It’s 5:30 a.m. and the phone is ringing again. Mike is so exhausted he doesn’t hear this time and I don’t hear his sister stirring, either. This is an answer to prayer because I want them to be able to rest. I get up to take the early morning shift.
I’m not quick enough and the answering machine is getting it, but I’m not concerned. It will ring again and as I reach the bottom of the stairs, it starts. I’m thankful he’s forgotten about the cell phones. Mike’s is in the bedroom and it’s jolted him awake several times already.
“Hello?” I answer.
“Uh, well…uh, is this Mike?”
“No, Dad. It’s Donna.”
“Can I talk to Mike?”
“No, Dad. It’s 5:30 and he’s in bed. He needs to sleep and I’m not waking him up.”
“Oh. Uh. Well, do you have a minute?”
“Yes, Dad,” and I sit on the stairs. It will be a while.
“I’m completely bewildered. I can’t find Anne.”
“No, Dad. She died.”
“No, Mike’s mother. Anne. Your Anne has died.”
“My mother, Anne?”
“No, Dad. Your wife.” His mother’s name was not Anne.
“How did that happen.”
“Her lungs wore out, Dad.”
“Where was I?”
“You were holding her hand.”
“Here in the house?”
“Yes, Dad, the apartment. You were holding her hand, I was reading the psalms to her, and Mike was stroking her hair.”
“Did she suffer?”
“No, Dad. It was peaceful.”
“Why can’t I remember?”
“Your memory has been bad for a few years, now.” He will accept this from me. He called Mike a liar last night.
“I can’t remember any of this.”
“Is Mother with you?”
“No, Dad. She died.”
“Was there a funeral?”
“No, Dad. It will be Friday.”
“What day is today?”
“What should I do?”
“Go back to bed, Dad.”
“I found a note here. Did something happen?”
“Mom’s gone, Dad.”
“I have to go get her.”
“You can’t, Dad. She’s died. We’ll have a private viewing today. Your daughter came to town yesterday and spent the day with you and we’re going to go see Mom one last time.”
“At 11 o’clock.”
“Will I go?”
“Yes, Dad. We’ll come get you.”
“Has there been a funeral?”
“Has something happened?”
And on it goes for another five minutes or so. Suddenly he’s done and hangs up.
I go to make a cup of coffee and clean up the kitchen a bit.
The phone rings.
The bitterly cold weather we’ve been having lately, has reminded me of something that happened years ago. When I was a young woman, I worked a midnight shift job to put myself through college. Every other Thursday, we had to go to the main office to pick up our checks. (This was way before direct deposit.) One particularly icy day, I was in the parking lot when I slipped and fell. I was stunned and in some pain. A young man ran up, looked down at me and asked, “Are you okay?”
“No,” I croaked, lying there.
He blinked, straightened up, walked to his car and drove away. I was left lying on the frozen ground to fend for myself. He didn’t offer to help me up; he didn’t go back into the office to get help. He just drove away. I kid you not.
About a decade later, I was in another situation where I was left high and dry. My husband had just lost his job. The company he’d worked for sold off his division and the new company gave his position to the owner’s daughter. Almost immediately after receiving this news, I got a phone call from a complete stranger from the church we were attending who’d been given the assignment of starting a small group. With barely an introduction, the woman on the phone told me (told, not asked) to bring enough food to feed a small army the following Friday to her house. Still reeling from the news, I told her my husband had just lost his job and I wasn’t sure how we were going to eat, let alone feed another fifteen people. She didn’t offer to help. She didn’t even offer to pray. She just hung up. I never heard from her or the small group again. We drifted away from any church for a few years.
I have forgiven these people, or at least I’m working on it. But it does rather strike me that many people who claim to follow Christ behave in very callous ways. They may act concerned, as the young man did, or not act concerned at all, like the woman on the phone. When faced with real need they simply walk away. I don’t think its lack of concern. Rather, they just don’t know what to do. The Church, as a whole, does not disciple people well. It seems many churches are more concerned about being entertainment, rather than places of truth and healing. As a result, most Christians are ineffectual in handling the pain that people experience in everyday life. They may offer some useless platitude (for example, misquoting Romans 8:28) and walk away, leaving the person that’s in pain as bad as they found them, if not worse.
There is a better way. We can all be trained to be caregivers. It’s not rocket science, but it will get you out of your comfort zone. We can be taught to do the work of listening. Work? Yes. Listening requires much personal involvement and commitment. If you’re waiting for someone to stop talking so you can say your bit, you aren’t listening. Listening takes desire, commitment and patience. Listening requires you notice what’s being said and what’s not being said. Listening is an art, and art requires time and training.
Sometimes, it only takes a simple outstretched hand, to help someone who has slipped on the ice.
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.