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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

Ian Brown writes:

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.

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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.

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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.

He is no different from anyone else on that score, myself included. I forget that he has a will of his own, that he has the right to follow his own path, however disabled he is. The other day someone asked me if I thought Walker would ever marry. For years I couldn't imagine it, but I can't see a reason to deny him that pleasure now, if there is someone who wants to share his life that way.

But Walker's seizures are different; they have a metaphorical power all their own. An obvious one: Is this what it would be like if he were to die, trembling in our arms? What would we have to show for our lives together? Well, just that: I held him, and he let me, for starters.

He will have been here, there is no doubt of that - smashed this, laughed at that, splashed here and ambled there. Not so much to show, but also everything. We all marked his time, found ourselves as we tried to find him. There are people who will never forget him, and who knows where those unforgotten memories will lead? And if that is true of fragile, broken Walker, it has to be true of the rest of us. I like to think he led the way to that conclusion.

Best of all, he never apologizes for who he is, or what he does-unintentionally, of course, but it is the correct answer. I hope he has no regrets. Do you? What are they? And what do you do with them?

Warm regards,

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Ian Brown

Jean Vanier replies:

Ian, my dear Ian, yes. It is sad that this is our last correspondence. There is a beginning and an end to all things. I did love your last letter, filled with humaneness, no pretensions, no great ideal, no illusions, just life.

Life flows on and on. I am here today and tomorrow I will be gone. L'Arche will still be there - how will it evolve? How will Andrew, Lulu, Eric and those I eat with every day in my home be when I am gone? What communication will I have with them?

Barbara, my secretary for 40 years, died two years ago; she knew everything I was and did, and was so wonderfully faithful. She was there 24 hours a day for me, and for all that I was called to do and be. I held her hand as she lay dying, as little by little she faded away, her breath becoming slower, more intermittent, until it finally stopped. She had slipped away behind the veil that separates time from eternity. Rabindranath Tagore says death is not the lamp that goes out, but the coming of dawn.

I had hoped that Barbara might find a way of communicating with me, in dreams or in other ways. There has been only silence. All I can do is trust that she is well and has forgiven me for all those times when I did not sufficiently recognize the incredible gift of herself, to me and to l'Arche.

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I am 81 today. Where have all the years gone to? Yet all is inscribed in my flesh and in my fading memory - flesh as it is written in the Gospel of John, when John says the "word became flesh": God became flesh, God became weak and was born in Bethlehem, a tiny baby. Yes, the years have gone by and I am happy today to be as I am with my weakening but still living body.

As I think of my life in l'Arche, I do not feel that I did anything; it seems that all things happened with me but also without me. I had no plan; things just happened. I met people - people who formed my growth, people with disabilities who loved me and awoke my heart.

I met people who revealed to me the face of God, people who awoke as well my angers and anguish and revealed to me a bit more the shadow side. My flesh has been moulded into what it is today, with all its weakness. It is more vulnerable than yesterday.

What is left, and what will be left when I leave this human existence? I have received and I have given. I have moulded and been moulded. We are all little links in a huge chain of evolution. Where has it come from and where is it going to?

At the basis is trust. I never asked to be born into the Vanier family. I did not ask to be a boy and not a girl. I did not choose my genes. Where and when during my life did I make free choices? I do not know. I feel I have been carried along - held and upheld by a gentle wind. Is it the wind of the Holy Spirit? Let it be, let it be.

I found your letter deeply human: You are no longer dreaming of being cheered as you stride majestically down Fifth Avenue, New York, for writing the best book of the century. You are there, holding Walker, a loving, caring father.

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This is life. We are not pure or impure spirits, floating on clouds of acclaim. We are flesh, grounded and rooted in the earth. We need sleep and rest, work, good food with friends and lots of pleasure. We need disappointments, because they foster hope and renewal. Of course we muse over death.

It is not an accident that we die. We enter the world in the fragility of a baby and later decline into the fragility of the old person we will become. Fragility means needing to cry out, "I need your help, I need your love, I need you." Fragility forms bonds of togetherness, community, friendship and peace.

My life has been born and reborn in trust each day. I trust I will also go through the veil to meet Barbara, God, and so many others. This trust has been the centre and the cornerstone of my life. I have faith that the only important thing in life is to receive and accept life and then to foster life in others. Although I must admit there also have been times when I have been unfaithful, for which I ask forgiveness.

For me, no regrets, for all that is and has been. Today I want just to live in the present and the presence, to God and to other people. May I let regrets fly away, and let the present moment unfold in hope. Your letter, Ian, is about gently receiving and giving life - your holding Walker as he lives through a seizure. Even as our correspondence, as it is, stops, we can continue to help each other to become more human.

May these days of Christmas and the New Year be gently quiet for you - a time of peace, a time of renewal, of rest, but maybe also a bit of skiing.

Jean Vanier

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Ian Brown lives in Toronto and is the author of The Boy in the Moon: A Father's Search for His Disabled Son (Random House). Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche, lives in Trosly-Breuil, France.

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