I think of her sometimes. She was a young woman who had been hit by a drunk driver. Her life changed drastically then. She was left without the ability to walk or talk. We were about the same age – – I had just turned 21. My summer job involved working with young people who were disabled. We communicated through signed language and despite many people saying that she did not understand I believed she did. I talked to her all the time and when I did not I used signed language.
I will always remember the last day of that summer job. I went up to her ward and there she was waiting for me. The moment she saw me, she pulled her shirt over her head, like a turtle going into her shell. I had not said anything about my last day to her but she knew. She knew that her friend was leaving her. I was actually going away to school in the United States and so I was truly leaving her. I sat down beside her and rubbed her hand as she wept. I did not know what to say to her. I knew that many people came and went in her life. I was to be one more. However, something about that girl’s spirit stayed with me for life. I am not sure exactly why. Have I even comprehended all of the lessons that she taught me? All I know with certainty is that her life impacted me greatly. For starters, she is the reason that I do not drink and drive. She also made me see beyond the shell of a person to what lies deep within. She taught me that what we say and do to others matters. Some would argue that her life was meaningless. I disagree. I have never forgotten her.
We live in a world that demands perfection. I do not think we should play by these rules. In the eyes of many, this young woman was far from perfect. Prior to the accident though, she seemed to have a perfect life and yet, afterwards her body and mind were far from ideal. I believe that her mind was not as impaired as many thought. She seemed to understand our conversations even if she could not respond fully. Did that make her life any less valuable than mine?
I had an aunt who had cerebral palsy and I felt the same way about her. She was difficult to understand but she wrote poetry that showed an inner beauty that not everyone was able to see. We get stuck on what we see. On my recent trip, I was walking down the street fairly early in the morning when I passed a man walking with his dog. His face was severely disfigured and discoloured. Our eyes met briefly before he looked away but I smiled back at him which caused him to look again at me. I greeted him in Spanish with good morning as we passed. I think he was immensely surprised by this small act of kindness. How do we place value on a life?
All of my life, I have been acutely aware of people who are not perfect in the eyes of others. Perhaps it is because I have had my own struggle to fit in and of being bullied because of a speech impediment as a child. Maybe it was because my neighbour was labelled as “mentally retarded” and also bullied. I have always had a heart of compassion for people who are different.
Yesterday, I had the great privilege of attending a documentary about a man from my parish who worked in the north many decades ago. The story was inspiring. The value of his life was evident in this film. This man and his wife have always made me feel very welcome in my community. He now has Parkinson’s Disease. Does that make his life any less precious? He is still the same man, with a heart of gold, a humility that awes, a sense of humour that delights, and a sincere interest in others. These are measures I value.
i have begun to think about what value dying people bring to our world. I have accompanied several people in their final weeks of life. There is a sacred privilege in doing this. I remember one friend in particular, who lived only six months from the time of his diagnosis to his death. The last several weeks were when his health deteriorated rapidly. Yes, it was hard to experience but there were moments that I would not trade for anything. One of my fondest memories was of a night when he was having trouble staying awake. We decided to leave and I turned back at the door to find that he had awoken and was watching us depart. He raised his hand and waved, a big smile on his face, which is ever engrained in my memory. He valued our friendship as we did his.
My own father I jokingly say has more lives than a cat. He has been near death’s door often but always pulls through. He too has Parkinson’s disease, among his many ailments. He is a man who has suffered greatly in life. He is my role model. I do not truly understand suffering. I do know that life still has value. I will take every moment I can with my loved ones who suffer so now as I prepare to do a role reversal, why would I change my thinking?
These are hard and personal questions. I have tried to keep an open mind about hard topics and not force my opinion on others. That said, I have also tried to give people what I call a third option -a way of seeing things differently to make the best choice. I have never really been a black and white person. I have tried to look for ways where Love prevails differently. I would describe myself as a pro-Love person more than anything else. I would want to choose the option of Love, as defined by a Creator who is guiding my choices. I do believe that this radical notion of Love can win in ways that still need to be explored. I look forward with interest and curiosity to delving into these uncharted territories in the months to come.
What values do you place on life?
What is your experience of accompanying someone to their death?
Creator God, you have made everything good. Help us to see the goodness in those who are the least of these – – the disabled, the elderly, and the dying. Show us the gifts that they have to offer us, the so-called perfect ones. Keep us ever attentive to the lessons you wish us to learn. Amen.