It’s easy to make fun of my Jewish education. I went to Reform Sunday school, where I garnered awards for attendance and excelled at Hangman. When I was bar mitzvahed, I promptly stopped going, as did everyone I knew except one kid—whom we ridiculed. Even today, it frequently falls to my non-Jewish wife to instruct me in basic facts of the Jewish religion. (Mezuzahs, apparently, are to be hung at an angle). But for all I didn’t learn in Hebrew school, there was one thing that I definitely did.
That thing was that I could not believe in Jesus. This was a strange thing to learn because, for almost the entirety of my childhood, I did not know who Jesus was. Once I learned, the idea of “believing in” him seemed patently ridiculous. To believe that this person was, literally, the “Son of God?” No one I knew even believed in God! Now we were supposed to steel ourselves against the seductions of his son? But, though initially laughable, my school did a good job of emphasizing the seriousness of this threat.
Apparently, there were people who believed in Jesus. They called themselves “Christians.” These people wanted, very much, to make us Jews believe as well. They had gone to great lengths to this end. They were not above torture or taxation, barring us from employment or burning our villages to the ground. Fortunately, in America, they were, for the most part, restrained. But there were still Jews who, under no threat of violence, converted, and, if we were not careful, then we too might one day succumb.
Yet, two decades later, while writing my dissertation, I found myself meditating on the dying body of Christ. It was something that I had learned about over the course of my research. And, while I still didn’t “believe in” Jesus, and considered myself very much to be a Jew, the practice was helping me to work through the meaning of a series of recent events that had destabilized my most fundamental sense of who I was and what I wanted to become.
I was writing my dissertation about hospice, an interdisciplinary form of health care for people who are dying. In the U.S.—unlike many other countries—this care is designed to be delivered at home. When home delivery works, it can be beautiful. But there are some dying people whose homes are unsuitable. They often fall through the cracks, either remaining in a negligent environment or getting sent to nursing homes that are poorly suited to their needs. Fortunately, in Atlanta—where I was conducting my research—there was another option.
That place was Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home. “Our Lady”—as it was known to locals—was a facility that provided long-term care to dying people who could not stay at home any longer. The facility cared for patients who had few acceptable alternatives, and did so free of charge. What’s more, it appeared—according to hospice professionals I was interviewing—to provide them with a level of care that was higher than could be found elsewhere. Thus, in a kind of miracle, dying people who could not afford any care often received better treatment than people who could.
The key to the facility, it seemed to me, was its reimbursement structure. Our Lady was funded by charity. It accepted no money from Medicare, Medicaid, or private pay. This was limiting in some respects. But it was, to my surprise, also very enabling. It allowed the home to integrate long-term and end-of-life care—two forms of care that are, generally, kept separate because of the financing structures of the U.S. health system. The result was extremely innovative. And because the facility did not need to profit off its patients, it could provide this innovative care to the some of the most powerless people in U.S. society.
Yet, early on, I grasped that this explanation was rather superficial. The home only functioned as a charitable institution because it was also a Catholic one, run by an order of nuns called the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne. It was because of their religious belief that the nuns gave their labor freely, and many of its donors contributed financing to sustain its operations. Our Lady had created a form of care that was of great use to Atlanta-area hospice providers—and could, I believed, make an even greater contribution to the design of our country’s system of end-of-life care. But grasping this contribution would require engaging the home’s Catholic theology. It would thus be necessary, to my relative consternation, to spend some time thinking about Jesus Christ.
To say that the nuns “believed in” Jesus was something of an understatement. Christ filled every aspect of their lives. It was because of Christ that they dedicated their lives to care for dying people. And it was the Eucharist—for them, Christ’s literal resurrected body—that infused this care, and gave them the energy to carry out the grueling work. But Christ was not just “behind” their care—motivating it, making it possible. He was at the center of it. This became clear to me as I learned about a practice that the sisters called “seeing Jesus.”
