The Labyrinth As Bridge

University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, TX 

University of Texas Medical Branch Labyrinth

Pictured: Chloe and Debi Kermeen, Destin, FL

The twists and arches of fate are not unlike those of the labyrinth. The quilt we make of our experiences there are made of the patches of our senses and expectations. The patterns we make as we walk together are shrouded in mystery, but, like a quilt, can be dissected to rearrange the patches into ever evolving clarification of real life within us.

I have walked our labyrinth at the William Temple Episcopal Center by the University of Texas Medical School in Galveston about thirty times over two years with a group of Saudi Arabian severely burned children. They had been burned over thirty to eighty percent of their bodies by an explosion within a wedding tent housing only women and children. Fifty of the children were rescued by the Shriners, and nine were brought to the Shrine Burn Institute in Galveston. I became their teacher in a public school.

One, then three, of the girls wore the clothing and veil of their Muslim culture. Most of their mothers had been killed, and they were allowed to be attended by one male family member, none of whom had ever had child-rearing experiences, certainly not within a modern American culture. I knew a little Arabic… enough to make them laugh, but the foundation enabling our eventual strong relationships became the labyrinth. It was safe ground, accessible to wrapped limbs and heads, flexible in path to allow wheel chairs and braces and walkers. Even the finger labyrinth only required one finger.

We started with the youngest ones while the older sat with their chaperones on the sidelines. The men were totally understanding that what was being forged was a trust enabled by the shared care, concern, love, and respect for the developing immersion of very strong children, rent asunder on the exterior but whole within, driven by a curiosity, ironic sense of humor, affectionate competition, and determination to one day have facial tissue soft enough to reveal the smiles they were beginning to feel within.

The labyrinth is simple in design, and the frequent 180 degree turns seem to activate left and right brain integration which brings a special spirit to any classroom, the bounds of which were now those of the labyrinth. English is developed quickly with meaningful activity, and our sessions back at school were most successful in vocabulary gleaned from the emotions, deep breathing, and sharing of the labyrinth experiences.

We held hands like elephant trunks on tails at first and evolved into pacing set by the different age and personality and physical compatibilities. Eventually the little ones with leg motions could run the whole thing, and we adjusted the time to evening as the season’s sun called for sweat not possible through masses of scarred skin, an invitation to dangerous overheating.

More than a few tears were shed by all of us from time to time, but big brothers learned patience in their shepherd role, fathers learned flexible contributions to problem-solving, and grandfathers learned how an American could rely totally at times on their ancient wisdom.

As for the children, their spirits began to revive their left-for-dead bodies. I carried former pictures of them always and used those to frequently remind them of a better picture of their identity, hoping that eventually the message would be clear to them that they are so much more then the devastated shell of their inner core of beauty, character, and strengths of all sorts. The health care they were receiving was unbelievably warm, persistent, and effective.

The central team of twelve had come to our school to train the children and staff to accept the horror the appearance of the children would reflect. A lot of information passed about healing structures and procedures… even in the cafeteria with cooks and servers, clean-up crew and noise patrol. The first day the nine children paraded through every classroom, they were greeted with shocked silence until the littlest one totally bandaged began trying to touch the blonde hair of a kindergartener and then ran oblivious through the other classes. When the school dismissed that day, all American children stood at one of the doors smiling, blowing kisses, waving, etc. to an enchanted parade of Saudi Arabian newcomers, soon to be part of the school family, reinforced and enabled by the off-campus monthly labyrinth experiences.

The bridge of the labyrinth to real school for the next 5 years of healing was strong and safe.