Even during cheery holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, death has a way of reminding us it’s still hanging around. Such as when my wife’s Aunt Maxine called a few days before Thanksgiving.
“Dori, this is Max. I just wanted to call and wish you a happy birthday.” Aunt Maxine’s shaky 90 year-old voice quavered on our voice mail. “Call me when you get back. . . . Bye.”
Dee Dee’s mom, Dori, passed away twenty-two years ago, on November 19, 1989, the day before she turned 67.
Aunt Maxine, Doris’ older sister, has Alzheimer’s. It’s remarkable then that she remembered Doris’ birthday and phone number (which may be the best reason not to transfer your departed parents’ number to your own land-line). We’ve now had several calls from Aunt Maxine, even after we went to visit her in the nursing home. We had to tell her–again–that she is the only one left. All of her siblings have passed.
She didn’t cry this time.
During our visit to the nursing home Aunt Maxine said, “I’ve reached a dead-end.” Dee Dee and I looked at her, aching for her. Then Maxine said, “I don’t have anything left to look forward to.”
How do you tell a woman who can no longer hear well and who can’t remember what she just said–much less what you said–that there may be Something to look forward to?
Talking about such things is difficult under normal circumstances. When death is near more so.
I once had a friend, Dean, who had terminal cancer. One night–late–I met Dean and his wife, Diana, at the hospital. His wife was looking for one final treatment, one last shred of hope. Dean had been a state champion weight lifter, tough, self-made. Now he was but a gray shadow. Dying.
“I’m sorry,” the doctor told her. “All we can do now is manage his pain.” We cried. The doctor stood while we prayed and then touching Dean’s shoulder, left. We wheeled Dean out of the hospital. But we couldn’t get him back in his tall four-wheel drive truck. So I loaded him into my Oldsmobile to take him home.
Driving down the dark highway Dean said, “Eugene, I’m dying. How can I know I’m going to heaven?” The car radio was off. Bright car lights approached on the other side of the road. Dean breathed painfully. I waited. Prayed.
“Dean, this cancer is terrible but it’s not God’s punishment.” He lifted his head and glanced at me, a slight smile on his gaunt face.
“I haven’t always been a very good man. I got divorced. I don’t always treat my kids right. Worse.”
“Yeah, I know. God knows too. That’s what all that stuff on the Cross was about: forgiveness, grace. You love God don’t you?”
“Jesus loved you first. When the time comes, he’ll be glad to see you.”
Dean fell silent after that. His breathing grew labored. The car groaned under a heavy silence. Finally I couldn’t hear him breathe anymore. I kept glancing across the car trying to see him whenever a car passed, yellow light sliding over Dean’s naked head. His eyes were closed and he didn’t move. We exited the highway and his head lolled. He slumped against the car door. His hand dropped onto the seat.
Oh God, he’s dead, I thought. He’s died right in my car. Did I say enough?
I pulled into his long dirt driveway. Diana was already there, standing small next to Dean’s tricked-out truck, my wife, Dee Dee beside her. Diana shaded her eyes against the car lights. I pulled up and stopped distant from her. What if he’s dead and she opens the door and he falls out. That would be horrible. Diana approached and my heart raced. Please . . .
Dean sat, sagging and empty faced. God . . . Diana grabbed the door handle. Please . . . Dean’s body shifted. God. Suddenly Dean lifted his head and he said, “Are we home?” Dean looked out the window and then at me and blinking said, “Thanks, Eugene.” A weak smile. “I’m ready now.”
We grieved and celebrated Dean’s other home-going shortly after that strange night. He had Something to look forward to.
I wanted to tell Aunt Maxine I believe there is something–or Someone–to look forward to. And she could believe that too. I wasn’t able to. So I prayed God would have a conversation with her. Speak through her muddled brain straight to her soul. Maybe she would be able to hear Him. Maybe as Christmas begins to take place around her, a song, a verse, a picture of a manger will remind her Who was born so long ago. Who she has to look forward to.
