I’ve spent a good deal of time caring for my seventy-five year old friend William* this month. He’s home at L’Arche, recovering from major surgery. As such, he needs more assistance than usual. For example, he showered independently before the surgery, and now, he needs people to help him.

This is difficult for a man who puts a premium on independence and privacy. Staying home and recuperating for 6 weeks is also a challenge for a man who loves putting on a suit jacket and going to work every day. And, while it’s vital for L’Arche assistants to empower him and allow him to feel good about himself and his contribution, it’s also important to know when to step in and help out.

I won’t say it’s been easy. But there have been little moments of beauty amidst the brokenness.

When I was assisting William this week (specifically, as I was drying between his toes after his shower) he took the time to thank me. As I bent over his feet — noticing his big toenails, the peeling skin from his chronic foot fungus — he said, “I really appreciate you doing this for me. I love you.”

I didn’t expect his words, but, looking back, I understand why he spoke at that moment. There’s something special about tending to another person’s feet. There’s something significant about kneeling in front of another person and caring for this foundational part of them. Some part of that act that strikes a chord with us. It reminds us that a simple touch can make a world of difference.

The Ordinary & The Sacred

Caring for William’s feet reminded me of Gene, because caring for Gene taught me that tending the body can tend the soul. He taught me that the sacred is present everywhere.

I remember a strange feeling of deja-vu coming over me during a worship service wherein I was asked to wash Gene’s feet. Cleaning Gene’s feet was a part of my routine at L’Arche; assistants would wipe his toes and apply creams and powders each day.

During that foot-washing ceremony, as I touched the feet I knew so well, I felt the sacred and the ordinary collide. And I realized that there is no separation; that the ordinary things we do out of love for one another are sacred.

Portrait of Gene, from memorial card

In remembering that long-ago foot-washing, I also remember my L’Arche friend Mary, and how she responded to Gene’s death. Though medical examiners came for Gene’s body soon after his passing, Mary made sure that he wasn’t alone when they came.

Though his spirit was gone, she stayed with his body. She put lotion on his wrinkled skin. She washed his feet, as she’d done so many times before. She tended to the friend she loved one last time.

Our culture teaches us to shy away from acts like this. Caring for a person’s body just after their death is seen as morbid, rather than loving. When Mary told me what she’d done, though, it seemed to me to be the best thing anyone could have done.

The Unbreakable Habit

Mary’s act reminds me of a passage in Marisa de los Santos’ novel, Love Walked In. As the narrator arrives at the home of a woman who has died, she realizes that the woman’s housekeeper has continued bringing in fresh flowers to an empty house.

The narrator says, “…somehow…this seemed no less magical than flowers that stayed alive for years, that one woman could so love another woman that she kept doing nice things for her even after she was gone. Like love was a habit you couldn’t break.”

That’s what I want to live into:  love as an unbreakable habit. Love as something that’s so much a part of me that I carry on caring even when there’s no hope for acknowledgement or reciprocation. Love that looks at death and sees a pause, rather than an end.

I want to live into the kind of love that Gene inspired in people, because that love is bigger than anything.

Every time I think of what Mary did for Gene, I hope– God, how I hope– that someone will be willing to do the same for me.


Have you experienced love as an unbreakable habit? Tell me in the comments!

*Names have been changed.

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  1. Mary October 24, 2011 at 1:36 PM - Reply

    Thanks so much for this reflection, Caroline. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to spend that time with Gene saying goodbye to our relationship of caring. I’ve been feeling disconnected from Gene lately, and this has brought him back to me a little bit. Thank you.

    • Caroline McGraw October 24, 2011 at 2:57 PM - Reply

      Mary, I’m so glad the reflection was what you needed; what you did for Gene made such an impact on me. Thank you for being you!

  2. Melissa Javier-Barry October 24, 2011 at 2:21 PM - Reply

    I’m proud to know Mary and thank you, Caroline, for sharing this story about her act of love towards Gene.

  3. Tara October 24, 2011 at 3:48 PM - Reply

    The portrait of Gene is so beautiful. I love the way his quote is incorporated into the artwork.

    The scene you described from Love Walks In reminds me of my husband. We are able to joke about whether he has his wife today or not, but for quite some time, when the PTSD was very severe, the woman he knew was not there, and he kept doing his best to love me anyway. A pause in love the way we knew it previously, but not the end.

    On a totally unrelated note, has William ever tried ACV for his feet? It’s amazing. I’ve seen it cure athlete’s foot in less than a week. http://www.earthclinic.com/CURES/athletes_foot.html

    • Caroline McGraw October 24, 2011 at 4:00 PM - Reply

      What a great story, Tara! Thank you for sharing from your own experience.
      & yes, the portrait is amazing ~ if I remember correctly, the artist does the portrait, then shows it to the subject and asks what they’re thinking as they look at the piece. She then adds that as a quote to the bottom of the portrait. Such a creative way of incorporating words & images.
      I’ll have to check out ACV ~ thanks for the recommendation! 🙂

  4. Harriet Cabelly October 24, 2011 at 4:10 PM - Reply

    “Love that looks at death and sees a pause, rather than an end.” How absolutely beautiful! Perhaps in the memory of those whom we loved and lost, we can bring forth our love even more.
    I’m going to show this specific post to my daughter. She decided she ‘couldn’t’ be a P. A. because when she was volunteering in the ER of a hospital, she found it too difficult to touch people’s feet. The joke became if you can’t handle their feet, get out of their shoes. And so she became a nutritionist, and loves it. As long as we find what we’re comfortable with, that’s what counts.
    Your writing makes ‘feet’ come alive with spiritual beauty.
    I Know not someone, but many ‘someones’, will be willing to do the same for you. What you put out , you will get back many times more.

    • Caroline McGraw October 24, 2011 at 6:02 PM - Reply

      What a beautiful sharing, Harriet ~ thank you for your words.
      People’s feet can be fearsome, indeed 😉 I’m glad that your daughter has found a way to serve others & stay true to who she is as well.

  5. Allison October 24, 2011 at 4:42 PM - Reply

    Just beautiful.

    Mary, thank you for the way you shower people with love by reaching out with visits, food, touch, laughter, and friendship-myself blessedly included. And Caroline, thank you for the way you shower people with love through words-by illuminating what is happening around us and by helping us always remember the beauty in life.

    I am very grateful for both of you beautiful women and the way you love others well. I pray that I can learn from both of you to make love a habit I can never break.

    • Caroline McGraw October 24, 2011 at 6:03 PM - Reply

      Well said, my friend. Thank you!
      PS ~ I’ve so enjoyed your 31-day challenge posts; they help me to “illuminate what is happening around us”, as you say.

  6. donna October 25, 2011 at 7:41 PM - Reply

    What a beautifully inspired post! I was in tears twice…just because of the beauty in acts of love! The ordinary becomes sacred, done regardless of any reciprocation.

    • Caroline McGraw October 25, 2011 at 11:49 PM - Reply

      Thank you so much, Mom ~ to know that it moved you means the world to me. You have taught me so much about the ordinary becoming sacred, just by the way you live.

  7. Barbara Davis November 7, 2011 at 1:02 AM - Reply

    Caroline I cannot wait to read your book, I am so proud of you put me down on your prepaid list.
    Caroline I would like to have your email so that I can keep in touch with you.

    Thank you,
    Auntie Barbara

    • Caroline McGraw November 7, 2011 at 2:02 AM - Reply

      Thank you so much, Auntie Barbara! I will absolutely add you to the list (and I’ll send you an email shortly). 🙂

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