October 24. 1995
The poem starts like this: “When I’m a little old lady, then I’ll live with my children and bring them great joy, to repay all I’ve had from each girl and each boy. I shall draw on the walls and scruff up the floor: run in and out without closing the door.”
After more of the same, it ends with: “What fun I shall have, what joy it will be, to live with my children like they lived with me.”
Someone sent it for a laugh but instead I cried — because this week a specialist told my mother she has a form of dementia called Alzheimer’s Disease.
Alzheimer’s is both mysterious and cruel. Those who have it know not that they know not. My mother is aware her short term memory is sluggish but has no knowledge of the other tricks her failing mind plays on her. Sometimes we can laugh together but too often there is little to laugh about.
Even if parents are unable to behave as adults, God intends their children to honor and respect them. In the past year, I realized how often I based my “honoring” on expectations. When mom moved in, I hoped for comradery but was quickly disappointed. For weeks, I found it difficult to honor her because I felt let down, but God reminded me of a verse in the Psalms: “When your father and mother let you down, the Lord will pick you up.”
God also intends that my expectations are in Him. He created us as social beings who interact with each other, yet we are bound to be disappointed if we expect too much from other mere mortals. Expecting my mother to be different is unfair. She cannot rise to the challenge of an incurable disease that makes her unaware her faculties for relationships are deteriorating. She no longer knows how to meet needs.
It is also unfair to God if I depend on something or someone else for my fulfillment. He promises to meet all my needs. While He may use people, the choice is up to Him. Besides, if I put people first, I am guilty of a form of idolatry.
Watching mom deteriorate is difficult and sad. Other families struggle with similar heartaches and feel overwhelmed by a sense of responsibility and the weight of decisions that they must make. Many also struggle with guilt.
Someone gave me this threefold and timely advice: “One, you cannot do everything.” Aging people need physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual care. I cannot be nurse, counselor, pastor and program planner. I have learned to depend on God for strength and to follow His leading to wonderful resources available in the community for my parents.
“Two, you have done what you could.” There is nothing more debilitating than regret and false guilt. If I can do what I know God wants me to do, that is enough. It may not cover all the bases, but He knows my limitations and will not condemn me for them.
“Three, you are doing what you do out of love.” When I tell my mother she needs help with certain things, or when I take her to the doctor, I do it because I love her. I am not trying to make her life difficult, do for her what she can do herself, or make sure she “keeps me in her will.” I do it because she needs help. Doing it is a sacrifice of sorts, not a personal gain but it also includes joy. Genuine love, like God’s love, has both elements: sacrifice and joy.
Love also does not act out of a sense of “duty” or an obligation or discharge of a debt. In a way, caring for my mother is a return on something she invested in me. She raised me with respect, treated me as someone precious and never complained that I was a burden to her. That is a debt I can pay back, in full and with interest.