Monday, November 8, 2010

My teacher, my friend

Mary Cecilia (Bomber) Leblanc
November 10, 1950 - November 4, 2010

And so, again we gather here in our little Chapel to say a last goodbye to a sister, an aunt, a co-worker, a friend. Just a few days ago, many of us sat in these same seats on All Souls’ Day, the altar covered with pictures of our community members who have died, remembering and giving thanks. Mary sat in our midst, snoozing on and off in her wheelchair, enduring the wet weather to be here among friends. Now Mary has gone to join those saints and it is her picture that sits in the place of honour.

To remember Mary’s life is surely to remember a mystery. Mary was a small woman who was larger than life; a silent woman who spoke volumes; a deaf woman who spent an awful lot of time telling people to be quiet!

One thing we can say for sure is that the story of Mary’s life was not without pain and suffering. Her family, many of whom we are so grateful to have with us today, know only too well how Mary’s early life was touched by tragedy, losing her parents when she was only three and then moving suddenly to institutional care.

But clearly, somewhere along the way she made a decision – that she would not let the circumstances of her life define or limit her; that she would stand up to those who tried to keep her down and say, albeit without words, “You’re not the boss of me!” In the disability field today there is so much emphasis placed on self-advocacy – truly, Bomber was a self-advocate before her time.

Some of us have heard stories from her 30 years in institutional care – that the only way staff could get Mary from place to place was to have two or three men toss her in the laundry bins and wheel her; that janitors were forced to wax floors with Mary sitting on the waxer, as they were unable to get her off; even that employees who worked with her threatened to strike unless they were paid more for the stress and strain of dealing with her demands. I suspect many of these stories are apocryphal, but even if the details are exaggerated, the point they illustrate is true!

Those people who lived and worked with Mary during her first 20 years at L’Arche can vouch for that. Many people – myself included – were afraid of Bomber, nervous of the inevitable disagreement over seating arrangements, utensils, wardrobe choices, bedtimes, or a host of other seemingly inconsequential matters. Monica speaks of hiding in the kitchen at Thomas House, lights off, hoping against hope that Mary would stay in the living room; Rachel has been held hostage in her car outside Waycobah House, Mary refusing to exit the front seat despite the best efforts of a crowd of assistants surrounding the vehicle. And Mary has left her mark – literally – on many of the assistants who have supported her over the years.

Over time, we all learned some of the tricks to get us out of a stalemate with Mary. Laughter was one option, and the most reliable way to elicit a laugh was generally to feign serious injury. More than one person has been shot by a stray bullet just to convince Mary Leblanc to get on the van! Another possible peacemaking solution was to offer Mary sympathy, sticking out your lower lip and showing her that you were sorry.

Of course, many of us immature assistants resisted both these options – we knew we were in the right and we didn’t just want the incident to end, we wanted to win! We wanted Mary to be the one to surrender. We soon learned that was not going to happen. And why should it? Mary had had enough of being on the losing end of life’s battles – why should she let some kid take another piece out of her dignity and self-determination?

Of course, Mary’s fierce streak could sometimes work to your advantage. When you were in her good books, she would go to the wall for you – that little leg swinging out to protect your seat; pillows flying through the air at others in your defense; those fat, arthritic fingers flicking water across the table (although not before shaking off all the excess so it wouldn’t make such a mess). The problem was , you never knew when you would be in her good books, or how long that would last. It was Mary’s prerogative to change her mind.

I like to think that Mary’s death was her final act of defiance. For some months now we have been in discussions with the Department of Community Services about whether Mary’s needs would be better met in a nursing home. Her family and her community were strong advocates for supporting Mary in her home at The Vineyard. And yet, the process was moving forward. On Thursday, November 4th, Mary’s case was being heard, and it seemed obvious that she would be placed on a waiting list for nursing home care. Instead, on Thursday, Mary died – the first thing in her life she ever did in a hurry. A pretty powerful act of self-determination.

But Mary’s tough streak did not define her. For people who stayed with her – and we did – there was such tenderness, humour, and beauty within her.

