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Grateful 4

Christmas is associated with giving – and unfortunately much of what’s given is unwanted, not needed, and a huge waste of time, effort, and money. Yet the one gift that is most sought after, is also the most difficult to find. Time. Everyone seems to want it and no one seems to have any. It’s all rush, rush, rush, wrap, wrap, wrap. Presents to buy, parties to go to, gifts to give. The mania is well and truly upon us. But we forget, perhaps, that the most meaningful gifts we can give are love, compassion, and  … a hug.

Down at the Topház Speciális Otthon in Göd (a state orphanage) today with a gang of IHBC’s Give a Little campaigners, both time and hugs were in demand. We descended on the place at 10am and then set about entertaining and being entertained. The Lions Club had donated Santa Bags for all the residents and while they danced and sang and recited, we had a tune or two of our own to share.

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It’s impossible to describe what it feels like to have so many hands reaching out to touch you. It’s humbling to know that by simply shaking a hand, or giving a hug, or just letting someone touch your hair, you can make a big difference to their day. The staff are wonderfully caring, supportive, and loving. And to see this in their interaction with the residents is heart-warming. They seem to have endless patience. It takes a very special type of person to be able to do this sort of work, day in, day out. For those like Kristóf, or Norbert, who have visitors maybe once a year, having people like us visit literally makes their day.

In an era when social media is doing its bit to distance us from each other physically and the main experience we have of being tactile is a frighteningly intimate relationship with a smart phone or an iPad, visiting Göd is a sobering reminder of what matters.  As we move closer and closer to Christmas, when thoughts turn to gift-buying and partying, we could do worse than remember that the best gifts we can give are our time and our compassion. We might not be able to wrap a hug, but it’s one gift no one will want to exchange.

As one mad week finishes and another hovers on the horizon, I am grateful for my involvement with the Give a Little campaign, and the orphanage. I certainly get far more than I give.

PS A reminder of what novelist, journalist, and humorist Oren Arnold (1900–1980) had on his suggested gift list:

To your enemy, forgiveness.
To an opponent, tolerance.
To a friend, your heart.
To a customer, service.
To all, charity.
To every child, a good example.
To yourself, respect.

Happy shopping:-)

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Grateful 15

A woman who is willing to be herself and pursue her own potential runs not so much the risk of loneliness, as the challenge of exposure to more interesting men – and people in general. Well, Lorraine Hansberry (African American playwright and author of political speeches, letters, and essays) may only have lived to the ripe young age of 35, but her words certainly resonated with me this week.

It’s Gift of the Gab time again and in the midst of readying the stage for the next seven months, SzSz, BA, and yours truly made a quick trip to the orphanage in Göd where the oldest resident is about 35 and most are severely handicapped. Our mission: to drop off  a pair of new wheelbarrows and some donations (TV, DVD, clothes) and take measurements to replace some interior doors. Regular readers and Gab Fans will remember that this fundraising event all started when I met Norbert in July last year. To say that he made an impression would be putting it mildly. This week, I met Kristof.

Kristof is deaf and he doesn’t talk. He is of indeterminate age – 14, 20, 24, 28, 32 – with a tight buzz cut. He is extremely effeminate and easily mistaken for a girl – not that it matters much to him as his world is the orphanage and interactions with strangers like me are few and far between. We were in his ward, checking out the doors that need replacing (and, thanks to the money raised from the GOTG 2012, they can be). Having come without my measuring tape (no accident), I was standing around, not doing much of anything. A few of the lads, not suffering from the same social inhibitions that you or I might consider normal, came up to me and introduced themselves. One hugged me, one kissed my arm, one ran his hands through my hair. Kristof came over and shook my hand. For the next half hour, as the tape measurers did their work, me and Kristof had a long chat – in mime.

He described in minute detail various dresses that he’d designed. His creations had long sleeves, short sleeves, and no sleeves. They were thigh-length, knee-length, calf-length, and full length. They were fitted at the waist, under the bust, or at the hips. They had scooped necks, high necks, and v-necks. They were off the shoulder, halterneck, and strapless. No detail was too small to be omitted. Each one had its own accessories: rings, gloves, belts, earrings, and necklaces. One even had a  Spanish comb holding a long veil in place. And each of them was for a special occasion – dancing, dining, weddings, walking, shopping. Once he was sure I could ‘see’ the dress, he’d get in character and play the bride, the socialite, the shopper. He’d hug me. Kiss me. Or shake my hand, depending on who was wearing his dress. He had me in stitches. Completely amazed at how he could communicate in such detail without one single, solitary  word, I stood in awe of him. Once he’d run through his repertoire, he linked his arm in mine and we took a short stroll down the corridor. He allowed me to say hello to his mates, to shake some hands, but if anyone got too close, they got a shove. I found out later that Kristof’s mood could turn on pin – and a shove was mild.

