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.
I watch Sister Jane and see that inner joy comes from being a beloved child of God. It just flows out of us—even when we can no longer remember so many things in and about life. Young children have a natural "joyfulness" about them. Sister Jane embodies the joy of an innocent child. I've never heard her say the things that adults get caught up in: should have, could have, or ought to. This is one of the few blessings that Alzheimer's brings her.
Reminders of God's gifts
Sister Jane doesn't live in the past—not even in the past 10 minutes of eating a cookie. And she doesn't live in the future. When I bid her farewell and tell her I'll see her next week, she usually simply replies: "Oh, really?" Her words are accompanied by a puzzled look on her face, as if to say, "How can you be so sure of this?" She knows that only God knows if I'll be there next week. She has no concern or thoughts or plans about my next arrival. If I arrive, great; if I don't, great—because she's able to live in the moment. How I wish I could trust our Lord with such peace.
On one particular day as we sat at the kitchen table playing cards, Sister Jane noticed a small arrangement of artificial flowers.
"Oh, how pretty!" she said, "Who picked those?" I replied that I wasn't sure but believed Sister Rose had put the flowers there. As each new hand was dealt, she'd comment on the flowers, as if it were the first time she'd noticed them and asked over and over who picked them.
After repeating this scene several times I finally said, "You know, Sister, the flowers aren't real. They're just fakes." It was obvious how unreal they were; they were dusty and a low quality of silk. Sister Jane looked at me with such surprise, raised her eye brows, and said, "It doesn't matter that they're fakes. The important thing is that they remind us of God's beauty around us; they remind us of the real ones he made."
How many of my days go by without pause or notice of God's beauty around me. Instead of wallowing in self pity on the days I feel overwhelmed with life, I could notice God's beauty around me—the sky, trees, birds, flowers, a smile from a friend or stranger. Sister Jane reminded me to give thanks throughout the day for all the beauty in this world.
Several years ago I went to help a Benedictine sister with Alzheimer's who couldn't remember things from one moment to the next. I thought I was there to give something to her, never imagining that this Sister would give so much to me. If you'd asked me before I started helping her, what would or could I learn from an aging sister with Alzheimer's, I would have had a short list. But now I can, without, a doubt tell you that Sister Jane has taught me everything—at least everything of any importance.
Tamara Oberbeck is an author living in Missouri.
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.
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