Alzheimer’s and Other Cruel Realities (Readers Beware; This is a Downer.)
One of the most difficult things for me to accept is that for some problems there are no good answers. That you have to choose the option that does the least harm to the least number of people. At some gut level, even at seventy-five, I am still screaming in protest at this reality.
My mother’s fourteen years of dying by inches with Alzheimer’s came close to destroying my marriage, my faith, and very close to destroying me. To this good day, sometimes when I let myself experience those memories, I still want to howl with anger and guilt and anguish over her suffering . Here is something I wrote when struggling with this painful time in my life.
MY GOOD FRIDAY GOD
What kind of God are you, dying like that?
I want a real God, a fix it God,
not one that gets Himself crucified.
You’re just as helpless as the rest of us;
here we are dying together.
What a weird way to save a world!
Such sorrow pierced your mother.
Yet, she didn’t run away.
She stayed there suffering too.
Was she filled with a mother’s self doubt?
“Could she have done anything
that would have made a difference?”
I watched my mother die by inches.
Her dignity destroyed
by fourteen years of Alzheimer’s.
I’ve seen my children make choices
that would cost them for years.
I could only ask, “Am I to blame?”
I listened to my friend whose mind
had become her enemy.
I heard her despair, yet could not help.
I hate being helpless, not good enough
or smart enough to help
even the ones I love the most.
Not long ago, you did miracles,
in my own small life.
Now I just see our shared brokenness.
You are a Good Friday God.
I think about the expectations
you gave your disciples.
Only Judas got the picture.
How disillusioned he became.
He must have felt that you
were betraying them all.
Sometimes I’m like Judas.
And when I realize that we
are sheep being shorn,
I’m as cowardly
as Peter; asking
But I know as well as John
that your love is perfect.
We need nothing more.
So though I, like Thomas,
fear a hard ending,
you are my Lord and my God.
I ask the grace to follow,
though through the cross you call,
my Good Friday God.
My Lord and my God.
Two times in my struggle over my mother’s suffering, God’s well timed footprints carried me through despair.
One Sunday evening, shortly after we had finally had to place my mother in a nursing home, I was driving home from my full time job as Director of a Religious Education Program at a near-by army post. It was a large program and this Sunday there had been complications and I had not managed to attend worship services. My own home church didn’t have Sunday evening services and I felt in need of Christian support. I was in deep despair over having to put my mother in a nursing facility and I was crying, as I asked God to help me accept what seemed so wrong.
As I drove home down a back road through a rural black neighborhood, I saw people going into an old looking, small and simple church. I had an impulse to turn in and join them, but told myself that it was silly. They would wonder why I was there and might not even want me there. But, as I continued down the road, about a mile from the church I saw a very elderly and somewhat frail looking gentleman in a suit. He was walking toward the church in what now was a drizzling rain. I stopped and asked him if I could give him a ride back to the church. He accepted gratefully as the rain was getting heavier. He graciously invited me to join them, seeming quite sincere, so I decided this was confirmation of my impulse.
The service turned out to be a gathering of choirs from local black churches. As I sat there wondering why I was there, one choir group sang a spiritual about Someday, when we are with Jesus, we’ll understand the reason for our sorrows. I could hear the reality of the suffering, but I could also hear the faith of generations of blacks that trusted through centuries of injustice and personal hard endings. I heard God speaking to me in that song, sung by those that knew both hardship and faith greater than mine.
The second time God reached out to me in another moment of despair was shortly after my mother died. Any delusions of reprieve or revelation, that I might have clung to, were now in ashes. I was in my parked car at a rural intersection, having arrived early to share a ride to a meeting with a friend. Sitting there with nothing to distract me, I felt unable to handle the overwhelming sadness. As I prayed for grace, I noticed a house with a small gift shop in the front. I got out of my car and went in. The minute I walked through the door, one card in a large display of greeting cards leapt out at me. Large script letters in bold colors said,
“EARTH HAS NO SORROW THAT HEAVEN CANNOT HEAL.”
These two gifts of God’s timing are markers of remembrance for me of God’s presence in our sorrows.
Lately, I have had reason to revisit them, as I spend time with a dear friend suffering from dementia. When I drive home from our visits, I often relive my sorrow over my mother’s suffering.
Sometimes it’s hard to keep going to see my friend, because I’m a problem solver, a fix it kind of person, and there is so little I can do other than take her a pastry or a cappuccino. Right now I can at least bring her a tiny bubble of joy in her confusion and frailty, but I know that soon, I will only be able to sit silently and helplessly at the foot of her cross. Remembering the presence of God in the past helps me persevere.
Prayers for her and for grace for me to continue being there for her are greatly appreciated.