Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

[NOTE: to preserve privacy and anonymity, identifying information may be altered, and I will refer to the person as "she" or "her" simply to make the writing easier, not necessarily to indicate the actual gender of the person.]

When I got the phone call, I had no idea it was me that was coming to dinner. Later that day, when I arrived at the extended care home to visit her, I still did not know. I was going to see an elderly member of our church who, for a variety of reasons, I had not seen for several years. On this morning, however, I learned from a couple who had faithfully stayed in touch with her over the years, that she had been quite ill, that things were not going well for her, and perhaps I should stop by and see her.

Shortly after I arrived, I was directed to the room, only to discover that I had arrived at dinner time. She sat, somewhat awkwardly propped up in her bed, eyes open but not really focused, her care provider feeding her dinner. I greeted her, told her who I was and asked if she remembered me. There was no visible response as she continued to accept food, one spoonful at a time from the nurse at her side. Not really sure what to do next, I heard the nurse saying to me, "Would you like to feed her dinner, then you two can talk awhile?" The question was completely unanticipated, and I heard myself saying, "Sure, that would be great." Apparently assuming I knew what to do, the nurse then left the room.

So it was that I found myself sitting by her beside, spoon in hand, with no clear idea of what I was supposed to do next. What do you say to someone who cannot respond, may not remember who you are, and who may not even know you are there? So I did the only thing I could think of. I took a spoonful of the casserole she was eating, raised it to her mouth and fed it to her, much as I had done with my own children so many years before. She accepted the spoonful, chewed it slowly and waited for another. And so the process went on, one spoonful at a time, as I talked about things I remembered from when she had been involved in church, the sunlight coming through the window, the staff that cared for her there . . . pausing now and then to remind her to swallow, or to carefully wipe lips that had become chapped from many other times of being fed. At the moment, I was literally living from one spoonful to the next, not really knowing what I should do or say.

And so, as she ate, sometimes I would talk, sometimes I would simply be silent (concentrating on the task at hand), mostly we were just there together. It was when the entree was gone, I saw the little tub of vanilla ice cream on the corner of her tray. I informed her my discovery, removed the lid, and as the first spoonful of ice cream slipped into her mouth, although I cannot tell you exactly how she communicated it, I noticed the change. Somehow there was an increased sense of enjoyment, perhaps even delight, and a greater interest in each bite. She could not speak, or even focus in my direction, but she was enjoying the ice cream. It was a satisfying moment for both of us.

And as we sat and shared the time together over dinner, I found myself thinking about how not so many years ago, this same person had been independent, free to move about as she wished, how she had laughed with the young people she so much enjoyed being with, had felt the breeze in her hair and the sunlight on her face. I wondered about what this must be like for her now with her body failing her, and dependent on others for the necessities of life. What did she know? If she could speak, what would she want to say? How was she coping? Was she at peace? Did she know that she was cared for and not alone? What if I were where she was, how would it be for me? What would I most need or want? What would be helpful to me? I did not have clear answers to any of those questions.

Later, as I drove home, I thought about how we struggle with admitting limitations, experiencing dependency, or knowing how to deal with suffering. None of these are things we would chose for ourselves. And as I have continued to think about this in the wake of this visit, there is another picture that has begun to emerge for me. It is one of One Who knew no limitations or dependency, with arms willingly outstretched and nailed to rough wooden beams, thirsty and dependent upon the kindness of those who were participating in His execution for even so much as a moist sponge to be placed against parched, chapped lips. It’s a picture of a God Who willingly enters into human suffering on levels I cannot begin to grasp, and who assures us that He is present with us in ours. I wonder if she senses this? Does she know that on a very profound level that she is not alone?

But there is more. Matthew 25 reminds us that it is in the suffering or marginalized, those that might be regarded by some as "the least of these," ("footnotes" if you will, in the larger story going on around them) that Jesus is uniquely present, sharing in their experience with them. And that in being there for them, we are interacting with Him as well. "In as much as you have done this for the least of these . . ."

I don’t know what she knows, how she feels, or what she is aware of. What is most visible to me is the much that has been lost to her. But to the One Who cares about her the most, she is not lost, nor is she alone. And while I don’t know how often she get’s vanilla ice cream, I know of one night that she did, and she enjoyed it, and that I got to be a part of that . . . and that in an odd sort of way, for a little while that evening, over dinner, I had stumbled upon holy ground. The same ground that is occupied every day by those who give such tireless, loving care to those who find themselves in situations like these. For me, it was an unexpected grace, and I walk away not quite the same as before I went, with much to think about. I have no new answers as to why we suffer, or even what that experience is like for those who do. But perhaps what I do have is a greater awareness of how God is with us in the midst of it, and maybe, just a little bit of a clue as to the difference it makes when we are there as well, whether we are the one suffering or not.

Additional Note: For what it’s worth, the song that kept coming to mind as I was thinking about this was David Wilcox’s, "All the Roots Grow Deeper When it’s Dry." If you wish, you can check out the lyrics at www.lyricstime.com/david-wilcox-all-the-roots-grow-deeper-when-it-s-dry-lyrics.html - or better yet, go to itunes or your favorite Mp3 site and purchase the song.

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