The Gift of Compassion
As I have grown older I have come to learn compassion is something to mature into and is not readily acquired. Compassion is cultivated like the pearl that comes from an oyster. The pearl is refined in the darken womb of the oyster over time, as compassion is empathy cultivated through the exercise of lived experiences that have been overshadowed by the power and intensity that has been shaped and purified by the fire of pain. It becomes the ultimate expansion and expression of unselfish love. It is also the outreach of personal growth where adept wisdom is brought forth from the intuitive self that sheds the light of heightened awareness that directly comes from the heart.
I grew up in a family of three siblings. I am the youngest. My brother Michael is the eldest. He was born three months premature during the early fifties when prenatal care did not offer the advanced technologies that are available today in tending to premature births. During this time the oxygen provided to the incubator was not monitored or regulated. This resulted in permanent damage to the retina in both my brothers’ eyes causing Retrolental Fibroplasias, irreversible blindness, along with minimal brain damage. Being reared in a household with a handicap sibling placed a demand and imbalance upon not only my parents, but also my sister and myself.
My sister and I endured silently the underlying tensions of both parents who were struggling to care for the child with the most apparent needs. We were healthy and strong, we were not intentionally meant to go unnoticed. I was brought up in a deprived setting where physical and emotional needs went unmet and direct emotional availability was inconsistently provided. The adverse affects of emotional abandonment affected my emotional development. I learned to resent my brother from a very early age. I may not have been able to reason verbally or intellectually with what was going on around me but even at the tender age of three I understood what I was witnessing on a daily basis. His needs came before mine.
I did not understand my brother’s handicap other than he could not see and even then, that did not sink in until I was in my adolescence. Growing up in the early sixties was still a time in which psychology and words like dysfunctional and co-dependence were unacknowledged topics. To consider explaining the nature of my brother’s handicap to my sister and myself was not a consideration. The expectation I learned in my youth was to be self-reliant and independent. Unknowingly my resentment would eventually grow into deep bitterness and anger. My animosity would take me years to reconcile and integrate. Through a lot of therapy, self-understanding and eventual maturity, I would start to unravel the frostbite of my past and my attitudes that had hardened through the years.
I have come to learn the very things I once most resented have become my greatest resource for learning from. My brother’s presence in my life has become a very strong, quiet mirror reflecting the twisted limitations I have learned to incorporate and surpass. I came to realize that my brother was a trapped participant in the family quandary just as much as I was. He was living with the handicap and literally blinded to any perceptible path in life other than what his senses had to offer as he developed as a person. I found a mindful opening the day I reached that understanding. It was a turning point for me. I was consciously crossing a bridge that offered another perspective only the birthing of empathy turned into compassion could bring. I was in my early twenties when I experienced this epiphany. The ironic irony was during this time I had been away at a monastery on a retreat in Pecos, New Mexico. I asked God to forgive me.
Life weaves hidden messages within every situation. The task is deciphering the gift of those messages in-between the unread lines.
When my brother lost his housekeeper a few years ago my mother asked me if I would help out on an interim basis until another housekeeper was found. I accepted the job since it would offer me extra pick up money. What was to be an intermittent period has become a long-term involvement, having to deal with my brother on a more continual basis over the past few years has allowed me the opportunity to come into a fuller relationship with him. I have come to learn the idiosyncrasy of his handicap, but I have also come to see the wonderful person that is eclipsed by the minimal brain damage and aspects of autistic traits. I have gained more tolerance from within myself in dealing with my brother one on one. I have my limitations and boundaries. I found the most honest way for me to be present and open to him without umbrage is to be with him when my heart is open and not closed. There are periods when I need to step back and be away from him.
My father recently suffered a severe and debilitating stroke. His stoke came like a pre-emptive hit without any warning. Striking him down literally while taking a shower I heard the thunderous noise that echoed down the hall out to the kitchen where I stood leaning against the counter, as my mother and I were casually conversing. Suddenly, without notice, the roles within the family are drastically shifted. My father’s role in Michael’s life was abruptly interrupted. My father for as long as I can remember has always gone out of his way in giving of himself to my brother. The term-dedicated father has been worn well by this man. Now the weekly care giving that had been established over a lifetime between father and son has been forever changed.
In life I have come to expect the unexpected. We are taught to live within pockets of comfort zones that truly, in the end, don’t exist. My greatest stability in life must come from within myself. In my father’s absence, I have taken over his role in attending to my brother. My mother early on was unavailable since her time and presence were wrapped up in care giving to my father during the initial months after his illness. Since the onset of my father’s stroke the incredible demand to shoulder the weight of changing responsibilities has been rudely transforming my heart whether I liked it or not. The awareness came to me recently that we can travel continually within ourselves to the heart of the mystery that each of us carries. No two blueprints of the soul are the same. Each is unique and precious like no other. The impact of living through challenging hardships this past year has stretched and opened me to depths and regions that have been quietly dormant. Losing my grandmother, being diagnosed with breast cancer, and my father’s stroke has propelled me to opening the elusive trap door within my heart. The inner sanctum that lies within the greater, more obscure depths from within me. My sense of compassion for my brother has become a delicate two-edge sword. It has humbled me and taught me that life is very, very precious, and that nothing should ever be taken for granted. Resentment can still cut into me, reminding me like a good barometer, when I need my own space. Compassion is created by the harvest of a sound consciousness as it strives to understand the indifference, not just within the world, but also from within one’s self. Now I understand the term, “My heart is full.”
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