The Long Goodbye : Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
The instructions were straightforward, “Use the eye ointment in the evening before you go to bed and use the eyedrops in the morning”.
I had taken my mother to the optometrist to have her eyes checked. Approaching the age of 93, such excursions are more akin to planning a multi-force military operation than a mere outing. First, there was the reminding her of the appointment and the time at which she would need to be ready to go. As we are still in the midst of winter, I needed to lay out her clothing and appropriate coat in advance. I had a folder with a printed list of her medications and insurance information, which I knew the optometrist would request. I had to inform the nurses’ desk at the assisted living facility that I would be checking her out for the morning. Only then could I approach the logistics of getting my mother into the car, her walker in the trunk, the drive to the doctor’s office, filling out her paper work, steering her through the examination and then, doing it all in reverse. All in all, a twenty to thirty minute eye exam, would consume half of the day.
My mother was convinced that she was suffering from glaucoma. When told that she merely had a problem with her eyes getting dry, she seemed ever so slightly disappointed. The optometrist prescribed an ointment to be used in the evening and eyedrops to be used in the morning. On the return drive to her apartment, we went over the examination and the instructions. She repeated the instructions after me and then, a few minutes later, asked me to tell her again what she was supposed to do. Suddenly, she turned and said, “I’m glad you’re here to take care of me, you’re the only one I have left”. We talked for a few minutes about my two brothers, both of whom had died young from alcohol related causes. After a brief silence, she asked me to repeat the instructions again. After unloading the car and settling her into her apartment, I made my way home in the early afternoon. That evening I called my mother at the regular time. A few minutes into the conversation, I asked if she had used the ointment for her eyes as she was supposed to do. She replied that she had used the eyedrops…
I called the nurses’ station to have them take over the administering of the ointment and the eyedrops just as they take care of giving my mother her other medications.
It’s hard. I want my mother to be as independent and self-reliant as is possible, but it is becoming more and more difficult. Her memory is slipping, most of her family are gone and, apart from her one remaining son, she is increasingly isolated. As a result, she busies herself with what is taking place in the very small world of her assisted living facility. Her conversations are about the live music at the twice weekly wine and cheese events or who was sitting at her table in the restaurant for lunch or dinner. While I visit her twice a week, I know that a telephone call can come any morning or evening. Each week is part of a long goodbye.
I often find that my relationship with the Church is much like my relationship with my mother. While I hate to admit this, in recent years I’ve often attended church because I know that if I am absent, it will be one less person in small congregations. Roman Catholics used to speak of certain days of the Christian calendar, such as Christmas and Easter, as being “days of obligation”. For the last several years, it has tended to feel like that most weeks. The church is often like an aging parent. We still love the aging parent, but we don’t know what to do in order to prevent the steady decline. When offered prescriptions for recovery, the instructions are confused or ignored. For instance, when we say to show the love of Christ to every person, exceptions are made for progressives, or those supporting Trump, or those whose understanding of baptism is different from ours. Whether selective, or confused, the prescription is not followed and those of us who love the church despair.
Instead, we involve ourselves in the increasingly smaller world of our own ecclesiastical tribe. We discuss who is sitting with whom and debate the quality, or not, of the music. We often mourn those who have passed from among us, hoping that some remain to keep the church alive. Worst of all, or at least it seems that way to me, our memory is slipping. By this I do not mean the emotional memory that takes the form of nostalgia for the days of years gone by in a rose tinted past. I mean the memory of those attributes and actions that made the church vital. Most of us build on a lifetime of memories from the time we are adolescents, through to high school, university, building a career, middle age and later years. Each stage of life builds upon the last through memory. When memory begins to fade, however, as in the case with my mother, we tend to focus on the immediate, that is, what is happening today, in this moment. As the church loses its memory in terms of worship, doctrine, the training of clergy, moral theology and so much more, whatever is immediate and “in the moment” takes on inordinate importance. So, by turn, we a subjected to left and right wing political endorsements from the pulpit, MAGA sermons or homilies on patriarchy or systemic racism. When I speak to my mother each evening, I speak to someone who once loved fashion, politics and travel. Her favorite topic now is what she ordered for lunch that day.
In closing, I have a confession to make. I have often overlooked signs of my mother’s decline that I should have recognized. In my defense, I overlooked those signs because I wanted to see my mother as she once was, not as she is today. It is all part of the long goodbye. It is an open question if we can afford to do the same with the church.