Love is patient, love is kind. Love is never boastful, nor conceited, never selfish, not quick to take offense. There is nothing love cannot face; there is no limit to its faith, its hope and endurance. There are three things that last forever: faith, hope and love; but the greatest is love.”—Corinthians 13:4-7
I’ve referred to this biblical passage many times to help me put things in perspective, keep my head on straight and my priorities in order. It’s just about the best thing ever written about love, and it pretty well describes the relationship between my old friend Paul Niklas and his severely developmentally challenged son Michael.
Just after we were married in August 1963, Margaret Mary and I met Paul and Nancy Niklas. At that time their youngest child, Michael, was six months old. As the years progressed, Michael didn’t develop mentally. He never uttered a word, never expressed emotion. These days he might be described as severely autistic. Maybe the words were different then, but the outcome was the same. After years of visiting hospitals around the country, the Niklases were told Michael would never change; he would always be a little boy inexplicably lost inside himself.
In 1970, the Niklases made the difficult decision to place their son with the Brothers at Mt. Aloysius Home for Men in Columbus, Ohio, about two hours from their home in Cincinnati. This decision was wrenching but it also gave them the gift of more time with their two older daughters, allowed Michael the care of experienced professionals, and gave their life a new rhythm and routine. Over the years, they saw Michael once a month, bringing him home and involving him in family activities.
Paul is 75 now; Nancy died two years ago. These days, my friend is both mother and father to Michael. When he and Michael came to visit us a few weeks ago, it was the same old Paul—laughing and upbeat—but with Michael always close by his side. He attended to his son, now a 49-year-old man, with great sensitivity, bathing him in the mornings, helping him in the bathroom, holding his hand and leading him through restaurants. I watched him kiss him on the forehead. “I love you, Michael,” he said. For a moment, I thought I could see a little light in Michael’s face, but then it was gone.
Paul Niklas doesn’t care for his son out of duty or guilt or resignation or parental obligation. He loves him. That’s all. He isn’t sad for his son; he is committed to his son. He, like most parents and people who understand love, has a deeper commitment to his son. Michael is different, but his dad has taken that—and more—in stride.
These days, “love” seems to last about as long as it’s convenient. Celebrity marriages last 72 days. People marry four and five times. Parents abandon children. Children divorce parents. Babies are unwanted from the moment of birth. It’s a world that exists as a parallel universe to people like the Niklas family, a world where commitment is old-fashioned at best. When romance abounds this spring, I’m going to revisit what love means. The first thing I’ll think of is Paul’s unconditional love for his son—the kind that emanates from the heart.