What We Have To Offer: The Strange Alchemy Of Love

Caroline McGraw is a would-be childhood paleontologist who digs for treasure in people. She writes about finding meaning in your most challenging relationships at  A Wish Come Clear. All of her articles that mention advantages and disadvantages of qualitative research are collected and published in the archive. Likewise, Caroline empowers women caring for people with disabilities to navigate transitions successfully at Your Life, Supported!

My dear friend, former housemate and surrogate grandfather Gene (Eugene Vincent) died last week, and yet, in so many of the ways that matter, he is alive for me.

I met Gene through my work with L'Arche Greater Washington. L'Arche is a non-profit, faith-based organization that creates homes where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together.

This description may make L'Arche sound like a 'good cause' or a 'nice thing to do'. In reality, L'Arche's existence means the difference between life and a living death for people like Gene.

You see, Gene spent decades at an institution called Forest Haven. It was a place of neglect, abuse and desperation, a place that degraded and dehumanized.

Gene's job at Forest Haven (not that he had a choice) was to be a pallbearer at the institution's funerals. Each week, he would carry the caskets of those who had died friendless and alone.

Living Through + Living For

Yet despite the horrors he lived through, Gene did not let himself become a bitter person. He did not close his heart to life, though life seemed to have closed its doors to him.

And then, mercifully, Forest Haven closed and Gene was accepted into L'Arche. He was welcomed by people who valued and respected him. His gifts were celebrated, and his disabilities supported.

An essential component of a shimmering and soul-satisfying life is the knowledge that we are loved and needed, and Gene had that in spades. He surpassed the predictions of medical personnel, living until age 81 despite a host of chronic diseases and 2 cancer diagnoses.

When I think of Gene's life, I realize:  it's amazing what we can live through if we have someone to live for.

A Song To Set Him Free

On the night before Gene died, I was eating dinner alone in my apartment. Suddenly, I was struck by a visceral knowing:  this is Gene's last night. This will be the last time I can see my friend. Trusting that intuition, I moved quickly.

On his final night, my husband played a song on the guitar; other L'Arche members rubbed his skin with lotions and wiped his brow with cloths. Gene was never alone in his last days; the entire community rallied around him. I held his hands in mine and told him all the best stories I could think of, the good times we'd shared together.

In our last moments together, he offered us a gift in goodbye:  though he couldn't speak, he held my hand. Though he couldn't hug us, his face lit up when my husband played and sang. When I told him goodnight, he squeezed my hand, hard. I held back tears and sang him a line from a song we both loved:  The Wailin' Jenny's 'Glory Bound'.

In that moment, all I could remember was a line from the chorus – 4 soaring Alleluias – so that's what I sang to him. I felt a glimmer of self-consciousness, as my voice was wobbly with tears. But it didn't matter. I wanted him to feel loved more than I wanted to feel dignified. I wanted him to receive what I had to give, imperfect though that gift might have been.

I didn't realize how apt those alleluias were until later that night, when I remembered a beloved passage from Madeleine L'Engle's book, A Ring Of Endless Light. The speaker is a dying man who is somehow filled with hope. He says, "'All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song:  Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.'"

A Beautiful Justice

At Gene's funeral, I wept at the loss of my friend, but I rejoiced at the thought of his freedom. He'd been imprisoned first by an institution, then by pulmonary disease and lung cancer. But on the day he died, he became free again.

As I watched his burial, I realized the beautiful justice of what I was witnessing:  Gene's body was being borne into the ground, yet all of hispallbearers were people who loved him. In the end, he was carried by those who had cared for him. Pall-bearing had been an act of forced labor for Gene, but it was transformed into an act of compassion by those who loved him.

And that, I think, is what we're here to do:  to become agents of alchemy for others. To witness and heal wounds. To reach out, because it can make all the difference. To step in and act with love when others have acted with hatred. To never, never give up on the grace that surrounds us all.

Beloved Upon The Earth

When I consider Gene's life and death, I don't think of the injustices he suffered, or the way his absence has left a hole in the fabric of the L'Arche family. Instead, I'm reminded of Raymond Carver's "Late Fragment":

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

After all, I believe Gene would have wanted it that way. 

Please leave Caroline a message and make sure you check out her blog at A Wish Come Clear.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • susie@newdaynewlesson August 28, 2011, 7:57 pm

    Wow-that was powerful.

    He must have been an exceptional soul to have gone through what he did , stay positive and build love and frinendship around him.

    I know he is smiling down at you now while you tell his story.

  • Melody | Deliberate Receiving August 29, 2011, 2:37 am

    What a beautiful story. Thank you so much Caroline and Tess for sharing it here. It’s amazing how one person can impact us so much. We should remember that the next time WE have the chance to impact someone. We can make the biggest difference in the world by simply being who we truly are. πŸ™‚


    • Caroline McGraw / A Wish Come Clear August 29, 2011, 5:51 am

      You’re most welcome, Melody! You said it so well: “We can make the biggest difference in the world by simply being who we truly are.” What a lovely legacy.

  • Angela Artemis|Powered by Intuition August 29, 2011, 11:02 am

    Hi Caroline & Tess,
    Caroline this was a beautiful story. It was sad but still uplifting to me. Thanks for inspiring me.

    • Caroline McGraw / A Wish Come Clear August 29, 2011, 11:27 am

      Glad to hear it, Angela! I know just what you mean ~ I’m still mourning Gene’s loss, but still uplifted by his life.

  • Lindsay | The Daily Awe August 29, 2011, 11:10 am

    This is just so beautiful and touching. I am a Hospice volunteer and I have to say, the rewards I get from doing that kind of work far outweighs any loss of time, etc…Helping someone die with dignity is one of the most precious gifts.

