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Learn the heart’s alphabet; rejoice in the language of love

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By Fran Salone-Pelletier, Religion Columnist

As we were en route to a lunch date with visiting friends, we passed a county vehicle emblazoned with this entreaty, “A reader today; a leader tomorrow.” Hmmm, I thought, a neat message for our youth. I tried to convey my impression to Hubby Dear. Traffic noise and the deeper concentration needed for travel through the rain made it impossible, so I let it go.
We lunched with gusto. The meal was secondary to the unstinted conversation with folks we seldom get to see. Hours later, we were back on the highway, heading home. To my utter surprise, we came upon a second vehicle bearing the identical message. Was God speaking to me? I love to read, but I am aging beyond tomorrow’s leadership stage. I tucked the experience into my memory bank to savor another day.
It was only a few days later that I received a book for my perusal. Not an ordinary tome, this one was written by a young man who was born with and lived with severe cerebral palsy, so severe that he had only the use of his tongue and one toe as tools for communication. His story is one of courage, determination, humor and eagerness for adventure. It is also his legacy for all who are physically limited or differently able. It is a tale told for all humanity, a narrative that describes life lived to its fullest, no holds barred. It is the story of a person who read life by using the alphabet of the heart and the language of love—a person who both encourages and demands that everyone take the same route.
Undeterred by the traumatic ups and downs evoked by his illness, Jim Grimm truly lived until he died, at the age of 44. The prologue to his book attests to his determination. It reads, “I am 40 years old, have quadriparesis, have been unable to speak verbally my entire life, yet I have communicated eagerly to all who would listen. I have much to say, and this book is my story.”
Those sentences alone grab at one’s soul, stir one’s spirit. How many of us, without the severity of Jim’s condition, feel we have communicated eagerly to all who would listen? How many of us listen to those who have much to say? How many of us make the book of our life readable, enjoyable and an instrument that empowers leadership?
All of us can learn the heart’s alphabet. We can learn to read with those letters. Reading can evolve into leading. Grimm stated, “We all need different challenges in our lives to help us grow and thrive to move on.... With constant and continual challenges come constant and continual changes and personal miracles.”
The words are simple. The reality that underscores them is profound. Grimm wrote from his perception of life as good and beautiful; his perception that God blessed him, always blessed him—even blessed him with the severity of his cerebral palsy. What a lesson! It can only be taught with and learned from words written with letters from the heart’s alphabet.
Grimm’s story is a saga of love flowing from and glowing in family, neighbors, relatives, schoolmates and caregivers who moved swiftly from professional aides to lifelong friends. It truly does take a village to raise a child. It takes a community to liberate life and unshackle love. Grimm’s life was not without bouts of depression. His companions walked with him through those dark days showing him the light that existed in that tunnel.
He wrote of Raven who gave him the phrase, “You can’t change your life story.” She helped him to see what all of us need to see. She helped him to realize that “everyone has their own story and no one else can own it. Everyone has his or her tough times. We learn from each other.” We learn from each other’s life stories. Dare we tell them? Dare we listen?
Communicating with the heart’s alphabet demands time, concentration, awareness and desire. Grimm’s limited mobility, his ability only to move his tongue, was not an obstacle to communication. It was an alternate means of imparting information, news, thoughts and feelings. Begun as a game when he was quite young, his swift expulsion and retraction of his tongue was linked to the letters of the alphabet so that words could be formed. One quick tongue thrust was “a,” two were “b” and on it went.
As I read, I tried the method—and soon gave up. Something tells me that I’d have continued if that were the only way my spirited self could be released and shared with others. Something tells me that those who cared for me would have the patience to stay the course, learn the heart’s alphabet and speak the language of love.
One of Grimm’s friends described him as a person “who has brought manna to the barren fields that are the lives of so many people.... For someone who has never verbalized a word or moved an inch under his own volition, he has made many of the most profound statements ever uttered and moved mountains in ways unseen.” Can we do less? Can we be less?
Friendships involve mutuality. We do not live alone in this world. We cannot live alone. Each of us is essential to the other, whether we recognize it or not. It is both easier and more difficult for those with severe disabilities to recognize the two-way street we travel on life’s road. Perhaps those who are less constricted are also less aware of our human need to bond with each other, to be companions on the way. Perhaps we are not sufficiently aware that we give each other reason to see differently, to think differently, to celebrate diversity. Perhaps we are not cognizant of our interdependence.
If one wishes to sharpen that sensitivity, to hone one’s humanity, it would be good to have the temerity to speak and live words formed with the letters of the heart’s alphabet. It would be our heart’s desire.
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a Master’s degree in Theology and is the author of Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives [a trilogy of Scriptural meditations], Lead Chaplain at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, Religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. She can be reached at grammistfran@gmail.com.