Compassion in Action
By: Krista Rausin
Arielle and her new puppy Ollie 2008
I never imagined that my beautiful blonde curly haired daughter with her vibrant personality and smile that could melt my heart would one day be confined to a wheelchair. I gazed wondrously into her bright blue eyes staring at me with such intensity as if she was asking was I the one chosen to guide her in this life. Could she sense my fear as I held her tiny hand?
Over and over my mind repeated "I'm a mother, I am a mother." At twenty three years of age, that can be a frightening thought. I was certain the kind nurses who taught me how to breastfeed would surely give me a manual on the ins and outs of being a good parent. I walked out the door the next day with a child snuggled safely in my trembling arms. There was no magical manual.
Ten years later
I thought I was a pro. I had two children calling me mom. My son Kai was born in 1997. When he was a year old we became a shelter home for infants and toddlers in the foster system. After twenty four goodbyes to babies I loved and fostered, I decided I needed respite and finished my teaching degree. I had been a mother to over twenty six children, over the course of ten years. I felt extreme confidence in my parenting ability. Then came the phone call that changed my life.
My husband Eric and I went on vacation with his computer company over the Thanksgiving holiday in November of 2003. I had reservations about leaving Arielle and Kai but I knew it was also important for our marriage to have time alone with my husband. I had that, I really want to go and be free from housework, but there's this vacancy in my heart, feeling. We dropped the kids off with my parents, kissed them goodbye and told them in their suitcase they would find a tiny gift wrapped present for each day we were away. They were to open a present a day and when the presents were gone, we would be back. Little did I know that this gesture would later remind me that each day with my children was a gift. Riding to the airport with my husband, I was quiet, empty, a vicious nagging filled my soul.
Krista, Arielle and Kai at the Louvre in Paris 2007
Thanksgiving day in Mexico
We jet skied on the clear aqua Gulf, drank margaritas at a poolside bar and swayed to sounds of Reggae wafting through the air. Eric joined in on a game of beach volleyball, something he hadn't done since our carefree days of dating in sunny California. That evening I traded in my suit for a sexy new sun dress and we went dancing in the moonlight. This was not a traditional Thanksgiving, but it certainly was relaxing. We returned to our hotel after midnight and exhausted I fell into a deep sleep. At three am. I woke to a loud ringing next to my ear. Drowsily, I picked up the phone and heard strange voices on the other end. My first thought was that it was Eric's buddies from work still out dancing, calling us as a prank. I almost hung up. Then a female spoke, "Is this Krista Rausin?" My insides began to stir. "Yes" "Wait, hold on!" …..
Moments of uneasiness were broken by a voice I clearly recognized, my father. "Krista there's been an accident. We need you to come home. Kai's okay, your mom is in the hospital…we are worried about Arielle." I was numb, my mind flashed back to that September 16th afternoon and those eyes, my baby girl, was she being taken from me? It's not real. This couldn't be happening. I was dreaming. The pause was broken. "Arielle has a bruise on her spinal cord and she's unable to move her legs." Oh I thought, a bruise, it's just a bruise, she's okay. "We're coming home." I hung up the phone and tried to think clearly. My husband was in hysterics. Our world was upside down. There were no planes out of Mexico for four hours. We were trapped, and our daughter was in intensive care.
"I want to go home!"
Many hours later we finally made it to Arielle's side. "I want to go home, I want to go home." She cried. Doctors kept talking about a bruise. My husband and I didn't understand why they couldn't tell us if she would ever walk again. After two weeks of waiting, visits by doctors became scarce and there was all this talk about a place called rehab. We naively thought rehab was where Arielle would go to learn to walk. It wasn't until we got there that we realized rehab was a place where Arielle would learn to live her life without the control of the lower half of her body. She was paralyzed, and although no doctor would ever say she would never walk again, they did everything to prepare us for the fact that the rest of her life would be spent in a wheelchair.
There I was just as ten years earlier sitting in a hospital room, Arielle gazing at me searching for security, while I secretly hoped from within that someone would come along and hand me the magic manual with a special chapter on how to parent a paralyzed child. "Everything's going to be okay" was all I could muster.
