You know what participation in the life of God means, right? asked he of the impossible penances. Before I could answer, he continued Part of God, but not really.
Channeling the Desert Fathers, I responded: Like singer and song. Not two, not one.
It seems to me that that concept is not just applicable to the participation in the life of God. I am watching a friend head—rather rapidly—into the darkness of Alzheimer’s disease.
It’s painful to me to watch the man I knew slowly disappearing before my eyes. Painful because I miss the man who was. Painful because I worry for the man who is. Painful because it means changes in my life, unwanted, unwilling changes. Painful because I fear the same fate for myself—don’t we all, especially those of us who make so much of our minds and our intellect?
When I was a child, my great-aunt came to live with us when her husband died and she was no longer able to care for herself, thanks to what was called in those days “hardening of the arteries.” Auntie was a great stress in the house; never a kind or pleasant woman, she became even more paranoid and hurtful, angry and combative as her faculties decreased. Finally—after one too many episodes of leaving a pan unattended on the stove—my mother had to take he to a local old-folks’ home for care. I still remember the nights she would go to visit Auntie and return weeping, unable to care for her own mother’s sister, unable to find her, in those days, any compassionate alternative, grieving and guilty. Auntie’s long decline to death took several years, and it took its toll on all of us.
I was too young to really understand what was happening. I remember my mother telling me not to hold Auntie’s grumbling, accusatory ways against her. She would have preferred me to remember he as she once was—but I didn’t know her any other way. How dreadful to have only fragmentary memories of a broken woman instead of knowing her at her best. I’ve been told by my older brothers that she was something of a pistol—carrying on a years-long affair with a married man that scandalized her Mennonite community, a good looking woman with an abundance of suitors who scorned them all in favor of my great-uncle, no great prize in anyone’s eyes. But poor judgment or not, she was full of life and vital and I never knew that.
She’s not herself, she’s taken leave of her senses, my mother would say.
But in some way she was still herself. I think we couldn’t see it anymore because we are too accustomed to thinking in that Cartesian way: thinking means being and acting is thinking made visible. We are too accepting of a dualism that not only separates mind and spirit from body, it equates person with mind, and mind with biology.
Hence, my mother’s comment. She’s taken leave of her senses.
Too soon, I will lose the ability to interact with my friend in the ways I am accustomed to. He’ll forget who I am; his conversations will wander and make no sense. Already I see the change in his gaze, eyes that see me but don’t see me the same way, the person I love retreating into some distant place I don’t recognize.
And I will be tempted to think that somehow he is gone, because I am not experiencing him in the same way.
But it will not be true. Somehow the person who is my friend is more than just some mathematical combination of his mind and his body held together by his spirit. And I believe that his person still exists even when his illness makes it so very hard for me to connect with him any more. Somewhere, that person continues to exist, and—please God-- to grow toward God, even though I am no longer privy to any of it.
My friend is not taking leave of his senses, he is taking leave of mine.
For he is not just the sum of body and mind, not just some expression of biological processes that has begun to falter. There’s more to life than just the functions of mind and body. I know it even though I cannot explain it just like I know Jesus is present in the Sacrament of the Altar, though I cannot see Him. I suppose faith has to do almost as much with our dealings with each other as it does with God.
So I have faith that my friend will still be present in some way even after the mists of Alzheimer’s have hidden him from my view and muffled my hearing so that I can’t tell he is there.
Like singer and song are my friend and his earthly existence, well or infirm.
Not two. Not one.