Maybe next time we visit Aunt Maxine God will make it so we can help her see that, though death is still hanging around, it does not have the final word.
Eugene C. Scott doesn’t always write about such serious, difficult subjects. Sometimes he writes about silly, difficult subjects. Eugene co-pastors the Neighborhood Church which is preparing to celebrate Christmas through an Advent series called “The Gift of Christmas Presence.”
14 responses to “Christmas: What Are You Looking Forward To?”
Revelation 7:17 “For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’ ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’ ”
Since we’re all mortals, we’re all here together “in the same leaky boat,” sharing the same questions, enduring the same problems,…never seeing everything perfectly clearly. This is where Trust in God’s Faithfulness to Himself and to His Word, and therefore to us also, is a very big blessing part of our own faith walk.
5 “Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
And lean not on your own understanding;
6 In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He shall direct your paths.
7 Do not be wise in your own eyes;
Fear the LORD and depart from evil.
8 It will be health to your flesh,
And strength to your bones.”
The Psalms and Proverbs hold “Trusting in the Lord” in very high esteem. When we feel that we “don’t have all the answers,” this can be a good place for us to be,…a place to become more simple and less complicated,…and to simply have faith in God: “Trust in the Lord.”
We can pray for Aunt Maxine that God’s faithfulness will continue to see her through. As we see those servants of God who have loved Him and been “satisfied” with long life, we can also see that the fading years are probably not easy years for anyone. It is a blessing to have learned, more and more, “to walk by faith and not by sight.”
14 “ ‘Because he loves me,” says the LORD, “I will rescue him;
I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.
15 He will call on me, and I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble,
I will deliver him and honor him.
16 With long life I will satisfy him
and show him my salvation.’ ”
2 Corinthians 5:7 “For we walk by faith, not by sight.”
When our “feelings” become overwhelmed with our earthly circumstances, it does not change anything about God’s faithfulness to us.
Numbers 23:19 “God is not a man, that He should tell or act a lie, neither the son of man, that He should feel repentance or compunction [for what He has promised]. Has He said and shall He not do it? Or has He spoken and shall He not make it good?”
This is the foundation of our Trust in God.
Good reminder, Georgie. We need to trust God even with the lives of those we love. Tanks.
Dear Eugene,…our beloved and stoic mother passed away a few years ago from complications of Alzheimer’s. Since I am the only one to still live here locally where we all grew up with her, I was the one most involved with her day to day life throughout those years.
The ones that would come and go to visit with her more rarely, were the ones most distressed about her condition, (1) because it was more difficult for her to realize who they were, (2) because they always compared her to the distant, more highly-functioning, memory they held of her and had previously interacted with, and (3) because they didn’t learn new pathways for “connecting” with the Alzheimer’s-burdened person, holding on to those out-moded expectations and their own frustrations. It is hard for us to realize/learn that we can “give a helping hand” to an Alzheimer’s person mentally and attitude-wise, in much the same way that we can help an aging person walking down the hall by steadying them with a supporting arm.
On the other hand, I had learned a lot from her professional care-givers, and developed “my own style” with her as well. I never bemoaned a lost or garbled particular memory, inwardly or outwardly, or compared her to a person “we used to know” who no longer seemed to exist. I just kept “filling in the blanks for her” as if, of course, that was what I was there for, and tried to keep communicating to her that “all was well.” We simplified our expectations, and fed a lot of cracker crumbs to willing and appreciative sparrows on nice days, and we enjoyed many pleasant times together, breaking up some of the more difficult moments. It’s good to pace yourself, because it IS a long haul!
A particularly favorite memory I have is of the day I invited a priest to come with me to “bless her” with oil. My mother had always been somewhat — (and that’s an understatement, btw!) — “anti-religious,” and that had provided some grounds for contention between us over the years. He (the priest) said he would have to “ask her permission,” and she actually rather easily gave consent. So, he did bless her, also saying some extended prayers, and she remained quiet and rather docile the whole time. Then, as he had turned away to gather his things together, she turned to me, smiling, and clearly said, “He blessed me! He blessed me!” She was very happy — so much so, that one wonders what it was that had kept her so fearful or antagonistic to the “faith” for all those years. Clearly she had totally understood his prayers and actions! Amazing. Maybe her Alzheimer’s contained “a blessing in disguise” for us!
