I spent some time the other day in the ongoing task of sorting through all of Mom’s stuff. So. Much. Stuff. On this particular day, I was going through the contents of her desk.
What I found broke my heart.
First, I found her calendars for the last three years of her life. They started out neat. But then the handwriting began to decline. The cross outs increased. Finally, fewer appointments in her own hand, and more in others. (Those were the appointments she refused to believe were real because “I didn’t write that.”) Her final entries were completely illegible. And then nothing at all.
Then I found the journal she was attempting to keep. She would start to write, in a barely legible scrawl. And then rapidly pivot to “My hands won’t work. My brain won’t work.” Then the narrative would trail off.
She was suffering so much. She was in constant pain. She was confused. Worse yet, she knew she was confused, but couldn’t get un-confused long enough to figure out why. I kept hoping her dementia would get worse — just enough that she would no longer be stuck here, knowing that something was very wrong.
The other thing I kept wishing was that she would accept the inevitable and stop trying to fight. There was nothing we could do for her pain — trust me, we tried everything. Nor for her dementia. But she kept calling me, crying. “I’m begging God to fix me, but he’s not listening.” And no amount of encouragement to surrender — to trust God and join her pain to his on the cross — made a dent. Of course, I have suffered from neither dementia nor severe stenosis. Given the impact of both on cognition and mental state, my efforts were probably a fool’s errand. She just didn’t have the capacity to process what I was saying.
But it was hard not to compare her reaction to suffering to that of her husband, my father. I have never known anyone so completely surrendered to God’s will. He doesn’t worry. He lives in the present. Even at times in the past when it seemed his death might be immanent, he was perfectly calm. “I’m happy because I’m going to Heaven.” He is blind in one eye and has macular degeneration in the other. When I commented that he needs to do his eye exercises to preserve vision in his good eye, he said “If I went blind, just think of all the suffering I’d have to offer up to God.”
Again, Dad has neither dementia nor severe stenosis. Who knows how he — or any of us —would react to that particular brand of suffering? This isn’t “Mom Bad/Dad Good.” These are simply observations from my own life about the various ways we respond to suffering.
Of course, as my siblings and I watch all of this, we wonder which one we will “take after” when our turns come. We all say, “I hope I turn out like Dad.” We think “I’ll just choose to have a positive attitude. I’ll just take it all in stride.”
But then I look at how I handle the challenges in my current life. And I have to admit that I take after Mom more than Dad. I don’t live in the present. I live in the future, where my problem — whatever it is — is solved. And instead of surrendering and trusting God, much of my prayer consists of helpful suggestions to resolve the situation to my satisfaction.
If I’m that way now, when (most of . . . well, some of) my marbles are still intact, what will I be like when my faculties are dimmed and my resistance is lowered?
Here’s the thing: I don’t think my Dad’s surrender and optimism are just a function of his willpower. I think the real driver is his holiness. Not that Mom wasn’t holy. Or that I’m not sort of holy on a good day. But Dad has achieved an extraordinary level of sanctity — or rather, he has allowed the Spirit to do that work in him. Because it’s not natural. Our natural inclination is to self-preservation. And it is to fear — even panic — when our wellbeing is threatened.
For most of us, we interpret “trusting God” to mean “trusting God to do what we want him to do.” I so often hear “I know I’m supposed to trust God. But I prayed to him to heal my mother/father/sister/brother/uncle/whomever, and he didn’t. So how am I supposed to trust him now?”
Trusting God doesn’t mean that we give him instructions, and he takes them and does exactly as we ask. It means trusting that he loves us, that he sees a far broader perspective than we do, and that he will work good out of whatever happens to us. I know that is difficult when we so desperately desire a certain outcome — a healing, a reconciliation, even a miracle. It’s hard to say, “even if I don’t get what I so badly want, I will still be at peace knowing you are God and you love me and will abide with me.”
That takes grace. And if we want to have that grace when the suffering comes — and it will inevitably come, if it hasn’t already — we need to prepare now. We need to pray. We need to cultivate a relationship of trust with him. We need to “practice” by surrendering to him in the little things that we struggle with. We need to increase our gratitude, by reflecting back on all of the times he has been with us in the past, even when perhaps things didn’t turn out the way we wanted. We need to surround ourselves with reminders of his goodness and his love.
If we want to be that person who approaches the end of life with peace, with resignation and with hope, we need to start becoming that person now.
Because to truly say “Jesus, I trust in you” — and mean it — takes a whole lot of help. From Jesus.