"My name is Snake," the young man growled when I called him into my office. His appearance certainly did justice to the nickname. He had a mass of black hair hanging to his shoulders, metal studs in his eyebrows, and rattlesnake tattoos slithering up his forearms. He was wearing ripped jeans and chunky motorcycle boots, and on his black T-shirt was a grisly skull with rattlers poised to strike from the eye sockets.
If I'd seen him coming down the sidewalk I'd have crossed the street to avoid him. But there was no avoiding him now, here in the hospital where I worked.
For several years I'd practiced as a speech pathologist in an outpatient center. My caseload consisted of stroke and brain injured patients who had difficulty speaking. It was rewarding work, and I felt that one of my strengths was that I related well to my patients. Then I met Snake.
We couldn't have been more different. It was Ms. Sensible Shoes meets Mr. Doom and Destruction. I was a conservative woman, approaching solid middle age; he was a brash 22-year-old working in a tattoo parlor. My style ran to lace collars and needlepoint flowers; his to black leather and chains. My idea of fun was attending church socials and the Women's Circle; his was riding his chopper and carousing at rowdy bars.
As a matter of fact it was a drunken brawl in the parking lot of Jake's bar that had landed Snake in the hospital. He'd been struck in the head with a brick, resulting in brain trauma that left him with slow, halting speech. The injury also caused hand tremors, for which he was seeing the occupational therapist. By the time I saw him in my office, he'd already had extensive inpatient hospital treatment.
I was skeptical that first day about Snake's chances for getting better. Outpatient therapy involves not only working to improve but also focusing on coping with any remaining disability. This requires openly discussing the patient's daily life. I was sure that Snake would never trust me enough to discuss his activities, and even if he did, I couldn't be sympathetic. Anyone who lived the kind of life Snake lived shouldn't be surprised at the result, I reasoned. I didn't want to hear the violent details. However, I felt it my Christian duty to work with anyone, so with trepidation I recommended treatment three times a week. All the same, I made a silent vow never to let him get between me and the door.
I thought Snake, with his lifestyle, would probably not even bother to come to therapy. To my surprise he was consistent and punctual, taking the city bus from his apartment since he was no longer able to ride his motorcycle. He made quite an incongruous picture in the waiting room: a Hell's Angel alongside our sweet, elderly stroke patients. But he came.
Although he participated in the speech exercises I planned, he gave little response save a suspicious stare and a scornful grunt to my probing questions. There was little I could do if he was going to be so mistrustful, ill humored, and disengaged, I told myself.
Then one day something unexpected happened. I chanced to glance out the window as Snake got off the bus at the stop in front of our building. I watched as he pulled on a conservative plaid button-down shirt over his signature black T-shirt with the unnerving skull and snakes. Then he smoothed his unruly hair into a neat ponytail before entering the building. After our session, I watched as he removed the plaid shirt before getting on the bus. I witnessed the same routine on his next visit.
After the third time I couldn't resist asking, "Why the shirt, Snake?"
He grinned. "Didn't want to scare the little old ladies in the waiting room."
We dissolved in laughter, and I realized he had a soft side that I hadn't expected.
After our shared laugh that day I began to see Snake as someone who had a heart and a sense of humor. I was surprised when he began to share details of his life. The more uninhibited he became, the more interested I was. To my chagrin I realized that perhaps he hadn't talked with me before because he sensed that I hadn't really wanted to know him.
Under the gruff exterior
I'd called myself a Christian and had chosen a helping profession as my life's work, yet I'd judged Snake and had failed to establish an accepting atmosphere for him. Yes, as a professional I'd given him the best clinical treatment I could, but I hadn't reached out to him as an individual. Without that human connection, I'd merely been going through the motions of therapy. Even worse, I'd blamed him for not responding to me. I had congratulated myself on being a good person while deciding that Snake wasn't worthy of me.
I'd always considered my clinical knowledge an instrument of God's work. Now, shamed, I asked for help in opening my heart as well. I resolved that with divine guidance I would give Snake my best efforts.