The sisters tried to see Jesus in every patient they cared for. This was, on the one hand, a statement of ethical obligation: a commitment, on the part of the sisters, to give every patient the same level of care that they would give to Christ himself. But it was also a quasi-meditative practice that made it possible for this obligation to be realized. Seeing Jesus meant to look at Christ on the cross. And there were images of him everywhere in Our Lady, in the front hall, in the chapel, in seemingly every one of the home’s rooms. But it meant also to find him—to visualize him as being present—in the patients who, on the surface, he least seemed to resemble the least. Patients who were “difficult,” and not just in a technical sense, but also an emotional one, even a moral one: the patients who you did not enjoy being around because they could be insensitive or mean. That was not Christ-like behavior! Yet, in them, there was still Christ. Seeing Jesus meant to find him there where you least expected, and to care for those who you were, in every other sense, predisposed to turn away.
This was a practice that made a lot of sense to me, even though I understood very little of Catholicism itself. For although I was both secular and Jewish, I had spent most of my life under the obligation to see a person who, in truth, was very difficult—a person who, at times, I had felt predisposed to turn away myself.
The person I am talking about is my mother. I was raised by my grandparents, but my mother was a regular presence in my life. A presence who, by me at least, was often unwelcome. She would come to our house and, the entire time she was there, do nothing but cleaning. You might try to talk with her, but she wouldn’t even look you in your eyes. I understood that she was deaf. But this seemed to go beyond that. How did not being able to hear explain the clothing she wore—bizarre patchwork outfits that, my grandmother told me (as if it was a compliment) she had sewn herself? She would send clothes to me sometimes. I shoved them to the back of my closet. I was similarly dismissive of her regular postcards: paragraph-long lists of her daily activities, including the exact quantity of each item she had purchased (“4 oranges, 6 bananas”), each one signed, at the bottom, “Love, Moma.”
But this behavior, I had been taught by my grandmother, was the result of my mother’s having been the victim of a terrible crime. Like most deaf children of her generation, she had been “educated” at a school that refused to teach her sign language. It was not until that school expelled her for “bad behavior” that my grandmother had finally found a tutor who could teach her a language of her own. She was, however, 11 by that point. The damage had been done. And, though I was only a child, I knew I had to find a way to, if not undo it—because that was impossible—then at least to see through it: to recognize that, amid all her strange behavior was not just a person, but my flesh and blood. Such seeing was, for me, a moral obligation. For what had happened to my mother was, as I understood it, largely a product of the desire of practically everyone else to look away.
My grandmother told me: the school board bureaucrats who put every obstacle in the way of my mother’s education, in the hope that she might, eventually, just age out; the friends and relatives who stopped inviting them to dinner; the police officer who arrested my mother because he didn’t understand that she couldn’t hear his commands; all these people, but most of all, the children on the bus. After my mother was expelled from school, she would sit by the window each day, watching the other children get on the bus. None of them ever looked back at her. I was more like these children than her: a normal boy, one capable of fitting in. But I was also—it was taught to me—my mother’s son, and it was my duty to therefore always be looking backwards, to be seeing both her and all the other people our society is comfortable leaving behind.
This duty was why seeing Jesus made such intuitive sense to me. But it was not the reason why I would one day begin to try seeing him myself. Such efforts, though occurring in a context that was ostensibly academic, were driven by a deeper personal need—and to be honest, a bit of a crisis. Shortly before coming to Our Lady, the narrative that I had always been told about my mother that underpinned this sense of duty had, rather abruptly, broken down.
Two years earlier, I had found an old box of documents in my childhood home. The box contained information indicating that I had been neglected and abused during the first year in my life. I had previously known that I had been abused. That, after all, was why I didn’t live with my parents. But I had thought that it had lasted for just a few days, maybe a week. Now I learned that it had been ongoing for at least 10 months, and possibly as much as 14.
