Loving the Body by Dr Ira Byock

Loving the Body by Dr Ira Byock

All the passages below are taken from Ira Byock’s book, “The Four Things That Matter Most”, published in 2004

Sometimes in the most difficult situations imaginable, love does conquer all.

In his letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul speaks of the most important things in life: “Faith, hope and love. . . . But the greatest of these is love.” Twenty centuries later, John Lennon’s lyric “All you need is love” became a generation’s anthem. Nowadays that seems simplistic. Love seems impotent in the face of natural disasters and disease, and an anemic response to the human problems of war and poverty. Still, when relationships are strained, and in situations in which faith is sorely tested and hope seems lost, Paul’s ancient wisdom rings true.

A Commitment to Love

Several years ago, I learned of an older couple who had cared for a son dying of AIDS. I was involved with the case indirectly, through supervision and suggestions to the hospice team and doctor, but the more I learned about it, the more interested I became. Much more than another tragic account of AIDS, the circumstances surrounding Mike Whitman’s dying were so extraordinary that a year after he died, I contacted his parents directly to ask if they would talk with me about their son’s passing. I wanted to hear about it firsthand and meet the people whose commitment to love had become almost archetypal in my mind.

Horace and Louise Whitman are Christian fundamentalists who raised four children and devoted their lives to their church. Mike and his three sisters attended Christian elementary schools and a Christian university in Oklahoma. Following college, Mike lived in Oregon and California, and then, around age 35, returned to Missoula. On the surface he led the life of a God-fearing, dutiful son. He worked as a paralegal, sang in the church choir, and taught Bible studies on the weekend. His apartment along the Clark Fork River was within walking distance of his parents’ house, and he had dinner with them several nights a week.

When Mike didn’t show up for work one day, his sister found him in his apartment weak and disoriented. He was immediately hospitalized, given a battery of tests, and was found to have AIDS, already in an advanced stage.

Horace and Louise were, needless to say, stunned to learn about Mike’s illness. Their first response was long periods of prayer. They had no inkling that their son was gay; even the idea of homosexuality was repugnant to them.

At the time AIDS treatment was still fairly primitive; the newer so-called HAART drugs—for Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Treatment—were years away. Mike’s condition was clearly terminal. He was in the hospital for a week or so, and, during this time, he and his parents had momentous decisions to make: Who would care for him and where?

Horace and Louise were ashamed of their son’s disease and what it symbolized to them. Their honesty demanded that they acknowledge the deep wound in their relationship with him, a relationship they had thought was whole. They were caught in a soul-wrenching tension between the tenets of their faith and their love for their son. They could not make him right in their eyes or the eyes of their church, but they could not deny their love.

Many people profess to “hate the sin, love the sinner,” but few are tested as were the Whitmans. Confronted with the choice of rejecting or embracing their son, the Whitmans’ response was instantaneous and unequivocal: they wanted to take care of Mike in their home. “There was no other way to go,” Louise said. “We loved Mike, we loved him dearly, and we still do. We wanted to do everything we could for him ourselves.”

While their feelings about homosexuality were no secret, no one at the hospital ever heard a word of rebuke from the Whitmans or detected a shred of doubt in their decision.

When I asked the Whitmans about their interactions with Mike in the hospital, Horace cocked his head to one side and shrugged, relating his discussion in a matter-of-fact manner: “I told him that I could not condone what he had done. I’ll never understand it. But I said, `I love you, son. That will never change.’ Really, that was it.”

“What did Mike say?” I asked.

“Well,” said Horace, “he just looked sad. He said `I love you, too’ and that he was sorry to be causing us pain.” Horace’s voice broke.

For his part, Mike chose to come home out of love. He could have gone to the home of a gay couple, friends who had offered to care for him. They lived out of town and he would not have had to face his parents’ shame. Even though they seldom spoke of it, or showed it, he knew his homosexuality had ripped apart his parents’ image of him and their family, and caused them to feel dishonored in their faith community. By letting his mother and father care for him, he could, in some measure, restore their parental role.

Nonetheless, there was nothing neat or pretty about the situation with Mike and his family. Mike’s parents wanted him to recant his homosexuality and make a public apology to their congregation. Mike’s gay friends wanted to care for him—and they wanted to see him—and they were deeply hurt at being excluded from his parents’ home.

In the midst of all this, the Whitman’s love for their son shone like a beacon. Mike had a slew of physical problems, including rectal herpes lesions that required frequent cleaning. The image is indelibly etched in my mind of Horace Whitman gently bathing his son’s sores three times a day, knowing full well what had caused them, and believing, as he did, that homosexuality was a sin. He did this without a whisper of scolding. Mike was his son and it was a job that needed to be done.

At its root a parent’s love for his or her child knows no bounds. It is an impulse that is both primal and transcendent. The same is true of a child’s love for his parents. This kind of love is not volitional. It is who we are. We belong to one another and that, it seems to me, is the best part of being alive.

People are often put off by trappings of illness: the tubes, pill bottles, bedside commodes, bedpans, and the unpleasant odors and visible physical decline. In modern times, the tendency has been to avoid all that by turning care over to hospitals and the people in white who work within them. By trying to sanitize illness and dying we inadvertently separate and isolate the people we love—and we isolate ourselves. Isolation is the opposite of loving connection.

Caring for people who are dying is never as bad as it seems at first. I had a certain squeamishness when I had to change my daughter’s first diapers, but I soon got over it. The hands-on care needed at the end of life often involves similar tasks that take some getting used to. But it’s not that big of a deal.

We may avoid people who are dying because on a subconscious level of magical thinking we worry that death is somehow contagious. We shouldn’t worry—we’re already infected! We are all HMG positive (the human mortality gene). No one is getting out of this one alive. In our culture of mouthwashes, deodorants, sanitary napkins, disinfectants, and dry cleaners, it’s easy to forget that we’re animals. Being an animal has many advantages (it’s vastly preferable to being a mineral or vegetable), but it means that as people approach the end of their lives, they may well need help with their basic bodily functions. When we love someone, we have to love all of them, including their animal nature and eventual physical dependence. We will all, in due time, have to love that part of ourselves, too.

In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote: “For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.” When we feel the burden of love, how difficult and demanding it can be at times, we can take inspiration from the Whitmans. [147-152]

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