The shooter had his next victim in sight. He took a split second to check his aim, but just as he squeezed the trigger, his target turned ever so slightly. The bullet did not strike the center of T…
The shooter had his next victim in sight. He took a split second to check his aim, but just as he squeezed the trigger, his target turned ever so slightly. The bullet did not strike the center of T…
I never met the man I’ll refer to as Robert, but I feel like I know him. Tragically, his story is true.
Robert was only 20 years old when he was killed in Vietnam. It can be persuasively argued that he died an unnecessary death. Today he is just another heartbreaking statistic like the tens of thousands of other soldiers who died in the national tragedy that was referred to as merely a conflict even though our involvement spanned 15 plus years and 5 Presidencies. His death occurred in the early 1970’s as a result of “small arms fire” – an innocuous phrase which doesn’t begin to relate the horror of dying alone, thousands of miles from home. Unfortunately, his story is not much different from that of so many other soldiers who served in Southeast Asia, which is what makes it so infuriating. Sadly, as history has proved, there was no need for his life to be snuffed out at such a tender age.
I discovered Robert by accident while looking online at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. I did some research and discovered that there were many things about us that were similar – including the fact that we were born in the same month within a few days of each other – however – he was 4 years older than me, and that simple fact cost him his life and saved mine. 48 months made all the difference in which of us had to go to hell and die and who got to stay home, get married, have a child, run a successful business and have a long, rewarding life. The unfairness of one person dying while another gets to live is an issue that humanity has always struggled with, but the inequity is even more pronounced when death occurs without sufficient cause.
I do not know whether Robert was drafted or if he enlisted. Perhaps he believed in the moral claim that we should fight communism wherever we might find it, on the other hand, he may have had strong feelings that the war was immoral and that we had no right to be there. Whatever the case, he lost his life due to the poor decisions that were made by politicians who were far too willing to escalate the fighting as long as they didn’t have to witness first hand the effects of their decisions. It has always been the case that the price of war is paid by the brave soldiers who are wounded and killed while political leaders sit back in safety and comfort pondering their next military move without considering the appalling death and destruction that result from their actions.
If Robert had lived he would be nearing retirement age, but he would still have many years of life ahead of him to enjoy. If he had not been cut down in Vietnam he probably would have gotten married and had children who, in turn, could have given him grandchildren to spoil. He could have chosen a meaningful career and spent his free time engaged in pursuits that he found fulfilling. He could’ve used his life to make a positive difference for others. It is impossible to know how many lives he could have affected, the influence he could have had or the change he could have made in the world – but it was not to be. Robert’s life was taken by another human being who knew that shooting him was absolutely necessary to avoid being shot himself…kill or be killed…that is the insanity of war.
Each tragic death that occurs during a military action produces countless questions. Did Robert look into the eyes of the person who shot him or did the bullet seem to come from nowhere? Did Robert die instantly? Was he allowed to escape agonizing pain or did he linger and suffer while waiting for a helicopter to come to his aid? Did he slip quietly into shock or did he cry out over and over again for his loved ones? Were his buddies able to get to him immediately or did it take hours to recover his body? What about the individual who shot him? Was Robert the first person he had ever killed or had he been exposed to the horror of war for so long that it was no longer shocking to take a human life? Perhaps his enemy is still alive today or maybe they eventually shared the same fate.
When I think I’m having a bad day, I try to remember Robert. The sacrifice of his life certainly puts my insignificant problems into perspective. I have now been blessed with an additional 38 years that was denied to him. I hope that I have not wasted those decades foolishly. I do know that as I grow older I have a more heightened sense of time. The realization of just how brief a human life span really is begins to settle in when you reach your mid-fifties. You look back and consider the choices you made, you think about the things you did or didn’t do. You wonder if you were unkind or selfish. You worry that you might have taken advantage of other people. You are concerned that you might have hurt others by being careless. But worst of all you are afraid that you neglected the ones you love. In the end you wonder whether you contributed in any meaningful way to making life better in this world. Upon reflection it is quite easy to feel regret about not appreciating the value of every single day.
But at least I was allowed to experience those days. By being born 4 years after Robert I did not have to experience the terror or degradation of war. I was spared the stench of seared flesh and the sight of mangled corpses. I was spared from seeing the small graves dug for children. I was spared from the brutal reality of having to pull a trigger and end another human being’s life. I certainly did nothing to deserve my good fortune, anymore than Robert deserved the fate that was handed to him. It is simply the way it happened all those years ago.
The legacy of Vietnam can be found in the horrific numbers; 58,227 killed. 150,000 plus wounded. 21,000 permanently disabled. Each individual statistic represents a human being who had hopes and dreams just like you and me. Each one of these people had family and friends who loved them deeply and whose lives were changed forever by their death. Robert was simply one person who, along with more than 200,000 others, had their lives shattered by political considerations that were given more weight than the value of human lives.
I know for a fact that both of Robert’s parents lived many more years without him. How deep was their pain each time they endured another Christmas without their son? How much sorrow did they have to withstand when his birthday came each year? How many times did his mother wish she could give him one more hug? How often did his father grieve because he knew that Robert would have been a wonderful dad if he’d been given the chance to have children of his own? How many years did the anniversary of his death haunt their lives? While it is true that the pain of losing a loved one diminishes over time, the fact remains that a parent never expects to outlive their child. It does not seem right. It is not the natural order of things. But, of course, there is nothing natural about war.
Each year on the last Monday in May we remember those who have tragically fallen in the line of duty – but the true tragedy is that there has to be a Memorial Day at all.
DOES IT MATTER HOW A CHILD DIES?
You are driving alone down a city street. It is a nice day and you are in no particular hurry. You are observing the speed limit of 40 miles per hour and you are paying full attention to your driving. Your cell phone is turned off, and for once you don’t have the stereo on. Suddenly you notice something out of the corner of your eye. From the right side of the street a small child darts out in front of you. In a split second you slam on the brakes with all your strength. You yank the wheel as hard as you can to the left, but it is too late. You hear and feel the sickening impact as your vehicle strikes the little boy.
The force of the impact hurls his body over 15 feet. He hits the pavement and rolls several times and then lies motionless. Your car has come to a stop but you can’t let go of the wheel. You can’t breathe and you feel sick at your stomach. You realize you are shaking violently, but you can’t bring yourself to open the door. Slowly you become aware of other people. Some have cell phones and are obviously calling 911, others rush to the child. They crowd around his body so your view is blocked. You feel tears rolling down your cheeks and you blink to try and hold them back but you can’t. You hear someone yell that the boy is not breathing. You watch in absolute horror as people move back to make room for a woman who begins to perform CPR.
You open your car door and step out, but your knees buckle and you collapse to the pavement. You are softly crying and you begin to pray as other people run over to you. A lady leans down and tells you that it wasn’t your fault. The child came out of nowhere, and there was no way you could miss him. Her words are meaningless. A person kneeling near the child calls out that the boy is not responding. You begin to sob. How could this be happening? You were doing everything you were supposed to do. You were being safe. You were following the rules. That child should not be lying in the street without a heartbeat.
Off in the distance you begin to hear the sirens. Help is on the way but you know it’s too late. Within minutes a police officer is by your side, and paramedics have taken over the life saving efforts on the little boy. Everything is a blur, you can’t clear your mind and focus. The officer is asking you questions but you can only think about the child. Time is suspended. You begin to realize that by taking this human life you have also destroyed your own life. Nothing will ever be the same. This day on the calendar will bring recurring pain for the rest of your life.
Months later you are still dealing with the horror of that day. It is difficult to sleep and when you do, you dream of the impact over and over again. Friends and family don’t know how to help you. Everyone has tried to point out that you are a good person, and that it wasn’t your fault. It was just “one of those things” that unfortunately happens in life, but their words ring hollow and bring no comfort. Being a good person doesn’t enter into the fact that you inadvertently took the life of an innocent child. The little boy is dead. His family lives in despair. Your life is filled with misery. You will never again be the person that you were.
How much money would you give to bring back that child’s life?
How much would you pay to go back in time and relive that day so that you could take a different route and this tragedy would not have occurred? What would you pay to avoid killing that child?…Would that little boy’s life be worth 25 cents to you? That is how much it cost to feed a meal to a child in extreme poverty. For a quarter you can feed a child a meal that will keep them alive. For $7.50 you can feed a meal to that child every day for a month and by doing so you can save their life.
It may seem inappropriate to put a price on human life but it is necessary in this case to demonstrate what a significant difference a small amount of money can make. Most people would spend every dollar they have in the world to bring back a child they accidentally killed with their car, but those same decent people won’t spend a quarter to save the life of a starving child. It is two totally different reactions to the same result; the death of an innocent human being.
Whether we accidentally kill a child near our house or a child starves to death out of our sight on the other side of the world they are both just as dead. Whether we strike the child with our car or let them starve from our neglect, we play a role in both deaths. The world’s children, no matter where they may live, depend on adults to take care of them, and it is our responsibility to do so. Is a particular child’s life more valuable than another’s? Aren’t the lives of all children everywhere precious? How can we make the distinction that unless we are directly involved, the child’s life doesn’t matter?
We would never be negligent to the point where we would harm a child while driving and yet every day we are negligent in feeding children, ensuring they have safe water, providing medical care for them and educating them. We feel no guilt over this. It has no effect on our lives. We still feel good about ourselves. 25,000 children die needlessly each day from extreme poverty, a total of 9,125,000 a year, and it doesn’t bother us at all. But if we were directly involved in the traffic related death of one child we would never recover. We must learn to place equal value on the lives of children everywhere. We must realize they all deserve our compassion and our help.
THE DEATH OF A CHILD IS A HEARTBREAKING TRAGEDY NO MATTER HOW OR WHERE IT OCCURS.
They are not saints – they are not superhuman and they are not perfect. The parents of children and adults with intellectual challenges are just ordinary people. They come from all walks of life. They can be wealthy, economically deprived or part of the middle-class. They can belong to any religious faith or have no affiliation whatsoever. Their ethnicity is meaningless. They can be liberal, conservative or moderate in their political views. They can be any nationality on earth and their age can fall anywhere over a span of 7 decades. However, they do share one special bond that other parents may not understand. They have endured difficult experiences with their loved ones that most of us have been spared, while at the same time, they have developed a deep appreciation for what is really important in life. They have been tested and they have risen to the occasion.
