Today I write my blog at my mother and father-in-law’s apartment. Across from where I sit with my laptop balanced across my lap, lies my mother-in-law; all curled up in an adjustable bed provided by hospice, where she is slowly dying. I came this morning to offer a little comfort, a little care and to deal with the cable guy when he shows up. It’s a strange list of To Do’s, I realize, but we’ve all grown used to these multi-purpose visits.
Apartments in Assisted Living Communities are always quite small. This one was already full before the hospice team dropped off a huge supply of pads, adult diapers and implements for bed baths. Now the space is nearly claustrophobic. I find I’m more comfortable when things around me are in order so I set to work doing what can be done to put things away and organize what can’t; while I wait for the cable guy. I’m especially proud of having organized my father-in-law’s book collection. Ever since my mother-in-law took this sad turn for the worse, he’s kept vigil from a reading chair a few feet away. To pass the hours in his long and lonely days, he’s rekindled his passion for reading W.E.B. Griffin novels. I'm not certain, but I think he has all of them. Each time we visit he asks us to find the book that is next in the series so he’ll have it ready when he finishes up with the one he’s been working on. The fifty some books, in no particular order, are spread across four different book shelves. Finding the correct title amid the jumble is a difficult hunt. So, today I took the time to put them all in order. As I silently sort through the books I’m thinking how happy my husband and brother-in-law will be when they are sent to fetch the “next” book one day soon. But, in all honesty, this busy task is just easier for me than the bedside vigil in the other room.
At 94 years old my mother-in-law, Marge, has certainly lived a long and full life. Even still, death is a dreaded enemy. In her case, death is choosing not to come all at once but rather bit by painful bit. Alzheimer’s has stripped away her identity as well as ours. She doesn’t know us anymore. Try as we might, we don’t recognize her either.
Long before I met her in 1982, Marge, had a presence that dominated the room. My sister-in-law, Jennifer, who joined the family the same year I did, was as terrified of her as I was. She had strong opinions, our mother-in-law. And by strong I mean her opinions could march across the room and punch your opinion right in the face before you ever found the courage say it out loud. So, mostly we didn’t. It wasn’t that she wasn’t kind or fair. She was certainly both of those. The world was just black and white to her. Things were either wrong or right. Her opinions were well thought out which obviously meant that if you disagreed you were wrong and she was right. I find myself giggling now at how many times Jennifer and I huddled in a corner soothing our wounded egos and propping one another up enough to endure the in-law visit without a complete meltdown.
It was a rough start for us. My mother-in-law didn’t approve of my husband’s choice for a wife. I was a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks and…if that weren’t bad enough…I was ten years younger than him. I remember, at the time, being insulted by her thinking I was too young to get married. I felt more than mature enough at twenty one to get married. We laugh about it now. Who was I kidding?
I was thirty before I realized that I was as much, or maybe even more, to blame for our difficult relationship as she was. I was constantly self-protective and defensive when she was around. I would get myself all worked up before she ever came to visit. I just knew that she would hurt my feelings or something would go wrong that left me feeling offended or disrespected.
By God’s grace I finally learned how to turn it all around. When it came to relationships, I learned, you must "give what you desire". If I wanted to be treated with respect, I needed to give respect. Rather than being angry that she wasn’t interested in me or my life, I went out of my way to show interest in hers. The turnaround was almost miraculous. I was blown away by how easy it was! All I did was ask her a few questions about things she was interested in and she opened up like a flower. She didn’t ask anything about me or what I’d been doing right away but it didn’t matter. My goal was to change our dynamic and I did. I realized it was my own immaturity and insecurities that had perpetuated the negative feelings between us for so long. Looking back, I’m sure I must have set her teeth on edge for that entire first decade. The minute I stopped obsessing over how she made me feel and focused on how I made HER feel, everything changed. Over the twenty five years that followed we became good friends. She loved me and I loved her.Very, very much.
To see her disappear into the thick haze that is Alzheimer’s has been awful. Watching her suffer the indignities of having strangers wash her every nook and cranny as she lies helpless and outraged in bed have left me wishing her misery would end sooner rather than later. One by one my brother and sister-in-law, my husband and I confessed that we’ve all begun to pray God would intervene and take her…gently…to the heaven He promised her.
The greater tragedy, if you can believe there is one, is my father-in-law. At 97, Bob, still hopes that we can find some way to extend Marge’s life. He’s in denial about her condition and thinks we should be doing something to make her better. Just two weeks ago he asked the doctor if a hip replacement surgery would cure the pain that precipitated her downward spiral. After more than 60 years of marriage, I imagine, he just can’t fathom life without her.
