In her essay ‘Thoughts on the Meaning of Frailty,’ Wendy Lustbader, M.S.W. encapsulates many people’s thoughts on aging, “We have come to fear frailty more than death. We imagine being “put” in a nursing home, like a jar on a lonely shelf. Will a parade of paid strangers take care of me someday? Such images have become the focal point of our fear. Frailty coupled with abandonment has become our most dire existential dread.”
Compassion & honor
My own journey of care for my now deceased father taught me much. I had emerged into adulthood a rebellious long haired hippy that was both incomprehensible to my parents and profoundly rebellious and disrespectful of them. Oh there were reasons for my rebellion in my so called “dysfunctional” family. However despite the fact that relationship with my father had been fraught with conflict and periods of estrangement, his demise into painful failing health, coupled with his expressed emotional need of my support, allowed me to see him with more compassion than I had previously been able to muster.
I considered his childhood and saw the seeds of his chronic anger and abuse. I found a way to simply think better of him than I had. To “honor” him in my heart if you will. I also began to see positive qualities that he had imparted to me. No one is all bad, felt love enables us “see” the positive, indeed Paul’s prayer in Philippians 1:9 seems to show that love and true understanding of a person are related. “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern”
New language of love
There was no fruit to be found in going over old ground, in “being right,” but through the lens of my forgiveness, I was able to discover a new language of love toward my frail father. I gently hugged him on visits and determinedly kissed him as I arrived and left. I also told him that I loved him. It is the stuff of the departure lounge in an airport. We say and do things we might otherwise never have the emotional courage or motivation to express. In this space I prayed for my Dad who, at the last, received Christ as his saviour. In my last visit with him, one of many “death bed” trips I made back to England, and accompanied by my 10 year old son, we prayed at his hospital bedside. Something urged me to ask him for “a father’s blessing.”Although he scarcely knew what I was asking for, he placed his hand on me and prayed a stanza from the Lord’s Prayer. Neither my son or I will ever forget the last time we saw him.
Lustbader recounts a moving experience in her book Counting on Kindness: The Dilemas of Dependency1. “My patient was a large man, and the dead weight of his stroke made it impossible for his tiny wife to move him at all. His son agreed to come over and learn how to do a wheelchair transfer, but he came in looking so hostile I wanted to call off the whole thing. He didn’t even say hello. I explained that he had to grip his father in a bear hug and then use a rocking motion to pivot him from the bed to the wheelchair. The son went over to the bed where his father was sitting and put his arms around him, just like I said. He got the rocking motions going, but then, all of a sudden I realized that both of them were crying. It was the most amazing thing. They stayed like that for a long time, rocking and crying. This son was moved to linger in his father’s arms for the first time since boyhood. Unexpected embraces, uncharacteristic expressions of feeling — these are only some of the ways that relationships grow through frailty’s demands. We prefer to go on fending for ourselves, but the triumph of doing so can turn into a regretted isolation. To let go, to depend, to accept tender attention may satisfy yearnings long contained.”
The best may be to come
Relationships are complex and hurts may run deep, however our increasingly frail and failing loved ones are vulnerable, fearing aloneness, and may be more open to deep connection than any time in their lives. It is easy to underestimate the impact of touch and simple pure hearted affection. Allow the Spirit to lead, and take faith that God can leave the most tender and best connection with your ailing parent to the end.
1. Lustbader, W., 1991. Counting on Kindness: The Dilemas of Dependency. New York: Free Press.