For some, the life they lead was a choice. They lovingly made the decision to adopt a child with special needs or they courageously decided to go ahead and give birth to their baby after a diagnosis of Down syndrome was made. But many mothers and fathers were thrust into this role with no advance warning, and they had no idea what the future held for them and their loved one. To go from the hopeful expectation of having a baby who is perfect, to the realization that your newborn will have certain challenges to deal with for its entire life is a powerful combination of disappointment, fear, anger and finally an acceptance of who their child is and who they will become. Some parents handle this torrent of emotions better than others. Some immediately welcome their child into their family without regard for the changes that will be brought into all of their lives, while other parents go into a form of denial and refuse to believe that their child cannot somehow be made “normal” with enough effort and sacrifice.
However they react, there is a full range of human emotions that any man or woman can go through when they find out that they are now the parent of a child who is developmentally disabled. It is just the first of many times in their lives when they are going to face a reality that is different from what they expected. The adjustments they are forced to make in their own lives and in the lives of other family members are just the beginning. Their future has been altered forever. There is no going back to “before”. Most of the decisions they make in the years ahead will revolve, at least in part, in how they will affect their special needs child. A day will not go by where they can completely forget about the responsibility that has now been thrust upon them. It is a pressure that never goes away because raising a child with special needs is not an easy road. There are moments of pure frustration and searing anger along the way. For some parents there are times when they just don’t understand why they have been placed in this position. They will feel like giving up. They will feel that caring for their child is a burden that is affecting the rest of their family. These are all genuine emotions that are completely valid. To have these thoughts is not wrong. To have doubts and worries is not wrong. To sometimes wish that your life was like everyone else’s is not wrong. It just means you are having human reactions to what, at times, can feel like overwhelming circumstances.
Unfortunately, one of the most serious circumstances that must be continually dealt with is the safety of their child within society itself. Parents of those with special needs rightfully feel protective of their children, but they also know that they cannot completely shield them at all times from those who will be cruel and insensitive. It is the agonizing realization of each parent that their child can be a target for verbal and even physical abuse and that they have to be constantly on guard to make sure that their child is not placed into an unsafe situation. It is a sad commentary on the world we live in, but it is a fact that there are individuals who will take advantage of a trusting child or adult if given the opportunity.
But for all the difficulties and heartaches, there are other moments that make the tears, the frustration and the sacrifices more than worthwhile. When a child begins to communicate either verbally or in some other creative way, when they become ambulatory in some fashion, when they begin the educational process and when they are older and they find employment – these are all milestones that are celebrated with intense pride and unbridled joy by the parents who played such a crucial role in making it happen. But above all else, the one single thing that makes the journey of life with a child who has special needs so rewarding is the love. There is a purity of love that an intellectually challenged individual has for a parent. There is a complete and total trust between that child and their mother and father. It is a bond that will last through all of their lives and it will provide them with the strength, the will power and the good humor to face the many obstacles that society will place in their paths. For each intellectually challenged child that you see accomplishing far more than the “experts” ever expected, there is a loving mother, father or both who have made incredible sacrifices to ensure that their child received the education and supports they were entitled to. When a developmentally disabled adult is able to lead a life that is enriching, they have, for the most part, accomplished this with significant parental help.
In the end it comes down to this; two human beings create a third. The result of that union, no matter how society at large may label them, is a beautiful baby. They are a completely equal member of the human family. They have the same rights as you and I and they deserve the same dignity and respect as anyone else. Whatever medical or psychological terms may be applied to that child as they are growing up the fact remains that they are a living breathing human being who deserves to be loved. When it comes to their worth as a person their IQ does not matter. Their motor skills are not important. Their cognitive abilities are meaningless. They are simply a person who is alive at this moment – on this earth – with everyone else. They deserve the same opportunities, as we all do, to live the best life possible and they have the right to be healthy, safe and happy. A good deal of this will be accomplished by the love and devotion of their parents.
The men and women who love and nurture their children from birth through adulthood know that it is a commitment that lasts for a lifetime. It is a commitment they will never relinquish. It is a commitment that they will never shirk. It is a commitment of pure love. The parents are the unsung heroes who often remain in the background gently guiding their children as they struggle for acceptance and success in life. Their reward is the knowledge that they have given their all to see that their child has the best life possible. Because of those efforts they deserve our admiration and respect. In most cases it was not a life they volunteered for – it was simply the life that was handed to them – and they responded with courage, patience, compassion and dedication.
We should all embrace those characteristics for they represent the very best of humanity.
Unfortunately, one extra chromosome is all it takes to convince some people that you do not have the right to be born – and if you are allowed to come into this world you are considered to be a lesser person by many. Having 47 chromosomes instead of 46 simply means you have Down syndrome. This is a condition that affects an individual physically as well as intellectually, however, it in no way detracts from their humanity or the fact that they are entitled to the same rights as someone who has 46 chromosomes and gives birth. Individuals with Down syndrome deserve the same respect and dignity that you are entitled to because ALL human beings are equal members of the human family no matter what their genetic makeup.
The heartbreaking reality is that at least 90% of all pregnancies in which Down syndrome is diagnosed are terminated. The baby doesn’t die from the condition – it dies from someone else’s decision not to deal with the condition. When you see a new baby girl with Down syndrome you are looking at a human being that has already defied the odds. But that is just the beginning. Throughout her life she will defy the odds at every turn. Professionals will set arbitrary limits on what they think she will achieve and she will surpass them. Some in society will shun her or pity her but she will rise above their ignorance. Some will be verbally abusive and cruel but she will return their small mindedness with the purity of love that she shares with every person she meets. She will make the people in her life feel blessed for having known her and she will make the world a far kinder and gentler place – all because she was not one of the 90%.
In the United States, there are approximately 350,000 people living with this condition. These individuals go to school, they hold down jobs, some live independently and they all have significant abilities and talents to offer society – but we have to be willing to give them the chance. Is it too much to ask that a baby with a chromosomal disorder simply be allowed to be born so that it has the same chance at life as every other baby? Is that really expecting too much of us as human beings? The next time you meet a person with Down syndrome please realize you are interacting with one of the fortunate 10%, but also understand that you are fortunate for having the opportunity to get to know them, accept them and to establish a relationship built on mutual respect. Our days are enriched by their presence.
I have many good friends who happen to have Down syndrome, and they bring amazing joy into my life. I can’t imagine what it would be like if I did not get to spend time with them and do things with them. Their friendship is important. I look at them and I see human beings who are just like me. In fact I have gained a great deal of knowledge from them. I have learned how important it is to be accepted for who you really are. I have learned that it is perfectly all right not to be the biggest or the fastest – the bravest or the coolest. I have learned the value of being tolerant and forgiving. I have learned that words can hurt and that no one should be labeled by others. I have learned that laughter and joy belongs to all of us and not just to those who have money, prestige or power. I have learned that we are all basically the same in the important areas of life – and most of all, I have learned what it simply means to be human.
The number of chromosomes an individual has should in no way determine their opportunities in life. It cannot be allowed to limit their choices or influence their ability to dream. Each one of us deserves the right to be the person we really are. A medical classification should not detract from the fact that we are each entitled to live a full and rewarding life based on respect for our humanity. Every person on earth needs love and has love to give so who are we to say that a person is different just because of a physical aberration from what is considered “normal”? One extra chromosome – so what? An individual living with Down syndrome simply wants to be valued as a person – the same as you or I.
When I think of the countless lives represented by the 90% who are not even given a chance to survive, it makes me wonder what beautiful experiences we are all missing. How much more love and tolerance would there be in the world if those lives were here with us, adding joy and laughter to our world. Life would surely be richer and fuller if they were present and we would certainly be better people for having the privilege of being their friends and loved ones. It is humanity’s tragic loss when the innocent and defenseless are judged to be “inferior” and are not allowed to walk among us as equals. Down syndrome is a scientific fact of life. It is a condition that a person lives with just like any other medical issue, therefore, when it is discovered during pregnancy it should not become a death sentence.
Do you know what your IQ is? Do you feel it is the most important thing about you? Would you want your entire life to be judged by that one single number? Does it accurately describe your personality or your temperament? Should your opportunities or choices be limited by your test results? Would you want others to think less of you if their IQ was higher?
These are the issues faced by a segment of the population that has been categorized as intellectually disabled. For some, their lives have been unfairly limited by this one particular measurement. The weight it has carried has, in some cases, determined the direction of their lives. Often it has been the overriding factor in decisions that may or may not have been correct or in the best interest of the individual. The power of that one number cannot be overstated when dealing with the lives of the men and women who are at the mercy of professionals who make judgments and recommendations based on the results of this data.
No one should have their life adversely affected just because of how they performed on a test. We do not all fit into neat categories. Many people do not endure the stress of the testing process that well. For some, a simple lack of focus can skew results. Others do not feel comfortable in unfamiliar surroundings creating anxiety which produces less than accurate scores. This is not an attempt to make excuses for how people do on these exams, but it is an effort to point out that the results can be affected by a variety of factors.
In the world of intellectual challenges, IQ tests play a prominent role in determining possibilities, predicting outcomes and in setting realistic goals. Of course some people place more emphasis on the number than others. State agencies often use test results as part of the criteria for deciding who is eligible for aid and services. Health providers use it as a screening tool to help them focus more clearly on the ability of an individual to function at a certain predetermined level. In both of these cases the test results are used as part of a plan to improve the lives of those who it is felt could benefit from extra levels of care and support.
However, some in the general public view a lower IQ as a basis for intolerance, prejudice and neglect. Individuals who are perceived to be below a certain level of intellectual capacity become targets for exclusion, cruelty and abuse. But what does it say about the abuser’s own intelligence if they lack the ability to feel compassion and respect for those who deserve to have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else? What good does it do to have a higher IQ if your behavior is still guided by ignorance and insensitivity?
