What’s Lost + What’s Found: Why Reaching Out Can Make All The Difference

I love a long, rambling post as much as anyone (all right, probably more), but this Monday, I’d like to share with you a solitary moment…one I witnessed at approximately 1:40am this Saturday morning.

Sporting Smiles, L'Arche Regional Gathering, 2008

When I walked into the L’Arche Ontario house last Friday night, I had a plan. I’d finished an evening routine in Arlington, and I was all set to drop off the car keys, walk home and fall into bed.

Life, however, had other ideas.

I got as far as ‘drop off the car keys’ when one of the assistants called me over. “Caroline,” he said, “I think you’d better come see Vincent*.”

I stopped mid-stride, saying, “He’s still up? Well, OK. Sure.”

It was then that I realized just how many people were gathered in the kitchen. They’d been so quiet.

And as I walked through the door to Vincent’s room, the reason for that silence became clear.

Vincent was struggling for breath. He was paler than I’d ever seen him. Three assistants were gathered around him, holding a washcloth to his forehead, holding his hands.

I’ve mentioned before that Vincent has terminal cancer, and that he’s been like a surrogate grandfather to me. He’s given me permission to rest many times, and when I saw him last Friday, my first thought was:  I want to give him that same permission.

I stayed with the other assistants at Vincent’s bedside for 2 hours, until the hospice transport came. (No nurses were available to treat him at L’Arche.) We played his favorite Elvis records, showed him pictures of family and friends and even laughed a few times.

We never stopped holding him. One assistant would massage Vincent’s shoulders, while another would rub lotion into his hands. He was never for a moment without touch, without connection.

***

When hospice finally arrived, it was hard to let them take Vincent away. When we saw him in the stretcher, he looked too much like a body, and not enough like him.

I followed the stretcher out the door and stood on the porch. Jonathan came and stood beside me. Slowly, the other assistants came, too. We were all trying not to cry, and most of us were failing.

All around us, Adams Morgan was partying the night away. But we were standing together, watching strangers bear Vincent away. We didn’t know if he’d ever return. (We still don’t.)

Barbara (our DC Program Director) was walking with the emergency personnel. She’d been coordinating logistics since her arrival, and I hadn’t seen her show the emotion I knew she must have felt.

Barbara has cared for Vincent and the other core members for over a decade…and yet, when it comes to emergencies, she has to follow protocol. She has to hold it together, somehow.

The emergency care workers were getting ready to lift Vincent into the ambulance. Barbara stayed close by, offering Vincent a familiar face for as long as she could.

And that’s when time stood still.

Just before they lifted him up, Barbara reached out her right hand and touched the side of Vincent’s face. Such a simple, gentle touch, but there was so much love in it.

It was a stark, beautiful moment…one in which I realized just how much what we do matters.

Who we reach out to. How we view our lives. Whether or not we stop when someone says, “You’d better come.” Whether or not we walk with each other into the night.

At the end of the day (or at the beginning of the next), that’s what we’ll remember.

***

As of this writing, Vincent’s breathing still hasn’t stabilized. He’s still at the hospice center.

Nevertheless, there’s a kind of peace amidst the chaos. There’s something that I can hold on to whenever I feel grief and sadness getting too big.

A hand reaching up and touching a cheek. So little, and yet, it’s enough.

In the words of Frederick Buechner in Now and Then, “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found…and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”

***

Thank you for the amazing + heartfelt comments you’ve posted here.

Your words mean a great deal to me, and I’m honored to write for you.

***

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*Names have been changed.

25 thoughts on “What’s Lost + What’s Found: Why Reaching Out Can Make All The Difference

  1. Mary says:

    Thank you for putting this in writing, Caroline. Reading this is a catharsis for me. I couldn’t have expressed what happened, what is happening, better.

