When my son was six or seven, and realised that he and I were not going to die at the exact same moment, he cried for a while, and then said that if he’d known this, he wouldn’t have agreed to be born. Anne Lamott
Anyone who knows me well will know that I am a great proponent of the wise use of appropriate words as we relate to one another in our daily lives and in all of our relationships. ‘A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver’ Proverbs 25:11.
But there are circumstances in life when we feel compelled to say something and, even as we say it, we recognise it is hollow, meaningless, futile. But we do it anyway. We feel we have to say something. We want to alleviate the pain of the other person, or to share their pain, or at least to show that we care. But sometimes words are worse than meaningless. If they sound hollow to us, how much more so to the person who is hearing them? Sometimes to say nothing is better than to say something.
Like when someone is grieving, we don’t know what to say. In the presence of raw loss, perhaps we are embarrassed. We feel awkward. Or maybe we are frightened, reminded of our own immortality. So we use a trite phrase like ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ (I’m definitely guilty of this) or ‘It’s better for him’. Really? It could well be. We want to believe it. We want to make the other person feel better. We want to make ourselves feel better. But what about the person standing in front of us, devastated by their sense of loss? Their world has come to a standstill. Their hopes and dreams have come crashing round their heads. How can we make them feel better?
Or when a friend receives bad news, like a really serious diagnosis – and we say ‘They can do great things now for that’. Really? How do we know? Do we know? We want to believe it, we want to offer hope – but it’s hollow. We sense we are offering empty words – but we really want to help. Their whole world has changed with a phone call or a letter or a visit to the doctor. We want to make it all OK again. How can we help them?
Or when a loved one has dementia and we say ‘Well, she’s happy, isn’t she?’ Really? Is she? How do we know that? How can we know that? The world of dementia frightens us and bewilders us. We don’t understand it. It is so foreign to our daily experience, so ‘other’, so ‘out there’. We can’t make sense of it, no matter how hard we try. It is heartbreaking to watch those we love withdraw from us into a world unknown, a world where we can no longer reach them, a world from which they emerge only briefly – and often only to tell us things we cannot make sense of. We are losing our loved one and we don’t understand where they have gone. So it helps to think they are happy in their own wee world. And some of them are. Some of them are blissfully content. But others are not. And it hurts to have someone say, ‘She’s content, isn’t she?’ when we know she isn’t, when we can see the fear in her eyes – fear of being left alone, fear of not knowing what’s going to happen next, fear of not remembering the way to the bathroom or the dining room or the bedroom.
So what can we do? How can we show our friends we care? We want to reach out to them, to reassure them that they are not alone, to tell them we love them, to tell them we understand – but we don’t understand. So what can we say? The worst thing is to say we understand when we don’t. The worst thing is to say it will be OK when we have no idea that it will.
Maybe we should say nothing.
Maybe we should just be there for them.
Maybe we should just love them.
Maybe sometimes a hug is worth a thousand words.
They sit there, lining the room, some restlessly, others contentedly, some awake and alert, others sleeping or nodding off – but all waiting.
From time to time, a newcomer arrives. Everyone looks and listens. Who is this? What are they here for? Where will they sit? The newcomer finds a seat and joins the group – the Waiting Ones.
Someone takes another person’s seat. That is not allowed. There is tension, friction, an argument until one is evicted. Then peace again – and the waiting resumes.
Someone leaves the room. Everyone watches. Where are they going? Will they come back? The others wait.
One lady is restless. She keeps leaving her seat. She walks around the room, then sits on another seat. She asks the person beside her: ‘What are we waiting for?’ If she doesn’t get an answer, she moves on to another person and asks the same question: ‘What are we waiting for?’
It’s a good question. What are they waiting for, these Waiting Ones?
Who are they? Where are they? They are residents of an old people’s home. They have come from all walks of life, they have all a wealth of experience behind them, years lived out, lessons learned, stories to share, children and grandchildren and great grandchildren to love – but many of them can no longer communicate in a way which others understand.
Many have physical problems and failing memories. They rely on others now for so many things – these people who were so strong, so independent, so successful. Now they must depend on others for even basic needs – and that is so humiliating. Sometimes they will try to do something on their own – and the resulting failure is even more demoralising.
Some of them find friendship in the home. Two ladies have become firm friends. One is almost blind, the other is forgetful. When one needs the bathroom, they go together – the blind lady following her friend, calling out to her: ‘Don’t go too fast!’. When it’s mealtime, they are assigned to different dining rooms (one in the ‘Nursing wing’, the other in the ‘Residential wing’). They don’t like being separated. They ask the carers who have come to take them: ‘Why can’t we go together?’ Then they kiss and promise to meet up again in the lounge after the meal.
Others don’t seem to look for friendship. They sit alone; they sleep or they stare into space; sometimes they moan quietly. What are they thinking? What are they remembering? What are they feeling?
Many have dementia which is robbing them of their memories, their ability to think, to express themselves, to do anything without help. Their world is shrinking. It is a frightening place.
