A mother shouldn’t have favorites, but I have often observed that she inclines more to the child who is sick or more vulnerable than the rest. The more fragile the child, the fiercer the love of the mother. The strong and healthy ones outgrow her solicitous nurturing, and she can do no more for them but accept their independence and love them cautiously, as if from afar. But the child who is paralyzed or autistic continues to need her care, and her aged maternal hands bestow upon him the same thousand attentions they did when they were young and supple.
So it was with Wassim; he was the one who most required and awakened the maternity of the sisters and all who cared for him. Wassim was twelve years old when I met him in the hot summer of 2014, during the uncertain days of war between Gaza and Israel. He was living in our home for children in Bethlehem, the appropriately named Hogar Niño Dios. His mother entrusted him to the sisters’ care when he was six, and though his doctors said he would die within the year, he had lived six years more. He used to sit in his custom-made wheelchair, as delicate and helpless as a tiny baby bird, all bone, completely immobile except for parts of his face. By day the sisters fed him and wheeled him around, by night they sang him to sleep in a crib with special padding. His head was normal size for his age, but it looked inordinately big compared to the rest of his gaunt body and contracted limbs. His eyes were the most prominent and expressive part of him, large and deep brown, so translucent that in my memory they seem to me the clearest blue.
My first full day at the Home was chaotic; some sisters were absent due to a retreat and other activities, and I had to jump in with little preparation. I had come to help the sisters with this work of mercy for a month, in the summer between finishing the Master’s program in Greek and Latin at Catholic University and starting the doctorate. I had been excited but a little uneasy before coming to the Home, since my main apostolate in my fifteen years of religious life had been studying and teaching, not changing diapers and handling the sick. Though I was confident when it came to the Greek of the Iliad and comfortable amidst critical editions of Augustine, here among these little ones I felt inexperienced and awkward. How could I really help, how would I know what to do?
There was no time for theoretical approaches as a sister wheeled Wassim to me and asked me to bathe him. I looked at him doubtfully, and asked her “How?” She flashed an impish smile, and responded, “Just normal.” I thought to myself that there was nothing normal about Wassim or the circumstance, but as I turned to voice this to the sister, she was gone and only Wassim was left blinking at me. I inhaled, rolled up the crisp sleeves of my habit, turned on the water in the soft special bathtub, and looked back at the child. He had not turned his gaze, and was simply waiting for me to begin. So after carefully removing his clothing as from a porcelain doll, I picked him up and placed him in two inches of warm water. The sight of him so exposed and helpless trapped my breath in my chest. I could count every one of his bones. I slowly began to rub his thin limbs with a mild soap, cautious of his sore spots and continually watching his face to make sure I was not hurting him. He moved his eyes back and forth upon my face with something like trust, and as the clean water rinsed and flowed over his little body I breathed out the tension. “Just normal,” I thought.
I liked to watch the spontaneous and universal effect Wassim had on other volunteers who came to the Home. Visitors immediately noticed him, since he was the most gravely ill and debilitated. The Arab children would vie to push his wheelchair, the jaded Italian reporter would kneel down to get at his eye level and speak softly to him, the elderly pilgrim would even dare to caress the top of his head ever so lightly. The very fragility of this child of God demanded, or rather, inspired, humanity to realize its own humanity. One sister told me proudly that Wassim was the best apostle in the Home, and that he was working many cases of conversion.
One morning near the end of my stay, I was doing laundry and cleaning in another part of the building. During my work, I rushed by the enclosed patio, the favorite spot of the children, glimpsed Wassim through the door, and stopped to say hello. His eyes looked duller and more vacant, there were slight creases on his brow and chin. The deep brown did not focus on me but flitted beyond my reach. Mother noticed this too, said that there was something wrong, and called the doctor. “Well, he looks fine to me, and his vitals are completely regular, but if you want you are welcome to take him to the hospital. I know you sisters can sense things that we can’t. It could be something related to his brain.” I carried Wassim into the van and held him in my lap with pounding heart as Mother drove to the children’s hospital established by other sisters on the opposite side of Bethlehem.
As we passed the Basilica of the Nativity, I looked down at my own quiet child of Bethlehem. The head that lay on my left arm was the heaviest part of him, like a newborn babe, so I awkwardly curled my right hand around to give it extra support. As his frail body rested against my chest, I watched it delicately rise and fall to the rhythm of my breathing. His complete dependence awed me. What if I put him in a wrong position or dropped him? His limbs could snap in an instant. I twisted myself further to give him a kiss on his brow, furrowed with signs of pain. When we arrived, I gingerly carried our child into the waiting room, amidst stares of sympathy and pity from the other parents. The mystery of such extreme fragility touched everyone. How could such a creature exist in such a world of bombs and tanks? Why did God entrust this child to us, to live among us and depend upon us? As I held him, his very life was in my breath.
I left the Home soon after and went back to the U.S. and to my stacks of books and student life. Within a week of my return, the news reached me that Wassim had left us. I was happy for him that he had gone from this valley of tears to the abode of angels, yet I felt an indefinable loss. With his look, he smote my heart. What other brown eyes could express at once humble trust and admission of complete fragility? It was his utter weakness that attracted me, not his strength. This weakness cried out for love and called forth the mother in me. It is the same weakness of a helpless Infant King in a gentle Virgin’s arms, which was revealed to the world in that same Bethlehem. It is the same weakness of the Crucified One exposed to buffets and spitting, bound and nailed, naked on a tree. It is the same weakness of the elevated white Host, thin and fragile, on our altars today. It is the heavenly Wisdom hidden from the wise and given to the simple, the logic of a God who becomes weak so that we might learn to be strong in love. And above all, it is the mercy of a God who sends a child to us so we might become his mother. In the end, I was the one who depended on Wassim. It was my life that was in his breath.
Sr. Maria del Fiat Miola, a member of the Institute Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará, is a Ph.D. student at Catholic University of America.