Rodney was at the heart of community life at L'Arche Portland for 25 years, and a special part of my life for the last 20 of those. He was challenging to live with. He was one of my best teachers.
When I moved in with Rodney in 1998, he was still very active. He carried out household chores as Susan mentioned. He was able to take walks around the neighborhood, go on camping trips, dance with the ladies, play his harmonica, and of course paint with watercolors.
Rodney was always gentle with animal friends. He talked fondly about his childhood days living on the farm. He loved visits from various dogs that were friends of the community, and took a special interest in Cindy's pets (the turtle, the rabbit, and especially Moki). He liked to fill the bird feeders on the porch and watch our feathered guests. He also had a tender heart for children. He liked to sit on the front porch at Neahkahnie house and watch the skippies play in the park across the street. He liked to tease children who came to the house to visit. In fact, Rodney liked to tease everybody. He loved to joke and laugh. Attending church services often seemed to put him in a giddy mood. Live music in any form really stirred his soul. His toes would start tapping and his arms would swing with the motions of a conductor leading an orchestra. Rodney was capable of deep empathy. Sometimes, upon hearing bad news that might trigger an outburst of curses and threats, Rodney was instead able to say simply, "That's sad." And his eyes might well up with tears for someone else's pain, not his own.
We shared a bathroom when I lived in his home as an Assistant. I artfully arranged pictures and candles, decorating the space just so. I was annoyed when he kept moving one of them. I moved it back. He moved it again. It took me a few weeks of this back and forth to realize that he moved it because he needed to lean one hand against the wall. He had never complained about my things being in his way; I was the one who had been irritated. He helped me learn understanding and compassion.
Rodney really rattled me with threats of violence at times. Not feeling safe in my own home, I got to taste a tiny sample of what life must have been like for him, not feeling safe where he lived for decades. Through Rodney I learned new ways of reconciliation. He couldn't apologize for the ways he hurt me when the incident was over, but he could and did re-affirm his affection. One morning, after a particularly frightening episode, I gave Rodney a wide berth as I helped the other core members get ready for their bus. I let him dress himself, and I slid his breakfast on to the table while he was in the bathroom. I watched from a distance as he took his meds. But there was one task he couldn't complete by himself: clipping his suspenders on the back of his pants. He stood at the table waiting for me. When he noticed my hesitation, he said, "I ain't gonna bite ya." Which I accepted as reassurance of our restored relationship. I clipped his suspenders on, by which I communicated my willingness to stay in relationship. And we continued as housemates.
Rodney's provocations and my response to them revealed my own brokenness- my impatience, my sense of entitlement, my fears, my need for control. Rodney had been hurt. Badly. Which didn't make it okay for him to hurt me. But living with Rodney, I gradually came to understand that flawed though I was, I had an opportunity to bear the cross of Christ--who although innocent himself, suffered the consequences of other people's wrong doings. If I could not bear the anguish and anger that sometimes leaked out of Rodney, as a result of what others had done to him, I would miss out on the wonderful gifts he had to offer: gentleness, tenderness, humor, joy, art, presence, wisdom. By accepting and loving him, despite the challenging behaviors he presented, I received the opportunity to participate in his, and my own, redemption. Through Rodney, I learned that any of the people who might hurt me in my life had likely also been hurt themselves, and that the wounds I would receive from them were probably a fraction of the wounds they themselves had suffered. I learned forgiveness.
When I returned to L'Arche in an office role, about 4 years after moving out of Neahkahnie, Rodney picked up our friendship as though no time had passed. As soon as he saw me, he would ask "You here today?" He seemed confused if I explained that I was going to be in the office most of the day, that I was just stopping by his house for a meeting, that I would be in and out more than once... So I ended up just answering "Yes. I'm here today." And each time that question was an invitation to me to Be Here, to be fully present today, rather than living in my head focused on the tasks I had to do. Rodney offered such shifts in focus to all of us.
By the time I left my role as Community Coordinator, Rodney's physical mobility was much diminished. He used a wheelchair to get around. And the triggers which before had seemed predictable, following certain patterns, became increasingly erratic and hard to anticipate. Scientists who study the human brain say that as we age, our short term memory decreases, but our long term memory actually gets stronger. Rodney seemed more and more to be reacting to spectors from the past, which were as real to him as the actual present situation.
Rodney, your ability to trust again, to love again, to attach to people who cared about you again, after all you went through--moves and inspires us. You possessed so much resilience and courage and power. You changed my life, and I want to say thank you. And I love you.