Thursday, July 29, 2010

Fear of My Mother's Dying

Last weekend my husband and I attended his mother's family reunion, a huge affair complete with a sign-in book, name tags, an amazing variety and quantity of food, and about 250 people we were supposed to know. There are so many members of this family and they are so prolific that, apart from this biennial reunion, they would completely lose track of one another. Even so, it was common to hear whispered queries of "Who is that?" The children were particularly hard to track. They moved too fast for us to focus upon their name tags, and they tended not to stay with their immediate families!

The M.C. for the program portion of this event was Max, the family's version of David Letterman; complete with sly humor, engaging grin, and witty repartee. This year, however, Max's comments were tinged with sorrow. His father passed away earlier this year, and Max was with him when he died.

As he stood before the crowd, Max shared, "My dad fought death. And even after he was gone, his body continued to fight. I tell you, it's not just an easy 'lights out' like they show you in the movies."

I shuddered. I thought of my own father's death. My husband was with Dad when he died, I was not. John won't answer my questions about the particulars of Dad's passing and I wonder if this is why? Perhaps there was a death struggle. Perhaps it was horrifying for John.

And then I thought of my dread of my own mother's passing. I will probably be by her side. I felt fear, and no small annoyance with Max. "What I did not need here today," I thought, "Was a description of a not-so-peaceful passing followed by rigormortis."

The morning after the reunion I was especially tired. I'd painted the ceiling in one of the little upstairs bedrooms the evening before, and my middle aged muscles were aching. As I lay in bed, I stretched my tired muscles; one of those full length, luxurious, to the tips of your fingers and toes type of stretches ending in one last shuddering, tightening of every single limb and muscle; and then I collapsed into a state of complete relaxation. It was pleasant, there was nothing awful about it; it was just my physical body's response to being overworked the day before.

As I lay there the Lord touched my heart and I saw the correlation you've probably already made. Rigormortis is simply a part of the physical body's release of the spirit. It is not awful. It is not horrifying. It is a tension and release similar to my stretching followed by relaxation.

The Lord has spoken to me about this before. Here is a quote from My Mom Has Alzheimer's: Inspiration and Help for Caregivers:  

I saw my body as a fragile shell housing a precious treasure. Our physical bodies are like the alabaster vase that held the nard Mary poured upon the feet of Jesus. The vase was broken to release the perfume. Each of us is headed toward an appointment with physical brokenness because no one escapes physical death. Sometimes the process of death is painful and for just a little while, we are preoccupied with the breaking of the container, but then the fragrance of Christ flows forth as the spirit is released.

Death is not lovely, but though we must walk through the valley of its shadow, there is no need to fear. In just a little while we will see Jesus and no one will take away our joy. Until that day we have the Holy Spirit in our hearts as a deposit; a guarantee of what is to come. We have a promise that will not be broken; grief will turn to joy.

I have been so afraid of what I may have to see and experience as my mother goes through the process of dying. I am beginning to rest in trust in the Lord. If He allows my heart to break, He is able to mend it together again.  God is with me.  I will not be afraid.

Scripture: “You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy” (John 16:20b-22).

Monday, July 26, 2010

God Has a Reason

My mother has lived with us for six years. She is completely dependent on us for all of her basic needs, but is quite content to spend much of each day alone, reading the books we provide and listening to the music we choose for her. Caregiving duties are sometimes oppressive, but what if I change the way I think about these responsibilities? Perhaps my mother has somehow chosen to stay with me for this extended period of time because of her love and concern for me.  What if I choose to focus on the blessings of this time we are spending together?  

I do know that my mom's illness is blessing me with the time I need to adjust to the fact of her leavetaking. 

St. Paul said that it would be far better for him to depart this mortal life and to be at home with the Lord, "...But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live (Philippians 1:23-24, NLT)." On days when I feel so stressed over wondering when and how my mother will finally leave me, it is a comfort to recognize the ways the Lord is blessing me through her extended time with us.  In so many ways it has been better for me that she has stayed. 

This morning I talked with a friend whose brother has just passed away.  She said, "I believe everything happens for a reason.  I'm having trouble figuring out the reason for this, but I know there is one."  This more positive way of looking at Mom's Alzheimer's disease leads me to a train of thought in which I begin to make conjectures about the Lord's reasons for allowing these circumstances, but the conclusions I draw may be inaccurate.  God has His reasons.  I won't always be able to understand, in fact, I know that as Hannah Whitall Smith says, my part is to trust, while God's part is to act. 

However, today I've been comforted by imagining a conversation between my mom and the Lord that might have gone something like this:  

Lord:  You know, Anna Ruth, Linda is going to have a terrible time letting you go.  

Mom: (With a tear in her eye) Yes, Lord, I know.  What can I do?  

Lord:  Well, there is a solution that will ease her pain and help her to make the transition to life without you, but you may not want to consider it.  

Mom:  Anything Lord, what is your plan?

Lord:  Alzheimer's disease.  

Mom: (Scarcely hesitating)  If it will help my girl and honor you, well of course, Lord.  Let's do it.  I know you'll be with me in it, and I've found your yoke easy and your burden light.  

