My dad turned 88 this year, and, as some of you have done, I have spent the last few years educating myself about nursing homes, advance directives, and powers of attorney. And I’ve found that watching a parent get older is a pretty heavy theological exercise. I find myself asking a lot of loaded questions. And none of it is academic or hypothetical anymore. Now it all has to do with real life decisions.
First, there was the realization that I heard recently from an author who has a physical disability: that, for every single one of us, our able-bodiedness is temporary. For every single one of us, our abilities can and will go away at some time or another. As I watch my dad slowly lose all of his abilities, this becomes more and more real to me. It could be today or 50 years from today, but I see just how temporary my own body is as my father’s slowly fails him.
Then there was the advance directive—which is a document that states whether or not you would want things like CPR, life support, and a feeding tube at certain points in your end of life care. This leads to really intense conversations about what it means to live a quality life. Is life worth preserving if you will never be able to recognize your kids or tell your husband that you love him? And, what if you could pray and think and feel, but you couldn’t have any impact on the world outside your mind? Would life be worth preserving then? I had this discussion with my parents a few years ago, and—at that time—I decided that my life is worth preserving as long as I have the ability to minister in some way to the world—even if that ministry is as small as saying something nice to the nurse who gives me my medication every day.
Since then, I have watched my father lose the ability to do most everything that is important to him. First he lost the ability to live in his own home and control his finances. Today, he is no longer able to walk, hear, see very much, or think clearly. Soon, according to the doctors, he may not be able to remember the people he loves. As I sat next to him in a Taiwanese nursing home while he napped for hours, I couldn’t help thinking about what life is worth now that I have witnessed such losses. All the things that seem important—independence, dignity in the eyes of others, the ability to make an impact in the world—we will eventually lose all of that. Some of us will lose all of that, but we will still be alive. I imagine myself getting to that stage—when I can’t minister to others, when I can’t do much of anything—and I just think what a terrible time that would be. To live the last weeks, months, years of life unable to achieve or accomplish or make a difference.
The founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day, in her autobiography, wrote about the end of life experience of her dear friend and partner in the movement, Peter Maurin. For the last few years of his life, Peter suffered from severe dementia. The way Dorothy made sense of this was by remembering that Peter spent his life trying to give everything up to be in solidarity with others. So at the end of his life, she says, God took from him the only thing he could not give up for himself—his mind.
In my head, I don’t want to say God would take these things from us, but my heart really appreciates what Dorothy Day wrote. Perhaps there is something to be learned from this losing of everything that seems important.
Through this process with my dad, I have realized that I really believe that my accomplishments, my independence, my ability to make a difference, to achieve, and work hard—these are the things that give my life worth. My learning in these years has been that I need to get rid of this weird notion that my life is only worth as much as I can accomplish. I need to go back and remember the whole reason we baptize little babies. Because our lives are precious and good in the sight of God merely because we are. God loves us just as much when we are wearing diapers as when we are raising children. God loves us just as much when we are totally dependent on others as when we are solving everyone else’s problems. God loves us just as much when our minds are utterly confounded by the world as when we are amassing graduate degrees. So I have come to hope that perhaps losing my abilities could be a great exercise in just falling into God’s grace and love, in realizing that this was all that was ever really constant and true in my life all along, and in knowing that just being one piece of God’s Creation is all that I need to be worthy of love and life.
…[God] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 12:9-10
(This was originally shared as a devotion on one of Church of the Village’s Wednesday morning prayer calls. Join us any Wednesday morning at 7am for 20 minutes of devotion and prayer. Ph: (559)546-1200, Code: 533-689-191#)