It was 1999 and a beautiful day in sunny South Africa. For a community project from the university where I studied, I picked up a group of disabled children at their school in a poor neighborhood. I had to transport them to a project where they were mounted on horses and taken for rides. Not only did this time on the horses do a great deal for their physical development, it was the equivalent of what would be a holiday to Disneyland for more affluent children – an absolute highlight of their week. In that bus the excited buzz of the children was a Mozart symphony in my ears.
There was this one boy of about 9 years old who was wheelchair bound. When we stopped at the horse stables, he equally skilfully shot his wheelchair out of the car in one movement and rocked to the seat, ready to rush him to the horses. Unfortunately, the wheelchair got stuck somewhere, overturned and flung the boy. He plunged into the dust with a hard bang and his outstretched hands perfectly landed in two little bushes. His hands trembled and tears made traces of dust on his cheeks. As his friend passed him on horseback, I realized that these tears were not just about the painful thorns in his hands, but also tears of frustration and disappointment.
I sat flat on my seat next to him in the dust. I took his hands in mine and carefully, one by one, pulled out the thorns. It was just the two of us in the dust sitting speechless as one heard the children in the background laughing at the horses. When I was done, he wiped the last tear with the back of his hand from his cheek. He looks at me and says softly, “Thank you”. The gesture touched me deeply because the boy was Sotho-speaking and not Afrikaans-speaking.
It’s strange how certain moments stay with you forever. To this day, I remember those few minutes in the dust with the boy as one of the holiest moments of my life. It was as if God Himself sat with us in that silence. I counted him in his wheelchair and he joined his friends. I don’t know what his name is and I have never seen him again but I will never forget his time with him.
A wheelchair is quite a good metaphor for that gap between the ideal and the reality. It is a gap that we all know well, including the pain that sometimes goes with it. No one wants to be wheelchair-free but some have to use it to have some mobility and freedom. Sometimes a wheelchair allows such a person to reach places and do things he otherwise would not. Other times, that same wheelchair is a painful reminder that the user is not as mobile as he would like to be. Sometimes a wheelchair gives you wings and other times it feels like a prison. Like when you want to get to the horses and turn them around …
We all have metaphorical wheelchairs. Things we need to accept, situations we have not chosen in which to make the best of a bad thing. Sometimes it works and other days we crave to get rid of the constraints such circumstances put on us.
Life taught me that sitting down in the dust on such difficult days and carefully pulling out thorns can make life worthwhile. I also learned that when my own wheelchair turns, I have to open my hands and gratefully welcome help.
Valentine’s Day is around the corner. It is a day when people spend money to show others something of the love that is in their heart. This is not wrong. But I think you show more real love for a person when sitting with him or her in the dust and practically helping than when you sit in an expensive restaurant and try to impress.
Gawie Snyman is a story teller and dreamer. He currently resides in northern Alberta, Canada with his wife Isabel and two children Steph and Marise. He be contacted at [email protected]