Often, we look back at our past and wistfully think, “if only.”
If only I had had better parents.
If only I had had more opportunities.
If only I had made a different decision.
There have been times I’ve imagined myself talking to a younger me. Travel back in time, giving that child art lessons, opportunities, direction, or someone to talk to. If only.
Rather than listen to my past history, I needed to meditate with the Living Word. Once I took the time to do just that, the Lord pointed out that my musings were basically saying that He has not been enough in my life and has not been active in my past. The “if only” game is not as harmless as it seems. It’s an affront to a loving God who has been designing a life for me to learn grow, overcome, and become.
I am not going to achieve anything with the “if only” mindset. Frankly, I’m not going to achieve anything because of my talents or giftings, either. Anything I accomplish in life will because of the price Jesus paid. He has a plan and it’s time I work with Him instead of looking backwards.
No more “if only.”
But Jonah got up and fled from the Lord…. (Jonah 1:3a International Standard Version)
Jonah is not the poster child of what we should aim for in our relationship with God, but I have to admit ... I relate to him. I currently find myself in a position that I would like to flee.
A couple weeks ago, my mother-in-law was reaching for something that was j u s t out of reach. She tried to extend her arm a bit more and something went ‘pop’. Long story short, she tore a bicep. Due to the medications she’s on, it started bleeding and her entire arm was swollen and the color of an eggplant. Eventually, she landed in the hospital.
After being there for almost a week, she has been transferred to a rehab unit. Through all of this, I’ve been there, being an advocate, being sure things are being communicated effectively, making sure the doctors have the correct information on meds and conditions, and dealing with my father-in-law who has beginning to mid-stages of dementia. Being out of her normal routine makes mom a little fuzzy, too, so it’s important for me to stay on top of everything.
It’s the same in rehab. Dad is confused and convinced we’ve placed mom someplace to die and breaks into sobs. I’m trying to comfort him, make sure the staff knows to keep mom’s arm elevated every time they re-position her after therapy to make sure she has her balance and strengthens her legs. In the meantime, mom is plotting how to get out of there and not have to do therapy anymore. “It’s dumb,” she tells me. She wants to go home and have the in-house physical therapy work with her. I know from past experience that if we do that, she’ll cancel it and just sit on the couch.
I’m the mean enforcer. All of this takes me back to the time I was caring for my mother as she was losing to Alzheimer’s. It was one long battle, day after day, to keep her safe and cared for. She didn’t want to be cared for. I was the mean enforcer then, too. All kinds of emotions are being stirred up these last two weeks, and none of them good.
Lying in bed one morning, I was thinking, “Just shoot me now.” My life was once again shrinking down to nothing but caregiving. No art. No writing. No time for friends. I’ve quit working out due to time and energy. Just get up, pick up Dad, go to rehab, oversee Mom’s care, talk with staff, notify the family on the latest developments, and then take Dad home. Repeat. Next week I have to add work into the mix. I’ve been through this before, and while I love my in-laws more than I can say, I want to jump on a boat and go the other way.
It was in this frame of mind, while in prayer, God directed me to I Samuel 15 and 16. This is the passage that relates what happened when David’s son tried to take over the kingdom. David fled with his entire household – most likely to avoid a siege and the destruction of the city – and encountered some who wanted to help and others who wanted to curse him. One man was throwing rocks and dirt on him screaming invectives and gloating that God was paying David back for perceived evil. One of David’s warriors got fed up and offered to kill the man. Here is the part that spoke to me that day – David told him that God was in control. Perhaps the Lord was telling this man to curse, or the Lord would hear these curses and restore him to his kingship. Either way, he was going to trust God knew what He was doing, and was doing it.
While I’m about the same age David was when he went through that trial, I am not in a position where I am responsible for hundreds of people on the run with me. I am merely caring for two elderly people. God is in control and has something for me in this. He also has something for my husband and his parents in this as well. When He is ready, He will either restore me to a life of art, or He will take it away. In either scenario, He is in charge and He is good. I have a history that proves it.
It’s been ten years ago today that we moved my mother from her house in the Detroit metro area to Grand Rapids. It was an event that radically changed both our lives. While she knew her memory was failing and that she needed help, she also realized she was losing her home, her friends and everything familiar to her, and she was grieving that.
I knew I was putting my entire life aside to help the woman who gave me birth, but didn't raise me. And though I had already stepped into her life after not hearing from her in over a decade and done the hard work of forgiveness, now started the day to day grind of walking it out.
Throughout that journey, my life kept shrinking. I quit painting, I quit volunteering, and I quit working…bit by bit I had to let things go until all I did was look after my mother, who was increasingly resentful of me. Frankly, I was resentful of her as well.
We all long to have a destiny. I think that’s why Rick Warren’s book Purpose Filled Life was such a big seller. People long to have a deeper purpose than just getting up every day and going through the motions of living. As my life shrank more and more and I became invisible to everyone around me, I grieved that I no longer had a future. I had no idea how long this season would last, but I knew the world wasn't waiting for me when it was over. Life was moving steadily on, friends and acquaintances were moving ahead in their careers and lives while I shepherded mom through the last years of her life.
A rather startling experience occurred a couple years into caregiving. I was at a conference when a young woman I’d never met came up to me and said that God had revealed to her that I was an artist of some kind and that God wanted me to pick it up again and use it for Him. It took my breath away, and gave me great hope. But back at home, the day to day grind would continue and a couple years later I’d wondered if I’d missed the boat. God sent another stranger to say the same thing.
