In 1982, I met Judith Snow. after a close friend of hers, came recruiting people who could work as her Attendants. Judith was brilliant thinker. Physically, she could breathe, chew and digest, and move her right thumb ever so slightly to activate a switch that controlled the movement of her very large wheelchair. For everything else she required someone to act as her arms and legs. That was the job of her attendants. I took on the job, and developed a friendship that lasted more than 30 years, and gave me an understanding of giftedness that I want to explore in this series of blogposts that I am calling "The Courage To Be Gifted".
I discovered so much about myself when I learned to let go, trust, and follow Judith.
In many ways, my job as Judith’s Attendant sounded simple —I would take on the function of arms and legs, something that I do everyday in my own life. As a young man of 24, I was pretty sure I knew how to do this…that is, until I started.
I was physically strong, intelligent, and had no shortage of ideas about how to do things. In the beginning I paid attention to the tasks -- getting Judith dressed or undressed, in and out of bed, or the car, driving, feeding her. I used my mind, and my body to do what I thought needed to be done.
But the job was to be Judith’s arms and legs; to be directed by her mind, her intentions, and her desired outcomes, and support her unique way of being in the world, and let go of any preconceived notions about what this would mean. In the beginning, I did not know where I was going, or why, and why it was important to go in this way.
So, in the space between thoughts that would direct my movement, and action that would result, there was more than enough room for the two of us to mentally wrestle, seeing who would be in control, whose thoughts would win. Of course my mind was convinced that everything would work much quicker if I was the center of control. My mind was not prepared to give up so easily. In the milliseconds required for movement to happen, I could feel the resistance created by Judith’s thought and intention. Sometimes it came through in her words, her tone, the sound of her breath, the electric silence, or worst of all, a wash of defeat when she would be too tired to resist.
But the whole point and purpose of my employment was for Judith to be in control — of her body, her ordinary life, her pursuit of work, her relationships, and the dreams that only she could imagine.
Eventually I discovered that when I could align myself with this purpose, there was a cavernous space, an opening, where distractions slipped away. In that space I was engaged, and liberated.
It was meditative. My brain could relax. And a doorway was opened into Judith’s mind.
Judith’s mind was no better than my own. It was just different. In each direction she provided, in each movement required, a whole world of life learning was embodied. I could begin to see how she saw and experienced the world. I felt her finely honed logic and reason, creating order in her apartment, and defining the step by step instructions for her physical care. I experienced her particular sense of style in the clothing she wore, and the placement of the pins, scarves, hats, and capes she chose to accessorize, creating a distinctly Judith look.
I was embedded in Judith’s process for planning and scheduling her life, making appointments, driving to visit friends, attending courses, make presentations, and always needing to calculate the extra-ordinary time that it would take to get ready in the morning, and preparing for bed in the evening.
Nothing about Judith’s physical conditions prevented her from filling her rich life with people and experiences, but as her attendant I could feel when her full schedule began to weaken her body, making her susceptible to cold viruses and infections that could mutate into pneumonia, leading to a grounding stay in the hospital to recover.
Somewhere along her life journey, Judith had accepted her body as it was. She shaped her life to work with this reality. I really don’t recall Judith spending time wishing her life would be different. She was far too busy creating what she wanted it to become.
I do have a sense, however, that she longed for, and cherished, the moments when she could experience the holy grail of communicating without words. Breaking in a new attendant, wading through the “who’s in charge” phase, getting through the stupidity and roughness, was exhausting mentally and physically. There was always the hope that a new attendant would stay in the job long enough to have more moments of mind melding when, without words, the attendant would know what to do. Of course there would always be a need for Judith to verbally direct, but there were so many rituals of daily life, that could be powerful and peaceful if we did not have to use words.
These moments opened a window in both of our minds, a visceral experience of communication beyond words, that enabled us to imagine how language can get in the way. The use of words was a far less satisfying way to hear one another. When unspoken communication was at its best, it was like a mental dance that flowed with ease.
Most of my time as Judith’s attendant was not so graceful, it was clunky, rough, and marked by the stupidity of separateness emerging when the locus of control of Judith’s life was centered in me. But in the brief moments of the flowing dance, when the veil of separateness fell away, I could see through her experience, and it was profound.
Over the past forty years more than 600 people have been gifted with the experience of following Judith as her attendant. I have come to know many of them. Most of the Judith Attendant alumni did not make a career as attendants. We each found our own “way”, in some part molded, manipulated, and forged by the experience of following Judith’s way.
In the short season of my life as Judith’s attendant, I was profoundly changed —the way I see, how I think, how I relate, how I attend to others, has been deeply affected by my immersion in her life. Judith’s “way” served as a mirror for my own life, reflecting back questions about vision, purpose, mindfulness, power and vulnerability, and self-care.
Judith made space for me to experience her world, to follow her path, and my life is richer for it.
There is a gift to be found when we dare to immerse ourselves in someone’s life, and follow.
An exploration of writing as a means of paying attention to themes that have captured my interest. --justice as "right" relations; gifts as what we have to offer; and beauty --within us, around us; and in all our relations.
Copyright ©2016 David Hasbury. All Rights Reserved.,