Empty Rooms, Full Hearts
In her bedroom I can still smell the scent of her shampoo; I run my fingers along the top edge of the Dutch door and remember seeing that little face laughing out at me in the middle of the night. At that time I was more emotionally than physically tired from trudging up and down those stairs for any one of a million reasons, and for nearly as many times. Sometimes on those trips I’d have to negotiate things that had been ripped off the walls and tossed out the door and down the stairs. I’d crawl over pictures, bedding, clothes, diapers, and confront a half-dressed, hysterically laughing face. Pure delight, largely on her part.
Now I look at those stairs, that door, the pretty pink walls. I look at the window that I’d replaced after the night I heard glass break and ran up those same stairs to see a little hind-end pointed at me while her upper-end leaned out the window and joyfully ripped flowers out of the flower box, laughing as she dropped them to the dark ground below. I look with eyes that are as sad as they are happy. I look because most of the time I intentionally avoid this room as is represents an emotional closet that’s stuffed full of memories and I fear that if I open the door, they could tumble out and suffocate me in either joy or sorrow; sometimes the gamble is simply far too great.
This room holds a lifetime of complicated learning for all of us, important information that sometimes held the criticality of life or death. Now that she was gone, my worst fear became realized; what happens when we finally have to let go of that little hand? Only weeks before, our daughter Bethany had moved to Benjamin’s Hope, an adult foster care facility that on paper seemed too good to be real. It is a place that emphasizes the beauty of all individuals, the dignity that belongs to them, the care and relationship that underpins the belief and values of not only all of the staff whether direct care or loosely connected, but equally so by all of the residents who live there. The facilities alone are so beautifully sited that they made me long to live there. I’m a marketing cynic, the result of years of over-promised and under-delivered sales efforts. This place however, seemed to hang it’s hope on a promise from the Bible rather than from the spin of a Director, my cynicism began to soften.
Honestly speaking, we always privately assumed that we’d live forever so that we could care for her. The realization was quite different. After 19 years of endless, repetitive, 24/7 care, my wife and I were beyond tired. The energy that we had and the compassion and love we held came from a residual blessing of a loving Lord who promised he’d get us through this and that her life was His plan, we were merely support instruments. Beloved and special instruments in His eyes, but instruments none-the-less. For us to let go of her hand, to entrust it to another, and to potentially end the day-to-day burden (or joy as the Apostle Paul would proclaim) of caring for Bethany was a fearful, welcome, horrifying, and joyous occasion.
Interestingly enough, the very thing we feared became the thing that helped us accept the change: the residents. Our fears would be put to ease by people who had no idea of our fears but were uniquely gifted to help us learn; these were the people who are Benjamin’s Hope, they became our hope. How could anyone care for and develop an intimate, loving, relationship with our largely blind, non-verbal, incontinent, tiger-shark of a daughter; this complex puddle of emotion and biology that we know as Bethany? My ignorance was to be quickly and gently corrected as the residents; they know blindness here but it’s the blindness of the soul they work on. They know non-verbal here but it’s the inability to speak from the heart that they tackle. They’re fully aware of incontinence but it has little to do with briefs, they know how the soul should be incontinent with the emotion of joy. They taught us this with loud, joyful greetings when we walk in the door, with endless hugs that invigorate the soul, with direct-to-the-heart questions when they sense that we we’re struggling with something. They have a gift for healing while they themselves are being healed. While the staff may be the heart of Jesus, the Residents prove time and again they are the hands of Jesus.
The staff are gracious guides who assist and encourage, they offer assurances of creativity and control, community and activity. They are people who have a gift as well but the real gift of healing comes from the very people who, in my ignorance, I assumed were there to be served. They, in fact were to begin serving me by first answering my question of “who” will take that little hand, then by showing me how to live. That little hand is now usually quick to shove us out the door after a visit. Some of her best and brightest laughter comes through video snippets, or photographs shared by staff who have fallen in love with her. At times it pains me so to see her so happy, so engaged, trying new things, always smiling. I jealously watch and with a full heart give praise in a confused prayer of thanksgiving.
The pink bedroom that smells of her shampoo is eerily silent, not unlike when I’d sit alone in it, bathed in warm sunlight while she was off at school. No school bus will rumble down our driveway today, however. Nor tomorrow. No giggles will be heard from over the top of the Dutch door in the middle of the night. We let go of that little hand and entrusted it to a power far greater than ours, yet He allowed us to keep one small fragment as a “thank you” for preparing her for His ministry: He left her little hand forever on our hearts.