On the first day of this year, something awful happened in my church community. A husband lost his wife and his children their mother, when metal breakdown suddenly incomprehensibly took over her mind. Before anyone understood how ill she was, she lay dead in the woods, run there for reasons unknown. The community of her family, friends, students, and co-teachers reeled in shock. Marah had been bright, warm, and loving. A fantastic coach and a supportive mother. Accolades and heartbreak poured into Face Book from around the world, from the enormous group of people whose lives she has touched and bettered. Waves of regret and confusion still overcome those of us who wonder — why? — what if–?
That is just one part of the story of Marah.
There is another part. Of course there is. There are always more and more parts, more views and layers to a human life. Another part of Marah’s story is Hugh, her older mentally handicapped brother.
How does having a mentally challenged brother or sister affect us? I want to guess that the effects are rippling, through each family member’s life, and from the life of that family into the community around it. Whether these effects are for bad or good in an individual’s life has something to do with how the family themselves think about that handicap. And how the family thinks about the handicapped member has something to do with how far along they are in the journey of growing deeper in thought, wider in perspective, and richer in compassion. And how the family thinks has something to do with what society around the family thinks about handicaps. There are waves of influence, both ways.
But the short answer is that we cannot know — I cannot possibly guess what Hugh was in Marah’s life. I myself am the sister, and the mother, and the sister-in-law of men with intellectual disabilities. I am sure that knowing my brother and my brother in law changed me – I know for certain that I am a better woman because of caring for Owen. But to quantify or qualify it even in my own life would be difficult. What exactly have I learned from Keith, Chuck, and Owen?
But what I believe is that Hugh was in Marah’s life for a reason. I believe in preparation – which some people call Providence. That certain things and maybe even all things that happen in your life can be used to prepare you for your next step – if you chose to see it that way. Not that bad and difficult things are hurled at you from the clouds to teach you a “lesson” — but that Love pouring over you, coursing through you, will keep on trying to bring good things from every experience – whether it’s the experience of being handicapped, or of trying to understand someone handicapped. The force that pulls us toward growth: Providence. Surely God or Love can’t be so much concerned about whether we get a cold or win the lottery, but rather is tenderly careful of the deeper things at work in us, those things that make us “us.” The opportunity is always there for us to grow – deeper in thought, wider in perspective, richer in compassion.
Hugh did not live with his family by the time Marah was born, because as a boy he was too hard for his parents to manage. He lived in a group home. But I imagine he was always there, in that way that the special needs member of a family is always present in the hearts and minds and sometimes the anxieties of their family. Every holiday he came home. This is when I met Hugh, when as a young woman I worked for his mom.
Hugh was part of my own preparation for being Owen’s mother. I did not know him well. I wouldn’t have been able to know him well at that time – I was too nervous of people who were different. Hugh’s strange ways of moving and speaking made me uncomfortable, and I didn’t know what to say or how to act around him. Ironic, isn’t it. Coming to see the human in all humans is a process. It takes time. Marah, I suspect, had a leg up on that process. You have to be deeper, wider, richer than I was then. But I have often thought of Hugh, and of my own reaction to him, in the past 23 years.
Now that Marah has left her earthly shell behind, and with that shell left behind the mental or emotional malfunction with which she was coping, the vibrant, real part of her must go on. The love that made up her real life, her real self, cannot die.How could it? Marah was a teacher who will long to keep on teaching, long to go on learning how to teach, deeper, wider, and richer . (Do you doubt it? How could you snuff out a unique soul, any more than a disability can extinguish one?) Wakening, and learning where she is, she will certainly remember and want to see her brother Hugh, who was some part of teaching her what she needed to know in her life here. Perhaps he will be again.
Hugh, surely, is almost unrecognizable. The body that so obscured his true spirit when she knew him, he left behind on earth here years ago. His personality now shines freely from his eyes and face. Shines into his little sister’s face. There is much more to know, much more to learn, Marah. Come and see.