My mother, who is just shy of her 98th birthday, has dementia. My sister, her primary caregiver, says Mom has her good days and her bad days; but most of the time, she is confused and wonders what has happened to her.
This past week, I traveled to California and stayed in a hotel near Knott’s Berry Farm. When I was a kid, that’s the place my family loved to go. Each year, my father would take us there. He would buy dresses for my two older sisters and my mom, while I fidgeted outside looking at an animated volcano, wondering if I would get to ride a roller coaster. We would go have their famous chicken dinner with all the fixings–mashed potatoes, gravy, biscuits, corn, and rhubarb. Dinner was always topped off by their famous boysenberry pie. Walter Knott, the founder of Knott’s Berry Farm, crossed raspberries with blueberries back in 1934 and came up with the boysenberry, which makes it as Californian as you can get.
After my father died back in 1986, I would take my mom to Knott’s Berry Farm for the chicken dinner. It was our thing. So because I was next door in a hotel on this recent trip, I thought I would surprise her with a takeout dinner from our favorite place. I got an order of chicken with all the fixings and headed up to Arcadia.
When I got to her place, I took the food out of the bags, put it on her table, and invited her to sit down and eat. I tried to explain to her that this was from Knott’s Berry Farm, but my words didn’t seem to compute. Instead, she was perturbed with me. “Craig, this isn’t right. You don’t set the table like that.” So I got all the bags off the table, with just our plates in front of us, and she seemed a little better.
Then she said, “What about them? Aren’t you going to serve them?”
I explained to her, “Mom, its only you and me in the room.”
She looked over my shoulder and said, “Aren’t you going to say something to our guests?”
Now I know what my sister meant by a bad day. Mom was deep into her dementia. Suddenly she stood up and walked with a sense of dignity to the edge of the couch and faced the large windows that looked out into the garden. She took on the air of her former self when she was the president of the United Methodist Women’s group at her church. She stood up straight and tall and proclaimed in strong voice, “It is so nice to have you all here today. Isn’t it a lovely day. Look at the flowers and the trees. I have been thinking about all of you, and there is just one thing I have to say.”
As I am sitting at the table, I am wondering what I should do. Tell her to sit down, that there is no one out there? Should I just wait her out? Then it dawned on me: maybe I should just listen.
“I know a lot of you have had troubles and have felt alone and sad. But if you just love each other everything will be okay.”
Then she stopped and came back toward the table to sit down, when she remembered she had something else to say. She went back to the same spot, her podium, and said, “Please, please love each other. If you do so, you will be so happy.”
She returned to the table, and as we ate our meal, I tried to process what had just happened. I thought to myself, if I were to be in the same state of mind that she is in some day, would I be speaking of love? Then I wondered who she was talking to. The last time I saw her, she said she loved me, but was ready to go home. She missed my father. She missed her parents and her brothers. She missed her dear friends she had made over the years at church. Is that who she was seeing?
Then I remembered the passage from Hebrews 12:1, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”
Mom was seeing something that I wasn’t able to see: the great cloud of witnesses, those who have gone before us and paved the way. They are always there. Perhaps I was the one who wasn’t truly seeing what was going on.
Since leaving her and heading back to Nashville, that scene of her addressing the crowd has stayed with me. And her words are something we all should take to heart, “Please, please love each other. If you do so, you will be so happy.”
In 2015, there were 5.1 million people suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia. As the number of people over the age of 65 doubles in the coming years, those suffering from these diseases will grow to 13.8 million by 2050. By 2022, the direct-care workforce will number 4.6 million workers. These workers will outnumber all the K-12 teachers in the country.
Boomer Spirituality, pp. 154 – 155.