Recently, I went to visit my mom. She is living at my daughter and her husband’s AFH and has been for the last year. Alzheimer’s seems to be winning the battle for her mind, and every month changes in her behavior are evident. Most days, she struggles to participate in conversation, and appears to be unsure who I am. On this particular day, her caregiver wanted to show me a book she had bought the day prior. It was called, “I Wasn’t Ready To Say Goodbye.” My mom didn’t remember buying the book, and seemed puzzled why she did? She looked at the title, rolled her eyes, and showed no interest in the book that only the day before must have struck a cord with her. As I sat there, I choked down tears, and wondered if that book would be of help to me!
My visits with my mom are complicated emotionally. On one hand, the sight of her deteriorating is so deeply painful. I never leave feeling good; but rather am filled with grief. I long for what could have been. On the other hand, my heart takes delight that I have any time with her at all. Before my dad passed away a year and a half ago, our relationship was fractured and for the better part of 7 years; we didn’t see much of each other at all. I have chosen to see our time as a “cup half full” after initially questioning why God had allowed the time we had left to be hindered by this disease. My struggle led me to decide to trust in God’s goodness despite my lack of understanding.
And so, I hang on to the moments I do have, moments like one that happened several weeks ago. We had a family gathering at my house and my mom was there. Sitting across the table, she smiled at me and said to my daughter, “She and I have been friends for a long time….we go way back.” Kelsey my daughter replied, “Oh is that right?” after which my mom said, “Yes, I’d like to take her home, she’s a keeper”. We all chuckled at the obvious, but inside I had to wonder, “Would she have said this to me if she didn’t have Alzheimer’s?” It’s entirely possible that with her memory fully intact, our time together now would be very uncomfortable in a much different way. How do I know we would have been able to work through the very difficult issues of our past? I thank God for giving me time with her, time that is obviously short, but nonetheless sweet. And yet if I were honest, I don’t see her as much as I could and maybe should.
Why? It’s hard to say goodbye. Some people avoid it at all costs; I know I do. Let’s face it; good-bye’s can be very painful and awkward. Recently, I found myself resisting the idea of saying goodbye to the people I have worked along side for 17 years. I was informed that they were planning to send a letter announcing my resignation and thanking me for my years of service….a month before my last day of employment. I knew what this would mean. I would have to face people, people I care about, and engage in emotional conversations. I didn’t want to, but it was evident that no digging my heels in was going to change the course of action being planned. I was going to be forced into saying Goodbye, and I wasn’t ready.
I don’t know if Jesus was ready to say Goodbye to his friends and disciples, but he did. We read of three different times in the New Testament where he chose to discuss what he knew was coming to those closest to him. Matthew writes about one such time in chapter 20 of his book: 17 As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside and spoke to them privately, as they walked along. 18 “Listen,” he told them, “we are going up to Jerusalem, where the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the teachers of the Law. They will condemn him to death 19 and then hand him over to the Gentiles, who will make fun of him, whip him, and crucify him; but three days later he will be raised to life. (GNT) By example, Jesus teaches us that perhaps the most loving thing we can do for others is not avoid the subject of goodbye, but rather embrace it. But notice how he did so. He didn't sugar coat the truth or gloss over the painful ending to come. No, he spelled out the facts in a way that gave them hope: his difficult ending was leading to new life.
Hope is a precious commodity in the midst of a painful goodbye. My friend Marsha is a hospice nurse. Listening to some of the conversations she has with patients and their families, I have come to believe she is the master at difficult goodbyes. Recently, she went to visit a patient in her 90’s. Her daughters answered the door, and walked her into the bedroom. Left alone, Marsha’s examination and experience told her that the woman was getting close to death. Rather than avoiding the obvious and realizing the woman was unaware her time was short, Marsha initiated a difficult conversation by asking: “Do you know what is happening to your body?” The woman replied no. Marsha explained she was dying and tears spilled out onto the wrinkled cheeks as she began to sob. When asked what she was feeling, she choked out her response, "I don't want to go!" More questions revealed that it was very sad to leave her family. When asked, "What brings you comfort?" this grieving woman mentioned "I haven't been able to read my Bible for several days".
Marsha picked up her well-worn Bible and read from Psalms 116 "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints". The tears subsided as words of scripture and prayer brought comfort and peace. She was reminded that death was not the end, it was the door to the entrance of a new life without suffering, pain, or sorrow with a Savior who loves her completely and is eagerly awaiting her arrival.
Marsha left the bedroom feeling blessed, and walked to the living room to talk to the woman's daughters. She was surprised when they thanked her for the words she had spoken in private...they had been listening to the whole conversation on a baby monitor!
Marsha, although she was unaware of it, was modeling something most of us are very uncomfortable doing. We may not feel ready or equipped to say our Goodbye’s in this life, and certainly avoiding them would be easier. But easier isn’t always better. In the long run, the truth is a meaningful goodbye can help both parties let go and move on to what’s next with a sense of value, comfort.
The letter about my resignation went out this last week. I’ve started to have those dreaded conversations. But, honestly, they have been for the most part a blessing I’ve been thanked, affirmed, and reminded of shared experiences. And of course I’ve had the chance to do the same in return. As much as I dislike the emotions and sometimes awkwardness that ensues, overall it has been nice.
I wish I knew what lay ahead for me, but I don’t. God has set out only a few breadcrumbs leading to my next step. But I do have hope. It’s rooted in a promise given to me several months ago. Driving into the parking lot on my way to work, I heard the Holy Spirit say, “Difficult endings, bright new beginnings.” In the midst of saying goodbye to people and things I love, I’m also feeling excited for the fresh start God says lies ahead.