In the land of the religious sanctuary of Fatima in Portugal, there’s a centre for people with varying degrees of brain paralysis where, led by conflicting cynicism and the will to actually do something with my time, I found myself at the age of 16. It was a whim of fate that changed my perspective at the time and left an indelible mark on my character.
I signed up to do two weeks of live-in volunteering at the Pope John Paul II Centre for Brain Paralysis where I was immediately assigned to a house with about 12 patients. The few employees of the Centre were very appreciative of any help and I was happy to get started right away. In many ways, life there was normal and the environment was homely with dedicated and caring staff who did their duty with a joy that was strange to witness at first.
Nothing really prepared me for having to help a man old enough to be my father use the toilet, and then clean him up when he was done. That man was also an award-winning poet who wrote about life and love with a comprehension that to this day is still beyond me. I recall one afternoon where I sat with him in his room and read while he typed a poem which I no longer remember what it was about but I’ll never forget the time he dedicated to it – every letter took about 15 seconds to be typed, as his finger would slowly descend on the keyboard as it would bend in an improbable manner with each movement of his knuckles seeming more and more painful than the previous one. His dedication to his craft was nothing short of admirable
Every morning I would help clean up and feed another patient who had ended up at the Centre as a consequence of a terrible motorbike accident and the memory of looking into his eyes and realising the pain and suffering of having seen what life used to be like before the crash was seared into my memory. He knew fully well where he was, his body completely disconnected from his mind and his eyes really were the mirror to his soul.
I was also fortunate enough to meet a five year old girl who was the star of the whole centre. A princess at heart, who made me go pick flowers in the sunshine and showed me that happiness doesn’t have to be a big house or a fast car coming on the back of a well thought out life plan.
Nearly a decade has passed since, and that experience has stayed with me, a memory of a place where joy and simplicity of life overtake the diagnosed impending catastrophe on a daily basis. And all I had to do to witness that was to help some people clean up, feed them and do some dishes. It doesn’t get any easier than that.
Our guest writer today was Pedro. Get in touch with him here
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