The children from the Seattle hospital’s burn unit were brought in on stretchers and in wheelchairs. Some were ambulatory and pushed IV poles. The youngest was 5, the oldest 15. The 15-year-old was burned over most of his body. He faced years of skin grafts and a lifetime of unwanted attention from people who would not know how to react.
I was having the same trouble people outside the hospital would have with these children, wondering where to put my eyes, how to reach beyond the disfigured surface to the spirit within. The stories I had chosen seemed puny in the face of their overwhelming needs.
I decided to tell them a story I had learned from Bill Harley called “The Freedom Bird.” It is the story of a hunter who shoots a magnificent golden bird, only to find that he cannot kill it, no matter what he does. It is the Freedom Bird, irrepressible, rising from any adversity. The violence often makes adults uncomfortable, but children love it.
Halfway into the story, I looked at the 15-year-old. In my mouth was a story of hacking, boiling, and burying. In front of me was a boy who had lived the bird’s fate, through fire, surgeries, and pain. I wanted the floor to open and swallow me.
The floor refused. I finished the story, tucked my tail between my legs, and slunk home. For the next week I practiced mental flagellation, knowing I should call the burn unit and apologize, putting it off until tomorrow.
The burn unit called first. One of the staff members wanted to tell me about the 15-year-old boy. He had been despondent, wishing he could die. The story changed his mind. Each time the hunter shot or hacked or buried the bird, the creature rose like the phoenix, until at last the hunter realized that he was trying to destroy an indomitable spirit. The boy decided he was the Freedom Bird. No fire or surgery or pain, no insensitive staring or comment would destroy his spirit. He would rise and rise again.
That boy taught me to trust the stories that call to me, to give them truly, knowing that they may heal or harm, but that I cannot predict how anyone hearing them will react. Life is in control, not me. A burned child may see the Freedom Bird as a reflection of the years of agony and reversals he faces. Or he may see in it the soaring of his own brave spirit.
I continue to learn to let go of the need to control. If we believe we can always choose the right stories and tell them at the right time, we are fooling ourselves. Everyone who hears our stories filters them through the lens of experience. We cannot know the hearts and lives of all our listeners. What we can do is tell with care and love, sharing the stories that touch our own lives, that make us laugh or cry or ponder. Release stories like butterflies, knowing they will fly their own crooked paths and land wherever they will.
[This essay first appeared in The Healing Heart: Communities as part of a longer piece, “Seven Lessons”.]