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Goodness leaves us a heritage of joy and stillness


Many years ago when I was a lonely man I met a woman, Rosemary. Everyone called her Roe. I invited her to my home to meet my brothers and sisters, and to meet my mother and father. One of my brothers, Oliver, was blind, mute, born without an intellect and confined to his bed for 32 years. When it was time to feed Oliver dinner, I stepped into the kitchen and began preparing the food. Roe followed me and watched. I found his red dinner bowl in the cupboard, placed it on the kitchen counter, and reached into the refrigerator for milk and eggs. I asked Roe if she would peel a banana as I pulled a box of oatmeal baby cereal from the pantry.

“Is that what your brother eats?” Roe asked.

“Yep.” I said. “Here, watch.” I broke the egg and poured the white and the yoke from the shells into the bowl. Then I shook the baby cereal into the mixture, mashed up the banana and scraped that into the bowl, and poured in warm milk, and then I stirred the goop. “I know it doesn’t look very appetizing, but Oliver loves this.”

Roe and I walked up to Oliver’s bedroom, which was at the top of the stairs, the first room to the right. The walls were yellow, the window curtains a pastel shade of yellow, and Oliver’s blanket was a light brown. His head rested on his pillow. His lifeless, twisted arms rested outside the edge of the blanket. As I sat on the side of the bed to begin feeding Oliver, Roe asked me in a quiet and strong voice, “Can I do that?”

And so Roe fed Oliver his dinner, scooping up a bit of food on the spoon, lightly touching his lips, and then watching as Oliver opened his mouth. Roe gently placed the food into my brother’s mouth as his lips closed around the silver spoon. Roe fed Oliver his entire meal, then she looked up at me and smiled. I smiled too.

When I saw how comfortable she was with my brother, when I saw how kind and gentle she was, I was given clear evidence that this young woman possessed qualities that I did not even know were the things that make for a substantial marriage, but I did see how lovely she was to my brother. Six months later Roe and I were engaged, and today we are celebrating our 26 years of marriage, and we have three children.

During the first months of our courtship, I asked Roe how it was that she felt so comfortable tending to my disabled brother. I told her that many people were uncomfortable when they met him for the first time.

“Chris,” she said, “my mother was dying from cancer. It was diagnosed incorrectly. The doctors thought she had an ulcer when in fact she had invasive stomach cancer. I took care of her during her illness and during her dying. I bathed her and fed her. I loved her very much. After tending to my dying mother, it was very easy to feed Oliver.”

Goodness pursues goodness. Roe tending to her mother gave her the easy strength to tend to my brother, and Roe being so gentle and kind to Oliver demonstrated to me that she had significant qualities that I admired in a woman. See the domino effect of goodness?

Do you rake leaves in autumn? After the afternoon’s work do you look back over the lawn and think, “Hey, that looks nice”? Why do we listen to Mozart from century to century? What is hidden in the paintings of Picasso or in the words of Faulkner?

We are the only creatures on earth that have the ability to look back over experiences and draw conclusions.

The bears, elephants, pelicans, spiders, trout all move through life based on genetic codes and inbred patterns of behavior that are motivated to find food, reproduce and die. But we, mothers, carpenters, teachers, baseball players, singers, dancers, grandmothers, readers, wishers, dreamers, we human beings have the ability to look back and remember, we have the ability to sit in a chair when we are old and gray and full of sleep and say, “That was good.”

Goodness is like an investment for the future: our own and the future of those we love. Every act of goodness, every act of kindness has an unrealized consequence waiting for us, or for those we surround with goodness.

Each day we are confronted with a choice: to choose goodness or to choose what is not good. Each time we make a decision, small or large, to choose good, we build a home, or a school or a book or a symphony in our lives that can be read in the future, that can be lived in, that can be heard when we are nearly incapable of hearing any longer.

How could Roe possibly have known that in her goodness as she tended her dying mother she was preparing herself to feed a disabled, blind boy with ease and tenderness, and how could she possibly have known that a young man would be watching over her shoulder and thinking, “She is the one for me”?

We choose to be good because we believe we are building something: a home, a relationship, a path to heaven, laughter in the evening when a daughter is in her pajamas sitting on your lap telling you all about her day with Billy down the street who found a turtle and how much they loved that turtle.

Without goodness, we do not have a photo album in our hearts to look back upon with glee.

Oh, when we grow old there is a sadness for our lost beauty and vigor, a sadness for the death of those we loved. But there is also that delight in that sense of longing for that day at the lake when we were in love and the loons laughed their silly laugh and all summer stretched out before us in eternity.

In our old age we have the ability to look back with gratitude, to look back to all that was good and holy in our lives and say, “Amen,” or “Ah me,” or “Well that was a life.”

We choose goodness because we know that grief cupped in joy and stillness is the reward at the end of a long day or a long life, and such joy and such stillness come from the accumulation of saying, why yes, of course I will feed Oliver, why yes, of course I will rake the leaves in the backyard.

We are not elephants or trout or pelicans. We are … well, we are people who know the difference between joy and sorrow, and we tend to choose joy. That is why I try to be good. I want my children to live in the heritage of joy and stillness.

Christopher de Vinck is a public school administrator and author of Finding Heaven: Stories of Going Home (Loyola Press). He lives in Pompton Plains, N. J.

National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 2002