Sunday, March 31, 2013

“My son who was dead is alive...”

Here's a true Easter story, a resurrection (of sorts) that I learned of while working on the history of our L'Arche Edmonton community... or perhaps it's more the story of The Prodigal, with a most unlikely wayward son...

Gerard was the youngest son born to a monolingual family in a rural Francophone area north of Edmonton in the mid-to-late 1920s. He had Down Syndrome and never learned to talk. His feet were misshapen and gave him trouble all his life, so he wasn't very good at walking either. But he had the world's best smile, and he was loved by his family.

When Gerard reached the age of 14, they took him for a long drive to Michener Centre in Red Deer, where he could be with other people like him, as was recommended in those days. After that, Gerard’s oldest brother watched out for him, and organized family excursions to visit Gerard twice a year. During the Depression, they borrowed a car from their neighbours because they didn't have one, and they made the trip over a weekend.

Gerard continued to receive visits from his family at regular intervals, until Gerard’s two oldest brothers went to war. They fought in the same company, and when the eldest was injured, and dying of wounds he received, he made his younger brother promise to continue caring for Gerard. Unfortunately, family excursions to see Gerard didn't happen for quite some time after the war, because the younger brother was a broken man when he returned from overseas.

It was while he was still recovering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that Michener Centre's administrator decided it would be a good idea to determine what to do with the personal effects and estates of its clients should they pass away unexpectedly. An official-looking letter in this regard was sent to Gerard's mother... who mistook it for a death notice. In those days, death was a private thing, and with the second son still incapable of sorting things out, the language barrier, and the family’s understanding that Gerard was dead and likely already buried in what was probably an unmarked grave, what could they do but grieve and carry on?

Meanwhile, life at Michener Centre wasn't anything like life at home for Gerard. When he tried to bite one of the nurses, his teeth were pulled – hard to imagine now, but that was standard procedure in many institutions for people with disabilities in those days. Gerard soon spent all his time in a wheelchair because the staff found that he walked too slowly. He became something of a night owl, which was his way of adapting to the fact that staff members were too busy during the day to spend any time with non-verbal people who didn’t call attention to themselves.

The few staff who may have wondered why Gerard's family stopped visiting moved on to other workplaces. Since he couldn't tell newer staff members that he had a mother, brothers and sisters, or where they lived, it was eventually assumed that he had no family at all. Records of family contact were somehow lost as well.

In the late 1970s, after the Shalom Community (L'Arche Edmonton) was fairly well-established, someone from the community visited Michener Centre to see if any long-term residents with no family might like to come and live in a L’Arche family. Something about Gerard caught the visitor’s attention, perhaps the funny little ‘thumbs-up’ signal he gave, the twinkle in his eye, or his dazzling but toothless smile that lit the entire room. At any rate, an invitation was made to Gerard, and the Michener staff followed through and brought him to Edmonton, though they couldn't imagine why anyone would want him to come and live with them.

Gerard loved car rides. He enjoyed the drive, and surprised the Michener staff member when he patted a dog that lived at the L’Arche home he visited. It had never occurred to staff at Michener that he would even knew what a dog was! After all, as far as they knew, he had lived his whole life in the Centre.

Gerard seemed to like visiting Shalom, and the people at L'Arche liked him. After a couple of visits, it was agreed that he would join the community. He arrived with no records other than his name, and his garbage bag of possessions included a pair of slippers, three ancient pairs of pin-striped overalls, and no outerwear of any kind -- in short, no clothing that could be considered presentable, because Michener staff didn’t expect that he would be going out -- simply because people like Gerard didn’t have anywhere to go. He hadn't been out in public since he left home.

To say that Gerard blossomed in L'Arche wouldn't be an exaggeration. Though he never did learn to talk, and he moved only at Gerard-speed, he began to walk again, went on outings and vacations, and enjoyed his interactions with other community members and friends. A woman who volunteered with the community loved to have tea with Gerard every week because, as she explained to the community leader, “His heart is an ocean of peace.” Just being in his quiet presence was an immense gift to her.

Gerard's sense of humour also began to shine. The first time it snowed after he arrived in the community, he refused to wear his boots. Instead, he took them to his bedroom. His house leader fetched the boots and explained to Gerard that he couldn't attend his sheltered workshop unless he wore his boots. He then hid them under his bed. The house leader found the boots again, explained the situation once more, and the phone rang. While she took the call, Gerard hid his boots in a more difficult hiding place. Eventually the house leader found the boots and explained that without his boots, Gerard’s feet would freeze. No matter – he hid the boots for a fourth time. By this time, his ride to the workshop had come and gone. It took a few more games of boot hide-and-seek before he slowly put on his boots and his house leader drove him to work. As she wryly noted when she was telling me this story, she had to give Gerard credit – his boot-hiding spots got progressively more difficult!

When the Shalom Community celebrated its 10th anniversary in 1982, it began looking into its past, contacting family and friends from its first decade. One assistant decided, on a whim, to see if he could track down someone related to Gerard. By cold-calling people in the phone book with the same last name, he eventually reached Gerard’s brother, who had recovered from his war injuries. At first, the man thought the assistant was a crank caller, but finally, he was convinced that the person on the other end of the line had Gerard beside him, and he was alive!

The assistant took Gerard shopping for some special clothing to wear to the anniversary celebration. From all reports, he was the prince of the party, looking very dapper in a tuxedo and soft Italian leather shoes – especially with his smile! No one was prouder or happier than the brother who was finally able to keep the promise he had made to look out for Gerard.

As it turned out, Gerard's mother was still alive, so a special homecoming was planned for her long-lost son, who wore his tux and special shoes for his first visit with his entire family in over 30 years. It was a jubilant, and very French, celebration. Did they kill the fatted calf? We don't know, but Gerard's mother was every bit as happy as the prodigal father, overjoyed to see the offspring she had thought dead. She showed to Gerard’s assistant the letter she had mistaken for a death notice, and thanked him many times for bringing her son home. 

As Jean Vanier wrote in his book I Live With Jesus, 
God is the one who runs out to meet you and to say:
"My child, you were lost, now you are found again, you were suffering and you have found a new taste for life. You always have a place with me." (p.104)
It's not hard to imagine that Gerard smiled his beautiful, room-brightening, heart-melting smile, and gave his special thumbs-up sign all around. Maybe he even danced.

An Easter story if I ever heard one!


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