I live in a facility for people with disabilities called Inglis House in Philadelphia. Many young people visit my nursing home. To them, spending a day with me probably does not seem like a very big deal, but to me, it means everything.
When I was a young boy I told my father I wished our family were rich. We weren’t rich, but he explained that people can be rich even though they may not have much in the way of material wealth. Years passed, and I never gave much thought to this until I was in my mid 20s. I was on a Christian retreat, and I heard the story of “The Quiltmaker’s Gift,” which goes something like this:
There was once a king who was extremely greedy. He had so many possessions he could not keep track of them all. A law was even passed that the king’s birthday had to be celebrated twice a year so he could receive more gifts. However, despite all his beautiful treasures, the king was unhappy.
One day the king heard about a quiltmaker who makes quilts during the day and then goes down to the streets at night and gives them to the poor. The king decides that what is missing from his life is a quilt made by this particular woman. He hears about where she lives and goes to her house to ask how much it costs to buy one of her quilts, but the quiltmaker replies that they aren’t for sale: her quilts are only for the poor and needy. But the king insists that he must have a quilt because it just may be the one thing that will finally make him happy.
So the quiltmaker makes a deal with the king. She tells him to give away everything he owns. With each gift the king gives away, she will sew one piece of fabric into his quilt. When all of the king’s treasures have been given away, his quilt will be complete. The king tells the quiltmaker he can’t give away his possessions because he loves them too much. But she asks him what good they are if they haven’t made him happy.
The king’s mistake in the story is one many of us make on a daily basis, often unknowingly. We become swept-up in a culture of consumerism. We want the newest telephone or the fanciest car. If we only could win the lottery, then everything would be perfect. But, as the quiltmaker observes, it is not possessions that fulfill us. I can remember one Christmas when I was a little boy. I finally got the toy car I had asked for all year. It took an entire day for my father to assemble, and I sat on the floor next to him the whole time. I couldn’t wait to play with it. But when my father, his patience all but gone, finally finished assembling the toy and gave it to me, I realized that it wasn’t anything like my expectations and I hardly even wanted to play with it. The thing I had waited for all year only got 15 minutes worth of play.
Returning to the story, the king began to think seriously about his conversation with the quiltmaker. He arrived at the conclusion that he must give away his treasures so he can have the quilt. The king’s first gift was a single marble. He probably thought to himself that the marble didn’t mean that much. It was just a small marble. But when he handed it to a young boy passing-by, he was pleasantly surprised to receive such expressions of gratitude from the child.
Just as the king didn’t realize the true value in his gift, many people do not realize the gifts they bestow upon others. I live in a facility for people with disabilities called Inglis House in Philadelphia. Many young people visit Inglis with their churches or schools to volunteer for a day of service. To them, spending a day with me probably doesn’t seem like a big deal, but to me it means everything. Even if they just stop by my room briefly to say hello, it makes such a difference in brightening my life.
So the king decided to keep giving his possessions away. With each gift he gives, his happiness grows. Finally, when the king has nothing left to give, the quiltmaker finds him walking through the streets and presents him with the quilt she promised. When the king received his gift from the quiltmaker he was surprised and inquired of her, “What is this?” She responded, “As I promised long ago, when the day came that you, yourself, were poor, only then would I give you a quilt.”
The king then answered her, “But I am not poor. I may look poor, but, in truth, my heart is full to the point of bursting, filled with memories of all the happiness I’ve given and received. I’m the richest man I know.”
In many ways I am like that king. By worldly standards I am poor. I do not have a lot of money. I have few possessions, but I understand now that my father was right all those years ago.
Thomas Nordeman is a Catholic youth minister in Philadelphia. He lives with cerebral palsy and speaks frequently about maintaining faith when confronted with physical disability.