by Barbara Giordan (Barb and her husband and son attend Grace Covenant Church in Elgin, Illinois)
Some prayers are like songs we sing: happy and jubilant, celebrating God’s mercy. Other prayers are like sad songs: plaintive and repetitive. If my mom’s nursing home was set to music, it would be entitled, “The Last Resort”.
My mom had been hospitalized recently for several days due to dehydration from a virus and kidney complications. My sister and I discussed the best plan of care for her after discharge and agreed that since mom needed to be in a nursing home for a week, I would fly toConnecticutto be at her bedside and oversee her care. I flew intoConnecticutthat night and drove to the nursing home the following morning. The sun was streaming into the car window, the sky was a pale blue, and there were puffy white clouds dotting the horizon. As I drove up to the nursing home entrance, it looked like an affluent resort with well-trimmed lawns and gardens brimming with Azaleas and Marigolds. I walked into the nursing home and that is where the illusion of luxury ended. Inside, I was assaulted with the repugnant mixing of odors: a combination of stale urine and disinfectant. Specks of dust glittered in slim patches of sunlight like little stars. There was a small plaintive voice wailing in the background “Where am I? Why am I here?” Later I was to learn that this voice belonged to Betty, a hundred and one year old resident who was residing on the Rehabilitation wing until a more permanent place could be found for her.
Betty spent most of her day in the outer alcove, her face tilted towards the sun like a fading flower hungrily trying to absorb the last rays of nourishment from the dying light. Sometimes I would walk by her wheelchair, and her head would be slumped over. She still had a remarkably full head of lusciously thick gray hair and her arms were pitifully thin like a small child.
On other occasions, she would be sitting in the hallway, uttering her terrible cry again and again, “Where am I? Why am I here? Is someone going to bring me to breakfast?” A staff person would interrupt her mournful tirade to answer her questions and reassure her. She would immediately forget their answers and launch into her sad song again in a voice that sounded so broken.
Sometimes after breakfast, Betty would look outside and see the Indigo blue of the sky and the trees heavily laden with leaves stained crimson red and a deep golden yellow. She would begin to cry, “I want to go outside and see the sun. Won’t somebody take me outside to see the sun?” The sound of her voice was like a knife that cut deeply and repeatedly.
Once, I asked the staff why she couldn’t go outside. “She might wander off,” they replied. Once or twice, I did spot her outside, her head tilted to the sun, and the blessed silence that surrounded her enveloped me in a blanket of peace like the delicate melody of a wind chime on a still day.
My mother’s room was like a dark, silent tomb. She preferred to have the lights off, and her privacy curtain was partially drawn. The window by her bed was tightly shut so as not to let a gasp of air escape and the blinds were closed. My world shrank to this dark little space and I sat by her hour after hour as she quietly snored. Occasionally, my mom’s eyes would suddenly open. She would look at me and mutter, “This is the place that people come to die.” “Not yet”, I would silently pray. I was not ready for her to die yet.
Sometimes I would join my mom at the dining table where she sat with a few other regulars. There was a gentle and pleasant woman who used to attend baking school long ago. She laughed in amusement as she sampled Key Lime pie and shook her head muttering, “Oh no, no, no.” One day as I chatted with her about raising her children, I wondered how her life ended up here. Once upon a time, she was a mom. She cooked and cleaned and drove her kids to school. She fussed when they were sick and soothed them when they bled. That morning she quietly begged for someone to return her to the room but the staff was too busy. I was not allowed to help her so after hearing her life story, I silently watched as she messed in her pants.
Nine days after her admission, my mom was finally discharged. After spending a week taking care of her, I had one more homecoming ritual that I needed to complete. Every year that I made my pilgrimage home, I leafed through old photos that my mom had stuck in an old shoebox in her closet. The last morning of the trip, I pulled down the box and started sorting through the photos. I gazed at a photo of my two year old pig-tailed self. I was bathing in a tub and my dad was crouching by my side. I looked so young; like a fresh peach and my dad’s face was smooth and unlined.
I found another photo. This time it was a photo of my mom in her early 20’s. She was posing flirtatiously and her smile looked so young and hopeful. I thought about how quickly life passes for each of us. Life doesn’t just pass – flesh decays and even hope fades. I thought about the verses beginning in Isaiah 40:6: “All flesh is grass. And all its beauty is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flower fades… but the word of God lasts forever.” If this were not true; if God were perishable like the rest of humanity, I think that I would start weeping and never stop. It is nice to remind myself where the truth lies.