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facts & arguments

Enrolling in the developmental services worker program at Loyalist College in Belleville, Ont., was meant to be a stepping-stone to starting my own business helping families to navigate life with an aging parent.

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I found grace at the feet of a woman who cannot walk or speak or feed herself. Her name is Gloria, but everyone calls her Glo.

Four years ago, at the age of 38, I was looking to find a new purpose after being at home with my children. I went back to school.

Enrolling in the developmental services worker program at Loyalist College in Belleville, Ont., was meant to be a stepping-stone to starting my own business helping families to navigate life with an aging parent.

When I graduated in 2013, I grinned proudly at my sons and my parents, waving madly as I triumphantly crossed the stage with a diploma in my hand.

But in my heart, I clutched something even better: the knowledge that, during the past two years, I had found myself again. My sense of humour, my sense of purpose, my love of people (and their stories) and my courage had all returned. Mostly, I'd found my calling – and, unexpectedly, grace.

I met Glo during my final college/work placement – 12 weeks of supporting elderly people with disabilities. She was one of 10 people living in a group home just outside Belleville.

Though I grew immensely fond of her during those long-then-too-short months, she scared me to pieces at first. I was afraid of the grunting noises she made and the way she beat the air with a fist, twisted and gnarled with age, and a voiceless rage.

She was tiny, really, and after being eased from her wheelchair onto the buttery-soft couch, she would curl into an even smaller ball, rocking. Her eyes, set deeply into cheekbones sharply grown, were wide and too big for her face. She hardly ever blinked but would, on occasion, fix her gaze upon mine so intently that I looked away, convinced that she could somehow see all of my faults and secrets.

One morning, about three weeks into my placement, I stepped into chaos: All 10 of the men and women we supported were awake and hungry, and a staff member had called in late. With other staffers busily seeing to other tasks, it was up to me to sort out and serve breakfast to everyone, including Glo, who had long ago lost the ability to bring even a spoon to her toothless mouth.

Smiling to hide my nerves, I bustled about, chattering inanely about the weather and my drive, tucking a napkin onto her lap and readying her warmed cereal on the tray attached to her wheelchair. I dragged a kitchen chair over, but quickly realized that it was not the right height – I wanted us to be at the same level as Glo ate, so that it would seem more like a conversation over a meal than the duty of simply spooning food into her mouth as it opened and closed like a tiny bird's. As it happened, an ottoman from the "family" room fit perfectly underneath her tray and I did, too, tucking my feet around hers and leaning in with the first spoonful.

At first, I concentrated on the mechanics of getting the right amount on the spoon and into her hungry mouth without spilling it. After every third bite, I offered her a sip of coffee from a lidded cup with a straw, and then carefully dabbed at the corners of her mouth. Once I found her rhythm, I began to relax and instead of watching the spoon on her lips, I lifted my eyes to hers.

How carefully she watched me back, never once shifting her gaze, never once allowing me to shift mine. With a sigh, I was suddenly suffused – that is the ONLY word I have ever been able to use to describe what I felt – with a sense of sudden and absolute peace. I felt as though I had come home, as though I had found my place at last. At last. I was dumbfounded.

"What a privilege this is, Glo," I whispered, gently dabbing and wiping and spooning. It was. It was beautiful, I realized, to – literally – serve another human being.

I wondered aloud at the feeling, asking of a woman who had not spoken a single word in decades: "What's the word for this, Glo? What's the word to describe what this feels like?"

Glo held my gaze steadily, and for a moment I thought I saw something flash in her eyes. It was knowledge. It was connection. It was intimacy that I'd never known existed, before her. It was grace, and it humbled me more than anything else ever has, including the births of my children and the death of my brother. Grace from Gloria.

I knew then that to serve my fellow human beings and to tell their stories is both a privilege and my calling. For that moment of connection and truth and grace, I will always be grateful to Glo. Without a single word, she said everything that matters most.

Elizabeth McLennan lives in Belleville, Ont.

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