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