Abandoned by her family, she became attached to me. I did not complain as, visit after visit, we sat on the floor and played simple games with toys built for children much younger than she.
The nurse told me Kim was developmentally stalled at about age 2; her comprehension level was no more than 20 percent of a normal girl her age. That never slowed us down. Our get-togethers were the happiest imaginable.
One day I arrived to discover that Kim was in the "hospital room." "She’s getting her transfusion," the nurse said and immediately apologized at my blank response. "Oh, I thought you knew. Kim has leukemia. She’s terminally ill."
I began visiting daily, and soon enough became aware that the child was not well. Exhilarated one day, exhausted the next, the only constants were her glittering eyes and beatific smile.
At semester break, I was absent from the Home for about two weeks. The first day back, the nurse met me at the door, and I knew at once the news was not good.
"Kim’s condition has deteriorated badly, Lonnie," the nurse said. "She has been bedridden for over a week. We are worried. She has made absolutely no response to anyone in the past 10 days."
I made my way to the hospital room and stopped when I saw her through the entrance. She lay on her back, head elevated a little, monitors buzzing and beeping, intravenous bag dripping meds into her arm.
For all that, she looked great. Her color was ruddy, her face full. When I asked about this, the nurse informed me that her flush appearance and slight puffiness were actually symptoms of leukemia in its final stage.
"Why is she staring like that?" I whispered.
"She’s gone blind."
"In two weeks?"
I tiptoed up to her bed. Reaching out, I squeezed her hand. "Hi, Kim," I said. And she smiled, the first response she had given anyone in well over a week. I talked to her. I never let go of her hand and she never let go of her smile. It was one of the most vital communications of my whole life, yet I do not remember a single thing I said.
After about a half-hour of talking, I said, simply, "Bye, Kim," and let her go. I knew I would never see her again.
The years passed. I was troubled. There was a truth about that final half hour, a terribly important secret, but one I could not put my finger on. Yes, I was with a little girl I loved as she lay on her deathbed, and that alone gave significance to the event. But there was more, ineffably more.
My own children came along, reminding me often of the silent little girl who may also have thought of me as family. I give workshops on things like interpersonal effectiveness, and one day I facilitated a particularly grueling one somewhere in the Midwest.
After dinner with the client, I shuffled to my hotel room, let the door close behind me, and, fully clothed, plopped onto the bed in total darkness. The day’s stress ebbed out my fingertips as I opened my eyes expecting the restful sight of nothing.
Unbidden, Kim’s face appeared in front of me, like a photograph or a projection. The luminous eyes, the radiant smile, she lit up the room all by herself. And in that moment of unearthly clarity, I got it. I discovered the secret of our last 30 minutes together. So simple and so profound.
She listened to me. Sightless, immobile, with nothing else to give, she listened to me. And by her listening she told me of my significance to her. I was worth the enormous effort it took to smile, to hold my hand, to patiently and joyously take in the words I was speaking. I was worth her first response to anyone in almost two weeks.
I was being listened to. It is the greatest of gifts. I was being listened to more attentively, more devotedly, than I ever had in my life. And I was being listened to so attentively and so devotedly by a little 8-year-old angel who could comprehend about 20 percent of what I had to say.
Kim’s great gift has remained open these many years. It has been shared with my wife and my children to whom I have tried to listen as she did. She set the bar very high, and I can’t say I’ve met it consistently, but I do try.
Her gift speaks powerfully to an age that finds it normal to sit face to face with your loved one and text a note to a distant acquaintance, an era that needs "devices" to communicate. Her kind of listening functions without devices and always sends the purest message of caring, valuing, loving.
The gift of listening contains the secret for which I searched those many years, one I’ve whispered to my children and my grandchildren, the oldest of whom is now Kim’s age.
At the end, listening was the only way she had of saying I love you. That was true, but that wasn’t her secret. Her secret — and you must share it — is this: Listening is the best way any of us can say I love you.
E-mail Orlando R. Barone at firstname.lastname@example.org.