I still remember the first person who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease that I ever visited. I’m sure that I had seen other people who had the disease but this lady was the first one to whom I ever heard the diagnosis applied. She spent her days curled up in a wheelchair, her arms and legs drawn to awkward angles, her mouth slightly open, and her eyes staring off at nothing—or everything. Her good husband spent all his time waiting on her, the love he was so elaborately dispensing slowly draining the life from him.
There have over the years been so many of them—so many people with whom I have shared time and space but who may not have known they were sharing it with me.
I remember the young husband and father who was left a quadriplegic by a horrendous traffic accident. He could not talk. He had to be fed with a syringe and later through a feeding tube. He would blink his eyes at me. His almost but not quite widow believed that he communicated that way. I hoped not.
There have over the years been so many of them—so many people with whom I have shared empty and halting and awkward and holy words but who were never able to reciprocate with a word of their own.
I remember the woman who had always been so very strong but whose cancer had left her a shell of herself so that all she could do was lie there. I would stand over her with her family and watch her sleep until finally I would say a prayer and leave. All the while all I could think of was how mad she would be about how helpless she was had she been able to realize how needy she had become.
There have over the years been so many of them—so many people with whom I have sat or stood who would have given almost anything for the simple dignity of standing or sitting with me but from whom a disease had ripped even that.
There have been so many. The three of whom I have written crossed my path years ago. But the people whom they represent have been in my life continuously for over twenty years now. I may well see someone today or tomorrow who will be unable to talk with me or look at me or relate to me in any way.
Perhaps they did not or do not remember me. But I remember them. I am haunted by them. I am moved by them. I am frightened by them. I am challenged by them.
And I am confronted by them. In them I am confronted with my own mortality and my own frailty and with my fear of those realities. I am confronted with the possibility of the decay and loss of my mental and/or physical capacities. In those moments of pastoral ministry it’s not supposed to about me. It’s supposed to be about them. But how can I help but see in them an image of what I don’t want to happen to me or to those I love most deeply? That may not be a bad thing. Perhaps my fear at least draws me into their situation a little bit and creates a higher level of sympathy than I would otherwise have.
And I am blessed by them. Sometimes I find myself thinking, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Does not that thought imply, though, that the grace of God has nothing to do with what they are experiencing? Does it not imply that were such to happen to me it would somehow occur outside the grace of God? I can’t believe that. I can’t believe that and maintain my faith. I have to believe that somehow, in a mysterious, maybe undetectable, but still real way, God’s grace is churning away in what they are going through. This much I know: I often walk away from those encounters—frankly feeling grateful that I can walk away—feeling that somehow I have been in the presence of the holy.
Maybe it all comes down to the fact that God’s strength really is seen—and is even made perfect—in our weakness.
Yes, I remember them. I remember them all.
When I do, I grieve. I grieve what they lost and what we lost in what they lost.
But when I do, I celebrate. I celebrate the lives they lived and the mysterious grace that hovers around them.