by Susan Muto*
March 5, 2012
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?
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) •
All Rights Reserved. Not for Duplication.