I've been inspired a lot lately by the enduring, constant love of people around me who are dealing with tough situations. With Valentine's Day upon us, I find myself reflecting on what this courageous love is all about.
Don't get me wrong. Romantic love is among the greatest, best experiences in anyone's life. It's good to celebrate each year with flowers, cards and heart-shaped boxes of chocolate (a basic food group in my family). But the love that inspires me most, and one I wish we would celebrate more, is the hard, daily grind kind of love that too often slips by unnoticed.
I'm thinking of the love like that of my friends "Maureen" and "John" (not their real names). This couple's first child was born with a severe birth defect that was supposedly incompatible with life, involving severe mental and physical impairment as well as hearing and vision deficits. But their little boy, "George," apparently hadn't read the medical books and lived anyway. After doctors told them the odds of having another child with the same affliction were next to zero, the couple became pregnant again. Unbelievably, their second child -- another boy -- had the same severe genetic abnormality. (I'll call him "Ted.")
Every Sunday for roughly the next 30 years, John and Maureen brought George and Ted to church, though neither boy could speak, walk unassisted or ever grew taller than 4 feet. Some Sundays, this couple provided a far better homily than the one offered from the pulpit. It was obvious they were a major support to one another in their shared call to be unconditionally loving parents and skilled caregivers. Though he couldn't speak with words, Ted's face would light up when Maureen talked to him. George grinned with delight every time John teasingly tousled his hair. Our parish community celebrated the boys' first Communions and confirmations even as we stood in silent awe at the courage and faith it must have taken for Maureen and John just to get out of bed each morning.
George died several years ago and Ted just six months past. We accompanied this broken-hearted couple through a great grief, even though they had long ago accepted the inevitability of an early death for both of their sons. Through it all, they always found a way to focus on the positive things about their children's lives -- things all but invisible to lesser souls like ours.
I hope John and Maureen celebrate Valentine's Day in a very special way this year. Their committed-for-the-long-haul kind of love was and is a weekly inspiration to our whole parish.
Then there is the witness of four women close to my heart. These are nun friends who have accompanied one another in mission for years and years and years. They are now wending their way heavenward with no little pain and sorrow, albeit mixed in with a great love. Two of my friends are accompanying their lifelong companions in mission as they struggle with Alzheimer's disease.
"Louise" and "Ellen" (not their real names) lived in the same home alongside other sisters for more than 30 years. They share a love of meditation, music (Ellen has a gorgeous singing voice), and the literally hundreds of people who regularly visited the spacious old home the community made available for retreats, hospitality, and special workshops. Louise is a respected sister-leader and important mother-mentor to many, including me. Ellen served as a nurse and was an exceptionally gifted counselor. Both have the unique gift of ministering to deep soul wounds with respect, acceptance and great tenderness. Four years ago, Ellen led liturgical singing every morning at Mass. But slowly, slowly, she could do less and less as her memory slipped away. Louise stuck loyally by her side, helping in every way imaginable, including making Ellen laugh when there really wasn't much to laugh about.
Ellen is now in a special facility. Louise visits nearly every day, even though Ellen doesn't quite remember her anymore. When she gets upset, Louise soothes her by gently reminding Ellen of her lifelong desire to cultivate a peaceful heart. She usually responds with a beatific smile and settles down. At each visit, they both sing the hymns Ellen has loved so well for so long. This brings the best peace of all. If you ask Louise how she is managing (she's no spring chicken herself), she doesn't really understand the question. Of course she will care for Ellen. They have loved God, their community and each other too well for too long to do things any differently.
My two other sister friends, "Anna" and "Paula" (not their real names), are in a similar situation, though Paula, who is almost 90 years old, has less severe dementia. This allows Anna to care for her at home. They have lived together for over 40 years. On Paula's bedroom table is a paper with big letters on it: Dear Paula. You live here with me, Anna. Sometimes when you wake up you are confused. That is OK. We live at (gives address) and I work at (gives name of facility). We have been missioned here by our community (gives name of congregation ). I'm sleeping in the next room. If you need me, just call and I will hear you.
Just call and I will hear you.
How "Simply Spirit" is that?
Along with John and Maureen, I hope my sister friends celebrate Valentine's Day in very special way, too. Here is a light-hearted if sort-of-serious reflection to help get that going:
as simple as a song and as profound as the Pleiades.
all around us.
listening when you'd rather be Facebooking.
families that stick together no matter what.
Gandalf in "The Lord of the Rings."
being willing to die for someone.
being willing to live with someone when they are being a royal pain in the, um, patoot.
a passion for the values of a God who is love right through.
taking risks for justice.
Bach, Mozart, and Leonard Bernstein's "Mass."
Louisa May Alcott's Little Women.
sending warm vibes to cold hearts.
hanging in with someone who is hating him- or herself.
a walk in the Cleveland Metroparks with a forever friend.
laughing like a fool at "Modern Family" or "The Middle."
peanut butter and jelly.
all things Karl Rahner, Julian of Norwich and Teilhard de Chardin.
knowing nothing/no one is perfect, and that's just perfect.
standing up for yourself.
standing up for someone else.
forgiving Rush Limbaugh.
embracing what really matters.
deciding your wrinkles are as beautiful as Judi Dench's in "Philomena."
letting your beloved shape her/his own story.
adorable nieces and nephews who want to play pool with you even when you don't know how.
knowing when to let silence speak.
knowing when to break the silence.
an eternal, ineffable, deep-dug root that never, ever lets you go.
Happy Valentine's Day!
[A Sister of St. Joseph, Sr. Christine Schenk served urban families for 18 years as a nurse midwife before co-founding FutureChurch, where she served for 23 years.]
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