Do you ever worry about your child’s future? Find anxious questions crowding your mind? Where will she live as an adult? What job will be best for her? Who will care for him after you’re gone? How can anyone ever care for him as well as you? I’ve lost countless hours of sleep to these kinds of worries. And then I saw a movie that helped me look at my son’s future in a whole new light…
Last night I attended Reel Abilities: Cincinnati Disabilities Film Festival. Reel Abilities is the largest film festival in the country dedicated to “promoting awareness and appreciation of the lives, stories and artistic expressions of people with different disabilities.” The festival presents award winning films by and about people with disabilities. http://www.reelabilities.org/
The movie I saw was “Ocean Heaven.” Taking place in China, this is the story of a widowed father and his young adult son with autism. The father, Wang Xingchang (played by Jet Li), is dying of liver cancer. With a prognosis of three to six months, Wang dedicates the last months of his life to his son, Dafu. While he prepares his son to live as independent a life as possible, Wang also prepares Dafu for the emotional repercussions of his death.
Wang and Dafu live a very simple and sheltered life. Wang does everything for his son. Sound familiar? He cooks for Dafu. He helps Dafu dress and undress. He takes Dafu to work with him via the bus. Wang does not believe that anyone else can care for Dafu’s intensive needs. With the prognosis of his impending death, Wang’s eyes are opened. He has raised his son to be totally dependent. Without his father, Dafu will be lost.
Wang dives into an intense teaching regimen. While he teaches Dafu to cook, to navigate the bus system, to mop floors and to dress himself, Wang searches for a place for Dafu to live. In China, there are few living choices for adults with disabilities. Dafu is too old for the orphanages that serve children, and too young for a nursing home. His needs are too great for a young neighbor, the family’s good friend, to care for him on her own. Wang visits an institution that takes people with disabilities. He discovers, upon entering, that they are kept behind bars.
When Wang finally finds a good placement for Dafu, thanks to the help of Dafu’s former school principal, his joy is palpable. The audience exhales a huge sigh of relief with him. Wang moves Dafu in, thinking that all is settled and well. He goes home, only to find his apartment is an empty shell without his son. The audience grieves with him. Later that night, Wang receives a phone call from Dafu’s new home. Dafu is inconsolable, raging and bellowing in emotional pain. The father moves into Dafu’s room with him, realizing these last few weeks must be spent preparing Dafu, emotionally, for his death.
“Ocean Heaven” has given new meaning to these verses that I’ve been reading in my Lenten devotionals this week: Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal (John 12:24-25 The Message).
Anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. Wang loved his son with his whole heart. But his love had been a smothering love. Dafu knew his father would do everything for him, so he had no need to do for himself.
I look at my life as Joel’s mom. When he lived at home, even into his mid-twenties, Joel was treated like a little boy. We dressed him, showered him, fetched his shoes when he wanted to go outside, made his bed, did his laundry, cooked his meals. Only when he moved from our home to a home of his own (with 24 hour support) did we learn how much he was capable of! Joel’s father and I needed to die to our belief that Joel needed our help with everything. Only then could a spirit of independence sprout up and grow within our son.
But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal. Dafu’s father finally let go of the lie that no one but he could take care of Dafu. He let that belief die rather than take his own life along with the life of his son (his plan at the beginning of the movie). That act of reckless love opens the world to Dafu, a willing student who is hungry for relationship.
Again, I look at my life as Joel’s mom. It was always our dream for Joel to move away from home as an adult and live as independently as possible, just as his older brothers did. We helped establish a wonderful farm for adults with autism within a thirty minute drive of our home (www.safehavenfarms.org). We had no idea how challenging this transition would be, for all of us—emotionally, spiritually, and physically. But our act of reckless love—in facilitating this move in the belief that Joel has a right to his own life—is finally bearing fruit as we see him form new relationships, learn new tasks, and grow more and more into the person God created him to be.
Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. With these words, Jesus was preparing his disciples for his coming death. Wang also prepares Dafu, emotionally, for his coming death. I won’t give away any more of the movie’s plot, but the way in which Wang does this is extraordinarily moving.
I will not live forever. Joel’s dad will not live forever. You will not live forever. In the sacrifices we make every day to ensure our children are given the opportunities to become as independent as their needs allow, we prepare the way for them to sprout and grow and reproduce the love which we have given them, which flows out of the love that God has given us. It’s a love our kids were created to give to the world. A love that will only be released through our reckless love in letting them go.
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