Carers talk to them and they don’t understand; people talk around them and they are confused – are you talking to me? who are you? who am I? where am I? what am I waiting for?
And now it’s not only the next event that is in question – are we waiting for dinner or are we waiting for the hairdresser? Now it’s a whole new question: what are we waiting for? Why are we here? We are the Waiting Ones – but are we also the Forgotten Ones?
Has God forgotten us? This is a waiting room filled with people who loved and served God all their lives. Now they wait…..and wait….and wait. Most of them just want to have the waiting over, to get to go home to heaven, to have done with the failed memories and the aching limbs and the eyes that don’t see and the ears that don’t hear. Has God forgotten them?
Why doesn’t He take them home?
We don’t know the answer to that – God knows we ask it often enough.
What we do know, we have to cling to, now more than ever:
1. God loves all of His children, including the most vulnerable: ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.’ Matthew 10:29-31.
2. God’s Holy Spirit ministers to our spirits, even when other faculties are gone: ‘You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God’.
3. God has promised not to forget us: ‘But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.” “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.’ Isaiah 49:14-16.
4. What we suffer here on earth – the things that make our hearts ache and our minds question – are nothing compared to what God has promised us for eternity: ‘So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.’ II Corinthians 4:16-18.
So keep on visiting the people in the Waiting Room. Let them know you have not forgotten them. Remind them that God has not forgotten them. And you will see – just now and again – a glimmer of hope, a glimpse of what might be going on.
When an old hymn is sung, they can’t see the words, they can’t make a noise, but their lips begin to move…..and they know every word. They get choked with emotion as the Spirit ministers to their spirit.
When their favourite Psalm is read, they have not responded in any way for hours – but they open their eyes for a moment and smile as the Spirit ministers to their spirit.
Cling to these glimpses and keep going, keep believing – for these may be the Waiting Ones, but they are not forgotten.
At the same time, I have been mulling over some verses in II Chronicles 16, which tell the story of king Asa, king of Judah. Asa started well, introducing reforms and displaying faith and courage when the Cushites attacked. But then when Israel attacked, Asa strips the temple and his own palace of wealth and sends it to Ben-Hadad, ruler of Aram, in a bid to get his support against Israel. At that time Hanani the seer came to Asa king of Judah and said to him, “Because you relied on the king of Syria, and did not rely on the Lord your God, the army of the king of Syria has escaped you. Were not the Ethiopians and the Libyans a huge army with very many chariots and horsemen? Yet because you relied on the Lord, he gave them into your hand. For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him” II Chronicles 16:7-9. Asa doesn’t end well: he becomes angry, begins to brutalize the people, contracts a wretched disease, seeks the help of doctors but not of the Lord, and dies two years later, embittered and enraged.
These verses made me think of some verses in the New Testament: “For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again” II Corinthians 1:8-10.
While I have been mulling these verses over in my mind, in the exact same time period these two very close friends have both been diagnosed with cancer. Both women are Christians; both have been shocked by the diagnosis; both have fears for the future; but here is what they say.
One friend says: “There is a great deal that we don’t know—about my diagnosis, the actual treatment, and prognosis. We do know that God is with us and will see us through till the end. We are putting our trust in Him…. I know that I am deep in the valley right now, but my eyes are on the hills and I know where my help comes from! I am still surrounded by God’s peace, and we continue to trust Him for the outcome”.
The other friend says: “We are feeling amazingly accepting and peaceful and supported by prayers of others and by the Lord, and so I am praying that he will use this time and these circumstances for his glory. Watch this space!”
What gives these two friends the ability to trust God at this crucial moment in their lives? They don’t know the future, they are facing treatment with cruel side effects and no guarantees of a good outcome. But they do know that God is with them and they have decided to trust Him, to rely on Him. It is a choice – ” We are putting our trust in Him”. It is a conscious decision, in the midst of the uncertainty and worry and fear to rely on God and what they know of Him.
When the diagnosis comes, or the financial downturn comes, or some other bad news hits, who or what will I rely on?
“For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him”.
Here’s a graphic picture of old age from the Book of Ecclesiastes:
Honor and enjoy your Creator while you’re still young,
Before the years take their toll and your vigor wanes,
Before your vision dims and the world blurs
And the winter years keep you close to the fire.
In old age, your body no longer serves you so well.
Muscles slacken, grip weakens, joints stiffen.
The shades are pulled down on the world.
You can’t come and go at will. Things grind to a halt.
The hum of the household fades away.
You are wakened now by bird-song.
Hikes to the mountains are a thing of the past.
Even a stroll down the road has its terrors.
Your hair turns apple-blossom white,
Adorning a fragile and impotent matchstick body.
Yes, you’re well on your way to eternal rest,
While your friends make plans for your funeral.
Life, lovely while it lasts, is soon over.
Life as we know it, precious and beautiful, ends.
The body is put back in the same ground it came from.
The spirit returns to God, who first breathed it.
My Mum passed away one year ago today.
