It’s rare that I come away from a L’Arche supper feeling unsettled. If you’ve been a reader here for some time, you know that I usually come away feeling comforted and inspired. But this week was different.
Part of it was because I wasn’t feeling well. But part of it was because two of my dinner companions kept up a running commentary of not-so-subtle digs at various L’Arche members. I could tell that it was meant to be funny, and I knew that I was tired and out of sorts. So rather than risk being rude, I kept my mouth shut.
To clarify, I should say that people at L’Arche do often have a fond, bantering familiarity with core members and assistants alike. They exude the kind of joking playfulness that characterizes healthy, authentic families. I wanted to experience that when I listened to my dinner companions last week, but their jests didn’t sit right with me. They kept tip-toeing the line between informality and insult. And then it happened.
From across the table, Leo* pointed to the near-empty pitcher of cranberry juice. When he tried to ask for the juice, he said something like, “Um…that…please.” Though his words were not specific, it was clear to everyone what Leo meant. And, as is sometimes the case when Leo hasn’t expressed himself clearly, the person next to me asked him to try again. But to my ears, his way of asking Leo was all wrong.
To his credit, Leo did try again, with a small smile. This time, he said something like, “I want the…looks like cherries… Juice. Please.”
The problem was that as Leo was saying this — as he was trying to articulate what he wanted– the person next to me had already stopped listening; perhaps he thought Leo was done trying. In one of Leo’s pauses, he said, in a sarcastic tone, “Yeah. So. This is the day we learn words.”
I thought I must have heard him incorrectly, but then I saw his face. He knew he had crossed a line.
Leo finished his sentence. I could not think of one good thing to say; my mind hadn’t caught up with the hurt in my heart. Yet I had to affirm Leo, somehow. Perhaps it was an attempt at diplomacy, perhaps it was cowardice on my part. But what I do know is that, in that moment, I couldn’t confront the comment itself.
“Well, good guess,” I said to Leo, weakly. “The carton does make it look like it’s cherries.” Others chimed in, “Yeah! But it’s cranberry.” Leo poured the juice; he seemed unperturbed.
After the meal, I walked upstairs and stood in the hall, near Leo’s room. We usually read together on Thursday nights, but I’d come upstairs to tell him that, since I wasn’t feeling well that night, I’d have to head home instead. But something made me pause. Instead of going in, I lingered in the hallway.
Leo’s door was open, and I could hear his TV. He was scrolling through the channels, and sound bites floated in and out. He seemed to settle on a station; a public service announcement began. The words seemed to hover in the air: “… is a life-threatening, often-fatal disease…Know the risks and warning signs of…”
There was a rustling sound, then a click as Leo changed the channel mid-word. I felt my stomach get rubbery. In that moment, I could feel exactly why that comment at the dinner table had been so awful.
Sometimes I forget that Leo almost died when he was young. Sometimes I forget that his mother, who has long since passed, patiently taught him to read when teachers had given up. Sometimes I forget that he was harassed and treated with cruelty; that he can still describe, in vivid, painful detail, the kids who would torment him and steal his lunch money decades ago.
Sometimes I forget that Leo has had to fight for every single word he knows.
But in that moment when Leo changed the channel, it all came rushing back to me. And I wanted to weep — for Leo, who has had too many people make jokes at his expense. For the person who made the comment that night. For myself, because I hadn’t found the words to stand up for my friend.
I can’t go back in time and say what I should have said. But what I can do is take those words that were meant as a mockery and transform them. I can harness the energy of forgiveness and say…
“This is the day we learn words.”
This is the day we learn that what we say has power.
(We can bless others with our words, or we can cut them down.)
This is the day we learn to speak kindly, because every person deserves respect.
(When we mock others, we’re hiding our own fears and vulnerabilities.)
This is the day we tell the stories of everyday heroes like Leo, who are more courageous than we know.
This is the day we speak up on their behalf, because there are times when silence is a lie.
This is the day we learn words.
I love hearing comments from readers. Please leave your thoughts below!
Tomorrow, Love’s Subversive Stance will launch for those on the advance notification list. In this book, we’ll ask the question: how can we honor our passions and our caregiving relationships at the same time? In loving someone with intellectual challenges, how can we become more fully ourselves?
This book is NOT a quick-fix. Instead, it’s about telling true stories…the sort of stories that allow you to become rooted and grow. It’s about examining the seemingly insignificant details of your day, and seeing what they say about you and your relationships. It’s about finding ways to grow right where you are.
In short, Love’s Subversive Stance is about getting rooted and going deep with your most challenging relationships. And I’m so excited to share it with you!
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