I am constantly amazed by how some people believe you cannot interact or, more importantly, be friends with someone whose IQ is significantly different than yours. Why not? You have far more in common as human beings than any differences that might exist. Friendship is built on trust and respect. It thrives on non-judgment and acceptance. It develops through tolerance and understanding. These are qualities we should all be seeking. The world would be a much better place if we would all embrace these truths and apply them in each of our own lives.
When we examine the true significance of measurable intelligence we must consider how it relates to our humanity. Do we honestly believe that it is the most important factor in determining the value of a person? Certainly it can be an indispensable tool in delivering the appropriate supports to a particular individual, but we can never allow ourselves to lose sight of the human being represented by the test score. Each person must be viewed in total and must not be reduced to a number that cannot provide a completely accurate representation of who that man or woman is or what they can achieve.
That is why it is so critically important to remember what IQ does not measure…It does not measure how kind you are, how generous you are or how forgiving you are. It does not measure your sense of humor or the acceptance you find in friendship. It does not measure your enthusiasm or your determination. It does not measure the joy you have for life. It does not measure your ability to dream or to help others find their dreams. It does not measure your honesty, your gentleness or your courage. It does not measure the happiness you bring into this life. It does not measure your sense of wonder, your sense of adventure or your imagination. It does not measure the impact you can have on the world. It does not measure your ability to love and be loved – and most importantly – your IQ does not measure your worth as a human being.
We can never forget that each individual in our society, regardless of a test score, is a completely equal member of the human family. We all have the same rights and deserve the same respect and dignity. No one, under any circumstances, should have their life defined by a single number.
When the average person thinks about Oklahoma two things usually come to mind: Native Americans and the OU Sooner football team – but there is considerably more to it than that.
This medium size state with its uniquely shaped panhandle has been my home for 57 of my 58 years. My family moved here when I was just nine months old which makes it the only home I‘ve ever really known. However, for a good part of my life I spent a significant amount of time wishing I lived somewhere else. This flat, dusty, wind-swept stretch of earth did not hold the same appeal for me as an exciting place like New York City where every opportunity and possibility existed. It wasn’t that Oklahoma was a bad place; it just wasn’t where I wanted to be.
Part of the problem was that I didn’t fit in. Out here in the heartland people drive pick-up trucks. They hunt and they fish. They know how to work with their hands, and they have a special affinity for the land. They embrace nature, and they spend as much time outdoors as they can…I might as well be from another planet. I drive a car made by a company based in South Korea. I’m a vegetarian so I have no interest in killing living things in order to consume them. I have no ability to use my hands in any meaningful type of work, and I can stay indoors for days on end sitting in front of a computer without giving nature a second thought until I hear the squirrels chewing on the wiring in the attic.
But that’s not all. There were other ways in which I felt I did not belong. Politically, Oklahoma is very conservative. I’m a liberal Democrat. My home state is part of the so called “Bible Belt” and Christian fundamentalism is prominent. I choose to abstain from all forms of organized religion. Oklahoma is a hotbed for country music. Garth, Reba, Vince and Carrie all come from here, however, I prefer Dylan and the Stones. I love big cities, but there is an overall rural feel to Oklahoma. Even in the metropolitan areas of this state you know you are only a few miles away from cows. It is an odd place in the sense that it is comprised, for the most part, of empty space. On a clear day you can see 15 miles in every direction. There is nothing, man-made or otherwise, to obstruct your view.
Oklahoma has always had to play second fiddle to Texas, which has bigger cities that attract people, jobs and money. Until we landed the Oklahoma City Thunder NBA franchise we had always been a minor league state. If you wanted to see pro sports you had to drive to Dallas or Kansas City or St. Louis. As a kid growing up, everyone my age idolized Oklahoma’s own Mickey Mantle, the legendary center fielder for the Yankees. And yet no one I knew had ever gotten to see a big league game. We were convinced we lived in the middle of nowhere. It just felt like Oklahoma didn’t belong on the same stage as the big boys. We were always second best. Major corporations would locate their headquarters in the Dallas – Fort Worth metroplex and then if we were lucky we would get a small branch office in OKC or Tulsa. It’s not easy to live in the shadow of the largest state in the lower 48. It seemed like Oklahoma was a place that was easy for the rest of the nation to ignore.
Unfortunately, our history had contributed to an inaccurate portrait of the state. The dust bowl in the 30’s and the stereotyping of “Okies” painted a picture of poverty and a certain lack of sophistication. While it is true to this day that there is still plenty of dust and wind in Oklahoma, it is no less true that it has become a picturesque place in a pastoral kind of way. Out here on the Great Plains, the prairie seems to stretch out endlessly in all directions. On the other hand, it is precisely because of our location that we get to endure a seemingly endless string of tornadoes each year. The Storm Prediction Center of the National Weather Service is located in Norman with good reason. Storm chasers from all over the nation converge on our state each spring because they know that Oklahoma is in the bull’s eye of tornado alley. The wailing of sirens is something you grow up with around here. It is a part of life that you learn to accept just like the relentless 30 mph wind that strikes fear into the heart of any man with a comb over. Twisters, as they are referred to by the locals, are usually rated by old timers based on the year in which they occurred. “Yeah the twister last year was big, but it didn’t hold a candle to the one that took out Ponca City back in ‘55!”
So, all things considered, Oklahoma, in my mind, was not a place you wanted to go to – but rather a place you wanted to get away from.
However, my thinking changed completely on April 19, 1995.
It has been 18 years since the Oklahoma City bombing. 168 mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters were murdered that day. More than 680 were physically injured and many others suffered psychologically as entire families were ripped apart. Not even the most innocent were spared. 19 were slaughtered under the age of 6. On that day, nothing about you mattered. Your gender, your ethnicity and your age played no part in whether you lived or died. The insanity that exploded just outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building at 9:02 AM claimed its victims with utter randomness. Flying debris struck down one person while completely missing another. Walls collapsed in one office but remained standing in the next. The thin line between life and death could not have been finer. But for 168 human beings the end of their lives came with such shocking abruptness that it is still difficult to understand. How could such heartbreaking carnage take place on sunny spring day in a quiet out-of-the-way place like Oklahoma.
As the scope of the disaster began to unfold, the entire nation started to grieve for a region that had too often been dismissed by me, and others, as a barren, insignificant part of the Southwest. Suddenly Oklahomans were no longer faceless caricatures stuck in the middle of the country. They were recognized for what they really were; fellow citizens who had suffered the most devastating kind of loss imaginable. It is one thing to lose loved ones because of circumstances that cannot be prevented, but to have them torn from your life needlessly, adds another dimension of pain and heartache.
For a few terrible days Oklahoma became the focal point of the country, and what the nation witnessed was the quiet courage, strength and dignity demonstrated by a region that most Americans had very little knowledge about. They watched with admiration as the people of this state came together as one. After all this time, it is still not unusual to meet someone who lost a family member, friend or co-worker in the tragedy. It is the defining moment in our state’s history, and although it is not something that is constantly discussed or dwelled on, it is ever-present in the fabric of our society. From time to time you come across unexpected memorials put up in various locations honoring those who were senselessly killed, and, of course, there is the Bombing Memorial itself.
When people visit our state, the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum is one of the first sites they want to see. It draws people from all walks of life back to a tragic moment in time that united our nation in sorrow. It is a very special place filled with both pain and hope. It honors those who died, as well as those who risked their own safety to rescue the injured. It shows the resilience of the people of Oklahoma and their ability to embrace the future without forgetting the past. But most importantly, the Memorial helps to replace statistics with 168 names and faces.
It was in those immediate days following the bombing that my opinion of Oklahoma changed forever. I finally realized that what really mattered about my home was the inspiring compassion of the people. Our differences no longer seemed relevant. In the span of a week I witnessed the horror of death and the courage of survival. I not only saw neighbors help neighbors I also watched people make amazing sacrifices for complete strangers. In the worst possible moment I saw the best of humanity. The people of Oklahoma demonstrated strength of character that rose above the cruel brutality that had shattered so many lives. I was proud of my state, and I knew that no matter where I might search I would never find better people.
Oklahoma is my home. It is where I went to school, raised a family and will probably retire. It is regrettable that it took such a tragedy to open my eyes to what was already all around me – but it was just one more lesson learned from that awful day.
It is important to remember April 19th for exactly what it was.
It was a day when children waited for mothers and fathers who never came home.
I used to frequent a restaurant on Saturday mornings, and there was a group of old men who sat in the corner and drank coffee together. It was usually the same bunch of ten to twelve although occasionally someone new would join and a regular would drop out. The old men liked to sit and solve the world’s problems over steaming cups of black coffee. You wouldn’t find these guys drinking flavors like Irish Mocha or French Vanilla or adding whipped cream to their drinks. These were men with nicotine stained fingers that sometimes bothered to shave the overnight stubble but just as likely would not. Their faces were deeply lined and their skin was leathery from years of hard work in the sun. None of these men had ever paid for a tan. They would discuss politics, religion and every other topic that is forbidden and occasionally the political talk would become heated, but eventually cooler heads would prevail and the local sports teams would become the unifying subject they could all agree on. Some of these men were obviously farmers. They proudly wore caps with the logo of their favorite farm machinery on them, and a couple wore overalls every week. Others had probably been businessmen, factory workers – almost anything.
Over the months I couldn’t help but notice that one of the men was a little quieter than the others. He seemed to have full acceptance within the group, but he caught my attention because he wasn’t as loud and didn’t laugh quite as much as the rest. I eventually learned his name was Pete. One morning the guys got to talking about how annoying their wives were, and they began throwing around the usual stereotypes that crop up when a group of men, who have been married to the same long-suffering woman for decades, feel the need to express their marital frustrations. However, I noticed that Pete didn’t say a word. He just sat silently staring into his coffee cup. It was at that point I noticed he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring like the others. After the joking and complaining about the wives subsided one of the men turned to Pete and gently asked, “How long has Louise been gone now?” Pete looked up with an expression that conveyed both weariness and pain and softly answered, “Three years, last month.” The old men sat silently for a time each contemplating what their days would be like if the woman they had shared a lifetime with was no longer by their side.
