After I spent 30 years raising children full time, an unexpected change in our family’s circumstances made it necessary for me to obtain employment so that my family of seven could be provided with health insurance. In spite of my college degree, I quickly learned that I was undesirable for employment; my age, lack of marketable skills and blank résumé all contributed to the slamming of many doors in my face. This was an interesting experience for me, because I had been considered quite desirable during the years when I had volunteered so actively in my community.
Our regional Catholic Disabilities Services, however, did show an interest in me, explaining they were in need of employees with one attribute: compassion. They pay a very low hourly rate but offer an excellent family health insurance benefit plan. The position they offered me was that of residence counselor, and it is designed to meet the needs of extremely disabled adults. Since my family had been without health insurance for over a month, I was frantic with worry, and although I was not sure what a residence counselor did, I was grateful to be offered any job and accepted with gratitude.
The day I visited the home for disabled adults to which I would be assigned, and was being shown around by a supervisor, a door opened behind me and out of a dark space popped a little, dark-skinned man, quite deformedand stark naked! I almost fainted. When I looked askance at my supervisor, she laughed and said, Oh, that’s resident Jack Barker, and he hates to wear clothes.
Terrified beyond my wildest imaginings, I entered the training program, hoping that I would be capable of doing the job and delivering personal care to extremely disabled persons. Training taught me how to meet all their personal-care needs. I spent hours reading the legal files of the residents, learning of maladies, I.Q.’s that run from below 20 to 35, and years spent in state institutionsusually from age 2 on.
The training classes were rather overwhelming, so I paid a visit to my soul sister, Linda, my longtime best friend and a woman with spiritual depth shared by few. She listened as I poured out my tears and fears. I described the residents’ physical infirmities, verbal and mental limitations and their total dependence on caretakers. When I was done trying to convince Linda that I could not do this job, she insisted that I couldbecause the residents of the home are simply large children, she said, and certainly I had good experience taking care of children. That was it.
My friend also gave me a book by the Rev. Henri Nouwen, entitled Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, telling me that Henri left a full professorship at Harvard University and went to a home in Canada to pastor disabled people like mine. In this marvelous book, he wrote about having a disabled gentleman assigned to him for several hours a day:
During the first few weeks, I was mostly afraid, always worrying that I would do something wrong.... But gradually I relaxed [and] as the weeks passed by, I discovered how I had come to look forward to my two hours with Adam.... I experienced gratitude for having him as my friend.... Even though he couldn’t speak or even give sign of recognition, there was real love between us.
I chose to work the overnight shift, from 11 p.m. to 9 a.m., so I would be home for my teenagers during the day. My duties included bathing, dressing and providing all personal care needed by any resident, preparing meals, mopping floors, cleaning bathrooms, laundering residents’ clothing and serving/feeding them breakfast. I quickly realized how right my friend was: 30 years as a mother had prepared me well for this position.
Soon after Istarted the job, Jack Barker, the gentleman who had popped out of the dark room and startled me on my first visit there, was assigned to me. After I finished bathing and dressing him in the morning, with care taken with the side of his skull that is all caved in (from a fall from a fourth-floor window when he was 2 years old), I brought him to the dining room for breakfast. Almost immediately my supervisor appeared and asked the staff, Who dressed Jack?
I did, I mumbled, concerned I had done something wrong. Sorry, she said, Jack has to wear an adult diaper to his day program. I hadn’t been told.
So as I took Jack (who is 46) by the hand to get him back to his room, he stiffened completely. It was a struggle to lead him away from the dining room and back to his bedroom, then undress him, get the diaper on and dress him again. As I was putting on his socks the second time, I only then noticed a wide, deep scar encircling one of his ankles. It was indented, the tissue above the scar being wider and fuller, as if something had restricted the growth of his leg just above his foot.
After getting the job done and serving Jack his breakfastwhich included a second cup of coffee for what I had put him through that morningI asked another staff member, What is that scarring around Jack’s ankle? Oh, she said nonplussed, that’s from his being shackled to the bed for all the years he was institutionalized.
At that moment I came to understand clearly that caring for Jack, and the other residents, was indeed a special privilege. I was humbled.
Jack, who is mute (though he loves to hum), does respond to meas do all of the residents, in some slight waywhen I pray over him, and them, at bedtime. He lies in bed perfectly still with his eyes closed, but squeezes my hand when I make the Sign of the Cross upon his forehead, praying the little prayer I used to say over my five kids every night: Jack, I bless you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. May God’s own peace be with you and your guardian angel at your side all night long. Good night, Jack; God loves youand I love you too.
In Here and Now, Henri Nouwen reminds us that Jesus does not say to us in Scripture, Blessed are those who care for the poor. He says, Blessed are the poor. Now I understand that great blessings are coming to me from loving these holy, pure, yet severely disabled people.
In Scripture Jesus tells us to serve, and he promises us the reward of joy. Yet the world teaches us to believe that money, power and/or worldly success will bring us joy. My experience serving disabled persons has brought me to the truth: joy is not the world’s gift to give. Joy is God’s gift, and it is given to anyone who serves another with compassion. Or as Nouwen writes, Joy is the secret gift of compassion.
In the early hours of dawn, I am filled with joy when I find myself waking Jack Barker with a song, singing Good morning to you, at which he grins toothlessly as he hums along on one note. Then he reaches out his hand to me for support as he painfully gets out of bed. After eight hours of working through the night for my disabled family, I wonder how it can be possible to feel such energy and joy in the morning.
I’m convinced it is grace, God’s grace. These poor, broken persons are equally God’s beloved sons and daughters, deserving of the service and loving care they receive. That is why the joy derived from caretaking permeates one’s soul. It’s a joy that always brings surprises.