By Kelsey Porada
For the past year or two I’ve been reading Pope Francis’s words on what he calls a “culture of encounter” as an antidote to our often-alienating modern world. Among these he says, “We love the human family which dwells here, with all its tragedies and struggles, its hopes and aspirations, its strengths and weaknesses. The earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters… Those who communicate, in effect, become neighbors. The Good Samaritan not only draws nearer to the man he finds half dead on the side of the road, he takes responsibility for him… Let our communication be a balm which relieves pain and a fine wine which gladdens hearts.”
Loyola’s Catholic Studies program was where I learned that the Church had both an intellectual heritage and a mission of mercy and justice. It’s where I learned that “the Church is bigger on the inside” and that the Church has room for everybody. So this post really owes a lot to my Jesuit education at Loyola. I wrote the first part in June. Several months later, I’ve felt stirred to expound on this story and bring it to its conclusion.
I spend Monday mornings at a residential care facility for people with mental illnesses and other handicaps. This morning I had an encounter with another human being that was so painful, overwhelming, beautiful, depressing—I’m not exactly sure what yet but I’ve been weeping intermittently since then…
I was in the main activities room where residents spend time when they’re not in their own rooms, on a smoke break, or passed out from excessive medication. There is this particular elderly man whom I’ve noticed for a few weeks and wondered about. He has the tall, thin limbs that you see in old iconic photos of army men, though he sits in a wheelchair and uses his legs to propel himself around. He is likely in his 70’s, but you can see under the wrinkles and scraggly gray hair that he was probably very handsome and lively in his youth. He is always silent and no one ever interacts with him, and his demeanor at first seems intimidating, as though he doesn’t want to talk. Sometimes he folds his arms on the table and lays his head down for a long time, other times he just sits and stares at nothing. Today, he had even draped a white sheet over his head while he rested upon the table.
This morning, I finally made eye contact with him, so I said, “Hello, how are you?” He looked shocked that I was addressing him, and then he pointed to his ears and his throat, to let me know he was deaf and also could not speak. Until then, I hadn’t even considered that was why he never seemed engaged with others, but I nodded and mouthed, “Ok.” Then I went to get a pad of lined paper and a blue crayon I found, and I wrote “Hello!” in big enough letters. I brought it over to show him.
His eyes widened, and looked into mine, and welled up with tears. He began nodding almost desperately and gestured with his hands this overwhelming experience of emotion. Then I wrote “My name is Kelsey” and I showed him while pointing to myself, not yet knowing how much he could comprehend. He read it and looked at me and vigorously nodded his head and became even more tearful. He reached out to shake my hand, and I embraced his and held it for a moment. I wrote “It’s nice to meet you,” and then he was really crying and brought a napkin out of the pocket of his sweater. He reached his hand out for the blue crayon, and I turned the pad of paper toward him. His hands were shaky and his fine motor coordination was very poor, but laboriously he wrote, “Same also.”
Then he brought out a folded up piece of paper from his pocket and handed it to me. It was his information for the nursing home, with his name, medications, and dietary needs. He wanted me to know his name. I mouthed, “Roy” and he nodded and became overwhelmed once more. He reached out his hand and I held it firmly again, to let him know he is worthwhile and that I care.
We spent the next hour writing on the pad together, me in sentences which he understood perfectly, and him attempting to write words or short phrases, although most of the time was spent with me trying to decipher which letters he was trying to make. He would try his best to write something, and I would copy underneath what letters I thought he might be making, and if I was wrong he would try and try again to write it better. It was very challenging and difficult for him to convey what he wanted to, but I was patient with him and at the end I at least understood: fall in a mine, time, and wait. I interpreted this as perhaps his disabilities came from a serious injury. Being in the Ohio Valley, one of the largest coal mining areas, this is a real possibility, but I have no way of corroborating that story.
At 11:15, I had to leave, but I wrote on one of our pieces of paper, “I have to go for now, but I will be back next Monday and we can try to talk again.” He read it and nodded and gave me a thumbs up. Then I wrote in big blue letters, “Thank you, Roy!” I tore it out and gave it to him to keep. He cried again as he read it, folded it into his pocket, nodded and grasped my hand.
