I have been working on a restoration and gilding job for some months now. It’s been start and stop because of life events, but also because of unexpected problems that pop up in the work itself. Close to completion a few weeks ago, I rushed the final finish and ruined it. I did it. No one else. I cannot blame anyone else for the stupid mistake I made. And so, with a heavy sigh, I had to take off all I had worked on and start all over again. There was resignation as I realized there would be no profit on this project.
As I was meticulously picking out crud from some crevices with a dental tool, my thoughts turned to spiritual restoration. While it may be hard to fathom, this fastidious process is quite relaxing and meditative. I put on music, and just start to work. Since it will take some time, I don’t hurry and just go inch by inch cleaning the surface, preparing to start again. The thought struck me that this might be a picture of how patiently God works on the restoration of our lives.
Slowly and painstakingly, He works in our lives. His patience is astounding and He doesn’t mind starting over and over again, as often as it takes. Be honest, how often have you gone through something and not learned from it? I cannot count the number of times this has happened to me. I suspect that I’m supposed to learn something from caring for my in-laws that I missed when I was caring for my mother but the lesson keeps eluding me.
Fortunately, He’s not nearly in the hurry we are to complete the process. That may be because He wants relationship. “Come, let us reason together,” He says. “Let’s hurry up and get this done,” I say. I want results. This explains why I keep going around the same mountain – similar to the Israelites when they left Egypt.
I have no words of wisdom, nor thoughtful insights to offer on this. But I think I just got a glimpse into the heart and mind of God. He really loves process. It’s a way to slow us down and engage us. If only I would pay closer attention.
There are times I am amazed at the wonderful man I have for a husband. It’s not that I didn’t date good men when I was young and single, but because I didn’t have a good self-image, I would sabotage those relationships and end up obsessing over men who, frankly, were trouble.
But I did a wise thing in my youth. I prayed a very fervent and sincere prayer. Seeing many of my friends doing foolish and destructive things for ‘love’, I knew that on my own I would make the very same mistakes. So, I cried out to God not to let me settle for second best. In spite of my foolishness and willfulness, He honored that prayer; but I did not make it easy for Him.
Nonetheless, I ended up with a man who is kind and supportive beyond measure. He has been a studio assistant, a copy editor, a compassionate caregiver, a lifter and mover of heavy things and whatever else I’ve needed along the way. He cares for me, encourages me, he’s helped me care for my mother as she descended into Alzheimer’s and now he’s caring for his parents. Just this week, he took care of me as I went through some medical procedures, he cared for his dad as he had to relinquish his driver’s license, and in the middle of the night he cared for his mother’s geriatric cat who is diabetic and was in serious stress of an unknown infection – going to pick up the cat and his parents, taking them to the animal hospital, and caring for his mother as she had to leave her beloved pet for the night. Now he is making sure the cat lives another day by going over twice each day to get antibiotics down her throat, ointment into her eyes, and give her shots of insulin.
His sacrifices for love are monumental. I am truly blessed. I will leave you with this....
Sonnet by William Shakespeare
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O, no, it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his
height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy
lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
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.
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.”
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.