Throughout my life, and because of my work with the National Stuttering Association, I have met some of the most inspirational and driven people in the world, from here and abroad. But as I prepare to write this blog, I now emphatically can say that sometimes the people who have the greatest impact on you are the ones you never meet-and very sadly, they are also the ones who are taken from this earth way too early. What I am about to say, I have never told anyone. But the lesson learned from this experience is so important that I feel it is very important to have this told.
When I was struggling with my stuttering in my college years, I would often rely on the chat rooms of America Online to meet others. I've always been attracted to the Internet because it levels the playing field-on there, I can be an equal and have the same access to social interaction that I never could have in real life. I could be who I was, and never to have hide because of my speech. Oh sure, you better believe I ran into some people who really needed clues about be around people-you know, the perverts, the ones who just wanted to talk about themselves. But after many rough days, there were many times where it acted as a solace for me to feel like I belonged in this world, and that I meant something.
During my undergraduate years, one day in a "Twenties Love" chat room, I struck up a conversation with a young woman named "Riley" who was from the Carolinas. We got along really well and quickly, things progressed where we would talk about our daily lives. She worked in a restaurant owned by her parents, she was very big into alternative music, such as Stabbing Westward and Smashing Pumpkins. Ironically, she knew the area where I lived, and had relatives a few towns over from my community. Just like when you came home and settled in to watch your favorite TV show, we could almost set our clocks knowing that one of us (or both of us) would be on at the same time.
Six months into the online friendship, Riley asked if I could meet her online at a time that was highly unusual. I didn't think anything of it, so I said sure. When I signed on, she asked if we could go to a private room. I had this eerie feeling something bad was about to take place. So we found ourselves in the chat room, and she mentioned something I will never, ever, forget. Something so cold that it just made time stop. "I have to be honest with you, " she said. "I haven't told you this from the beginning, and I should have. I have AIDS."
At that moment in time, I didn't know what to do. I stared at the computer screen in utter shock, but deep down I had a strong feeling she was telling the truth. People don't joke about something like that. She began to type "I'll understand if you never want to speak to me again," she said. I wrote back: "If I wanted to leave, I would have left a long time ago."
People who stutter often have different approaches when discussing their stuttering. Some people prefer not to discuss it at all, while others are "covert" and try to hide it as much as possible. I am very open and am happy to discuss my stuttering with others. But for something on a whole other level, it's just something you don't ask about. She explained that she found out she had it when she received a blood transfusion, and at the time, the blood wasn't as well screened as it is now.
Riley and I never again brought it up. We talked about normal things-music, movies, sports, celebrities, and we grew really close. Riley also shared with me a goal she wanted to make happen: she actually wanted to attend college classes, so for once, she could feel normal. That struck a chord with me-that's what we all want. People who stutter always hear the putdowns: "Freak!" "Speak up, man!" and others to boot. She confessed that she had actually signed up to attend classes at my alma mater. I began to wonder if I'd have the chance to meet her. And despite this, I heard all the naysaying: "This girl is playing you." "Are you really that naive?" "Oh well, there's a sucker born every minute."
Eventually, Riley gave me the address where she was going to be for orientation. Hell, I didn't know even her last name. But on that day, I went up to assistant who carried the notepad and asked if she was on the roster. "Yes, she is," she said. My heart skipped a beat. She confirmed my suspicions. She was telling the truth after all.
I waited three hours for her, and she never showed up. I drove back home, and waited for her to come online. She never did. I began to tear up and forgot about everything. Three days later, she came back online and I asked her what happened. She refused to answer. I begged. I pleased. I cajoled her to tell me something. But she wouldn't crack.
Then a few hours later, she came back online. She told me everything. Riley said that her condition was worsening, and she probably wouldn't make it to the campus again. I asked her what was going on, and she said that she had hospice workers at her house. I felt helpless. I wanted to say something, do anything that would change how she felt. But I knew it wouldn't work.
The very next day, I received an email from her, which would turn out to be one of the last I'd ever receive from her. This is what it said:
"It takes someone very brave to walk toward another when everyone else is running away. You are that person. You would have been the first person I said 'I love you' to." She passed away shortly thereafter. I never even knew where her funeral was, or if she even had one.
We all know life is short, and tomorrow is not promised to anyone. But at every chance you get, say "I love you and thank you for allowing me to stutter" to those you are close to. Say it to your friends, your family (if you are close to them, unlike me), your clergy, a neighbor, even to the clerk at the local store. You never know when you'll have the chance to. I wish I thanked Riley for allowing me to stutter. I'll never have the chance to, and for that, I have to live with that the rest of my life. Don't make the same mistake I made.
My name is Steven Kaufman and I am a person who stutters. Until next time, stand up and be counted. Make your voice heard.