A Grace of Alzheimer’s: a lesson in suffering

My heart was recently challenged by reading a book from the Heroes of Faith series – the biography of Watchman Nee by Bob Laurent. I was so moved and inspired by this man’s faith, his godly wisdom, and courage in the midst of persecution and trials of life greater than I will ever experience. So challenged was I by his life and teaching that I found myself yearning to learn more from him. I reserved two books written by Nee through my local library: “The Normal Christian Life” and “The Character of God’s Workman,” and am currently reading the later.

I take a book with me when I go to the gym each morning, having purposed in my heart to use this time to exercise my body and feed my heart, mind and soul too. I have come to treasure this precious time…an hour on an exercise bike is over before I know it. As I pedaled and read today, something in chapter 3 made me think of my dear mother.  In this chapter, Nee speaks on 1 Peter 4:1, regarding our Lord’s attitude toward suffering and its admonition for Christians to have the same attitude and mind as Christ in our various earthly encounters with suffering. Nee notes that many Christians who encounter trials in life find themselves side-lined, withdrawing from serving Christ. Nee challenges the Christian reader by saying:

“No one who serves the Lord may stay home during rain and go forth only after the sun comes out. If you have the mind to suffer, then you will work on in spite of privation, difficulty, pain, sickness, or even approaching death.”

I immediately thought of my mom when I read that bit today, causing me to reflect on some of the ways she handled the trials in life.

When she was faced with having to take early retirement from her nursing job due to budget cuts the county was facing, my mom rejoiced. Now she could serve the Lord more in her local church.

My parents’ ministry to their family also carried on – cancer, headaches, bad knees and all. Where most retired couples have empty bedrooms, my parents had a steady stream of children and grandchildren occupying those rooms. It didn’t matter if they were out of a job, or cash-poor students, there was a bed with clean sheets, and a fridge full of favorite foods.

Each time my Dad faced a cancer diagnosis (five different cancers in his lifetime), mom was by his side for his surgeries and treatments. She could have used that as a perfectly plausible reason to back out of her ministries, but she kept on serving in the church, working her ministries around helping him. She also encouraged my dad to persevere in his church attendance and ministry as long as he was able. Only the final debilitating scourge of sarcoma took my dad away from his volunteering as a handyman at his church, and as a driver and treasurer for Christian League for the Handicapped.

When my dad died, my dear mother grieved, but she didn’t wallow in her grief and discontinue her ministries. Quite the contrary! She and a friend who was also a recent widow set their minds and hearts toward forming a ministry to other widows and widowers.

As I look back over her numerous notepads and journals that I packed when she made her move from Milwaukee, I can see that she was aware her memory was failing long before it became noticeable to anyone else. If I read between the lines, I can see there was a certain amount of fear that came with the awareness of memory loss and where it might lead. Knowing that her memory was fading didn’t stop her from serving in her many ministries. Even when the disease reared its ugly head enough for her friends to take notice, she never said, “How can I possibly take on the Lord’s work when I can’t even care for myself?”

Though my mother certainly had a “mind to suffer” in whatever hard things life threw her way, there did come a time when Alzheimer’s dealt a life-altering blow. The day came when driving to church was no longer an option. Another day came when planning anything was an insurmountable obstacle. Then, a time when remembering names was an impossibility. Everything about life was changing and becoming very hard. Only then did her ministries begin to fall away – not because she wanted them to, but because it was time.

Even now, in this time of life “approaching death,” I see in my sweet mother’s life yet another “grace of Alzheimer’s” – the grace of Christ-like suffering.