I’d walked past them so many times. In their wheelchairs, heads slumped to chests or staring vacantly at the television. My mother lives here now. She sleeps a lot now, just like them. She’s 94 years old. Her memory, speech, and mental acuity continue to wane, chipped away by increasing dementia. But when she smiles, her limpid, grayish-blue eyes still say, “I love you.” On the way down the hall, I pray, “Lord, please let her know I’m here. Help her to feel my love for her.”
And it’s a good visit. My sister and her husband and her two adult children are there, too. We sit in a lovely courtyard with flowers and bird feeders. Mom drifts in and out of the conversation, her expressions ranging from pleased to puzzled. It’s not just the dementia. She’s become more hard of hearing, and can’t see well anymore either. We chat along, all of us just hoping she’s soaking in the sunshine and company. “Oh!” Mom whispers. We look up, too. A bird none of us noticed flits out of sight. 30 years of expert bird watching...I wonder what she would tell us if she could. To make sure she feels part of our conversation, I lean over often, close, and smile. Loudly in her ear, “Love you Mom, it’s me, Donna, the baby!” (I’m the youngest of five.) “You know, the one that’s so well behaved.” She picks up on my joking tone and smiles. She clasps my hand in her own. Once, in a confidential undertone, she says a whole phrase. The words are garbled, but the tone, the inflection washes over me, and for a moment the Mom I knew is with me. Mostly, though, I think of her eyes. Her beautiful spirit shines through those eyes, shimmering through the haze.
The second day, we all sit at the table with Joan and Barbara. I’ve seen them before at Mom’s table in the dining room, but today John is visiting Joan. He tells their story, how he’s visited her for several years since her husband passed away. He is still active and independent, and recalls how they used to eat in the fancy dining room three times a week. His remarks bring her to life. Once or twice, a huge smile. Another time, a pointed frown. “I guess that’s a no,” chuckles John, with a playful tap to her nose. They hold hands. He brushes crumbs off her lap. Clearly, love transcends her inability to speak. Barbara, sitting to my right, smiles and says pleasantries. They don’t make sense, but she’s soaking up the laughter and friendliness. I’ve never seen these women smile before. Now they feel like friends. The next day, I say hi to Joan, and mention John’s visit. Slowly, she brightens up again.
On the way out, I ask the activities director who the woman in the wheelchair is. She looks like one of Mom’s friends from her days in the independent apartments. “Hi, Elizabeth. I’m Ruth May’s daughter.” She too brightens up - she’s fully cognizant, but some physical malady has taken her from working in the gift shop to a wheelchair. “Your Mom is living so long. It’s sad.” I understand what she means, but I’m not so sure. It is sad to see Mom’s sharp mind fading , yet she is peaceful, and it’s evident from her caretakers that her sweetness cheers them in their sometimes thankless labor. Mom, Barbara, and Joan. One radiating love. One soaking up joy. The other bathing in the affection of her faithful friend. “Whatever you did for the least of Mine, you did for me.
Jesus, you are here. You abide here with these women. You are invested in the weak, the powerless, the downtrodden. “I can guarantee this truth: Whatever you did for one of my brothers or sisters, no matter how unimportant [they seemed], you did for me.” (Mt 25:40) You flip the tables not just on the money changers, but our fundamental idea of value. “Lose your life to find it…..the greatest among you will be a servant. You chose the foolish to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong.” Your image stamped afresh in these women changes me. Here among the lowly there is no wrestling match with pride. You are not favoring those with less money or mental acuity, simply those who give you your rightful place. And you give us the same opportunity: "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
As I leave, a tear trickles down my cheek, knowing that this like every visit could be my last. The look of love in her eyes is the gift I cherish. Thanks, Mom.