The first time I saw him he was walking on a treadmill. A blond starlet dressed like an old-west prostitute posed seductively in a country music video on the television screen suspended in front of him. But he wasn’t watching the video. He was looking around at whomever or whatever, not furtively, but with blatant curiosity.
When our eyes met, I understood.
Some might call the expression vacant. As the mother of a brain-injured son, I saw it more as open. Unmasked. He had dark eyes, and black hair curled around his ears, and I guessed he was probably somewhere between eighteen and twenty. A slender, silver-haired woman walked beside him. His mother.
The world has labels for people like him. Damaged. Deficient. Broken. Unproductive. More than anything I was struck with the stark contrast between his unaffected expression and the video starlet’s heavily painted facade, and I wondered with more than a hint of irony how many people in that gym would laugh at the notion that his contribution to society might be more valuable than hers.
The encounter touched a deep, knowing place inside me, but it was a seeing and moving along. I soon forgot.
That was several months ago, and I hadn’t encountered the pair again until last Friday, when I spotted them in an area off to the side used for free weights and upper body machines. There were plenty of other things going on. In addition to the general hustle and bustle of the gym, heart-breaking scenes from Japan filled a television screen nearby, and another a few feet away aired clips of a defiant Gadhafi, and on yet another some poor guy rushed through his busy day carrying around a beaker full of green liquid that I’m pretty sure represented the acid in his stomach, but my attention kept returning to mother and son. I didn’t mean to stare, but the more I watched them, the more everything else faded into the background. World events, whirring machines, even my own physical exertion. Soon I was completely enthralled with the interaction of the two.
The mother’s long thick hair was swept back and twisted up, the ends forming a silver firework atop her head, like a diadem. Her exercise clothes revealed a lean, toned frame, not beefy but gracefully athletic. As I watched her work with her son, I wondered if her motives for staying fit are as mixed as mine. For me, having a forever child — one with a permanently broken wing who will never fly the nest — compels me to remain strong and healthy as long as possible. There’s also the biblical mandate for stewardship of the physical body. Then there’s the addictive, endorphin-induced stress relief, the increased energy and sense of well being, a myriad of reasons (including simple vanity) I want to look attractive, and mixed in with all that, I suspect there’s a grasping for control, or at least the illusion of having some.
I know nothing about the other mother’s situation, but whatever her motives are, it didn’t take long to see in her a beauty that goes much deeper than a sculpted figure. A love story played out before me, and I had front row seats.
I watched as she helped her son lie down on a bench, placed two eight-pound weights in his hands, then lay on the bench next to his with her own hand weights. They turned their heads to look at each other, which gave me a clear view of his face. I’m sure she was speaking, but I doubted I would have been able to eavesdrop even if I’d been much closer. I imagined her voice as soft, calm, soothing. She seemed the embodiment of quiet strength, peaceful authority, and regal grace. I was captivated by her, and her son appeared to be as well. He never took his eyes off of her face as they raised and lowered their weights, side-by-side, him mirroring her movements, his expression a picture of cooperative concentration.
When they finished that exercise, she helped him sit up and carried their weights back to the rack — all her movements fluid elegance, purposeful and unhurried, as though completing this work out were the only event on her agenda and she savored the sweetness of each moment with her son. When she stepped away from him for any reason, he remained in his place, quiet and still, patience personified. Even a casual observer could see there was a lifetime of knowing between them. He had no reason to doubt her return, so he waited, fully present in his waiting.
And again, I understood.
People who’ve read our story often ask me what Jacob is like today — if he grieves what he’s lost or has goals for the future. For a long time I wasn’t sure how to answer. I’d tell them that nothing seems to upset him for long, and his default setting is happy, but — other than the mercy of God — I wasn’t sure why. Then one day when I was trying to explain Jacob to yet another person who’d asked, it all suddenly made sense. Jacob is content because he’s fully present in whatever moment he’s living. He doesn’t mourn or regret the past, and he doesn’t anticipate the future. He lives in the now with pure, childlike faith. I have no idea if the young man in the gym was born with his “deficiency” or if it was a gift of God’s severe mercy like Jacob’s, but I saw in him the same restful, trusting contentment. And, perhaps even more stunning, I saw this contentment in his mother as well.
What happened next made me catch my breath. The young man sat on a weight bench, staring out at the central part of the gym. As his mother walked past to adjust a machine behind him, neither turned to look at the other, but she placed a hand on his shoulder in a gesture that was like a benediction — intimate and so full of grace and tenderness, I almost felt I should avert my eyes. But I couldn’t. I was mesmerized. Awed by beauty. And deeply convicted.
I’m ashamed to admit how often I get frustrated with Jacob’s pace or resentful of the impact his limitations place on our choices. Everything about this woman’s body language and behavior communicated not only peaceful acceptance but love, joy, and genuine gratitude. And her son responded. When she spoke, he listened and obeyed. When she placed her hands over his and guided him through the use of a weight machine, he submitted without resistance, his trusting eyes fixed on her face.
The whole scene was so beautiful, so stunning and other-worldly, I lost track of time and everything else, and when I pulled myself back to my own reality, my heart was full to brimming. A multitude of emotions swirled inside me — admiration, gratitude, inspiration, awe — but there was one feeling conspicuous in its utter absence.
Talking heads and defiant dictators still paraded across TV screens, and starlets still sold their souls for digital glory. I glanced around at harried people, squeezing in a slapdash work out before rushing off to the next pressing thing, and I wondered if anyone else in that room knew they were in the presence of true greatness.
What the world calls damaged, deficient, broken, Jesus names beloved, beautiful, redeemed. What the world would throw away as useless, He honors and exalts, making the least into teachers of compassion, possessors of radiant faith, living parables of His truth. What the world considers great, isn’t. Not in the eternal scheme of things.
Become as a child. That’s what Jesus said. Do as I have done to you. Wash one another’s feet.
I shudder to think how often I miss God’s gifts — so busy am I scrambling for significance, laboring to make myself feel good about myself. But God still gives and gives, and when I’m present in the moments of my life, I see.
I watched a mother with a silver crown serve her prince of a son, and I heard a Voice whisper.
Giving thanks in community:
#50 For love stories lived and glimpsed
#51 For the least of these and what they teach
#52 For the playful way Jacob placed two (and only two) oyster crackers side by side in his soup
#53 For YouTube videos of the Sparrow and the joy-full ache she makes in my heart
#54 For Sarah’s good doctor’s report
#55 For Naomi’s prenatal frolic and the wild delight of awaiting her arrival
#56 For Ebenezers of God’s grace to look back upon and be strengthened by
To join the chorus of thanksgiving, visit Ann Voskamp’s site.
Here are a couple more favorite places sharing Monday graces. Check them out, too:
L.L. Barkat’s On, In, and Around Mondays
And Laura Boggess’ Playdates with God