She is sitting on a chair in her bedroom. I show her the new pants and blouse. “Try them on mom. I got them for you.”
“Oh, I don’t need any new clothes.” She gestures to a pile of folded shirts on her dresser.
“Mom, you are holding up your pants with safety pins. That blouse is worn thin.”
She slowly pulls on the new pants, then stands and hitches them over her narrow hips. I help her button the blouse. We both like the results. “You look great mom.”
She smiles, then announces, “After ninety the worst is over.” We observe a thoughtful silence, and then burst into laughter. Eyes twinkling, she says, “Then they dress you. They fix your breakfast.”
The good news from Irma: if you are over ninety, relax. The worst is over. If you are not, take heart, the best is yet to come.
When I was a child the word used for senile dementia was “childish.” Uncle Lou was “getting childish.” Grandpa “was childish.” That meant that they were older and acted young somehow. Because of this, we were to understand and watch over them a little more. It was a gentle term, a matter of fact acceptance. When mother returned from visiting blind Aunt Ethel in the rest home, who, after she broke her hip, never got out of bed again, mom would say, “Aunt Ethel told me to go out back and get a chicken and dress it and make her some chicken and noodles. She doesn’t know where she is. She’s getting childish.” Mom would fix chicken and noodles with a store bought chicken and take them to her anyway.
The house I grew up in is the kind of place where God shuffles around in his jammies and house slippers like part of the family – deeply loved and cherished, but not made a big fuss over. Mother grew up Quaker and married my Mennonite father, whose family descended from the Swiss Anabaptists of the Reformation period. In some kind of compromise they became Presbyterian. When I told a seminary professor about my parents’ religious pedigree, he remarked, “Well it confirms what I have always felt. Presbyterianism is many people’s second choice.”
Mother’s pastor brings her communion. She is grateful for the fellowship, but I wonder if the sacrament seems redundant to this old Quaker, already immersed in the Light. When she prays for me and my daughter before our Christmas dinner, she draws the words up from some deep place and forms them with a conviction that leaves me shaken.
My mother’s house has many rooms of treasures. If you come to visit, some of her childishness may rub off on you – her simplicity, transparency, and sense of humor. When two hip twenty-something graphic designers from a big city came for Thanksgiving, they were entranced by the carvings, my deceased father’s fifty year old book on design, the advertising in old magazines, and the relics of native Americans my father found.
The young men rooted around with my daughter in closets and basement, amazed and delighted. Because they had been raised well, they recognized “childishness” and listened to Mom’s stories with kindness and gentleness. Mother showed the same politely curious interest in the tattoos, which covered most of one of the visitor’s arms, as he did in her apple dolls.
Then the visitors all went out to play across the street on the swings and toys in the school yard, snapping photos on their iphones to send to their friends. They arrived early and stayed late. It was nearly midnight before Mom and I turned in on that magical day.
A poem by Thomas Merton has been coming to me lately:
Come my love
pass through my will
as through a window
shine on my life
as on a meadow
I, like the grass,
to be consumed
by the rays of the sun
on a late summer’s morning.
The poem is based on St. Johnof the Cross’s poem, The Dark Night of the Soul. In the poem John compares the soul to a window. He sees the spiritual journey as the process of cleansing and removal of anything in us that might impede or distort the Light of Christ as it passes through our lives. In this process we become more and more transparent and childlike.
My mother drinks her tea this morning as she watches a squirrel and a cardinal at the feeder. “I am remembering,” she says. “I am remembering how when I was a kid and would get upset or complain about something, Pop would say, ‘Oh that ain’t nothing to worry about.’”
“Gosh mom, that doesn’t sound very empathic.”
“Well that is what he would say. ‘Oh, that ain’t nothing to worry about.’” And she smiles out the window.
I want God to pass through me like a window, to shine on my life as on a meadow. I want to be consumed as the grass on a midsummer day. I can ask for it, pray for it, but I think it ain’t nothing to worry about. In the end such childishness is given simply, quietly in the gracious surrender to growing old.
Mother puts down her tea cup and says, “After ninety three things get interesting. It is like reading a book backwards. I never understood before why people would look at the end of a book and read it first. It is smooth going. You can do what you want. People don’t expect much of you. They think you are childish. They try not to laugh, but you can see they are just dying.
I don’t let on I know.”
This post is adapted from Holy Ground, Vol. 19, No. 4 Winter 2009. Holy Ground is a quarterly reflection on the contemplative life, written by Loretta F. Ross, and published by The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer.
Go here to read the entire issue online. Download a FREE copy of Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter 2009.