It’s exciting to have a destiny, and to have had the supernatural experience of people coming up out of the blue to confirm it. But I think we may forget that a purposeful life is filled with insignificant things. Laundry, cleaning, cooking, computer crashes, power outages, paying bills and other nagging, boring details make up our lives leading up to other times of great satisfaction. The graduation of a child, becoming teacher of the year, publishing a book, giving a presentation, receiving a contract for a gallery show, or any number of wonderful things are made up of really insignificant times. Changing diapers, making lesson plans, writing and re-writing, practicing in front of a mirror, working on fundamental skills over and over. All this and more takes place before the big things come to pass.
As a result, our thoughts can wander into dark places. “I’m a failure. This is useless. I have nothing to contribute.” These thoughts are poisonous. It is good to remember when Jesus was baptized and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, in Whom I am well pleased,” that Jesus hadn't done one miracle, hadn't called one disciple, but had just put in His time growing up, learning a trade and developing a relationship with His Father. Could it be that the insignificant things that feel like wasted time actually matter to God?
It is good to ponder on this as I’m transitioning back into art and writing. I’m back to working on fundamental skills. Every day is a reminder on how far behind the curve I am.
I’m right on track.
Note: The observation about Jesus' life comes from a CD series by Francis Frangipane called Holiness, Truth and the Presence of God. Here is a link to purchase that set. It also comes as an MP3 format. Used by permission.
Another Mother’s Day is past, thankfully. While I enjoyed celebrating my mother-in-law and spending the day together, I’m just not a fan of that particular holiday. It stirs up a lot inside that I’d rather ignore. It’s better than it was in my youth, but reading all the schmaltzy posts on Facebook about how great mothers are gets tiring.
Author Anne Lamott wrote a piece for Salon in 2010 on Mother’s Day which really nailed it for me. (You can read the entire piece at: http://www.salon.com/2010/05/08/hate_mothers_day_anne_lamott/) She wrote: “But Mother’s Day celebrates a huge lie about the value of women: that mothers are superior beings, that they have done more with their lives and chosen a more difficult path. Ha! Every woman’s path is difficult, and many mothers were as equipped to raise children as wire monkey mothers. I say that without judgment: It is, sadly, true. An unhealthy mother’s love is withering.”
If you’ve read much of my blog, you know my mother did not parent well. That’s just the way it is. She wasn’t even a “good enough” parent. She just couldn’t do it. In a rare moment of honesty she told me that she thought that since Grandma had been such a good mother, she’d naturally be one, too, and was surprised at how those maternal instincts never kicked in.
But lest the reader thinks my mother was the personification of evil, I should set the record straight. Mom was damaged by her own home life and her marriage, and just couldn’t recover. I was collateral damage, but it wasn’t intentional. She did her best to provide for me by working full time at Sears in the bookkeeping department and she was also very aware of the potential of sexual child abuse. Paranoid about it, actually. I only met one man she dated when I was in my teens. The rest she kept away. The one I met was a peach, but I think he knew that mom was not marriage material and moved on. I remember him fondly.
Our relationship broke down so much that for over ten years mom didn’t even speak to me. Our story is not dissimilar to the story Jesus told about the prodigal son, except she’s the one who left and I’m the one who forgave and welcomed her back. It took Alzheimer’s to get her to the place to ask for forgiveness. Not a small thing for her to do.
While I try to be absolutely honest in my recollections about my life, here’s something I don’t want you to miss. While my mother was a deeply flawed person, she did ask for forgiveness and I did forgive her. Through forgiveness, I learned much more about faith, life and love. I’m still on a journey of healing, but caring for mom through Alzheimer’s took me much further down that road than if I had hardened myself to her and refused to let her back into my life.
If there is someone in your life who has failed you in a major way, do not hang on to unforgiveness. It only hurts yourself. Jesus pointed out when He was teaching the disciples to pray that we are in God’s debt and need to forgive as freely as He did. We like to skip over the part of the disciple’s prayer (aka the Lord’s Prayer) that says “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” We love being forgiven…it’s just letting other people off the hook that’s so hard.
But remember...it’s a biblical principle that we will be treated as we treat others.
Note: If you have been abandoned by a parent, you may want to pick up Leslie Leyland Fields’ book Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers. It’s about finding freedom from hurt and hate and written with Dr. Jill Hubbard.
Still waters really do run deeper – shallow pools ripple at the slightest whisper of movement. As a young woman, my prayer was that I would be as a still pool where people could find peace, comfort and refreshment. I mentioned this to a friend who was a psychologist. He rolled his eyes and said, “Be careful what you pray for!” He was a few years older than me and knew that a prayer like that would lead through deeply painful times that would eventually bring depth.
But I wasn’t interested in shallowness and thought it would be worth the price. With the arrogance of youth, I figured I could weather any storm and come out the other end wise and wonderful.
Ah, the overconfidence of youth! Even so, God is very aware of my limits. Françios de Fenelon (17th century French Archbishop) observed, “God never makes you suffer unnecessarily. He intends for your suffering to heal and purify you. The hand of God hurts you a little as it can.”
I have to say that when suffering comes my way, I enter into it kicking and screaming. In my fantasy life, I handle everything with grace and faith. In reality – not so much. Again, Fenelon knew what people were like and said, “Usually you bargain with God to set a limit on your suffering. The same inward waywardness that makes the work of the cross necessary in your life is what will try to push the cross away. God has to start over with you every time you push Him away.” Somewhere along the line, I realized I kept getting the same lessons over and over. Instead of pushing the cross away and having to start back at the beginning, I’m trying to cooperate with the Lord more. I do not want to waste my suffering.
I’m still a work in process. But progress has been made.
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.