I knew I would be there in just a few moments as I drove past the backside of the cemetery that lined nursing home row. It's an interesting street when you consider who lives on it. Making the turn west onto the cedar lined lane, my journey begins with a Baptist church on the north corner. Just a few yards down on the south, you'll find a Catholic church with signage offering hope to unwed mothers. On Sundays, the police have to direct traffic to make sure the protestants and Catholics don't collide! As I continue driving, St. Anne's Nursing Home meets me on the north, neighbored by a Lutheran church. Then the senior living complex where Dad lives takes up the remainder of the street. Except for the Catholic church, the entire south side is the land where so many stories and lives are buried. I find it ironic - but who knows - maybe comforting to some, is that the residents can look out their windows and see just where their bodies might lie some day. It's a street where holy meets broken.
As I turn into the parking lot of the memory care unit where Dad lives, I gather my wits about me. I've made it a rule to never, ever cry in front of Dad. I'm afraid that if I do, it will cause him to be even more confused, more anxious, more sad. Wednesday was different. The visit went as usual. I brought clean, pressed clothes and we visited, but when I rose from my chair to say goodbye, I was overtaken by the loss of it all. The I love yous exchanged, the I'm proud of yous shared, the you're wonderfuls gripped me. The only parts of his language that are discernible anymore are the words of love, deep soul caring love. Tears were wet on my eyes and on his, and I felt I had swallowed a tennis ball as I fought back a deluge, but when he kiss, kiss, kissed my hand, I could hold back no longer. I maintained my composure the best I could, but that salty water dripped from the windows on my face. We locked eyes, and strangely enough, I think he found comfort in my tears. He wasn't confused. He wasn't any more sad than he already was. He just knew in those moments that he didn't carry this pain alone.
As I walked away from his room and down the long hotel-like hallway, the tears began to flow more freely. The nurse's aides said nothing, but gave empathetic glances as I waited for the exit door to be unlocked to free me. Then it began pouring. I sobbed all the way to my car and once in, folded my arms and propped my head on the steering wheel and just let the pain rain down. The groans to my heavenly father that couldn't be articulated were ushered right before the throne by the Holy Spirit. He speaks when we can't. I remember not long ago reminding Dad of this when he prayed over our lunch in halting, inarticulate words. When he said, "Amen" at the end of his prayer, he looked at me and clearly asked, "Was that too long?"
"No Dad, It was just fine. You know the Bible says that the Holy Spirit speaks on our behalf when we can't come up with the words."
"Yes. That's right!" he said.
So I sat there in a red Chrysler Town and Country minivan in the parking lot under a shade tree and grieved, truly grieved over the multifaceted pain of losing my father to Alzheimer's. I was broken in those moments, a clay vessel cracked, pain seething and spilling through right out onto my sleeve where everyone could see. I prayed. I listened. The Holy Spirit spoke. I twisted the radio knob to On, and right then, Casting Crowns poured peace right into my soul when their song, I Will Praise You In This Storm, filled the air in my space. I breathed it in deep, and the cool comfort of the Spirit of God sat with me. I worshiped. He received.
I put my sunglasses onto my face, more to cover my puffy eyes than to block the sun, and as I eased my car into reverse and left the cover of the shade tree, turning east onto the cedar lined two lane road, God showed me - in a way that only he can - that Dad's loss had turned into my gift. There is blessing in burden. It's not just a place where character is developed, or weak knees are strengthened; it's a place where we can touch the face of God. When we call on him in the hottest and loneliest moments of pain, we can feel the cool of his presence, we can touch the hem of his garment as he surrounds us, we can become more like him. He renders compassion in a way that makes it impossible not to pass it on. In the midst of our darkest moments, God shines his Light on who he really is, and he makes it possible for us to walk more closely in his footsteps. This journey through Alzheimer's has been a walk into the reality of who God is. When we expose our souls to his presence, he gifts us with an understanding that can't be gripped with the mind; it is experienced in the spirit. There is no pain that he cannot or will not enter into if we will invite him in.