By Rhea Matar
L’Arche Syracuse Assistant from 2013-2015
In the summer of 2013, I packed three duffel bags and boarded an overnight train that took me 800 miles from my home in Illinois to Syracuse, New York. There I would spend the next two years as an assistant at L’Arche – and learn some essential truths.
At L’Arche, I lived in a ranch-style house with four people with intellectual disabilities near or in their 70s, and a sweet 19 year old assistant from Germany. Our home had several live-out assistants as well, and life was shared through Upstate winters, every type of pasta, deer roaming in the backyard and Dean Martin playing in the kitchen. I loved biking and taking walks with gentle and rascally Tony. Mary would make us laugh with her imitations of wrestler John Cena from her wheelchair as she drank her 4pm tea. Patty always wore perfectly color-coordinated outfits for each holiday, down to her shoes and socks. And then there was Barb.
Barb and I used to listen to the country station on the radio in my ancient car. She loved that car; the seats were so low that it was easy for her to get into. She treasured pastries and piping hot coffee and meeting new people and telling old stories. She was as intensely argumentative as she was loving. The first time I realized she loved me was after 5 months of thrown shoes, cuss words and general grouchiness; I thought my heart might explode as we hugged while she told me how she had missed me when I was home in Illinois for Christmas.
So many people loved her and were taught how to love better by her. Then she got sick a bit suddenly, and we took turns sleeping in the chair next to her bed in the hospital. Then she got better and sick again and better and sick, and our life at L’Arche became a cycle of trying to care for her and the other household members well and with love when we were young and exhausted and coping with the fact that she was going to die and leave us in a life without her. Barb passed away on a beautiful day in May, and I cried hot tears with the other assistants and core members as we thanked God for her life and the end of her suffering.
I left L’Arche a month later to move home closer to my family, and a few months after that, started a job at Misericordia in Chicago as a Special Education teacher for children with severe and profound disabilities and medical fragility. They have soft cheeks and big smiles and heartbreaking tears and unreasonable joy and unsurpassed strength and resilience.
There is no language for the way I feel about how L’Arche has touched my life and affected me as a daughter, a sister, a friend, a person, a teacher. L’Arche made me the kind of teacher I could never be without it. L’Arche taught me what was essential: that love and relationship—in all the madness that is this world—are what are essential. Everything else is peripheral and will pass away. I’ve heard it said that hearing is the last thing to go at the end of life, but I don’t think that is true. I think that love transcends time and space and what we can touch and see and hear. L’Arche taught me that life is beautiful and friendship is powerful, and suffering isn’t meaningless but rather a profound call to love, and for that I am forever grateful.