Friday, March 4, 2011

An ear to listen

As I sat in the surgery center waiting room this morning, I struck up a conversation with a woman who was waiting for her husband, who'd had hammer-toe surgery (and by the way, can I just say, "OUCH!" May I never pass that way).  We talked of knitting and our kids, and waiting, and...well, you know how these conversations go.  They wind around between this topic and that, like a braid.  Before I knew it, I'd told her about Mom and her long descent into Alzheimer's, and Grampie's shorter (and still unfinished) journey as well.  She nodded sympathetically, said all the right words, but as though it was a disease entirely unfamiliar to her.

But then she began describing her husband's mother, who lives here in town.  She's a woman who has always been fastidious with her dress and hygiene, who has begun to go days without bathing or even changing her clothes.  And, for no reason whatsoever, this mother gets irrationally angry, or suddenly bursts into tears, which this waiting-room woman and her husband both find inexplicable.  She's always been a calm, peaceful woman, apparently.  Then, the other day, when they were making dinner with her, she turned on a burner then set a cutting board on the hot burner.  They were shocked at the mom, but she laughed it off.

I nodded sagely at this woman.  "You need to get the book, The Thirty-Six Hour Day." I told her.  Unfortunately, all these changes she described are also described in this book--described as clear and certain symptoms of dementia.  I felt badly to be the bearer of such news to this woman, who hadn't considered that this was a possibility.  And I don't like that life (and our parents) have given me such experience that I can recognize what novices do not see.

But the woman asked me many, many questions about Mom, about her care, her slide, about how we handled it all.  And when she was finally called to go to her husband, she came over and gave me a hug.  "Thank you so much for that.  It'll help so much. Now if we can just get her some help."

As she walked away, I thought of the many conversations I've had with people in hospital waiting rooms.  For some reason there's an openness there, a 'we have something important in common' feeling that transcends the stale coffee and worn-out magazines.  Today, as I spoke to the hammer-toe wife, I found that community again. But you know what? That Christ is beneath that community doesn't have to be explicit.  It wasn't today.  But I know that in every conversation, especially when I'm speaking of something difficult and heart-wrenching as a parent's potential deterioration from Alzheimers, He is there.  Sitting there between us, helping me gentle my words, when there's something in me that is shouting, "Holy Mackerel, Andy, OF COURSE SHE HAS ALZHEIMERS!!!" I could have plowed that woman over today, I know I could have.  It was in me to do.  But that would have done nothing good, and only ill to her and between us.

That's it, isn't it?  It isn't only what He speaks through us, but how He slows us down, keeps us from going off half-cocked, barreling over everyone in our paths.  We don't always give Him credit for this.  I mean, it's more obvious when God gives us  the right words.  But what about when He gives us just the right amount of silence, the slowness of tongue that will keep from slicing a person wide open in fear or pain or anger.  He works this way as well, you know.  Actually, if you're like me, and prone to speaking, perhaps this is His biggest job: to still that unruly tongue.

"He wakens me morning by morning,
wakens my ear to listen like one being taught."  Isaiah 50:4

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