By Elizabeth Flynn Campbell
I was driving home from work and passed a woman walking down the road on a cold night in late February. She was shuffling along slowly, wearing a shabby brown coat and carrying a large paper bag.
I drove about a half mile past when I decided to turn around and head back in the direction I had just come from. I felt a little silly as I pulled alongside, and offered her a ride. We made awkward small talk, and I realized that in addition to a speech impediment, she also had some kind of intellectual disability. “You turn there at that vanilla-colored sign,” she said, as we approached the intersection.
She had me drop her off at Walmart, which she said was just a short walk from her apartment. She thanked me, but wasn’t in any way effusive, as if walking miles on a cold night or getting a ride home in a warm car didn’t make all that much difference to her. She was a humble soul and reminded me of my youngest child, whose Down syndrome diagnosis initially felt like a missile headed straight for my hopes for a happy family. And yet it turns out the opposite is true, people like her and people like my son often bring out the best in us, which is what really makes life feel meaningful.
The truth is, whether from a Buddhist koan or one of Jesus’ parables, we’ve been advised by spiritual masters over the centuries that an inflexible insistence on the conditions of our own happiness is not in our best interest. My son, as it turns out, is like a bridge that connects me to everyone, especially people like the woman walking down the road that night. Despite the fear and disappointment that accompanied his entrance into this world, he is utterly loveable, just the way he is.
I wonder if the “kingdom of heaven” Jesus referred to isn’t so much a place you go to when you die, but a state of consciousness you only glimpse when you stop insisting on the terms of your own happiness. There is a mystery to life and my son has helped illuminate it for me. It has to do with the realization of how very little we really need in order to experience the abundant nature of ultimate reality.
A while back, my husband, son and I went to our favorite local restaurant and were seated in the center of the bar on a bustling Friday night. As we lingered over drinks and dinner, with my son seated on the bar stool between the two of us, the tavern filled up, with people standing three deep behind us. The room resonated with the happy voices of people catching up after a long week. The bartender greeted many of us by name, as strangers sitting on adjacent bar stools made small talk with each other.
I was feeling so relaxed that I’d forgotten that my child had Down syndrome, and that some people might think it kind of odd to find a boy like him sitting front and center at the bar. I’d also forgotten the story I had told myself so often when I was younger, about how things needed to be perfect in order for life to be good. I was basking in the warmth of it all when I looked over my left shoulder and noticed a woman with a tell-tale shaved head standing behind us. She was having a great time with four of her friends, talking and laughing, presumably recovered enough from a round of chemo to be out celebrating. And I felt in that moment that this is what heaven must feel like: a place where the boy with Down syndrome, his parents who once longed for a perfect family, and the woman with cancer all gather to celebrate the blessing of life, the gift that often appears somewhat broken.
Faith is not a matter of exertion but of openness. — Laurence Freeman, Benedictine Monk
Elizabeth Flynn Campbell lives in Shelburne and is a psychoanalyst in private practice in Burlington.