In 2007 I had the honour of being the guest speaker for Casual Day – a national fundraising campaign benefiting people living with disabilities. In January/February of that year we went on a whirlwind tour around the country. I shared the intimate details of my life with audiences in Bloemfontein, Polokwane, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban and Johannesburg in less than three weeks.
I couldn’t fly from Nelspruit as the Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (KMIA) is unable to accommodate my wheelchair because they do not have hydraulic wheelchair lifts. This complicated matters somewhat. It meant we had to drive from Nelspruit to Johannesburg and fly from OR Tambo which increased traveling time quite significantly. The budget was tight and only allowed for one night’s accommodation in each city. Unfortunately we had to return all the way home after each talk before setting off a day or two later for the next function. Although I knew it would be exhausting, I made a commitment to the project and was determined to see it through.
I was excited. Wow – somebody had actually asked me to do something, for a change – finally. It was a big deal. Just like everybody else, I yearn to be needed, crave to be recognized and want to be appreciated. This was my chance to give.
With much anticipation and a great sense of adventure, my care assistant – who had never ever been out of Nelspruit, let alone been on an aeroplane or even seen the sea – packed our bags. With my beloved and ever-willing Dad as driver (as usual) we departed for the first destination of our trip which was an 8 hour drive to Bloemfontein.
I was under a lot of pressure to perform well. Admittedly, most of this was self-inflicted purely because I have this need to prove to the world that I am capable of making a worthwhile contribution to humanity despite the fact that I am paralyzed from my neck down. I’m acutely aware of the fact that many people view me as a burden to society. I always aim to prove them wrong. It also didn’t help that I had been told that the speaker the year before had received standing ovations at all six functions. My competitive nature often pushes me beyond my limits – and for this I am grateful.
Thankfully, I got a heartwarming response from the audience. But, by the time I got home very late the following night I was tired, grumpy and tearful and beginning to wonder if I fully comprehended the consequence this would all have on me physically and emotionally.
The next morning still doubting myself, I was wondering if I had bitten off more than I could chew. That all too familiar insecurity was looming over my head, ready to strike – watching, waiting for that gap – desperate to move in and once again destroy me. I’d worked hard to pick up the pieces to rebuild my confidence and regain my sense of self-worth but I live in constant fear of this threat to my psyche. My spinal cord injury had stripped me of my physical dignity. Was I going to allow it to strip me of my sense of self – my heart, my mind, my soul? It didn’t seem to take much to begin that self-destructive path of panic and self-doubt. Was I really strong enough to do this?
I received some much-needed encouragement later on that day in my Inbox. It was a letter from someone who had been in my audience the day before. I was flabbergasted that a complete stranger would take the time and energy to write me such a detailed and thoughtful letter. It made a huge impact on my life.
People often ask me how I manage to stay cheerful. Funnily enough I don’t see myself as an exceptionally upbeat person. I have many bad –dark and depressing –days just like everybody else. I make a conscious decision every single day to be positive. It’s not easy – it doesn’t come naturally. I often fail and then spend too much time crying, wallowing in self-pity. But, fortunately there is always another day and I try again. I draw my strength from many different sources –some small, some big. That day – and many thereafter – my inspiration was taken from the letter.
I printed the letter and it traveled around the country with me. I have read it a million times over – ok who’s counting? Every time I find myself in a bad space feeling weary, miserable or feel as if I simply cannot go on anymore I read this letter. Amazing how the words of a total unknown have the ability to penetrate and make a difference to my mindset, giving me a burst of energy which manages to nudge me out of the dip and moving back up that (often steep) hill again.
Never underestimate the power of the difference a few simple kind and heartfelt words have the potential to make in someone else’s life. If you’re thinking them take the time to say them or even better write them and then press the send button. You have the power to reach out and touch someone’s heart – change a life – right now. Just do it!
I thank God for this letter – a letter from a soldier.
I share it with you – unedited.
Attention Mrs Tracy Todd 24 January 2007
I am taking time to write this letter because I keep thinking about you and would like to tell you a few things.
Yesterday at the Casual Day Show in the Protea Landmark Lodge in Bloemfontein, I sat captivated by what you said. One of my first thoughts was that I wish I had teachers like you in school because you have such charisma and clear way of communicating. You might have changed my life if you were a math teacher!
One of my sad stories is that I failed math miserably and instead of flying fighter jets had to scale down to becoming an armour soldier and play with these heavy tanks.
You probably noticed me because I was the only person there with camouflage clothes and I felt completely out of place amongst those weird civilian people.
Being a soldier is what I do best and I suppose I will never fit in anywhere else. The army tests us time and time again, through all the training and stuff you have to jump many hoops and compete and prove yourself. I am in a sense an adrenalin junkie like you but I think if the playing field was leveled you would probably teach me a few things!
In my world it is said that, ‘cowboys don’t cry’ and winning is everything. The army and my personal life had the effect of making me a hard person on the outside. I never learned to cope or deal properly with emotions and listening to you triggered so many things and thoughts that I felt afraid, upset and sad at first. I was initially so angry that your accident left you that way and thought of a million misfits at work that I wish could trade places with you. Some of them are so bloody lazy that they will never even realize it if they become paralyzed!
Though I am not the macho-rambo, testosterone driven type I have to put up an act when in uniform because in a way, I am sensitive and will cry when my sad button is pushed. I so much wanted to speak to you but was afraid because I really didn’t know how I would react or how to approach you.
I don’t see you in the light of pity and as you said I must not feel sorry for you. Well for me it’s impossible not to at least have compassion and empathy for someone who has suffered to the extent you have. I must also mention that you are so beautiful and you have such a unique face that you drew my attention even before they put you on the stage…sorry I am still a man after all!
After you spoke my mood changed from sadness to something else. In my mind you stood on a huge pedestal, higher than all the famous Generals I learned about. I had one dominating sensation and the thought taking over my mind was the sense of pride. You are a complete stranger to me but I could see what you are made of and I am so proud of you that nothing I can say can do you justice!
Many people in the army wear medals for bravery or accomplishments. I think you deserve the highest decoration for who you still are. I thought of myself in your shoes and realized that I would much rather go fight tanks with only a toothpick before I even think of entering the mental battle you fought and won! I will probably loose and fade away…even the fly or itching thing would just annihilate me!!!
I feel so much better writing this letter to you now and I thought it my duty to tell you that I am proud of you and you will forever serve as an example to me. An example so pure and strong that I probably will never succeed in being thankful for all life’s blessings and the things you teach in your messages…but I will try my best!
Thank you for your positive impact on a simple soldiers life. Your pamphlet has a special place in my office and it is very humbling to see your picture everyday!
P. S. Please forgive my language mistakes!
Captain [*name removed*]
Adjutant School of Armour
Captain, I salute you!