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Breaking Open the Ordinary

By Sandy Prather


The gift of compassion


This month of February marks the 17th anniversary of my mother’s death. She died Feb. 2, 1999, and every year since then my sisters and I have gathered to remember and commemorate her. We tell the stories, and at first, they were accompanied by many tears and some laughter. Now, these many years later, there is much laughter and few, if any, tears. Mostly we treasure our being together and the memories we share.

Our mother gave us many gifts, but a particularly meaningful one came through the way she died. As one relative expressed it, my mother died a good death. Even at the time, amidst our grief, we knew that to be true. In her late 70s, having lived a faith-filled life, one marked with the love of family and friends, she died peacefully at home, with her family around her. A lengthy battle with cancer had taken its toll on her body but had not destroyed her spirit.

Even as I write those statements, however, I find I must qualify them. My mother’s death was not easy. She spent the last two years of her life becoming increasingly more debilitated and it was a long and often painful journey. Still, even those years were marked by grace and for those of us who travelled intimately with her, her adult children, we knew that we were blessed to be along.

There is where the gift came in. One of my sisters articulated it well at Mom’s funeral vigil. She thanked my mother for the gift of those years and the privilege of caring for her. She recalled some elements of it: enduring together the seemingly endless rounds of doctor’s visits and the anxious periods of waiting in various offices and hospital rooms; the tasks of figuring out medicines and administering them; the eventual necessity of feeding, washing, dressing and tending to my mother’s frail and wasted body. There were times when emotions ran high and fears, anxieties, exasperation, confusion and even anger flared. She recalled the precious moments of intimacy we all shared, the unbridled laughter and unchecked tears.

All of these things and my mother’s vulnerability in enduring them had, my sister said, stretched us all. The day-to-day demands had pushed us and broken us, forcing each one to discover deep reserves of patience and compassion we never knew we had. Our mother’s suffering had uncovered in us levels of tenderness, deep fidelity and a capacity to love that was new and precious.

Our joint commitment to her and to her care had forged among us siblings unbreakable bonds. We knew in ways we had never known before how much we loved and needed each other. We had, together, learned some of the hard lessons of love, the lessons of the broken heart and we knew we were better persons because of it. We are grateful to my mother for that gift.

Author Ian Brown describes receiving the same hard gift in his book The Boy on the Moon. It’s the emotionally powerful story of Brown’s life with his son, Walker, who was born with a genetic condition that left him devastatingly handicapped, both physically and mentally. Brown describes years of struggle: the severe medical crises and suffering Walker endures, the mostly futile efforts to find effective treatments, the gamut of emotions he and his wife went through, including sorrow, grief, anger, despair, hope, resignation, and always the Why, why, why? Yet every page resonates with the deep love Brown and his wife feel for the one whom Brown sometimes calls “his broken boy.”

Brown’s experience with Walker led him on a search to try and understand tragedy and loss. He was looking for meaning, for reasons and for a way to go forward. His search led him to Picardy and to Jean Vanier. He stayed there with the community for a time, visiting with the residents and the assistants, observing, struggling and reflecting.

In the end, Brown comes to a hard-won peace and some form of wisdom. Looking with eyes of love at his boy, he recognizes how the years of fidelity, of love, and of care, even with the pain and struggle, have shaped him. His love for Walker, as broken, challenging, suffering, and imperfect as it was, had nevertheless transformed him in powerful and ultimately good ways. He knows himself to be a more compassionate, gentler and even kinder man than he had been. He, too, learned the lesson of love.

When Jesus tells us to be compassionate as our heavenly Father is compassionate, I think of this lesson. Compassion is not simply the exterior act of caring for the other and not only a gift we give away. There is an interior dynamic at work in the heart of the one called to be compassionate. Carried through with fidelity, it becomes a profound gift to the giver, working its mysterious grace deep within one’s heart as it breaks, pushes, challenges and, ultimately, transforms.

The Good Samaritan was moved with compassion, Jesus tells us, and when such experiences come into our lives, we should stop to consider what gifts they are. They are, without a doubt, heart-breaking. But perhaps that’s the point. In the breaking is the transforming and our hearts indeed, become more like God’s.

Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.