There is a saying that goes, “Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary, use words.” It's been attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, but turns out he never said that. The closest thing he said was something about how Franciscans should follow their preaching.
The book of James teaches this same principle in the first chapter. Starting in verse 22, James says “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do."
Do what it says. Why is this important? Because you never know who is watching your life. I'm always surprised to find out that someone has been observing my actions. I see myself as an ordinary woman. I'm not very exciting. So when someone tells me they've seen God in action in my life, I'm always left a bit awestruck at the idea.
When I was taking care of my mother, I went over every day. Day in, day out. I felt invisible to the rest of the world.
One day when I went over, I found her with small, wadded up paper towels cleaning the door sill by her entryway. As soon as she saw me, she started screaming that this place I moved her to was filthy, and that it wasn't cleaned before she moved in.
That simply wasn’t true. Moreover, her house had been a cesspool when I moved her – it was covered in filth of cats with no cat litter available, and the smell had been overwhelming. But because her outburst came at me seemingly out of nowhere, against all reason I replied, “This is dirt you tracked in from gardening.” That was a big mistake. It sent her on a tirade of how she's only been there a few days, she never went out and it couldn't be her. Because I'm a slow learner, I replied, “A few days? You've been here two months!” That really set her off, and she screamed that I was lying and the cycle was in full swing.
Later, I met Mike for lunch and it was clear that I was not doing well and he was frightened for me. I told him about mom's continual self-pity and how she was always complaining that her old life was so much better and now it's all gone. My life was gone as well and I was grieving that. I shared that with Mike and remarked that I'm not any different from my mother.
He was incredulous. “Not any different? Not any different??? That's totally unrealistic! Donna, it's awful of me, I know, but if I'd gotten that letter, I would not have answered it. You've shown me a new level of the Christian walk I've never seen. That woman has never been kind to you. She's always been unpleasant and, God forgive me, I would have thrown that letter away. But you walked in forgiveness. You're taking care of everything on your own, and you know if the situation had been reversed you would have been abandoned.”
I looked at him in wonder. God bless that man. He gave me a new perspective and he spoke truth. It helped me keep going. It also showed me that someone was watching my life and was being affected by it. Over the years of caring for her, more than one person remarked on watching me when I was totally oblivious of the fact.
So keep in mind the quote misattributed to St. Francis. Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary, use words. Your life is your message.
Note: the letter my husband was referring to was Mom’s, when she contacted me to ask forgiveness and to ask for help. See the post titled, “Beginnings.”
Clearly, I was not operating at full capacity this morning. I was an hour and a half late to meet my friends for breakfast, my hair looked like a scarecrow, and I was lost in an area that was familiar to me. My mind was saying over and over, “I'm an idiot.”
After sending a quick text that I was lost and getting my bearings again, I thought about the negative chatter in my head and decided that wasn't going to define who I was. Yes, I had made several mistakes this morning. It just shows I am human. I decided to re-frame my situation. I'm not an idiot – I will hold myself to a standard of grace, not perfection. It has been a rough month, a tough year, and being kind to myself is the wisest thing to do.
It is a testament to my choice of friends, that Don, Dawn and her daughter were gracious and humor filled at my late entrance. Even the waitress cheered as I came in and I felt well loved. After quickly catching up and gulping down a cup of oatmeal, we moved on to the main purpose of the day: clearing out some of Jan's studio.
Jan has been gone for over a year now. It is time to start downsizing the studio. Some of the cabinets will be going to Dawn, some of the art materials will be going to grandchildren, some will be donated, and still other things will have to be thrown away. I was given some things for my studio – a portfolio with Jan's name on it, a painting apron, some paint supplies that we used at some workshops we attended together – mementos. Some things I took because I couldn't let go. What am I going to do with a big box of canceled stamps? Collage? Stamp collecting? I really don't know, but I could just picture Jan thinking of projects to use them for and I had to keep them.
As a group, we did quite well. Each of us teared up over different things, and the others would offer hugs for comfort. We filled Dawn's van (which is the same van that Jan and I did some camping trips in many moons ago), put some things in my car, and we were done for the day. We will be back at it after Thanksgiving.
I zipped home to meet my husband and take care of some banking issues. It is now late afternoon and I have some time to sit and think and reflect. My day was filled with grace and art. Grace and Art were the names of Jan's parents. There's a lovely symmetry to that.
In almost 30 years of marriage I have never once been angry with my mother-in-law. Not. Once. There may have been times of occasional frustration or missed communication, but never anger.
Recently, my father-in-law was hospitalized and had surgery for colon cancer. He also has the early to mid-stages of dementia. The hospital stay was difficult for him. He did not understand why he was there. He sometimes thought he was in a hotel. Other times, he thought he was in a storage unit. I took Mom to visit every day and it was lovely to see how she could bring Dad from an agitated state to a temporary place of calm and understanding.
Mike and I were greatly relieved when the doctor ordered in-home nursing. We felt it would help in Dad's transition as he continues to lose ground to memory loss. So after I had taken Mom out for an afternoon of shopping, I asked her what the visiting nurse had to say about Dad's recovery. The visit hasn't happened and isn't going to happen. When I asked why, Mom said the doctor's office had called and wanted Dad to come in so the doctor could sign off on the visiting nurse. Mom told the office she couldn't get him there. Again, I asked her why. Why did she say that, when she knew I'd be willing to take them?
Bottom line – she doesn't want a visiting nurse. She was ticked when told that in order for dad to go home, she'd have to have a visiting nurse to check the wound and remove the staples, a physical therapist to help Dad with a walker, and an occupational therapist. She was truly irked that (in her words) she had no choice in the matter. When the doctor's office called, she saw her opportunity to cancel. This woman, who is 92 years old, has congestive heart failure, can barely get out of a chair without help and needs a walker is determined to take care of her husband by herself.
I could scream. But I don't.
It occurs to me, our relationship has just deepened. I'm very angry with her decision. It endangers her and Dad. It increases the work load for Mike and for me. It's not a good plan.
But I still love her. Now, I don't just love her because it's easy. Now I love her in spite of it being rather difficult. That reminds me about the 'love passage' in I Corinthians 13 that starts in verse 4 saying, “Love is patient, love is kind...”
I truly hope I'm that sort of lover.
Donna Kemper put aside her art career to care for a mother she hadn't seen in over a decade. For seven years she followed her mother's journey into dementia, caring for her and putting forgiveness into action.