When our business was done, measurements taken, and even more needs identified, it was time to leave. Krisof kissed me four times – twice on each cheek. He held both my hands, looked up at me, and smiled. As we left the ward, the double doors were locked behind us, locking me out of his world. He looked out through the glass panel and blew me a kiss. And I cried a little inside.

As this week draws to a close, I think again of Hansberry’s words. In being myself and in pursuing my potential, I am lonely sometimes. But the life that has chosen me  exposes me to many interesting people – men like Norbert and Kristof whose lives are so far removed from mine it’s a miracle that our paths have crossed. And yet they have taught me so much. People like the Gift of the Gab speakers who are willing to take to the stage to raise some money for this worthwhile cause. My friends and supporters, who give of their time to sort venues, take tickets, update websites, take photos, and sponsor room rental, trophies and prizes – all those who make sure that the show goes on. And the many people who will come along on Wednesday 26th September to the Cotton Club, and leave 1000 ft at the door (€3.50 / $5) so that in the coming year, we can do even more to make the orphanage a better place to be. For this, I am truly grateful.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

 

Grateful 40

Last night I heard that my best friend had died. She’d been trying to get hold of me all week but my phone wasn’t answering. I had been trying to get hold of her, too, and kept leaving messages on her voicemail that she never received. The last conversation we had was to plan my visit to the States to see her next month, once her mom had left. I’ll never see her again and that saddens me. It hurts so much to think that she’s no longer in my life – and I know if she could speak to me, she’d tell me to get a grip and stop crying and go do something constructive.

Lori's cherry tree

So today, I went to the orphange to see Norbert and while we were there, we planted some fruit trees and some shrubs in the garden. I named one of the cherry trees ‘Lori’ and know she’d approve.  She always was fond of cherries – particulary if they were floating on a cocktail. It was a wild and windy day. The sun struggled to come out and didn’t make an appearance until we’d finished. It was bloody cold at times, too. But everyone was in fine form. Just over three hours of back-breaking work (damn, these cameras are heavy) and all the trees and shrubs were planted. We met a few of the locals and one chap, bless him, said something to me in Hungarian that was unintelligble, walked up to me and gave me a big smacking kiss on each cheek – how did he know it was just what I needed.

We went inside to see Norbert and to look at the bed we will be replacing from the money we raised at the Gift of the Gab. When I looked at him in his cot, everything settled and I got some perspective. Things happens for a reason and while I can’t make sense of why Lori died, when our lives have run their course, that’s it. I was very fortunate to have known her, to have loved her, to have been her friend. My life is all the richer because of it. I’ll miss her dreadfully and although she’s no longer at the other end of a phone, part of her will still live inside me.

Some of those good people

That there are those less fortunate than me, I have no doubt. That there are good people in the world who are willing to devote their time and resources to make the world a better place, I am certain. That life is for living and every moment could be our last, I am mindful. Today I am grateful for having something constructive to do. For being able to make a difference, however small. For the company of good people (and a great dog). And to Lori – I will be forever grateful for the memories. May you rest in peace.

Something to consider about being insular

There’s a little old lady who walks around the balcony of the fourth floor of my building. She could be sixty-six, she could be seventy-seven, she could be eighty-eight: it’s hard to tell. Her face has none of the delicacy one might expect from a cosseted, salon type who has had the benefit of a gentrified life. Hers is more the weather-beaten look, a testimony to years spent out of doors, with little or no moisturizer separating her from the elements. The lines etched into her skin might well be laughter lines; and indeed she smiles quite a lot. They might equally be the sum of all her worries.  I suspect that they say more about tough times and tenacity than tinsel town and tripping the light fantastic but then again, I could be wrong.

Circumnavigating her globe

She speaks to me of gloves, of swimming, of life in the country, modeling her concise, terse style on Hemmingway’s famous short story – For sale: baby shoes, never worn. She is economical in her speech perhaps because she knows that I understand her in words and phrases rather than in complete sentences. She talks to me as if talking to a child. When I smile at something I’ve misinterpreted as humorous, I can see her wondering why I don’t speak Hungarian. She asks me where I’ve been just been and where I’m going next. I answer as best I can. Were I, in turn, to ask her just one question, it would be: When did you last leave the building?

Three times a day, she does two circuits of the balcony. In the colder months, or when it’s wet, she is accompanied by her granddaughter, her daughter, or one of the neighbor ladies. They walk closely behind her, ready to catch her should she fall. In the summer, she might brave it on her own, moving one short step at a time, hanging on to the balcony railing as she, in regal fashion, slowly circumnavigates her globe. Sometimes other neighbors come out and greet her and the procession takes on a festive air; other times she walks undisturbed, as if on a pilgrimage.

