The Frail

"Frailty is a challenging time, but in caring for the frail, we can be enlightened about what it means to be fully human.  There's an awful lot that you can learn from frail people.  Of course, there are elements of frailty that can take away humanity.  Dementia is an example of that.  But generally, there is no reason to warehouse the frail, not to talk to the frail, not to be loved by the frail.  They may not be the people they once were, but they are human beings and there is great value to be found in them."

(Dr. Norton Hadler, in Rethinking Aging)

Cassie, and elderly African-American woman, was holding my hand, telling me about meeting her husband before World War II.  "When I met him," she said, "he told me he went and told his Mama that he was gonna marry me."  She proceeded to tell me more of her story, one that was no doubt paramount in her mind and one she must have thought about a great deal.  She had the time.

While we were talking, another white-haired woman wheeled over to me, got right up to me and wagged her finger at me: "I know you.  I've known you for 50 years!"

"You have?," I said.

"I certainly have."

"It's good to see you again."  I had never seen the woman.  Yet I've learned that you cannot counter the power of a memory held by someone who lives in memories.

"I own it all."

"You do?"

"Everything you see.  I own every bit of it."

"Wonderful."  I was still holding Cassie's hand.  "Thank you for having me here."

Florence, a well-dressed woman who sat bolt upright in her chair, asked me to pray for her.  I took her hand.  "Florence, how can I pray for you?" 

"For my health. I have some problems."  I prayed for her too.  I felt like a pretend preacher.  Did they know how little I knew?

I had been asked to this nursing home to "preach."  I don't know a lot about preaching, but I think they'll take anyone here.  When I arrived and the residents were wheeled in, I asked one African-American man, one of the only men in the room, if he'd let me know if I did OK.  He said he'd hold his hand up if I preached too long or if he didn't care for it.  I watched him.  He didn't do that.  He didn't smile either.  Afterwards, I asked him how I did.  He said it was alright.  He still didn't smile.

I tried to speak to all of the residents who were there, and touch them.  I came because I can imagine how lonely they can be, how much a visit from someone. . . anyone. . . is cherished.  My mother, who died last Fall, was in just such a place for about two years.  I wish she hadn't been.

Don't think me virtuous.  Driving down here, a little voice in my head said that nothing I said to these old folks would be remembered, that whatever little I did wouldn't matter.  These are folks on the margin of society who have nothing to offer you, the voice said.  Why are you wasting your time like this?  I don't usually speak to demons, but I spoke to that one then, telling it to leave me alone.  It may have, but its questions echoed in my mind.  The truth is that my immediate impulse on entering a nursing home is to flee from its sights, sounds, and smells.  I don't deserve them.

They are frail in body and sometimes in mind.  And while they can't stroke my ego, they remind me by their very frailness that our earthly tent is merely a shadow of our heavenly one.  I look around me and realize I am surrounded by the images of God --- human beings whose memories resonate with the truth of what matters, of what lies beyond the perishable: love and home.

She owns it all.  Maybe in truth she does --- in Christ she is heir of all things: "Now you are no longer a slave but God's own child. And since you are his child, everything he has belongs to you" (Gal. 4:7, NLT).  So even the dementia that fuels the ranting of this woman who yells at me is the voice of God speaking to me, telling me that He has given me everything.

When the last resident was taken away, I walked down the hall, out, and into the afternoon sun.  I had  a fresh sense of the poverty of my busyness, the emptiness of a task-oriented life, and the nearness of eternity.

And maybe I began to grasp that I own it all, too.