October 23, 2017

Jesus, Mom and Michael

I’ve been to school the past week. The school of life. God’s school. The best teacher of all, with lessons that will never leave you asking, “Now how am I going to use that in real life?”

The class I’ve been taking is called “The Only Child Cares For The Aging Parent.” There are other classes called, “Adult Children Care For The Aging Parents,” but let me give some of you more responsible folks a heads up: be careful thinking there will always be someone to step in an exempt you from the class. Don’t be surprised when the rest of the family informs you that junior’s soccer game is preventing them from helping out, and you are it.

Being an only child is a mixed bag. I have some wonderful blessings because of it, and I have some screws loose and a few screws entirely missing. I don’t think the universe revolves around me any more than the average person, but I don’t want to share my stuff with you either.

An only child certainly knows that the day is coming when he will become the caretaker. It’s inevitable, short of tragedy. You think about it at moments when you glimpse your parents caring for their own parents. You think about it when you visit a nursing home or a hospital and see other adults in the role of decision-maker and responsible family member. You think about it briefly when you move away, or go to a new job, or pick up the phone on Sunday to call your parents and tell them some good news. You think about it when you have to ask for financial help, or advice. Something in your mind tells you: One day, your parents won’t be able to care for themselves, and you will be responsible.

So you are enrolled in the class at some unknown date in the future, but it’s like so many other things: why worry about it now? There are other important things to do. My life is mine to live. Being independent from parents is healthy. I have a marriage, kids, a career. I’ve got my own problems. Write your own paragraph.

So you don’t talk about the inevitable very much. Maybe a few conversations with your spouse as you drive home after a holiday visit. Maybe when some medical matter reminds you that mom’s health is fragile. Maybe when you suddenly realize that you don’t know where the important papers are, or the difference between Medicare or Medicaid or what you would do it your parent had to be put somewhere. Maybe you think about it all for a moment, maybe a little longer, then the cell rings and your life covers everything up as if it weren’t there at all.

Then, one day, class begins without even asking your permission. The phone rings and my mom is smothering. She’s five hours away, and it doesn’t take a doctor to know that an 83 year-old woman smothering is probably a major heart issue. She calls the ambulance, and I jump in the car for the five hour to the class.

I didn’t even bring a pencil.

I prayed, of course. When I don’t have the Psalms or the Book of Common Prayer, I’m stuck with these instructions for theologically correct Calvinistic prayers running around in my head. “Don’t sound like a Pentecostal bossing God around. Don’t ask God to do things for you he doesn’t do for other people. Don’t insist on miracles for a person who has lived so long. Don’t make your convenience the criterion of God’s help. Don’t forget about providence and sovereignty and other important theological words about God.” Stuff like this. If you’re a Calvinist convert like me you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. You probably miss the time when you could just pray like a little kid or say “in Jesus name” and believe stuff would change.

So I simply asked God to remind me that He was in control. I asked that Mom would trust him, and know that He loved her. I asked for wisdom, since James says that I can. I told God that I felt helpless, which should make Him very happy. God heard and answered, because he regularly goes far, far beyond my pitiful prayers to His endless, deep love for us all.

I didn’t resent God for any of what was happening. Really, mom has had a great run and I am thankful. I actually felt very close to God in that car, listening to the White Sox finish off the Angels and the ensuing celebration. But I must confess, I resented that I know think about predestination and preordained events more than I think about Jesus and what he would do if his 83 year-old mother was smothering. (I have no idea.) Even if Jesus didn’t heal my mom, I still believe mom would feel that God was there because Jesus was there, and all would be well. So that was my goal. I’ll was going to be there and walk through this trusting the Father of Jesus to be sufficient for whatever came along.

Of course, one of the things you learn is that Christ isn’t just with the weak because you asked him to drop what he was doing and go give her a hand; Jesus is in the weak and suffering. You didn’t bring him. He was already there. You meet him in your 83 year-old mother’s pain and suffering. It’s the agony of Christ in the world. It’s what sin did and what Christ takes into and onto himself as our mediator. It’s what he will transform in the resurrection. It’s the stuff that Jesus works with, and while I don’t know where Christ is in the Lord’s Supper, I know he is in the suffering of my mom, and that’s he’s not finished.

