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Imet John while volunteering during my college years in Ohio at the hospital where my mother, a doctor, worked. My parents were giving people, and I wanted to live up to that.

We were asked to help out in the arts and crafts area. Huge tables covered with colored paper and crayons filled the room. The volunteers busily helped the patients draw or color. There was lots of clapping and cheering when the task at hand was achieved, and I could hear the giggles and laughter of the proud achievers.

In the back of the room, alone and in a wheelchair, sat John. Barely 26, he was a quadriplegic, but had some use of his arms and hands. He sat slightly bent to the side, his head lowered forward, and his thick glasses held in place by a band at the back of his head. He had a board with the alphabet printed on it. I walked over and said hi. John struggled to move his right arm slowly to the board, and carefully spelled out "Hi." Then with difficulty, he tilted his head up, and smiled at me.

"Hi, John," as I read his name tag, "I'm Natalie." John slowly pushed himself back in his wheelchair so he could see my face, smiled timidly and tried to speak. I barely made out "Hi, Natalie."

"May I help you color?" I asked. John slowly shook his head. "Please read to me," he spelled out, and slowly moved his hand toward a book in his wheelchair's side pocket. I read to John for about an hour that day, and he seemed to enjoy it tremendously, smiling off and on while he listened. I was told that at one time, John had been a very successful student of engineering, and that a progressive disease had changed his life.

I spent many hours reading to John that month. As soon as I walked in, that lopsided smile immediately lit up his face. John had a great sense of humor, and spelled out his hilarious comments as he tried to enunciate certain words with a muffled chuckle. Sometimes I laughed so much at his comments, I almost cried. Many times, I would wheel John outside to watch the squirrels. John loved being outside. "Hey, John! Look!" as I pointed to a squirrel that had come really close. He smiled and tried to reach out to it, "Hey-y-y," he said, with his lopsided smile. John sat motionless for a few moments. "Thank you," he spelled out. "You're welcome, John," I said, "Any time."

A few weeks later, I was told that John's family would be taking him to spend a week with them. John was absolutely thrilled! He couldn't stop "talking" about it; he spelled out his ecstatic comments, smiled more than I had ever seen him smile that whole month, and he attempted at every chance to sit up in his wheelchair as upright as he possibly could.

The day finally came to visit his family, and when I rushed to see John, I thought he was going to jump out of his wheelchair. My heart skipped a beat when I saw him. There was John all dressed up in black pants, a light blue pinstriped shirt and a bow tie. But the best part was the glow of excitement around him. "Hey," I said, "look at you! All dressed up!" John's smile was infectious, as he tried to sit as upright as he could before his family came. "My bag," he anxiously spelled out . . ." Okay, John, let's get it ready." I quickly packed his bag, and wheeled him to the main entrance. "Are they coming soon?" he spelled out. "Yes, John, they are." I placed his bag next to his wheelchair and said, "You have a great time, okay? I'll see you when you get back!"

"Thanks for everything," John spelled out, an endless smile on his face.

They never came for John that day. We called several times, and they said they were on their way. Then a few hours later, they said "something had come up" and they would not be able to make it. John was given the news, as I stood next to him. The staff wanted to wheel him back to his room. He let out an agonized wail, "No-o-o-o-o," and refused to be moved. "I'll stay here," I told them, "and when he's ready to go back in, I'll take him." It was two hours later when John finally allowed me to take him back to his room. He motioned to me to wheel him next to the window, and he just stared outside.

They broke his heart that day, and mine too. I felt numb, and I couldn't begin to imagine how John must have felt. It was time for me to leave for the day. I knelt down to say goodbye. John was staring out into open space, seemingly unaware of his surroundings. As I got up to leave, John started spelling out something on his board. "Thank you for being here." He tried to sit up straight, tilted his head back to look at me and finally smiled. I couldn't stop the tears at that point. In some small way, I had made a difference.

Natalie Dajani lives in St. Petersburg.


How to submit your story to Sunday Journal

We welcome freelance submissions for Sunday Journal, a forum for narrative storytelling. A lot happens in a Sunday Journal piece; someone might describe a driving tour of colleges with her reluctant 18-year-old daughter, or an encounter on a scary street at night. We want stories that take us someplace and make us laugh, cry or just raise our eyebrows. The stories must be true, not previously published and 700 to 900 words. Send submissions to Sunday Journal editor Mimi Andelman, St. Petersburg Times, Newsfeatures, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or by e-mail to Please include "Sunday Journal" in the subject line.