I arrive at the Lakeland Healthcare Center in northeast Jackson, where my mother has resided for nearly two years. As I walk down the corridor, I encounter plaintive cries for help and unpleasant odors. Opposite the south nursing station, women sit motionless in their wheelchairs: some stare vacantly into space, some wear expressions of perplexity mingled with sadness. Through open doors I see others lying in their beds: many are asleep, some resemble corpses. A lady in a wheelchair reaches for my hand and kisses it.
As I enter my mother's room, she greets me warmly from her bed. I tell her it is nearly time for supper; she does not understand my words, so I repeat them in a louder voice. I sit down, and we talk about the day's events, about people we both know, about deceased friends. After a Bible reading and prayer, I wheel her into the dining room for supper and a visit with her friends. One of them sits there, clutching her doll and murmuring inaudibly. Another invites me, repeatedly, to share her meal. Some sit silently at their tables, scarcely noticing the food. When the time comes, I take my mother back to her room, kiss her on the forehead and depart.
God's will - in this case the protracted stay of a parent in a nursing home - is not always perceived to be "good, acceptable, and perfect." Such awareness only comes from "offering one's own body as a living sacrifice" and "being transformed by the renewing of the mind," one effect of which is a willingness to serve others (see Rom 12:1-8). What have I learned from such experiences that may be of help to others in similar positions? Five R's come to mind.
God created my mother and those other residents in his image. Genesis 1:26-28 discloses three marks of that image (to use terms supplied by my colleague Ralph Davis):
An aged person no longer capable of speech or bodily control is yet to be distinguished from an animal. Such a person, however decrepit, remains a male or a female. And while most are now incapable of exercising authority in a place of responsibility, their physical presence reminds the family - especially sons and daughters - that their lives were once fruitful.
Because my mother is a Christian, that defaced image is being restored and she is slowly being transfigured into the likeness of God's Son. Because God employs suffering to achieve that purpose and to prepare his children for heavenly glory, I know that her present life is purposeful. If her presence instructs others, the service of others - especially members of Christ's Body - revives her in the aftermath of several hours alone. A friend regularly comes by to deliver a bulletin from that morning's church service. A pastor comes with an elder to serve her the Lord's Supper. In various ways others, including the workers at Lakeland, bear loads too heavy for her (Gal 6:2). As she is now hardly able to pray, others pray on her behalf. I am assured that Christ her great high priest does so, and that the interceding Spirit helps her in her weakness.
Not only is this a Christian sister whose suffering I am called upon to share (1 Cor 12:26), she is a widow, to whose needs (together with those of the orphan and the alien) Yahweh is especially attentive (e.g., Exod 22:22-24; Deut 10:17-18; Ps 68:5; Isa 1:17; Jer 22:3; Zech 7:9-10; Mal 3:5). She is also my mother. In recent months I have newly sensed the gravity of the fifth commandment. "Honor your...mother," says Yahweh (Exod 20:12); "do not despise your mother when she is old" (Prov 23:22); "he who...drives out his mother is a son who brings shame and disgrace" (Prov 19:26).
Jesus reproves those who use devotion to God as an excuse for neglecting their parents (Mark 7:1-13), and those who offer impressive prayers but devour widows' houses ( Mark 12:40). Paul teaches that "if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family...," and that "if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever" (1 Tim 5:4, 8). I now better understand that such commands are given precisely because we, as fallen and congenitally selfish human beings, naturally choose the opposite way. We may be dismayed but should not be altogether surprised, when a son abandons a helpless father or scorns a senile mother, or when a daughter considers her aged parent an embarrassment or a nuisance.
As William Law reminds us in A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, the Bible's commands to treat "the sick, the poor, the old, and destitute" with "particular love and esteem" are "to be observed with the same strictness as those teachings that relate to prayer." So if I have really grasped "the one thing needful" (to receive and obey Jesus' words) and am learning to pray audaciously, and if I truly love God with all my being, then I will love this particular neighbor - this aged, infirm parent - as myself, and not "pass him or her by on the other side." I will boldly ask the Father to grant me His enlightening and empowering Spirit for the task (see Luke 10:25-11:13). That Spirit, far from freeing me of the obligation to obey the Fifth Commandment, writes it on my heart and enables me to keep it (Jer 31:31-34; 2 Cor 3:3; Rom 8:4).
I am sure that, for as long as my mother lives, God intends to teach me through her. Slowly feeding her a meal - which I could consume in five minutes - or hearing her tell a story for the fortieth time, or trying vainly to make myself understood, reveals how impatient and easily exasperated I am. Observing her indifference to the passage of time and her confusion about the order of events ("Will you stay for breakfast?" she asks at suppertime; "What will we do for Christmas?" she inquires in January) exposes my slavery to the clock and to routine. With her I find myself slowing down and learning to enjoy the present moment. Remembering Matt 7:12, I ask myself, "How would I want to be treated if I were in her place?" I discover - from dozens of visits, from ministrations that cannot be reciprocated - that the reward for service comes with the service itself. My affection for my mother has deepened over the past two years.
As my wife and I remove her soiled garments from the basket to take them home for washing, I reflect that this is rather like cleaning a baby's diaper. Just so, my feeding her recalls her feeding me as an infant, and my reading to her from the Bible reminds me that I have known the holy Scriptures from my youth because of her and my father's instruction (cf. 2 Tim 1:5; 3:15). I remember that Paul called children's services to parents a repayment for what they once did for us (1 Tim 5:4) and that he joined ingratitude to disrespect for parents (2 Tim 3:2).
Can we likewise lead my mother to a "remembrance of things past"? We hang some of her paintings on the walls. We place lots of family pictures on the shelves of the bookcase. With old photographs in hand, we ask her to identify people and to talk about their past associations. Her sister writes her every week, sprinkling her letters with the names of people she knows; her daughter sends news from Franklin, Tennessee. When reading the Bible to her, I usually choose the King James Version, the one she knows best. I select the more familiar passages, whereupon she often says, "That's one of my favorites." Nothing awakens her mind (which in some ways has ceased to function) more than the reading of the Scriptures. Sometimes she offers a comment or asks a question. When I begin a familiar verse, she occasionally finishes it without my assistance. In the prayer, I use the names of all family members to keep them lodged in her memory. Sometimes she interrupts to ask how a person is doing. When praying for her at other times, I ask God to "stoop to her weakness," to impart truth to her in ways she can understand, to tell His story to her as to a little child, to bind up the wounds of her mind by the gentle workings of His Spirit.
Speaking of little children, it is astonishing to see what effect their presence has upon my mother and the other residents at Lakeland. When her triplet great-granddaughters come for a visit, it is as though new life is pumped into her veins. I mentioned the lady who brings her doll to meals. When a real infant is brought into her presence, her face is transformed and she displays a delight of which she had seemed incapable.
Music can have a similar effect. Groups come from local churches, bringing with them the hymns of the faith. On one occasion a pastor entered a room to hear its occupant singing a stanza of "Amazing Grace." Or there in the dining room a ninety-three-year-old is playing "I'd Rather Have Jesus" on the piano. This past Christmas night several of us, including a girl with guitar, went from room to room singing carols.
We attend parties on Valentine's Day, on St. Patrick's Day, and on the Fourth of July. We celebrate birthdays. The special hats provided for such occasions seem quite incongruous with the condition of those who wear them. But then I think: No, such a communal festival offers them an incomparable kind of joy.
Reformed Quarterly, Volume 19, Number 2