Lord:  (Smiling)  I will be with you.  
Thinking about my mom's illness in this way helps me accept the slow loss of the mother I knew and to cope with the behavioral changes that hurt my heart.  God is with us.  

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Woman of God...Sometimes

This morning my daughter, Melinda, told me of a comment from a friend of hers who is reading my book. Melinda's friend is not new to the concept of caregiving, having nursed her own mother through a lingering illness until her mom passed away. Of this time in her life she said, "I just loved taking care of my mother."

This brought me up short. I love my mother. But I do not love taking care of her. The precious young woman who uttered these words is 25 years my junior, and her day (and night) job consists of taking care of her five month old twins who were born prematurely and have special needs.

I often experience an uncomfortable suspicion that I am not as good or Godly a person as I ought to be, and when I encounter such Holy Spirit fed sweetness as exhibited by Melinda's friend, I become certain of it.

This same young woman went on to say, ""I love your mom already and I haven't even met her. She has such a great way of expressing what she has to say."

In response to this kind comment I wrote the following message to my daughter via an email:

I appreciate your friend's kind words. Thank you for passing them along. I am, of course, more likable via a medium (my writing) in which one doesn't have to live with me from day-to-day. But there truly is a lot of me in the book, and because it was written with a daily prayer that it be for God's glory,  the portion of me that is apparent through my writing is the part that will remain when God's refining fire gets done with me. So, your dear friend will recognize me right away when she meets me in Heaven, but stands a good chance of being unpleasantly surprised if she meets me before then! Meantime, it is sweet that she loves the person I will someday be. I love her back."

All of this brought to mind a truth the Lord has been speaking to me for some time; whenever we place our confidence in fellow human beings, we will eventually be disappointed. As a woman of God (sometimes) and a Christian author, I have more than once had the sad experience of seeing disillusionment in the eyes of someone who had admired me or looked to me as a role model. This can happen when I am overheard snapping at my husband, or being flippant, or responding with angry or hurtful words in response to some small hurt; but sometimes it happens through no sin of mine at all, merely as a reaction to the revelation that I am human. We don't like to see our role models fall from their pedestals.

A few years ago I learned that a pastor I overheard speaking harshly to his wife on a Saturday afternoon nevertheless had some Holy Spirit fueled instruction for me from the pulpit on the following Sunday morning. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that the pool of perfect people from which God has to choose contains no members. Once we become legitimate members of the family of God through the forgiveness that is ours in Christ, God begins to use us for His Holy purposes even while He is in the process of burning away the dross. And so it becomes necessary for us to recognize that God can use imperfect people to instruct or to help us, and that He can use us--while we are yet sinners--to help others. We don't have to wait to be perfect to be of use to God, and we don't have to wait for our authority figures and role models to be perfect in order to learn from them. As Christians we are not perfect, we are only in the process of being perfected.

Scripture: "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you" (Ephesians 4:32 NIV).

"Far better to take refuge in God than to trust in people" (Psalm 118:9, The Message).

Friday, July 9, 2010

The God of Little and Big

It is a seeming contradiction that while Lord places a great urgency in our hearts to spread the Gospel, He is simultaneously willing to take all the time necessary to bring about His perfect will in our lives. Sometimes that entails a period of rest; but rather than restful I've felt restless during these slower-paced summer days when I am supposed to be abiding in the Lord. This summer I've chastised myself for spending time with such inconsequential pursuits as shopping for home decorations, but an incident that occurred earlier this week helped me to think differently about this and other activities that do not seem to be directly related to spreading God's Word.

I am always surprised when the Lord reveals His intimate involvement in the seemingly mundane moments of my seemingly unimportant little life.  For example, last week I noticed Queen Anne's lace has burst into bloom along our roadside ditches and in the pastures.  I picked a single blossom and placed it in a bud vase on my kitchen table. Intrigued by the intricacy of the stems and the many tiny blooms that make up a single flower, I photographed the blossom from the underside (above).

On Wednesday evening I took a half price off coupon and headed to a little shop near my home that offers items of surprising variety and beauty for a small town store.  I found the print pictured below and was delighted to bring it home.  I  hung it over the mantle in my living room.

I stood back and admired it and then felt a twinge of guilt.  I wondered whether the Lord approved of me spending money on such a frivolous object.  I was still staring at the picture as these thoughts ran through my mind and suddenly I noticed that the white flowers depicted in the print could very well be Queen Anne's Lace, and that the blossom at the top center is depicted from the underneath side, in a similar way to the photograph I'd taken a few days earlier.  I went in to have another look at the blossom that was still gracing my kitchen table, and found that it had opened further, increasing its resemblance to the flowers in the picture I'd just hung. 

I think we underestimate the degree to which God's love and involvement extend to every facet of our lives.  I am not, so far as I know, accomplishing great things for the Kingdom of God this summer, but rather I am immersed in the ordinary duties of my ordinary days.  I am humbled and thankful to be shown that the Lord is present with me whether I'm picking a wildflower by the roadside or am involved in activities that I would judge as being more important. 

Scripture:  "...God is with you in everything you do."  (Genesis 21:22)