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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Still Loved

Presented by Rev. Diane Teichert with Ken Redd, Worship Associate, and the Choir


Still Loved

A sermon preached by the Reverend Diane Teichert

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

November 6, 2011

 

READING

By PBUUC member Penny O’Brien, with apologies to Denise Levertov

 

Diane's Introduction to the poem:  For the past year, about ten or twelve people met with me monthly for a class called “Living by Heart.” It was a Unitarian Universalist introduction to spiritual practices, one of which was the learning “by heart” of poems of meaning. Some of us wrote our own poems. The one you are about to hear was inspired by Denise Levertov’s poem about learning to welcome grief, which begins “Ah, grief, I should not treat you like a homeless dog.”


Ah, forgetfulness, I should not treat you

like a nuisance or an undesirable distraction

that interferes with my daily functioning.

 

I should search instead for what you sometimes bring me,

            an uncluttered mind,

            a clearer picture ahead of me

 

If I focus on your needs, on feeding you,

I make it possible to decrease your demands,

            to free my mind to enjoy

            and appreciate what I have.

 

I’m aware of the problems you create,

But they can be viewed from another side,

            where I can appreciate them

            and the calm that results from forgetfulness.

           

 

SERMON                                   

Ah, forgetfulness. It’s my companion too, Penny. Just yesterday, I stopped at the store on the way home from being here for the Newcomers’ Class, to buy some eggs. My favorite aunt was here from Pittsburgh for a short visit to see her sister, my mother and staying the night with me. Since her genuine and always tasty hospitality is one of the things I’ve appreciated about her as far back as I can remember, I’d baked brownies and used up all but two of the eggs, which wouldn’t be enough for a nice breakfast for three. Well, last evening, as I pulled into the assisted living parking lot to pick Aunt Phyllis up after her visit with Mom, it dawned on me, I’d bought lots of other things at the store but not – I’m sure you know what – eggs.

 

I quick called my husband, hoping he’d offer to run out and pick some up before we got back to the house… “Can you believe it?! I forgot to get eggs!” “Well,” he helpfully replied, “she’s catching such an early bus, she probably won’t want to bother with eggs. And now you have a good story for your sermon!”

 

A neighbor – I’ll call her Joan – told me of the last time she took her mother to visit her mother, Joan’s grandmother.  She told me she will never forget the heart-breaking look on her mother’s face, shortly after they entered the room, when she turned to Joan, mouth covered by her hand in shock, eyes welling up:  “Your Grandma doesn’t know me. I’m her baby and she doesn’t know who I am.”

 

Who are we if not our memories and our hopes joined in the present moment? If the purpose of memory is to teach us what we must know in order to act toward our hopes, can we have hope if we have no memory?

 

The quotation at the top of your Order of Service is from Still Alice, a New York Times bestselling novel by Lisa Genova: “I will forget today, but that doesn’t mean that today didn’t matter.”  In the novel, a fifty-something psychology professor at Harvard, Alice Howland, develops memory lapses such that she seeks medical attention and is definitively diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. She is the narrator of the story, so we experience her experience as she and her family – a husband, also a Harvard psychology professor, and their three twenty-something children – grapple with the news, the unfolding symptoms, and the continual losses – she loses her job and her career; her ability to navigate her surroundings; recognition of students, colleagues and family; and as the story fades out as her brain fades out, she loses her self-awareness.

 

Some of it’s funny. There’s the time she shows up in the lecture hall where she was scheduled to teach, but sits down as if she was a student, waits the required 20 minutes for a tardy professor, then gets up, says to the students nearest, “Well, I have better things to do than sit here waiting,” and walks out – on the class she should have been teaching.

 

Most of it is poignantly sad. There is the time near the end of the book when she and a man (it’s her husband, John) are companionably sitting in the living room while on vacation, reading. Or at least he is. She is not able to read much anymore – the little black shapes on the page don’t always come together as letters, words and sentences any more so it’s difficult to read more than a word or two at a time – at one point, she picks up a book from the coffee table, thumbs through it, catching familiar words but making little meaning, and says to her husband, “I think I’ve read this book before.” The man looked over at the book she held and then at her. “You’ve done more than that. You wrote it. You and I wrote that book together.” She closed the book and read their names on the cover. She looked up at the man in the chair. “He’s John,” she thought. She flipped to the front, to the Table of Contents. And then she flipped to the end. “John,” she said. “Yes.” He put his book down and sat up straight at the edge of his big, white chair. “I wrote this book with you,” she said. “Yes.” “I remember. I remember you. I remember I used to be very smart.”  “Yes, you were, you were the smartest person I’ve ever known.”

 

“She wanted to tell him everything she remembered and thought, but she couldn’t send all those memories and thoughts, composed of so many words, phrases, and sentences, past the choking weeds and sludge [in her brain] into audible sound. She boiled it down and put all her effort into what was most essential. The rest would have to remain in the pristine place, hanging on.

