Amid the Flood

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Days before reading and re-publishing Linn Ullman’s lines about memory and the loss of it (“You just can’t think too deeply about it”), one of the four remaining classmates of what we’ve called The Chicago Seven, The Gathering, and now The Old Dogs, sent the rest of us an article on Alzheimer’s our latest deceased brother, Wayne, had published years ago.

Chicago Seven Gathering L to R: Wayne Boulton, Harry Strong, Gordon, Steve Shoemaker, Dale Hartwig, Don Dempsey, Bob Young@ McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL, 2004.

As Wayne had imagined his ship going over the far horizon, his worst thought was not death. It was that he would live on, like his father had, without remembering how to tie his shoelaces and without recognizing Vicki, the love of his life, his sons Matt and Chris, daughters-in-law Liz and Libby, and the grandchildren who brought him such joy.

That nightmare didn’t happen. He went out with his mind in tact, as much as a hospice patient’s mind is ever fully there. Aside from his last few days, Wayne’s mind was clear and his heart was full. The article Harry sent the three other surviving Dogs is a reflection on Psalm 90:10, 12 (RSV):

The days of our life are seventy years,
    or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
    they are soon gone, and we fly away. teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.

When he died in 1989, the sum of Dad’s years came closer to fourscore than to threescore and ten. With the psalmist, I attribute this number to his strength, but I would not wish the manner of his death on anyone. He died of complications due to Alzheimer’s disease.

It was my first experience with the death of an immediate family member, so I was no veteran. I found myself up against a more complicated reality than I had anticipated. I remember thinking at the time that some portion of this is just plain death: nasty, sad, the way death always is. But it is not natural death. It is something else. In the words of Martin Luther’s signature hymn, the disease threw every member of Dad’s little nuclear family—his wife, daughter-in-law, and myself—into a “flood of mortal ills prevailing.”

Amid the Flood,” Wayne G. Boulton, Reformed Review, Western Theological Seminary, December 1, 2000.

Wayne died the way he lived and lived the way he died. Faithful son, husband, grandfather, and friend. Wise. Compassionate. Pastoral. Realistic. Hopeful. Consoler. Prayerful. Private. Counselor. Social critic. Political wonk. Brilliant Christian theologian-ethicist. Follower of truth wherever it led him. All of that and so much more. But, if I had the pen to engrave his epitaph on the simple grave stone in the cemetery of the Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church, if might read,

A sheep of Your own fold, a lamb of Your own flock, a sinner of Your own redeeming, humble servant his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ amid the flood of mortal ills.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 5, 2019.

The Burning Bush and Alzheimer’s

Christ Hospital, Cincinnati, OH

Christ Hospital, Cincinnati, OH

It had been three years since I’d seen Polly.

“Mom’s had a heart attack,” said Polly’s daughter. “She’s at Christ Hospital. There’s really no reason to visit. Most days she doesn’t even know me anymore.”

For eleven years we had shared the same church in Cincinnati. Polly had been chair of the Pastor Search Committee that invited me to candidate for the position of Pastor at Knox Presbyterian Church, and over the years the times together over cocktails and dinner had been frequent before we moved to Minneapolis.

I walk into her room in the cardiac care center expecting nothing.

I say her name. She opens her eyes and stares. “Well, Gordon Campbell Stewart, what are you doing here?”

“Well, that’s not the question. The question is what are you doing in a place like this?” We both chuckle, as we so often had done over something that had struck our shared funny bone.

She asks about the boys and how things are in Minneapolis. She’s clear as a bell for a good three minutes until she goes away to wherever people with Alzheimer’s go when they’ve had enough of consciousness.

Buried somewhere deep in the depths of Alzheimer’s are sacred memories that bubble up for a just a moment before they slip back down into the reservoir from which they’ve been drawn. When they bubble up, we know we are standing on holy ground. The bush is burning but it is not consumed.

“Child Again”

Picture of classmates with Harry Strong to the right

Picture of classmates - Harry Strong on the far right

Yesterday classmate Harry Strong,sent this by email in response to Steve and my reflection “Words from childhood” posted on Views from the Edge. I asked Harry for permission to publish part of his email here. Harry’s reflection ends with questions for your reflection.

–  by Harry Lee Strong, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, sent April 28, 2012

While teaching adult classes at the Church of the Wildwood in Green Mountain Falls, I led a course called: “Could I Sing That Song and Mean It?”  We sang and listened to a number of sacred and secular pieces on various topics. This was one of them.

“Child Again” (Beth Nielsen Chapman) 

She’s wheeled into the hallway
Till the sun moves down the floor
Little squares of daylight
Like a hundred times before
She’s taken to the garden
For the later afternoon
Just before her dinner
They return her to her room

And inside her mind
She is running
She is running in the summer wind
Inside her mind
She is running in the summer wind
Like a child again

The family comes on Sunday
And they hover for a while
They fill her room with chatter
And they form a line of smiles
Children of her children
Bringing babies of their own
Sometimes she remembers
Then her mama calls her home … CHORUS

Playmate, come out and play with me
(It’s raining, it’s pouring, the old man is snoring)
And bring your dollies three
(Bumped his head on the edge of the bed)
Climb up my apple tree
(Never got up in the morning)
Slide down my rain barrel
(Rain, rain, go away)
Into my cellar door
(Come again another day)
And we’ll be jolly friends
(Little Johnny wants to play)
Forevermore
(Some more) … CHORUS

  1. Do you have family members or friends who are suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia? 
  2. What counsel, wisdom, or inspiration do you have to offer  to caregivers and loved ones who are trying to be helpful companions  to those whose mind is not what it used to be?

Words from Childhood

Personal reflection – a Visit with Red – written April 28, 2012

I walk through the door to his room…quietly. He is lying on his left side, his back to the door, his body turned toward the windows, in a fetal position.

His wife of 50 years had put him there. Couldn’t care for him anymore at home. That was a year ago.

Now he didn’t know her name or recognize her face.

The usual visits are the theater of the absurd. Becket’s’ Waiting for Godot. Blank stairs. Monologues. Boredom. Wondering why I go…except…he’s there. I could be too.

I tiptoe around the foot of the bed. I hear his voice. His eyes are closed. His lips are moving. “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take” – the prayer he committed to memory as a child.

Slow - Children

Slow - Children

He finishes and seems at peace. I pause…quietly speak his name…and place my hand gently on his shoulder. He opens his eyes.

“Good morning, Red. It’s Gordon.”

Blank stare.

“Your pastor…from Knox Church.”

His eyes grow wide. He smiles. He reaches out his hand…and looks me in the eye – a memory unlocked from deep within his soul…beyond the reach of Alzheimer’s.

“The Church Choir” –  Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, April 28, 2012

Words sung can be remembered long

after words said.  A person with

Alzheimer’s still may sing a song

recalled from church or school.  The myth

that music is a gift for few

blessed with a perfect pitch is just

malicious:  any in a pew

who talk can sing!  Of course, they must

speak S-L-O-W-L-Y and (the hardest thing

of all) must listen to others

around them–and follow the fingers

or baton of conductors

who beg and plead, talk loud or soft

to lure folks into the choir loft

All these years later…I wish I’d sung with Red  that day. “Jesus loves me; this I know…” S-L0-W-L-Y… from the choir loft… in the nursing home.