I remember my first glimpse of her. It was the first night. We had arrived at the Bobbili School for the Blind in India. The students had organised a talent show to welcome us—ambassadors from the charity organisation that supported their school. While we were waiting for the students to be seated according to their grades, a group of teenage girls bustled in, engulfing one girl in the middle. It seemed slightly odd—the blind leading the blind—but perhaps the girl in the middle had a more limiting blindness than the others.
I continued to watch the small huddle until her face became visible among those of her friends. I blanched. Her face—or the ruins of it—was not recognisable. Her nose was decaying, with only a few scraps of skin remaining. Other parts of her face were missing or distorted with blotchy, scabby skin. Her one remaining eye was cloudy.
I turned away, horrified. The rest of the evening, I found myself turning to look her way, only to quickly regret it each time. I knew it was so shallow, only caring about what she looked like, but it was hard to notice much else when her physical appearance was so ghastly, almost inhuman.
At some point, there were only a few metres between us. My mother was beckoning—no, summoning me—to her side so I could also meet this girl. As terrified as I was, I could not defy the wishes of my mother, so miserably, I all but crawled to her. My heart beat erratically. I dared not look up until it was absolutely necessary. After all, she could not see me, nor could she see the trepidation on my face. As Mum began making introductions, I chanced a glance up. My heart stopped.
She was my age, 17, and studying in the equivalent of our grade 12. She had skin cancer and her village had abandoned her. At that moment though, I could not conceive why they would do such a thing.
My heart had stopped, not from the shock of seeing her up close, but from complete awe, an almost reverence, of her presence. I realised that she no longer repulsed me. Instead, my eyes were able to roam her face, taking it all in yet not feeling the need to turn away. Instead, I felt a deep sorrow for her, more profound than I’d ever felt before.
I was completely oblivious to the exchange of questions between the girl’s teacher and my mother. I stood there, simply captivated by the girl and at the same time overtaken by grief. Suddenly, in an act that felt so intimate yet so needed at that moment, she reached out and took my hand. Her scarred hands were in mine. I held onto her hands with as much urgency as she held onto mine.
Then, unexpectedly, she smiled and I couldn’t help but smile back. She was so beautiful. Not just her nature but also physically. The way her smile lit up her face, created creases around her eyes and mouth, lifted her lips and showed off her teeth—it was the most stunning thing, the most beautiful smile I’d ever seen!
The time passed quickly, because she was supposed to join the other girls for lunch. But our hands were still joined and I felt as reluctant as she did to let go. She squeezed my hand again before the teacher turned to lead her away, but ultimately she squeezed my heart. I can’t describe the overwhelming emotions I felt at that moment. I had known this girl for only minutes, yet I felt such a bond!
I quickly excused myself, hurrying along the corridors back to our cabin, desperately eager to be alone. Yet as I rushed away, I couldn’t control the wave of tears that hung in the recesses. When I saw my own perfectly normal, healthy face in the mirror, I broke into tears.
Why was it her and not me? Why am I privileged to escape such terrors? Why does she deserve this? I’m the one with smooth, unscathed skin, free of cancer and abandonment. I who think so poorly of myself, who wish I could look different and complain about my imperfections—I’m the one who’s blessed!
It comes with recognising a different beauty. “Your beauty,” the apostle Peter wrote, “should come from inside you—the beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit. That beauty will never disappear. It is worth very much to God” (1 Peter 3:4; ERV)*.
Even a year later the girl remains clear in my mind and my emotions are still raw. I know it’s foolish to hope, but I wonder whether she’s alive today. Though I knew her for only a few minutes, she’s imprinted in my mind, especially her beautiful smile.
In those short moments I realised that whenever I’m fearful, I can think of her. But most of all, whenever I look at myself with disapproval, I can think of her and remember how she didn’t shy away because of how she might appear to others. Instead, she seized my hand and understood that, while we were worlds apart, we were also much closer than either of us realised.