“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” Ephesians 4:2
The above verse is one I had known for a long time, and at one point I had even considered myself to be a patient, gentle person. But when my father began to show signs of dementia, I began to suspect that I was possibly not the nice person I had believed myself to be.
When Dad first started showing signs of short-term memory loss, it was something neither of us was ready to accept. He reacted with his own form of denial. When asking me to repeat myself, instead of saying, “I forgot what you just said,” he would say, “I guess I wasn’t paying attention.” Having frequently just come from a day of teaching and dealing with seemingly inattentive high school students, I found myself getting irritated. Why should I bother to tell him things if he’s not paying attention? I would wonder, being in my own state of denial. Deep down I knew there was another problem, over which he had no control and which was only going to get worse with time. I would repeat the statement with a little more intensity (Pay attention this time!) feeling my own level of stress beginning to rise.
Bible verses about patience and kindness and compassion only added guilt to my emotional state, which was already being stretched to limits I was not used to. There were starting to be times when my sweet father could sense my frustration with him, and I’d see tears in his eyes. Knowing I had hurt him broke my heart, but try as I might, I couldn’t get a handle on my own emotions.
One day as I cried out to God, “I can’t do this!” I found myself having returned to Square One, as the basic truth of the Gospel came back like a long-lost friend.
Of course you can’t do this, the still, small Voice whispered. That’s why I‘m here.
Oh yeah, I thought. Duh. I confessed the sin of trying to deal with the situation in my own strength and asked the Lord to please help me.
The first answer to that prayer came in the form of an official medical diagnosis: my father was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. This revelation confirmed that it wasn’t that Dad wasn’t paying attention to what we were saying, he genuinely couldn’t retain it. Still, there were days that even knowing this fact, I felt the impatience, like lava churning underground, disturbingly close to the surface. I continued to ask the Lord for help in behaving appropriately, even if my feelings were being irrational. The fact was, my dad was still one of the sweetest, kindest people on the planet, and he deserved my respect as much as ever, and my compassion even more.
Then one day, in a seemingly unrelated moment, I heard something said that resembled a line in a play I had worked on in college many years ago, triggering a mental recitation of the entire scene. It occurred to me that, had I continued in theater, I would be repeating the same script night after night for as long as the play ran – twice a day if there were matinees. I felt the creativity of the Holy Spirit nudge me with an idea:
Treat Dad as if you’re in a play. I chuckled at the thought.
The next time we were together, Dad began asking me the usual questions, and instead of getting irritated I thought, I know this scene! OK … and playing the actress, I would say my line, wait for his line, and continue the predictable dialogue to its predictable conclusion. Then, when a few minutes later Dad asked the same questions again, I’d treat the conversation like a rehearsal, sometimes experimenting with different inflexions and deciding which one was best.
As the disease progressed and Dad was no longer fighting it, he allowed himself to revert to the level of a little boy – a sweet, adorable little boy that delighted everyone and that everyone wanted to take care of. He was fun-loving in the most child-like ways, and whenever he told his corny jokes that we’d all heard multiple times, we would all laugh together, not necessarily because the jokes were new (far from it) or all that hilarious, but because the warmth of divine love filled the room.
As long as I have been a believer in Jesus, there are still times I need reminding – I can’t do this Christian life by myself. Sometimes I can’t even pinpoint when I let go of the Lord’s hand and started to try going it alone, but the important thing is the coming back. He is more than ready to help, in ways we could never have dreamed up on our own.