Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Handout (04/14/11)
TITLE: In Greater Measure
By Beth Muehlhausen
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As a volunteer ministering to incarcerated women, I requested permission to mentor a tiny five-foot-tall inmate named Ruth. Jagged scars pleated Ruth’s right cheek where the skin seemed to have been stapled at odd angles, sculpting her face into a permanent snarl. Untamed black hair hung in tangled mats, framing her disfigurement.
At our first meeting, Ruth perched like a mountain lion on a folding chair with one leg wound beneath her, seemingly spring-loaded for action. The other leg rhythmically swung like a clock pendulum stuck in fast-forward.
Tough looking and tightly wound - ready to pounce like a cat, I thought.
“Hi Ruth,” I offered from the doorway. “I know you’re expecting me - may I join you?”
Ruth’s probing eyes scrutinized every inch of my five-foot-ten-frame. Her leg stopped swinging. “Do I have a choice?” Ruth smirked a crooked smile while jerkily twirling her steel-wool hair with one finger.
“No, I guess you don’t,” I grinned in return. “Here - I brought a book I thought you might like.”
She plucked the small volume from my hands. “Thanks. And … what’s your name?” Her head cocked with the candid inquisitiveness typical of a young child.
“Oh - sorry! My name is Sally. I assumed the supervisor already told you.”
How rude of me, to skip common courtesy.
“Sally. Nice name.” Ruth nodded her head in recognition. “Had a dog named Sally. Real loyal dog. Gentle with kids but could whip a garter snake to death with one shake. Fought coons, too. They’d get her by the throat but she’d kill ‘em every time.”
Ah! You can always count on culture shock here in the jai!
“I’m actually named for my grandmother,” I chuckled, “an artist who battled rheumatoid arthritis.” I paused, wondering how much to disclose, but then displayed my own crippled hands. “I must have inherited it from her.”
Ruth had already opened my book on a table near her chair and was thumbing through its open pages. However, at the sight of my gnarled fingers she pushed it aside. “Let me see.” She focused her full attention on my hands.
Should I trust her? If she tries something I can’t grab the pager …
“Sit down. Here.” Ruth spoke matter-of-factly, uncrossed her legs, and gestured toward the empty chair on the other side of the table.
I approached the chair but remained standing.
“C’mon.” She spoke softly.
Is this a trap?
A pair of delicate hands opened in invitation across the tabletop.
Should I reciprocate?
I delayed a second too long. She saw through me.
“Are you afraid?” Ruth whispered with that same childlike quality. “Don’t be. It’s okay. Really. It is.”
She persisted. “Your hands must hurt – real bad.”
She seems sincere.
“Yes, they do,” I acknowledged. “It’s challenging to manage such searing pain.”
Her eyes squinted in remembrance. “Yeah. Been there. Done that.”
Pain is a common denominator for us all. Give her a chance.
I sat down gingerly and laid my twisted hands on the table, palms-down, just inches from hers facing palms-up.
“Tell me about your pain,” I coaxed.
Ruth sighed and her shoulders shuddered. “Once I hurt so bad. I just wanted to die. A nurse in the hospital told me the only way to stand the pain was to let someone share it. So she stayed with me a long time and touched me real soft, right here – and here.” Ruth gestured briefly toward various parts of her face.
“Did it help?”
Ruth’s dark eyes glimmered with pooled tears and her head nodded affirmatively. “I asked her to come and do it again the next day, and the next, and the next.” She paused. “That kind of thing doesn’t happen here, though. People keep their distance.”
“But …” She hesitated. “If you visit me again … can I touch your fingers … like that nurse touched my face?” She opened her hands again to invite my response.
I placed my cool hands in her warm ones.
“OH!” She seemed genuinely shocked by my trust, and ever-so-gently locked her fingers in mine. “Life isn’t worth living unless …” Ruth’s words trailed off.
“Unless what?” I barely squeezed her hands as a gesture of encouragement, and felt the familiar sting of sacrifice.
“ … unless you’re needed. Will you let me help you?”
I blushed, the recipient of uninvited, unexpected grace – a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over.*
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