Thursday, May 18, 2017

L’Arche Across America — Day 9 — Doris

Doris was the first core member I met at L’Arche Boston North, as I wrote a year ago. That was in August 2015 at a picnic in Haverhill. I am only now beginning to understand how providential that meeting was, and how important Doris is to me.

It may not be particularly easy to convince you of Doris’s importance, because as the world usually reckons such things, Doris is not important at all. She lives quietly, often wordlessly on the ground floor of a Haverhill three-decker with her husband Woody, who is also among our travel party.

Doris is not particularly active. She requires a certain amount of personal care at her age and weight and level of health. She does not work outside the home. She does not “add value” to our economy.

But I am coming to think that Doris’s value is beyond estimating. Indulge me while I try to plumb the mystery of this important unimportant woman.

Yesterday, May 17, 2017, was Doris’s 70th birthday, and we celebrated the milestone during our 300-mile passage from Coeur d’Alene Idaho to a hotel room at the Sea-Tac International Airport. We picnicked by the side of Route 90 West inbound (pictured here) and we ate a tasty dinner at the Silver Dollar Casino two blocks from the airport.

After dinner, Doris came with Woody into the adjoining room I was sharing with Todd and John, and we watched a bit of baseball together on TV. All along I tried, and others did too, to make Doris feel special in a way befitting the occasion.

Throughout the day, Doris carried herself with a timid grace, smiling and giggling at the attention we showered on her. Woody is very good with his wife—a model for me with my own Katie, seriously, we all need role models—and he constantly checked in with Doris: “Are you OK, honey? Are you doing OK, Doris?”

Doris would answer, “Yeah,” and lower her eyes shyly as though she were back in high school and a nice boy was approaching her for the first time.

On this road trip, everyone but Doris seems to contribute more, even John, who is quiet but has a dead-eye wit and perfect comic timing with a quip. Woody is Mr. Activity, talking with everyone about L’Arche Boston North and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum that we visited in Cleveland. Todd is “The Big Fellow” with a bigger personality, and he has in many ways been our leader, planning each night’s stay and doing the lion’s share of driving, especially when another older lion (that would be me) grows weary of the road. Jane, well Jane is nothing more nor less than our spiritual leader. She sits quietly in the “way back” on the left and guides us with gentle questions and observations.

Meanwhile, Doris sits opposite to Jane in the front right (picture) and says almost nothing, guiding us not at all. Yet now it seems to me that she is my guide, my pole star in this L’Arche adventure.

But I see that I’m not even beginning to get at the mystery of this woman. Maybe an analogy is the best I can do. I woke up in the night thinking of the wonderful book The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. The book concerns a 1973 trek into Nepal with a friend naturalist, during which the naturalist studies the mating habits of mountain sheep while Matthiessen is intent on spotting the rare, possibly mythical snow leopard.

The men spend 300-400 pages on their quest, but in the end Matthiessen effectively concludes that he has been looking in the wrong direction the whole time. He realizes that the sherpa Tukten, unassuming, quiet, going about his business lugging pack for the party, had more to teach him than any animal or scientist.

I feel this way now about Doris.

I entered L’Arche because I wanted to serve people with disabilities. I remain in L’Arche because I see now that people with disabilities have more to teach and give me than I could ever teach or give them.

If every human life is valuable and to be cherished, then perhaps none is more valuable than the quiet lady who rides shotgun to our driver as we tour the United States in our Toyota Sienna minivan. Doris does little more than point out the many cows and horses along our route, but then maybe that is just exactly what I need to see.

Like Tukten, Doris is teaching me every day we are together. She is unfailingly kind to me and others in the party. That right there is a first lesson I might someday take to heart.

Almost since my first meeting with Doris in August 2015, I have used a picture of the two of us as my Facebook profile picture. Early this morning, as I lay in my hotel cot wondering how to summarize our ninth day on the road, I thought about the wisdom of that picture choice.

A wise choice maybe even in spite of the chooser.

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