As I eventually learned, Pete had been a medic in the Korean War, and the horror he witnessed during that conflict affected him for the rest of his life. He had come home in a different mental state, and his outlook on the world had completely changed. He often disagreed with the other old men who always seemed gung-ho to bomb someone somewhere back into the Stone Age, however, he had witnessed so much death that he could no longer stomach the thought of it. But it was the fact that Pete had lost a son in Vietnam that made the others respect his opinions about peace. His boy had been killed by small arms fire just 6 weeks before his tour of duty was over. Pete and Louise had gone to Washington DC one summer to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Like so many others they had found their son’s name and made a tracing of it on a sheet of paper. Pete carried it in his wallet so that he was never without it…But there were also good things in his life. I found out Pete had two beautiful daughters who meant the world to him, and he loved to show off photos of his great-grandchildren. He didn’t travel to see them as much now that Louise was gone, but they still kept in touch and came to visit him whenever possible.
Over the next year or so I slowly learned that after returning home from the army Pete briefly considered using his medical training for some type of civilian work, but his nerves were frayed, and he knew he couldn’t handle anymore human suffering. Instead he took a job at a local manufacturing plant that produced tires for cars and trucks. He spent 46 years at the plant working his way up to management. When he retired, a small party was thrown for him and he was given a few simple gifts and a pat on the back for giving four decades of his life to the company. It was a few months after his retirement when Pete stumbled onto the group of men drinking coffee each morning at the restaurant near his home. Like him, many had been told their services were no longer needed, and they too had been cast aside after it was determined their ongoing usefulness to a particular organization was in doubt. Pete had felt lost without a job to go to each day, but now he discovered he wasn’t alone. It didn’t take long for Pete to become one of the regulars.
Over the next couple of years I had breakfast almost every Saturday morning at the restaurant while I listened to the old timers talk longingly about how things used to be. But my attention was always drawn to Pete. In the beginning I thought he was just another old man, the kind of person you see every day without giving a thought to, but the more I learned about him the more interesting he became. It was an odd thing because it seemed like I knew him fairly well and yet we never spoke. We had seen each other so often that each of us would nod when the other came into the building but that was it – just a quiet acknowledgement of the other’s existence – nothing more.
Finally one Saturday morning I came into the restaurant and noticed the old men sitting quietly. As I ate, I kept wondering when Pete would arrive but soon enough I understood that he was never again going to be part of the group. As I listened to the brief snatches of conversation the picture became clear. Pete had suffered a massive stroke earlier in the week. One of the men had spoken to Pete’s oldest daughter, and she had told him that the doctors said that her father would never recover. It was apparently now just a matter of time until he passed. Several of the men blustered about how they would never want to be kept alive in that condition, but it seemed that no one really had the heart to express their opinion on the pros and cons of extending life. The group soon fell silent as they sipped their coffee lost in their own thoughts.
It was a strange feeling that came over me when I realized I would never see Pete again. I wasn’t sure why I felt so sad. I didn’t even know his last name. But for some reason Pete remained in my thoughts over the next few months. I would think about him when I saw other elderly men. I would wonder if he was still alive, if he could recognize the face of a grandchild. About 6 months later the restaurant was closed and eventually it was torn down, but it had served its purpose. It had been a place of community for a group of men who had lived long hard lives, who had been patriotic with more than just words but also with deeds. These were men who had raised families and did their best to make the world a safe and prosperous place for their children. These were men who were now being passed by as younger generations ignored them and the sacrifices they had made.
I’m sure some of the old men scattered to new places to drink and solve the latest world crisis, while others just stayed home. But for a time they had shared their hopes, dreams and experiences. They had connected in a way that younger people do not. Their shared history of life created a bond that was difficult for someone of a different age to understand. Although their appreciation and sympathy for each other went unspoken, it was clearly understood. Each man valued the worth of the other because they were equals. They were survivors.
Pete had led an anonymous life. How many others were like me and had never bothered to learn his last name? But it would the worst kind of disrespect to say it was not a life of consequence. He had been married to someone he obviously loved deeply. He had brought three children into the world and he had been blessed with grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He had fought for the country he loved and he had saved many lives in the process. It appeared that he had been a man of character and convictions, and yet he had endured the worst that life has to offer. Pete was just an ordinary man who had done the best he could, in the circumstances he found himself in. What more can anyone do?
How often do we look at older men or women without really seeing them? Do we realize the history that is represented by each of these lives? Many of them made extraordinary sacrifices that I can’t even imagine. They lived through the Great Depression and World War II. They survived marriages, divorces, the birth and deaths of loved ones. They have had a jobs and careers through the years and possibly lost them both. As they aged they have battled their own health problems and they may be bravely living with a disease or condition right now that will eventually claim their life. Everyone that is my age and younger owes a debt to those who came before us that we will never be able to repay. When you see an older person it is easy to forget that they were once the exact same age as you. When you look at them you are seeing your future. We must treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve because one day we will be in their place.
Who knows, maybe someday I’ll sit in the corner of a restaurant and drink coffee with a group of my contemporaries. Perhaps we will also trade lies, exaggerated stories and mindless conversation to pass the time. And if I do, I’m sure I’ll remember Pete and his friends. I will be fortunate to have what they had.
DEATH DOESN’T JUST HAPPEN WITHOUT A REASON.
It is 11:45 on a Saturday night and you are sound asleep when the phone rings. You fumble around for the receiver, pick it up and mumble “hello”. The man’s voice on the line is very calm, but the words he says changes your life forever. A quick burst of adrenalin surges through your body as he states in an even voice that your 17-year-old daughter has been killed in a car accident. You are stunned and you feel like you can’t breath. You have gone from being groggy to more alert than you have ever been in your life. You begin to argue that it can’t be true, but he is certain. Her identification matches this address and phone number. The emotion of absolute heartbreak now comes flooding over you and you can barely speak. The state trooper is patient. He has, unfortunately, made this call many times. He explains that your daughter and her girlfriend were struck head on by a drunk driver. They were both dead before help could arrive. There is more explanation given and some phone numbers you are to call but it is just a blur. You can no longer focus on what is being said. Finally after expressing his deepest condolences the officer hangs up.
As you begin to sob you simply cannot believe the horror is true. Only 4 or 5 hours ago you kissed her goodbye. You were going to spend the day together tomorrow. She was so beautiful and kind and intelligent. She had been making plans for her future and she wanted to be a force for change in the world. Everyone loved her and she had countless friends. She had her whole life ahead of her. For Christ’s sake she was only 17 years old. As the realization slowly sets in that this is not a nightmare but actual reality, you begin to give up. You collapse into absolutely paralyzing grief. A million questions fill your mind. How could this have happened? Who is responsible? Why did it have to be your daughter? What had your family done to deserve this?
Months later, the days following the phone call will be difficult to remember. You know you managed to function somehow and to make the decisions that were necessary, but it is not clear how you were able to keep going through the overwhelming pain. You spent hours breaking the news to family members. You went to the mortuary and picked out her casket. You endured the funeral itself and then finally you said goodbye for the last time at the graveside. You can remember bending down and gently kissing her coffin and knowing with certainty that this was the end. She was gone forever and you would never see her again. From that moment on you were not the same person. No matter how long you live there will always be a part of you missing. You know that her birthday and holidays will bring fresh pain. You will watch her friends go on to college, get married and start families, and although happy for them, you will not be able to help feeling a certain amount of envy for all the things you and your daughter will miss. Until your final breath you will never understand why her life had to be taken.
What must be realized is that with needless death there is responsibility. In this particular case there were many individuals who played a role in allowing this tragedy to occur. First and foremost was the person who tried to drive while under the influence of alcohol. That decision was not only stupid but also incredibly selfish because he not only put his life at risk but the lives of countless other innocent people. Also bearing responsibility are the friends he was with who did not prevent him from driving. They could have arranged for some other type of transportation, but they let him get behind the wheel knowing full well he was impaired. They did not want to offend him. Also at fault was the bartender that continued to serve him even after it was apparent he had consumed too many drinks. His desire for profit superseded any concern for the public’s safety. All of these individuals could have prevented needless death by taking action, but they refused. None of them had the courage or the conviction to step in and take responsibility for a situation that was out of control. Consequently two innocent young women were killed through no fault of their own. Their families were devastated and dozens of lives were adversely changed forever.
This example demonstrates how needless death can occur in our lives. But for those in extreme poverty if happens in other ways. For instance, a child chronically suffers from malnutrition and eventually hunger overwhelms her immune system. She fights off illness after illness but each one leaves her weaker. Finally the hunger ravages her body to the point where she cannot recover and she dies…So, who or what is responsible for this little girl’s death? Is it drought? Is it famine? Is it spiraling food prices? Is it just an act of God – or is it you and I? You may wonder how you could possibly have anything to do with the death of a little girl from hunger when she is thousands of miles away. After all, you would never knowingly harm an innocent child. You love children. However, because those of us who live in comfort in the West have the ability to feed those who are hungry, we have a responsibility to take action…but we choose not to. Why?
We are all part of the same human family. We are all responsible for each other. Every life is important and each life has equal value. When a needless death occurs anywhere in the world there is responsibility shared by those of us who could have prevented it. The fact that you don’t want that kind of responsibility on your shoulders doesn’t matter. You carry the burden whether you want it or not. Just like the individuals who had the knowledge that a man was going to drive under the influence you know that a child is going to die from hunger. Just as they had a responsibility to take his car keys to prevent a tragedy you are under the same obligation to feed a child. In both cases a death can be prevented by another person if they are only willing to get involved instead of just turning away. Each day you have multiple opportunities to save human life. It is your responsibility to do what you can to prevent death and suffering among those who are depending on you for help. To do otherwise makes each of us an accomplice to tragedy.
ANYTIME AN INNOCENT PERSON DIES BECAUSE OF THE NEGLECT OF SOMEONE ELSE, IT IS MORALLY WRONG.
WE ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR OTHERS.
KILLING COMES VERY EASY TO THE HUMAN RACE.
