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Being Old, Ill and Frail Is a Gift

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Our final lesson is the most important one to learn

“Bless you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” I prayed as I made the Sign of the Cross three times on Daddy’s forehead the night before last.  He looked up at me wide-eyed from his bed, reminding me of my children when they settled down for prayer and a good night kiss before they fell asleep.

“He’s like a little child,” my mother said moments later about my fragile, often disoriented 86-year-old, Parkinson’s-ridden father.  “He’s reverted completely to a child,” she repeated with a mix of surprise and sadness.  

We all knew this day was coming.  Even so, it’s disarming to watch a man who was previously so strong, robust, and physically adept slip into helplessness.

My mind flashed to one of the sweetest times I ever spent with my Dad — the semester he took my “Healthcare Ethics” course at Our Lady of Holy Cross College almost a decade ago.  Proud as a peacock that I was teaching college, he was delighted to audit my course and my students loved him.  He read and highlighted the course textbook diligently, then kept it on the table right next to his easy chair in the living room so he could show it to everyone who came to their house.  The Parkinson’s had just started to set in at the time, and, thankfully, the heavy shaking it caused was largely controlled by medication.  

Early one Tuesday morning I picked Daddy up for class, as I’d been doing all semester. We drove across the Greater New Orleans Bridge to the Westbank, where the small, Catholic college sits near the Mississippi River.  We pulled some ripe oranges off the full fruit tree next to the parking lot, then made our way through the back door of the school building.  After riding the elevator up one floor, we began the long trek down the white tiled hallway toward the classroom where 30 students waited.  

About halfway there Dad’s legs simply froze, and he stood with a frightened look on his face internally commanding them to move forward.  No dice.  Within seconds he was doubled over weeping heavily, obviously grieving the loss of control over his body.  “Come on, Dad,” I encouraged as I wrapped my elbow tightly through his to help propel him forward.  “You can do it.”   We arrived late for class, and while he put on a brave face, I could tell he was shaken by the realization of his escalating condition.  Those were the birth pangs of a disease that would eventually make it nearly impossible for him to walk or talk.

Staring down at Daddy’s limp, frail body, I pondered the mystery of losing our strength, our abilities, our life, as we know it, to prepare for eternal life.  There is apparently tremendous grace in ceasing to depend upon ourselves, and in learning to depend completely on God and others.  The last season of a long life is generally one of deep vulnerability and stripping, a taking off of defenses, coping mechanisms, and masks.  It is a sacred season wherein we return to being bathed, fed, diapered, and carried; offering the opportunity to retrieve — in spite of withered skin — babe flesh hearts.

It takes most of us a whole lifetime to arrive at the place which nature finally offers as a gift — to powerlessness — the thing we’ve often feared the most, fought hardest against, and tried to fend off unceasingly with an arsenal of our own personal strength.   In the end, powerlessness is a grace that invites us to surrender, training us to open our hands to simply receive from God and others.  Powerlessness is heaven’s kiss, a kiss that beckons us to trust, a kiss that invites us home to the place where we finally understand that we are infinitely loved by a God who sees us as we are truly meant to be — little children.

“Good night, Daddy. I love you,” I said softly as I bent down to kiss his child-like face.  “All is well. Be at peace.”

 

Judy Landrieu Klein is an author, theologian, inspirational speaker, widow and newlywed whose book, Miracle Man, was an Amazon Kindle best-seller in Catholicism. This article was originally published at her blog, “Holy Hope,” which can be found at MemorareMinistries.com.

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