One November, Lent came early and grabbed hold of me and my family like a beast with tentacles, choking the life out of us.
My father had just gone into nursing care when suddenly my mother was taken to the ICU and the doctors told us she had only days to live. Shifting our worry from one parent to the other shocked us, especially given the dire prognosis. While my mother survived that week, she was taken to the hospice center for her final days. With lots of prayers and support, she surprisingly improved enough to be taken to the nursing home to be near my father and receive hospice care there; death was no longer a matter of days away. However, as she was being carted in one door of the facility, they were taking my father out the other to the hospital. He had declined rapidly, and in a few days he was then taken to the hospice center where my mother had just been.
With both parents now dying, it was a very dark time for my siblings and me. My father passed that December and my mother in January. The last good day my father had was Thanksgiving, and my mother’s was Christmas. At the time it seemed unbearable. So much, so close together. One of the things that helped us through was seeing the love my parents had for each other, how they would visit each other and always hold hands. Another thing was their deep faith and how that prepared them for those final days and their passing home to God. Their faith deepened our faith.
How do we survive those times that overwhelm us with illness, pain, and even death? I think what helped me and my siblings was allowing those weeks to be seen in a broader perspective. My parents had been married for 60 years—and what a gift that had been. They also approached the end with a faith they had nurtured their whole lives. They knew this was their destiny, and they were at peace with it. What a grace and what a witness that was. Is this not the movement from Lent to Easter, from death to resurrection, that’s rooted in the Paschal Mystery itself? We certainly can’t avoid death nor deny its agony and pain, but, with the eyes of faith, we can look through it and beyond it to the source of all Life that awaits us in eternity.
When I was in the Army I had a First Sergeant who, when things got hectic, would say “life’s rough but it’s fair.” For the longest time, especially as I began going through some personal issues, I disagreed. It wasn’t too long ago that I learned what he meant. Top (slang for 1st Sgt), you were smarter than I gave you credit for!
Life is tough. The Brady Bunch perfect existence simply isn’t the truth. Sometimes I think we try too hard to make life perfect. Take for example the holidays. Many people report being disappointed or de-pressed at that time of year. Thing is, for one reason or another, their idea of a perfect holiday, the Saturday Evening Post cover of grandma with the turkey or Santa at the tree just doesn’t happen. Family separations, either by job, sickness, death, children, or other reasons, disrupt our memories and how we see those days, and they can become unbearable for some.
Unfortunately, that happens to many of us who have had to con-front our emotions while mourning a major change in our lives. Nothing is ever the same. The world has shifted and there is no longer a sense of normal. We become shaken, our hearts broken, and, at least early on, we don’t see ourselves ever loving or truly living again. Many of us bury these feelings. We want the world to think that everything is alright. That may work for a while, until everything bubbles to the top and we explode in a volcano of hurt.
That is the hard part; now comes the fair part. We don’t have to bury everything deep down. We don’t have to be alone. God, through our lives, provides us with people who care and who will understand, hold us when we cry, and eventually challenge us to move forward in life. Sometimes that means getting professional or pastoral help. Family, friends, counsel-ors, clergy, are all there to walk with us. We just have to allow them to be there. The fairness comes with the challenge to move forward - balancing the gap in our lives, remembering that the sense of emptiness will, in one form or another, always be there as we move toward what lies ahead. We never forget the loss, but we incorporate it into who we are, and then use that love and energy to forge ahead. I know from my own life it’s not easy. Our lives are constantly shifting because of it but it is life nonetheless, and there is the “fair” balance we constantly strive for.
For those of us who are the sound-ing boards, the support, the loved ones, it’s important to know that sometimes there is nothing we can say. Sometimes all we need to do is hold someone’s hand and truly listen; not try to solve the problem, but let our friend speak. There are times when we sit quietly and share a moment, watch a movie, go out to eat, anything just to let our hurting friend know that we are present and we love them. Our job is to walk with our loved one, holding each other up in love as the Father loves us. Yes, life is hard and fair, but we may not see the fair until we come out of the other side of the hard.
A few days ago, I buried a wonderful woman of 91 years who had raised an equally wonderful family. She had lived all her life in Northern Indiana, but now her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren lived in seven different states, and only one son lived within 100 miles of her. This is not an unusual situation at all. How do you care for your elderly parents when you live so far away?
My mother lived her last years in Wisconsin, where I was born and raised. During my mother’s last years, I was assigned first to Denmark in Europe, then to the state of Georgia, then to Indiana – all seemed so far from my mother’s home. I have a sister who lives in California, but it was my older sister who lived with my mother and cared for her. She did a very good job.
I have learned three principles about how an extended family cares for its elderly. The first thing that a geographically-dispersed family must remember is that taking care of your elderly parents is the job of the entire family. Each son and daughter might carry out that responsibility in a different way, but it’s your job to do something.
Secondly, sometimes one sibling takes on the special role of immediate and primary caregiver. This is not unusual. When you were kids, you often had different chores. My older sister took care of my mother on behalf of the entire extended family, and the rest of us owe her for that. Which brings me to my third principle:
The primary caregiver makes a big sacrifice, often for many years, and the rest of the family owe her/him both respect and support. My older sister took a different career path because she chose to make taking care of our elderly parents a priority. Now that both my par-ents have passed on, my older sister has made much less money over the decades, has a much smaller pension and owns much less property than my younger sister, who got to prioritize other things. This is not an injustice; it’s the way families work. We respect my older sister for that, and she respects our role. Now, however, the rest of the family owes my sister not only deep gratitude and respect, but monetary compensation as well.
I am a Franciscan friar with a vow of poverty – I have no great wealth to give my sister. Luckily, my entire extended family is close-knit, so cousins and in-laws and my younger sister all make sure that my older sister need not suffer because of her service to the family. It makes me all the more aware that I am the “family priest” and I owe all my relatives a keen interest in their religious development and well-being.
In my family, this is simply our tradition. But I do not think that it is merely “ethnic” – it is an application of Catholic teaching. In her book A Catholic Guide to Caring for Your Aging Parents (Loyola Press 2006), Monica Dodds points out that when the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the 4th commandment, “Honor your father and your mother,” it summarizes the duties of adult children, grandchildren, more distant relatives, civil authorities, fellow citizens, the world community, and the Church – because they are all part of my family, and must take care of our beloved elderly together!