(I started this post early in the morning and was pulled away from it many times for dad’s care. It is now late evening on Valentine’s Day/Ash Wednesday, but I wanted to finish it, to share my heart with yours. May we know the blessings and gifts in both love and ashes.)
I stare down into the cup of yogurt, stirring it. Never have I been more in the present moment, noticing its creamy texture, the bits of peaches that glop through it.
Outside, a winter wind whips around the corners of the house and I follow dad’s gaze to the window, then back to me.
He opens his mouth, like a small bird, his eyes wide. I scoop up a small portion of the yogurt and spoon it into his mouth. My heart breaks as he takes it, slowly swallows it.
This has become the “new normal” in dad’s ongoing care, five years into his stroke. He has been stripped of everything — his ability to dress or toilet himself, to walk without a walker or wheelchair — but he could always feed himself. Until now.
During his hospitalization last week for a heart condition, he almost choked to death. Throat muscles and swallowing after a stroke are often compromised. And even though we had always cut dad’s food into small pieces and monitored him, he had been aspirating food and liquid into his lungs. We didn’t know.
Now, his food must be pureed and he must be spoon fed, all liquids and all foods. And so, we face another challenge in this caregiving journey.
It is Lent in the Christian tradition, and today many receive ashes on their foreheads, reminding the world of the fragility of life. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
It is a time of stripping away all that keeps us from focusing on our true goal and essence — a relationship to our Divine creator, however we name that Source of Love — and remembering we are here for a short time.
Lent is a time to have a change of heart away from those things, whatever they may be, that block an authentic relationship with the Divine. It is a time of “metanoia.”
The word, metanoia, comes from two Greek words: Meta, meaning above; and Nous, meaning mind. Metanoia invites us to move above our normal instincts, into a bigger mind, into a mind which rises above self-interest and the ego.
You might say, then, that metanoia is about “letting go” — and if anything in life invites us to let go, it’s suffering. No, we don’t ask for suffering. We’d rather it go away. But the truth is, it’s part of the human experience and how we choose to respond to it, matters.
Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr writes: “I define suffering very simply as ‘whenever you are not in control.’ Suffering is the most effective way whereby humans learn to trust, allow, and give up control to Another Source. I wish there were a different answer, but Jesus reveals on the cross both the path and the price of full transformation into the divine.”
Today is also Valentine’s Day, a day of expressing and reflecting love. I find it fitting that both Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day come together this day. Pure, authentic love is born of a burning away of the ego, many times the result of suffering.
Author Sue Monk Kidd writes: “I don’t hold to the idea that God causes suffering and crisis. I just know that those things come along and God uses them. We think life should be a nice, clean ascending line. But inevitably something wanders onto the scene and creates havoc with the nice way we’ve arranged life to fall into place.”
That re-arrangement of our life will be unique to each of us. But, when we are stretched, when we are nailed to our own personal crosses, we can be born into deeper levels of compassion and love — if we allow it.
Now, I scoop up one last glob of yogurt for dad. I spoon it in his mouth and he swallows, slowly, mindfully. I am mindful, too, that this time, although tedious, is a precious gift.
Dad is silent. Since the stroke, he is often quiet or has difficulty finding words. This time, he surprises me. He takes my hand and kisses it three times. My heart breaks and I want to drown in tears.
“Thank you,” he whispers.