 

“I miss myself,” she says.  “I miss you, too, Ali, so much.”  “I never planned to get like this.” “I know,” he replies (p. 283-285).

 

So if a person’s memories are fading away, who remains? Their personality, how they act and interact. But, sometimes the person’s personality changes too, and so the loved ones are left to mourn their loss of the person long before the person dies. What is life, then? Is it living if we exist with no ability to recognize one’s memories, hopes, or loved ones?

 

Alice says, “I will forget today, but that doesn’t mean that today didn’t matter.” For us as loved ones, to me that means, it matters what we do with and for our loved ones who are slipping away before our eyes. It means that it’s worth taking the time to help them have a happy or meaningful experience, even if they cannot remember it a day – or an hour – later. To feel loved in the moment matters.

 

In fact, I think people with memory losses can teach the rest of us something important:  the present moment matters. It is all there is really. Without the present, there will be no future moment; without the present, there is no memory of the past. Be here now.

 

People are different in these respects. I’ve seen family members, very loving family members, who feel “why bother visiting if the person won’t remember that I came? It makes me feel like a fool, to use my time that way.” And others who make a comparison to the time parents spend with us as infants – the child cannot express a memory of what we did or said, but we feel our time and care is well spent as an investment.

 

Then there’s the middle way, one that is not about either the past or the future; it’s not about creating memories, nor is it about investing in hopes. It’s about the present: that it’s worth the time and care to express love – even if we don’t feel it is registering, even if we don’t feel our love is reciprocated. For one thing, even if the person cannot respond, it is possible they are taking it in somewhere, somehow, maybe just physically, as in when muscles relax during a hug.

 

But also, I’ve found, taking the time to be present, to show love, makes me a better person, it reminds me that love is most important, and that it is love that is stronger than anything, even than death, at the end.

 

None of this is simple. There is a scene in Still Alice in which her three adult children argue – in front of Alice, as if she could not hear or understand them – over whether their mother should be trying to remember something or not. Alice asks what time they’ll be going to a play the next day. Her son tells her not to worry about it, she doesn’t need to try to remember because they’re not going to go without her. Her oldest daughter thinks she should be exercising her memory whenever possible, the sort of “use it or lose it” philosophy. The youngest thinks they should just let their mom know the information, and she can do with it what she wants.

 

Alice, remember, is a scientist, a psychologist. She learns everything she can about her disease and treatment options, visits an Alzheimer’s unit at a local nursing home, and decides to make a plan for suicide. She programs her smart phone to prompt her at 8:00 every morning to ask herself five questions:  What month is it? Where do you live? Where is your office? When is Anna’s (her eldest) birthday? How many children do you have? And then to direct her, “If you have trouble answering any of these, go to the file named “Butterfly” on your computer and follow the instruction there immediately.”

 

The instructions led to a bedside drawer and a bottle of pills.

 

Time and again, she answers those questions, less and less precisely, and eventually incorrectly. But by then she doesn’t know that her answers are wrong. One day, she comes across the Butterfly folder on her computer by accident, opens it, and reads the letter she wrote to herself when she was of sound mind. She goes to her bedroom and dumps the contents of the drawer on the bed. Just as she is going through them, John comes in to say he’s going out, and that it’s time to take her meds. He hands her a glass of water and a few pills; she takes them, he leaves, and she forgets to keep looking for the bottle of pills she hid away. Her life goes on, such as it is.

 

Still Alice is, perhaps surprisingly, a hopeful book. The family is relatively well put-together emotionally, smart, with resources, and manages to make a life that includes Alice as she demises. But they grapple with their grief, anger, small choices, and major decisions in ways that would be familiar to any of us who know love in our families. Messy, but with the intention of loving. Compromising, but holding onto what they most value. Somehow, even though the worst has happened – isn’t Alzheimer’s disease one of everyone’s worst fears? – life goes on and people love each other.

 

We don’t really know how it ends, because Alice gets to the point of not being able to tell the story any longer.

 

The increased number of people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias is directly related to our decisions, individual and societal, to prevent death, prolong life, treat every disease… most of us have seen the nursing home hallways lined with vacant people in wheelchairs and we are left to wonder:  at what point in that person’s life was a decision made to rescue him or her from likely death – heart attack, a stroke, cancer, whatever - a decision that, however much more time it may have won then, led directly to a future quality of life that is not life-like?

 

Can we afford to keep this up? Do we want to? Is that the life we want?

 

But that is a topic for another sermon. For today, we ask, Who are we if not our memories and our hopes joined in the present moment? If the purpose of memory is to teach us what we must know in order to act toward our hopes, can we have hope if we have no memory?

 

I don’t know, I really don’t know. But in the present, in the all-important present moment, there must be love. Still love. Still loved.

 

Amen.

 

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