A thankful heart is a content heart
by Sharon Simpson
Recently, I went with an elderly senior from our campus of care to speak with a group of 20-somethings who are studying for their Masters in Counselling Psychology. For the past five years, we have partnered with this program to bring young counsellors into a real experience with the dynamics, issues and family systems that are related to aging and the elderly.
I chose to bring this gentleman because of the transparent conversations I’ve enjoyed with him over the years. He is in his late 80’s and has lived through many dangers, toils, snares, joys and wonders. An immigrant from a Nazi-occupied country, my friend has seen and known things I can barely imagine. He’s lost a son, a wife and many siblings and in-laws. He has wonderfully engaged children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He proudly tells of his great-granddaughter who is the first in his lineage to attend university.
For over an hour, this senior gentleman shared the story of his life with the young students. He shared the challenges of caring for his wife as she suffered, declined and passed away from Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS). He shared how he now needs help with his own daily activities like bathing and dressing. He shared the hard times he’s had with the church’s rules, the demands of his career, his beautiful custom-built home that is now in disrepair with a negligent owner. He has been rich, he has been poor. He has known much, he has known little. He has been an officiant at his grandson’s weddings, blessing them in God’s covenant of marriage. He has struggled with the church, with legalism and with hypocrisy.
He told of the humility it takes to have a strange woman come to bathe him and dress him. For all of his life, only two women had seen him naked – his mother and his wife. And now, there are different women sent from Home Health to bathe him and dress him. He finds it very difficult, but has made his way through it. He needs their help. One of the women shared how they are trained to be professional and he finds that they are. He’s getting used to it.
Throughout his whole life, he whistles or hums or sings. He finds that this fills his mind and doesn’t allow him to think anxious thoughts. And so, he sings in the shower as he receives his morning bath. Soon, the care aide is singing along. Together, they sing a song he learned many years ago, “God is so good… God is so good… God is so good.. He’s so good to me.”
He tells the students that the singing together feels like worship. It feels more like church than church used to feel to him. He has been hurt through church. I don’t know that story, but I can feel the hurt as he contrasts it to his new feeling of “church” in the shower.
He shares his reluctance to have women from other cultures taking care of him. He doesn’t know their culture. He is curious but awkward. He asks about their faith, their customs. Soon, he says, we become friends! He shares how every person is deeply loved by God, is a child of God, is special to God. He is careful to learn their names and pronounce them correctly. He smiles broadly as he tells of his new friendships. He knows that the prejudices he was raised with are rapidly fading and this makes him very happy.
“I don’t pray,” he says. He’s heard many prayers in a formal church environment. He didn’t learn well enough back then, so he doesn’t think he can learn now. He has no confidence in praying or that his prayers are good enough. He tells the class that all he does now is thank God for His great kindness and the beauty of creation. He tells of a flower he found in a crack in the sidewalk. He had not seen this type of flower before. Each day, he examined it and thanked God for the little flower. He noticed that it opened wide in the morning and closed tight in the evening. He loved watching the flower and found his heart overflowing with gratitude that God created that flower and that it was growing in the sidewalk near his apartment.
I smile as I hear him share about his very personal relationship with God – the God who meets him in the shower with a worship song in his heart. He says he’s going to try and get prayer lessons from the chaplain, not realizing that he is teaching us all about true prayer and communion with God.
At one point, we talked about how few elderly seniors have had the opportunity to receive professional counselling. It wasn’t available for them in their younger years and it’s not normal for this age group to seek out this kind of help now. My friend smiled and said, “I’ve had counselling.” He went on to tell us that his wife gave him an ultimatum at one point in their marriage. Go to a counsellor or get out. He went to counselling and God honoured his humility and courage. His marriage had its challenges, but God gave them joy together – even in the eight years of living with ALS. He tells of how his wife’s last words were, “I love you.” She was more a woman of action and he had rarely heard her say these words in their lives together. He cherishes those words, and holding her as she passed away in his arms.
There were tears in the classroom that day – and laughter. He is an excellent storyteller and the punchlines were perfect. The tears were honest and came from the deepest places – empathy for sure, but also fear. Each of these young counsellors will enter wholly into the lives of those who seek their help and there will be times when the stories strike a chord of their own vulnerability and fear. What if I have to care for a spouse with ALS? How will I do? What if I were to go bankrupt or lose a child? What will life be like for me when I have someone undress me, bathe me and dress me each day? How will I be when these are parts of my own life?
The hour we spent together with the students was sacred space. Everyone in the room felt it. God was sharing through this man’s heart.
Sharon Simpson is the director of Communications and Stakeholder Engagement at Menno Home in Abbotsford, BC.