The man with the broken heart
Dementia is a tricky thing. It is like taking an immersion mixer to your brain causing disruptions that are confounding in their presentation. Last year I was with my Alzheimer’s-ridden mom and she over-heard me trying to figure out the address of her in-law’s home in Durham from the 50’s. This woman, who no longer recognized her own husband on some days piped up with the address. Go figure. I believe that when it comes to dementia, it is best not to assume that a poor output in terms of communication necessarily means that the person is completely unaware.
Recently I was asked to visit a friend’s parent in assisted-living. Dementia and declining health had scrambled the capacity for conversation. Lots of words, few made sense. But this dear person had clearly communicated to his children that he was uneasy in life and worried that he had done something that kept God from bringing him home. They were hoping a pastoral presence might help.
It was a lovely visit. This gentleman is warm and gregarious, clearly an experienced purveyor of tales. For whatever reason, he began to share stories from the war, ones his daughter was not used to hearing. Occasionally he interjected a comment about his clenched right fist and his open, surrendered left hand that stirred me. In spite of his struggle to find words, I sensed his message – whether I am a worthy interpreter or not, I cannot say.
As my time drew to a close, I suggested to this lovely man that perhaps he didn’t know something that seemed so very clear to me. He had done all the work God had set out for him to do. He could relax. He had been a faithful servant. No more trenches needed digging, no more bodies needed burying, no more messages needed carrying to a general, no more work needed doing at the family farm. He had been a good and faithful servant.
He stopped talking; he reached out for my hand; he closed his eyes in prayer; he thanked me for the words. He said, “I did not know that. Thank you. I feel better.”
I realize that he may forget this exchange within minutes of my departure. But there was a moment when we connected eyeball to eyeball. There was a moment when it was good news to know that God was not standing on the precipice of eternity demanding yet one more worthy deed or act of sacrifice before he would reluctantly allow the rusty gates of heaven to be opened to receive. Is this a message you need too?