From Heel to Healer
08.06.2017 Some years ago a child was born, a beautiful baby girl. The name her young parents chose for her was Valerie. At the time, her parents could not possibly have known what her birth ultimately would portend.
One day, when she was roughly six months old, Valerie got sick. Her parents learned that Valerie’s body temperature had risen to dangerously high levels. As it turned out, their little baby girl had suffered profound, irreversible brain damage, leaving her severely handicapped both cognitively and physically. She would never speak, they were told, and would require constant 24-hour care.
Then late one night, just shy of her 18th birthday, after a series of stokes and grand mal seizures, Valerie lay in a New London, CT hospital room surrounded by her grieving, heart-broken parents and heaved her last breath.
In thinking over Valerie’s short, but noteworthy life, and in preparation for her memorial service, I found myself musing over an unlikely story from Hebrew scripture. At first blush the story, about Jacob, the unruly, self-centered, and scheming grandson of Abraham (the one God had chosen to bring godliness back into the world) would seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with Valerie’s life.
For one thing, Valerie was anything but unruly and scheming. She in fact was unselfconsciously good-hearted, affectionate, and loving.
The Jacob story begins as he lays down to sleep in anticipation of a highly eventful day to come, the long-overdue showdown with his estranged brother, Esau (the same brother whose birthright he had stolen from their father Isaac many years before).
During the night, an unidentified man, generally assumed to be God (or one of God’s angels) comes to Jacob and engages him in, of all things, a physical wrestling match. The struggle lasts all night and ends in a kind of stalemate, with Jacob wresting from the stranger a blessing. In the process, however, Jacob is left partially crippled.
From now on, Jacob would be a changed man. Partially handicapped, he emerges from this divine encounter with new powers, powers that seem to come only to those familiar with weakness. Touched by God’s mysterious and inscrutable power, Jacob experiences a strange kind of grace. It is for Jacob, as one writer put it, “a magnificent defeat.”
When Valerie was only a few months old, she, too, experienced a kind of magnificent defeat, which left her handicapped but also richly blessed. For Valerie was touched by God in ways we “able” people are not, her life a powerful testament to God’s uncanny and unlikely presence in the midst of human “weakness.”
In her short time among us, she touched all who met her with a gentle, angelic spirit and joyous, loving heart.
Her father characterized Valerie as a child who was never in a bad mood, who almost never got angry, who accepted life as it came, who never complained, despite her suffering. Through it all, she remained unfailingly brave and courageous, never missing an opportunity to smile and laugh. As her mother wrote in Valerie’s obituary, because she was not able to speak, she communicated instead through laughter.
It may seem ironic that Valerie enjoyed life. But she did. She loved adventure…of any kind. A few year earlier, when at Disney World, she had gone on, and absolutely loved, the Star Wars ride, which, I’m told, is not for the faint of heart.
She loved to be outside, taking walks, going to the beach, being out-and-about. She loved Block Island and, particularly, the boat trip to get there, fascinated as she was by the mere sight of water.
She also loved music, its vibrations, its rhythms – the simple joy of it all. It made her happy, and was a big part of her life. On occasion, when she got to go to live concerts, she was ecstatic.
Valerie’s loves were pure and unalloyed. She wasn’t interested, like Jacob, in control, power, status, or advantage. She didn’t worry about possessions or the grand gesture. She sought simplicity. She thrived in the midst of loving relationships and the joy present in and through everyday events, the ones we often miss altogether.
Four-and-a-half years ago, my mother had a horrific car accident that almost killed her. Among other things, she suffered a spinal cord injury that left her with permanent nerve damage.
After months of punishing physical therapy, and through sheer determination, she eventually learned how to walk again, but always with assistance and for only a short period of time. For the rest of her life her hands remained gnarled and her fingers rendered virtually useless.
Most significantly, she faced a serious spiritual crisis. As one who’d always been fiercely independent, she now lived at the mercy of others. She spent month after month wondering why God had done this to her.
But with the help of the chaplain at the nursing facility where she lived, she emerged from her living hell to find God again, this time in a far more powerful and meaningful way.
She learned to let go of things that previously had seemed so important. In fact, after a year she made a miraculous decision. She decided to stop fighting her malady and stopped wishing she could just die.
Instead, she announced that her “old life” was gone, and that it was never coming back. She also announced that she was now OK with her new life. It wasn’t that bad, she decided.
Back in January of this year, after the second of a series of strokes that eventually took her life, Linda, my sister Martha, and I were talking to the chaplain. He talked about all the ways my mother had grown during the years since her accident.
But there’s one thing he said that I’ll always remember, something I shared at her memorial service back in late June.
When the chaplain first started praying with her, he said, her prayers were always centered on herself, naturally enough under the circumstances. But over the years the nature of her prayer life changed. Now when she prayed, he said, she prayed for the well-being of others.
In the end, the paradox of her “magnificent defeat” and its aftermath was spiritual rebirth. It changed her life for the better and prepared her to meet her Maker.
Jacob, after his fateful encounter with God, never again walked with the same vigor or strength. But his magnificent defeat changed him from a grasping, self-centered rascal to a man humble and courageous enough to face his estranged brother with an earnest offer of peace. Amen.