"Moments of Grace" Excerpt
The steady, rhythmic sounds of the train had finally lulled me to sleep. Then suddenly, as if from out of nowhere, I knew we were nearing our destination. I knew it because mother’s arm around me had grown tighter. How we had dreaded this moment. An immense fear gripped me. If only we could turn the train around and go back! A six-year old child doesn’t understand. I wanted to scream out, “Why does this have to happen?” Wasn’t it enough that I had been born crippled? But it was useless to think about that. In the distance, I could see the train station and, as we approached, I sensed that the safe and secure world, in which I was wrapped because of my mother’s love, was about to shatter. I loved and needed her so much. Why did I have to say good-bye to her?
This painful episode from my childhood is engraved in my memory. Thinking back, and knowing what I do today, I firmly believe that it was all part of God’s plan. Yes, even this wrenching experience was necessary, and only God knew why. Indeed, it is a great mystery when a child is born with a permanent, physical disability. In it, there is a sign and a message, and it involves a mission. The strength for it comes from the “moments of grace.” For me, many of these came through people. In the persons that He sent into my life, God was showing me how much He loved me and that eventually I would understand what it was He wanted from me. And what He wanted was far more than I could have ever imagined. One day, He would reveal to me the “secret” of suffering, but before that, I would have to undergo many trials and much pain.
To feel rejected, unwanted, and “different” is a suffering that takes deep root in the human heart. It affected my entire life and also, for many years, my relationship with God. But through it all, He gave me strength, even when I did not feel His presence. God, in His infinite love, had chosen me to bear a painful cross from the moment of birth. What would make it unique is that it was to be a visible one.
The crippling illness, later identified as Muscular Dystrophy, did not manifest itself immediately. It became clear at six months, however, that something was very wrong because of my inability to sit up, as a baby should at that age. Unfortunately, even a doctor practicing in the 1950s did not know how to diagnose my physical condition and consequently prescribed vitamins in hopes they might provide the strength needed. Little did he realize the seriousness of the case he had before him.
At home, my family tried to provide the best care for me possible. Like so many others living in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas in the 1950s, we existed in extreme poverty but with hearts full of pride in our Hispanic culture and identity. After my father’s departure, due to unfaithfulness, mother struggled alone to provide for her eight little girls. A two-room house in an alley was our home and a meal was often two potatoes and one egg for all nine of us. Sometimes so hungry, we would sit anxiously on the curb waiting for our mother, and when my sisters would see her coming, they would jump up and down yelling, “Look! She’s got food! She’s got food!” Mother had been abandoned by her father and now her husband, the only man she had ever loved. She was the most courageous, noble woman I have ever known. Her entire life was dedicated to raising her children. She was an example to us all of the love that God has for every human soul.
The first six years of my life were lived as an invalid in a protected world where everything was done for me. Crawling on the floor was my only means of mobility. This earned me the nickname “patito” meaning “little duck” because of the way I waddled on my hands and knees from one place to another. Everyone seemed to tower over me, making me feel small and weak. And even though it was frustrating to move about, for me it was a world filled with love and attention. But that was soon to change dramatically.
The physical therapist at the clinic I was attending had told my mother, “Your daughter cannot go on like this. Something has to be done, but there are no facilities here for the type of total rehabilitation she needs.” My survival, nonetheless, depended on it. I had to be sent away and it would be for an extended period of time.
“I can’t let her go!” mother agonized. “She won’t make it without me. Who will take care of her?” These tormenting thoughts filled her mind at the prospect of taking me 400 miles away to the Moody School for Crippled Children in Galveston, Texas and leaving me there. She had no money for this. And even though she had been told that the State of Texas would pay the expenses, she knew there would be no means to come visit me.
But the decision was made and this is how it happened that we found ourselves on the train that terrible day. As we pulled in to the station, I knew that nothing would ever be the same again. I was about to be abandoned! Horror and panic seized me. Clinging to mother desperately, I thought at that moment that I would rather die than be separated from her. “Please take me home, mama!” I pleaded. “Don’t leave me here!” But that could not be. “I have to do this!” she thought. “Someday Gracie will understand.”
As I was being introduced to some of the children, I turned around and she was gone. My mother was gone! I had been left with strangers! “Come back, mama, come back! I can’t run!” I cried. My entire body shook violently as the nurses tried to hold me down. With every fiber of my being, I wanted to run from there. But escape was impossible. I couldn’t even walk! How on earth could I flee? Was this all a terrible dream? Would I soon awaken and find myself safely back home? Would I ever see my mother again?
Where was God if He loved me so much as I had been told? What had I done to deserve this? Where were my mother, my father, my sisters? To be torn from the person you love most in the world is a terror that only those who have experienced it understand. A loneliness I had never known began to creep its way into my heart for the first time. This tormenting event had left me emotionally beaten and lifeless.
The school seemed enormous. Never had I been in such a massive structure. My home became a ward filled with row after row of crib-like beds. The bars added to my feelings of being trapped and confined. At night, I often laid awake, as the crying of the other lonely and suffering children was too much to drown out. I too cried, but silently. Words cannot describe the abandonment and hopelessness I felt in those moments. How swiftly darkness and gloom had entered my life and broken the spirit within me. Each day brought only more sadness.
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