Giving Upward

Author: Heather King

Goodness has a healthy dash of humor at its heart. “There is abundant hope — but there is none for us,” wrote Kafka, an observation that made me laugh out loud the first time I read it, but which in practice, of course, is not all that funny.

My late friend Dennis was shot as a kid of 18 during a convenience store hold-up and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

He got sober and for 25 years, in constant pain, helped another alcoholic stay sober. Never complained, never indulged in self-pity, never badmouthed, never took the bait if you tried to badmouth someone yourself. He told me once of the time another paraplegic asked him, “Why, Dennis, why? Why me, why you?” He continued: “I told him, ‘I dunno — I guess God just hates me.’ We got to laughing together and by the time we hung up we both felt better.”

Dennis was the moral center of any room in which he was present. People cleared a path for him, lined up to pay their respects as if he were royalty. “That’s Dennis’s spot,” we’d tell the newcomers if they tried to sit in his corner. You’d see him over there unobtrusively twisting, stretching in his chair, trying in vain to get comfortable. He once told me that bathing, getting dressed and driving to the meeting took him six hours. Always on time, neatly groomed, eyes closed against the pain, he was like the candle that burns in the red holder next to the tabernacle.

He lived 45 years in that chair, an almost unheard-of feat given his injuries. I truly think he did it for us. That’s goodness.

A woman once wrote to tell me of her father, on one level a “monster” who had molested her older sister. The woman had become his sole guardian a few months after her mother passed away. “He sat imprisoned in a body racked with Parkinson’s, his brain rapidly deteriorating. By the end, he was bed-ridden and unable to speak. And part of me was still terrified of him.” In his dementia, he was all conspiracy theories and paranoia.

She realized early on that she was caring for someone who would show no gratitude. “It made me think of Jesus,” she said, “during the crucifixion, knowing that many would not accept him or his sacrifice. And yet, he still died for them. It made the crucifixion all the more beautiful, all the more awe-inspiring, and more of a mystery.”

She struggled to accept the fact that her father was more than a pedophile. As she tried to hold on to the good her father had done, in spite of the evil, she began to “marvel at God’s love for us and his forgiveness of us.”

Finally, the woman came to forgive her sister, too, whom — prior to learning of the abuse — my friend had seen as selfish. As well as the mother she had once thought of as enabling. “Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross makes sense to me because I lived the reality of a mother and sister who willingly sacrificed themselves for me,” she said. “They took on my father’s abuse so he would not turn to me. They laid down their lives for me. So my life is not just mine; it has been bought. It has to be lived. I embrace the journey and the people along the way. Because they — we — are Christ. The real living Christ.”

My friend Patrick’s mother died of complications from childbirth when he was 6, leaving him and four other children. As adults they died one by one; hard lives, a couple of them; hard deaths. While working as a full-time professional actor, Patrick stood by, listened, accompanied, visited when they were sick, paid for several of the funerals, buried them. He quietly, steadfastly endured: no whining, no censure, just profound compassion for their suffering and flashes of black humor. I was once carping about my own siblings. He let me go on and on, then said quietly: “I’d give anything to have a brother or sister left to complain about.”

I once drove up the Central Coast of California to visit him when he was doing summer stock. While there, I learned that back home, my beloved 16-year-old cat was dying. Patrick took one look at my face and simply held me. Not a perfunctory hug; rather a full-on, mother-like enfolding. Do you know how hard that is, how rare? Two dear, platonic friends. Just held me. I’ve never forgotten that. The kindness. The vulnerability. What if our offer of help, of love, is rejected? Maybe that’s the truest form of goodness: being afraid that our love will be rejected — and offering anyway.

Heather King, who lives in Los Angeles, is an essayist and author of several books, among them Loaded: Money and the Spirituality of Enough.