Friday, March 20, 2009

What REALLY Happened

The following story was considered for publication in a book but by the time it went through the necessary channels it had been so watered down and expurgated that there was nothing unique about it. I never got paid for the story as the publisher said I would, so I assume that it went into the “no, thank you” pile. The true story is infinitely cooler than their final version, and it should be told. What really happened was this.

One fine day in June I called the local children’s hospital and asked to do a 40-minute hammer dulcimer program for the kids. I didn’t want money and I wasn’t looking for glory. Several years earlier I had been a music teacher in a Catholic school and, since I left that job, I simply missed seeing children. I figured a hospital wasn’t going to say no to me and this would be the least rejection-prone way to satisfy my craving for some young blood. Naturally, the hospital was very gracious and said of course I could come and do a program, after I attended a training session. Hospitals are very cagey about what they do and don’t reveal about their patients and they also need to make sure all their volunteers are aware of possible etiquette pitfalls, such as calling a little girl “young man” or asking a 12-year old if he’s started kindergarten yet.

Once I was appropriately prepped to avoid any possible faux pas, I slathered on the usual three pounds of makeup, trussed myself up in a Slovak outfit, packed the dulcimer and headed for the hospital. This was at the time Chicago was accepting a large contingent of Bosnian war refugees and I wondered if there were any Bosnian children at the hospital because I wanted to try out a Bosnian song. There was only one. A single boy, in the ICU, who was not being treated for a war injury, but for something else. For the sake of privacy, I’ll call him Mujo. After a bit of hemming, hawing, intercom exchanges, and other back-and-forth, I was permitted to go to the ICU to see him. Leaving the dulcimer downstairs, I rushed up to say hello, and I sang him a song in Bosnian. He had an awestruck smile on his face, the kind of look that says, “An American woman who looks like a movie star is singing just for me in my language!”

Having gotten my “kid fix” I went home and resumed my life, but, inspired by that boy's smile, I was now determined to learn to speak Bosnian by hook or by crook.

Towards the end of that summer I had dipped my toe into an illicit relationship with a Bosnian refugee and then abruptly severed the budding liaison when I discovered he had a wife and daughter. Later that fall, I decided to follow a more wholesome path to learning Bosnian and I registered with a local Christian organization that provides English tutors for newly arrived refugees. After taking their training class and passing a background check they set me up with a family to tutor. They lived two miles from me in a rough, gang-infested neighborhood but I was ready to rock and roll. I asked if the family had any children and they said yes, there were two kids. I immediately went out and bought toys for them but then heard the voice of my Spirit say, “Slow down.” Since I had ignored the last warning it had given me – which was to stay away from that married Bosnian refugee – I owed it to my Spirit to listen and obey this time. I got out my cards and did a reading. Surprise, surprise. The cards indicated that “my” family was moving away and that I should not get attached.

The very next day, my supervisor Linda at the agency called to tell me, “I have some bad news for you. The family you were going to tutor is moving to Iowa. They left this morning. But we’ll get you a new family.”



An hour later she called again. “We have a new family for you!” As it turned out, they were not only walking distance from my house, but in a much safer neighborhood. I asked about children and was told there were two. Great, I could give the toys I had bought to those kids. I was set!

That evening Linda picked me up and took me to meet the family. She had spoken – firmly – to me about not using Bosnian with them, only English. It was as if she knew my ulterior motive and was making sure that my volunteering was all about them and not about me. The parents, Amela and Nijaz spoke almost no English. I gave the children the toys. They were thrilled, then shyly tried to give them back. I walked around the cramped but immaculate apartment teaching Amela the English words for common household items. Table. Spoon. Fork. Light. Wall. The dialogue lurched politely and tentatively. I was dying to jumpstart the conversation with a few words in Bosnian but Linda's stern presence put that fire out. No deal. Finally, Amela pulled out family pictures and we were off and running. As it turned out, Amela had learned a couple words in English that she could remember. “My mother.” “Husband.” “Sister.” And then she pulled out another picture. “Other son.”

It was Mujo, in his hospital bed.

“I know him! I know him!” I screamed. Defying the rules I cried out, “Bila sam u njega! ViÄ‘ela sam ga! Pjevala sam!” “I was there! I saw him! I sang!” It took a few minutes but we sorted out the story and by the time I left two hours later, we weren’t student and tutor anymore, we were friends.

I worked with the family for several years until they bought a condo and moved to an even nicer neighborhood. I still visited occasionally and eventually Amela called to ask me to tutor her so she could pass the citizenship test. I was a hard-nosed teacher and drilled her like a machine. She passed. The family is doing well, their oldest son is married with a condo of his own and they are all American citizens now.

The Christian organization I tutored for solicited stories from its volunteers to submit for a collection called Chicken Soup for the Volunteer’s Soul and I sent in the above. They said it was the best one they had received but, in accordance with their evangelical agenda, this, that and the other had to go. They stripped the part about me listening to my Spirit. They scotched the card reading. All I was left with was a couple whitewashed coincidences and some bland, fuzzy platitudes. The publisher’s editor sweetened the story up further, and by the time you got done reading the final version, you needed a couple shots of insulin.

Despite the tame spin the kindly but prosaic Evangelicals put on my tale, it was my Spirit, gosh darn it, that led me to the hospital that sunny June day, it was my Spirit that communicated with me through the cards and it was my Spirit that guided me on the path to tutor that particular family. Spirit speaks like opportunity. It taps once, and gently. Whether you follow its advice or not is your call.

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