Lessons I’m Learning as a Caregiver: Elvis, Honor, and Sacrifice

I looked down, surprised to see her tapping her feet in rhythm to “Blue Suede Shoes”.  A little while later, it was Jailhouse Rock, You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog, and The Trilogy.

I never even knew she liked Elvis.

She had always loved music, though, so I’m not that surprised. But the music she loved was The Gaithers and other old gospel singers.  But here she was, grooving along to old Elvis staples.

Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 11.56.46 AMThe sixty-something-year-old impersonator’s voice moved up and down in harmony with the music cranking out of an old ratty speaker connected by a conspicuous black cord to an even older and rattier boombox.  We had sat in the back of the tiny courtyard because she had said the music was “too loud.”  Maneuvering her wheelchair past the thirty or so other wheelchairs parked in the grass was no small fete, let me tell you.  But I was happy to do it because I was desperate for any chance that something might bring her joy and cause her to be more accepting of her current lot.

I was surprised we were there at all, though, because she never liked loud things.  She would complain every time my father and I would watch television together at her small apartment if the the volume was even close to normal hearing range.  To our bewildered amusement, she would go so far as to stuff tissue in her ears on some occasions.  But she had smiled and said “Yes” earlier that morning when I had asked her, “Are you going to the singing?”

“Yes,” she said.  “That little old lady invited me.”  She pointed to another resident about the same age as her.

To Ma, all of the other people in the nursing home were “little old ladies” and “little old men.”  Since arriving the week earlier, she had remarked several  times on how this place is “full of elderly people.”  Ma had spent the majority of her life as a caregiver for elderly or sick family members at the end of their life including her father, her mother, her husband, her sister, and her sister-in-law.  She had also always taken care of me, most notably when I was a young child wrecked and traumatized by my parents’ divorce and later when I was a young adult, lost in life, when she took me in to live with her.  Being a caregiver was her identity.  She felt it was her duty, the right thing to do, and required of her by her savior who had given His life for hers, that she lay down her life for others.  Her display of this kind of love has greatly marked and impacted my life.

Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 11.57.18 AM.pngShe stayed in the nursing home only for 21 days before returning to her apartment across the street from our house, but the whole time she was there, she couldn’t quite reconcile why she was in a place for such “elderly people” who needed great care when she was the one who always took care of elderly people.

She was 86 at the time.

She was born in 1930 during the height of the Great Depression in America.  But if her family felt the effects of the Great Depression, she never really let on.  She always spoke fondly and with great honor of her father and mother who had owned a farm and later a grocery store in the heart of Hardin County in Southern Illinois.  When she was a young girl, she would help her mother in the kitchen prepare food for the migrant workers whom her father would employ to work on the farm.  I think this is where she learned to really love people through acts of service.  It helped, too, that she had eight brothers and sisters (three of whom had died as young children).  She was always close with her brothers and sisters and spoke lovingly and respectfully and honoring towards them.  But she held the most honor for her mother and father.  In fact, I’ve never heard her say anything negative about them, only sweet and positive things.

They were hardworking, moral people, with a simple and understated faith in God.  I never knew her father, Alonso Patton, because he died when she was still a young women of a rare blood disease that no one in my family actually knows the name of.  She dutifully helped her mother care for him right up until the end.  Some years before he died, she had quit school after the 8th grade because he had asked her to.  He said her mother needed help at home and he needed help running the store.  Although it wasn’t what she wanted to do and she has often expressed regret that she didn’t finish school even to this day, she honored his request because he was her father.  And she always honored her mother and father.

Lately, I’ve often thought about the spiritual implications of that.  Because, in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul urged them to follow the commandment to honor their fathers and mothers because it was the first commandment that came with a promise.  That promise is “that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.”  To be honest with you reader, I don’t know how I feel about that right now.  Because my Ma is not “well.”  She has Alzheimer’s, dementia, and aphasia, as well as some physical ailments that require daily care.  And it would not really be a blessing at this point for her to “live long on the earth,” not unless some miraculous healing of body and mind were to occur.  And I believe in healing and I believe in miracles and I believe John 10:10 that Jesus came to give us an “abundant life” and it’s the “thief who comes to kill, steal, and destroy.”  So, I cannot tell you how much my faith and understanding of God’s will, His nature, and how His promises operate in the lives of believers has been stretched over the past year as I’ve watched my grandmother wither in mind and body.  I cannot tell you the confusion, and fear, and worry, and guilt, and anger, and stress Blake and I have battled over the past year as we’ve learned firsthand  just how hard it is to be primary caregivers of a sick, elderly person.  I cannot tell you how bizarre and disconcerting it is to be locked into a season of grief wherein you’re grieving a person who is actually still alive but not who they once were.

I’ve been learning a lot.  

In fact, if you’re my friend or family member and you’ve been wondering where I’ve been the past year and why I’ve neglected our relationship, it’s because I’ve been learning (kicking and screaming) how to love.  I’ve been learning how to serve, and how to honor, and surrender, and trust, and believe, and pray.  I’ve been learning how to share in Christ’s glory by sharing in His suffering.  I’ve been learning what Ma learned a long time ago:  that our holy, acceptable, and reasonable service to God is to present ourselves as living sacrifices.   I’ve been learning just how much I need the sacrifice of Jesus because my flesh is very weak.   I’ve been learning just how much I have to learn to love the way Jesus loves.

And I’ve been learning that my grandma likes Elvis.