bond.
She had been burned over the majority of her body as an infant when she was lying on the floor in front of the fireplace and a spark landed on her sleeper and set her on fire. Only the top of her head and her back up around the shoulder area hadn't been scarred. She hadn't been expected to live. But Ashley overcame the odds...what a fighter! Most kids would reel away in shock when they'd see her for the first time but that didn't stop her...she'd just march right up to anyone and talk their ear off.
She missed a lot of school in the 3 years I knew her. She had one surgery where some kind of synthetic hump was inserted under the skin on her back to stretch it out for more skin grafts. She looked like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The medication she took made her drool and slur and stagger around. But any day she could be at school she'd make a bee line for the kitchen and holler out "Krissy!" and come flying into my arms for a big hug and a smooch. And then I’d go off into the cooler to cry a bit and regain my composure.
Last days of school each year were always bittersweet. On Ashley’s last day as an 8th grader, all the 'graduates' were getting ready to head out to a nearby amusement park for a picnic and to spend the day on rides. Parents had volunteered to drive several of the Special Ed kids in their cars. I was standing with my co-worker in the doorway looking outside, enjoying the sunshine and the excitement of the kids. My co-worker spotted Ashley sitting in the back seat of one of the cars, craning her head toward us and waving frantically. Rhonda said, "Krissy, here she comes!" and Ashley popped out of that car and came racing across the parking lot and into my arms for the last time. I hugged that darling little girl with all my might. As she looked up at me and rested her chin on my chest, gazing into my eyes, I cupped that beautiful little face in my hands and kissed her on the forehead. I said, "I love you, Ashley." She said, "I know you do, Krissy, and I love you, too. I will never forget you!" One more hug, then she went dashing back to the car, whooping and laughing and ready to fly off into her future. I didn’t have a single doubt the world would ever be able to ignore that little spitfire.