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Starting Point

The wealth of hearing, speaking and knowing love


His name was Harry, and I used to visit him in a New Jersey nursing home. He had suffered a stroke, and his bed was just off to the right as soon as I entered the front door. He could begin a sentence and then would lose his way with whatever connects the brain, language and the tongue and would start to cry. He had little control over the movement of his arms. I never saw him move his legs. He was in a large bed that was like a baby’s crib, with metal bars on the side that kept him from rolling out of the bed with the uncontrollable movement of his arms.

I would speak to him, and at first he would smile and start to say a few things and then would cry as the words failed him. The nurses told me that he was in no pain, that many people who suffer strokes cry uncontrollably. I would reach through the bars and take his hand in mine and while holding his hand talk to him and sometimes he would stop crying and seemed to listen. He would smile, but then the smile would give way to tears when he attempted to speak again. I would keep talking and holding his hand. He smiled, then cried, then smiled again. His words came in sputters and pain.

All about me during those visits were other visitors who chatted away with each other or with men and women they were visiting. Harry seemed so far away by comparison. No one, it seemed, could really “visit” him and connect with his mind and heart through language.

That was almost 30 years ago. Harry was old then, and I am sure he has passed on. I moved on, too, and used to go back from time to time to see him, and there was never any change in the routine.

I thought back on Harry earlier today. Of all things, a book on the transcontinental railroad brought him to mind. It is the book we are having read to us during our main meal at midday, and the section today was about the high hopes people had 150 years ago as plans were being discussed to lay tracks from one end of America to the other. The monk who read came to a sentence that said that gold would be discovered in California and the rush would be on -- the tracks would be laid even faster. The desire for wealth made everything and everyone move faster. Hopes would reach a frenzy.

And Harry came to mind. Why? I am not sure. Maybe some association with connecting, with reaching a point, with high hopes of arrival and the wealth of being able to do just that. Harry lay still -- all the gold in California would have meant nothing to him. To speak would have been rubies and diamonds for him. He had a heart. He could not speak from it.

A nurse told me that it was important to speak to Harry as if he were normal. “Tell him you care for him,” she would say. “Tell him it is going to be all right.”

Well, I cared for him and told him as much, but things were not all right. I only had my words and the holding of his hand. Fool’s gold, maybe. Not the real thing. But then, on second thought, what a different world it would be if we tried every day to reach out to each other with the little we have. We are the only wealth there is. How I wish we could as easily find a way to reach into the heart of another and find the gold that is there.

All the wealth in the world is worthless when it is no longer within our grasp. And, I wonder, what is its real worth, anyway? We will all reach a still point in life when we want to hear love, speak love, know love through touch, nearness, goodness. Perhaps we can know something of that day by laying what tracks we can to bring us to the only wealth that matters in this life and surely the life to come. Be still, be loving, receive love from others.

Trappist Fr. James Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery, Conyers, Ga.

National Catholic Reporter, January 11, 2002