No doubt about it, after the excitement of the past six weeks I was home and more than ready to be done. The phone call that had initiated the adventure of the past two months had included reconnecting and being reunited with my father after twenty-two years estrangement. It had changed both of our lives in ways I would never have believed possible.
I had traveled to Illinois from my home in Maine twice, once to make arrangements for his long-term care, the second time to transport him to Maine with the help of my husband. I was relieved that the whirlwind of activity had slowed to a reasonable pace because I now felt physically and emotionally exhausted.
The trouble was, now that Dad was comfortably ensconced in an assisted-living home in the countryside about 45 minutes from where I lived, I didn’t know what the rules were for interacting with him. And I desperately needed rules! I was discovering that now that my role of to-the-rescue-daughter was slowing down to a dutiful visit every couple of weeks, that I was at a loss about how to move forward with our relationship.
How was I supposed to connect in a meaningful way with a man I didn’t actually know, hadn’t ever known… not really. He’d always been a mystery to me. Now that he was experiencing early dementia that fact was certainly not likely to change.
Our visits went all right. They were awkward, but that was to be expected. Dad had never been much of a communicator. Even when I was growing up I had been unable to converse with him in any way that made sense. Dad had tended to communicate in one of two ways: he either joked around in a cliché style patter that didn’t mean anything, or he drove me crazy with his weird philosophical arguments. Frustratingly, the result was the same… I could never pin him down or get a straight answer.
Now I was confronted with a shell of a man who was physically and mentally wasted. Our visits together involved me asking questions: what he was eating, what had he been watching lately (the History channel), whether he was making any progress in learning to walk again, and most importantly to him, what did he want me to bring him on my next visit?
My attempts to fill him in on the lives of my seven kids, his grandchildren, were futile. Sadly, he didn’t know them and it was far too late for him to start over in the role of loving grandfather.
However, Dad always appeared happy to see me and made sure to ask when I would come back so I guess the visits were worthwhile, if only for him.
After a typical forty-five minutes of casting about for something to discuss, I would say my good-byes, kiss his check, and make my relieved way out the door. Another painful, but necessary, visit over.
As the months passed I began to pour out my frustrations in prayer. “God, what do you want from me? Do you want me to love him? How? What does that look like?” And, “Am I supposed to feel something or is this it?”
What was going on? I had forgiven my dad for the wrongs of the past and I was at peace about taking care of him, but I felt unsettled too. The answer appeared when a verse about loving your enemies came to mind.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-45)
Well, Dad wasn’t an enemy anymore but I figured the principle still applied, so I prayed… for him and for myself.
I prayed that:
- Dad would grow in his knowledge of the love of our Heavenly Father.
- Jesus would continue to heal our relationship.
- Jesus would do what I couldn’t do; I asked Him to enable me to love my Dad… with His love.
Unfortunately, Dad’s hoped for recovery of health didn’t materialize. After a second fall, he was hospitalized and we were informed by the assisted living facility that he couldn’t return. Although Dad was quite thin, his six-foot four frame was difficult for the nursing staff to lift and they weren’t set up for someone with his degree of disability. So Dad was transferred to a larger facility that handled acute care as well as long-term.
One day I visited Dad while he was having occupational therapy. The therapist included me in the session by having me support Dad when he needed a little assistance while he took a short walk. To my surprise, I enjoyed myself. It was a relief to have something to do besides trying to make conversation.
When it was over I got up to leave and leaned over the bed to give Dad his requisite kiss on his cheek. Suddenly, I felt it… a gentle stirring in my heart. A bit startled, I babbled my good-byes and walked quickly out to the parking lot.
I sat in my car feeling overwhelmed and strangely alive and thankful. A door in my heart, one that I had thought slammed shut forever, had begun to open.
Up until that moment I been like a marionette puppet compelled to act by strings of obedience and duty. I had been going through the motions of caring for my father because I knew it was what Jesus had led me to do.
But in that leading, He had done a miracle; Jesus had brought to life the cold embers of love in my heart.
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8 ESV Italics mine)