Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Forged In Fire

One of the most astonishing things about T as he's become a young man recently is the depth of his compassion. He has little patience for petty complaints, suffering, as he does, from an excess of life experience and perspective. In fact, he cuts short superficial venting (except on what he has designated "Mother/Son Venting Night", which happens on Tuesdays, and has two ground rules: no advice, no criticism--also, I have to buy dinner). However, when someone's number is truly up and they are suffering one of life's deeper indignities, his compassion and empathy are unequaled.

I had the occasion to witness this gift in action just recently, as my mother-in-law is dying now of late-stage Alzheimer's. She has entirely lost (or perhaps given up) her powers of speech. She communicates through gestures, or sits silent. I'm not at all sure she knows who I am. Last time I saw her, she cawed in surprise and backed away. But she remembers T. (The reason, I think, is that about a decade ago, she was struggling to adjust to being T's grandmother. She simply didn't understand foster care or older child adoption. Tim, my partner, had uncharacteristically sharp words for her. Like many a mother, she was keenly attuned to her son's disappointment in her, and she made an immediate adjustment to embrace T as our son and her (first) grandson. From that point on, she has shown T unmitigated affection.) Even in her increasing mental isolation, she lights up when she sees T. We visited last weekend and she ran to embrace him. She even teared up when she said good-bye to him the next day, which is the first real display of emotion we've seen from her in quite some time.

But what I meant to describe here isn't her affection for T, but rather, his deep empathy for her and for my father-in-law. T has a universal perspective and a true compassion for those who are dependent and isolated, particularly the elderly. He works as a nurse assistant, and he tells us on a weekly basis how much he loves his job, and how much the vow that nurse assistants take to protect the dignity of their patients means to him. With them, he enjoys his own position of gentle authority, and it makes him feel good to earn their trust.  With my mother-in-law, he drew on his professional expertise, and on the deep value he places in family loyalty. He altered his plans to be present for her birthday, and his very presence made it a special occasion for her.

Late in the evening while we were with my in-laws, my father-in-law, who was raised in poverty and lost his own mother at a young age, devolved into the depths of self-pity. He is emotionally repressed and, as such, he's not been able to fully confront that his wife is dying now. As we sat outside and talked, he expressed his frustration that his old age isn't as he envisioned it would be, and he complained about finding himself alone but encumbered. After an hour or so of this, my patience grew thin and I wanted to convince him to get some help in caring for his wife and get on with his life. T texted me from across the lawn as we sat talking. "He's not ready," he said. "He's struggling to accept what's happening. Now isn't the time. When he's ready to accept what's happening, we can talk to him about what to do next. Right now, just listen. He needs to vent. He doesn't have anyone he can talk to."

I was humbled by his words, and by his selflessness. I was impressed by the extent of his patience and the depth of his wisdom. And of course he was right.

Amazing. The next day, he was back to acting like a kid, whining and demanding snacks from the back seat of the car, dancing to the music on the car stereo as we sat in traffic. He is a thousand year-old soul wrapped in the still immature body of a young man. I always knew and treasured his compassion. But after nearly a decade of being one of his mothers and his fellow-traveler, and sharing some significant measure of the loss he's endured, I understand him more, and, at the same time, I am more awed by his ability to turn suffering into a selfless and unpretentious generosity toward others in their moment of greatest weakness.
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