When we first moved my mother-in-law over 2,000 miles to live in an assisted living facility near us, we would have her over for dinner sometimes, take her to my youngest son’s basketball games, and take her to church and other outings.
At one dinner, a favorite family story came up. Some years ago, my mother-in-law inadvertently said something inappropriate, using a term with double meaning of which she was unaware. Everyone laughed because they knew she hadn’t meant it in the way people would take it today. The incongruity of such a thing coming from her made it all the more funny.
As we told the story to our kids, who had either not heard it before or had forgotten it, we all laughed, even my mother-in-law.
After the laughter died down, though, she quietly said, “At least I’m still good for something.”
I don’t know if anyone else heard her say it or caught the significance. But her sentence went like an arrow to my heart. She wasn’t complaining or blaming anyone, but she didn’t feel useful any more.
When we first moved her into assisted living, my husband told her, “You’ll never have to cook to clean again.” That sounded pretty good after 70 or years of those activities.
Her only hobby was reading, and she delighted in being able to read all day to her heart’s content. She had always been a homebody, and just going to meals three times a day with a room full of other people taxed her. When aides would knock on her door to see if she wanted to go see the musicians, the magicians, the church choir, or whomever, she politely declined.
I don’t think she was discontent with her circumstances. But we all want to feel we’re of use in the world. There is a feeling of satisfaction and pleasure when we’ve accomplished something, but she didn’t have anything to accomplish any more.
In “The Grace to Be Diminished,” Win Couchman wrote of turning 80 and having to give up driving, changing from their usual place in the balcony at church to a place on the main floor where they didn’t have to fear falling, her husband’s hearing loss and short-term memory loss which caused him to be “silent and isolated at social functions.” But the “diminishment” that particularly touched my heart was when “one of the women who coordinates the potlucks called me and said with winsome authority, ‘Win, enough already. You have been involved with these evenings for about twenty years now, I think. You have done your bit. We want you and Bob to be at every one, but you are not to bring any more food, you hear?'”
Only then did I realize how the slowness with which I function now, and the accompanying late afternoon fatigue, was beginning to color my anticipation with some dread.
Gladly I responded, “Okay.” It’s awkward to walk into someone’s house on potluck Saturdays empty-handed just as another couple arrives loaded with goodies. In that moment, I silently look to God for the grace to be diminished.
Win and her husband, and I am sure my mother-in-law as well, graciously accepted the decline that comes with age, knowing that:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
Yet I think we should be careful not to diminish them unnecessarily.
In Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Happens in the End, he writes of a woman who was responsible for her father’s care when he could no longer live alone. Yet her desire to keep him safe culminated in his living in a small room with nothing to do, “safe but empty of anything [he cared] about” (p. 109).
What touched off this train of thought today was a section in Anthony Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset, the sixth and last in his Chronicles of Barsetshire series. Mr. Harding was the main character in the first book, The Warden. Now, in the last book, he has become very old and increasingly feeble. He used to love to play the violincello, but can’t manage it any more. “He had encountered some failure in the performance of the slight clerical task allotted to him, and the dean had tenderly advised him to desist.” He loved going to the cathedral every day, to listen to the organ, read a theology book, or just walk around. But his feebleness caused his fearful housekeeper to write to his daughter, who came to encourage him that perhaps his days of walking alone to the cathedral might need to come to an end. He replied, “I do not like not going;—for who can say how often I may be able to go again? There is so little left, Susan,—so very little left.”
That line was heartbreaking—that there was so little left. Eventually Mr. Harding made peace with the fact that God had given him a good life and he had a better one to look forward to. He found the “grace to be diminished” and decline.
Another line in Gawande’s book says, “Making life meaningful in old age…requires more imagination and invention than making them merely safe does” (p. 137).
Hindsight is always so much clearer, of course, but I wish I had made my mother-in-law’s life more meaningful. When she was still able, I wish I had thought of small tasks she could do to help with meals. Cooking had been her love language of sorts. Though we thought we were honoring her by doing for her, perhaps she would have felt more useful with a way to contribute. I could have made a project of putting her photos in albums with her. I did ask about her early life—high school, how she met her husband, etc.–and even learned some things I hadn’t known before. But I wish I had done that more. Although our visiting almost every day and then bringing her home for her last years showed how much we regarded her, I wish I had often told her that we loved her and were happy to have the opportunity to care for her. Though she had intrinsic value as a being created in God’s image, we should have let her know more often that she was valued and important.
As I look ahead to growing older, a couple of passages especially comfort me. One is Isaiah 46:4: “even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.”
Another is Psalm 92:12-15:
The righteous flourish like the palm tree
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the Lord;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
They still bear fruit in old age;
they are ever full of sap and green,
to declare that the Lord is upright;
he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.
During my mother-in-law’s last years, when she slept most of the time, I wondered what kind of fruit she was bearing in that state. A few came to mind. Her godly life—not perfect, but steadily walking with God and seeking to serve Him the best she could in her circumstances. Her uncomplaining patience. Her taking things with humor. Her willingness to “go with the flow.” Her testimony of peace and joy before her caregivers.
I wish these things had come to mind when she wondered what she was “good for.” I trust her Lord’s, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” assured her that He was able to use her in many ways. And I hope that these thoughts will remind me to let others know the ways God used them in my life.
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