You meet him in the kindness of strangers. You experience him in the grace that happens when your mother has to trust you and others- completely- for everything. You discover him in the moments when you realize that you are just like this person: aging, declining, physically vanishing, dying. That’s you just a few more miles down the road, around the corner that currently blocks your view, but you don’t want to admit this. You, too, are going to be unable to get up, or roll over, or go to the bathroom. You will be in one of these ridiculous gowns, and spoken to like a child, and prayed over like you may die any moment, poked, prodded and pilled without knowing what is going on.

God is showing you things in this class; things you don’t want to see because the lesson will change you too deeply. It will overturn your agenda and your certainties. The teacher must destroy your illusions for the truth to cure you. You must, as someone said, die in order to live.

I can’t tell you everything I learned. That’s part of the class, too. You can talk about it, but you can’t spare someone the lessons by just passing on the notes, so take these few paragraphs for what they are: hints of lessons that you will learn on your own.

What did I learn in the class?

I learned there is a lot of growing up to do when you are 49. My birthday was about a month ago, but I feel like I’ve aged 20 years. In some ways, I feel like I am finally becoming a man because my mother is becoming a child.

I learned that a smiling, happy, hard-working, endlessly positive, gracious Philipino nurses aide named Nida is more important than all the doctors and specialists and chaplains in the world. If someone thinks that more education and status brings along the Holy Spirit as a bonus, please be disavowed of that notion. I remember that wonderful chapter in Lewis’s The Great Divorce when a beautiful, awe-inspiring, magnificent spirit appears, and it turns out to be a woman that was of no reputation or education at all, but who simply made everyone she ever met her own son or daughter. God’s economy is quite simple, and quite Christ-shaped, if we care to see it.

I learned that I’m getting over my inability to cry when I should.

I learned that we are all naked, and that when we are reduced to pure trust, we are remarkably unashamed. It is the echo of Eden, long, long lost in the mists, but still there with us at these moments.

I learned that we are fragile, and our suffering can take away our slender grasp of reality. In such times, we must be held in the realities of others. Those who care; our loved ones; God. Especially God. (Thank You Robert Capon for teaching me this.) The reality that allows me to write, and you to read, is as thin as a piece of paper, and can vanish in a second, reducing us to someone else entirely, unrecognizable and broken. Who will love us then, when we cannot love or speak or know anything?

I learned that the sufferings of Christ are the key to being in the presence of the suffering of others. There is a transforming power in the transfiguration of my mother’s sufferings into the cross of Jesus.

I learned to hate the way evangelicals want to picture their humanity. Ever go to a church website these days? Or look at a promotional publication or ad for a church that wants to grow? (I am starting to get angry, on cue, at the mention of the phrase “church growth.” It encapsulates almost everything vile.) Ever look at the pictures on the banner? Young people. Everywhere. Healthy. Gorgeous. Laughing. Children. Teenagers. College kids. Soccer Moms. NASCAR dads. Healthy senior adults.

Listen to me: This is a damned lie. It’s an evil illusion. You aren’t seeing humanity when you look at such a scrapbook of lies. You are seeing a selection. Models. Ads. Manipulative images to distort for reasons that are never openly stated. We are, sometimes, in places and at times, those beautiful people. But we are the people in the cemeteries, nursing homes, hospitals, homeless shelters, clinics, bars, dirty hotels, filthy restaurants, ghettos, war zones, and a thousand other places that will never show up on your church website picture page unless its some glimpse of a teenager handing a donated t-shirt to a cute urchin on a mission trip. We are the fat people, the people on walkers, the people in dirty clothes, the ugly people, the people who are afraid. We are the good, the bad, the ugly, the lost, the distressed, the unpicturable, the invisible, the forgotten, the lovely, the immoral and the almost dead.

Who is showing us this?

