On Saturday, I went to the funeral of a 34-year-old man who had cerebral palsy. His name was Justin, and he and his family attend my church.
I got to the funeral home right before the service started, and as a result, I ended up standing in the back. I wasn’t the only one. About 25–30 people stood along with me. This was in addition to about 150 or so others seated. It may have been more; I’m not very good at estimating.
Our minister spoke about Justin and his family. Then his parents came up and told Justin’s story: how he’d been diagnosed with cerebral palsy at eight months, how he couldn’t speak, how at 11, he’d gone into the hospital for what was intended to be an overnight stay and wound up being there for over 10 months, and how a dear doctor saved his life multiple times, allowing the family to have Justin for two decades longer. His mother read a beautiful letter she’d written to him. She described their bedtime routine, of how she’d blow kisses to him, and then how she’d come to check on him and find him still awake, maybe waiting for one last kiss.
After his parents spoke, our minister gave other people who’d known Justin a chance to share some favorite memories of him.
Twenty-two people took advantage of that opportunity. They ranged from a little boy who described Justin as his “best friend”, to his teachers, to a nurse, to those who knew him from church.
They painted a picture of someone who knew how to love people. He had a beautiful smile and an uninhibited laugh. He could be a prankster. He loved dollar bills. His parents made sure that he was included in life in every possible way he could be, through school, through church, through vacations spent with his family.
He loved game shows. And he loved Disney characters.
Towards the end of the funeral, his sister said that not only did she love Justin, but she liked being with him. That’s not always true of brothers and sisters.
I saw Justin at church in his wheelchair, and whenever I heard a grunt during services, I knew that that was Justin trying to communicate.
Justin didn’t know it, but he influenced my life as well.
Not very long after my son was diagnosed with autism, his mother and I met at a Waffle House for breakfast. We talked for nearly three hours. I no longer remember what she said or what I said. I just remember that his mom tried to communicate to me that everything was going to be okay — not, “Oh, it’ll be all right,” said with a condescending pat on the head, but with the wisdom of someone who had been there and was still there. More than once since, she’s come to me and said, I remember our talk and I’m so proud of you for sticking it out.
We live in a world where perfection is not only expected, but demanded. We airbrush and Photoshop our pictures to make them perfect. We talk about people’s looks behind their backs. We gossip about people’s private lives. We constantly strive for better, better, better, and while searching for ways to improve is a good thing, too often, I think it’s because we try to live up to impossible standards.
Justin, in the eyes of some people, was not “perfect”. He used a wheelchair. He grunted. He had uncontrolled movements because of his cerebral palsy. He drooled. He required constant nursing care.
At the end of the service, our minister left us with a question: How do you decide who to love well?
Twenty-two people, besides Justin’s family, painted the picture of a person who “loved well” all who came across his path. He didn’t care who they were. He just loved them. Because Justin loved them, those he loved learned how to “love well”.
That is quite a legacy for someone to leave: that he taught people how to love well.