As I got to know Snake better I discovered that, contrary to my initial expectations and his alarming appearance aside, he was not the violent gang member I'd imagined. Even during the fight in which he was injured he was only a bystander. After growing up in a chaotic family, he'd found acceptance with his motorcycle-riding buddies—buddies who encouraged his dreams.
I was astonished when Snake confided that his passion was drawing and his dream was to attend art school someday. In the meantime, he'd been saving money by working in the tattoo parlor. It was not only a job, but also an artistic outlet for him, and his talent had ensured his reputation among the motorcycle crowd. That wasn't enough for Snake, though. He longed to produce fine art.
As our sessions continued, he confided his devastating fear that if he couldn't get control over his shaking hands he'd lose both his livelihood and his dream. My heart ached for him. I'd come to know a sensitive, artistic boy inside that gruff exterior. Never had I prayed so much for a good outcome for a patient.
Sadly, it wasn't meant to be. After many months of intense work, the occupational therapist concluded that Snake would most likely never be completely rid of his tremors. Professionals who practice in rehabilitation hospitals never want to use the word impossible, but we knew the fine drawing Snake yearned to do would be extremely difficult. In the future, his therapy would focus on exploring alternative occupations. Reluctantly, I also had to acknowledge that he was no longer making progress in speech therapy, so Snake and I set a date to stop.
On his last visit Snake thrust a package wrapped in brown paper at me and mumbled, "I made this before I got hurt. It's to thank you." I didn't think I'd done enough for him. His speech had improved slightly but he continued to stumble over words. "But you tried," he said. "You listened. I didn't think a person with your way of living ever would."
My way of living? It came as a shock to realize that the entire time I'd been judging Snake harshly, he'd felt the same way about me! I marveled at how the Lord had sent two such outwardly dissimilar people on a journey together to learn the same lesson of tolerance. Maybe we weren't so different after all. As I unwrapped the package, I sent up a silent thank you for the laugh Snake and I had shared that day that put us on the right track.
I removed the paper to reveal a pen and ink drawing of a motorcycle rider wearing a black T-shirt with a skull and snakes, the wind in his long black hair. The Harley was drawn in exquisite detail, and in the corner over the signature was a coiled rattlesnake displaying an intricate diamond pattern. Snake had hand-lettered the title, "A Way of Living" across the bottom. The drawing was heavy, dark, and brooding. It was an accurate depiction of his preferred lifestyle and the antithesis of mine. And I loved it.
I gazed at the picture for a while. When I looked up, Snake stammered, "You're not going to throw it away after I leave, are you?"
How could I let him know how much his gift meant to me? As I struggled with my answer, I spied my diplomas hanging on the wall above my desk. I jumped out of my chair, grabbed some tape, and stuck his drawing onto the frame over my master's degree. There it was: Snake's "Way of Living," in the place of honor surrounded by gold-framed certificates.
When I turned around, I saw that this man I once thought so intimidating and frightening had tears in his eyes.
"I'm glad," he said quietly, "because that's one of the last drawings I made. And I'm probably never going to make another one."
That was the last time I saw Snake. It would be a little too perfect if I said we became great pals after that; life doesn't usually work that way. I kept up with his progress through the occupational therapist for a while. I heard he was exploring screen-printing and other artistic endeavors that required less fine motor control. He'd even signed up, with the help of financial aid, for a few art courses at the local community college. I was gratified to know that although he had to alter his goal of becoming a fine sketch artist, he seemed to be making progress toward achieving a satisfying career.
I eventually lost track of Snake when he moved out of town, although I often think about him, our journey together, and his gift to me. Now I know that when I meet a new person I'm meeting a child of God, deserving of acceptance. I know that, if I allow it, that person may enrich my life as much as I hope to enrich his or hers. I know that our true ways of living are revealed, not by outward trappings and appearances, but by how we treat our fellow travelers in this life. That is the real gift that Snake gave to me, and I remember it each time I glance at my office wall and see, still in the place of honor, Snake's "Way of Living."
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.
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