Three P’s….

There were lots of really kind tributes paid to my dad when he passedadd away on 5 August:

A gentle giant who impacted my life….

A true elder and a man of God. To know him was an honour….

A true friend, counsellor and encourager….

We all were blessed as a result of knowing him….

There was healing for us as people shared their memories of the man dad was – because in the midst of the dementia of the past few years, we had almost forgotten that man.

We heard from people who remembered him as a bible teacher; others who shared memories of his care for them when they lived in the home for missionaries’ children which my parents had for several years in Belfast; others who described dad as their mentor.

But for me, he was my dad. Simply my dad. But completely my dad.

Someone reminded me today that there is a special bond between a father and a daughter.

Here’s why the bond between my dad and me was special.

He was a Provider

(Of course I have to start each one with a ‘P’ – dad was famous for the Seven P’s of Bible Study which he taught to all of us who studied with him at El-Nathan!)

Growing up, I took it for granted. Whatever I needed, dad would provide for me. Not always what I wanted – but certainly always what I needed. Sometimes I wondered how much he earned, but I never asked – probably because I knew better and probably also because it didn’t concern me – I knew that, whatever I needed, he would provide. That could range from everyday needs of food and drink to special needs like pots and potions when I was sick (how he loved to prescribe home remedies for us all!) to more exciting things like Christmas or birthday presents.

I have very fond memories of Christmas morning growing up. Dad would make us all breakfast, which we had to eat before anything else happened; then he would line us up according to age (I was number three!); then we could all go into the room where the presents were and start opening them.

He was a Protector

The instinct to protect their offspring is powerful to more than the human species – but I saw it beautifully lived out in my dad.Image 006

One vivid memory is when I was a schoolgirl of about 8 or 9 years old and suffered from hives which were all over my body, including the soles of my feet. They were incredibly itchy and grew into blisters, necessitating bandages to cover them up. I remember my dad carrying me into school so that I wouldn’t have to walk on those itchy feet.

He was a Pastor

Dad had a few different jobs but one of them involved him working as a salesman for an animal feeds company.Image 037.jpg

That meant he travelled all over N.Ireland, visiting farmers and getting to know them and their animals. He loved animals and I remember him taking us to the zoo as well as to farms, encouraging us to touch and feed the animals. Here are my 3 siblings and my mum – I’m not sure where I was!


dad and lamb

This photograph was taken during the last stages of dad’s life when he was practically unable to communicate in any meaningful way because of the dementia. The nursing home had very creatively introduced animal therapy to the residents. They told us later that dad caressed the lamb for a long time and when eventually they took it away, he patted his chest as if to say he had felt its heartbeat.

I wonder if that experience evoked memories for my dad of times when he would have held a lamb for a farmer? For me, the photo evokes the nurturing side of dad – the fact that so many people have talked about how he cared for them, nurtured them, counselled them and encouraged them. He cared for many sheep – not just the 4 in his own little flock.


When a hug is worth a thousand words

Sebastian Barry – in his book ‘The Secret Scripture – has spoken of  ‘that strange responsibility we feel towards others when they speak, to offer them the solace of an answer’.snoopy hug

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.

The Waiting Room


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.


Dementia by Max Wallack

It gallops in silently on powerful hoofs
Snatching sweet, precious, forgotten memories
Turning true-blue loyal friends into treacherous strangers
Clogging synapses with emptiness
Crumbling trust into excruciating paranoia

With bleak darkness comes the anxious wakefulness of broad daylight
And bitter terror encompasses every living fiber
“If I sleep, where will I be when I wake up?”
The compulsion to run, the paralysis of fear

Mature, child-like dependence
Retracing youthful development, but in rapid reverse
Cureless medicines, meaningless conversations

Leading up to the inevitable