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Jean Vanier is the founder of L'Arche, an international organization which creates communities for people with developmental disabilities. Mr. Vanier is photographed here during a lunch in one of the community houses. (Michel Setboun/Michel Setboun/Getty Images)
Jean Vanier is the founder of L'Arche, an international organization which creates communities for people with developmental disabilities. Mr. Vanier is photographed here during a lunch in one of the community houses. (Michel Setboun/Michel Setboun/Getty Images)

'There is a beginning and an end to all things' Add to ...

Dear Jean,

It has been months since I last wrote to you: The time seems to have evaporated in a rush of all-too-forgettable duties. Now, that busyness has come to a standstill and winter is arriving, slowing everything down and shelving my ambitions.

But perhaps I've also put off this letter because it looks like it will be our last exchange for a while, at least in public. I always feel a little nervous about stopping a communication: The time comes soon enough when we can't share our thoughts at all, so it always seems a little … profligate, to stop writing unless it is absolutely necessary.

I suppose silence always makes me think of solitude, and solitude makes me think of isolation - the loneliness of my son Walker, mute and isolated, and the spectre the intellectually disabled always bring to the surface.

A friend of mine at boarding school once described his memory of being dropped off at school for the first time by his parents, late on an autumn Sunday afternoon, and watching their car recede in the distance. He was 12 at the time, and he told me he kept thinking, "Oh, this must be how it is when you die: You get lonelier and lonelier, and then when you are as lonely as you can be, you are dead." He was a dark one, that pal.

I know you don't imagine death that way, but I imagine the pleasures of the here and now are as vivid to you as they are to me. I miss them even in advance of actually missing them - the pleasure of a human touch, of drawing and music, of art and green fields and the sheer sight of the land; spending time with my friends and my children; and of course the secret pleasure of being private and watchful in the public world, solitary in a crowded city. (I've always liked that - the best of all possible worlds.) Also reading, writing, getting mail. Coming upon some new writer's voice, finding first editions of famous books I loved as a kid (even though I can't afford them). Skiing, of all kinds. Physical pleasure. Even technology - I often wish I could see how the world turns out after I am gone, to see the world my daughter lives in, to see how the world treats my son.

I find I think about Walker when things end, whether it is a season, a project or another year. He's getting big now - still small for his age but imaginable as a 13-year-old boy. He was home the other day after a few weeks' absence (because I, in turn, had been away) and I experienced a flood of relief yet again when he recognized me and gave me a "Deh" - all he can manage, speech-wise - and a smile.

Then he madly toured the house, to make sure everything was still the same. Or so I imagine. Perhaps he was off to look for his voice in the cupboards and corners where he often stands, waiting and watching. A few hours later he came back to the kitchen and gave the microwave a light bop, which he found quietly amusing, and I therefore did too.

He likes the sound of the guitar, so I've been trying to learn to play, with very little success; I have been trying to teach him the difference between yes and no, a fundamental distinction and possibly a source of dignity - we choose, therefore we are noble! Very little success there as well. We all have our shortcomings.

But he had another seizure the other day, his fourth. Another brush with darkness, a foray into a place where I can't reach him. It makes me want to watch over him incessantly, but of course he doesn't want that any more than I really do: He wants independence, to be free of me, as much as he wants to hang on to me. Even Walker likes to move on.

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