This discovery led me to one even more disturbing. My grandmother had always told me that the person who abused me was my father—a man so unhinged and frankly dangerous that I did not meet him until my late teens. My mother had been a bystander, too weak to stop him, but innocent herself. Now I learned that things weren’t so clear. She had in fact cared for me daily—while my father was at work—and had been extremely negligent in doing so. This neglect, while involuntary, was significant, including the routine deprivation of feeding, hygiene, and holding: the most basic care. Knowing my mother, this was not surprising. It was impossible to imagine her caring for a child for an hour, much less a day. But she had apparently been my primary caregiver day after day for 10 to 14 months.
This discovery turned my life on its head. At a basic level, there was the neglect itself. What must it have been like for me as a baby? And what impact had that experience had on me now, almost three decades later? But, more fundamentally, there was the perpetrator. I had lived much of my life for my mother, always seeing her as the victim of a violent and bigoted world. Now I was being told stories of her playing “Go Fish” at the kitchen table as I lay screaming just a few feet away. I hated her and, more so, myself: so much of my life wasted, trying to understand this bizarre woman who didn’t even give a damn.
And then shortly after this discovery, my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. She died less than a year later. Then, my mother got sick and died as well. Their deaths, coming so quickly in succession, were shocking. But they had also given me a kind of stability: that which accompanies a state of emergency, when there is not time to think or feel. By the time of my research at Our Lady, the emergency was over. I found myself overcome by a history that I had tried to keep at arm’s length.
I was dealing with a lot of suffering. The deaths of the two women who I considered to be mothers. The sense that each had, in their own way, betrayed me by the way that they had handled—and hid from me—the details of my early life. The sheer strangeness of my situation. I mean really: Who else does this happen to? The recognition that behaviors I had been disturbed by for a long time likely had roots that stretched back in time far longer than I could remember, that I was, in a way, not just marked but made by trauma, so much so that it was hard to know who I was, or what I should aspire to be.
It was amid this maelstrom that I found myself looking at, of all people, Jesus Christ. To be fair, this was sort of my job. I was trying to understand what the sisters saw in him, how this frail, wasting individual provided both the means of and motivation for their care. But I found myself drawn into him, bit by bit: the tilt of his head, the roll of his eyes, the wounds, the bones, the blood. I was dealing with a series of experiences that, though impactful, were rather difficult to visualize. What does a baby see when it is screaming? I still do not know. And yet here was this man, so frank in his suffering—a suffering very different from my own, but that seemed to capture at least a little bit of what I was feeling.
I was not alone in discovering a connection between my personal suffering and that of Jesus. At Our Lady, Jesus was not to be seen solely in the home’s patients. He was to be seen in everyone—including yourself. “When I look at the cross of Christ I think of them”—the home’s patients—“going through their cross. Or me going through my cross,” said the home’s priest to me one day. Apparently, part of the point of looking at Jesus—every morning at mass, every time you entered a room—was that doing so brought you deeper into yourself. And, paradoxically, into others as well. Seeing Jesus was neither isolating, nor narcissistic. On the contrary, by further embracing your own suffering, you were to become more sensitive to the suffering of others: to patients, to family members, to everyone who you encountered in your day. Mediated through Christ’s body, sorrow that otherwise might put you on an island could be used to build a bridge.
The bridge was not one-way. The sisters did not just see Jesus in other people. They also hoped that other people would see Jesus in them. They needed their suffering witnessed, as well. The result was a kind of relentless reciprocity, one that tore down the usual hierarchies structuring patient care and even political activism. It seemed the opposite, to me, of messianic politics. You could not do this on your own. You needed others. And what you needed others for was not so much to eradicate your suffering—for that could not be done, at least here on Earth—but to make it so that our suffering might be at least a little bit more collectively borne.
It was, if nothing else, a routine. To visualize Christ if I found myself suddenly distracted during a conversation, to read his wounds as a kind of map that might better orient me to the person before my eyes. To sit in the chapel and recognize that, underneath my seemingly stable appearance, there had always been an underlying tremor. To feel myself quivering, and to recognize that this shakiness was, inevitably, a part of who I was. To feel obligated to explore myself and encounter others. To attune my ears to gnarled emotion contained in the story a dying person was telling me, whether about the high school teacher who saved their life, or a passage of the Bible that they returned to day after day.