In fact it comes too easy. It has become ingrained in our minds down through history that killing is not only acceptable but also necessary. Taking life is something we are willing to tolerate if we believe it is beneficial to our own lives. How did we get to this point? Why are we so blasé about ending life? Why are we numb to the news that someone with a gun has gone on a rampage and killed a dozen people? Why do we ignore the smuggled information that a country has executed hundreds of dissidents? Why do we passively accept the deaths of 30,000 human beings each day from extreme poverty?
Killing is an accepted part of our society. In fact, some people actually kill for a living. For example, we pay exterminators and veterinarians to end various forms of life. Whether it’s to eliminate unwanted rodents or to put your beloved cat out of its suffering we are more than willing to have someone else do our killing for us. People employed in the food chain have the grim job of taking life. They slaughter cattle, pigs, chickens and turkeys so that we can engage in the unhealthy habit of eating animal flesh. These animals don’t have to end up as our food. We can live a long healthy life with a vegetarian diet, but we decide to consume living creatures all the same because we enjoy the taste. They die so we can be momentarily happy.
Of course some of us enjoy killing animals ourselves. We go hunting and spend a significant amount of time and money in the effort to kill defenseless animals. Why do we do this?…It must be because we enjoy the thrill of killing. Yes, the animal can be consumed, but it’s not necessary to preserve our life that we take their life. It is a willing decision on our part to kill for our own selfish satisfaction. Obviously, there was a time when killing for food was an absolute necessity for the survival of the human race, but that is no longer the case. Now we kill for the pure joy and excitement of it.
It is quite remarkable how we determine exactly which creatures we should feel guilty about killing. The same person who goes out and shoots a deer without remorse will feel terrible if he hits a dog with his truck on the way home. What’s the difference? They were both living creatures. They both had an awareness of life. They could both create more life. Is it because we planned to kill one but the other was an accident? Should we only feel guilt when we kill something without planning its death ahead of time? Perhaps if we know we are going to kill in advance it make it easier to commit the act.
We know that one million human beings are going to die in the next 34 days from extreme poverty. That is an absolute fact. Does that make it easier for us to allow it to happen? Yes it does…because if one million people died in an earthquake in that same time span the entire world would be rushing to help. However, in the case of a million poverty deaths virtually nothing will be done, and those deaths will happen again in the next 34 days and again in the next.
How death occurs also seems to play an important role in how we react to it. Sudden violent death grabs our attention and provokes an immediate response out of our sorrow for those who have lost their lives – while slow relentless grinding death, even on a huge scale, doesn’t seem to bother us at all. We happily continue on with our lives without giving a thought to the tens of thousands who die each day from hunger, illness and disease. The irony is that we feel sincere remorse for the deaths of those who die in ways that cannot be prevented such as earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis. On the other hand, we feel nothing for the victims of extreme poverty, a killer that could be prevented – if we would only make the effort.
Killing has become an integral part of the human experience because of our propensity to kill those who disagree with us. We call it war. It is our absolute favorite way to solve almost any problem. Some one encroaches on our territory – kill them. Some one takes some of our resources – kill them. Some one does not believe the way we do – kill them. It is an automatic response. Individuals, groups and entire nations react this way. Countries and regions will go to war over almost anything. Thousands will die over who has the better God. Unimaginable suffering will occur when one race feels it is superior to another. Death and destruction will rain down on the innocent as various powers fight over stretches of barren wasteland.
Nations take their finest young people and train them in the most effective ways to kill. Countries spend themselves into financial ruin trying to produce the largest military possible. Of course when war breaks out it is almost always the innocent who are slaughtered. Defenseless civilians bear the brunt of the killing. They are left dead, wounded and homeless, and if they are fortunate enough to survive our lust for killing they quickly plunge into poverty.
As a society we willingly condone killing. If someone takes the life of another person we put them in prison for years until we get around to killing them. One death ultimately leads to two deaths. We have decided this is fair and just. We have decided it is the world we want our children to grow up in. We want our kids to know that it is alright to take the life of another human being.
But what about issues that are far less clear in our society regarding our desire to end life? When someone is terminally ill we debate whether or not we should end their suffering. If a person has been medically declared as brain dead we struggle with the idea of stopping life support. When a woman is pregnant and does not want to have the baby our society is torn apart about whether she has the right to an abortion. These kinds of deaths we agonize over. These kinds of deaths seem to involve innocent victims. These kinds of deaths make us stop and search for the true meaning of allowing another human being to die.
So why do we not demonstrate the same level of compassion or concern for the millions who die each year from extreme poverty? They are innocent victims too. They have not done anything wrong. They have not harmed anyone. They are not at war with anyone. They are not a threat to anyone. They just want their children to be safe. They want the opportunity to live in good health with dignity. They want to have enough food and clean water to survive on. Are these unreasonable desires?
Unfortunately, killing becomes easier the more we do it, and by far the easiest way of all to kill is through neglect. You don’t have to pull a trigger or drop a bomb. You don’t have to face your victim or see their suffering. You can simply turn away and kill them with your indifference and selfishness. Neglect kills just as effectively as any man-made weapon, and its efficiency is increased by our refusal to acknowledge our part in its use. Most of us believe that we could never take an innocent person’s life. We just don’t think we are capable of such a thing. But we kill everyday. We kill through our lack of compassion, our unwillingness to share our good fortune and through our preoccupation with our own lives. Neglect, apathy and self centeredness are our weapons of choice. Our victims are mostly children, many under the age of five. We allow them to die because we don’t want to make the effort to help them survive.
Each day we have a choice to make. Do we try to save the lives of the 30,000 who will die or do we once again turn our backs and look the other way? Although we do not want to admit it, we are more than willing to let people die so that we are not inconvenienced. We don’t want to make sacrifices no matter how small they may be. We don’t want to accept any responsibility. We don’t want to feel guilt, and we don’t want to admit to ourselves that, as a species, we are quite comfortable with letting other human beings die. Killing is what we do.
THE PEOPLE OF EXTREME POVERTY JUST WANT TO LIVE. ARE THEY ASKING FOR TOO MUCH?
NOTHING IN THE WEST SYMBOLIZES GREED, CONSUMPTION AND MATERIALISM MORE THAN A SHOPPING MALL.
From the moment you step into the perfect climate controlled environment and come face to face with an elaborate fountain, wasting thousands of gallons of water, you are struck by everything that is wrong with our society. The artificial nature of this manmade world is designed around the need to induce average people to part with their money as quickly and as efficiently as possible. And, of course, we line up like mindless drones for the opportunity to do just that. Our entire form of capitalism is based on the fact that we spend before we think. Purchasing on impulse, whether we can afford it or not, helps drive our economy, providing jobs for more people who can then spend money they don’t actually have shopping for things they don’t really need. It is an endless cycle that props up the financial structure of the Western world.
So …… you and your friend step into the mall and you are greeted by the sights, sounds and smells of temptation. You have told yourself you are going to make this a quick trip, you only need to get a couple of things, but before long other stores catch your eye and you find yourself going into all types of shops. Before you know it you’ve bought a handbag here and another pair of shoes there and some jewelry which you first thought you would give away as a gift, but now you might just keep for yourself. What was to be a 30 minute trip has now turned into 2 hours and you’ve gotten hungry. You and your friend debate whether to have a full meal at one of the nice restaurants or just grab something quick at the food court. It is a big decision that must be considered carefully since you are both on another of an endless series of diets, but you finally agree to just get some Chinese and Mexican at the court and share. You assure each other that your respective diets will resume tomorrow.
3 short hours later the two of you can barely carry all the bags you have accumulated. What was to be a quick in and out for a few things has now turned into a full-scale shopping spree. You’ve each spent hundreds of dollars, consumed thousands of calories and your feet hurt. You dread walking out into the summer heat to try and find your car among the hundreds of other gas guzzling SUVs but it is the price you must pay for the pure enjoyment of going farther in debt, purchasing things that you’ll never use but that you are sure will add untold happiness to your life. Suddenly you and your friend can’t remember where you came in at. Was it by the high end clothing store or the gourmet ice cream shop? You decide it was the ice cream shop because you remember resisting the temptation to get a couple of scoops when you came in, but now your resolve has weakened, so although you are full, you both decide to stop in and have some dessert and rest your feet before you lug your packages all over the parking lot looking for your vehicle which you only owe 55 more payments on ……
The mall is a wondrous place filled with overweight people waddling along burdened down by packages filled with virtually worthless items. Teenagers and young adults covered in tattoos and piercings hang out trying desperately to look cool and be noticed. Old men sit in chairs waiting for their wives to exhaust their energy and their checking accounts as they fume about the ball game they are missing on TV. Small children run wild screaming with excitement at all the possibilities that their parents are going to say “NO!” to. The employees of the expensive shops treat their customers with total disdain while minimum wage kids work the fast food counters with all the enthusiasm of someone facing a lumbar puncture. Mall cops try to look intimidating but thankfully do not carry lethal weapons. There are couples who are only there to catch an over priced movie that cost tens of millions of dollars to make, created by a series of corporate decisions that have stripped the film of any artistic value. And finally you have the poor who are simply looking for a place to escape the heat but who have no opportunity to join in on this spectacle of capitalism at its zenith.
As we shop, spend and consume in the perfect setting of the mall, on the other side of the world it is a different story. One billion human beings struggle to stay alive on a dollar a day. Each year 10,950,000 of them lose that battle. More than 9,000,000 of those deaths are children, many under the age of five. They die from hunger and related causes, treatable illnesses and preventable diseases…but in actuality they die from the neglect of the other five billion people on earth. We have made the collective decision that we would rather eat expensive food at the mall than to save a child from hunger. We prefer to buy more shoes instead of paying for vaccines that could save countless lives. We feel the need to purchase the latest phones and computers even though that money could dig wells and provide safe water for families. We do our hair, our nails and get tans because it is more important that we look good than for a mother to have medical care so that she can survive the delivery of her baby.
