When a person with Alzheimer’s disease loses her memory, does she lose her faith as well?
My mother has Alzheimer’s and has deteriorated such that she can no longer read or fully communicate. A couple of months ago, my sister and I moved Mom to a smaller room in the memory care center where she lives, and we had to go through her belongings to reduce her possessions to fit that smaller space.
It was fairly easy.
Mom had books stuffed everywhere in her room: in drawers, on the shelf of her nightstand, atop her desk, and lining the windowsill. Since she can no longer read, we had no reason to save the books on her behalf. We simply went through each book to remove the random items she’d tucked between pages and piled the books on the floor. The facility would use them in its library or donate them to someone else.
Since Mom has a broken hip that can’t be repaired, she sits in a wheelchair all day long and wheels herself mindlessly around the facility by pulling at the wheels or the rails on the wall, often bruising or tearing her thin skin in the process. Routinely, she bears bandages on her arms, marked with dates when the bandage was applied.
“Long sleeves are better because they protect her skin,” advised the facility manager that day.
So we went through her closet and removed all shirts that didn’t have long sleeves. It was easy peasy reducing her closet items.
As we pared down her belongings to essentials and items she might still enjoy, we touched her desk — and her Bible atop it. The Bible was stuffed with church bulletins, and her handwritten notations skirted Scripture verses once meaningful to her. Are they still?
She can no longer remember people. She can’t use words to communicate. She can no longer read or understand even her most favorite book.
My mother is losing her mind. She is still my mother but less of the woman I knew each time I see her. Does this former spiritual leader in my life still have her faith in the God who saved her — but didn’t save her from this?
From what I’ve heard, Alzheimer’s patients are either anxious or happy. My mother seems to be the happy sort. I wonder if the faith of her past somehow survives beyond the parts of my mother that no longer remember and gives her joy even now. I would not be surprised.
As her daughter, I get anxious — for selfish reasons. Is my mother’s Alzheimer’s disease hereditary? Would I want to know if it were?
Sometimes I can’t remember names. The other day I ever-so-briefly couldn’t remember a place. I walked out of the bathroom and drew a momentary, split-second blank: Where am I? Nanosecond confusion followed by the fear: Is it happening to me?
But daily we all face trials that make us anxious and uncertain. Personnel changes at work that affect the roles we play. Political craziness that makes nuclear war seem inevitable. Fires that kill. Earthquakes that demolish buildings. Hurricanes that flood and knock down trees and power lines. Storms that decimate entire islands and people’s livelihoods. Mass shootings at country music festivals. Everywhere we see death and devastation. Fear. Uncertainty.
It reminds me that none of us have any promise of tomorrow or a quality tomorrow.
“I’m living in the ‘cone of uncertainty,’” I respond, when people ask me how I am these days.
When Hurricane Irma was approaching, we followed the spaghetti-strand, computer-generated paths and the “cone of uncertainty” that supposedly determined the most likely current path the storm would take. That cone changed every six hours and altered our mindset and behavior.
“It’s going up the east coast. We’ll be fine.”
“It’s veering to the west, we’re doomed.”
“It’s coming right over us.”
Ultimately, the “cone of uncertainty” didn’t direct or even necessarily predict the path of the storm. But knowing we were in that cone did force us to prepare as much as we could — just in case. But we also were aware that we could only do so much. The storm would go where it would go and do what it would do. We were not in control.
We are all living in the cone of uncertainty. Whether we have Alzheimer’s or not, we have every right to be anxious. Life can be scary.
Fear brought me close to tears in the shower this week after a perfectly good, happily completed workout.
“I want my mommy,” I whispered mournfully to the tiles in the little, square shower in the locker room, my watery reprieve before facing the demands of the day. Thoughts of “my mommy” reminded me of childhood and how Mom might have encouraged me then — and now, if she could. Lyrics to a song sprang from my lips, unbidden.
“Silver and gold have I none / but such as I have give I thee,” I quietly sang under the stream of water, hoping no one heard me through the hot pink, glass shower door but unable to stop the singing. “In the name of Jesus Christ / of Nazareth, rise up and walk.”
For a moment, I was my much younger, fifth-grade self, carrying a cheap, cross-body messenger bag filled with a new notebook and other school supplies. My mother was walking me down our long, tree-lined driveway as I headed to a bus stop filled with strangers and my first day at a new school. The messenger bag’s strap wouldn’t last through the day, but this timid 10-year-old would survive, in part because her tone-deaf mother sang as I walked and leaped my way on our powdered dirt drive, empowered by the words of the song:
“… He went walking and leaping and praising God / walking and leaping and praising God / in the name of Jesus Christ / of Nazareth, rise up and walk.”
My mother showed me how to walk in faith — and lose the anxiety — quite literally. We repeated that “Silver and gold” song scenario a number of days before my fifth-grade self owned the confidence I needed to walk that path to the bus stop. The lesson — walking in faith, praising God as I went — has kept me from anxiety and given me peace and joy deep in my soul.
And, yes, sometimes I only get beyond threatening anxiety by singing seemingly silly songs in the privacy of a health club shower.
As I drove to work that morning, thinking of my mother, wondering if her faith could endure even Alzheimer’s, a Scripture verse came to mind:
“My flesh and my heart may fail,
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (Psalm 73:26).”
My mother’s flesh is failing her, indeed, but God is the strength of her heart and her portion forever.
I think God dropped that verse into my mind to answer my question. Mom still has faith because she has God as her strength.
And that makes us both happy.