We lived in a haze for the next several months. Eric and I wanted normalcy to return to our household. We wanted to pretend as though everything was the same except for one pair of wheels that now replaced our daughter's legs. Every once and a while I would find myself glancing at a picture from our family vacation to the Smoky Mountains just four months before the accident. There stood Arielle on the side of a mountain with her arm around her brother smiling from ear to ear. What was life going to be like now?
What lessons did I need to teach Arielle? Before the accident she was extremely bright, caring, could play the piano and violin and loved being around people. Lucky for us, after the accident, all of this was unchanged. She still had all of these qualities, but faced with the obstacle of paralysis she chose an attitude of success and was becoming very independent. I realized my lessons were the same. I taught my children compassion for others and to believe that they could reach any goal they set for themselves. I needed to continue with these lessons now more than ever for Arielle. She needed to know that the wheelchair was not going to stop her from reaching her dreams. So, seeing those pictures of our happy family in the mountains inspired me to schedule more family vacations regardless of the wheelchair. Our traveling adventure began and oh what adventures we had!
Not so accessible
Eric, Arielle and Kai in Paris 2007
We quickly found out that most of the world is oblivious to the hardships that face people in wheelchairs. Countless people park in front of ramps to sidewalks, use designated handicap bathrooms, park in handicap spaces because they are going to just run into the store for a minute, clutter the aisles of stores, and allow their only elevator to go unrepaired indefinitely. This is particularly true of city subways. Or the one we find most hysterical is the admission of "Yes, we are handicapped accessible, there are just three stairs leading to the elevator." We could let this stop us from traveling or we could face it with a smile and a chuckle and figure out a way around each obstacle. We chose the latter.
Our family traveled to New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Burlington, Detroit, and Canada over the course of the next three years. What we found was that even though people often behaved in ways that presented obstacles for those with disabilities, they really did it out of pure innocent ignorance. For in our most desperate times of need it was always a kind stranger that helped us to freedom. One memory that sticks out clearly in my mind was a trip to Philadelphia with Arielle. We were staying in a hospital for her annual check-up and decided to venture into the city for the afternoon. It was just the two of us.
We took the subway and made it to downtown Philly. We spent hours exploring and then found our way back to the subway entrance. The elevator that we had used earlier that day was broken. We searched and searched for another way down. A security guard with arms that resembled logs noticed our confused faces. He helped me carry Arielle and the wheelchair down several flights of stairs. I offered to pay him for his help but he politely refused. I soon found that it didn't matter which city we were in, everywhere we went there was someone willing to lend a helping hand.
Next stop, Europe
Last February, I had a brainstorm. We were going to travel overseas. Worried expressions appeared on the faces of everyone I told about my brilliant idea. If traveling with a wheelchair in the US could present problems then how were we going to get through Europe? This was the predominant concern. I had always intended to take my children overseas; I wasn't going to let a wheelchair prevent Arielle from seeing the world. I bought the tickets. We were flying to London and then traveling by train to Paris, Lausanne, Bern, Zermatt, and finally Rome. No daily itinerary or tour guide, the four of us for three weeks making our way through Europe.
It turned out to be one of the best ideas I have ever had. Our children learned about the Globe Theatre, Eiffel Tower, The Matterhorn, and the Colosseum, but more importantly they met people living in each country. While Arielle and Kai may tell you seeing Justin Timberlake at the Sistine Chapel was the highlight of their trip, I believe they witnessed something even more incredible, compassion in action.
Helping hands everywhere
Picture this, every staircase I had to climb with the wheelchair, strangers beside me reaching out and grabbing the sides of the chair without uttering a word, just lending a helping hand. Train operators arranging our seats so Arielle could have the car that best suited her needs. Street police stopping traffic so we could safely cross busy city streets. People hurrying through the subway, stopping in their tracks to point us in the direction of the nearest elevator. A shop owner rearranging his store so the wheelchair could fit and Arielle could shop for souvenirs. An owner of boat rental company personally taking Arielle in the wheelchair and getting her safely into the small motorboat, so our family could venture down the coast of Lausanne on Lake Geneva. And one of our most touching experiences was during an outdoor concert in Nyon, Switzerland.
