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A Lesson in Presence

by Susan Muto*

March 5, 2012

People often say that no matter how old or frail their parents become, they still have lessons to teach them.  I would have to agree. Despite the diminishment of time awareness Alzheimer's inflicts upon a person erasing the past and forfeiting a felt understanding of the future this condition enables caregivers and care receivers to experience in a profound way the present moment. In a sense it makes the here and now more precious than what used to be or what may yet come to pass.

     There is a tradition in spirituality that refers to the "sacrament of the present moment." It suggests that every second of life reveals a sacredness people open to its potential may see. Perhaps this miracle of seeing a deeper meaning explains this excerpt from a friend's letter I received. His mother has been suffering from increasingly severe dementia for several years, yet he had this message of hope to deliver to me.

My Mom's condition continues, of course, to deteriorate. But she is, for the most part, comfortable. The whole experience of her protracted illness has deepened in me the conviction of the validity, and gift, which is the formation paradigm of life.  Each season truly is "a season potent to renew," despite its pain and agony. I couldn't begin to express how this past thirteen or so years have formed me. In all of this experience I remain mindful of you, your mother, and the other members of your family.

     Why has his mother's presence, transformed as it is by her failing health, become increasingly, not decreasingly, meaningful and formative in my friend's life?

     In an era where ease of death, assisted suicide, and euthanasia have become almost casual occurrences, at a time when the world listens to a person as holy as Pope John Paul II address the eternal choice of a culture of life versus a culture of death, why do we believers proclaim that even at their weakest our loved ones are still teachers of life?

     My friend's letter gives us a few clues as to why this is so. To live with, love, and care for a person whose condition continues to deteriorate offers us an opportunity for spiritual formation second to none. It tests our faith. It challenges our hope. It demands our love. We have to be convinced of the spiritual value, beauty, and dignity of the beloved other.  We have to continue to behold him or her as a child of God. They, in turn, help us to understand what really matters in life, what lasts after all else passes away. They teach us many invaluable lessons in spiritual childhood, and they show us the real meaning of total, absolute trust in God.

     It is one thing to read the scriptures and the spiritual classics to learn what they have to say about the virtue of patient endurance and another to see this virtue lived day by day. Thus our loved ones, in their state of increasing helplessness, are living reminders of our dependence on a Higher Power, on a Mystery beyond our control.

     People who do not encounter such illness or who run away from it out of fear or their own gnawing insecurity about the end of life miss a golden opportunity to face reality to see and accept the always limited yet exceedingly loveable event life is.

     Only when we understand our end do we realize the preciousness of each passing day and the need not to waste time on foolish matters. The paradox is that people who suffer terminal illnesses put us most closely in touch with the passing yet precious treasure of every temporal moment. As we watch our loved ones change from day to day, from visit to visit, we also long to experience what, through all these changes, is permanent. Here, too, they are great teachers, for they help us to see firsthand the permanency that resides only in the realm of the human spirit.

     Our body gives way sooner or later to the natural process of dying but our spirit lasts forever.  It rises free of any limit. It is a quality of presence forever seen, forever remembered.

     No wonder my friend found it hard to express how these years of being with his mother have formed him. Who of us privileged to oversee this kind of slow and, yes, painful, passing could put into words all that goes through our minds, all that we feel in our hearts, all that is said and must be left unsaid.

     In the classroom of life and death there are not enough books, not enough teachers, to capture in words everything we learn. All they can offer are hints and guesses, but even these poor offerings point to a wonder beyond words: to a love that lasts forever.  

* 1997.  Susan Muto, Ph.D. and the Epiphany Association 820 Crane Avenue Pittsburgh, PA  15216-3050

(412) 341-7494 (412) 341-7495 (fax)

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Last updated: 11/25/10.