Elisabeth![*] John needs to be changed again." My mother-in-law's voice filtered through my fog of exhausted sleep.
For the fourth time that night, Agnes and I tackled the foul mess in my father-in-law's bed. John was a large man and cleaning him, changing his diaper and bedding, was difficult. It took all my strength to roll him from side to side, holding him in position with one hand while washing him with the other.
John had broken his hip a year and a half ago and had been an invalid ever since. Twice each day my husband, Mike, and I took turns driving to his parents' home, getting John out of bed in the morning to sit in his recliner and then putting him back to bed at night. With the assistance of home healthcare, Agnes had been able to care for him beyond that. Though it complicated our schedule, it was the only way John could remain home instead of in adult foster care or a nursing home. That was important to us.
Recently, however, John's condition had deteriorated sharply. He couldn't feed himself and had to use a complex breathing apparatus several times a day to keep his lungs clear. No longer able to get out of bed, he had to be turned every few hours to avoid sores.
This was beyond Agnes's capability. If John were to remain at home it would require a drastic change in lifestyle for Mike and me. We decided I'd spend the days at his parents' house and Mike would spend the evenings until he put John to bed, so I canceled commitments for the upcoming month.
Is This My Life—Forever?
John's care required me to cross difficult boundaries. Though he tried to help, cracking jokes and laughing, I knew he must be as humiliated as I was.
Even more stressful, however, was being constantly with my mother-in-law. Agnes is a negative, difficult woman. She rarely utters a word of encourage-ment or kindness.
"You shouldn't compliment people," she once admonished after I'd thanked a sales clerk for her help. "It'll go to their head."
After 26 years of marriage to her son, I'd learned to be around her physically while maintaining a healthy emotional distance. But John's illness forced me to be with her all day, every day, doing things her way, listening to her sharp words. While I longed for people to visit us, I dreaded it as well. Agnes chose words guaranteed to inflict pain.
"So is your husband still with that other woman?" she asked her niece. Then turning to her niece's young daughter, "Why do you think your daddy left you?"
The minute the door closed behind visitors she'd begin flailing them. "He's so fat, I was afraid he'd break my chair."
Each evening, as soon as my husband arrived to relieve me, I fled home and climbed in the shower. Turning the water as hot as I could bear, I let it wash off the toxic waste of the day.
John's condition deteriorated until we were told he had only a few days to live. Hospice helped to prepare us for his final days. But days turned to weeks and then months, and John lingered. Waiting for him to die was devastating. Each time his breathing slowed or changed, I steeled myself, wondering if this was "it." Agnes was terrified John would die when she was alone with him, so I began spending some nights with them. My life narrowed to feeding, medicating, and changing diapers.
The more time I spent at my in-laws, the less I had with Mike. Occasionally, we'd arrange to go out for a quick meal together, but we were both too exhausted to really communicate. The distance between us bothered me, yet neither of us knew how to resolve it under our current circumstances. In addition, Mike and I were working less. Being self-employed meant more freedom to be with his parents, but it also meant no job benefits, such as personal leave or vacation time, to cover our time off. That meant less income, and we both felt the strain.
Each time I canceled another month's engagements, a sense of hopelessness knocked me down. I pled daily for mercy, intervention—anything to bring this season of life to an end. "God, is this how my life will be forever? What's your purpose in keeping John alive?" Immediately guilt swamped me. How could I be so self-centered?
As an only child, Mike had no siblings to share the burden of John's care. Friends asked why we didn't put John in a home or insist that Agnes hire nursing care. But as much as I hated what my life had become, I knew John must hate his life even more. Mine would eventually get better; his was ending. The least I could do was make the end as pleasant and easy as possible. Keeping him home was one way. Buffering Agnes was another.
If I left the house, Agnes, desperate to keep John alive, forced him to eat, sometimes until he vomited. She withheld his pain medication because taking it made him sleep and she feared he'd never wake. Although I understood the basis for her behavior, the physical and emotional toll of standing between them was staggering.
An Unexpected Answer to Prayer
One evening, exhausted by lack of sleep and trying to mollify a hospice worker Agnes had thrown out of her house, I drove home to grab a quick change of clothes. Then Mike told me he was going hunting for the weekend.
"Do you mind handling things by yourself?" he asked as casually as if we were discussing mowing the lawn.
Without warning, I lost control. "She's your mother, not mine!" I shouted, already regretting my words but unable to stop. "I don't even like her. She's evil! And you keep taking off and leaving me to cope with her!"
Mike stared at me in shock. "She's not evil, Elisabeth," he finally said.
"Yes, she is! She's evil, evil, evil!"
He put his arms around me. "I'm sorry," he said simply. "Thank you for what you're doing." His kindness, especially when he cancelled his trip, made me feel terrible.
The next morning, wrapped in failure and hopelessness, I thumbed listlessly through a devotional book. A phrase caught my eye: "Our Lord's teaching is always anti-self-realization. His purpose is not the development of a man; his purpose is to make a man exactly like himself, and the characteristic of the Son of God is self-expenditure."
A lightning bolt of understanding struck me. God swooped me up to his vantage point and allowed me to see my life through his eyes. The view was breathtaking. I saw that this season of time I found so intolerable was actually the answer to a prayer I'd begun praying two years earlier: "Father, teach me to die to self and live for you."
I hadn't considered what the answer might entail, that death isn't pretty, or gentle, or easy. And death to self is the most excruciating death of all. God's death to self cost him the life of his son. Christ's death to self took him to the cross. Just what had I expected when I prayed such a prayer?
The reality left me dumbstruck. This seemingly unbearable situation with my in-laws was, at its core, a spectacular answer to prayer. What better way to die to self than by daily setting aside my own desires to do something I despised? Tears streamed down my face as I savored the realization that God hadn't abandoned me to these circumstances. Rather, he'd orchestrated them in answer to my prayer.
Then a new feeling welled up within me: joy. Despite the fact that I'd soon be leaving for another day with Agnes. For the first time in my life, I grasped the meaning of the apostle James's words: "Consider it pure joy … whenever you face trials … because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance … so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything" (James 1:2-4).
Now I understood how to truly have a sense of joy even while doing what I despised. The joy comes from anticipating the end result of a difficult season—a more accurate reflection of Christ in me. Joy comes from the opportunity to die to self and live for God. It comes from recognizing the answer to a two-year-old prayer.
John lived three more months, and each day I fortified myself by re-reading those words: God's teaching is always anti-self-realization. His purpose is not the development of a man; his purpose is to make a man exactly like himself, and the characteristic of the Son of God is self-expenditure. They empowered me to see Agnes through God's eyes, to respond to her with compassion and patience regardless of her behavior.
A few days after she'd kicked out the hospice volunteer, Agnes turned on me. "You're just like them. You don't even try to keep him alive!" Rather than the accusation, I now was able to hear the fear and dread that she would soon be left alone.
"Agnes, you won't be left alone when John is gone. I promise we'll be right here whenever you need us." Her anger dissolved into tears, and she let me hold her in my arms and pray for her.
That breakthrough didn't mean I continued to endure silently Agnes's harsh words. Instead, it helped me to communicate firmly but lovingly to her that her hurtful behaviors were un-acceptable.
John died the first day of October. In the crush of making funeral arrangements and visiting relatives, several days passed before I noticed my calendar still displayed the month of September. As I turned the page and looked at my schedule, I realized that for the first time in nearly two years, nothing needed to be canceled or rearranged.
"You persevered," I heard God whisper. "Now go forth with my blessing." And so I went—hopefully reflecting a bit more of God's image.
* Names have been changed.
Elisabeth Graham is a pseudonym for a writer living in the Northwest.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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