    Thanks for giving me my daily dose of goosebumps. πŸ™‚

    • Caroline McGraw / A Wish Come Clear August 29, 2011, 11:30 am

      Lindsay, I’m so thankful for those who serve in hospice care ~ they offered us a great deal in Gene’s last days. Thank you for your sharing + encouragement!

  • farouk August 30, 2011, 4:54 am

    that’s inspiring Tess and Gene is a great example that we should all learn from
    thank you for the post πŸ™‚

  • John Sherry August 30, 2011, 6:37 am

    Caroline, thank you for your moving and poignant tribute to Gene. There’s love entwined in every line and the message is clear; that love is a wonderous, mysterious, yet life changing force. It comes in our lives in many forms from young to old, warm to cold, nothing to gold, always making a difference, forever changing our world.

    On the night my father died as I was in a car driving home I felt I was having a heart attack and was about to die. As I slumped forwards I saw the clock on the dashboard and it read 9.15pm. As the minutes went on the feeling subsided. Not long after I got home I found my Dad had died and at 9.15pm. Love though will never die and Gene will still be with you, his love your light for life. Bless you for a beautiful heart warming post. Gene R.I.P. in love.

  • Caroline McGraw / A Wish Come Clear August 30, 2011, 6:47 am

    John, thank YOU for a beautiful comment + sharing ~ your story evinces the mysterious interconnectedness of real love. May your dad rest in peace as well.

  • sheila August 30, 2011, 8:42 am

    As I wipe away tears I just want to say this BEAUTIFUL. Sad that he had to endure such things but wonderful that he lived his final days in content and happiness among those he loved and loved him. Also a great reminder to visit those who seem to have been forgotten… because their story never ends.

  • Caroline McGraw / A Wish Come Clear August 30, 2011, 9:45 am

    Oh Shelia, I’m so glad you were struck by the beauty of Gene’s life + death, as I was. “Their story never ends…” Amen to that!

  • Galen Pearl August 30, 2011, 4:40 pm

    What a lovely story. As the parent of two developmentally disabled adult sons, I was especially moved by this. And L’Arche is a wonderful organization.

  • Caroline McGraw / A Wish Come Clear August 30, 2011, 6:05 pm

    Galen, thank you ~ I appreciate that! πŸ™‚

  • David Stevens August 30, 2011, 7:37 pm

    Hi Ladies,
    This is a wonderful moving story, brought a tear to my eye. Thank you so much for sharing. Here’s cheers to a great Life.
    be good to yourselves

  • winsomebella August 30, 2011, 8:44 pm

    This touched me as it did so many others. Beautiful story of human connection, love and respect and how all relate to aging. Thanks to you both for sharing this.

    • Caroline McGraw / A Wish Come Clear August 31, 2011, 7:15 am

      You’re most welcome, winsomebella! It connects well with your latest post on loss + letting go as well. Thanks for your comment!

  • Jt Clough | Big Island Dog August 31, 2011, 1:34 pm

    Wow. Thank you Caroline for sharing such a meaningful story. It does make one stop and think about whatever woes that seem to be going on today. A good attitude makes everyday a good day in some way.

    It also gives me the feeling that it is better to reach out, listen and support than to be heard on so many occasions.

  • Aileen | Kaizen Vision August 31, 2011, 3:01 pm

    Hi Caroline Hi Tess.
    Caroline it was an emotional journey reading this post. There is so much love in this world – the organization you speak of that creates homes for people & creates the opportunity for a unique life experience – such a blessing.
    Your words a reminder of why it’s important to always be striving to be a better person – and the countless ways one person can positively affect another persons life.
    Your words resonate with me
    “To step in and act with love when others have acted with hatred. To never, never give up on the grace that surrounds us all.”

  • rob white September 1, 2011, 6:12 am

    Wow, I am simply blown away by the love and compassion here today. It is truly moving. To be able to see death as the great release is very empowering – when viewed rightly death is as beautiful and natural as birth. What a gift you are, Caroline, and what a gift Gene was for everyone. You uplift yourself and those around you when you embrace your true nature and the wonderous nature of reality.

  • Justin | Mazzastick September 3, 2011, 4:08 pm

    Hi Tess and Caroline,
    What an awesome and inspiring story that you told. It makes me happy to know that our world and her people are doing their best to help one another out.

    We are on this rock called Earth together and we need to all do our part in making it a comfortable experience.

  • Caroline McGraw / A Wish Come Clear September 5, 2011, 6:44 am

    Thank you Justin! Gene’s story continues to inspire me as well. All the best! πŸ™‚

  • Karl, Stepping Into Wonder September 8, 2011, 10:47 pm

    Wow what a powerful moving story! Thanks so much for sharing. Interesting synchronicity that I was just watching some youtube videos of Henri Nouwen this evening, who was involved with L’Arche.

    Awesome blog, keep it up!

  • Caroline McGraw / A Wish Come Clear September 9, 2011, 11:01 am

    Synchronicity, indeed! & I love the concept behind your site. Thank you for the encouragement, Karl. If you’re ever in DC, do let me know & I’ll be sure to invite you to visit L’Arche here!

  • Holly October 30, 2011, 11:03 am

    This instantly brought tears to my eyes—– and also a glimmer of Inspiration.
    If this man could ‘guard his heart’ through all he had been through……
    Can I not do the same in my life, with my problems?

    Thanks for sharing…… I needed to see this~

  • Caroline McGraw / A Wish Come Clear October 30, 2011, 6:22 pm

    Holly, thank you for your sharing this ~ I’m so glad to hear that you connected with the post. I’m still learning from Gene, & it’s an honor to share this story with you.

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