I get dressed in the early Sunday morning darkness, the memory of Saturday with dad still sticking in my throat. It was a tough one. Full of dad's confusion and frustration, and of my attempts to explain and console. So, I wake early, with worries on my heart. I chose a white sweater with the word "Peace" in shimmering silver letters. It's my prayer, and a sort of benediction I say over myself, and over my dad as I prepare to spend another hospital morning keeping his company.
In my years of working with the elderly, I've seen it all before. I'm not unfamiliar with the forgetfulness, the insistence that things are different than they appear, the frustration, even the anger that the elderly and confused can exhibit.
But its never been my dad before.
And so, of course it feels different. And even though I know its not personal, it hurts me on a personal level and leaves me feeling vulnerable and sad. This is my dad we're talking about: that strong leader type guy who people looked up to and respected. And now, he appears to be just another old guy in a hospital gown, convinced he can walk home, and that we, his family are standing in his way. Making trouble for him.
When we were kids in Sunday School, why my dad was still strong and served as Deacon, we used to sing a song that went like this:
"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days, all the days of my life;
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days, all the days of my life.
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever,
And I shall feast at the table spread for me;
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days, all the days of my life."
My sister heard it this way: "Shirley, Goodness, And Mercy shall follow me", and she wondered aloud to our mother- "What sort of dress did Mercy wear?"
It's a good question, even now. When you're feeling sad and vulnerable, how can you recognize mercy if you're not sure what dress to look for? What will she look like?
Time spent with people in their days of fading light can be painful.
Sometimes impossibly boring.
At times it reduces me to big giant baby status, and I'm clamouring again for validation and approval. Begging for scraps as though I am not already enough.
Sometimes, the people you show up to sit with and love are a bit angry, and because their thinkers are kind of tanked, they're sort of peevish and quite insistent that you're making life difficult for them. Even though you know you just want to ease their pain. And then it all begins to feel a bit intense and a lot impossible, so you find yourself in the corridor with a few tears splashing down.
Weirdly and most unexpected- Mercy shows up wearing second hand sweatpants and a yellow hospital gown. Her eyes meet yours and within them, you see just enough kindness and goodness. She says she understands, she knows it hurts and she gives a big generous hug. She is well disguised as you hadn't quite envisioned Mercy as a home-schooling, unemployed mother of five doing her best with nowhere near enough funds.
But she too has a dad who she loves. Who yells at her for losing his walker, when the truth is she has secured it so that he won't fall, thinking of himself as well and able bodied. She brings all her children to the hospital with her, they wait at the end of the hall while she cuts his meat and spoon feeds him pineapple tidbits and chocolate pudding from a tray. He yells at her, and she tells him that she loves him. That she will keep showing up and sitting with him for eight hours at a time, feeding him meals and keeping him safe because she doesn't want him suffering with a broken hip or a broken leg, or the broken heart of being left alone.
I sit just behind the curtain and let the tears fall. There's no privacy here for family dynamics. I've heard her dad slam his fist and raise his voice in frustration. She has heard my dad insist that its time to go home, ask me if I've milked the cow, call me stubborn.
Sometimes, through the thin curtain, we stifle giggles and sighs, listening in on each other's joys and agonies whether we want to, intend to, or not.
Later in the evening when the daughter has left with her family, more guests arrive for her father. I sit quietly on our side of the tiny room, grateful for the rest that has finally come over my dad's mind and body. It's the man's relatives this time, or maybe the elders from his church. They speak to him in hushed tones and offer to pray for him, asking for strength to return to his bones. He tells them how his daughter makes him suffer and I want to defend her through my curtain, ask them to know her heart as well. The couple ask him- would you like a song? And they sing to him of "Hertzen" and "schmertzen". I can't help but laugh a little, even as I swab my eyes and cheeks- In German, even the words "I love you" sound terrifying in their throaty, spitty, hacking "ICH LIEBE DICH!" Silent no longer, I hear myself say- "What does "schmertzen" mean?"
Pain, the man says, and peeks at me from his side of the partition.
We want to pray for your dad, too, the man says. We will pray for him at home, if you like.
Peace, I say. Please pray for peace.
Goodness and Mercy.
They show up in outfits I really hadn't expected. Dresses that I would have dismissed as inadequate, inferior, dare I say- beneath me. But still they come to me wearing ugly hats and dirty jackets, stringy hair, and bad teeth. Practical shoes, head coverings, tired churchy words.
And I recognize that Mercy's dress is nothing at all what I had expected and that
It is enough.
It is more than enough.