In one of the earliest memories I have of my father’s mother, Dorothy Campbell, she is an outline of herself, back-lit by the upstairs window of an old farm house, bending over a creaky iron bed, her ear within a few inches of the wrinkled lips of the oldest person my young eyes have ever seen. A shockingly white shot of hair, belonging to Great-Grandma Sarah, is splayed across the pillow. At 90 years of age, the Campbell family matriarch’s thin frame leaves only the hint of a body under the handmade quilt.
On that particular day, in addition to tending to her mother-in-law, my grandmother was also the translator for the visit, as practised caregivers-in-the-know often are. Her voice raised, speech slowed, she announced our arrival: “John is here, Mom, Frank’s oldest boy, with his two girls.” A whispered response is relayed back to us: “She’s so glad you’ve come.”
In my last memory of Granny Campbell, some 30 years later, she is sitting comfortably in her favourite chair, in a cozy apartment where she and Grandpa are cared for in their final years. Daughters-in-law and granddaughters and nieces are hard at work. The roster of round-the-clock caregivers is co-ordinated and managed by my uncle, her youngest son, who serves as Chief of Staff.
They keep watch. They prepare well-portioned, diabetic-approved, home-cooked meals. They say, “Remember the time, Mom…?” so visits to the past have a place in the duty-bound, sometimes dull routines of the present. They have reached the pinnacle of elder care: anticipating wants and needs before wants and needs have even been articulated.
In and among these memories of my grandmother-as both giver and receiver-I do not see what secular philosophers might refer to as “paying it forward.” She was a woman of deep and abiding faith who raised her family accordingly. What I do see, instead, are “deeds full of grace, all in the love light of Jesus’ face,” the kind that William H. Parker wrote about in Tell Me the Stories of Jesus, his much-loved hymn from 1885.
I spent most of this past winter assuming a caregiver’s posture: kneeling by a hospital bed, listening to whispers and translating for my own mother-in-law, who is 91 years old. When she moved into a retirement home last fall I feared institutional living would not be good for her, but I never imagined it would kill her. “We need to bring her home,” I said to my husband this past April. And so we did.
Some have called us brave, others have called us crazy. From my perspective, though, the story is less about heroics than it is about familiarity-pulling a thread from the past and seeing how well it matches the present.
I didn’t get a lot of worldly goods from my father or his family. I have a round hall table that belonged to Great-Grandma Sarah, Granny Campbell’s a baking board and, until recently when it snapped in an unfortunate encounter with my bread machine, a wooden spoon that would have been my final exit item should my house have ever caught fire.
What I did inherit, though, are “scenes by the wayside,” stories of a family living into, and always guided by, the love of Jesus. Caring for the elderly in their time of need is what they did. And now it’s what I do.
My mother-in-law, whose health has improved since she came to live with us, recently said, “When you get to be as old as I am, you will know how short a lifetime really is.” I find this mildly terrifying, mostly because the truth of it is written all over her face. She didn’t intend it to serve as a warning, but I took it that way all the same.
Anyway, it gives me reason enough to fill this short bit of time with what matters most: “Sad ones or bright ones, so that they be, stories of Jesus-tell them to me.”