The coffee, juice and cookie snack is almost over by 3:30 pm at the Good Samaritan Senior Center. It soon will be time for hymn singing.
My 85-year-old mom, now legally blind and down to saying only “yes” or “no” most of the time, enjoys hearing the great songs of faith—Tell Me the Old, Old Story, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessings, Amazing Grace. Today, it is eighty something Edie Blankenship on the piano, a volunteer whose tight jeans still make her figure look like a teenager. And faithful tenor volunteer Arthur Schwartz is leading the hymn sing—just like he did in my little church in the 1970s.
I am caught off guard at the table companions Mom has selected this day; these are not her usual colleagues. They are Alzheimer resident Harriet Sauer and her daughter-in-law, Val.
Val’s husband, Ted, sits at the table next to us, smiling and listening to our coffee chat. Only 18 months prior, Val and I had talked about her husband’s scary emergency heart surgery. Thankfully, he looks healthy.
Time slows down in a nursing home—sometimes insanely slow for those of us who still mark off “to do” lists and rush from one errand to another. But this day I am reflecting on life’s amazing road. Ted was a couple of years ahead of me in high school, one of the handsomest guys in town. Now, during coffee time and hymn sing, he appears an amiable, balding fellow, not much different looking from a lot of senior guys. This man I can converse with, but in high school I would have not even dared to whisper hello.
All I knew in high school about Ted’s mother, Harriet, was that she and her husband ran a successful business, were Catholics, and probably swore like sailors. I concluded the swearing part because the Sauer’s other son, Bob, daily spewed expletives by my desk in English class. That was all I knew of Mrs. Sauer and her family.
But this day, during coffee time, she and Mom are contentedly sitting together, and Mrs. Sauer is smiling and singing the great hymns of our mutual faith. You can tell she knows and believes the words she sings. In spite of a disease robbing her mind, she has joy.
Jeanne Murray Walker writes in The Geography of Memory that her mother’s Alzheimer’s drew her, the adult daughter, back to a childhood mom through disjointed memories verbally expressed by her ailing parent. In my case, as Mom and I travel this nursing home road together, I experience the thawing of childhood memories as I bump into classmates and their elderly parents at the Good Samaritan Center.
“Why, I haven’t seen you since high school!” I have exclaimed quite a few times. This memory thawing flows into a fuller reservoir that views others less critically, more confidently. Perhaps Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as ourselves is taking hold a little. Indeed, here is some Amazing Grace! I feel blessed and humbled realizing this truth as I look at the beaming face of Mrs. Sauer and Mom’s peaceful smile. A long life certainly can unfold wisdom in some truly unexpected and beautiful ways.
*Author’s note: I have changed the names here to respect the privacy of those involved.