My mother spent the last 15 years of her life in a nursing home suffering from Alzheimer’s. I would be a liar if I said that her disease had not caused my family any suffering or that we accepted it perfectly as part of God’s mysterious will. The reality is, we all suffered and we all questioned how God could allow this to happen to somebody each one of us desperately needed.
An unfortunate consequence of Alzheimer’s is that a person’s brain actually shrinks. As the years went by, my mother’s mental state became similar to that of a child. The hard-working, intelligent, and nurturing woman I knew as a boy had disappeared. Physically she looked the same, but when I looked into her eyes I saw a little girl who appeared lost and was trying to find her way home.
When I arrived at the nursing home for a visit all she talked about was going outside to smoke a cigarette. As soon as we were outside, all she talked about was going back inside and vice versa for the whole duration of the visit, which for me never exceeded three hours, but for my father, was often all afternoon. After a few months I gave up hope of hearing her say she was glad to see me, because, I realized, my mother was no longer present.
On certain days she would yell and curse and call the nurses names. In the beginning they would laugh and approach her with a friendly smile, but as the months dragged on and the insults continued they became tired, annoyed, and avoided her as best they could. After only a month or two of working at the nursing home, a new employee quickly learned that my mother was considered one of the “difficult” patients.
Despite all of this, my father continued to visit her every day. He walked into her room, gave her a kiss and brought her outside in her wheelchair to smoke. Once outside he would face the same barrage of questions he answered the day before. “How long have we been married?” “Is Fr. Jeremiah married?” “How much money did I make last year?” “When are they going to feed me?” “What is Tammy’s husband’s name again?” After listening to these questions for hours my father would wheel her back inside her room, kiss her again, and return to his home, alone.
Occasionally, my father got mad and expressed his frustration in words that would have been better left unspoken. These words, I believe, came from a place of mourning and frustration, as he was forced to watch the woman he loved deteriorate in front of him and not be able to do anything about it. Not only had my mother become helpless because of her disease but also now my father was experiencing his own poverty, as he stood before my mom helpless.
Thirty years ago my father promised to love my mother “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, and to love and cherish her until death do us part.” Could he ever have imagined what those vows would ask of him? Would he still have made them knowing what he knows now? Rather than spending his days entertaining abstract questions my father did something I consider heroic: he was obedient to reality. By choosing to live in reality and not escape through endless speculations of “what if,” “why me”, etc. he proved his love for his wife.
Watching my father through all of this revealed to me an essential component of love: it is utterly selfless. So often we reduce love to a feeling or an experience of pleasure, yet St. Paul reminds us “love does not insist on its own way” (1 Corinthians 13:5). When my father would slip and allow his frustrations to control his actions he would begin again the next day where he left off, at my mother’s side.
If I or anybody else would ever tell my dad that his fidelity to his wife was heroic he would probably look at you as if you were speaking a foreign language. “It’s what love does,” he would probably say. “I had no other choice.” The reality is, he did have a choice. He could have chosen one of many escape paths: alcohol, drugs, work, Internet, food, sports, money, etc., all of which would have provided him with a well-deserved distraction for a few moments. Despite the allure they may have possessed, my father chose none of them.
At my mother’s funeral I read these words of Jesus in the Gospel: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). When I heard those words at Mass a deep sense of peace and gratitude came over me. I was peaceful because I believed in the depths of my heart that Jesus’ love, selfless and sacrificial, conquered death. I was grateful because it was my father who showed me what this looked like.
+ Fr. Jeremiah, CFR