On dementia and Epiphany

I spent the Octave of Christmas offline -- hence no posts, for which apologies -- deep in the south-west of England, daily visiting my father, who is the dementia unit of an elderly care home. When I started contributing to In All Things a year ago, he was able to log on from his home to read these posts, and to call me with his critiques. But then his longtime travelling companion, Parkinson's disease, struck into the new territory of his mind, and the hallucinations and paranoid ravings began. They have left him now, but  he needs 24-hour care, stares into the middle distance, and is barely able to hold a tea cup -- he who three times sailed single-handed across the Atlantic in a 36-foot sloop he handled as if she were a part of himself. 

I spent many hours of the Octave seeing his eyes clouded with confusion; watching while his body, trembling and lawless, caused him to start suddenly; saw his expression of anxiety, like that of a lost child at a crossroads. And I heard from him, each day, a stream of nonsensical observations and comments which had no bearing, as far as I could tell, on his past or present.


But not all the time, thank God. He would suddenly say something very sensible, and very meaningful; or would answer a question very directly and truthfully. Saying prayers with him, he was himself. And he responded very directly to the word "love". He was never very demonstrative; now he holds your hand tight, and tells you he loves you.

Cardinal Newman -- we'll be hearing a lot from him this year, as his September beatification during the papal visit to the UK comes into focus -- likened the Epiphany to a delirious man's sudden lapses into sanity and clarity, offering glimpses of the One he called "the invisible King of a visible kingdom", as did the Star which guided the Magi to Bethlehem, burning brightly in the night sky before again receding behind the dark clouds. 

It often happens, that when persons are in serious illnesses, and in delirium in consequence, or other disturbance of mind, they have some few minutes of respite in the midst of it, when they are even more than themselves, as if to show us what they really are, and to interpret for us what else would be dreary ... And somewhat in this way, if we may dare compare ourselves with our gracious Lord, in a parallel though higher way, Christ descends to the shadows of this world, with the transitory tokens on Him of that future glory into which He could not enter till He had suffered. The star burned brightly over Him for awhile, though it then faded away.

I take comfort from this. The gibberish my father talks is only another, less coherent, version of the noise which daily surrounds us. It does not mean he is not wholly human. We treasure these moments of Epiphany. We point to the Star and rejoice, conscious that it will soon fade, and when that happens we must act as if it were still there, even when it is again, as usual, beyond view.

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8 years 9 months ago
Thank you for a beautiful glimpse of God with us...
Mary Kennedy
8 years 9 months ago
My own father suffered a horrible dementia, in which the only thing he could remember was anxiety.  My sense during those years was that it was as though he had gotten in the long hall, headed to the light, and then got lost, unable to return to us, but neither able to go to God.  For three or four years that went on, and then, on his deathbed he clearly recognized a song we sang to him. I was left to wonder if music might not be that glimpse of God.
8 years 9 months ago
There is nothing harder and no place where love is most evident than in the midst of this kind of suffering. You are kept in prayer.


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