I’m still thinking about his face, his tearful eyes, and the overwhelming emotion he displayed in our encounter. It cuts my heart wide open because he must feel so isolated and so miserable in order to have such an intense response to someone simply communicating with him as a fellow person, not a patient or stranger. That complete sense of deprivation is what makes me so unspeakably sad, but I take responsibility for him, because he is as valuable as anyone else and because no man is an island.
I went back to my university that afternoon, but first I stopped in the church downtown to cry and to pray. The inside of the church was dark in the high afternoon sun, but I chose a pew that had colored sunlight beaming in from the stained glass above. Here my doubts pour in: the weight of Roy’s suffering seemed like too much for me—how could I even approach it? I don’t have access to any information about him and I don’t know who his legal guardian is. What do I have to offer to someone whose situation is so devastated? I am completely powerless to change his circumstances. I know through faith that compassion is meaningful, but really with that much suffering what does it even help…?
I lifted my head to look around the church—so many beautiful pieces crafted by hands and minds seeking to demonstrate something of the beauty of God. In every Catholic church in the world, you will find what are called the “Stations of the Cross.” They are a series of 14 paintings or sculptures displayed in chronological order around the walls of the church. Each “station” is a sorrowful scene from Jesus’s last hours: His persecution and carrying of the cross down the path to Calvary, through His crucifixion, death, and burial. I noticed on the wall right next to my pew, I had sat down by the painting of Station VI: Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. Veronica is an otherwise unknown woman from the crowd gathered along Jesus’s path. She steps forward with a cloth to wipe the blood and sweat from Jesus’s face.
A moment of insight surprised me then. Here was Jesus, skin and flesh tattered raw and bloody from being scourged with a flagrum, having fallen under the weight of the impossibly heavy cross he was dragging, being spit on and screamed at by the crowd, and all this in anticipation of the most brutal execution known in the Roman empire.
Veronica wipes His face. She’s really not doing much in the scheme of things. He’s still walking toward His death. She cannot stop Him from getting crucified. And yet, we still remember her act of mercy almost 2,000 years later. The magnitude of their encounter.
I could be like Veronica to Roy.
Over the remainder of the year, I would see Roy most Monday mornings on my visits. We would communicate however we could: laboriously through pen and paper, gesturing, I brought my laptop to see if I could teach him typing. In honesty, my efforts were mostly failures. His conditions and my lack of both resources and access to his medical charts precluded us from having the meaningful discussions perhaps we both longed to have. Yet, we always had meaningful communication.
The last time I saw Roy was Monday, December 7th. It was the last time I’d be visiting the facility for the year because of my winter break. The main activities room had a pretty Christmas tree in the corner. It was decorated with shiny, colorful bulbs and blue lights. Some residents were already very excited for Christmas.
Roy was sitting in his wheelchair at a table. I invited some of the residents I was talking with to come sit with Roy. Six of us gathered around the small square table. I shook Roy’s hand as usual. Then, to my surprise, Robin shook Roy’s hand. Fawn shook his hand. Matt shook his hand. Kathy shook his hand. Robin—wonderfully manic woman—exclaimed, “We love you Roy!!” Roy took a piece of paper out of the pocket of his hoodie, unfolded it, set it on the table and pushed it to the middle. It was a crossword activity sheet: it was his contribution to the group. One of the residents began solving the puzzle. The nurse walked over with a cup full of nutrified chocolate shake, Roy’s sustenance. She put her hand on Roy’s shoulder and handed it to him. She said the residents with liquid diets really like this shake; all the other residents want it. She rubbed his back tenderly while he drank. For the remainder of that morning, we all sat close together around that small table, communicating, taking responsibility for the well-being of one another. This was a miracle compared with the state of alienation in which I first encountered Roy. The sense of connectedness and gladness was tangible.
When I returned to the facility at the start of this year, I noticed Roy was not in the activities room. I saw his name label was removed from the door of his room. A resident told me that he died in December. I’ve searched everywhere online for an obituary. City obituaries, county obituaries, state obituaries, public death records, people listings. No one has written him an obituary. I guess that shouldn’t have surprised me. So I’d like this to serve as my obituary for Roy: On the last day that I saw Roy, I looked around at the community that had gathered around him. I saw his immeasurable worth reflected by those who cared for him. I saw isolation transform into communion through the means of encounter.