Stories : Robert M.

Relationships that bind

The dominant theme, pattern and truth of his life is acceptance. Not just grin-and-bear-it acceptance, but a high-spirited, engaging acceptance. Robert seemingly believes—instinctively and unreflectively—that nothing, absolutely nothing happens in God’s world by mistake.

Robert is 5’9” tall, with a handsome face and well-proportioned features. His dark, close-cropped hair is tinted here and there with gray. He is blind. When excited—especially whenever music begins to play—he raises his hands like he’s being robbed, moving them and his body rhythmically in opposite directions. His legs are twisted and bent and locked together at the knees. Rising briefly to transfer from his bed to his wheelchair, he looks like the letter S. Robert also has an intellectual disability.

The outgoing man with the West Virginia drawl—who loves swimming and books on tape for the blind, knows all the words to his favorite country music songs, and has an uncanny talent for remembering voices—has a gift for treasuring relationships and spreading happiness. Welcoming visitors with an eager handshake and his signature, ‘How you DOING?’ greeting, Robert is a magnet for friends. Enthusiastic and loquacious, he is a far more confident person than the reserved 37-year-old who came to L’Arche Harbor House in 1990.

The second to last of five brothers, Robert had always lived at home. Then his mother became ill with lung disease, forcing a move. “I brought Robert to my house and kept him for three or four months,” recalls his brother Randy. “Back then, we had a houseful of young kids. Robert had to sleep in the living room. Even though we did our best, it wasn’t ideal for him. Mom came home from the hospital and wanted him back. But she was failing. It was during that time that we heard about Harbor House.”

Accommodating Robert was a big step for the community. “We wanted to welcome him, but there were some questions about that at the time,” recalls former Community Leader Dottie Klein. “Core members were supposed to be able to do for themselves. He couldn’t feed or dress himself. He doesn’t walk. He needed almost total help. We were unsure. Margaret, one of our house assistants, just saw the beauty of Robert. She was willing to work with him, so we gave it a try.”

The transition was also a big adjustment for Robert’s mother. “She loved him to death, of course,” says Dottie. “At first, she came all the time, even though she was so sick, to make sure he was being cared for. Gradually, though, she started to trust us. Enough that eventually, she took a trip back to see family in West Virginia. While she was there, she passed away.”

By that time, Robert was happily settled. “If we’d have dreamed up a place for him to be, it wouldn’t have been any better than L’Arche,” says Randy. “Not only was it a lifesaver for me after Mom got sick, it’s also been very good for him. It’s taken him out of himself and connected him to so many people. When I bring him to my house for a visit, he can’t wait to get back over there because he’s afraid he’s going to miss something. It’s like he’s matured. When he was around his mama all the time, he was her little baby. Now he’s more independent, and that makes him feel good about himself. It’s like he’s grown up. We’ve learned that Robert is one guy that will do everything he’s capable of doing. All he needed was the chance.”