DECREASE THAT HE MAY INCREASE
I’m not home that much anymore. And each time I get back to visit I see a very noticeable deterioration in my grandmother. She’s my last grandparent. My mom’s mom and this past March she turned 95-years-old. She was determined to make it.. part of our competitive family nature. A holy priest in our lives told my gram that she would live a very long life and this she certainly has.
It seems like yesterday when on one particular St. Patrick’s Day I called her up and asked her to make her corned beef and cabbage for my dad and me because my mom was out of town and we “needed it.” We had a plan B because I didn’t expect her to comply. She was thrilled to do it for us and it gave us a special time with her. She wouldn’t let us lift the pans and she struggled as she hobbled to the table carrying big pots of potatoes, carrots and corned beef. It was her offering of love even if we sort of forced her into it. That’s what grandmothers are for. That was ten years ago and it was the last real time I can remember her doing anything significant in the kitchen at all.
She’s been bed ridden since last Christmas and I can’t remember when, but at a certain point in these past few months, she can’t really speak on the phone anymore. The last time I talked to her my family put me on speaker as I tried to rattle off the coolest little things ever to give her a little Hollywood sparkle. I told her that I “handled” Blake Shelton and Kelly Clarkson at a big LA event and that lit her up like a Christmas tree.
My parents moved their beach life back to our hometown area west of Boston several years ago when my grandmother was becoming more vulnerable and my mom was commuting several days a week to be present to her. My aunt moved in with my grandmother from her house down the road. It’s been a supreme sacrifice of caretaking for everyone involved, especially my aunt who tends to my grandmother around the clock with an intricate prescription routine, meals and every possible corporal need each and every day.
When we visit, we visit in her small bedroom. We have birthdays in there, endless cups of tea – mostly the ladies in the family set up their own perch, but often the men barrel down the hall and take up their own residence as well. The great grandchildren zoom by and peer in to see if she’s alive and flash their wave of salute and the crawling babies get to be on the bed with her. She knows them all by name and personality and for someone who didn’t admit us into her “club” until the teen years, she’s converted to a baby lover at this stage in her life. There are now new faces – home health aids and hospice nurses, some good, some overbearing and needing more emotional attention than my grandmother. The priest comes to anoint her and hear confession. She loves the pastor who she says is “just like a friend.” She asked him when she could get out of here and he told her it was really up to her. Everyone got it.
The last time I was home, I was straddled between visiting my dad in rehab and my grandmother in her little blue and white wallpapered New England bedroom with CatholicTV blaring and her secret chocolate stash and the remote control nearby. I could be there less because of my dad and I felt this pulling away spiritually, as if God was saying, “Decrease. I am increasing.”
The visits in her bedroom are less dynamic. Coming down the long hallway to find her asleep only to perk up when she senses an arrival. She talks for a few, inspects my outfit to see what I have on and bobs her head back to sleep and rouses with “is that necklace new?” or “when do you have to leave?” and always, “any good men?”
This past year has probably been the most challenging for my family and for my grandmother. Her inability to move and the finiteness of knowing that it doesn’t improve from here have impressed upon my grandmother and all of us that heaven is calling. Sometimes we think she has no clue that this life will eventually end but I know she knows.
There are days when the isolation and duty can become unbearable for the family caretakers who elected to do this so she would not be a number in a nursing home and to provide her human dignity that would be met with love, care and compassion. There are days when the extended relatives want their moms and grandmothers back in a normal routine or to have the freedom to come and go on a whim. My mom and my aunt take turns in family celebrations and milestones so that one of them is always with her. There are onlookers who don’t understand why you would possibly give up your entire life for one when she could just go into a nursing home. We live in a throw away culture with people who are too busy with their own lives and so to many this is lunacy, but to God this is primary.
One night while praying with my mother on the phone God permitted me to see an image of Saint John Paul II in my grandmother’s bedroom with my aunt and grandmother. He was dressed in his Papal white and had his arms sturdily around my aunt’s waste and was genuflecting, one knee up and one down, with his pressed head tucked into my aunt’s womb. We were praying for my aunt to have supernatural strength for as long as this time period lasted. Initially, I didn’t understand exactly what this vision meant but as we continued to pray, I understood that what the Holy Spirit was trying to show me was that all of heaven bows down amid this radical reverence for life – from the womb (head in the womb) to the tomb, my grandmother at the end of her life. That this countercultural expression of love and sacrifice to reverence the dignity of life is the most important of works of any work we can do this side of heaven. Saint John Paul II was so mystically present as we prayed and fittingly so because he helped the world understand the value of life in the unborn and every stage – and even when his own was failing, he showed us how to die. This vision gave me great comfort and continues to bring me deep consolation. I pray it continues to console my family as they pour out their acts of love like a libation to know that heaven truly bows down when His creation honors creation.
Saint John Paul II was also the greatest promoter of the Divine Mercy for the sick and the dying.
We’ve been inspired to have an image of the Divine Mercy placed at the doorway of her home. My aunt positioned the image on the floor at the entrance. There is so much foot traffic now, that we believe that God wants this house to be a house of Mercy for all who enter it. We cling to the promises of the Divine Mercy for my grandmother during these days and we invite heaven to continue to beckon for her. We pray that as heaven breaks in, her heart will lift from any sorrow of what she leaves behind and long for the promise of Eternity with no more sorrow, no more pain. We also pray for those coming to see my grandmother in these final days, no matter where they are in their walk in this life, they will recognize Christ in my grandmother and experience His mercy for them.
All of life is borne with sacrifice. A mother sacrifices her very own body that becomes stretched and wounded to give birth to a child. That child requires nourishment, care-taking, instruction from both parents and is served by the love and sacrifice of those parents who put away their selfish interests as two now for the third. A new child comes, and rinse and repeat. The older child now sacrifices its first position for the new life that is added to the mix. With the aged, the able bodied, generally children, assist the elderly parents, aunts, uncles and so on in the aging process in the pilgrimage home to God. And it too requires great sacrifice.
Likewise, we’ve encouraged my grandmother to not waste her suffering – her feeling of being imprisoned in her room, the monotony of the days, the humiliation of having her children change her, wash her and clothe her, the fade of this life and its pleasures and the fact that she has to walk by faith not by sight in belief of the life with God that is to come. We have encouraged her to know that she has some of the greatest power that we can have when we surrender our human will to the will of the Father to be used and disseminated for His glory. That our pain, weakness, lack, suffering is not in vain and can be offered and united to the Cross for our family members conversions, healings, for our own penance.
I miss her now and will miss her when. I’m grateful God has given me a continent in between to transition me for the time when He takes her to her Eternal Home. Her quiet and stoic love for her children and grandchildren that occupy her interior will become Heaven’s song as she becomes our fiercest intercessor. For now, I offer my distance as my “decrease” so the Lord will overshadow and be the increase for Catherine Patricia.
Praying for you and your loved ones+