Some years earlier, when I was in the arduous process of applying for scholarships to get into university, an application form asked me to write about a teacher who had truly impacted my life. This came easily for me. There was a certain grade 8 teacher who showed me such love, care, and compassion and also introduced me to the Mennonite Church. I knew that she was the person I wanted to talk about. She still holds a very important place in my heart. However, over the years, I treasure Peggy as another teacher who has held equal significance for me.
I remember my first time helping Peggy on my own. I was terrified because Peggy was so elderly and so frail. Not only did she have a developmental disability, but she also had suffered a series of strokes and we were told that we did not know how much longer she would remain with us. She was already approaching 90 and had lived over 40 years in our community, so the prospect of her moving to outside care definitely did not seem appealing to her at all.
I was constantly worried as I saw Peggy's physical health deteriorate. I feared the worst: that I wouldn’t have the strength to lift her into bed and she would fall, that I would trip and accidently bruise her, and even that I would be with her during her hour of death. None of these things happened, but they were definitely a shaping influence on my thought life for those first several weeks.
Nevertheless, all this would have been much more difficult had Peggy not been the wonderful teacher she was. Once I started doing Peggy’s routines alone, my co-worker told me, “Peggy is a good and patient teacher. Lean into her and listen to what she tells you.” I did just that, and I was not disappointed.
Although Peggy’s body was going, her mind was as sharp as ever. She constantly amazed us with her quick sense of wit and humour. She threw back her head often and laughed hearty bellow laughs. She showed affection daily to one of the core members in our house, Hsi Fu, who had profound physical and intellectual disabilities, with whom she shared a close and special bond, built up over years of friendship with him.
I remember how every morning before Peggy started getting frailer, she would wheel herself out of her bedroom door, approach the dining room table, and see Hsi Fu. Her eyes would light up in sheer delight and wonder and she would loudly call out, “Why good morning, Mr. Hsi Fu. And how are we, this bright, fine, sunny morning?” Although Hsi Fu could not speak, he would always break out into a smile and offer her a hug and a kiss.
Eventually the day came when we had to take Peggy to the hospital. For the next month, I sat by her side while she rested and received visitors. On one particular day, I decided I needed to cherish these last moments with her. She was awake, and she was generally one for conversation (though at times she could be reserved).
I pulled my chair close to her bed and asked her, “What was Toronto like when you were a child?” She wasted no time regaling me with many tales of her childhood, her faith, and her life’s dreams. I noticed that during the duration of her sharing, she never once said anything negative about herself or anyone else. She was truly a very positive and upbeat woman.
After about a month, the nurse and social worker came in and asked to talk to Peggy. They informed her that she would have to move to a nursing home and that there was now a space available for her. I had longed feared this day. Daybreak was Peggy’s home and I earnestly felt it was her wish to spend her remaining days, and eventually die, there. I was quite apprehensive about Peggy’s response to this decision, however, I remember her accepting it with such grace and ease. She thanked the nurse and said she would be happy to go.
When the two women left, I decided to ask her myself how she felt. Peggy was very proper and ladylike, and I felt that maybe she was simply being polite because she did not wish to hurt anyone’s feelings. Yet when I asked her, she only said, “It’s time for a change. Change can be good.” Her sense of knowing what was right for her at that stage in her life made it much easier when I had to come back to my house and share the news with them.
Less than a week after Peggy moved into the nursing home, she moved from this life to the next. During her funeral and the mourning process at L’Arche, I began to see how much she meant to everyone in our community. While people shared about her life and all she had contributed, I realized that I had only seen a small glimpse of who she was. I felt honoured to have shared even that short amount of time with her, but I truly wish it could have been longer.
One afternoon, her closest friends and some others from the community gathered at our house for tea and biscuits. We went around the table sharing stories about Peggy and touching moments. When it was my turn to speak I said, “Peggy was my first teacher. She taught me what L’Arche is really about. She was my window into people who have a disability.”
Three years later, I look back on Peggy’s life and I see the seeds of compassion only then being sown in my heart. I realize that Peggy’s life was like a tree. It did not grow in one night, but after many years of being nurtured, watered, and tended to, it grew and blossomed. In turn, Peggy’s life gave strength and grace to many as she bore much fruit.
I give thanks for Peggy’s life and for the lives of all the other men and women I have encountered during my time in L’Arche. I thank God for how each person has moved me to tears and encouraged me with hugs. I also give thanks for how each person has challenged me and stood by me when intense trials came. In all things, I am reminded that I am still the learner and that a student must never be above her teacher.
Deborah Ferber is a Field Associate for Anabaptist Disabilities Network. She is currently living and working in a L'Arche community in Nova Scotia, Canada.