I stopped by last week, just for a minute. I needed to be sure she was all right, adjusting well to her new environment, feeling more settled, less anxious.
Just two weeks previously, we had moved my mother from her familiar, assisted-living dementia unit across the building to full care in skilled nursing, a much larger facility. I hoped she wouldn’t notice the change.
But she knew. Somehow, she knew. So, in addition to our usual twice-a-week lunches out, I decided to drop in several other days each week, bringing a small slice of the familiar into the midst of a lot of new faces. She still knows my voice although she hasn’t known who I am or how we are related for almost three years.
On this late afternoon, she was sleepy, lined up with a long row of wheelchairs parked in front of the television set, waiting for dinner to arrive. She roused when I kissed her, listened as I told her my name, and then she asked, “Are you my husband?” Am I your husband? No, Mama, I am not. But I love you very much, and I’m glad to be with you for a minute or two.
After I left her that evening, I drove across town for a meeting with our local public-health representative and a gentleman from the parks department. For the last fifteen months, our church has been participating with a rotation of organizations who provide a hot dinner for people who are homeless in one of our city parks on Thursday evenings. Several from our congregation signed on to help make this happen once each quarter.
Now local government wanted to check in with us, work with us to make sure that all city and state laws are being observed during these simple meals and the interaction with dinner guests that follows.
It was a long meeting laced with bureaucratic regulations, but it was conducted with kindness and sincerity. Yes, our efforts to reach out become more complicated, but the changes are doable and the visibility of this project has been raised. So I will continue to organize, shop for lasagna and garlic bread, make salads, and load coolers into the backs of trucks. Another crew will serve and clean up.
I’m starting with drop-in visits and trips to Costco, by smiling at aging faces and heating the lasagna.
One Thursday evening, two encounters, each focusing on people at the margins in our larger community. One of those encounters is deeply personal to me, the other less so. But each of them pushes me beyond my personal comfort level, each one stretches me in ways that are both good and hard.
To tell you the truth, everything in me wants to run from both realities, I’d rather not know that an ever-growing number of us will face the stomach-churning vacuum of dementia. I’d rather not have to face the fact that large numbers of men, women, and children have no place to sleep each night. Yet both things are true. Both are happening up-close-and-personal, right here— at home.
So that’s where I’m starting. With drop-in visits and trips to Costco. By smiling at aging faces and heating the lasagna. By recognizing the face of Jesus in that beautiful, white-haired woman who no longer knows her own name, much less mine. By acknowledging the presence of God in the men and women who sleep by the train tracks or build a nest on the beach.
And most of all, by remembering that we are all in this together, that each of us—dementia patient, retired pastor, person living on the street—each of us is a child of God, seen, heard, and loved exactly as we are.