Jesus. If we pay attention and stop listening to people telling us how to have more SUVs and Soccer leagues.

Why don’t we want to look at ourselves? Why do we want to say we aren’t really growing old? Why do we want to say we aren’t ugly or old or fragile? What are we telling ourselves and our children about life with these lies? I’m not surprised that the world wants to cling to this illusion, but do evangelicals have to buy into it? Do we have to market our churches under the lie that the Body of Christ is made up of a bunch of models for the paradise of suburbia? Do we have to act like Jesus came, ministered to, touched, suffered with and died for beautiful American upper middle class white advertising models? Why aren’t we laughing? Or weeping?

I’m newly aware of why art is important to Christians, and particularly the potential of art of all kinds to fight the battle of this illusion, and to tell the story that evangelical pimps refuse to tell as they paint up the Body of Christ like a whore to be sold to a dying modernity lusting after “your best life now.” Someone write these stories. Write these songs. Take the pictures. Create the images. Destroy the illusion that we are angels. Destroy the lie that materialism and technology and nice churches can save us from ourselves.

I learned that there is a tension between the greatness of what technology can do and the assault on our humanity that comes along with technology.

I learned that the price of living so long is very high, but never too high that we will not be drawn to ask God- again and again- to give more physical life.

I learned that official Christians are ridiculous, and Christ does play in a thousand places where his name is never found. (Jesus is utterly without scrupples when it comes to who he decides to inhabit in order that someone be loved.)

I learned that in order to save someone’s life, you may have to be the one to cause them the great pain. It is not easy to take away the independence that my mom has enjoyed for 12 years, but that is my role in this chapter of my life. My mother adjusted to the decisions that I made fairly quickly, and she trusted me to do what was best for her. There is joy in that, and I believe God will bless mom and our family because of my choices.

God answered my prayers, and brought me through a difficult week. Not just the absurdities of living in a corner of a hospital room for 5 days. Not just the successful medical help for mom’s heart episode. Not just the transition from her home to our home, all of which happened very rapidly and easily. But in loving us all, and coming to us, over and over in his Son, Jesus Christ. All his promises are true, and his lovingkindness is forever.

I have not finished the class; not by any means. I’ll be there for some time to come. There are still classes beyond this one. There is a path, a journey, that God gives us when he calls us into existence. As I grow older, I am more aware of it, and I pray I learn to trust him more along the way as I learn that the path is the road to the God in whom I live, and move, and have my being; the God who walked the same path in Jesus, and who is with me now through the Spirit.

We drove the five hours back to my home, with mom beside me and a few of her possessions in the back. She dozed- which is most of what she does these days- and on the radio, someone had one the Powerball jackpot of $340 million.

I realized that, at this moment, $340 million would do nothing for my mom that I was not doing. I was loving her the best way I could by taking her to my family. The hugs of her grandkids, the meals we can fix, the care in the declining days to come- these are the gifts I want to give her. In reality, $340 million does nothing for this particular human being at this point in the journey.

Of course, this is always true. It is true for all of us, now, as much as it will be true when we are within sight of the end of life. But yet we live as if $340 million, or another hour at work, or a bigger house, or bigger church facility will give us what we need.

The truth is, we have forgotten who we are. We do not want to look at where we are going, and we do not want to accept that what we need most of all is there for us all the time in the grace of Christ.

I close with a prayer from someone in a similar class.

“Too late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient, O Beauty so new. Too late have I loved you! You were within me but I was outside myself, and there I sought you! In my weakness I ran after the beauty of the things you have made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The things you have made kept me from you – the things which would have no being unless they existed in you! You have called, you have cried, and you have pierced my deafness. You have radiated forth, you have shined out brightly, and you have dispelled my blindness. You have sent forth your fragrance, and I have breathed it in, and I long for you. I have tasted you, and I hunger and thirst for you. You have touched me, and I ardently desire your peace.” – St. Augustine, Confessions

Comments

  1. Hey Imonk,

    I am praising God that you can see the presence of Christ in all of this. I am glad that you took the time to be with her, to care for her, and to be an image of Christ to her. You and her both are in my prayers. God bless!

