Once upon a time, I was a college student in need of a job. The Massachusetts Association for the Blind needed aides in its residential school for children with multiple handicaps. With visions of Anne Sullivan dancing in my head, I went for an interview. The director checked to see that I had a pulse, then hired me.
I worked the 3-11 shift, in the highest-functioning class. None of the kids spoke, although a few had a little bit of sign language–10 or 15 words, at most. One of the boys, Kevin, had a chart with pictures and could communicate maybe 100 words by pointing. All of them behaved in strange and off-putting ways–lots of peculiar vocalizations, rocking and other kinds of self-stimulating, hair twirling and pulling, constant masturbation, sketchy toileting habits, and “self-feeding skills” that made every meal its own little apocalypse. One girl anxiously gulped air all day long, so that by the end of every day her stomach was as distended as that of a woman many months pregnant. All of them had been essentially abandoned by their parents, although two or three mothers still came to visit every few weeks or months–as often as they could bear it, I think. The whole building reeked of urine and despair.
My idealism was sapped by the end of my third day. Still, I tried, snobbishly, not to engage in the cynical joking of some of the staff members; I was primly horrified. I wish I could go back and slap my self-righteous face. Some of them had been there for years, devoted, and I understood nothing of the gritty love that brought them back into that stinking building, day after day, to tend to children who gave no sign of recognition, let alone appreciation. I wish now that I could go back again, confess my shame, offer myself as apprentice, beg them to teach me.
One of the boys, Dwayne, was 16–tall and painfully thin, severely affected by cerebral palsy. His muscles were wiry and strong from the constant exercise of unrelenting spasms. He wet his pants several times a day, in what many of the teachers and aides thought was just a ploy to win one-on-one attention. Some nights I spent most of my shift pleading with him to sit down on the toilet and then helping him, over and over, change into dry clothes.
I arrived one afternoon and thought the classroom smelled especially bad–the aide on the shift before me warned me that Dwayne had diarrhea. Since I was still the new kid, I knew dealing with this would be my task for the day. At first it wasn’t too bad–I got him to actually use the toilet a couple of times, and we made it a couple of hours before the first wardrobe change. But the fourth or fifth time I took him to the bathroom, he balked. He unbuttoned his pants, but didn’t want to sit down on the toilet. I tried all of my powers of persuasion, but my eloquence failed to convince, so I tried to physically guide him onto the seat–accomplishing this with minimal force was both a legal requirement and my desperate wish. But he became agitated and started to really fight me. We probably weighed about the same, but his long arms and big hands were much, much stronger than mine. Before I realized what was happening, he reached over and grabbed my hair on both sides of my head–I was in the habit of French-braiding my hair when I went to work, and somehow he slid his fingers into the braids so that I couldn’t work his hands free. There is something primally terrifying about hair-pulling, about not being able to move your head. Also, it hurts. I could feel my blood rising angrily to my face, my own gut lurching in a combination of fear and fury. By now, it was really too late for the toilet; the mess was all over his clothes and the floor and my shoes. Either no one heard me yelling towards the classroom down the hall over the usual bedlam, or everyone was occupied with one of the endless cascade of crises in the classroom and couldn’t come to help. I was panicky, full of helpless rage and disgust, and I raised my hand to slap Dwayne, maybe to startle him into letting go of one side of my head at least.
And right there, with my hand raised to strike him, in that sad, filthy stall, I had what I have always (a little abashedly) described to myself as a vision. For just a moment, I saw myself in a long hallway, with a tall, beautiful man wearing Dwayne’s (kind of goofy) glasses striding towards me. That was all–no words, no rush of tender emotion, just that one quick glimpse. I put my hand back on his arm, more gently, and took a deep breath. He let me pry one of his hands out of my hair, then the other, though not without pulling out a couple of fistfuls of my permed, Bon Jovi lookalike hair (a kindness, probably, to leave me with a little less of that mop!).
I cleaned us up, slowly, his resistance half-hearted now. When he was finally in clean pajamas, he let me pull the blanket over him and sit on his bed holding his hand for a minute before he curled up into the painful-looking snarl of limbs in which he always slept.
I didn’t sleep for a long while that night. I was deeply shaken, ashamed of my anger and disgust, and puzzled by the moment of grace that had rescued us. Over years, I’ve begun to understand this episode in light of Paul’s meditation on charity. I Corinthians 13 ends with what seems like an odd excursus about prophecy and vision and knowledge. Charity is, impossibly, both the prerequisite for and the consequence of vision. Paul warns that in this life, we will see “in a mirror, dimly.” Our vision of others is distorted, because we see them only through the refracted image of ourselves. We play at love, but perform it immaturely, childishly. Paul doesn’t really explain how being able to “know, even as we are known” is related to enduring charity. But in that moment of really seeing Dwayne, I started to understand that once we see each other, we love readily, even inevitably. And real love–Christ’s–comes, undeserved and even unbidden, as a gift of clear sight. Because charity is a gift of God, and not an act of will, it bears all things–even human contradiction; it can come to us even in anger, disgust, or fear, as the infant Christ came to a dark, forgotten corner to dwell among the beasts and his beastly and beloved human kin.
What surprised me then, and still does, about that smelly encounter is how utterly unsentimental it was, and how little it depended on my attempts at cultivating the sorts of feelings I sometimes mistake for an approximation of charity. I wish I could say that I was transformed by the experience, that I’ve developed the habit of seeing charitably. I haven’t. I’m still impatient and judgmental and wretchedly unkind, sometimes to the people I love most in the world–which says, I guess, all there is to say about how good I am at love, left to my own devices. This very unmystical vision startled me by its smallness, by its practicality. No angels singing (I choose to believe they were off in some corner of heaven rehearsing Duruflé motets), no nice testimony meeting lesson tied with a bow, no miraculous healing or dramatic climax. Only that one wordless, piercing moment of recognition, of meeting face to face.
If I could go back, I would sing this lullabye:
Love is little, love is low,
Love will make our spirit grow,
Grow in peace, grow in light,
Love will do the thing that’s right.