I help care for a Benedictine Sister at Our Lady of Peace Monastery who has Alzheimer's. Sister Jane is 87 years young. I'm not sure when her Alzheimer's began, but I've witnessed the progression of it over the last few years.
I found this peaceful monastery, and the group of Benedictine sisters who live there, in the middle of a personal crisis in my life. Feeling weak, weepy, and worried, I instinctively knew that reaching out to others may help me. So you see the initial motive was selfish. Help others, help yourself. And I needed so much help.
Each week the sisters asked me to sit and play cards with Sister Jane. This seemed to occupy her mind and kept her from drifting off to the "Where am I?" "What am I doing here?" Questions and worries that she was prone to.
Kings is the Corner—that's Sister Jane's card game. She knows it well, even though each time I deal the cards she asks what we're playing. When I tell her Kings in the Corner, she always replies that she doesn't know how to play that game. I reassure her that I'll show her how. And like clock work, after the first cards are laid on the table she "goes to town" and beats me every time!
Sister Jane lives in the present moment of the card game. She plays her dealt hand to the best of her ability. She doesn't worry about what card she'll pick up next. Or for that matter what card I may lay down or pick up. Neither of us can predict what card we'll draw next. Will it be the king we need in the corner? Like our lives we don't know the next card we'll be dealt, so we must play the hand we have, play it to the fullest, enjoy it and play it well. That's how Sister Jane attacks this card game. That's how she's teaching me to live my life.
In the Presence of God
Sometimes I bring a treat, like cookies or candy, for us to share. When I ask if she'd like another, her reply is always one of surprise: "Oh, have I already had one?" Then she delights in the second helping as if it were the first time she's ever had a cookie or candy. She'll tell me that she's never had a cookie like this before and how good it tastes. No comparison to other cookies, just enjoying to the fullest the cookie we have in this moment. I watch her and think, If I could just remember to enjoy what I have in my life at the moment and stop comparing myself and my life to others. Especially comparing my insides, which at times feel so imperfect, to others' outsides, which always seem perfect.
Sister Jane is always happy to see me, not because she recognizes me, but because she's so full of joy—joy of the moment. I consider myself a joyful, optimistic person. But Sister Jane has shown me that joy is different from optimism. Optimism is an attitude that things will be better tomorrow. But joy doesn't depend on the ups and downs in life. Joy doesn't come and go with good or bad circumstances. Joy is the gift of living in the presence of God. Joy is being steeped in a deep faith in God, knowing that his everlasting light will prevail. That today's or yesterday's or tomorrow's problems don't really matter, because God's love is stronger than all the optimism in the world.