There is a certain sadness that hangs over the mall. People come filled with excitement and anticipation but leave with a feeling of remorse over their complete lack of self-control. Every visit is the same. They come searching for something meaningful but they leave disappointed. Why is this? Perhaps it is because each one of us knows that happiness can’t be found with the swipe of a piece of plastic. We know that there is more to life than piling up as many possessions as we possibly can. We realize that we are chasing a dream that can’t be fulfilled. No matter how much we spend, it cannot replace the need to connect with other people. We are each aware of the terrible poverty that afflicts humanity but too many of us deal with this unpleasant truth by turning away and ignoring it. None of us wants innocent children to have to live and die in squalor and filth. That is why we go to a place like the mall in order to escape from the reality of life, if only for a short time. For a few hours we see the world the way we wish it was, but we know it is only an illusion, and the sadness that descends upon us as we leave and go back to our real lives leaves us feeling empty and disheartened.
WE CANNOT SPEND OURSELVES INTO PERMANENT HAPPINESS WHEN WE KNOW HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF HUMAN BEINGS HAVE NOTHING.
Emma was born with Down syndrome – but in the eyes of the Robertson family she was perfect. When the diagnosis was made during the pregnancy there was an intense period of fear, misunderstanding and denial that occurred between her mother and father. They had no experience with disabled children. They did not personally know a single family that had a child with a developmental disability. They were afraid they wouldn’t be able to handle the additional responsibility and risks that are inherent in raising a special needs child. But after quickly gathering information and learning everything they could about Down syndrome – and after much soul searching and many heartfelt discussions – they decided it was a lifetime commitment they were willing to make. They decided to continue the pregnancy. They were nervous, but they were also courageous.
They had no way of realizing that from that moment on, everything would change. For the rest of their lives they would be viewed as the couple with the “disabled child”. This limiting point of view would, unfortunately, define them as human beings. Their beautiful daughter would at various times be referred to as “not normal” – “low functioning” and “retarded”. Even those with good intentions, those who were entrusted with helping her achieve her potential, would insist on classifying Emma with a litany of academic and medical terms. John and Sara Robertson were about to enter a world of labels that too often looked past the humanity of their little girl.
The day Emma was born, all of the fear and trepidation about their decision faded away. As they picked up their tiny daughter for the first time they knew they had made the right decision. They counted her fingers and toes, they tickled her, they made funny faces at her, they softly said her name over and over again – and they held her as tightly as they dared. She was their beautiful child and no one would ever be able to take that away from them. No matter what the future held they would face it knowing that they had given life to a precious little girl who they would love forever. They had made a life changing decision that they would never regret.
The challenges they faced as a family were formidable. They already had a daughter, Isabella, who was two years older than Emma. They did everything they could to assure her that they loved her completely and that she was not forgotten as they devoted most of their time, out of necessity, to their newborn. From the beginning it seemed like everything was significantly more difficult for Emma than it had been for her sister. Virtually every milestone was delayed, but with patience and determination they slowly conquered each obstacle. Although each step forward was a struggle, it only made the hard won victories seem even more satisfying. Slowly they began to realize that Emma was going to be able to have a full, enriching life – no matter what others thought or said.
Eighteen months after the birth of their second daughter, the Robertson’s added one final addition to their family. Sara delivered a healthy baby boy named Dylan. At this point the Robertsons knew their family was complete – they also knew they had their hands full! Their home often seemed to border on chaos but every necessary thing was accomplished in the nick of time. Laundry was done and meals were prepared. Baths were taken and appointments kept. The entire household operated on a comical mixture of panic and profound love. Of course there were times when the vacuum didn’t get run or someone forgot to walk the dog, but overall the five members of the Robertson family enjoyed the life they were sharing. They loved and appreciated each other, so the fact that one of their children had an extra chromosome was not something they focused on under their roof. She was just Emma – a little girl who loved the family cat and enjoyed playing dress-up. Each sunrise brought another day filled with exhausting adventure, but they couldn’t imagine their lives in any other way.
John and Sara now understood that when they were told that their baby could have Down syndrome they had focused almost entirely on all the possible problems and the negative stereotypes that even the medical community still embraced. At the time they had not been able to look beyond the diagnoses and see the tiny person they would grow to love more than they believed was possible. They had no way of knowing how their child, in her innocence, would change them into caring, compassionate people who now saw life completely differently. The things they had once believed were so important had become meaningless. They were no longer preoccupied with status or material things. They didn’t care if others refused to understand and accept all of their children equally. They had learned not to automatically accept the opinions of “experts” regarding what their middle child could or could not accomplish. Instead they were focused on raising their family and fighting for Emma’s right to have the same opportunities in life as the brother and sister who adored her.
Isabella and Dylan loved Emma unconditionally. As they grew older they both felt protective of her, and they faced down anyone who dared to tease her or make a cruel remark. They were proud of her, and they refused to let anyone hurt her. They doted on her and they shared the joy of her accomplishments because they knew how much effort they required. She was not only a sister they loved, she was also someone they came to admire because she was bravely facing obstacles that they did not had to endure. They were spared the physical therapy, speech therapy and seemingly endless medical procedures that were so much a part of Emma’s life. At times they felt guilty because their lives seemed so much easier than hers.
Sarah had been nervous when Emma started her education. It was a huge step and she did not want her daughter to feel inferior or to become frustrated if she struggled. At first Emma was shy and felt out of place in the class room but before too long her true personality came out, and she gained acceptance and made friends. For Sarah it was surprising how quiet the house was with both of her daughters in school. She had extra hours in her day for the first time in years. It slowly dawned on her just how tiring it had been with three little ones underfoot, but she didn’t regret a single minute of the time she had spent with her children. They were the most important thing in her life, and she had done everything in her power to see that they were happy and healthy.
Emma was petite, which made her appear younger than she really was, but as she grew older she became a person who, in her own way, quietly changed the world around her. She had a positive affect on people’s attitudes and their preconceived notions of what individuals with disabilities were like – and she reduced their tendency to think of those with intellectual challenges as less than equal human beings. Despite her small size, when people got to know her they fell in love with a girl whose smile and laughter was infectious. Without trying at all, Emma seemed to have a life affirming effect on everyone she met.
During her teenage years she attempted many things – some of them she did well, others she struggled with – but she kept trying. Each endeavor she undertook gave her more confidence and new skills. One activity she particularly enjoyed was her participation in Special Olympics. She had always excelled at swimming, and over the years she had won a large number of medals, so her Dad built a beautiful display case to show them off. Emma made sure that every visitor to the Robertson’s home did not leave without being given the opportunity to admire her medals…She also loved to sing. She had grown up singing anywhere and all the time, despite the pleadings of her siblings. It seemed completely natural when she was invited to join a choir made up specifically of individuals with special needs who never performed without touching the hearts of everyone that heard them.
By the time she turned 21 Emma had accomplished far more than anyone ever expected. She had finished her education, she had a job at a local retailer and she was preparing to move into her own apartment so she could live independently. But as proud as she was of those achievements there was soon to be a day of importance that stood out above all the rest. Throughout her life she had emulated Isabella. She copied everything she did. She dressed like her sister. She fixed her hair like her sister’s. She liked the same music and TV shows as her sister and she even tried to like the same foods as her sister, although she finally drew the line at sweet potatoes. She idolized everything about her big sister – so when Isabella came home one evening with her longtime boyfriend, Brandon and surprised everyone with an engagement ring Emma could not contain her joy. It was the happiest she had ever felt in her life. She was crying for joy and she couldn’t help it. The two sisters hugged each other and danced around the room. Emma did not think she could possibly be any happier than she was at that moment – and then Isabella whispered in her ear that she wanted her to be her maid of honor.
Emma’s feet didn’t touch the ground for a week. Her absolute joy spread to everyone she came in contact with. Her friends, her co-workers and even the customers she helped, all joined in her absolute delight to get to play such an important role in her sister’s wedding. The sight of her happiness made everyone else happy. It was impossible not to get caught up in her jubilation. As the day for the wedding grew near, the anticipation made Emma nervous, but Isabella reassured her that everything would be fine. They had had picked out their dresses, and everyone was stunned by how beautiful Emma looked in hers. The first time her parents saw her wearing it her father tried to fight back the tears but he could not. John and Sara could hardly believe that the beautiful person they saw before them was the same fragile infant they had held in their arms all those years ago when they were both so scared and unsure about what the future held for her……
……But it must be remembered that the story you’ve just read about Emma’s life was only one of TWO possible futures – and tragically it was NOT the future that was chosen 22 years before.
The day of Isabella’s wedding finally arrived, but Emma was not a part of it. She could not be the maid of honor because in 1990 – confused and distraught by the unexpected news that their baby would be born with a disability – a young couple named John and Sara Robertson actually made the decision to terminate the pregnancy. Emma was never born. She was not to be a part of their lives. They never saw her face, or held her in their arms. They never saw her smile and they never heard her laughter. None of the beautiful moments that would have resulted from Emma’s kindness and gentleness ever occurred. None of the joy she could have brought to so many was allowed to happen. Her love was lost to the world. The hundreds of lives she would have touched were left unaffected. Isabella and Dylan never knew their beautiful sister.
The decision to end a human life does not affect just one, two or three people. It changes the entire course of “what might have been” and therefore has a lasting effect on countless individuals. How many babies like Emma are never given a chance to be born simply because of a diagnoses? How can we play God by picking and choosing who lives and dies? The decision to terminate a pregnancy because of Down syndrome does not mean that you are disposing of something that has no value or doesn’t matter. It means that you are taking away the life of a human being – a person who has so much to offer and who, in their own way, can have a profound influence on the world.
When a baby like Emma is not allowed to be born it is humanity’s loss.
WHEN A HUMAN LIFE IS LOST, SO IS ALL THE POTENTIAL GOOD THAT PERSON MIGHT HAVE PRODUCED.
10,950,000 people die each year from extreme poverty. It is such a large number that we have difficulty comprehending it. However, when you are talking about almost eleven million deaths it is critically important to remember that each one of these individuals was a human being just like you and me. The number needs to be personalized for the true loss of humanity to sink in. The people who die each year from extreme poverty are not nameless, faceless statistics. They are flesh and blood. Each man, woman or child who dies from needless starvation, or a preventable illness or a curable disease is an equal member of the human family. All of these individuals could have had a positive affect on countless others, but they were denied the opportunity to make their contributions, and the world is a lesser place because of it.
