He was born with cerebral palsy and he has it all the way up until he is completely underwater, when, he says, his whole body is pleasantly different, his limbs smooth and loose and elegant. I hold him under his arms in the pool and he can walk and tell me everything.
He takes three quick steps and can feel the surprise in the way I hold him, and his whole body shakes like a bird in your hand. I’ve never felt a whole body pulse with joy—all hair and fingers and toes—like he is still in the furnace of creation.
When he is done, we float him to the edge of the pool, and I leap out and dig under his arms and we lift him out into his great quivering weight and into the wind and the sun, and the length of his body contracts like a drop of water back into what is wrong. We lay him on his chair and towel, his great knobby knees and his furled, funny, complicated posture.
We push him in his wheelchair back to the cabin, wheels caught and muscling through gravel. We feel him slip in his chair. We stop. My friend holds him at the knee, and I hold him from the back under the arms, and on three I lift him up to my chest, high as I can, up to the sun like an offering, then back into his appointed place.
I pause, take a step in front of him, just to see him. The sun is in his eyes. His face wide, flat, simple. I tell him we’re close and his spine curves out like a plant growing to the sun, leaving a hollow space between his back and the chair. I push him, tell him about my wife. He smiles, his head tilted at the crook in his neck, his eyes always turned up in reference to something coming up over the hill no one else can see.
We lay him in bed for a nap. Our beds are next to his and we rest. I look at my phone, but I put it down as he licks his lips and settles into himself, and I listen for phlegm and for him not to choke, and then I just listen and watch as witness that he lived and took this breath.
He wakes up and his head lolls to the side and he says he’s ready to go. It is harder to get him off the bed than on it. I sit by him, hand under his arms, and close my eyes and pray for the motion that lifts him from bed to chair. I open my eyes, and all of a sudden a gentleness is laid on me and I lift him in a slow, easy arc. He is surprised I’m this smooth and elegant, and he laughs like holiness is not in me or him but in me lifting him, him being lifted. And I laugh in my surprise and hold him weightless and feel I am not a caregiver or even a friend because I am the joy the Lord has in him.
We take him to shower and it is hard to explain the slow way it becomes an honor. His muscles born without oxygen and his arms closed tight, we have a hard time getting a grip on his flesh, and we don’t want to rub his skin or hold him too hard, but we’re scared and his need calls us by our true name and we dig our hands in and claim it.
We position him to the shower chair, a foam and plastic thing. He holds up his neck out and I shave it, slow and smooth and straight. I catch on his scruff and apologize, and he forgives me.
I hold his little gnarled hand out to the water for him to tell me if it is too hot. My friend brushes his teeth slowly, squinting, measuring every position of brush and tooth. As we roll him into the shower, water catches in his open mouth and splashes out like a Jacuzzi, and toothpaste spills from his the side of his mouth.
He laughs then, water down his face. And I cannot explain it to friends and family because they’re ashamed and think it is sad and tell me how nice I am, how wiping the smell off someone who cannot walk and barely speaks is not miserable and not even sad because it is the heart of the world and I am its great laughter.
My Nikes slip in the shower, my jeans wet. I get tired from lifting him. My friend offers but I don’t want to take turns. I don’t want someone else to do it. I am preserved in his need. My muscles ache and it helps with sleep and I wake with the sun and don’t know what day of the week it is. I hear his lungs mark out his life in straggled breaths and feel I’m not at the end of what it would mean to love someone but invited into a large sense of it.
We shampoo him, making small circles in his hair with our hands. It reminds him of something. He has a question. It takes his whole body to speak, arms and legs involved in the vowels. We can barely hear him, water down his face. His eyes dance. It is so hard to speak, he can only be sincere. He says:
“What will you become?”
We guide water down his head. I cup my hand on his forehead so shampoo is not in his eyes.
He gathers the answer into the squirm and roll of his arms.
“What will you tell your congregation? What will you tell him about me? What will you tell him about us?”
I’m getting water on my jeans. Pretty soon my socks and shoes will be soaking. I’ve never had to be wide open. He closes his eyes and I become what I’ve never heard myself say.
“How much God loves us.”
He closes his eyes and says that’s fine.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: John Bryant
John Bryant lives with his newlywed wife in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and is studying to be an Anglican priest.