One of the cruel parting gifts Alzheimer’s leaves its victims is the loss of appetite and a stubborn unwillingness to cooperate with those who try to get them to eat. Marge stopped eating nearly two weeks ago. She is literally wasting away under the covers. Poor Bob is in anguish knowing that a person can last only so long without nutrition. About a week ago, in desperation, he asked me if I would try to get Marge to drink some Ensure nutrition supplement. She seemed willing but wasn’t able to draw it through the straw. I decided to try using a dropper. The 2ml kind used to give liquid medicines to a small child. Dropper-full by dropper-full I fed her the chocolate flavored drink. She has always loved chocolate. Her eyes remained closed but she sucked the end of the dropper like a newborn would a bottle. It was very moving. I can’t really tell you what the emotion was because I don’t know its name. I was grateful I’d found a way to help her but heartbroken because my beautiful mother-in-law is confined to a bed, wearing a diaper, sucking on the end of a dropper clinging to a life she has no connection with anymore. All at once I am awash in the joy of nurturing life and the unmistakably sorrowful feeling that I may be prolonging her misery.
I take no small joy in knowing that Marge is destined for heaven. I don’t think she’s ever thought a whole lot about theology or eschatology but she loves Jesus and has lived her life with every effort to honor God. We, who share her faith, know that her last breath on earth will be followed by her first breath in heaven. Whether there is a moment, a day or a millennium between the two is irrelevant because she will be at peace.
But Bob doesn’t fully subscribe to our Christian faith. He is 97 years old and would gladly stay here on earth for a hundred years more -despite his frail condition. We have all tried to start a conversation with him about his salvation but he balks and shuts the conversation down as quickly as possible. He's just not "interested" he says.When I tried to offer him at least the comfort of knowing that Marge has heaven to look forward to when all this suffering ends - he flatly dismissed it and told me that was no comfort at all because she’d rather live here.
I think the tragic reality is that Bob is not sure he’ll ever see his beautiful wife again once her body finally succumbs. I can think of no greater grief. Without the hope of heaven there is only sorrow and loss. Without the hope of being reunited with those who’ve gone before us...death is only a very bitter end.
Whether one believes in heaven or not has no impact on its reality. Heaven isn’t real because we believe. Heaven is real whether we believe or not.
“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1).
Believing in the invisible requires we reach beyond the perception that reality exists only in concrete things. Experiencing the presence of God requires we make ourselves vulnerable and open our hearts to Him. This comes easily to some but for many it’s like agreeing to jump off a cliff to a bottom that cannot be fathomed. Some will hold on to the hopelessness they can see rather than reach out to a hope they can’t.
Years ago a brother-in-law from my side of the family called to tell me that my oldest sister had attempted suicide. He was bringing her home from the hospital and wondered if I would fly up to spend some time with her. I was on a plane the next day. Cathy was an ardent and angry “ex-Christian”. She had become bitter after spending years with her previous husband who used fundamentalist religion to sustain his sobriety and control his family. While it worked for the latter it repeatedly failed at the first. The years of haranguing and hypocrisy eroded her respect for religion. She came to believe that it was all a farce..including salvation through Jesus Christ.
It’s a prickly affair trying to minister to someone who is hostile toward God. However, I believe the hostility is often a sign that there is an abiding faith beneath the anger. It lies beyond a door that is closely guarded by Resentment and Pride. I said to my sister, “Cathy, I want to help you! I'd do anything for you! If you were bleeding to death I’d use a tourniquet to stop it and save your life. But you’re not bleeding on the outside. You're dying on the inside. You’re bleeding to death spiritually. All I have to offer you is faith in God - but you say you don’t believe He exists. Do you really not believe in God at all? Isn’t there some part of you that still believes?” Her face was a mask of pain. The light in her eyes had all but gone out. She thought about it for several minutes before responding. When she did, her voice was laced with contempt. “Well, 70% of me is certain that there is no God at all- but the other 30% thinks there is some possibility that maybe there is.” My heart leapt in my chest. “Then go with the 30%! Why not lean into the part of you that gives you hope…and life…and a reason to go on???! Why would you choose the part of you that has left you hopeless and all but dead?! Cathy, you don’t have to suffer this way…” When we finished speaking I asked her if I could pray with her. She allowed it ...but I knew I hadn’t fully won her over.
A few years later, when she died of a drug overdose, I was inconsolable for days. The thought that she may have died still rejecting God was a sorrow too heavy to bear. Ultimately, I decided to go with the 30%. I decided to lean into the hope that in her final moments she cried out to God. After all, even a slightly open door is wide enough for God's Spirit to enter.
This is where I am with my father-in-law today. If only I can say something to open him up. Even just a little. We all want so much for him to have the comfort and peace that goes beyond understanding. We want him to have the gift of seeing beyond what is perishing and embrace what is imperishable. We want him,when he says goodbye to his wife, to have the joy of knowing this isn’t goodbye forever but… only ‘til we meet again.
I don't think I was able to give him that today. But I pray God gives me a moment with him tomorrow. Maybe he'll be ready then.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” John 14:1-3
Where is your faith? Are you a 100% believer or is there some part of you that still struggles with doubt? Are you searching for what might convince you completely or are you just leaning into your belief? If you are 100% convinced, what would you say to someone you loved who struggles with doubt? What do you think happens if we die while still doubting? Post your comments below!
In His love and service,