What if you had died before the age of five from a totally preventable cause? How would the world be different without you? Your children would not exist nor would their accomplishments. Any good thing you might have done would not have happened. All the people’s lives you could have touched would be unaffected. When an individual dies from extreme poverty it is, of course, impossible to know what they might have done with their life, what they could have contributed or what their children could have grown up to be. How do we know that the child who starved to death last night wasn’t destined to become a great world leader like Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. Perhaps yesterday morning malaria claimed the life of a future Nobel Laureate. Maybe tomorrow the person will die from unsafe drinking water who would have become a research scientist, instrumental in finding a cure for one the world’s fatal diseases.
Any of these people might have contributed in some great way to humanity, but they will never have the chance. The overall good that this many people could have produced in the world is incalculable. That is why the horror of an extreme poverty death is three fold. It is not just the obvious immediate loss for those who loved the deceased, it is also the world’s loss because we are denied the opportunity to benefit from the victim’s abilities, personality and love. And each death diminishes those of us who could have helped save that life and didn’t. Whether through ignorance, apathy or selfishness we each contributed to the 10,950,000 deaths last year.
It is indefensible that we choose not to take action and try to prevent the deaths of innocent people. In the West, a violent criminal is given food, clothing and shelter while 25,000 children, on the other side of the world, are allowed to die needlessly each day. These children have hurt no one. They are not a threat to anyone. They are totally without blame, but we choose to feed, clothe and house the criminal and allow the children to die. How can this be justified? Where is the logic in protecting someone who rapes and kills while at the same time being perfectly willing to let a five year old child starve to death?
Because there are one billion people struggling in extreme poverty, individuals sometimes feel overwhelmed by the size of the problem. They wonder if the small amount of help they can give can really make any difference. But what if your financial contributions helped to save just one life, how important is it? Perhaps the one child you save will eventually grow up to be a doctor, who spends her life saving even more people. Your effort is then multiplied many times over. On the other hand, what if you lived in poverty and the one life that was saved was yours? It would be the most important thing in the world. The people who are dying in extreme poverty feel the same way. They believe that their life matters, and that they deserve the chance to live. EVERY LIFE THAT IS SAVED IS IMPORTANT.
There may well come a day when you will need someone to save your life. Perhaps a paramedic or an emergency room doctor or just a person who happens to know CPR will help you at a critical moment. As you are staring death in the face you will believe, with all your being, that your life is worth saving. Or you may have a son or daughter who is severely injured or becomes gravely ill, you will certainly demand that everything possible be done to save your child’s life. We all believe that we and our loved ones deserve to live. Is this not true for the people trapped in extreme poverty as well? They are just like us. They are equal human beings whose lives are worth saving, just as much as yours or mine.
Please consider the 25,000 children that will needlessly die TODAY without our help. What is more important for us to spend our time, money and resources on than saving these innocent victims? The children that die today will leave this world without having the chance to make a difference. With each death there is a life that was not lived, dreams that were never realized and hopes that were crushed before they could be fulfilled. We will never know the peace, courage, love and joy these small victims could have given to the world over their lifetimes. When we do not make the effort to save the lives of those in extreme poverty we are depriving the world of the talents and abilities of millions of human beings.
WHEN WE LET CHILDREN DIE WE ARE KILLING THE FUTURE.
You are an important person – the result of a complex mixture of characteristics that combine to form your personality. You have both positive and negative qualities – strengths and weaknesses – as well as personal likes and dislikes. Most significantly, you are totally unique and different from everyone else. You belong to the human family and yet you are an individual. You defy simple descriptions and labels because you are more than just a “type of person”. Each of us is convinced of our own worth. We each believe that the world would be changed forever if we were not present, and, to a degree, that is certainly true. We all play our respective parts in life and without us things could not possibly be the same.
An individual with a developmental disability is a person too.
They also have a role to play in life. They laugh and they cry, they feel joy and pain, and they have hopes and dreams. They are optimistic and confident as they make plans and achieve goals. They rise up to face challenges, and they are rightfully proud of their accomplishments. They long to be as independent as possible, and they want to be accepted for who they are. They want to be considered as equal human beings who deserve the same respect and dignity as anyone else – which means they want the opportunity to just be themselves. They want the chance to participate in society. They want to love and be loved. They do not want to be unfairly defined by a single label.
When you find out that someone is intellectually challenged how does it change your perception of that person?
Do you treat them differently?
Do you feel uneasy around them?
Do you feel sympathy for them?
Do you avoid them?
Do you feel superior to them?
Do you want to help them?
If you focus entirely on this single aspect of their humanity you are missing the complete person who has so much to offer the world. We must open our hearts and our minds to the reality of what makes us human. An IQ score is not the determining factor in our value to society. We must look past the labels that are used to unfairly limit the potential of a person. There are now 7 billion human beings on earth, and 3% are “defined” as intellectually challenged. That means that millions of people all over the world carry a descriptive stigma that haunts them for all of their lives. No one should have to carry a burden that is forced on them by others.
Just because an individual may be non-verbal doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a lot to say – we just have to find new ways of communicating. When an individual cannot count to ten, it doesn’t mean she can’t hold a job – we just need to make the necessary adjustments that allow her to work without the pressures of math. If an individual has difficulty understanding proper hygiene it is not a reason for him to be ridiculed – instead we need to work with him to improve his living skills so he can avoid unnecessary illness. Whatever particular challenge a person faces we can find workable solutions that will help them to thrive and be a part of the community. Every person deserves our best effort to include them in all areas of society.
For the world to ever be a fair and just place, all life must be equally valued. There can be no exceptions to this truth. Every human being, no matter what their physical or mental capacity may be, has the right to pursue happiness, good health and purposeful meaning in their lives. In order for this to occur we must become better people ourselves. We must grow in our acceptance of those who may, on the surface, seem different. We must learn to overcome our preconceived notions about how much a disability should be allowed to define a person, and ultimately we must have compassion for all human beings.
It is true for all of us that life can be difficult under the best of circumstances. It should not be made more demanding because of the narrow minded opinions of others. Individuals who happen to be intellectually challenged are more than just a diagnosis. They are real people living real lives. It is up to each one of us to look past the disability and accept the person inside. If we will do this, the entire world will change. Certainly those that have suffered so long from neglect, abuse and intolerance will enjoy a dramatic improvement in their lives, but it will also have a positive affect on the rest of us. Nothing but good can come from treating everyone with consideration and appreciation. All of humanity will benefit if we learn to accept every individual as the completely unique and special person they are.
Lawrence and Maggie had been married for 58 years. They first met when they worked together in a large department store. Lawrence had just gotten out of the navy where he had served on the USS Wisconsin during the Korean War. The day Lawrence saw Maggie step off the bus in front of the store it was love at first sight. For her it was not quite so fast. After working near each other for several days Lawrence was convinced she was absolutely perfect. He loved everything about her. She, on the other hand, had been hurt before, and she now found it difficult to trust men. But over the next six months they began to date, and she started to feel differently about him. She soon realized that he was a gentle and caring man, and Lawrence began to think that Maggie was the person he wanted to marry. Although it took some convincing, she finally said yes, and in June of 1953 they became Mr. and Mrs. Curtis. She was 20 and he was 22.
Everyone agreed that they were made for each other. They were considered to be the perfect couple. They would finish each other’s sentences. They liked the same food, the same movies and they both loved to dance. They started building a world together that they knew they wanted to share for the rest of their lives. They had talked often about having children, and they were happy to discover that they both wanted a big family. They decided after a year of marriage to go ahead and see if they could have a child. Within a few months they got the good news. Maggie and Lawrence could not have been happier. They decided that if it was a boy they would call him William, and if it was a girl she would be Lisa.
The pregnancy was uneventful, and in the early morning hours of March 7, 1955 Maggie went into labor. At first everything seemed fine, but as the hours dragged on the situation deteriorated. During delivery it was discovered that the umbilical cord was wrapped around William’s neck causing him to suffer from severe oxygen deprivation. It seemed to take forever for the nurse to bring their baby to them and when she finally did she told them that the doctor would be in soon to talk to them about “the problem”. Maggie and Lawrence were scared, but they couldn’t help falling in love with the precious little boy that had been handed to them. In their eyes he was beautiful. His tiny fingers and toes were perfect. He had lots of dark hair and his wrinkled face made them laugh. They had a beautiful son and now they were truly a family.
When the doctor walked in, Lawrence tried to read the expression on his face, but it was emotionless. Maggie sensed that she was about to hear something awful, and she held on tightly to William. The doctor simply said, “I am sorry to have to tell you this, but your child is going to be severely retarded”. Lawrence flinched and turned to look at Maggie. She was staring at the doctor with a cold hard stare of determination. “I don’t care what you say, our son is beautiful.” The doctor looked at the chart in his hands and began to speak in a way that made it clear that he had given this response many times before. “Yes, he looks fine, but he was without oxygen and his brain has been damaged. I think the effect will be profound. I do not anticipate him ever having anything close to a normal life. He probably won’t speak and he may never walk. He will be a burden to both of you for however long he lives.” The doctor paused and cleared his throat. “I would not try to raise him yourselves. There are institutions were he can be placed that are especially designed to help his kind. Of course the choice is up to you, but in my professional opinion you would be better off letting him live out his life among others who are retarded so that you can live your own lives.”
The rage that began to build inside of Lawrence made him tremble. In a voice he was barely able to control he said, “Get out.” The doctor shrugged, “It is your life, but don’t be guided by your emotions. Try to think logically because…” Lawrence cut him off, “I said get out!” The doctor nodded and quickly stepped out into the hallway. For a moment the room was filled with stunned silence. Maggie and Lawrence were both trying to absorb the shock of the doctor’s words. Finally Maggie firmly said, “I am not giving up our baby. Please tell me you feel the same way.” Lawrence began to sense the crushing pressure that someone experiences when their world has been torn apart. “Of course I want to keep him with us, but what if the doctor is right? What if it is more than we can handle? What if there are other medical complications?” Lawrence hesitated, “What if – I’m not a good enough father?” Tears began to stream down Maggie’s face. “Lawrence, you are the kindest, most thoughtful, most considerate man I’ve ever met. You will be an amazing father. We will handle this together, and we will take each day as it comes. As long as we love each other we will find the strength to do what is needed to give William the best life he can possibly have.” In the midst of all the confusion and disappointment he was feeling, Lawrence was suddenly overwhelmed by how fortunate he was to have found Maggie in this life.
