“Matthew” by Anne Crosby

Matthew was born in the mid Sixties in England and died at age 25. He had Down’s Syndrome, a problem recognized by his mother (the author) at his birth: she tried, unsuccessfully, to get the hospital to let him die. One feels that this book, published a decade ago by Paul Dry Books, is in part a recompense. Certainly by the end the reader knows that Matthew had a life of great importance to many people.

As a Christian priest, I found the book hard to read. The Crosbys’ interactions with church, clergy, and other religious persons were regrettable. I wished someone had been able to walk alongside them through this enough to share how Christianity can shed strange light on tragedies of life. (Egocentrically, I wished I could go back in time and give them Losing Susan.)

Anne Crosby’s writing is spare, and remarkably free of commentary. This same spareness we can find in the scriptures, which let cruelty be cruelty and love be love, without telling us what to think of them. An artist, Crosby’s book (her first) is like a painting. It is there for us to ponder. There is no interpretive wall-card telling us what we ought to think.

 But what is truly marvelous—and it is because of this aspect of the book that I am writing about it—is her ability to get inside her son’s being and to make him present to us. She grew to be able to understand her son. And now, with the book, she holds him before us. I do not know her artwork, but this is a fine painting.

Take this scene from his teenage years. His mother has just discovered that his knees are swollen and painful. They must have been that way for a long time; Matthew never complained.

“My God, Matthew, how long have your knees been so bad? Why didn’t you show me sooner?”
    “Not bad knees—poor knees. Don’t like people staring.”
    “You should have told someone about them long before this.”
    “Why?”
    “Because then we could have set about looking for the right doctor to make them better.”
    Matthew looked at me in amazement. “Better? They deaded in middle.” He buried his face in the towels. I put my arm around him.
    Shortly later:
    I said doctors could fix up most parts of the body, but not unless we let them know which part was hurting.
    “ ’S wrong, Mum. Can’t fix worse bit of me.”
    This statement desolated us both. “The most important part of you is perfect, Matthew.”
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    His mother told him what was true: he had a good character, highly interesting, capable of depths of insight that belied any talk of him as “retarded” or “having the mind of a three-year-old.” Although he couldn’t express himself like people normally do, Matthew developed extraordinary intuition. In a group home, he would move close to help and love little ones. He became a clown as a way to get other children to let him into their circles. In the hospital ward—at the end of his life—he connected with some old men who first didn’t want him around, but later wept when they left him. 

The poet Galway Kinnell blurbed: “I knew and liked and respected Matthew . . . his sad acceptances, his capacity to love and fall in love, his ambitions and their fulfillment, and his idiosyncratic sense of humor . . . a whole and delightful and unforgettable person.”
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When Jesus calls us to receive the kingdom as a child, I wonder if he means us to find a way to a sort of total communication, an unmediated presence to others. It iis very costly. We broken people see only bits of it at a time. Anne Crosby, however unwittingly, has given us a clue to the depths of the human mystery, for which I am unspeakably grateful, even as I look forward, please God, to meeting Matthew someday.
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Out & About. I’ll be teaching a three-week Sunday course, “Who’s Coming?” at Church of the Incarnation, Dallas. The first session, Nov. 26 at 10:20 a.m., is “Christ the King.” Subsequent weeks will be on “a baby” and “the future of God.” The class will be in the Memorial Chapel.

Influence, Touching and Affecting

Someone I last saw over 30 years ago has written me. She knew me and my wife and our little son back when I was in seminary. She wrote me about us having her and some other people to dinner in our apartment. She remembered Susan as “a very gentle person. She told me about her writing on several occasions. I always admired her mothering skills with Michael.”
    The occasion of her writing me, now, is her reading a book I wrote. Her own situation of caregiving for a spouse had parallels with mine. She was grateful for the book and wanted me to know. I am in turn very grateful to her for writing.
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    You write a book, you preach a sermon, you teach a class — and you never know the influence you have, how much you may have touched people or affected the way they go about their lives. I am not a great or widely read author. (When Bloomsbury took over T & T Clark, who published two academic books of mine, I noted that they were also the publishers of J. K. Rowling, the inventor of Harry Potter. “Between us we sell millions of copies.”) But even with such modest circulation as Losing Susan has had, I hear from readers, often strangers. It’s like God is lifting up the curtain just a wee bit to suggest the vastness of our connections one with another.
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    And you who read this: it’s true of you too. I speak of writing, teaching, and preaching only because those are things I have done. You have your own activities in the world. Whatever they are, they are connections, points where you influence, touch, affect others. They may be special to your profession. Or they may be entirely quotidian. They are probably some of both, and you are aware of only a tiny fraction of them.
    “By virtue of his Incarnation,” the fathers of the Second Vatican Council wrote, “the Son of God has united himself in some way with every human being.” Our human nature is interconnected but also seriously damaged by sin. Yet Jesus, who truly represents the human race to God, offers, through his overcoming of sin, the hope and the means of reconciliation, the restoration ofcommunio, of connections.
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    In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis sees a grand procession coming down from high heaven to the low place where he is. It is altogether joyous, with singing and much praise, angels strewing flowers, children dancing, all leading a radiant, almost blindingly beautiful woman. Lewis wonders if it might be Saint Mary. His companion laughs heartily. No, he says, this is “someone ye’ll never have heard of,” Sarah Smith of Golders Green! She was an ordinary person in life. (No books, no sermons, no classes!) But every child who came to her door was loved. Everyone who happened to meet her was blessed in simple ways. She loved God and she touched all those whom she met.
    Is Susan like Sarah Smith, I sometimes wonder. Am I? Are you?
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    Out & About. This Sunday, November 12, I am to preach at St. Peter’s in McKinney at the 9 and 11 a.m. Eucharists. At 10:10, I’ll be speaking about some of the themes of Losing Susan.

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."