Art by Johanna Benthal

The other day I was in the kitchen putting dishes away and listening to the conversations my daughter, Johanna, was having with her new friends on Zoom.

One of the many groups which have been profoundly affected by the pandemic public health strategies – quarantines and shut-downs — are kids and adults with brain injuries and developmental disabilities.

Technology is not an easy fix for this population. Motor planning, reading difficulties, and language deficits are just some of the issues that can make communication with technology a challenge.

So, when Jo’s community habilitation program told us that Jo could have her aides work with her on Zoom, I initially opted out. I assumed it meant that I’d have to sit beside her helping to facilitate conversations and translating for missed communication cues.

But when we realized that COVID precautions were going to be around for a while and we needed to come up with creative strategies to keep Jo safe, happy, and busy at home, we decided to dive into Zoom meetings.

We were pleasantly surprised by the way it worked. It helped that my husband is a tech guy who has been helping businesses navigate online platforms for years before the pandemic hit and that the aides who chose to do Zoom were very interactive and theatrical. We found ways to get them playing games and reading stories and even sharing coffee and donuts on either side of the screen.

When we went back to having a few aides in with precautions, it still wasn’t enough to fill each day. Because Facebook now listens to all my conversations and I swear it reads my mind too, an ad for an online group for people with disabilities came up in my newsfeed.

The foundation was formed to be an on-site center to provide support and creative activities for people with disabilities and their families. Because of COVID, they had to switch what they could to Zoom meetings to support their members.

The switch was a blessing for us because now Johanna takes two classes every weekday in things like exercise, sign language, theater arts, and even cooking. Some of the activities require total support from my husband or me. But many allow us to set up Zoom and be within earshot of Jo, only intervening if she needs help.

The other day, I sat down to listen to the beautiful conversations that were being facilitated by the teacher at the end of an exercise class. The teacher asked:

“What does love mean to you?”

If you’ve never asked people with intellectual disabilities questions about life and love, you really should. The answers will amaze you and challenge some of your preconceived notions of how life is “supposed to be.”

The responses brought tears to my eyes. Some said love meant this group they were all in — many who have never met and are from different areas of the country.

Others said that love meant spending time with friends and families. One young lady touched my heart as she described love as the care that her family continues to offer her even though she knows it’s sometimes hard.

The simple truths spoken were profound.

I continued the conversation with Johanna the next morning and I asked her what love means to her.

Her immediate response was “a warm smile and a hug.” I thought how we all appreciate those simple face-to-face gestures so much more now that we remain close to others but at a distance.

Jo continued: “Knowing that God and my family love me and having help to do my art and music is love to me.”

The walls of my newly renovated house are covered in Jo’s artistic expressions of love. Looking at the artwork that adorns my wall — drawings of birds and flowers and sunrises and sunsets — one wouldn’t know the pain and the struggles this artist deals with every day. Jo’s perspective — even in the midst of struggles with pain and disabilities — is one of gratitude for the gift of life.

The Bible has a lot to say about love. 1 Corinthians 13:1-8 is often read at weddings and has been expressed in many songs. The virtues of patience, kindness, humility, self-sacrifice, faithfulness, and perseverance are all offered as apt descriptions of love to which most of us aspire.

But there is one simple description of love in the Bible that is often overlooked. It’s called “the greatest commandment” and I suppose you could say it’s Jesus’ summary of the purpose of life in two intertwined sentences.

Jesus answered his followers’ questions about which of the 10 commandments was the most important with a response that went beyond the detailed actions required by the Old Testament law and prophets.

In all three of the synoptic gospels — Matthew, Mark and Luke —this greatest commandment is expressed in two parts.

“Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew 22:37-39.

Johanna reminded me of these commandments when she said, “To me, love is about knowing God loves me and my family loves me.”

Jo’s response focuses on the second commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” In her simply profound way of looking at life, Jo has it just right.

We talked about how it’s hard to love someone else when we don’t know love ourselves. And it’s hard to love ourselves if we don’t believe we are loved by God.

Johanna went on to list ways that she has learned to love herself: taking her medications, spending time doing art and music, having quiet time in the morning over coffee, spending time outside with her dogs and chickens, and turning to God in prayer.

Jo said, “I focus on the present moment and don’t spend time thinking about what was in the past or what is to come. I’m thankful for today.”

My daughter reminds me that love is pretty simple. Love God, take care of yourself and love others as yourself. If you have a hard time describing what love means to you, ask a loving person like my daughter to show you how.

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Eileen Benthal
Eileen is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a bachelor’s degree in theology from Franciscan University. She and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Email Eileen