Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Hope from the Cocoon

Side show announcer:
“A perversion of nature, a man if you could even call him that, whom God Himself has turned his back upon…I give you – the limbless man!”

(And with that, the announcer draws back the curtain revealing a man with no arms and no legs.)

From the short film, “The Butterfly Circus”

It was April of 2007 and I was getting closer to my release date. I was working at the time in the “Wheels for the World” program – a part of the ministry of Joni Eareckson Tada. The prison didn’t often bring in speakers for the inmates, but since we were reconditioning wheelchairs for the disabled, our entire department was invited to see a guest that would be coming to T.C.I. We really didn’t know much about him…simply that we would be a “motivation”. As you can imagine, there was a certain amount of trepidation about how this person might be able to give hope to men who have been locked away from society, and their lives altered forever.

The presentation was scheduled in the chapel and the 40 of us from "Wheels" slowly walked across the yard and entered the main chapel room. The occupancy sign read “278”, but the room was nearly full and was set up to hold more than the maximum recommended. I found a seat about ¾ of the way back as more inmates continued to enter the room. Many of the men here would take any opportunity that they could to get out of their work assignment for a few hours or out of the housing units and today was no exception judging by the number who continued to file in. Soon, every seat was taken and inmates were lined along the walls, taking up every space available.

As the deputy warden moved to the front of the room, the group slowly quieted and turned their attention to the slender, black woman. She thanked the inmates for attending and informed us that we were about to meet a man who’s story should give each of us hope. While there wasn’t audible snickering, it was obvious that the majority of the men in the room weren’t buying into the warden’s pitch.

I noticed his eyes first. I knew that I’d seen them before, but it took me a moment to recognize him. He is portrayed as an angry man…perched on the stool with the gawkers and curiosity seekers snickering and laughing at his looks. But I knew I had seen those eyes before.

And then we saw him. He was wheeled in by a man we would discover later was his brother in a wheelchair. The man carefully unbuckled him and gently lifted him up onto a wooden table. He adjusted the lapel microphone and went back to his chair against the far wall. Left on the table was a man whose condition was difficult to describe…and a little disconcerting to look at. He was literally no more than a trunk with a head attached. No arms…no legs, only a small ‘flipper-looking" appendage on the lower left part of his torso.

“My name is Nick Vujicic”, he said as he introduced himself. “I’m 24 years old and I want to talk to you today about overcoming circumstances in your lives that may appear hopeless to you.” Needless to say, he had the attention of every inmate and institution employee in the room.

Mr. Mendez:
“But you, cursed from birth - a man, if you can call him that, whom God Himself turned his back upon…”

“Stop it! Why would you say that?”

Mr. Mendez (leaning down close to Will, looking into his eyes):
“Because you believe it.”

From “The Butterfly Circus”

For the next hour and half, Nick told us his story. Of the disappointment his parents bore when he was born…neither they nor the doctors aware of his disability until he was delivered. He spoke of the countless prayers he and his family prayed that by a miracle from God, his limbs would begin to grow. They never did. He spoke of his struggles to perform even the most mundane of tasks that we take for granted every day. And he told us how through time, he accepted his disability and instead of feeling sorry for himself, made a choice to use his story to give hope to the hopeless.

And then he entertained us and made us laugh with him in a place where laughter is a rare thing. He hopped backwards on the table until he was precariously situated on the edge…demonstrating a degree of balance I have never had. He would waver…appearing to get ready to fall off the table, bringing gasps from the room, and then smile as he righted himself and bounded back to the center of the table. He asked for a volunteer from the audience to “play catch” with. He would do the “throwing” while the inmate was expected to “catch”.

A plastic grapefruit sized ball was set on the table next to Nick and he lined up his single appendage (which closely resembled a dead, featherless chicken carcass) that extended from his left hip region. He would “bounce” the flipper on the table…the sound echoing around the room and then line-up the ball with the inmate who was to catch it. And then he would swing the little foot (or whatever you might choose to call it) and the ball went sailing right into the outstretched hands of the waiting inmate. A chorus of cheers and applause erupted from the men gathered as he smiled to the room and asked if we wanted to see it again. Of course, we all did and for a second time the ball went straight and true.

As the time for the presentation came to a close, Nick gave us an invitation. He told us that at every event where he speaks, he offers anyone who needs a little hope a hug. As I looked around the room, I thought it was going to be a pretty short receiving line for Nick today. After all, these were prison inmates! Men who would rather spend a month in the SHU than be “diss’ed” by another inmate. Men who had murdered…and robbed…and abused innocent people out of selfishness, anger and greed. Men who would never allow another man to see a tear grace his cheek.

But I found myself surprised on this day. One after another, men stood and formed a line. Nick’s brother and several of the corrections officers moved the table forward and Nick balanced himself near the front edge. As each man moved toward him, Nick pressed his neck against the neck and face of the inmate and his shoulders moved forward in as much of a hug as he could manage. Tears streaked the faces of the men as they walked away…seemingly unashamed to have hugged this man and received his love in return.

The crowd gathers around Will after he completes his amazing feat…diving from a 50 foot platform into a shallow pool of water below. Slowly, a young crippled boy on crutches with one leg moves forward to see him. Without saying a word, the young boy smiles sheepishly and moves forward and hugs Will. With a smile and a look of deep compassion in his eyes, Will presses his neck against the crippled boy as a tearful mother simply looks at them both, nodding her head in a grateful acknowledgement of what Will had just done for her son. All she could say was a simple “thank you.”

From “The Butterfly Circus”
As I walked away from the chapel that day, my heart echoed with the words of that mother. “Thank you.” Nick had shown each of us that there really is no obstacle too great that we can’t overcome it. Without question, Nick had done nothing wrong that warranted his being a “limbless” man nor had his parents. They weren’t being punished for some great sin in their life. Instead, God sent this young man with a heart as large as his body to those who were hopeless, and needed encouragement. To those who needed a visible representation that hope is available to anyone who is willing to seek it. To men who on the day realized that their lives could also emerge like a butterfly from a cocoon into a beautiful creation of God.
Photos from Bing
Narratives from "The Butterfly Circus"


Wes Books said...

I'm working with Nick on a book for Random House. We'd like to include your story and perspective on Nick's appearance. You can contact me at ghostwritr@aol.com.

Deb Shucka said...

Okay, we just talked, and I'm still so excited for you I can hardly see through my tears.

This post is truly one of your very best pieces of writing, and I know I'll be reading it at the very least on Nick's website.

I'm praying that you and I can go together to see him when he does his book tour in the fall.

I just refocused on your title, and realized that Nick's body is like a cocoon, and his life is the butterfly freed from the constraints of human limits. My heart soars at the unfolding of your story and his as they weave together.

I love you.

Anonymous said...