Friday, 23 November 2012

If I Make My Bed in Hell...

Fallen leaves with "memories" of other leaves         photo H. Price

  I spent much of my time between the ages of sixteen and eighteen,
 lying immobile in the medical ward of our 
small local hospital in Wales.

Ill though I was, the worst thing, 
the thing that comes most vividly to mind about that time,
was the suffering of my fellow patients.

Then, as now on most medical wards,
 among those patients  
was a constant sprinkling of elderly women who were there 
solely because they were no longer 
able to care for themselves 
and no other place could be found for them.

It was the first time I had ever seen 
 dementia or Alzheimer's,
 and here I was, for twenty four hours a day,
living just over an arm's length from
 some of the victims of these conditions.

It was deeply distressing,
 and sometimes frightening to watch.

By day they were often quiet,
 then, willy nilly we were all caught up
in the strange heightened activity of their nights
as time and place became filled with their confusion.

Most extraordinary to me
 was the sudden physical strength
which surged through those frail bodies
 in the dark hours of night.

These old women seemed so utterly lost.
Lost to themselves.
 Lost to their loved ones, 
 and to the world they had known.

Knowing how troubled I was
 the nurses advised me to do as they were taught to do
and not allow myself any emotional connection
 between my troubled fellow patients and myself.

They knew as well as I did 
that our connection was not solely emotional,
 but inherent in our common humanity.

I agonised over the  old women
and the question their state raised for me.
If we can be so lost to ourselves,
 I wondered,
could we be lost to God? 
No longer knowing ourselves or recognising those around us,
could we know God?

As I prayed over the months a certainty grew within me that
at the very core of their being 
these old women were known and held by God;
and further more that at some place deeper than reason,
they too could know him.

Even as the depth of God's indwelling presence with them
 was borne in on me
I was suspicious that I was simply inventing
 a theology of comfort to meet my needs.

However over the months I was given little momentary glimpses,
of the "somebody" still inside,
even those who seemed deep down in their lost state.
(Remember we were living intimately,
through un-interrupted days and nights,
with few distractions, and no escape.)

I began to fully trust that despite the outward evidence
their true inner self did remain,
and that we are not merely body and mind,
but the essence of ourselves is spirit,
coming out of,
 and returning to the eternal.

Still it was hard to be in their company,
though I remained convinced their true self was,
 in it's secret place,

One of the indications this could be true
 came via an old lady who spent a fortnight in the bed next to me.

She was there so that the daughter, who was her full time carer,
 could have some respite break herself.

The old lady was without speech,
 accept for a seemingly constant twittering and murmuring.

 Obviously deeply distressed and disorientated
 at her strange surroundings, 
she refused her food,
 and often tried throwing herself over the cot sides.

From my own prone position I tried to sooth her.
Telling over and over that her daughter would be back.
That the food was good.
That she would soon be going home.
How pretty she looked in her clean nightie... 

At times she seemed to quieten a little. 

At last the day arrived when her daughter came 
 to accompany her home  in the ambulance.

At almost the last moment on the ward the old lady turned 
and looked directly at me
 saying quite clearly,
"Thank you."
Then the twittering resumed, her gaze wavered
and she was lost again. 

Her daughter whooped in triumph,
"You heard that didn't you? 
The doctors say it is impossible and that I imagine it,
 but from time to time the mists clear
and this happens!"

Now of course we can clinically measure whether 
those random functions are a possibility
and knowing much more about the workings of the body and brain,
her doctors would not have dismissed her so readily.
  As it was we marveled at this sudden ability,
 knowing the time would come
 when this brief coming together of faculties would cease
 and there would be no further outward sign of the person within.
Yet I continued, and still continue to believe
that even when all other faculties were gone
 my companions were never truly lost,
for there is no MRI that can read the spirit, 
 and it's secret eternal life.

Years later my belief was affirmed when, reading the scriptures 
I found I already knew, 
and believed, 
 the psalmist's words:-

Ps. 139  
7 Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,”
Even the night shall be light about me;
12 Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You,
But the night shines as the day;
The darkness and the light are both alike to You.

13 For You formed my inward parts;
You covered me in my mother’s womb.
14 I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Marvelous are Your works,
And that my soul knows very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.
And in Your book they all were written,
The days fashioned for me,
When as yet there were none of them.
17 How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God! 
how great is the sum of them!
18 If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand: 
when I awake, I am still with thee."
As I write this, one of my dearest friends
 is spending her first week in a residential home 
 after many months of struggling with dementia
and two old friends have come to the end of their
 descent into Alzheimer's
by dying within a few days of one another.

For Betty,
 Paddy, and Bill,
and all who suffer in mind or body,
may your night shine as day,
for you are not,
and never were,
 alone in the darkness.


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