It’s my understanding that long ago in Japan, cracks in valuable bowls were repaired with gold. The gold was soft enough to mold into each crevasse along the crack, and the bowl could again hold liquids. The original shape of the bowl was retained, but the shining lines of gold stood out, creating a new persona – one that was unique and valuable.
I had the privilege of spending eighteen months with a man who embodied these principals. He’d been a brilliant engineer, but now was well into a form of dementia that included Parkinson’s disease along with cognitive deficits. It was progressive and untreatable.
His doctor had recommended regular exercise, and he loved swimming. His wife was doing all the care for him, so I volunteered to take him once a week to the pool at the Y. By the time I first met him, he’d lost a sense of what his body was doing and where he was in space. I’d help him change clothes and then sat in a chair at the deep end of the pool while he swam.
Once in a while he’d wander into an adjoining swim lane and get in someone else’s way. I’d guide him back to his lane. For the most part, I simply sat and watched. When he wanted to rest, he’d hang onto the end of the pool and we’d talk. We generally stayed for a little over an hour.
For the first six months, I saw few changes in him. We both came to look forward to our time together. He was usually happy and perhaps because he’d been so intelligent, he retained the ability to carry on a conversation. I then began to see small changes such as not being able to figure out how to turn on the shower and having trouble with door latches. While swimming, he kicked his legs more and more feebly. One arm became less active, and then both.
I’d had a lot of practice caring for children whose health was fragile. In my career as a school Occupational Therapist, on average I attended the funeral of one of my current or former students each year. I’d been forced to face the question, “How emotionally close do I want to get to this child, knowing that they may die?” I decided that I would love them as completely as I could – even though the more I loved them, the more I’d miss them when they were gone. If I kept my distance I’d still lose them, but would also have lost the joy of deeply caring for someone.
Here I was with an adult, watching for months as he slowly lost function. Would I pull away to protect myself, or cherish our relationship? Aware of what I was deciding, I reveled in our time together.
Sitting by the side of that pool, hearing stories I’d heard many times before, I was at peace. I knew that both he and I were where we were supposed to be, doing what we were supposed to do. Several times in that eighteen months, I found that the two of us had entered heaven. I was filled with bliss and at one with the rightness of the world. The life guard and other swimmers were unaware, but I knew where we were.
We had come to care deeply about each other and were helping each other. We were in sync with God’s purpose and thus I could glimpse heaven while still on earth. Looking back, I believe it was love and compassion that opened the door.
I have a CD by Peter Mayer titled Heaven Below. It includes a song about Japanese bowls and made me aware of how precious my swimming partner’s needs were. Yes, his disease was terrible. Yes, life isn’t fair. Yes, his loss of function was a travesty (in terms of life on this earth). Yet, his disabilities made me love him more.
Back when he was healthy and extremely busy, I’m sure we would have had little to do with each other. His interests and abilities were too different from mine. Now, we could spend these hours at the pool connecting with each other – and God.
I absorbed a lesson more deeply while I watched as God loved this man. It’s typical to think that we must be at our best before we can approach God. Yet, it is often when we are broken that we are most open. When things are going well, I can believe that I’m in control. I don’t need any help and don’t need to change anything about myself. Everything’s great.
And then along comes illness, failure, pain, loss, grief. Maybe I’ve also messed up and done something poorly – or done something I shouldn’t have. Now I can see that I’m not in control and that I very much need to make some changes.
Such is the time that we turn to God. If I could choose someone to speak with, it would be people who are broken, abused, addicted or convicted. I’d share with them that God NEVER moves away from us. We can turn away from God, but God will never turn away from us. We don’t have to be perfect – we don’t even have to be at our best – for God to love us.
Humans cannot be worthy of God’s love. We’re way too flawed and limited. Fortunately, we don’t have to be worthy. We only have to be willing.
God loves us, period. Just as we are. Even after we’ve failed for the umpteenth time. Especially when we’re incapable, falling apart, dying.
Our swimming sessions ended when it became too difficult for him to keep his head above the water. He died weeks later. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t think fondly of him and our time together.
Some who knew I was spending an afternoon a week with him thought I was making a big sacrifice. I knew better. I was, for those hours, living as God intended.