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.
GLENDA COSENZA says
Beautiful. My mom has just passed and while I didn’t have to attend to her as you describe in this essay, I watched her slowly and gently fade away — quiet and graceful as she was in her life. I saw them try to feed her and make her drink but when they left her to her own “will”, she refused all nourishment. Her inner self had decided it was time to go. I am now thinking about my own “end time” because I, like she, am alone. I have family nearby but no children or grandchildren and I must — as she did, provide for myself and make sure I am cared for. “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”. That applies to us both.
Michael Anderson says
Thank you, David, for your care for our father and for the reflection on what this all means. Bless you, dear brother.
Kathy Hale says
Thank you. I’ve been on the caregiver side several times and love the lesson you have shared.
Dawn Stegelmann says
Bless you, David.
Barrie and Patrick Summers says
We will hold your Father, You, and the Family in our prayers.
Love, Peace, and Light, Barrie and Patrick
Rowena Kemp says
Thank you so much for this reflection, David. I am presently at a crossroad and your words brought light to my situation. Blessings as you and your family continue to lovingly care for your dad!
David Anderson says
Thanks for your prayers for my Dad. I wanted to add–on a personal note–that he got stronger the week I was there, and has only improved in the last few days. My sister said today he was even eating a bit by mouth, which would be a huge lift for him. So, I’m really thankful for his progress, and hopeful for his future.
Leelee Klein says
A beautiful and touching testimony.
Gloria Hayes says
I too had a very long lived parent. It is humbling and wonderful at the same time. Thank you David for expressing it so beautifully.
Ginny Lovas says
Nurse’s fight with themselves, I think. They are the caregivers. It is not suppose to be the other way around.
I am now in the very beginning stages of having to look at what will probably happen in the near future. I have even threatened to write my own Nursing Care Plan. The problem I have is feeling that I should not “bother anyone when I need help” I think in some ways, we all feel that way as we get older. While we need to know that aging is on its way, it is hard not to fight it, even tho we already feel it – at least some of us do!
What you did for your Dad was just wonderful for both of you. I am so glad that he is feeling a little better.
God Bless you, Ginny
Linda Smith says
This is wonderful David..prayers for your dad, he is stilled needed and his mission is not done…we all have so much to learn from others and those whom we love……amen xxxxxx Linda
My prayers are with you and your family. Thank you for the words. Peace, Johnna
Meredith K says
“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.”
You never know when life will change and so suddenly you won’t have a choice if you want to stretch out your hands for help from others and from God. In asking for help, we become stronger and more loving. At least that’s what the past year has taught me.