  2. Don says:

    It was an interesting evening – many 20 somethings gathered in the house to be around to hang out with this 80+ year old man. People at the dining room table eating cookies and praying, people taking turns to be with the Elvis fan. It was an impressive evening even for me – someone who has been in L’Arche for 17 years.

    He looked much better on Sunday afternoon – still listening to Elvis and even playing tic tac toe with my 8 year old daughter.

  3. Patricia says:

    Caroline, I know the sound of labored breathing and how difficult it is to stand watch. I desire to share this prayer with you. I am comforted as I remember we call upon the name of the Lord as Vincent is doing now. The Yāhweh Prayer ~ The Jewish name for God – Yāhweh – was not spoken, but breathed. Its correct pronunciation is an attempt to imitate the sound of inhalation (Yāh) and exhalation (weh). We do that every moment: our first and last word as we enter and leave the world. From Fr. Richard Rohr ~

    You make a difference by sharing your life with us, thank you.

  4. Renee says:

    Such a powerful and moving story of a very poignant moment. It sounds like Vincent has touched many lives very profoundly. Praying for peace for Vincent in whatever awaits him, and for you, and Barbara and everyone else at L’Arche who have cared for him and called him a friend.

  5. Sarah B. says:

    When I first became Vincent’s accompanier in 2006, something very similar happened. The ambulance came. It was my night off and I was dressed to go out, but none of that mattered – I rode in the ambulance and sat with Vincent in the ER half the night. I can’t remember where I was headed that evening anymore. The very shallow breathing and almost zero communication – just faint mumbles here and there – were terrifying. I thought he was going to die that night. He got so much better with the IV meds though. When I talked to Lydia about it afterwards, she said she’d been there when he was like that too – seemed to happen every year. There was the same feeling for me that night that Cassandra wandered out of the house and into the night. When Jonathan brought her back safe and sound (and smiling!), I collapsed onto the floor and cried and hugged her, exhausted from so much worry.
    Thanks for writing – it absolutely gave me chills. It’s just so amazing how much we mean to one another when such a moment of truth arrives – especially those we’ve cooked and cleaned and shopped and looked out for. We become so tuned in to them – in fulfilling daily tasks in their lives, we get all this time with the person as a gift – you don’t even realize the hold they are taking on your heart. It starts with something funny happening while you are giving meds, or a bad traffic jam, or a conversation about your day while you are helping them brush their teeth or put lotion on their feet.
    I’m looking forward to my time with Vincent on Wednesday evening.

  6. Your thoughts about connection are so important for us to think about Caroline. We don’t have any idea how much time we have here on this Earth to connect and make a difference.

    We just lost a 19 year-old young man from our community Sunday night. He was paralyzed from the chest down in a freak swimming accident one year ago. He was a survivor and his smile and wry humor uplifted all who knew him. He soon became a well known hero because of his amazing spirit after his accident.

    Through a lot of hard work and struggle, he got earned his drivers license (again) on July 26th. He was driving his specially retrofitted car Sunday night when he veered off the road for some unknown reason and slammed into a tree splintering his car into fragments, killing him instantly. His name was Danny Cox. He lived nineteen plus one hundred years for all of the lives he touched.

    Connection.

  7. Vincent seems like a very special man, so it stands to reason he would be surrounded by so many special, caring people. This post is such a nice reminder of how the tiniest actions — a look, a touch, a word… good or bad — can magnify and stay with people for a lifetime.
    Sending peace for Vincent, and his family at L’Arche.

  8. Alan Bennett says:

    Thanks for keeping us updated on Vincent. I was lucky to meet him a few times. You all made his life special.

  9. Sage says:

    I read your post about your surrogate grandfather. I am the mom of three children: two of whom are autistic and one with dyslexia and two brothers with autism. I can’t romanticize our life here, I am too seasoned for that, we have and feel struggles that would be familiar to your late grandfather. People ask me quite frequently how I do it all, how I get through each day. After reading your post I know you know the love that drives the passion to make life not only work but a wonder.

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