She’s an unusual kind of bodhisattva. Slightly overweight, she huffs and puffs as she works her way through the all-too familiar supermarket aisles. No golden robes, no halo of pure, white light. Just an oversized t-shirt and the harried look of a mum with too much to do. She’s pushing not one, but three shopping trolleys, brimming over with tins, boxes and bottles - enough food to fill the thirteen bellies of her adopted family.
“I didn’t plan to do this”, she says, “I didn’t wake up one day and think, I know, I’ll adopt thirteen kids with disabilities. It began with one. And then the agency kept asking…. And well, once you have seven mouths to feed, what difference does an eighth make? Then a ninth, then a tenth…”
I’ve been told by Buddhist teachers that a bodhisattva is someone who, out of compassion, has devoted their life to easing the suffering of all living beings. I’ve seen lots of paintings of Tibetan representations of them. They have soft, still eyes, serene smiles. They sit in the full lotus, wear brocaded robes and float in clear blue skies. I’ve heard talks about their fearlessness, generosity, their endless compassion. But, you know, it’s a bit hard to model yourself on someone who sits on a cloud in the sky. So I’m always on the look out for real, living bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas in human disguise.
And yesterday, watching a great documentary called ‘My flesh and blood’, I met one. Her name is Sue. And she’s a single mum living in a Californian suburb who has made a home for thirteen children from all over the world, all with disabilities.
There is Faith, now 8 years old. Sue adopted her when she was two and recovering from an accident where a blanket over her crib caught on fire and fell on Faith’s head, badly burning her, and leaving her whole head and face severely scarred. Her mouth can’t open very well, and her nose and ears are almost entirely gone. Her clear, bright eyes peer out through folds of skin that are pink, cracked and rippled. Faith was taken away from her neglectful parents, and Sue received yet another call from the adoption agency.
We first meet her when Sue is cutting the children’s hair. Faith, left entirely bald by the accident, jumps up onto the stool and Sue begins to mock cut away, a snip here, a snip there. “A little bit shorter?” she asks, “hold still now, these scissors are sharp”. Faith giggles with glee. I look at her laughing, scarred face, and tears start to fall from my eyes. The enormity of the beauty of this moment breaks something inside me, and my heart just falls open. Faith’s joyful giggle echoes around in there, as I pause the DVD and just breathe.
Then I met Anthony, who is in a wheelchair and might just be the most courageous 20 year old I’ve ever seen. He’s spent his whole life coping with a rare disease where his skin doesn’t stay on his body. He is covered in sores, and his eyelids constantly flicker in readiness for the next shockwave of pain. We see Sue giving him the four- hour meticulously slow bath she has given him twice a week since she became his Mum 19 years ago. With every cup of water she pours to protect his raw body from infection, he winces, but still manages to smile his soft eyes at the camera. She picks up a handful of soap and styles his hair into a quiff, “look….Elvis”, she smiles.
My tears, still flowing from the meeting with fabulous Faith, turn into a downpour as I take in Anthony’s eyes, unfathomably strong in their softness. His minute-to-minute suffering is unbearable to watch, his bravery totally captivating. Later I see him performing in the leading role in the school play, his school mates cheering him in a standing ovation, and everything in me becomes pure applause for him, for his brave soul, meeting each moment with those soft eyes.
Then, with a crash, in comes 15 year old Joe, and he hasn’t taken his Ritalin to manage his ADHD. He storms around the house, children cry, plates fly and torrents of curse-filled insults pepper the air. I learn about his crack-addicted birth mother, and the bi-monthly, fortnight-long periods he spends hooked up to a drip and oxygen mask to manage his Cystic Fibrosis. And I figure that I would be pretty fucking angry too.
Catanya and her sister from Russia, burst into the room, vibrating with humour and the squeals of teenage girl laughter, and both without legs. They navigate deftly around the cameraman, propelling themselves with their strong arms. There is some great comic relief when Catanya decides to dress up as a magician’s victim for Halloween. She sits on a makeshift table, aligned with some faked legs - a stuffed pair of jeans. Enter the magician, Sue, with a fake saw. “And now”, Catanya announces, “the magician will cut me in half.” Her mum saws, in between her body and fake legs to Catanya’s theatrical screams.
Since nearly every waking hour is spent tending to the wide variety of needs of her thirteen children, the camera finally catches some alone time with Sue late at night. She confesses that she is utterly strung out, exhausted, stressed and deeply in need of someone to take care of her needs. We sit with her as she scrolls through internet dating sites, dreaming of a man she can cuddle in bed with at the end of each long day.
Some people live in retreat centres, devoting their lives to meditating their way above the cat and mouse game of pleasure and suffering. But Sue is right here. In the thick of it all. Washing mountains of clothes, filling thirteen bellies and soothing pains that people this young should never have to bear.
Somehow she meets Joe’s hot fat explosions of anger with the pacifyingly patient recognition of the pain that births them. Somehow she holds Anthony’s suffering in one hand, and a bucketful of light-hearted humour in the other. Somehow she knows that this world won’t be able to accept Faith’s wounded face, and at the same time trusts that it can see her beauty.
And my tears of disbelief, shock and joy mingle and ask myself “is that not a bodhisattva I am looking at?”. Someone who can hold the paradox of love and suffering, joy and pain in day-to-day life with so much grace and heart. I wonder why I don’t hear more about these living heroes, and how many more of them exist. And I think about how the place where love meets actual suffering in the world is the place true compassion is born. It’s what those Tibetan paintings represent, but it’s what Sue is heroically living; bringing love, where there was none, family where there was none, hope where there was none.