Rocking out in the rain
Eric, Arielle,and Kai spotted the notorious poster in the train station. We had just arrived in Lausanne from Paris. It turned out Good Charlotte and Evanescence were playing at a festival in Nyon. "We have to go!" All three of them begged. I just wanted some cheese fondue and then I was ready for any adventure. They obliged and at nine thirty pm. I found myself staring at a Swiss train station board trying to figure out how to get to Nyon. With a slight scare of Arielle dropping our tickets while being carried on the train by Eric, and me reaching down close to the track to grab them just as the whistle blew, we soon found ourselves laughing hysterically on our way to Nyon. Eric instigating our laughter by holding up his hand with only three fingers joking "Maybe picking up those tickets from the train track wasn't such a good idea."
Did I mention it was raining? Mud was everywhere! People were slip sliding and grabbing each other to keep falling. Laughter was infectious and crossed all language barriers. Eric took Kai to buy tee-shirts while Arielle and I braved our way down a hill closer and closer to the stage; mud covered her wheels and seeped into my sneakers. I knew it was going to be difficult to push the chair back up the slippery slope, but I also knew the closer I could get to the stage the better her chances were of actually seeing some of the concert.
Unfortunately, we missed Good Charlotte but made it a half hour early for Evanescence. Midnight approached and people gathered until it became impossible to take a step in any direction. Eric and I joined hands with the kids to keep Kai on his feet and all of us together. We were shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of onlookers anchored on a muddy slope when the concert and the rain started once again. Arielle and Kai were surrounded by adults. Neither could get a glimpse of the stage. I was like a lioness protecting her young. I knew I would do anything to keep my children safe and I began to wonder if maybe this wasn't the best idea after all.
Krista and Arielle on the Klein Matterhorn in Switzerland 2007
More helping hands
Suddenly from behind a giant of a man with long black wavy hair tapped me on the shoulder and pointed at Arielle in the wheelchair. He motioned that he would help Eric lift her up so she could see. My emotions changed instantly from fearful to grateful. Eric politely refused then looked at me with tears in his eyes. I gave him my "I feel the same way," smile. My worries vanished. Then another miracle, a different man standing in front of us this time, turned around and in broken English asked if he could help raise Arielle so she could see. Was this really happening? These men were strangers, they had never seen us before, we didn't even speak their language, yet they were willing to go out of their way in the middle of a concert to help a father lift his child in the rain so she too could enjoy the show. Eric again refused. I relaxed knowing my family was completely safe among this kind crowd. Eric bellowed over the music, "I love Switzerland!"
Finally, Arielle pleaded with Eric to raise her up. The only images she had seen of Evanescence were through the screens of digital cameras that glistened in the sprinkles of rain. Eric could not refuse his daughter and as soon as he bent down to lift her; the man with the long dark hair appeared with just a smile and helped Eric hoist Arielle above the crowd. She jammed to the music with a grin that could have stretched across Switzerland. After they gently placed Arielle back in her chair, this compassionate stranger reached over me and picked up our son Kai, so he too could have a glimpse of the musicians.
Who was this kindhearted person? Did he know how truly grateful we were for his help? We never had a chance to ask his name. We had to make our way back up the muddy slope before the concert ended in order to catch the last train to our hotel. We left him standing in the rain with a "Merci!" and four bright smiles. How we made it back up the impossible slope and what we did when we discovered there was no train back to our hotel in Lausanne … well, that's a whole other story!
I never imagined my beautiful girl would be paralyzed. I also never imagined our family would discover such altruism in individuals all across the world. As for being a pro at parenting, I have learned to take it day by day and stick to my two main lessons, never stop reaching for your dreams and always travel with compassion in your heart.
© KD. Rausin December 2007
Read Krista's journal
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