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Starting Point

The grace of being a gift


Giving a gift is easier than being a gift, I thought as I stood at the window watching our middle son and daughter-in-law. It was raining outside and they were standing in our yard, wearing hooded parkas and conversing enthusiastically. I watched my son affectionately put his arm around his wife. Then they bent to dig up perennials from the rock garden they have created in memory of our youngest son who died several years ago. All afternoon they worked as they prepared to transport slips to the back yard of their own new home an hour’s drive away. I felt a surge of inner warmth as I realized that the legacy of the transplanted foliage would become a living reminder for them of the passion, life-giving memories, lessons and sorrows we have shared.

When I was about 40 years of age, I officially became a disabled person due to a number of chronic illnesses. Making peace with these limitations has been real spiritual work. In the early days, it seemed I was frantic in the effort to put one foot in front of the other as the weeks turned to months and then years. To become a person who needs caretaking was not how I wanted to be seen in the eyes of my children. I did not want to be a burden to my family; I wanted to relieve theirs. I wanted to be a giver and to be able to reach out and meet their needs. I did not want a “gift” of this multi-layered magnitude that would teach my loved ones what it means to be a caretaker and all the messy processing that entails.

At first I just denied the disappointment it was to my family to not have a mother who could physically be active and a helper on that all-important level. Finally the day came when it had to be said by them and acknowledged by all of us. That was a painful and stressful day in my life, but also one of the most pivotal. For all of us, it was a day of facing the truth, accepting it, forgiving on a number of levels and in time moving forward with greater compassion.

Now I am able to look at that day and see an evolution at work. The dynamics of it fill me with a sense of enlightenment that I never thought I could feel. I know my son and daughter-in-law feel the same way. It’s something you can see in their eyes and hear in their voices. We realize that those who become disabled have the unique privilege -- through their limitations -- of becoming a bringer of lessons (and sometimes disappointing experiences) that call for understanding, tolerance, consistency of patience and humor. The potential of this reciprocal gift giving, when viewed through the eyes of faith, is nothing short of phenomenal. Only through God could such evolution in grace be possible for any of us, whatever our roles in life.

The disabled person, through faith, discovers that he or she has a life purpose. They are channels for authentic spiritual work. While I don’t get to go on shopping sprees with my children, attend functions or assist them in the practical ways mothers like to help their children, I do get to be the confidant, to cheer them on and pray for them. I can stand at the door and wave goodbye when they drive away until they are out of sight.

I realized how important small rituals like this are when my husband and I went to visit our son and daughter-in-law at their new home for the first time. As we were leaving in the car, they stood on the porch and waved until we were out of sight, sending us on our way with love. To us, this is what life and our true work is all about, whether one is disabled or not.

Joni Woelfel is the author of Tall in Spirit: Meditations for the Chronically Ill and The Light Within: A Woman’s Book of Solace, Acta Publications.

National Catholic Reporter, May 31, 2002