“Work is love made visible.” – Khalil GibraN
“What you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me.” – Jesus
I’d grown up in a modern Mennonite family with some very old fashioned values. I did not wear the head covering, bib dresses or dark stockings in which my mother was clothed as a young woman. I dressed like any other secular woman in my community – jeans, running shoes and t-shirts my preferred outfit. But I did embrace the work ethic, and the call to humble service in the benefit of others embedded in the Mennonite community. Along the way to adulthood, I had deeply absorbed the exhortation that “Whatever you do, do it with all your might, as if in service to God.” After then confusion and trauma of The Accident, I’d found refuge in work: doing chores, whether milking cattle or feeding the calves, grounded me in the day-to-day needs of our farm. I sought distraction from the memories, and ensuing flashbacks, by burying myself in my studies. With time, the immediacy of that night faded, and I left behind the trauma. Each achievement opened another door of opportunity and I eventually found myself combining these values with my career: working with at-risk teenagers in a variety of roles – job coach, teacher, guidance counsellor, literacy coach, vice principal. The 15 year old girl, seated on the pavement, having failed to revive a dead child, was left behind as I embraced adulthood.
Or so I thought.
One of the metrics by which I measured my effectiveness involved the degree to which I could help and serve others. As a vice principal, I was supposedly well positioned to influence the lives of our most vulnerable students. My days involved managing student discipline and behaviour, but the days of assigning detentions and seeing effective improvements in student conduct were long gone. In its place, I found a world of complex greys: poverty, mental health concerns, and family breakdown contributed to the struggles of my most vulnerable and least successful students. It is hard to get to school on time when you have worked until close the night before so that your family has food on the table. Parents would show up in my office making statements like “My daughter practices hanging herself,” or “I just got out of rehab, and my kids are really struggling with my addiction issues.” One day, a young man who was combative and difficult to manage, cried as he told me he’d been so full of despair the previous evening, he’d sat down on a train track and waited to die. A friend had managed to pull him out of harm’s way. I’d visited the homes of several students who lived alone, and had gone AWOL for a long stretch, knocking on doors, accompanied by a policeman, wanting to ensure that they were alive. At my office, police would occasionally show up, investigating the likely homicide of girls who’d disappeared from the community. In each of these circumstances, I’d coped by trying to find the most practical, helpful and loving path through the chaos. Sometimes I enjoyed the pleasure of seeing a student succeed against mighty odds. Many times, I found myself frustrated – it seemed all I could do was witness the terrible, unstoppable impact of circumstances that tore apart our collective efforts.
And then, suddenly, the person I needed most to help? It was myself. I didn’t realize that those years of witnessing, learning to tolerate the ambiguities and lack of control over my students’ struggles would be a training ground for my own life, post cancer.
The arrival of breast cancer, CIPN, and total disability erased the years of rebuilding and recovery. Like the car ripping through the crowd of teens in my youth, illness had barrelled over my life, rendering parts of me lifeless. I found myself “seated” on the country road one more time. Except the body on the ground was not some one else. It was the embodiment of my hopes, dreams, and expectations about how my life would unfold. The lifeless eyes? They were mine. That self – the upwardly mobile professional, financially secure, perhaps even affluent? Gone. In my mind, I could see that the rag doll that lay before me was actually myself; I was frantically trying to breathe life into a being that had tried to live by the adage of “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me.” The reality that I would be unable to revive that version of me? The self that found such purpose and meaning in an overwhelmingly challenging and oftentimes thankless job? Cancer, followed by CIPN and then total disability had sealed my fate – and, just like that, the totality of my life would be reduced to pain management.
The narrative of my life had returned me to the most difficult moment I’d experienced. I was suddenly 15 years old again – sitting on the roadway of my life, examining the damaged body of my own little self, and realizing – again – that I was helpless to revive this victim.
The pieces of me that had survived all these unfolding traumas? She was crying out for help. If I was going to move forward, I would have to kneel down, take my own hand, and comfort, as best as I could, that injured individual. I had to stop looking over my shoulder, at that other preferred self – the one who was capable, independent, affluent – now a rag doll, dead. Instead, I needed to somehow find the grace to offer this new, dependent and disabled self the compassion I’d so willing to given away to others.
I had no idea how to proceed. To be honest, I had no real interest in caring for this broken and needy woman I had somehow become.
But still. In my mind, I sat down on that country road, reached over and grabbed the hand of my damaged, totally disabled self, crying into the dark night of pain and disability.
This was the image I carried with me to the yoga studio each day.