From the new book by Peggy Eastman, Godly Glimpses: Discoveries of the Love that Heals. (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 1999), p. 94-97:
That Which Remains
by Peggy Eastman
My uncle lay in a hospital bed clothed in a hospital gown in a determinedly cheerful suburban nursing home, breathing heavily in a deep sleep. His thin gray hair was parted on the side and combed, but his face had the pallor of a man who had spent weeks on a hospital ward recovering from his second broken hip and surgery for a serious intestinal blockage. The bottom of one foot was infected, and the sore refused to heal.
My mother gently took the hand of her one remaining sibling -- two others were gone, including the gracious, artistic older sister who had done the streetscape over my fireplace mantel -- and held it. "Rem?" she said, squeezing his hand lightly; his eyelids fluttered and lifted, the eyes disoriented. Then the eyes seemed to clear. He looked at my mother and said what sounded like her name, and then glanced around the room at the rest of us -- his eyes focusing on my father and me as he worked on our names with wounds in his throat. Then he looked at the pastor in his clerical collar, a man he had met briefly but did not really know.
Something in the recesses of my uncle's mind -- disordered as it was by the wasting of brain cells from dementia -- connected with the clerical collar, for my uncle was a man who had been a churchgoer all his life. His brown eyes made contact with the pastor's blue ones, and he spoke a piece of a sentence we strained to catch and hold: "Fine, so good of you..."
My mother had not wanted me to come. "I want you to remember Uncle Rem the way he was," she said.
The way he was: This valedictorian of his high school graduating class who was first in his class at law school had been imperturbable, totally in control of the complex legal technicalities of a probate practice. He had been organized, helping to keep a household of six running smoothly, stopping by the store for a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk on the way home from work, sinking railroad ties into his sloping lawn to keep the earth from eroding. He had been resourceful, making Halloween costumes for my four cousins -- including the twin girls -- from sheets and hour before trick-or-treat time. He had been thoughtful, canvassing local antique stores for a cobbler's bench for my wedding, cheering his grandsons on in soccer games and teaching them how to swim, air-filled water wings until they could splash toward him on their own. He had been welcoming, opening his front door on Christmas Day and drawing us inside with his wide-open arms and his wide-open heart and the wide-open smile that crinkled the skin at the outer corners of his eyes.
Now these eyes were fixed on the pastor's, who had taken the hand my mother had held. These two seemed to be communicating on a level we could sense more than understand, the pastor doing most of the talking in his measured, comforting voice and filling in when my uncle halted in mid-phrase.
How much of what we said got through to the person who was still there somewhere inside the man lying in this institutional bed? I had been told he had garbled speech from the dementia, and yet somehow there was more than a tenuous verbal link here. My brother the doctor had gone to see Uncle Rem in the hospital before he was transferred to this nursing home bed, and Jack had been as startled as the nurse to hear him say: "The problem is that I have Alzheimer's." My brother had turned to the nurse to make sure he had heard correctly. He had. My uncle's clear self-labeling was all the more remarkable because his diagnosis was unsure.
I knew what people were saying about my uncle: "Can't remember anything; waste of a brilliant mind; totally helpless; doesn't know what day it is; awful for Martha [his wife, my aunt]." Most of my uncle's friends never called anymore or came to see him, but then there was a New Testament precedent for this: Even Jesus' closest friends deserted Him. How could you blame these friends? My uncle could not talk law, football, or politics; he could not converse at all. He could not keep a lunch date, read a newspaper, or even dress himself correctly. He could not remember his friends' names or their wives' or children's names, or even if they had them. He could not remember playing golf with them or attending their birthday and anniversary parties. He could not remember writing their wills or advising them on trusts. He was not the man they knew.
Father, forgive them... My uncle lay on his back in the nursing home bed in the posture of submission and acceptance, palms up, and in my mind the folds of his white blanket froze for just one moment into the marble folds of cloth seen in a sculptor's Pieta, the Pieta, the mourning Mary bending over her dead son.
Who were they, those friends who did not comp -- or we -- to say what my uncle remembered and what he didn't, whose faces he recognized and whose he didn't, what meant something to him and what didn't get through, what he understood of his condition and what he didn't? When he said my name in the nursing home with its flower-printed wallpaper -- and I could certainly understand it -- the person speaking was my Uncle Rem, the man who had loved me since I crawled at his feet in diapers, the man who had counseled me like one of his own daughters when my husband Jim was killed. Some essential "Remness" was there inside the person who lay so diminished in that bed, some elusive but strong force neither disease nor the abandonment of friends could take from him. This essential core, which was at the heart of his submission to his condition, gave him dignity that transcended his surroundings and humbled us, his sometime visitors.
Now the pastor was saying, "Let's have a prayer together, shall we?" and I saw my uncle's face and upper body above the institutional blanket assume the quiet demeanor of prayer, his eyes cast downward.
Our Father; who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name... As the four of us prayed out loud, I glanced sideways at my uncle's face. From deep inside him, the words of the Lord's Prayer were fluttering up like captive birds set free. I knew this because I saw his lips moving as he struggled to convert those words into the sounds he had made on his knees on Sundays for more than seventy years.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven...
As we said good-bye, squeezing my uncle's hand in turn, and left his room, the clergyman's face was radiant with a quiet joy. We walked out into the lobby, past the dining room where a pianist was playing the World War II song "As Time Goes By" to residents in wheelchairs, and the pastor turned to us and said, "Did you see his lips moving? I know he was saying the words of the Lord's Prayer." We nodded yes.
For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.
"That Which Remains" is excerpted from "Godly Glimpses: Discoveries of the Love That Heals" (1999). The permission to reproduce copyrighted materials from this book for use here was extended by author Peggy Eastman, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN, 46750. 1-800-348-2440. Website: www.osv.com No other use of this material is authorized.