Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Story Of Love And Learning

     We learn much of what we know about ourselves by contrasting ourselves with others God has placed in our path. Indeed, it’s not possible to know what a thing is without knowing what it is not -- and this is as true for men as for any animal or inanimate object.

     Quite some time ago, a series of interpersonal failures taught me an important lesson about love. It’s not a rosy glow that surrounds one like some sort of gaseous miasma. It’s a commitment to another person that expresses itself in one’s decisions and actions. In other words, it’s less something you feel than something you do. To promote the pleasant feelings that come from loving and being loved over the commitment through which it’s made real is to lose the point entirely.

     It’s not possible to put calipers on one’s love for another and determine its quantity in some analytical fashion, but an encounter with another person who clearly loves better – more wholeheartedly and unstintingly – than oneself can be an illuminating and humbling experience.

     Yesterday morning, awake and refreshed at last after a hard day of house-hunting on the North American continent, I descended from my hotel room to partake of the “continental breakfast” spread on the first floor. There I encountered a remarkable woman, whose privacy I’ll preserve by calling her Jane.

     Jane is a European, a divorced mother of three. She’s lively, engaging, and amenable to a breakfast conversation with a stranger, something that’s becoming rare in these latter days. It developed that we share several interests, as we’re both writers. But what was most striking about Jane had little to do with that.

     One of Jane’s three children, a young teenager, is severely autistic. I didn’t know, before making her acquaintance, that a child who suffers from the severer degrees of autism requires constant attention and care. As with the care of an Alzheimer’s sufferer, the obligation can be both draining and isolating. Jane was in the United States because she’d found a facility here that specializes in providing that sort of care and therapy to severely autistic children, in the hope of preparing them for an adulthood of independence. She’d brought her son there some time ago, and had flown from her European home to the U.S. to see him.

     So far, you might think little of this tale. If you’re the hard-hearted sort, you might even be entertaining some critical notions about Jane. But the story doesn’t end here. Jane flies back and forth between Europe and America many times per year to be with her son. As her youngest child is still a minor, she must make elaborate arrangements for each trip. She bears the expense, displacement, and difficulties of so many trips per year entirely out of her own resources, and without complaint.

     That’s love in action.

     Few of us are equal to the challenges of caring for a person with a severe mental handicap, without the assistance of skilled and willing others. Still fewer of us are equipped to assist a young boy with such a handicap toward a functional, independent adulthood. Facilities that provide such services are anything but cheap.

     Imagine a divorcee with such a burden. Imagine further that she bears other serious responsibilities, including the care of another child, with which she receives no assistance. Finally, imagine that her love for her handicapped son is undiminished, and is demonstrated in practice by frequent, expensive, and arduous travels to a foreign land, so that her son can receive the best of care and preparation yet not forfeit direct contact with the mother who bore him and loves him unreservedly.

     We speak rather lightly of “role models” these days. I submit that for the role of loving mother, we could not do better than Jane.

     I’ve never had a burden as heavy as the care of a severely handicapped child. I doubt I would bear it as serenely as Jane. But I know love when I see it in action.

     Our culture honors the commitment to love by deed, and despite all obstacles, far less frequently than the “rosy glow” aspects of romantic intoxication. We’ve lost a great deal this way, as one can easily see from the readiness of so many of our contemporaries to abandon their marriages, to abort “unwanted” children, to pack aged parents into nursing homes, and generally to slough any obligation that might inconvenience them for more than an instant. Yet we talk incessantly about “love” and how much we want it.

     It’s infinitely more important to do love than it is to feel love. I must remember.
     Thank you, Jane.
     Thank You, God.


Weetabix said...

Doing love rather than merely feeling it can be a difficult thing to remember among the quotidian distractions that life offers up.

Thank you for the reminder, Fran.

BlogDog said...

I remember an incident many years ago when I was in Japan teaching English. I was on a train probably to some sightseeing location when I saw a somewhat aged woman with a younger woman who obviously suffered some kind of mental disability. What, before the word became anathema, we used to call "retarded" when the term was taken literally. The aged woman was feeding the younger woman who i took to be her daughter though my knowledge of Japanese was insufficient for me to say to a certainty.
My lasting memory was of sadness thinking of what would happen to the younger woman when the older woman passed away. She probably would have been taken care of in a physical sense but I could not imagine that she would have that felt emotional connection that can only be described as love.
It was brief encounter but it left an impression on me.

Reg T said...

I have a friend, a classmate from high school (in Port Jeff) who had a daughter with Cornelia DeLange syndrome:
followed by a normal - and very bright - younger daughter.

The love and caring displayed by my friend, and her husband and younger daughter (who has gone on to work in medicine as a nurse practitioner), was nothing short of amazing. The girl died in her late teens, although she still had the appearance of a three or four year old child. It was an incredible trial for all of them, but they exemplified the "love by _doing_" of which you write.

As Weetabix said, thanks for the reminder, Fran.