There was a time when my wife and I and our six kids would show up at my parents’ house to the smell of home cooked meals and a refrigerator full of each of our favorite things. All in all it was a very typical time at Grandma’s house. My mom’s kitchen was her domain and all growing up none of us kids were allowed in there to help with the cooking or the cleaning. She thrived on serving her family, especially my youngest brother with Downs syndrome who was, we all conceded, her favorite. I do not think in all my years living there that I ever saw her take a nap or just sit and relax until the very end of the day. Then one day we arrived and there were things, like my wife’s half-and-half, not in the refrigerator waiting for her and my mom lying on the couch in the middle of the afternoon. “She’s getting older,” we all said to ourselves and this is all perfectly “normal.” A year later we went to visit and there she was sitting in the kitchen eating yogurt with a steak knife and “normal” never entered our conversation again.
After several tests and doctor’s appointments my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She was only 69 years old. We questioned God’s wisdom in this decision, not understanding what good could possibly come from it. Surely He knew that she was the primary care giver of both my brother and dad up until this time. My folks had a perfect understanding after 50 years of marriage that the inside of the house was my mom’s domain and the outside of the house was my dad’s. My dad didn’t know how to boil water when my mom was first diagnosed and we joked as to whether or not he even knew where the washer and dryer were located. On top of this was my younger brother whose own health was starting to decline and he was becoming even more dependent on the care that my mom provided. Could it really be that God did not know of my mom’s importance to these two men? What good could possibly come out of the suffering that was about to begin?
Almost ten years later I do not ask these silly questions anymore. When my mom got to a stage where she really was not very aware of what was going on around her my brother passed away. He was 40 years old. His final days were spent having discussions with a statue of Mary that sat on the piano and he never went to bed without saying goodnight to her. Through the love and care of both my mom and dad he lived 35 years more than the doctors ever said he would. It was like he waited to pass from this life to the next until a time when my mom would not be so heart broken by his passing. I see God’s wisdom in this, knowing how hard his funeral really would have been for her.
With my dad I have seen a man go from doing little inside the house to someone who cares for my mom with the virtue of a Mother Theresa day after day while he manages all the help that comes his way. He has learned the art of sacrificial love and service. He has help from nurses and cooks and hospice aids and manages their comings and goings with an incredible ease. “She cared for me for the first 50 years and I am happy to care for her for the next 50” he says constantly. He has dived into his faith with a fullness that I had not seen, wanting to know what God has for him now. He does absolutely everything for my mom every day and gets hardly a smile from her in return. Every day I call him he is upbeat and filled with joy that only comes from a person held fast by the grace of God.
The word suffering often has a very negative connotation to it and is something that we try to avoid if we ever have the opportunity. From a Catholic perspective, however, suffering has been looked upon as something that can bring a fruit that is unexpected. Saint John Paul II gave us both a living, as well as written, example of what suffering can be in his apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris (On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering). In that he states:
In order to perceive the true answer to the “why” of suffering, we must look to the revelation of divine love, the ultimate source of the meaning of everything that exists. … Christ causes us to enter into the mystery and to discover the “why” of suffering, as far as we are capable of grasping the sublimity of divine love. In order to discover the profound meaning of suffering . . . we must above all accept the light of revelation. . . . Love is also the fullest source of the answer to the question of the meaning of suffering. This answer has been given by God to man in the cross of Jesus Christ. (SD 13)
We spend so much of our lives trying to avoid suffering and believing that nothing good can come from it. The fruit that this example has been both to me and my children can never be calculated. We have seen a living example of the sacrificial love that God has shown us in his own suffering and the redemption that has come from it. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he talks about his own suffering (the thorn in his side) and how honestly he wanted it to go away. Three times he asked the Lord to take it away from him. This isn’t to be interpreted as only three times but more that he asked the Lord over, and over, and over again. When it was all said and done, however, Paul understood that God’s grace was sufficient for him and that power was made perfect through this weakness. By embracing the suffering that we have been given a power is unleashed that can change the people around us. May we all be so changed.
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