Last week was our 20th anniversary. We enjoyed a dinner at a favorite restaurant where we had dined exactly 1 year earlier. Something was very different on this occasion, however. A year earlier, within an hour of our anniversary dinner, Janet was forced to drive me to the ER where I spent several hours undergoing tests, i.e. we spent our 19th anniversary in the ER. Within 45 minutes of finishing our meal, I began having severe, excruciating and unaccountable abdominal pains. At the time, I was on a cocktail of medications related to my near fatal car crash the previous month. Apparently these had caused a stomach ulcer and this was the first attack--the episode was presumably brought on by the spicy Mexican food that we ate. With all of the trauma I had experienced in the accident, we returned to the ER without hesitation. So, this year we returned to the same restaurant to pick up where we left off.
Returning to the same place was sentimental to me. Few can imagine what it is like to be totally incapacitated and forced to rely on others for everything. Fewer still can imagine the singular beauty and sense of divinity experienced when another completely and selflessly gives herself to care for you in your distress. In a long term marriage based on selflessness, one or both of the partners is bound to experience a taste of this at some point. In some marriages, one of the partners may be a long term caregiver for the other. Janet has ministered to me through more than one such crisis—one with a long term visual disability, the other due to the effects of my car crash which broke my neck and both arms.
This year, I am of naturally reflecting on her example of Christ-like love and sacrifice, as well as thinking about the scores of other human beings in similar, but more or less permanent situations of incapacity. There are many in serious, ongoing, and inextricable misery, but those who have a devoted loved one to care for them know a secret hidden to others. None that I know have articulated this secret better than Victor Hugo.
In a day when every blogger considers himself a luminary, and every twitterer imagines himself as having something worthwhile to say, we have forgotten what literary genius looks like. True literary genius has an ability to simplify the vastly complex, to paint in word pictures those concepts it has simplified, and then to vividly describe intricate delicate scenarios not personally experienced. Victor Hugo does just this and is a rare example of the genius obscured by the massive quantities of sound-bite style media that inundate us.
While many striking examples from Hugo could be given, most are not reducible to something that could be posted on a blog in a single page. However, the following can be, and for me is deeply powerful. It is Hugo’s description of an elderly blind priest who was cared for by a devoted sister. Having experienced near complete functional blindness for two months in the summer of 2005 and additional years of visual debilitation, I can tell you from experience that the following sequence in Chapter IV of Book V of Les Misérables captures the essence of the drama experienced by one in such a condition. Consider the following section:
"Let us remark by the way, that to be blind and to be loved, is, in fact, one of the most strangely exquisite forms of happiness upon this earth, where nothing is complete. To have continually at one's side a woman, a daughter, a sister, a charming being, who was there because you need her and because she cannot do without you; to know that we are indispensable to a person who is necessary to us; to be able to incessantly measure one's affection by the amount of her presence which she bestows on us, and to say to ourselves, "since she consecrates the whole of her time to me, it is because I possess the whole of her heart;" to behold her thought in lieu of her face; to be able to verify the fidelity of one being amid the eclipse of the world; to regard the rustle of a gown as the sound of wings; to hear her come and go, retire, speak, return, sing, and to think that one is the center of these steps, of the speech; to manifest at each instant one's personal attraction; to feel one's self all the more powerful because of one's infirmity; to become in one's obscurity and through one's obscurity, the star around which this angel gravitates,--few felicity's equal this. The supreme happiness of life consist in the conviction that one is loved; loved for one's own sake--let us say rather, loved in spite of oneself; this conviction the blind man possesses. To be served in distress is to be caressed. Does he lack anything? No. One does not lose the sight when one has love. And what love! A love wholly constituted a virtue! There is no blindness where there is certainty. Soul seeks soul, openly, and finds it. And this soul, found and tested, is a woman. A hand sustained you; it is hers: a mouth lightly touches your brow; it is her mouth: you hear a breath very near you; it is hers. To have everything of her, from her worship to her pity, never to be left, to have that sweet weakness aiding you, to lean upon that immovable reed, to touch Providence with one's hands, and to be able to take it in one's arms,--God made tangible,--what bliss! The heart, that obscure, celestial flower, undergoes a mysterious blossoming. One would not exchange that shadow for all brightness! The angel soul is there, uninterruptedly there; if she departs, it is but to return again; she vanishes like a dream, and reappears like reality. One feels warmth approaching, and behold! She is there. One overflows with serenity, with gaiety with ecstasy; one is a radiance amid the night. And there are 1000 little cares. Nothings, which are enormous in that void. The most ineffable accents of the feminine voice employed to lull you, and supplying the vanished universe to you. One is caressed with the soul. One sees nothing, but one feels that one is adored. It is a paradise of shadows.”The secret such sufferers know—the beauty of divine love, which is manifested, and made tangible, though on a finite scale, to the sufferer. Misery is misery, but love is love, and one who is loved in the way described by Hugo understands something of the nature of Christ’ love manifested in His sacrificial coming and dying for a hopeless, miserable, perishing world. In doing so, Christ came to save those who are most completely les misérables. In this sense, the caregiver becomes a savior, a Christ-figure, though reflecting but a shadow of the effulgence of God’s ineffable love. My wife has shown me something of this love over the years, and it is marvelous.