Paula D'Arcy I
Bill Long 3/20/05
Paula D'Arcy's life was turned upside down in 1975 when a drunk driver smashed into her car on Highway 84 in Connecticut, killing her husband and young daugher, and injuring her and the young life she was carrying. She was a counselor at the time, working in Waterbury, CT, helping people try to come to grips with their losses and griefs, but nothing she had learned could remotely prepare her for the debilitating loss she was now facing. To use Job's words, her whole household had been devastated.
Thirty years and eight books later (for Paula, that is), I met her at a reception party for our mutual friend, Anthony Petrotta, who had just been ordained to the Episcopal Priesthood. Our first brief words to each other soon led to an engaging but all-too-short conversation about the toll that grief takes on our lives and the ways that life does not allow the full or even partial exploration of loss when it comes to us. We exchanged books with each other when we departed, and I felt deeply grateful that I had been able to meet her.
Upon arriving home that night I opened her most recent book, Sacred Threshold: Crossing the Inner Barrier to a Deeper Love, and was drawn to the long story of her twice-weekly counseling meetings with Morrie Schwartz, featured in the best-seller Tuesdays with Morrie. She knew Morrie before Morrie's name became a household word, and the account of their meetings both gives us a window into Morrie's inner process of dealing with the imminent reality of death as well as the effect that these meetings had on her. Several points in her description arrested me.
Morrie came to her before his ALS diagnosis, but just because he came to her for help did not mean he was going to let her into his life. First, he was going to test her and to show his "superiority" to her. He took her chair, asked her impertinent questions, and gleefully told her that he had written three times as many books as she. He stressed the difference of their educational levels (Paula did not have a doctorate) and generally seemed to be making the case for why she wouldn't be able to help him. Nevertheless, he was there, and his reason for being there was a deep feeling within that he was not physically well. After triumphantly surveying so many areas where he was superior to her, he then sat back and folded his arms as if in conquest. "Well, what do you think? What is wrong with me?" Her response, as she presents it, was the simple observation: "I think you need to open your heart."
Opening the Heart
Her words to Morrie seemed to hit him like a freight train. She said, "To my great surprise, he bursts into tears. In a second, the space between us has shifted dramatically." No longer would there be the superior professor and the younger counselor. By her brief words she was leading Morrie into an unexplored area of his life, the area where grief dwells and the heart sings and weeps. Once that door has been opened, one can slam it shut again, if the person is too frightened to explore the sinuous twists and turns on this new avenue of life. To Morrie's credit, he did not. He realized he was going to die, and that he needed to prepare himself for this last journey of his life. Nothing in his academic training, in his intellectual life, in all his published writings, in his interactions with students and colleagues, had prepared him to face the reality of a rather quick and painful death.
Not only was Morrie not going to go quietly into his dark night, but he was going to make a demand on Paula that pushed the limits of her professional commitments. Morrie wanted her to come to his house a second time during the week (as he was quickly becoming too infirm to go to her office) and there prepare him to die. But his request was not for Paula to visit him as a therapist but to come as a human being, with her guard down, vulnerable to the fears and insecurities that also stalked her. And, to make matters more difficult for her, he also realized that he was breaking the rules in so asking her to do this. Paula thought about the issue, and then complied. Helping her reach a decision was a previous counseling relationship where she, at the encouragement of her mentor, had also "stretched" the rules--to reach a supposedly inaccessible young boy who was overcome with anger. She would come as a human being to Morrie, to hear him and tell him what he wanted to know about her.
The Grace of Discovery
Morrie's manner had changed. He was inquisitive, rather than simply demanding, aware of the importance, preciousness and fragility of human relationships, even conscious of an occasion where he had hurt Paula deeply by making light of an intimate detail of her life she shared with him. But Morrie was dying. There was no time to waste. Of all the things that came out from her time with him, the most important was the practice they developed of Morrie's "letting go" of his physical sensations (which his ALS had already claimed) and of his finally being able to "fall back" into the "outstretched arms" of a source of life that was greater than he. Paula calls it the power of love, and falling back into this power would show that Morrie's heart was fully open to the power of Spirit in the universe.
Her story about Morrie provokes several reactions, which I would like to share in the next essay.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long