The humbling path of growing old

As I watch my parents in their twilight years, I think about the inevitability of my own impending elder age. At 50, I’m still in fairly good shape physically, but I know the decline is coming.

But even when I was 30, one comment by Jesus stuck out to me and has continued to bounce around inside of me for the past two decades. Jesus was speaking to another Peter at the time and, in typical Jesus fashion, he answered Peter the man instead of answering Peter’s words. (I absolutely love when Jesus sees through people’s questions and answers the person rather than the question … except when it’s me asking the question.)

Jesus tells Peter:

“Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18).

When my Mom was 60, she had a massive stroke which has left her severely handicapped for almost 28 years now. And several years ago, another setback forced her to finally be wheelchair bound after 84 years of persistent independence. So, she now lives out the words Jesus spoke to Peter and I remind her of them from time to time.

But ever time I remind her, I’m reminding myself. Jesus spoke these words to a different Peter, but they are still words I can’t help but hear being addressed to me.

At some point in my life, someone else will dress me and I will be led where I do not want to go. The humbling this life has doled out to me isn’t finished. There is much of meekness for me still to learn.

Part of the care I have offered my Mom for the past several years is centered around bathroom and clothing rituals in mornings and evenings. I take her to the bathroom, get her pants down, get her on the commode, deal with everything associated with that, and get her dressed for the rest of the day or get her into bed.

I do for my Mom something akin to what she did for me when I was a baby.  But when I was a baby, I knew nothing else. My Mom endures the humiliation of having her son see her unclothed with a graciousness and acceptance that amazes me.

My daughter has begun to do a lot of care for my Mom as well, since my parents’ caregiver can’t do as many evenings as she did before. I’m so impressed by both my Mom and my daughter, with this embrace of humility and compassion.

I have a hunch that this life is God’s big unselfing program. We start out as center-of-the-universe kids who are all about “Me do it.” As we grow older, we develop friendships and learn to share. Then we get married and have to learn a truly shared life if marriage is to succeed. But after the mutuality of marriage, kids are born and all they do is take. (Sure, parents get something out of raising our kids, but it’s generally not what our kids intentionally offer us.) But then something horrible happens to some: We retire and turn the focus back on ourselves. But if we do this right, we continue to be more and more selfless, focusing on grandkids and on what we’ll leave behind, rather than on ourselves and what we can keep gathering. And finally, we enter this last stage of unselfing, the humiliation of being cared for by others as our bodies and minds fall apart.

There will be no picture of my Mom sitting on the commode to accompany this post. It’s not something you’d want to see or something she or I would want to share. But it’s almost sacramental for us, because it’s an event where grace is exchanged. My Mom confers blessings on whichever one of us is assisting her. And we in turn offer the grace of service, doing the equivalent of taking up basin and towel as Jesus did to show the full extent of his love.

These are events the world around us knows little of. There’s nothing sexy about it. Nothing lucrative. Nothing powerful. Nothing exotic. Nothing adventurous or thrilling.

Recently, a patient in the hospital said to me, “It doesn’t matter how rich or powerful you were in life, we all end up in small rooms with someone wiping our butts. The real question is: What kind of person were you on the way to that room?”

I hope the quality of my life is one where when the days come during which I reach out my hands and someone dresses me and takes me where I don’t want to go, I will be able to be dressed and taken with grace, for I will already be well-accustomed to the path of humility. For it’s the path I’ve watched my Mom and my Jesus walk ahead of me.