Who are the Lepers?
By Lynn Lee
At eighteen-years old, Alice was in the hospital for another surgery. Alice was born with congenital hydrocephalus and spina bifida, which together substantially altered her mental status and her mobility. Throughout her childhood, Alice had multiple surgeries and hospital stays and many setbacks, including a stroke that limited her strength on the left side of her body.
Though eighteen years of age, Alice’s cognition was close to a four-year-old’s. She communicated with few words, but she croaked them out with enthusiasm. Her most frequent request was for a hug. She loved watching Barney and laughed and smiled and sang songs with her purple dinosaur friend.
Alice’s mother made life fun, celebrating the small victories with Alice and turning the simplest activities into play. She never mentioned the challenges of caring for a daughter with intellectual and physical disabilities; rather, she shared a story to illustrate how Alice teaches her more than she feels she can ever teach Alice.
In the doctor’s office one day, Alice and her mother were waiting for their appointment when in walked a woman who was homeless. She had a disheveled appearance, and her body odor made it apparent that she hadn’t bathed in days. With a loud, rasping voice, she demanded service, and commanded the attention of the entire waiting area.
Alice was called up to the desk at this time. Her mother assisted her to the desk, and Alice, seeing the woman, turned to her and said, “Hot!”
“What did she say?” asked the woman, with a scowl.
She said, “Hug,” Alice’s mother translated apologetically.
“Well, okay,” said the woman, leaning over into little Alice’s waiting arms.
Alice wrapped her thin arms around the woman’s neck with sheer joy. Rocking back and forth, she kept her iron grip around the woman’s neck. Alice’s mother tried to wrench Alice’s arms away to give the woman her space, but stopped upon hearing the woman’s hoarse voice, “I haven’t been hugged in ten years. That feels good. Please don’t stop.”
Alice’s mother looked up to the see the entire waiting area watching, fixated on the scene, mesmerized as the young girl with visible handicaps was the only one to see past the appearance and the smell of this woman to discern how much she needed love.
Alice’s story brought me back to a college seminar discussion. My professor told us the story of a young alumnus of my school who had gone to India to be a mail carrier. One of the stops on his mail route was a leper colony. Without fail, there was the same man standing by the mailbox each day, just to see if he had any mail, but there was never any mail. One day, this young mail carrier felt compelled to give a hug to the man waiting for a letter. It didn’t seem like much, this one hug. The next day, however, there was a line of people at the mailbox, each waiting for their hug.
I’ve realized that maybe it doesn’t take a huge idea or a lifetime of achievements to change the world, but instead a life of simply loving those around me. I don’t need to move to India and visit leper colonies to find people who are longing to be loved. They may be the people I pass on the street, wait with in the grocery line, or sit beside in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. They may be the people who no one sees, or those who stand out in ways that label them as outcasts. Whether homeless or wealthy, afflicted with leprosy or healthy, we all have the same basic need to be loved – and the ability to love.
Alice was given the gift to see past the complex stratus that society uses for judgment. She was able to see the beloved of God when seeing a stranger. I pray for eyes to see people as Alice does, and to live a life of love.
[Note: Alice's name has been changed to protect her privacy.]