by Bryan Marvel
He gently puts down his fork and thoughtfully looks around the table. The expression on his face indicates he’s confused. Not saying a word, he flaps his hand in the air to get the attention of my mother. He would use words if he had any… but he doesn’t. What he does have is hand motions and gestures, which are minimal at best. Deaf since birth, my grandfather’s sign language skills have been rapidly declining as his dementia gets worse and worse. Signaling to my mother, he asks who we are. My mom explains that my wife and I, along with our two little girls, are family and that we have come to visit for the weekend. Still slightly perplexed, my grandfather John slowly nods his head. He picks up his fork and continues to eat.
I pause from my meal to watch this interaction play out. When it’s over, my mother mentions to me that sometimes my grandfather doesn’t even remember who she is or that she’s his daughter. I start to ask her how that makes her feel, but before I can finish my sentence a cackling laugh from across the table interrupts our conversation.
I shift my focus across the table to find that the laugh is followed by an ear to ear toothless grin from my Great-Aunt Bettie. Ever since we arrived she hasn’t stopped smiling and laughing, not because she is overcome with joy by our visit, but she too is experiencing the onset of dementia. With a smile and a slightly disconnected look in her eyes, she tells me for the fourth time… “I like you.”
Next to Bettie sits her twin sister Billie, and Billie’s husband Darrell, my other grandparents. Billie’s countenance couldn’t be more different from Bettie’s. Billie notices her twin sister is not the same woman from a few years ago, but has had a hard time accepting and comprehending how dementia has changed her. She is also holding on to some anger from when Bettie displaced her and my grandfather from their home of 20 years after accidentally burning down their house with a blanket and space heater. As Bettie points her bony finger at me and laughs, Billie tries to rein her in and call her attention back to the food in front of her.
As we sit at the dinner table in my parents’ house, I am struck with the realization that this meal is an everyday experience for them. This meal is their “new normal.” After having been empty-nesters for a few years, their nest is once again full. Yes. That’s right. My parents took in four, yes, four aging seniors. Three of which are parents, and one is my dad’s aunt. Two have dementia. One has cancer. One is deaf.
My parents are still living in the house where I grew up, but much of their house has changed in the last year. Extra railings and handles have been added to the staircases. Doorways have been widened to accommodate wheelchairs. In need of an extra easy-access bedroom, they converted a living room into a bedroom complete with a hospital bed. They even rebuilt the front entrance of the house with a new driveway to make access in and out of the house less cumbersome for all the seniors. Not quite a complete make-over, but the house is noticeably different than when I lived there.
After dinner is over my grandparents Billie and Darrell, who still have their wits about them and are fairly high functioning, help to clean up. Everyone else begins their bedtime routines. Becky and I start getting our two little girls down to bed. My mom and dad start getting Bettie and John ready for bed. Bettie can do just about all of it on her own. John, on the other hand, needs help with everything, and I mean everything. Standing up. Sitting down. Wiping his nose. He’s moved throughout the house in a wheelchair. Going to the bathroom. Getting dressed. Being laid into bed… Everything. With him, my parents are hands-on all the time. He can never be left alone.
Once the house is quiet and all of the seniors and kids are in bed, the “adults” pour ourselves some wine and sit in the family room to wind down for the evening. We talk about how life has changed for my parents. The struggles they face and the exhaustion they feel. The balancing act of work, household chores, care-giving and still having a little bit of time for themselves. The daily questions that confront them about declining health and the recognition of certain aging signs. As we sit and talk, I am overwhelmed. Throughout the past year, I have heard the stories from my parents about how their lives have changed. But actually being there and seeing it firsthand is something else. But I’m not overwhelmed with anxiety, angst or concern. Rather, I’m overwhelmed by the Spirit of Christ that resides in their home.
My parents could be in a season of life characterized by leisure and recreation. The kids are gone. They’ve paid off their debts. They’re in good health. They have adequate resources they could be spending on themselves. But they’re not. Instead, in the remodeling of their home, the preparation of meals, the extra laundry, the changing of bedpans and the wiping of noses, they are denying themselves. They are making tremendous sacrifices and embracing a life of service.
That evening, after we finished our wine and said goodnight, I crawled into bed with the words of Jesus echoing in my head,
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:23)
That’s exactly what my parents are doing. They are following Jesus. They are denying themselves in a world that constantly says, “indulge yourself.” If you ask them why they made the decision to take in all of their aging parents at the same time, they will tell you with a sense of conviction and calling, “This is what the Lord has for us in this season of life.”
All too often, with my Disney-World-Consumer shaped imagination, I’m tempted to believe that following Jesus is like an enchanted fairy tale that leads to extraordinary adventure with extravagant reward right here, right now. But nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus indicate that. Rather, He says things like…
Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve. (Mark 10:43-45)
Not only did Jesus say it, He also modeled it. He lived it out. He accepted the ones society rejected. He took the defiled and made them clean. He invited misfits and outcasts to the head of the table. He exalted the lowly and lowered the exalted. In living this way, in becoming the servant of all, Jesus sought to give humanity and dignity to those who seemingly had none.
Whether my parents would articulate it in this way at this time, I don’t know, but they are possibly having one of the richest and most rewarding experiences of their lives. Why? Because after visiting for only one weekend, I came to realize that my childhood home had become hallowed ground. The presence of Jesus fills every room in that house more fully than it ever has before. The heartbeat of God reverberates through every narrow hallway. The ways of God’s Kingdom are palpable in the daily sacrifices my parents are making in order to care for and serve their parents. Every night, as the six of them sit down around the table for dinner, the presence of Jesus sits to dine with them.
And even though I am taken aback by what my parents are doing… perhaps I shouldn’t be. Perhaps this is just a natural response by someone in their situation who is wholeheartedly devoted to Christ. Maybe this is just a normal outworking of the Kingdom of God in their lives. Maybe what they are experiencing is the extraordinary adventure and extravagant reward of following Jesus. Because what they are receiving in their sacrifice is more of Christ. More of His Spirit and His sufficiency in their lives. And whether or not my grandparents know it, they are receiving the exact same thing. Because like the Apostle John says in the opening passage of his gospel,
The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish. (John 1:14, The Message)
When visiting my folks a few weeks back, with my own eyes, I saw the glory of Christ take on flesh and blood and move into the neighborhood. He’s taken up residence in the home of my parents.