“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.”
    “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.”
    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.”

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.
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.

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."