Updated: Feb 22, 2021
Some stories are buried in our bones. Your bones, my bones. One such story about some acquaintances in Argentina and their extraordinary daughter has been buried somewhere in mine. She and I met in 2003, in the dead of winter, but only saw each other once thereafter. Until now, the story lay dormant, patiently waiting to be excavated and brought into the light of day. Maybe it took so long to write because it needed to settle and stratify. Maybe, meanwhile, I also needed to mature to fully comprehend its meaning so I could share it with the consideration and dignity it deserves.
Let me tell you about an encounter that changed my life. Living in a tiny, dimly lit apartment on the outskirts of Buenos Aires was a girl named Magalí. She was tall and lanky. She had thick, Mediterranean eyebrows and her face was framed by shoulder length, dark brown ringlets. Her eyes were polished, translucent gems the color of a clear, calm ocean. One afternoon, she bolted out of her bedroom, sat in a dining table chair, scooted it right next to the one I sat in, and looked into my eyes with perfect tenderness. She then gently picked up my hands and placed them over her heart.
Although she spoke to me without uttering a word, I understood everything she said. I have been waiting for you. I am so happy you are here. Thank you for coming. In response, I looked back at her through fresh tears, trembling from the wave of emotion her greeting had caused to wash over me. Her parents watched our exchange knowingly and gracefully. Also moved by what he was witnessing, my husband pulled out a handkerchief for us to share. Before this encounter, Magalí and I had never met.
She was the only child of my husband’s friend Esteban and his wife Sofia. In the 12 years she had been alive, she had not said a word – at least not in the way most of us say them. Magalí was squarely on the autistic spectrum; whenever her attempts to communicate failed, she would withdraw or resort to a fit of rage. It has been suggested that such a person might be trapped in a parallel world, frantically knocking against an invisible wall to get our attention, perpetually attempting to relay something of great urgency that almost inevitably falls on deaf ears.
Yet somehow Magalí reached me, and I presume many others, in a way your typical person would never be able to reach someone. She harnessed energies on the wind, from great distances and far in advance of their arrival. She didn’t waste time with small talk, telepathic or otherwise. Those whose emotional frequencies were attuned to hers at the moment they met simply felt and understood. To say she was trapped in a parallel world would not only be misleading, but would erroneously imply that she should be pitied. How could someone with such a unique spiritual gift ever be pitied? I believe that Magalí was actually a living bridge between realms: our human one and that of pure love.
So, what was the human realm about for this particular living bridge? What was her daily life like? Like most girls her age, Magalí loved to laugh and be silly. She once giggled almost non-stop at a drop of water she put on my chin, one she had extracted from the bucket that had been collecting water under their leaky bathroom sink. She tilted my head back, held my jaw steady and simply watched the drop wiggle as I breathed. Together we once made origami birds, something she herself did with flawless concentration. Through her delicate and skilled hands, she breathed so much life into them I was certain that left to their own devices, those perfectly constructed birds would have taken flight.
When she wasn’t connecting deeply with the rest of us, Magalí was riotously funny and spontaneous – and purposeful. There is no doubt in my mind that she knew exactly who she was and what she was doing here. It is with a heavy heart, and maybe even some guilt, that I say “was” because I have no idea what happened to her or where she is now. When I try to imagine her today, at the age of 30, I see someone transparent, as if the world she inhabits were partially visible through her. When in my mind’s eye I reach out to touch her hand, it transforms and melts away into something warm, sweet and viscous, like syrup.
I remember the cramped but otherwise well-appointed space Magalí, Esteban and Sofia lived in. I remember the lovingly framed photos on the walls, some of which were of the vacation they took together to Iguazú Falls. Soon thereafter, I learned that it was the only vacation they had taken during the 12 years Magalí had been alive. I remember with deep affection Sofia’s delicious, homemade milanesas, how the aroma of garlic, parsley, and olive oil lingered in their apartment with conviction. I also remember the reddish purple half-moons under Sofia’s shiny, hazel eyes and her kind, genuine smile, which was absolutely captivating but almost brown from years of self neglect.
It goes without saying that raising a child who has autism – especially the type of autism Magalí had – can be an extremely difficult, heart-wrenching experience. The little I witnessed and experienced was only a glimpse into what daily life must have been like for everyone. For instance, the afternoon we played with that drop of water on my chin, she started squeezing my jaw too tightly and I had to politely but firmly (not to mention urgently) break out of her grip. The minds of Magalí’s parents were incessantly plagued with thoughts of “what if”, “what ifs” that invariably drew attention to the unspoken conflict between their good intentions and the harsh reality of their existence.
Who reads and deciphers the yearnings of the heart that beats in your chest? Who reaches across the cosmos to intercede on your behalf? Whatever their names are, there may well be a tacit, intangible tension swirling about their lives, complicating their efforts to navigate the human realm. Thankfully, people with autism and other special needs the world over can count on a growing number of structures that support the psychological health of all concerned. Still, most societal institutions plod along mindlessly. They create programs and throw money at them, all the while deaf to the foreboding voices of the conflicts that surround them and go unspoken.
I believe that people like Magalí aren’t actually disabled, but magnificently enabled.They and their families deserve exceptional, conscientious attention, extensive support and an existence rooted in nothing less than life affirming dignity.In my mind, anyone who can retrieve energy, then reach into the soul of another and transform it with a mere glance is enabled.Such people shouldn’t be treated as liabilities, but embraced as liaisons.Who are your living bridges into that parallel world? What can we do to fortify and enhance the lives of their families so the gifts that these living bridges bring actually reach us?They require so much, but are capable of giving so much in return.