By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published September 7, 2023
She is lying in bed and stares at me without an ounce of recognition. “Hi, Mom, it’s Lolo,” I announce cheerfully. “I’ve come to visit you.”
There is no response, though, so I sit on the bedside chair and continue talking, telling her funny stories about the past. The times when her mother, Gladys, would roll out pie dough in the kitchen and then decide the consistency was wrong, so she’d go outside and hurl the dough over the back fence.
I embellish the tale by adding that a neighborhood dog would eat the dough and eventually he got so fat, he couldn’t fit into his doghouse. My mother-in-law used to laugh with me at this point, but today she just stares.
I show her a video on my phone of a butterfly dancing on a flower; a hummingbird at the feeder; my cat lying on his back with his paws reaching heavenward. Again, there’s no response, but I hope that in her own way, she’s experiencing a moment of joy.
My memories brim with images of her before dementia ravaged her mind. She was a schoolteacher and an artist, and she dressed in bright colors with dangling earrings and her signature high heels. She was a witty conversationalist who loved a good story. The nagging questions come quickly. What happened to the person she used to be? Will I someday be like her?
It’s been a few months since I’ve been to the nursing home, because it’s painful to see her. The last time I went to confession, I mentioned this to the priest, and he gently reminded me: “You’re visiting Christ.”
On an intellectual level, I know this is true, because I’ve read Matthew 25: 31-46 many times, but sometimes we need someone like this priest to shake us up. It takes deep faith to look at a bedridden woman, staring blankly into space, and see beyond the externals.
The secular world puts little value on people like my mother-in-law, but I have come to see that they are God’s gifts to us. We get to stoop down and wash their feet. We get to slake their thirst and feed them. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me.”
There is a connection with the Eucharist, since it also takes faith to believe the bread becomes Christ’s body and the wine becomes his blood. Skeptics scoff at this, and say it’s impossible, but Christ said: “With God all things are possible.”
In the eyes of the world my mother-in-law is a burden, and some would opt for “mercy killing” to end her suffering. Still, like the tiniest baby in the womb, she is a treasure of immeasurable value. Caryll Houselander writes, “We shall perceive Christ in others only if we realize that he is hidden in his Risen Life…we can discern him only with the eyes of faith.”
Sometimes my faith wavers, and she becomes merely an old woman who is heart-breakingly helpless, and nothing more. Then I remember the remarkably honest words a man spoke to Jesus, after asking him to heal his son: “I do believe, Lord. Help my unbelief.”
I also reflect on what Jesus said to an ailing woman: “Daughter, your faith has healed you.” Sometimes our faith can transform our hearts, so we can see the world differently.
On my visit that day, I prayed for my mother-in-law and made the sign of the cross on her forehead before leaving. I promised I would be back again soon. I don’t expect she will know who I am, but I trust the one hidden in her heart will recognize me at once.