His kingdom is a cot

During the summer of last year, I met a young man in his early thirties who spends his days in a 4 x 6 cot in an orphanage outside Budapest. His life, too, is limited to his immediate surrounds. He is comfortable with what he knows and hates having anything changed – his clothes, his bed linen, his routine are fine just as they are, thank you very much. It’s impossible to judge if he is happy or content – I doubt he even knows what these words mean. He watches the goings-on in his world with a strange fascination that is measured in seconds rather than minutes. Communicating with grunts and gestures, he uses a language that his carers understand. Like my old lady, he, too, has as series of minders who look out for his welfare.

Measuring the mood

In my world, travel is an inherent part of how I live. I can’t begin to imagine life without the monthly, bi-monthly, or even weekly ritual of packing, unpacking, washing, ironing, and repacking. My perspective is governed by the global view of world politics that I read, listen to, and hear of second-hand. My barometer of how the world is feeling measures the mood in the street, in the shops, and in the pubs. I need that interaction with the outside world to give me some sense of what it going on; to help me make sense of the multitude of different stories that assault me each time I switch on my laptop or open a newspaper. I have blogged recently of my concern about where Hungary is heading, and I’ve been told that I’m overreacting. My barometer tells me otherwise.

In a strange way, I envy my little old lady and my young man; I envy them their apparent contentment. Her life is punctuated by journeys around the balcony, accompanied or alone. His life is punctuated by changing TV programs and the occasional visitor. Their immediate surrounds rarely change. They enjoy a regimen of sameness. No surprises. Each is cared for, looked after, never alone. Each smiles a knowing smile that says they’ve seen so much that I could never understand.

If I had the opportunity to shut myself off from the world, the media, the noise of daily living, would I do it? It sounds tempting, but as we face into 2012, a year which augurs untold transformation and change, it will be more important than ever to keep tabs on that barometer, to keep measuring the mood of the nations, to keep in touch with what is going on. As a pilot friend of mine might say, I need to continue my forays into the world, to ‘check my levels’ so that I can avoid the ‘leans’.

First published in the Budapest Times 12 Janauary 2012

Give a little

Yesterday, I met Norbert. Norbert is in his mid-thirties and spends his day in the corner of a cot in a room at the Topház Speciális Otthon in Göd, about a half-hour drive from Budapest. His world is the room he shares with Tony and Dani. Although I had a hard time believing it, Norbert is one of the luckier residents: he has not been forgotten.

A few months ago, when the charity arm of the IHBC launched its Give a Little campaign, its aim was to get a bunch of volunteers together to spend a day somewhere, doing some much-needed work. Volunteerism is very much part of the Irish psyche of expectation. Evidence of community involvement and volunteer activity has been a key requirement on Irish CVs for decades. It’s very much part of our culture. Many ex-pats in Hungary find it difficult to get involved, to do something more concrete than forking over a few forints. So when Declan Hannigan, Chair of the Give a Little campaign, organised a day at the centre in Göd, he wasn’t short of volunteers.

On Saturday morning, at 8.30 am, 33 adults and five children began a day that would not be quickly forgotten. Our task: to paint one of the residential houses and to do some gardening. Throughout the morning as we set about organising ourselves to do what had to be done, many of us spoke of how it wasn’t nearly as bad as we’d been expecting.

Mention ‘orphanage’ and immediately we flash back to TV images of old communist blocks in Romania and Bulgaria with patients living in horrendous conditions, supervised with military precision, made all the more stark for its complete lack of feeling. The bungalow we worked on was light and airy. It was a little disturbing to see the metal beds, each with a simple foam mattress, cotton cover, and a blanket,  bolted to the floor. Wardrobes bore the names of the room’s occupants and few toys were visible. The common area was a combination of kitchen and living room, decorated with bright murals; the padlock on the fridge looked a little out of place, but as we would learn, life here works to a different set of rules and expectations. Overall, though, the impression was good. The collective sigh of relief was almost audible – this wasn’t nearly as harrowing as we had expected.Outside in the grounds, more volunteers cut grass and trimmed hedges. The football pitch is now usable again and the front garden no longer looks like an unruly meadow. It was hard work. It was hot work. But it was rewarding work. Most of us, in our 9-5 workdays, rarely get the same level of satisfaction as we got yesterday from seeing a job well done. We started, we worked, we finished – we made a difference. No amount of money could buy that sense of accomplishment. For me, scraping the glue from the wardrobe doors and making those doors look new again was the most satisfying work I’ve done in ages.  As the international team of Irish, English, Scottish, Welsh, Hungarian,  American, and Russian  worked together, united in a common cause, we were fed by Jack Doyle’s, watered by Becketts, supplied with brushes from Kőházy Festékáruházak and paint from PoliFarbe.Although it’s a gated community, residents who can wander, wander freely. One chap had a fascination with smelling hair. Another simply wanted to name all the types of car parked out front. Daniel, the caretaker, had prepared us. We were the strangers; we were the ones out of place. So it was only to be expected that residents would be curious. Seeing such mental and physical disability up close and personal was harrowing. Those who wanted to, were taken in small groups to visit some of the wards.

