“The Way It Is” by William Stafford.

There’s a thread you follow. 

It goes among things that change. 

But it doesn’t change.

People wonder about what you are pursuing.

You have to explain about the thread.

But it is hard for others to see.

While you hold it you can’t get lost.

Tragedies happen; 

people get hurt or die;

and you suffer and get old.

Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.

You don’t ever let go of the thread.

I picked mom up last Sunday for church.  Two hundred miles round-trip has a way of limiting these excursions to monthly or semi-monthly events.  Somewhere around mile marker 50, I usually call the staff to make sure mom is dressed and ready to go.  It used to be that she’d stand eagerly waiting next to a locked exit door whose simple code was beyond her mind’s poor powers to crack it.  Lately, after a long bout of pneumonia followed by COVID, I’ve been finding her fully dressed, but napping… still eager to exit a place that she had spent the balance of her old age trying to avoid… just a little tired in the waiting.  It’s a blessing that mom still recognizes me by name.  It’s an unspeakable grace that the cranial passageways carryingaffection for her son, are still clear.  She never fails to enthuse about how glad she is to see me.  

From the time I was fifteen, driving with mom in the passenger seat, has required a high tolerance for alarmed warnings.  “Do you see that little girl?!”  “You’re going kind of fast don’t you think?!!”  “Don’t hit that man!!!”  She still laughs when I weigh the pros and cons of sparing “that man’s” life.  Not infrequently the cogs of her well-tuned/ life-long sense of humor kick back in momentarily.  In these instances she might sardonically conclude, “Ya, go ahead and hit him!  He looks like trouble!”  In moments like these, mom gets bouncy laugh-shoulders just the way she always did…just the way her mom did.

My parents had kids in two pods of three, plus one more.  They were very close to being a founding family of Little Flower Catholic Church of the Most Holy Baby Boom.  Since 1955, that’s where my mom has spent most Sunday mornings, Saturday evenings, and many a bleary-eyed 6:15am, and 7:00amweekday Mass.  And that’s where I’ve been taking her to 10:00am Mass each Sunday morning when I can… except last Sunday.  I was late getting into town.  That’s why I took her to the 10:30am Mass down the street in Chatham, Illinois.  It’s a good thing I did, because there we found Father John Ossola, a family friend for over fifty years, sitting in the front pew.  Fr. Ossola also suffers dementia.  Just like mom, his core personality traits still shine through his cobwebbed mind.  His caregiver flanked him on one side, and I flanked him on the other to separate him from my mother—his favorite target for practical jokes.  Throughout the course of Mass he continually asked me, “What church is this?”  “Who’s the pastor?” Once he roused audible laughs when the question broke through a reflective silence after a Biblical reading.  For her part, my mom pointed out every cute child, thanked me for every affectionate touch, and concluded each choir song with, “That’s so nice!”  

I noticed that these two, who between them, share just a handful of functioning neural pathways, still flawlessly recited the responses and sang the songs.  Neither of them grew up in this newly constructed suburban church.  But like a rope in a cave that they could hold onto, both were totally at home in these sacred rituals that they had been practicing since before I was born.  It is fashionable among my peers to say, “I am spiritual, but not religious.”  It seemed to me that these two octogenarians were living parables for the value of a spirituality grounded in a religious tradition.  The day-in-day-out, over and over again-ness of their spirituality built for them a familiar home that endures now that the world appears progressively unfamiliar. This wasn’t the first time that I have noticed how sacred religious rituals provide an intentional space for the soul to breathe.

Sitting between these two got me to reflecting on that paradoxical last stage of growth—diminishment.  It seems to me that senescence, and its accompanying deteriorations, have the potential to provide a gift for those of us who assist them in thatlast stage of life.  Just like the first phase (infancy), the last phase exercises a kind of centripetal force on a family.  Fragility has a way of pulling a family or community together around a vulnerable member who requires special care.  In the Christian scriptures, Jesus identifies his followers as those who are responsive to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner (Matthew 25: 35-40).  Not many listen for the radical, yet obvious underlying message.  Christ himself is revealed in those who are hungry, thirsty, strange, vulnerable (naked), sick, and imprisoned in some regard.  By extension, we reveal the presence of Christ when we reveal our deep down hungers, our thirsts, what makes us feel strange, our vulnerability, our wounds, and what imprisons us.  Plenty of times mom dressed me, fed me, and took care of me when I was sick.  In light of the Gospel, it would appear that she is giving one last gift to my siblings, her grandchildren, and me:  her vulnerability.          

Everyone has a shadow side including my mom.  Through the course of my childhood, her shadow, along with the challenges that came from dad’s alcoholism, caused her some empathetic failures in my regard that were unhelpful in my development.  Through the help of psychotherapy and spiritual direction, I have largely been able to heal those inner-wounds.  Lately, I am noticing an unexpected benefit of this last phase of her life.  By providing me this fragile version of herself, in some strange way, I’m noticing the remnants of those old woundsexperiencing an even deeper healing.    

In his poem, “The Way It Is,” William Stafford described a kind of through line or “thread” that you never let go of.”  When it comes to my mom, and Father Ossola’s stage of life, they need us to tend to that thread.  Their eyes have a hard time finding it.  Their hands aren’t strong enough to grasp it anymore.  It is our job to remember who they are, and what those threads are for them.  The comparatively younger pastor in Chatham, Illinois recognized this sacred duty.  He pointed out his elder confrere to the congregation.  “Here in the front row is Father Ossola.  He is someone all of we priests want to grow up to be like.” He said.  With that the congregation burst into applause.  Fr. Ossolabeamed.  It’s up to my siblings, children and me to remember what the through lines are for my mom.  Taking her to church is one way to do that.  

Once back at her memory care facility, mom and I touched another one of her through lines.  At lunch, a resident vociferously insisted upon repeating the question, “What?”  “What?”  “What?” with ever increasing and disconcerting levels of volume.  At one point mom turned to me and said, “Well at least I don’t repeat, “What?” over and over again!”  She paused, and added, “… yet!”  Her mouth curled into a smile and then she laughed.  Her shoulders started to bounce.  

I felt privileged to be in the Divine Presence if even for a fleeting moment.  

One Reply to ““The Way It Is” by William Stafford.”

  1. Wow ..what a nice story bout your mom and of course father ossola…that disease is very unfortunate…but like other disease’s have to be delt with .I’m glad you find your way,through Christ .. thanks for the readings I do appreciate them all

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