Love revealed at the heart of brokenness
I would like today to tell you about a friend of mine that I visited in a nursing home in Cork during the week. His story is an extremely tragic one and yet contains many essential elements of healing and hope that we may not even relate to as healing. This man whose name is Jimmy is just three months older than me and suffered a very serious stroke back on 9/11 when the Twin Towers were destroyed. Since that day nearly 20 years ago he has been stuck in one of the most depressing nursing homes to be found in the country. Yet strange to say he remains one of the most contented and happy people that I know.
He grew up in a dysfunctional home where there was a lot of physical and sexual violence and he spent a lot of time protecting his youngest brother from abuse by his father. At 18 he entered what was then the seminary in Carlow and was ordained two years before me. He was a very prayerful and spiritual man who after working in Belfast during the height of the troubles returned to minister in Cork. There he found that himself suffocating spiritually because of the extreme traditionalism and narrow minded Catholicism that was so prevalent in Cork at that time. It was religion divorced from real life where everything was up in the air and there was nothing relating to the human reality. After a few years he opted out of priesthood and felt he could better serve the human dimension by studying to become a clinical psychologist. He had a brilliant mind and was the only person I know who was able to do a doctorate in two years while studying in the US. It was a course that normally would take twice that long and during that time he also served as a prison chaplain to pay his fees and still managed to spend considerable time with the American Indians learning of their wisdom and culture. It was there that he found depths of wisdom and levels of intuition that traditional Catholicism wouldn’t even dream of. On story that I really love was of him travelling through South Dakota in the middle of winter in order to take part in an all night ghost dance. Mile from nowhere he spotted a large 7 ft brown bear that was limping with a trap stuck to his foot. Unwilling to see the animal in pain he stopped his car and left out a pot of jam on the roadside that he had in the back. The bear was hungry and went for the jam and meanwhile he dislodged the trap from his foot and quickly got back into the car. Several hours later and into the early hours during the ceremony the Indian medicine man came over to him and without knowing anything of what had happened said, ‘The bear has told me to say thanks for what you did.’
As a psychologist he was the very best I have ever known and had profound insights into the human condition. His intuition was so sharp that he could get quickly to the core of peoples issues with rapier like accuracy. His workload rapidly increased and unfortunately his gift became his handicap. As more and more needy people came to him he put their needs before his own and began to neglect himself. It was lethal because having diabetes it was imperative that he would look after his diet and take proper exercise. Instead he worked every hour that God sent and ended up with one of the worst strokes imaginable. This was where he lost his sight, his heart was affected and his short-term memory was permanently impaired. For a period it was as if the hard disk of his brain had been wiped clean and he was unable to remember what a house or car or everyday objects looked like.
From there on this brilliant psychologist had no other option but to face spending the remainder of his days in a nursing home – not a nice prospect especially if you saw what the place looked like back then. There was absolutely no mental stimulation and the stale smell of you know what would greet you in the doorway. On one occasion conditions were so bad with doors that wouldn’t close, windows that wouldn’t fasten and overall filth that both myself and another friend of his made a formal complaint to HIQUA.
Yet against all the odds, in spite of being in this place where even hope would seem hopeless he has remained upbeat and positive and even retained the capacity to be quite witty. I remember one time going into the home and hearing laughter coming from one of the rooms and found Jimmy inside on his own laughing his head off at something he had heard on the radio. Every so often I would probe to see what was his secret as to how he managed to keep his inner spring bubbling with life and positivity. He would say, I have an absolute conviction and knowing that God loves me and while I now have no past or no future I do have this present moment and its in this present moment that I enjoy his presence that is the source of all joy. So I meditate a lot and just let myself be and when something annoys me I just acknowledge it and let it go. I saw this happening a few days ago when a man sitting next to him acted in a manner that was annoying. When asked if he was upset Jimmy said he was but he was just letting it go so that it would no longer get to him.
On several occasions his intuitive powers were called on by the people in charge. Late one night an old lady went missing and the police were called to be on the lookout. The matron woke Jimmy to ask if he could help discern what had happened to this lady that he didn’t even know. After a few minutes Jimmy suggested going to Room No16 where they found her curled up asleep beside one of the older male residents.
While I visit several times every year this was the first time I noticed any real difference in the place. It wasn’t a physical difference but the atmosphere had changed to being much more caring and loving. Jimmy used to say that staff did their duty but never connected to you as a human being and so you always felt isolated and not connected to anyone. This time there were a few new staff but even the older ones seemed different. One girl from India stood out in particular whose name was Winnie. She was still in her 20’s but just radiated warmth, love and genuine care for these patients. I heard her say that she had only been in Ireland for the past year but she just loved her job and would be happy to work there seven days a week. Her patients were like her babies and the more troublesome they were the more they just needed that bit more love. Talking to my friend later and his wife they too had noticed a remarkable change in the atmosphere in the home and attributed it completely to this lovely girl who by her very presence, more than by anything she was doing, had introduced light and love and warmth into a place where for so long people had lived in darkness and the shadow of death. I came away thinking how truly remarkable it is that just one person, who in choosing to love, can make such a difference for so many.