  2. I too am an only child. As my parents are still active members in the Hampton Roads HOG, I don’t think I’m in any immediate danger of being forced to take this class. But it certainly is food for thought…

  3. Michael,

    I can relate. Right now, my father, who has always been my hero (he was the best man at my wedding–and that was probably literal), is dying of mesothelioma (asbestos cancer). At the very same time, my mother in law is suffering from alzheimers disease.

    I am an only child (like you) and my wife is, by default, going to be the “only” child involved with her mother.

    Both spouses are alive, but are obviously just as aged. And both are long term marriages, so both partners are devastated.

    The “why” question has obviously come up alot. I can give no answer, but to try to be there. But we are in this together. Not just my father, mother-in-law, wife, and myself, but you and your mom, your wife, and the rest of the body of Christ. The real body of Christ, the one that suffered and died, that was thirsty and tired, that sweat blood, but walked through it all anyway. We are part of that body and called to that same path of suffering.

    I don’t know whose body is pictured by those ads of health and wealth you mentioned…

    But I know whose body will be resurrected..

  4. In the Desert of the Real I am praying.

  5. Michael –

    I buried my 86-year-old mother on Monday. It took her more than two years to die, her persistent strokes slowly stealing her mind a little bit at a time. I hope your experience is not so long or difficult.

    I am not an only child; I am, however, a 55-year-old orphan. It is a nodal event. My heart goes out to you.

    FWIW, I posted a couple of things about it last week: “Her nail beds are blue” and “The Clarity of Death.” A bit premature for you, of course, but perhaps worth reading all the same.

    In Christ,

    Mike

  6. Michael-

    My wife and I were caretakers for both my dad and then my mom in the space of a year and a half. To coin a phrase, “it was the best of times; it was the worst of times”, but I would trade nothing, absolutely nothing for the experience. God used that time as a crucible to rekindle and strengthen my faith and I never cease to be amazed at His grace and mercy even during a time of sorrow.

    My prayers are with you and your family.

    Scott

  7. Poignant… I am humbled by your courage, by your honest self-disclosure, and by your love of the truth, however painful it may be. I respect the open way that you allow discourse, while you temper it with wisdom. You have the depth of character to look beyond whatever stake you have in the local denominational franchise, to Jesus, the Lord of Glory.

    “Living below in this old sinful world
    Hardly a comfort can afford
    Striving alone to face temptation so
    Now won’t you tell me
    Where could I go but to the Lord”

    words and music by J.B. Coats

  8. Histrion (Jay H) says:

    Full disclosure: the thought of growing senile scares the willies out of me. God forgive me, I do not deal well with nursing homes. Or, for that matter, most kinds of mental infirmities. I have no idea how I might one day (too soon!) be able to take care of my parents, even with my sister to help me. And in all honesty, with my own nuptials coming up, one of the few reservations I have is that, some day, either I will have to take care of my mentally illucid wife, or, worse, she will have to take care of me. Sometimes, honestly, I would rather just stay single and plan to be found dead on my floor.

    Wow, am I admitting this in a public forum?

    Anyway, I hope I can find a bit of your strength and nobility when the time comes.

  9. Mike, thanks for this all important post on this all too ignored topic.

    As one who is blessed with both parents, I recently was compelled to make a big geographic change – in part to make sure I was closer to them as they move closer to the inevitable result of our human condition.

    I was in prayer for you last week.

    I’ve blogged about your post just about 30 minutes ago:
    http://www.blogs4god.com/node/598

    Thank you!

  10. Brilliant. True. God continue to be with you.

    I am not an only child, but as the oldest I know I will have to be responsible for my parents when that time comes. It will be more difficult caring for Dad since he never cared for me, but God will give me the patience, strength, and grace to do that. Even though Dad doesn’t consider himself God’s son, he still is.

  11. I’ve been to that same school. I didn’t like it. But you’re right. I knew it was coming, but did not prepare. You are in my prayers.

