True stories about real people
Over the years I dealt with countless situations in my line of work. Most of them are to be expected given the nature of my job and, although unpleasant, you get used to them or at least you’re not overly surprised. However, there are some – let’s say – “special” encounters, which you cannot forget and that remind you that, despite age or experience, you have yet to “see it all”.
Such an occurrence took place in 2012. It was a Friday afternoon and the office was almost empty, except for me, Mikaela (my assistant) and Nony (our DTP designer). We were preparing to go on a well-deserved weekend and we were thrilled that, finally, we weren’t forced to stay overtime. Obviously, the thrill didn’t last long.
I was arranging documents, Nony busied himself with some files and Mikaela was shutting down the databases and mails. Five minutes before closing, a knock at the door made us eye each other with longing looks: that’s life…
„Come in, please.”
A gentleman about 50 years old entered the office. After the customary greetings, I and Nony got back to our tasks and Mikaela invited him to take a sit at her desk.
„How can we help you, sir?”
„The ladies from G.D.S.A.C.P. sent me.” (a/n General Directorate of Social Assistance and Child Protection). „They said you are better qualified to guide me.”
„In what matter?”
„Well, I want to start an association and I do not know the procedure.”
(In the meantime I was asking myself why on earth, middle-earth or under-earth didn’t they sent him to their legal department; they were the experts; we only knew from experience! Bah – public service…)
„I see. Of what kind of association are we talking about?”
„A NGO for people with disabilities as myself…”
„…that were abducted by aliens…”
(Oh, now there’s a mystery solved!)
Thanks to all the years I volunteered and worked in various hospitals and NGO’s, my only visible reaction (forget about the invisible ones) was a one-of-a-kind rapid display of all the colours of the rainbow decorating my face; Nony, on the other hand, wasn’t that lucky – he was struck by a violent, sincere and completely innocent coughing fit; as for Mikaela… although familiar with the expression, I never considered it more than a literary means to embellish otherwise fairly common stories… until that moment. I could literally see her eyes grow wider and wider, reaching the proverbial size of saucers (coffee type, not flying ones, mind you).
After a few seconds of utter perplexity in which, unfortunately, the above mentioned gentleman noticed too Mikaela’s reaction and started to raise his voice, I managed to gather what sobriety was left in me and intervene.
„Mikaela, I will take it over from here. Please, finish rearranging those documents.”
She complied without as much as a peep. And then the adventure went on: a one and a half hour of surrealistic dialog that would have made Kafka eat his heart out in pure, green, unmatched envy. I was stupefied (sic!) by the cunning means used by aliens to monitor people with disabilities and to spot the ones without a formal certificate; I’ve studied the blue prints of state-of-the-art, complicated machines designed to measure, errr, something and I was enlightened regarding the new procedures used in medical treatments to counteract the effects of the abductions; and more – oh, so much more.
Meanwhile, Nony took refuge on the balcony and I could see him in the corner of my eye (fortunately, not my interlocutor!) laughing (read convulsing) silently his, ahem!, skin off; as for Mikaela, judging by her complete stillness, I think she was practicing for becoming a very hilarious statue – eyes as big as cheese wheels and a priceless look plastered all over her face.
Caught between my two employees that expressed their incredulity in a very unhelpful way, and facing the esteemed gentleman (whose intentions, in all seriousness, were very noble), I was left with the desperate attempt to maintain a decent face – professionalism flew out the window (or down the drain, your choice) the moment I saw the file with statistics (!!!).
Do not imagine that I didn’t try – elegantly and subtly – to send the gentleman on his merry way, suggesting that our program ended quite some time ago (which was the honest truth) and that he should come back the following week, when we would have a lot more time on our hands (alright, I admit it, it was a far-fetched, classic damsel-in-distress strategy, in the hopes that he will go away and forget all about us). Obviously, it didn’t work – he became annoyed and raised his voice again, so I had no other choice but to let his delusion continue and actually encourage it at some point, hoping it would all come to a rapid, blissful end.
All this time I was desperately trying not to laugh and one could almost hear the cogs painfully turning in my head looking for a way out – I couldn’t (and wouldn’t have, for that matter, in the name of the faint shreds of my so-called professionalism) just throw him out the door or call the bodyguards; it would’ve only alienated him further and, more than likely, a huge scandal would’ve certainly ensued, with him becoming a constant unwanted and unwelcomed visitor. So, what to do?
The solution came so suddenly that I almost jumped to my feet (thankfully, I didn’t). I explained him that his approach to this issue is commendable, but it is a very complicated process and our NGO doesn’t have experience with disabled people that were abducted by aliens (or Boogie man, Yeti, or the dwarf from Twin Peaks, for that matter – of course, I kept the last part for myself).
And so, I told him to go and address his plea at the G.D.P.P.D (a/n General Directorate for the Protection of People with Disabilities), a department within the… Ministry of Labour. I explained to him that this department is responsible for all the people with disabilities from all over the country, that they have more experienced personnel and that they are best qualified to guide him. I told him that I could try and help, but that I wouldn’t like to mislead him. I advised him in all seriousness to bring all the documents he had (statistics, blue prints, testimonials) – devious, I know – and gave him a paper with all the necessary details (address, phone numbers, hours when they worked with the public, directions – all nine yards, so to speak).
The man’s face literally lit up and he (finally) left, thanking me from the bottom of his heart, and telling me that he foresees a fruitful collaboration between us (no comment).
Fortunately, he never came back. I have no idea as to how the ministry’s employees dealt with the situation (by the way, sorry about that; it was nothing personal, guys!), but he never set foot again in our offices (Mikaela tells me that she sees him occasionally in the central area of the city).
At a first glance, the whole situation was so hilarious, that it nearly bordered the absurd (I lack the talent and tools to accurately convey the whole “mes-en-place”). On the other hand, I can’t seem to shake the feeling that all the institutions, including ours, failed miserably and completely to help this man.
If you imagine that he was faking it, I can guarantee he wasn’t. He was delirious – either he didn’t have money for his medication (which wouldn’t have been very surprising, it was obvious he was on the poor side of the fence) or there was no one to take care of him and make sure he continued his treatment (probably a mix of the two).
I don’t know what conclusion to draw. On one hand, I still get the urge to laugh (especially when I remember Mikaela’s face) – no one was really at risk in that moment and the “occurrence” was rather innocent. On the other hand, I can’t help myself feeling sad, for I can easily imagine the way this man is being treated: with contempt, scorn, condescension, fear and avoidance.
What he really needed and still does (if the happenings in this country are anything to go by, his situation is pretty much the same, if not even worse) is someone to really talk to him, to make sure he gets the proper treatment and care, someone to support him and help him live a dignified life. Instead, all he gets is people that are laughing in his face…
Although our NGO was overwhelmed with work (6 people, including the cleaning lady, and 7 volunteers trying to care for 250 people with disabilities) and we often stayed overtime, I don’t really see it as an excuse and I still feel somewhat guilty. Perhaps if I tried a little harder…