There are 220 residents from all over Hungary housed in Göd aged 2 to 45. They’re looked after by 140 staff, most of whom work 12-hour shifts, day on, day off. There are four main wings, long dark corridors lined with airy rooms decorated in bright colours.  Rooms are decordated annually because the residents are not bound by societal rules of what you can and cannot do to a wall. Some pieces of plaster had been pulled away, kicked in, scribbled on. Toys hung from the ceiling so that residents couldn’t destroy them. Some don’t know their own strength. Televisions broadcast in every room and for many, that’s their view of the outside world.

The first ward we visited had 45 residents, all of whom could move about, walking or in their wheelchairs.  It’s staffed by four – a ratio of  less than one carer for every ten residents. Not enough on so many levels. Anita, just shy of 18,  wanted to shake hands and hug. I held her hand and found myself drawn into a tight hug. It was all I could do to hold it together. Anita is one of those who have been forgotten, left to the care of the state. She has never had a visitor. Her need, on whatever level, for physical contact was palpable. Alls sorts of emotions ran through me as we made our way up the ward. These residents all looked much younger than their years and I wondered briefly how much of that had to do with them not living in the ‘real world’ with all the stress and anxiety that this encompasses. They sat around, some on sofas, some in wheelchairs, some on the floor. Some were listless; others watched TV or each other. Some laughed, some made noises that might well have been laughter. Some did nothing at all, their bodies wasted, muscles atrophied, faces disfigured, but eyes bright and watchful showing that someone, a whole person, was home. Most were curious to know who we were. For them, we were a change in their routine. Something new. Something different. Later, in the Caledonia, over a pint or three, we would discuss whether that was what they needed – as well as painting or cutting grass, what if we spent time in the wards, just sitting, talking, and playing. What if we just visited?

In the next ward, we met cot after cot with young children, five or six to a room, each lying quietly, limbs contorted. One child’s  long, wasted legs conjured up images of famine-ridden Africa. Watchful eyes told us that they knew what was going on but just couldn’t communicate. One 4-year-old with encephalitis was being bottle fed. She has never had a visitor. Of the 40 residents in this ward, only 4 have regular visitors and even that might be an annual visit at Christmas. Ubiquitous Disney characters line the walls of the corridor. Soft toys look down on the kids from a height. The flickering TV screens provide noise and distraction. I hung back as the others went to say hi and make friends. All appeared visibly shaken. I was barely holding it together. Again I asked if we were intruding and again I was assured that this break in routine for the staff and for the residents was most welcome.

And then I saw Norbert. Norbert is a grown man in the bed of a child. Kneeling in corner of his cot, he looked over the bars out onto his world. I stared. I couldn’t help it.  He looked at me quizzically. The look he gave me wasn’t accusatory or defiant. It was neither helpless nor hopeful. I wanted to go over to him, to hold his hand, to talk to him. But I couldn’t. All my world experience garnered from years of education, work, travel, and relationships deserted me.  I didn’t know what to do. I swear he could feel it. His world is the room he shares with Tony and Dani. He probably has a better understanding of his life than I have of mine. His look said it all – don’t be sad: don’t pity me, but don’t forget me.

There are homes like this all over the world. The waiting lists are long. The disabilities are severe. The staff undervalued. While I might wonder how parents could give up their children and forget about them, I cannot judge. I don’t know their circumstances. I don’t know if I could cope, were I in their shoes. The staff who work at Topház Speciális Otthon are saints. They care. The residents seem happy. It’s a commmunity. Daniel, the caretaker, had a word for all he met on our travels. It’s underststaffed, underfunded, and over subscribed. Their wish list: CD players, TVs, adult beds, a hoist to lift the adults into their baths, material for the romper suits that need to be specially made, bed linens, mattresses, blankets, diapers… more money, more staff, more equipment.

I doubt that any one of us there yesterday came away unchanged. This was no TV commercial or broadcast documentary. This was real. Norbert is real. No matter how small or insignificant our contribution in the grand scheme of things, it felt damn good to make a difference. For those of you Irish and old enough to remember the Gorta ads, in the words of the inimitable Bunny Carr: Give a little. It would help a lot.