It was a crisp Saturday morning. Turning into the nursing home I would see my mother for the first time since she slid into the mental abyss of Alzheimer’s. Nothing used to give me more joy than to see the welcoming eyes of my mother. But knowing the disease from my career in healthcare I anticipated an entirely different relationship. I was prepared. I was nervous. I had traveled almost two thousand miles for this moment. As I entered through the front doors I was hit with that acrid smell of disinfectant you typically find in nursing homes.
When I first saw my mother, she looked at me with an empty stare. In a split-second, I knew that I had become a stranger to my own mother. As would soon be confirmed, she just rambled about things without even noting my name. The staff tried to tell me about her condition, but all that mattered was that my Mom had forgotten me. My heart sunk. My mother always made me feel special, but now she felt like we’d never met.
I journeyed through many thoughts and emotions as my mother continued her random speech. Some were recognizable, as when my father came home from work in the 60s asking “What’s for dinner?” Most were not. Her world now consisted of shaded memories and disconnected thoughts.
I believed I had let my mother down. She had moved to Galesburg, Illinois to live with my retired sister and now my once brilliant mother lived in this place filled with suspended faces that were either sleeping or lifeless. I couldn’t help her. Sadly, I felt I had let both my Mom and God down. I cried out repeatedly, “please, my Lord, let my Mom and I have a moment of recognition!”
I prayed without ceasing as we are told in Thessalonians 5. My journey of faith and the renewing of my broken heart while reasoning some way of connecting to my Mom appeared pointless. I had lost her. I felt angry and I directed my frustration toward God. I repeatedly cried out, “Oh God, why did you do this to my Mom?” Intellectually, I knew that God never works that way. He didn’t cause my Mom’s suffering.
Over time, my pleadings evolved to “Oh God, why can’t you heal her?” That question too fell short. Sadly, my pleadings were still inwardly directed and self-centered. They were still selfish. They were still all about me and not about what God wanted to accomplish through this mess. I just wanted to relate to my mother versus trying to uncover God’s purpose through it all.
The second day of my visit, my prayers became better thought out and certainly more rational. I prayed, “Dear Lord Jesus, I don’t always understand the meaning of Your ways, but I trust You. I trust in Your goodness and I pray that You will have your way with my Mom, and me.” I added, “God, please find a way to turn this suffering around and make it into something good. Turn this sorrow into joy; my weakness into strength, my pain into a better way so that I may honor You and do what You have planned for me. Also, Lord, please forgive me for my lack of faith, my inward focus and my stupid attempts to blame you for my Mom’s disease.”
Over time, I came to understand that God had a bigger plan for this experience and for my life. Maybe it wasn’t His original or ideal plan, but He would find a way to make things better than before. I had no idea what that plan was but I had faith that He would reveal it to me in time. I knew that I had to listen carefully for God’s whispering voice and that I needed to spend dedicated, focused time with Him. I prayed transparently, listened, and I did hear from God.
Shortly after leaving the nursing home on day two, I began writing. I noted the joyful days I had spent with my Mom, and how she encouraged me throughout the years. I decided to share about Alzheimer’s with others, and realized that each of us who were touched by this awful disease felt basically the same. The Holy Spirit worked with others as I shared my story to help them heal, in their hearts if not their minds. At the same time I knew God used the randomness of my mother’s thoughts as a way to hearken her to better days. She would often talk of special times in the past as though they were in the present. And when we prayed together, I could sense the same spirit that comforted me as a child. She always remembered to say “I love you.”
Several people thanked me for helping them get through their struggles with Alzheimer’s, but the person most helped was me. I prayed with friends and family, including a person recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He was understandably filled with angst.
I thought, “Was this spiritual growth for others and for me a part of God’s bigger plan?” I think so. I believe so. I learned that trust in God is not just a step by step process but instead a regular discipline of listening for the voice of God beneath the heaviness of daily living – just seeking after the presence of Jesus. Indeed, the journey of healing begins the moment we begin to earnestly seek after God.
I have watched and listened intently for God and began seeking after God more than just seeking after answers. I began to accept that God is always with us. I began to find God in everything. In His Word, in books, in other people, in nature, in community (the church) and sometimes most powerfully in the silence. I became aware that sometimes God speaks through other people; both great and small. I began to find God in the Christian people I met and sometimes in the most unlikely places. I also found God’s answers in the most unexpected places.
The next time I visited the nursing home, “Jane” came to my mother’s room. She introduced herself as a resident. I had not met her before nor have I seen her since. I never even learned her last name.
She opened the conversation by saying “I know you’re a Christian.” She asked if we could pray, and so we did. I learned that Jane had lost her son, and at the age of only 56 she also suffered from Alzheimer’s.I took her hand and quietly began reciting the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want …” She raised her head and offered a wide smile. She became close to my Mom in her final days.
Did God create a Christ-like heart of love in me for Jane? I think so. I pray so. I truly believe that God spoke to me for her and even helped heal my heart through her. Indeed, God spoke to me through my pain after losing my connection with Mom. I never saw Jane again after leaving the nursing home.
Did God cause this suffering? No. God is good. He will not cause evil nor will He do evil. But God can use our dark and painful times for good. He will use them to teach us to trust Him; to help us grow our faith, to show us how to help others, to draw us closer to Him and to draw us closer to others. I became more real after God stripped away my pretenses, and more relatable to those who suffer.
Did God speak to me through my suffering, and the suffering of my Mom? I know He did. He showed me how my suffering was actually comparatively minor yet He turned that suffering into great joy. And He also showed me that even though my mother’s mind had become disconnected from me, her spirit remained connected to both of us.
When I last visited my Mom, she spoke my name and said “I love you.” That happened just before she died. I held her hand as I played her favorite hymns and other songs. And then I felt Jesus was reaching out to her while she tightly gripped my hand. I said, “Mom, I think Jesus will take your hand from this point and I’ll see you in Heaven.” After I finished my sentence she let go of my hand as she breathed her final breath.
God is good. Thank You my Lord. I am closer to you now and I can be better used to help others. During my final moments with Mom I felt more connected to her than perhaps at any time in my life because I related not to her outside ways, but to her inner spirit. As her bright blue eyes faded into a darker shade of blue seconds before departing this world, I knew she was more in Heaven than on earth. Now I know that she is completely healed in Heaven!
By Randy Kay