Mainly, though, I was thinking about my mother. I was imagining her standing above a crying baby with a stupid look on her face. I hated her. But I also knew that I did not want to hate her. And so I kept trying, day after day to see Jesus in her: to look, and find, within her, the dying Christ. I kept coming back to her and, as I did so, I began to discover that there were many layers. The daily work of thinking about my mother might begin with her standing over me at the crib. But if I stayed at it, I would be able to see her doing other things, at other times of her life: as a little girl sitting by the window, yes, but also one who was learning to use a sewing machine, or helping her mother with directions on one of their long drives; as the person who I would have lunch with regularly when I was in college, and would accompany to art galleries afterwards; the woman who was so sick during my wedding that she almost fell out of her front row chair.
Layer upon layer upon layer. Christ upon Christ upon Christ. And then, slowly, over many weeks, I got the sense that I was beginning to be able to see my mother again—a different image of her, to be sure, but one that I still could look at, one that I wanted to continue to see. Not just to see—to be seen by her. This was, in a sense, impossible, since by this point she was dead. But, even as I was focused on those fateful times when my mother had not seen me, I became aware that, for much of my life, she had.
My mother had seen me: She had seen me when she decided to give custody of me up to her own mother rather than put me up for adoption—which had been my father’s preference. She had seen me when she would visit me in her mother’s house, month after month, even though I must not have seemed particularly enthused to see her, even as it must have been a painful reminder of what she had lost. She had seen me when she would send me those postcards and those outfits, outfits that no longer seemed so ridiculous to me. They were, on the contrary, creations of great imagination and skill. And she had seen me in her decision to remain a part of my life right up until the moment of her death—to recognize that, while it would take time for me to get to know her, our relationship was, on some level, all we had.
My mother had seen me, just as I, now, was seeing her. And, though neither of us was Christian, it was by seeing Jesus that I, in my own way, was better able to see us as we were: to recognize the revelations that I had made before she left me, to integrate them and to mourn her, to mourn a previous sense that I had of myself and, by doing so, to carry her with me as I moved on. It was a gift given to me when I most needed it, from a place from which I perhaps least expected it to come. It was an experience that I continue to carry with me today.
Eventually, I stopped going to Our Lady. The reason was, in part, because my research had reached its conclusion. It was time, as they say, to “write the damned thing.” But the other, deeper reason was that my wife had given birth to our first child. I felt as if I had just become a victim of child neglect. And now, a few years later, I was to watch over a baby of my own. This was pretty terrifying. But not as terrifying, I believe, as it otherwise might have been. I had had a strange experience. But now I knew that this experience could, in its own way, be a resource that would better allow me to care for my child.
My children—I now have two—will not be raised Catholic. They will, like me, go to a Reform shul, though I will work to give them a deeper grounding in Jewish religious practices than I had myself. It was ironic, but predictable, that my time at Our Lady led me, eventually, to take a much greater interest in Jewish theology than had previously been the case. The home challenged some of the certainties of my secularism. Contrary to what I believed, religion does not necessarily close one’s mind. It can open it, expanding one’s range of experience, allowing one to access unique truths and to accomplish things that are perhaps unachievable in any other fashion.
And yet seeing Jesus has also given me a renewed sense of appreciation for my Jewish education. This education taught me that I was a Jew, that this was something to be proud of, and that no one could or would ever make me anything else. It was this sense of confidence—stemming from my faith in what might be called my “fundamental inconvertibility”—that allowed me to feel comfortable entering Our Lady to begin with. The sisters at the home never tried to convert me—indeed they seemed at times to have greater appreciation for Judaism than I did myself—but I was able to be open to them because I knew that, if they did try, they would never succeed. My closure to conversion made me more open to the perspective of others, and to allowing this perspective to transform, in a very important way, myself.
Harold Braswell is an assistant professor of health care ethics at Saint Louis University. He is the author of The Crisis of US Hospice Care, which will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in August 2019. He can be reached on Twitter at @haroldbraswell.