By Will Shelton
I keep thinking that I’ll reach a certain age (or mileage) and that statement about nothing new under the sun will come true. There are days where I want to believe otherwise – that I love the idea of something new every day and finding the beauty in that – but there are also days where it’s all been done. I get full of myself and think that because I’ve been alive for 26.5 years or a Christian for more than a decade or in ministry since 2001 or a pastor for all of two years, that things will stop being new and that I’ve seen it all. When something good happens to one of my teams or I see a movie that I really like, part of my mind instantly jumps to the last time I saw something like that. And I’m worried that it’s taking more and more to inspire me, and that I’m taking more and more for granted.
This past week I was on the nursing home visitation routine again. The woman I was to see, Marie, is one of my favorites to visit. Now I know as a pastor I’m not supposed to have favorites, but I’m also not supposed to lie, so yes, we have favorites. And while I vividly remember walking into a nursing home in the first week of October two years ago to see an invalid stroke victim that I’d never met before, and going down that hall and thinking “What am I even doing here?”, today I think I’m the expert and it’s all the same. This will be the seventh time I’ve seen Marie.
The last time I saw her, it was different, but not in a beautiful way. Something just went wrong in her mind a few months back, and I’ve never seen someone regress so fast – she’s 82 years old and had some trouble with what’s probably Parkinson’s and needed a walker, but mentally she was sharp. Before she went in, I’d go visit her at her house, and just sit and talk for hours about nothing and everything while we played with her two year old granddaughter while her husband watched “The Price is Right.”
The last time I saw her, she had landed in the hospital and people had told me she wasn’t herself. And that was an understatement – she had gone from this enjoyable, bright person to be around to completely incoherent, rambling on and on and on and not letting you get a word in edgewise, talking about things that were completely imaginary. There was nothing gradual about it – it was sudden and jarring and incredibly difficult.
Mental issues like Alzheimer’s are tough enough – my mom lost her father to that a couple years ago after a long struggle that I know was incredibly taxing on my family. But at least with that, there was a process and some time to prepare yourself and learn how to deal with it. With Marie, it was something I’d never seen and apparently doctors hadn’t either – in the span of a week, she went from normal to gone. They did all the brain scans and everything and couldn’t find anything wrong. And I tried to be there for her family, but the reality was I didn’t want to see her again – it was too hard and I was being selfish. Because really, it was like she had died and now this other person was just around in her body.
After awhile, I pulled it together and decide to go down and see her again. Though her family had told me that they’d changed around several of her medications and it was making a real difference, when I showed up I was still braced to sit there for an hour and just listen to her go, pray a prayer that she’d interrupt in the middle to talk about something else, and then go home and feel terrible.
So when I walked in, expecting nothing but my own selfish difficulty, I was stunned that her family was really understating it again – whatever those doctors did with her medication made all the difference in the world, and she’d swung all the way back to the same old Marie that I know and love, with almost no signs of whatever the initial problem was. We could talk again. This by itself was great news and inspiring, no matter what combination of God and medicine brought it about.
But it was when we started talking that this lady really grabbed me. The last time I was there, the worst moment was her only clear one, when she’d gone on and on about things that were really off the page, and then stopped suddenly and started crying and said “…I know I’m not right. I know something’s wrong. I can’t keep anything straight. And I hope Jesus will forgive me.” And then she bounced right back to nonsense.
This time, we went into this little room loaded with all kinds of objects, common and otherwise, with which to do every kind of physical therapy imaginable. Two ladies were playing Jenga while another was working with clothespins to help her fingers; one man was even lifting small five pound weights in the corner. Marie began showing me everything that she’d been doing- the sun catchers that she’s made, the things she’s drawn and then given to her grandkids, all of this stuff to work not just her legs where she had a hard time walking, but her hands for her shaking, and really, her entire body.
I told her I was glad she was staying busy and then she replied with something that really impacted me: “I made them take the television out of my room as soon as they put me in it. I knew if I had that TV in there, I’d just lay in bed all day and watch it, and I’d never get out and never get better.”
That statement seems simple enough, but to me, who can’t survive without DirecTV and my sports package, it was quite profound. She continued to explain how she voluntarily does the therapy twice a day instead of just once, how she’s chastised the nursing staff for letting her sleep past six, and then started naming off everyone else in the place because when she’s not working her fingers by making suncatchers or putting enough strength back in her leg muscles to walk again, she’s socializing. She tells me about their problems, about ways I should pray for them. And it isn’t superficial – it’s all very real.
Yet when I told Marie how amazed, how really amazed I was with her, she just kept looking at me like I was stupid and saying. “Well, you can’t just give up now can you? This is what I do, every day, one day at a time.” That nursing home is full of people who spend the whole day in bed watching more than just Price is Right. My churches and yours are full of prayer requests for people who’ve gotten old and gotten hurt and have become “shut-ins”, and really, can’t we find a better name for them than that?
And what’s more, if it was me and I was in that nursing home, I’d be watching TV. When I think about how I want to grow in my faith, so much of it is still misplaced in the intellectual and spiritual experience realms. When I’m 82 I want to have all this knowledge I’ve gained from years of experience, to be some old sage guy who puts the young arrogant kids like myself at 26 in their place. And there are other days where I continue to chase feelings instead of faith, and dream about growing closer and closer to God and thus feeling better and better over time, which I’m not sure is the way it works anyway.
But what’s real is what I saw in that nursing home. Where I really want to grow is not to the point
that I’m smarter than everyone or feel more enlightened. When I’m 82 and placed in a new and scary place, away from my family and on the rebound from a rare and difficult mental experience, with every reason to feel sorry for myself, I want to have what it takes to put the TV away and keep living. Not just a little, but a lot. To do the extra therapy, to take the time to visit with everyone even though I certainly wouldn’t have to, to not allow the circumstances to dictate my life to me, no matter how bad the circumstances. To say that I’m not giving up and then put it into flesh and blood practice. That’s what’s real. That’s what inspires.
And we have to see that the foundation for that is getting built in the here and now. Marie didn’t just turn into this person when she showed up at the nursing home. She built it along the way. If what we do in life echoes in eternity, it also echoes down the road in the here and now. Every choice we make has an impact on the sort of person we’re becoming. I simply do not believe that anything in life is static; everything is always in motion. And you’re either moving in one direction or another. You’re becoming one sort of person or another.
The type of person, the type of man I want to grow into isn’t the one who’s smarter. It’s the one who does what needs to be done. Who doesn’t make excuses or rationalize so much, or who does just enough to get buy and survive instead of going for what really could be possible beyond that. The person who does therapy twice a day to get better faster instead of just doing just enough. The person who learns to face situations like that with the same attitude he tells everyone else to face them with on Sunday mornings. A person who makes decisions now, every decision, to steer the path more and more down the narrow road as the days, weeks, months and years go by. So that when the time comes and circumstances do get cruel, we can have more than the good sounding answer to why it happened, but the active process of walking the road back home.
To Marie it’s all very simple. To me right now it’s profound. And the difference was made in all the seemingly insignificant moments along the way. Because I still believe that everything counts, and that there are no insignificant moments – because it’s not insignificant for her when she plays children’s games at 82 just to make her fingers stronger, and it’s not insignificant for me when I see it happen. She’s found all the enlightenment in the idea that everything is of worth not by reading about it or hearing someone else say it, but by living it out. And that…that’s what inspires. That’s something new.
If you liked this article, check out: The Hand that Feeds Her: Caring for the elderly
Will is originally from Knoxville, TN and currently serves as pastor to a small community of churches in southwest Virginia. You can email him at [email protected].