    Vern

  12. I went through this same thing for 6 years. Last December my mother died.
    She had a major stroke in 1998 and was completely bedridden at home. Since we were not too well off financially, I had really no help as I also am an only child and virtually have no living relatives.
    But her mind was very keen in her nineties and it would be living death for her to be in a nursing hoe. If I had it all to do over again, I would have done the same thing.

    Many of us fall through the Medicare-Medicaid crack as we did and that makes it quite difficult.

  13. Michael,
    Earlier this year my wife and I (and her sisters) stood by the bedside of my mother-in-law as she released the pain of her cancer and rested in the arms of Jesus. Now we are faced with my mother’s declining health and the complications of age. While not an only child, I’m the geographically logically child to deal with it. I’d never thought out of all the family members I would be the one to take the reins in this. I’m ill-equipped, I’m unsure of my choices and decisions, I’m guilty for the choices I do make, and often second guessed. Yet, through it all, there is the face of Jesus shining through eyes that are dulling. The child becomes a parent, heck I wasn’t that good of a parent to chiuld, and here we are. Like you, I ask for God’s will, and for us to trust in His ways. No miracles, no flash boom, just the wisdom to make appropriate choices and the peace of knowing He hears me.

  14. The life lessons of a child with an elderly parent are very difficult. I just put my 86 year old mother into an assisted living facility because it was impossible to take her into my home and I was the only one who could even consider it. No bath on the ground floor and no way to quickly install one. And no bedrooms either. And stairs just to get from one level to the next on the downstairs. It’s amazing how people quickly offer you advice on what you should be doing: “Why aren’t you taking her to live with you? You have a house and space? You should be doing this for your mother.” Or who feel quite comfortable telling you that “You’ll never regret this time you spend,” when you have literally been at her side around the clock, giving medications and comforting for six weeks and the longest stretch of time you have had to yourself to even sleep has been five hours and all you want to do is go to the bathroom without someone asking you where you are and when you are going to be out.
    Sometimes the lessons of elderly parents are for you–to learn compassion, to face aging, to prepare yourself and your children, to learn to caregive, to be fully present etc.
    And sometimes the lessons are for the elderly parent–that they can’t always have things their way and that other people can help besides the one daughter they want to be there 24/7 around the clock without fail.
    If you can bring your parent into your home and become the 24/7 caregiving, that’s admirable. But if you can’t, and you find another option then don’t beat yourself with guilt.
    My mother is a demanding, insistent, prima donna who wants full attention at all times from everyone in her world. When that sort of burden falls on one person–who still has a job because she is unmarried–the burden can be unbearable.
    And for all of you who think you can become the sole caregiver around the clock for your parents, remember that 25% of caregivers die before the people they are taking care of because of exhaustion and illness themselves. If you do take care of your mother or father, be sure to see what resources are available in your community for respite care and assistance. You’ll soon discovered that caring for an aged parent is 1000% more difficult than caring for children. Ask for help. Insist on it. It’s not a sign of moral weakness.

  15. Thanks for sharing this. I just ran across this, and I am in a similar situation as an only child and a mother who has an immune disorder that has no cure. She gets these “infusion” treatments of gamma globulin 3x a week to help her body fight it off and give her quality of life. Medicare is threatening to cut the treatments this January. Every month we evaluate if she can still drive, etc. But she is in constant pain, and the disease is slowly progressing. I don’t know what the future is of this, and I am experiencing much of what you have expressed. I don’t know how to plan, etc. etc….

    But I do see her grow in her faith in the midst of this.

    Thank you.

  16. Thank you for this. I’m not an only child, but my siblings don’t seem to care very much. My mother is 76 and is spiralling downwards after a brain injury last September. It has been a long and draining process. Your essay helped me to realize why I care so much and what I am learning from this experience. This is as close as most of us every get to the Passion. Because of that, the journey must be honored. My mother is not a particularly religious or brilliant person. She has committed her share of sins, and she can be scathingly, scaldingly mean. But she is a soul on the journey of her own Passion, and so will I be someday. The journey must be honored. Thank you again.