Today I changed my father’s diaper.
He is mostly helpless, half paralyzed from a stroke and, at 97, weakened. Congestive heart failure and dangerously low blood pressure had already sidelined my father. Now he cannot swallow and must be fed through a peg in his stomach. He has lost 30 pounds. Every bone showing, he looks like a camp survivor.
I have come to spend a week with him, and my sister—with whom he lives—shows me how to “transfer” him into and out of bed, onto the portable commode, into his arm chair. He uses a hospital urinal but he is one-handed so I must help him. Because he “eats” through a plastic tube, he suffers from bouts of diarrhea. I have to clean him up. I make his meals, puree them in a Vitamix and pour the odd cocktail into a bag that drips like an IV into his belly. I grind his pills, dissolve them in water and inject them with a syringe into his feeding tube. It feels like a hospital. I feel like a nurse. I help him take a shower. I comb his hair.
Only a mindless soul can avoid the thought: This is me in a few years. (That is, if I am ordained to live this long.) The progression of human life is fairly clear—we begin in powerlessness, go on to master ourselves and control our world, then return to powerlessness. That prospect can loom like a death sentence, unless we have learned all along the way to accept our weaknesses and allow them to become the source of divine power within us. Jesus says to his disciples, “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18). In other words, prepare now for that day. Start now to stretch out your hands (a posture of openness to receive the care and love of others); practice now going where you do not wish to go.
A woman said to me last night at a dinner party, “In order to become partner, my husband had to check that box, ‘Willing to Relocate Anywhere.’ He said it was unlikely we’d be transferred overseas, but asked if there was anywhere off limits. I told him I would never go to China or India. Of course, a few months later he came home with papers for India. After three years we had to leave, but the kids and I wanted to stay—we loved India!”
Controlling our lives, our destiny—the thing we so anxiously seek—isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It leads to smallness of heart and mind. It leads to fear, anxiety and anger (because life is great and surging and always breaks our feeble attempts to tie it down exactly where we want it). But when we relent even just a little and allow life to lead us where the Author of life is leaning, we find a blessedness, a joy, a rest—a strength that is both beyond us and deep within us.
Stretch out hands. Go where you do not wish to go. Practice it now, before you have to. It’s the way life is meant to be lived.