Finding my faith in the face of a parent’s illness
My mother’s illness made me more aware of the crosses that others carry.
My mom rose at 4:30 a.m. each day to start the laundry. With seven kids, born within a span of 10 years, her days were full with cooking, cleaning, and inquiring about our day, gently encouraging us as needed. Each night she managed to carve out a few minutes for herself. She sat in the living room to silently read the devotions in her tattered, black prayer book.
But suddenly she was 74. One day, sitting in her familiar chair, she turned toward me. It must have taken a lot of courage for her to acknowledge her plight, even as she did not quite grasp what was occurring. “Jay, you need to pray for me,” she said forlornly. “Something is happening to me.”
It was dementia. She was on a terrible journey, being pulled toward a place where she was lost to herself. Her life had been a grand struggle to find and give love, and now, just when she could relax a bit and enjoy the fruits of her labor, it was all about to turn rotten.
Her diagnosis propelled me on a journey of my own. My faith life was jolted awake, for good and for bad. I prayed for her day after day. Those prayers were not answered, at least not as I liked or expected. The mystery of God was as puzzling as ever. Yet somehow within that mystery there was consolation and even affirmation.
My mom grew up in the 1940s in Brookfield, Illinois, a working-class suburb of Chicago. Her father worked in a factory and kept chickens in the backyard, which he would expertly and casually slaughter for dinner.
My mother’s immigrant parents spoke a little English, a lot of Croatian, and most of all, the harsh language of marital discord. Her father drank, and her strong-willed mother was not one to back down from a fight. My mother’s life began to turn around when she met and married my dad, who worked first as a milkman and then as an insurance agent. They were happy together, and we were a happy family.
Her decline began almost unnoticeably. She began asking the same question minutes and then seconds apart. She poured laundry detergent into the dishwasher. She hid my dad’s car keys and wallet. This was just the mild phase of her dementia. Soon she could not remember who my dad was. When he left the room for even a moment, she’d turn to me and say, “He’s still here. The old guy. Every day. He won’t leave.” She didn’t want to be alone with a strange man.
My mom often believed herself to be 17 years old again. She began waking in the middle of the night determined to go “home,” back to “Ma and Pa” in Brookfield. My dad stood in front of the door to block her. She let loose with a torrent of ugly profanities. She screamed she would jump through the front window if necessary to leave the house. It was astonishing and heartbreaking. We had never heard my mom swear or even lose her temper. When we misbehaved as children, she’d not yell but mutter, “Can’t you just get along?”
Over time, she no longer remembered who I was or recognized my siblings. The arc of her life was plunging downward just as mine was rising, or at least stabilizing. I was middle-aged with a good job and a family of my own. Like my peers, I was finally in charge of my life and at last seemed to have things as I wanted them. But now I had to face the reality of my mother’s illness.
It was a distressing, confusing time and an utter monkey wrench in my faith life. Looking back I realize I had subscribed to a version of the prosperity gospel, not expecting material riches in exchange for being a good Catholic but taking for granted the health, economic well-being, and absence of tragedy or serious setbacks in our family, as if I had earned it spiritually. It was a bargaining faith: “OK, God, I’ll honor the commandments and be a good person and, yeah, thanks for looking out for us.”
I had been a pious schoolboy, an altar server who, like the rest of my siblings and parents, never missed Sunday Mass. How you conceptualize the world as a child is consciously dismissed as you grow up but still somehow exerts a silent influence. God was that guy in the sky with the white beard. No way would he cross us up or pull a fast one on us. God doesn’t operate like that. The world does not work that way.
I lived in a bubble with an immature faith. It was a measure of my insularity and selfishness that the suffering in the world beyond my immediate family did not touch me more or spur me to reconsider my spirituality. I knew of course that accidents, premature deaths, and other unfortunate events happened all the time. I lived with my fingers crossed, but the cross carried by so many others went mostly unseen and unfelt.
When I wrestled with my mother’s illness, I began to wrestle with my faith. That grappling with the mystery of suffering began with my mom’s descent into a dark abyss. Shaken out of my spiritual complacency, I more actively engaged with my faith. I entered into a new way of thinking about my life and God’s will. Thy will be done? I had been foolishly regarding myself as having arrived in life, full of myself and convinced of the power of my actions. Now I was stripped down and exposed, dependent on God’s will. My mom’s sickness pulled me back toward childhood, when I had been dependent on my parents. Now it was God, I realized, who steered the ship.
My growing faith impacted not just my inner life but also my interactions with others. My siblings and I took turns caring for our mom to provide downtime for our dad. We tried to get along.
My mother’s illness made me more aware, at last, of the crosses that others carry. Suffering is a great teacher. It opens your eyes and, hopefully, your heart. If miraculously there were no suffering in life, there probably would be little compassion either, only degrees of envy.
When my mom got dementia, the bubble of comfort I had lived in finally burst. It burst again and again as she dismally shrunk from who she had been. But faith is an odd thing. I had equated it with equanimity and smooth sailing and certainty. But faith itself is like a bubble, airy and wispy and floating serenely, able to sustain itself. It pops and seems to vanish and then it’s back again.
My mom’s story is not about why bad things happen to good people or why life can sucker punch even the best of us. God is mysterious and loving. Time does not heal wounds, but faith can. My mom has returned to God. She desperately wanted to return home. Now, in a safe harbor finally, she is there.
Image: Unsplash cc via Cristian Newman