How many of us were the privileged recipients of her speeches when the candle was passed at a birthday party? On the outside, each person got the same delivery – the lips moving, that barely perceptible sound, a slight smile every now and then, a little laugh. But each of us who received that speech heard something different – we heard in her unutterable words our own beauty, the faith she had in us, her words of encouragement on this tough road of life.

And how many of us felt that soft tickle of her breath against our faces as she whispered unknown secrets in our ears, then pulled back to see her put her hand over her mouth, eyes wide, encouraging us to be just as scandalized as she was about the secret she had just shared?

How many of us heard that incredible laugh, the laugh that she couldn’t hear but that she certainly felt, the laugh that bubbled up from her toes when she really got you good, or when things got silly on the couch and there was wrestling and tickling and all sorts of foolishness.

How many of us saw her wearing a big goofy sign around her neck, announcing “Kiss Me! It’s my birthday!” and the delight in her eyes when you leaned in for hug and a smooch.

How many of us were at The Vineyard or Thomas House when her family would come to visit, laden down with enormous bags of cheezies and new clothes, and see the pride in Mary Cecilia as she claimed her people, and showed them off to us.

How many of us saw her wearing headphones, snapping those little fingers and grooving to a non-existent beat?

And surely, all of us were well aware of Mary’s altered sense of time. An hour went by like a minute, and no amount of time was too long to spend rearranging the place settings just right, moving the pillows on the couch ¼ inch this way or that, getting those hospital corners just so on her freshly made bed.

As Mary aged, the hard edges of her personality softened more and more. She became increasingly a woman of vulnerability, a woman who liked hand and foot massages, who drew people to snuggle on the couch, who graced so many with her gentle smile and tender hugs. She let go of the details – of finding every hole in every sock or every chip in every plate – and instead chose to focus on the bigger things: loving and being loved, sitting vigil with friends making the passage to the next life, holding hands with friends she loved, teaching the young men in the community how to be tender and how to cry. Indeed, when Mary died and we were washing her body and getting her dressed for visitors, there was a line-up of five young male assistants waiting to sit with her, heads bowed and eyes brimming. Because of Mary Leblanc, they will never be the same. And neither will we.

One of the former assistants who wrote to us about Mary this week said that, for her, Mary is an iconic person, in a literal sense – her life points to some greater, ineffable reality. The truth that Mary has revealed through her life is indescribable. As Helen Keller once said of beauty, it cannot be seen or even touched. It must be felt with the heart. And Mary taught us how to feel it.

Our little community of L’Arche Cape Breton has lived with tremendous grief and loss these past few years. Sometimes I wonder, is this what I signed up for when I said yes to L’Arche? Saying goodbye over and over to people who have become my family? Looking around and knowing that this journey of grief before us is still long? Sitting with a friend in the Chapel as he struggles to understand the mysteries of life and death, tears falling silently down his cheeks, and knowing that I cannot take away his pain? Bringing my kids to wakes and funerals and wishing things were easier?

But then I think of Mary. How can I compare my suffering to hers? How can I wish to have not lived this pain, if it means not to have known her? How can I say that I want to walk this journey with our people if I am not willing to embrace everything about the journey? I need to trust that the silent example of Mary Cecilia Leblanc will give us all strength to continue to love, to struggle, and to open our vulnerable hearts to each other.

Mary hated the light, hated opening the curtains first thing in the morning or driving without the visor down. She would demand her hat and sunglasses, or squint those little eyes against the assault of the sun. Just before Mary took her last breath, she did just that - screwed her eyes tightly shut. I think she saw the light, and in typical Mary fashion, it really bugged her. But I imagine that Janet Moore was there to beckon and reassure her, and that Marian Turnbull is holding her hand, and that, when it comes my time, there will be Bomber, leg swung across the seat next to her, saving me a spot.


Jill said...

Thank you Jenn. I never really got to know Mary, but your beautifully written piece made me feel close to her and close to the people who have walked with her over the years. Thank you for taking the time to do this and to share it with all of us.


Leslie Greencorn said...

Mary will be missed - another one of the L'Arche CB legends has moved on. Thank you for your beautifully written words, Jenn...

Anonymous said...

Jen that was a beautifully written piece about a beautiful women. I had the privilege to know Mary and I am blessed for the experience.

Thank you for your wonderful words of wisdom and caring.