Never underestimate the potential for “small” miracles! (But no miracle is small!)
Our prayers and positive faith are very helpful to our loved ones, and to ourselves. “Walking by faith and not by sight” makes a lot of seemingly difficult things easier for us to “deal with,” to navigate. Sometimes we even get some very reassuring and comforting glimpses of God’s goodness, mercy, and love, and even His healing and restoring power.
I grieve with all of you who have dealt with loved ones with Alzheimer’s. I hope God brings you peace.
Georgie, thanks for sharing your story about your mother. It moved me and taught me a lot. I know better how I can be with Aunt Maxine and bring her some joy. Thanks you. Eugene
Matthew 10:28 “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
2 Corinthians 4:16 [ Seeing the Invisible ]
“Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day.”
It is very important to keep everything in the authentic perspective of God’s Words to us. Allowing earthly circumstances to trump the reality of our faith, allowing our feelings to become the dominant mode of influence on our internal compass, when actually they are much more like the changeable clouds than the sun itself, can become a somewhat detrimental, or painful and frustrating, habit. This is certainly not meant to demean the role that our feelings play in our lives, but if we look at the Psalms, we’ll see time and time again that the psalmist is bringing his/her emotional state directly to the Lord, and receiving important guidance and consolation and meaningful connection and restoration thereby.
I believe this is supposed to be an important example to us, and not something “way too spiritual” and out of our reach.
I’m glad, Eugene. We were really very blessed with a great “cutting edge” retirement situation for my very very independent mother (my brothers’ find/choice), and some very dedicated and up-to-date professional care-givers, nurses and aides, who also did the best they could do. I learned a lot from them, both by their suggestions to me and by their consistent example. It took a lot of the pain and frustration out of the situation, by having a very positive, knowledgeable, and caring environment. I was quite blessed by visiting many times myself! I often played the “old songs” for them on the piano too!
I think one of our family’s consistent points of view has always been: “If you don’t have (or can’t find) what you want/need, then just make it yourself!”
I could give you plenty of concrete examples of things built, etc., (like houses, rock walls, … ), but it also applies to creating your own fun, instilling and maintaining positive attitudes, blessing neighbors and folks around you, human stuff,…and the interesting thing is that we just seem to DO it, while almost never even talking about doing it,…it just “happens” and things seem to work out better that way,…
Some great great ancestor must have discovered that it’s better to be “up” than “down,” and set a “pattern” for us,…anyway it’s pretty cool to have that kind of family enthusiasm and support,…but one person can choose to do these things too,…(and I often have),…a smile (and giving appreciation and encouragement) doesn’t really cost anyone anything!
Nice, Eugene…really nice piece. Not nice like nice but nice like provocative. One of the hardest times in my life was watching my friend with a young family die of cancer, a man of faith, truly God’s man like Job. Just last night I read the chapter on Job in Yancey’s The Bible Jesus Read and your blog will be something to share with those studying it with me in our small group. Thanks. Nice.
Todd: Good to hear your voice. I hope all is well in your part of the world. I’m glad the story harmonized with other things God is saying in your life. I hope it is helpful to your study too. Merry Christmas. Eugene
Alzheimers is probably one the most heart-breaking diseases around. I suppose because one can’t say goodbye to a person that is gone but still around. One of my favourite movies will always be “The Notebook’ that tells so much about the heartbreak. I have a friend whose father-in-law has Alzheimers and it’s not the ‘away’ periods thats so sad but those lucid moments that you suddenly realise.. but he is still here!!
Merry Christmas! Heavy stuff this morning, heavy but beautiful.
Oh how precious is life, death be damned!
Thanks, Michael. Death is a door we will all walk through into whatever it is that God has for us next. In Christ LIFE the way we could never imagine.