As writers, we never know who reads us, or what effect our writing may have on someone’s life. I get messages from readers who relate to certain aspects of my stories, who thank me for writing about an issue they’re facing in their life and allowing them to see another perspective, who identify with something I’ve written. It’s always gratifying to discover that someone I’ll probably never meet may be helped or cheered or comforted by my words. But when I started as a writer, that wasn’t the case for me. I didn’t think about who read me, didn’t consider that my words had impact. I wrote because I loved writing. But, I certainly didn’t think about the consequences. (I was writing non-fiction at the time).
Then one day, I received a letter from someone in Nigeria. It had been traveling the world for almost a year, trying to find me. Fate? Destiny? A winged messenger? To this day, I have no idea how it finally did get to me, but truthfully, I think it was one of those meant-to-be moments. Over a year before the letter arrived, I’d written a magazine about a young man who’d been badly injured and disabled when he was 17. He’d been a normal kid, then a profoundly handicapped one. I’d taken care of him as a nurse immediately after his injury, then lost touch with him when he was sent to a neuro-rehab facility. Nearly five years later, I had a chance meeting with him again. I honestly didn’t remember him, but he remembered me. Anyway, we struck a friendship and I stepped in to help him through life from time to time, because his daily existence was very difficult.
Most people disregarded Randy because his speech was garbled and no one could understand him. But what I saw was a young man with so much potential, trapped in a practically useless body. Long story short, with a little help, Randy went on to be the one who was responsible for our city converting its mass transportation system to handicapped accessible – something that has benefited thousands upon thousands now, in the 30 years that he’s been gone. Having a way to be independent was his goal, and I remember the day when the city passed the ordinance mandating that the buses here be equipped to accommodate wheelchairs. I also remember the day Randy became the very first person to board a bus in a wheelchair.
What he did was inspiring, and I wrote a story about it. Sadly, it wasn’t published until after his death. But the gist of what I wrote was that people of all capabilities can make a difference. Randy certainly did in his short, difficult life.
So, somehow that article made it to Nigeria. More than that, it made it to a family who was facing a crisis. Their 17 year-old son had been disabled in a car accident, much the way Randy had, and they were looking at quality-of-life issues for him. The doctors believed he should be put in a hospital for the rest of his life, since he would have little independent function. His parents were being told he would be a lifelong burden. Yet, they didn’t know what to do, and they were beside themselves with grief and worry over the decision they would have to make.
Then, they read my article. They didn’t speak English, so I’m assuming that someone translated it for them. Like I said, I have no idea how it got to them, how they read it, how their letter got to me. Anyway, they saw their son in Randy’s story. The injuries were similar. The disabilities almost identical. They also saw what Randy accomplished, even in his condition. Which is what helped them make their decision. They chose to not institutionalize their son but, rather, keep him at home and help him achieve the potential they knew to be there. Their letter to me, which was written by someone else who did speak English, stated that my article had changed their lives. It gave them hope that their son, in spite of his disabilities, could live the life Randy had lived. They thanked me for helping their family.
I’d been getting published regularly for about two years when this travel-weary letter finally reached me and I can honestly say, it was the first time I’d ever considered that my words had impact. That people were reading me. That my responsibility was much greater than simply putting words on paper. It humbled me. Made me a different writer. Hopefully, a better one.
Years ago, I wrote a medical, No.1 Dad in Texas, that dealt with a child diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. For me, it’s been a reality for many years. But to so many people who reached out to me after the book came out, it was a positive look at something usually surrounded in negativity. I was touched by how so many people shared their stories with me, and by how they were grateful to see such a misunderstood and difficult condition treated with sensitivity and optimism. Again, I was humbled. Could I have written that book before I’d received that letter from the Nigerian family? I don’t know. I’d like to think I could have. But my article changed one family’s life, and their letter changed mine. So, who knows?
We do touch lives in what we write. Sometimes we’ll discover how, most often we won’t. Still, it’s nice knowing we do. It’s also a huge responsibility–one that should humble every writer who puts pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. It does me.
I’ll have a new book out in June. Saved by Dr. Dreamy takes us back to one of my favorite places on earth – Costa Rica. Never can get enough of that place, which is why I return there every now and again for another book.
Until next time, wishing you health and happiness.