In the 1950’s the decision to place a child who was developmentally disabled in an institution was made by many couples because they innocently thought it was actually the best choice. In those days people tended to take a doctor’s opinion as gospel. It didn’t even occur to them that they could be getting bad advice. They just assumed that the medical profession knew what they were talking about – but it didn’t work that way for Lawrence and Maggie. It was not an option they could even consider. In their minds they had created a human life, and he was their responsibility. He was not going to be passed along for someone else to raise. He was not going to be considered a lifelong burden. He was not going to be hidden away and forgotten about. Instead he was going to be loved. He was going to be their son.
In the following years Maggie tried three more times to have another baby, but each pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. William would be their only child. Over the next five decades Lawrence and Maggie experienced the highs and the lows of raising a child with a disability. But no matter what life threw at them, they had each other. They weathered every storm together. They savored the victories that occurred in William’s life and they held onto each other during the struggles. As he matured, William developed at his own pace. It took a while but he eventually became quite a talker with an opinion on everything. And he not only learned to walk he was active in Special Olympics. He eventually received an education and held various jobs; however, he always chose to live with his parents. William had no desire to live independently. At home he knew he was loved, he was cared for and he was protected. The thought of not seeming his mom and dad each day made him feel bad.
When it came to thinking about the future it always centered on William. Every so often Maggie would bring up the delicate subject of what would happen to William when they could no longer care for him – but Lawrence always hated talking about it. It was just too painful to think about. Although he knew it was part of his responsibility as a parent to provide for his son after their deaths, he always put off making a decision. In his heart Lawrence had always hoped that he would die first so that way he would never have to live without Maggie. He knew it was selfish, but he was convinced that it would be better for William to be with his mother. Lawrence knew that after he was gone Maggie would do the right thing concerning their son.
As the years went by and Lawrence and Maggie looked back on their lives, they knew they had made the right decision for them and their son. If William had been institutionalized they would have missed so much joy and so much adventure. Every day had been a challenge, but each day also had its own reward. Lawrence and Maggie shared a bond that few married couples got to experience. They had committed their lives to each other while making tremendous sacrifices so that their son could live the best life possible and have the opportunity to become the person they knew he could be. Maggie and Lawrence found strength in each other, and their love had never wavered.
They had known from the beginning that they wanted to grow old together – and so they did. In their retirement years they were able to spend even more time together. They doted on each other and generally acted like two school kids in love instead of a couple in their early 80’s. Of course time had taken its inevitable toll. They were somewhat frail and they both had their share of health scares, but overall life was good – and from time to time Lawrence still delighted Maggie by sweeping her up in his arms and slowly dancing with her.
But finally their journey together began to slowly come to an end, and one afternoon the dancing stopped forever. Lawrence had gone to pick up William at the end of his work day. Maggie had worried that her husband was getting too old to drive, but he just didn’t feel comfortable when his son rode the bus. They walked into the living room and Maggie stared at them blankly. Lawrence rushed to her asking, “Honey, what’s wrong?” but she didn’t respond. Her eyes did not focus on him – she didn’t seem to be aware of anything. Terrified, Lawrence rushed her to the emergency room. For the next five days Maggie underwent a battery of tests and finally the stage four brain tumor was discovered.
It only took eight weeks for the cancer to claim Maggie’s life. Every effort was made to keep her as pain free as possible. During those two months she moved back and forth between being completely lucid and then having her mind enveloped by the darkness of the tumor. During the periods when she was able to recognize her loved ones she and Lawrence would reminisce, focusing on the many good times in their lives – and they finally made a decision about William. It was decided that once Lawrence could no longer care for him, their son would move in with Maggie’s youngest sister and her husband, both of whom adored William. As Maggie’s memory began to fade they both knew the end was near, and they didn’t want to waste a single precious second they had left with each other. They laughed and they cried as they revisited the moments that had defined their lives together. They each expressed their admiration for the other, and they both made sure they conveyed the depth of their love and devotion.
When Maggie’s final hour arrived Lawrence and William were at her side. As she slipped in and out of consciousness they quietly stroked her hair and held her hand. She could no longer speak, but she seemed to know they were with her. Thankfully she was not in pain. As her breathing slowed the nurse told them it wouldn’t be long. William could not hold back his tears as he said goodbye to his mother for the last time. It broke his heart to think she was actually dying, and it was difficult for him to believe that his mother was really leaving them for good. His parents had been inseparable, but now that was coming to an end. His father’s grief was painful to watch. The man who had seemed so strong all of his life now seemed broken. Thoughtfully, other family members led William out of the room so that he wouldn’t see the very end. Lawrence was left alone with Maggie. His worst nightmare had come true. She was going to leave him, and he was powerless to do anything about it. He sat and looked at her face thinking about the first time he saw her step off the bus six decades before. To him she still looked just as beautiful as she did that day. He wondered how the years had gotten away from them, but now he knew they were out of time. As he softly sobbed, Lawrence gently hugged her and leaning down to her ear he whispered “I love you, Maggie. We will be together forever.”
A few moments later it was over. For eighty-one years Maggie had led a courageous life. She had been a wonderful wife, a loving mother and a passionate advocate for her son and others with intellectual challenges. Even in death she had been brave. There are different criteria that can be used to judge a human life but perhaps the best way is to simply consider whether the world is a better place because a person lived. For Maggie Curtis the answer was an overwhelming yes. The world was a profoundly better place because she had made the relentless effort to support her son against all odds during his lifetime, and she had been the perfect partner to Lawrence, the man she adored with all her heart. Together they had spent their lives showing the world what love and commitment really meant.
HOPE CANNOT BE BOUGHT OR SOLD – YET EVERYONE MUST HAVE IT.
Hope is the place where dreams are born, and no place on earth needs hope more than in areas ravaged by extreme poverty. To attempt to live without hope destroys a person physically, mentally and emotionally. It takes a toll so severe that people, no matter how courageous they may be, eventually begin to give up and lose the will to live. To be deprived of the chance to see your children survive is more than any parent can stand. To constantly be forced to live in fear and dread wears a human being down and, without hope providing a light at the end of the tunnel, it seems impossible to go on. That is not a way to live.
Hope is just as necessary as food and water. It is intellectually stimulating to have good expectations for the future. Our brains are hardwired to search for positive outcomes and possibilities. When those scenarios are completely absent our mental faculties become confused and we become unsure and concerned about our immediate futures. This has an unsettling effect on our ability to make decisions and to choose appropriate options. If our choices are so limited that none of them present a good outcome we become discouraged and resignation sets in.
In the absence of hope, despair takes hold. In the case of extreme poverty, the despondency and desperation of facing death every day becomes over whelming. You slip into the role of a victim instead of being a functioning human being with self-esteem and dignity. All that you know and believe is stripped away by the unending brutality of life. When you must dig a grave for the child that you once embraced it is a level of pain that cannot be expressed in words. To not have hope is to die a little bit each day – until there is nothing left. How can we let human beings suffer in this way? What excuse can we possibly make that absolves us of any responsibility of stemming such pain?
No one should have to live without hope, and we can make sure that they don’t. Those of us who are fortunate enough to live lives of comfort and prosperity are the ones that can provide lifesaving relief to millions. It is our obligation to take the necessary action to offer hope where there is none. It is our responsibility to create opportunity that will transform lives. We must focus our efforts to offer possibilities that do not currently exist for a billion human beings in extreme poverty. To not use our abilities to their fullest in the effort to end suffering is disgraceful. We must use our time and talents to extend hope to those who need it most. To do any less is immoral.
So how do we create hope? It doesn’t just appear out of thin air. There has to be a systematic approach that offers solutions to multiple problems at the same time. It has to be a comprehensive effort that is directed towards the most serious situations first and then moves on to secondary issues. Hope occurs when hard work is combined with good intentions. It requires effort and persistence. It creates an atmosphere of change that sweeps away limitations and restrictive conditions. Deep, meaningful, lasting hope, that lifts a person up, is the direct result of compassion. If we care, we will do what is necessary to give others a chance in life.
Hope represents different things to different people. Hope to you might mean the possibility of getting a better job, or having the chance to improve your education, or getting the opportunity to own your own home. These are all goals that we are familiar with and share, but in other parts of the world hope represents something profoundly more important. Hope is having more than 500 calories a day to survive on. Hope is a mosquito net to protect your child from malaria. Hope is the healthy laughter of a baby who has been vaccinated against polio. Hope is a decent wage that allows a parent to provide for their family. Hope is a field near a village that has been cleared of landmines. Hope is a well that has been dug to supply safe water to drink. Hope is a trained midwife to assist in childbirth. It is all of these things and more because in reality; hope is possibility.
How would life change if you suddenly lost all hope? What if your child became gravely ill and there was no medical treatment available? What if you held them in your arms and helplessly watched them die because they couldn’t get a simple antibiotic that is available in every pharmacy in America? What if you had to dig their grave in the drought parched earth and shovel dirt into their face? Where would your hope be? This is not some imaginary tale. This is not a cheap attempt to play on your emotions. This is the reality of extreme poverty. People, particularly children, die every day and they don’t have to – and each of the dead leave behind grief-stricken loved ones for whom hope seems like an impossible dream…
…But hope is possible, and we must restore it to the one billion human beings who are enslaved in poverty because hope represents the chance of a better life. It is a life where people do not have to beg on the streets. It is a life where orphans are not ignored and forgotten. It is a life where entire populations are not consumed with illness and disease. It is a life where 25,000 innocent children do not die every 24 hours unnecessarily. It is a life that we can make possible for millions of people if we will only make the effort. YOU represent hope to those who are dying each day without food, water & medical care. If those of us with the highest standard of living in the world won’t help – who will?
HOPE IS THE BRIDGE BETWEEN WHAT IS AND WHAT CAN BE.
WE MUST PROVIDE HOPE TO THOSE WHO SO DESPERATELY NEED IT.