She had been taken into hospital for what we all thought was a short stay – but her condition rapidly deteriorated and she passed away within 24 hours.
My Dad – himself in declining health – wanted to come to the hospital to see Mum and we weren’t sure if that would be good for him. He has 25% of his sight, very poor mobility and has some form of dementia. But, in the end, he came. Mum was sleeping, with an oxygen mask over her face which was making a lot of noise. Dad was sitting in a wheelchair by the bedside. His voice is very weak and it was clear they would not be able to talk to each other or hear one another. So he just held her hand. They must have sat like that for about half an hour, silently communicating their love as they had done for 63 years. Mum’s restlessness ceased. Dad was content. He left the hospital, knowing he had done what he had come to do – he had said goodbye. And Mum knew it. Shortly after that, she slipped away quietly.
The picture of them holding hands in those last few minutes of Mum’s life will be forever etched on my mind. I shared it after Mum died and posted it on Facebook. To my great surprise, a few weeks ago I received a package from a very good friend. It contained a beautiful picture of Mum and Dad, along with this picture of them holding hands, and the words of Steve Green’s song ‘Holding Hands’:
And one night, by candlelight,
we made a vow to never part
And then it seemed just like a dream
When wide eyed, side by side
We faced the future holding hands.
Years fly, they hurry by, the simple times are gone
Bills due, a kid or two, a week can feel eight days long
By fading light, let’s kiss goodnight
And then we trace God’s daily grace
Thankful we’re still holding hands.
There’s a hope that won’t let go
There’s a truth we know
God is holding us
In His arms.
Thoughts stray far away to all that lies ahead
In frail days when strength fades
Will we still mean all that we said?
Our love’s secure, so rest assured
Come what may ’til that day
We’ll walk forever holding hands.
By God’s grace ’til that day
We’ll walk forever holding hands.
This poem is reported to have been written by an old man who died in the geriatric ward of a nursing home in North Platte, Nebraska.
It is alleged that when the nurses were going through his meager possessions, they found this poem; and its quality and content so impressed the staff that copies were made and distributed to every nurse in the hospital.
One nurse took her copy to Missouri . The old man’s sole bequest to posterity has since appeared in the Christmas edition of the News Magazine of the St. Louis Association for Mental Health. A slide presentation has also been made based on his simple, but eloquent, poem.
And this little old man, with nothing left to give to the world, is now the author of this ‘anonymous’ poem winging across the Internet.
Crabby Old Man
What do you see nurses? . . What do you see?
What are you thinking . . . . . when you’re looking at me?
A crabby old man, . … .. not very wise,
Uncertain of habit .. . .. . . . . . with faraway eyes?
Who dribbles his food . . .. . . . . and makes no reply .
When you say in a loud voice .. . . . .. ‘I do wish you’d try!’
Who seems not to notice . … . the things that you do .
And forever is losing . . . . .. . . . . . A sock or shoe?
Who, resisting or not . . . . . . .. . . lets you do as you will,
With bathing and feeding…… The long day to fill?
Is that what you’re thinking? Is that what you see?
Then open your eyes, nurse . . . . . you’re not looking at me .
I’ll tell you who I am . As I sit here so still,
As I do at your bidding, . . . . . . as I eat at your will.
I’m a small child of Ten … . . . . . with a father and mother,
Brothers and sisters . . . … . . . . . who love one another.
A young boy of Sixteen . . with wings on his feet
Dreaming that soon now . . . .. .. . . a lover he’ll meet..
A groom soon at Twenty . my heart gives a leap.
Remembering, the vows . . . . .. . that I promised to keep.
At Twenty-Five, now . . . . . . . . I have young of my own.
Who need me to guide . . . . And a secure happy home.
A man of Thirty . . . . .. . . . .. My young now grown fast,
Bound to each other . . . . . . . With ties that should last.
At Forty, my young sons .. . have grown and are gone,
But my woman’s beside me . . . . . . . to see I don’t mourn.
At Fifty, once more, babies play ’round my knee,
Again, we know children . . . . . . . My loved one and me.
Dark days are upon me . . my wife is now dead.
I look at the future … . .. . . . . . . shudder with dread..
For my young are all rearing . . . . . .. young of their own.
And I think of the years . . .. and the love that I’ve known.
I’m now an old man . . . . . .. .. . . and nature is cruel.
Tis jest to make old age . . . . look like a fool.
The body, it crumbles .. . . . . . . grace and vigor, depart..
There is now a stone . . . .. . . . where I once had a heart.
But inside this old carcass . . a young guy still dwells,
And now and again . . . .. . . . my battered heart swells.
I remember the joys . . . . . . . . .. I remember the pain.
And I’m loving and living . . . . . .. . . . . life over again.
I think of the years, all too few . . . . . gone too fast.
And accept the stark fact . . . . . .. that nothing can last.
So open your eyes, people . . . . . . . . open and see.
Not a crabby old man. Look closer . . . see ME!!
Remember this poem when you next meet an older person whom you might brush aside without looking at the young soul within . . . . we will all, one day, be there, too!