February 21, 2020

Another Look: Give Us This Day…

I know what it means to live week to week, paycheck to paycheck.

I don’t know what it means to live day to day, without guarantee of a paycheck.

I don’t know what it means to be completely dependent on grace and mercy. I may indeed be completely dependent, but I seldom realize it. I can think about tomorrow with some confidence. I can finish one meal while already looking forward to the next one. Sure, I’m fully aware there’s no guarantee. Nevertheless, I’m not sure the word “needy” has ever really applied when it comes to the way I actually go about my business and function each day.

This makes it hard for me to grasp the prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

Today, at lunchtime I sat in the hallway of a nursing home. The middle aged man in front of me was sleeping with his chin on his chest, slumped down in a high-backed wheelchair. He has a terrible disease, one which causes the progressive breakdown of nerve cells in his brain. He has been in a facility for years now, has done relatively well for someone with his disease, but there he is. And there he will be tomorrow, the next day, and the day after, until who knows when. Day after day after day.

And there I am, sitting in front of him, praying the Lord’s Prayer.

It’s a prayer he knows and sometimes when I pray it with him I get intimations that he understands and is following along. A word of it occasionally wiggles its way out of his mouth. He may be coherent enough to say thank you for when I pray. But most of the time he just sits there with his chin on his chest, or he lies on his bed on his side, curled up and staring at the wall.

I’ve met his wife and his pastor. Each of them comes at various times to feed him and sit with him. The pastor told me he often has to forcibly lift his head, fighting stern resistance to get food to his mouth. He never knows when the patient might have an outburst. It’s a characteristic of his disease. He might flail his hands violently and buddy you better get out of the way. The minister took it flush on the jaw once. Human strength, even in extremis, is remarkable. It can hurt you. Most of the time it turns out there’s no problem at all in the dining room, and there, sitting in his high-backed wheelchair he gets his daily bread.

Today in the hallway, I choke a little just saying the words.

I know that I’m going to walk out that door in just a few moments. I’ll walk down the hall, walk to my car, drive to my next visit and, sooner or later I’ll stop somewhere and have lunch. I’ll use my debit card, order a salad, and sit in my car and eat it. With my own hands, at a place of my choosing, using my own money, mobility, and sense. Later this week, my employer will deposit another paycheck in my bank, and I’ll be able to have lunch each day for the foreseeable future. Maybe even buy someone else lunch on occasion.

As a caregiver, I don’t often have to deal with this kind of survivor’s guilt, but that’s what it feels like today. It feels wrong for me to pray “Give us this day our daily bread” with this man in this place on this day because I sense the disconnect when I say that little word, “us.” It feels like I ought to say, “Give him his daily bread, Lord, I’m covered.”

I could get all spiritual here and start talking like I used to talk: I’m needy too. I’m just a beggar. I need grace and mercy just as much as the next person. If God doesn’t provide for me, I’m sunk. There is no inherent difference between my patient in the nursing home and me. He just has a physical condition that makes his daily need for God’s grace and mercy apparent. If I could look behind the scenes and see all the ways God protects me and cares for me, I would understand that I too, am just the same as the man in the high-backed wheelchair.

All true enough, but largely irrelevant to the way most of us live and think each day. When we do say it, it’s mostly spiritual posturing, the old humble bit, the right language to draw a knowing nod from those in our crowd. The words cover an existential fear so pure we’re obliged to avoid it. It’s possible I won’t really know the meaning of “Give us this day our daily bread” until I require someone to force my head back and put a spoon of puréed mush in my mouth. Honestly, I’m not looking forward to that, whether it happens tomorrow or twenty five years from now.

Will someone come and wheel me to the dining room then? Will someone sit with me and perform that lowly service? Will someone pray the Lord’s Prayer with me when I can only occasionally mutter a word or two in recognition of it? And will they find themselves choking when they get to the line, “Give us this day our daily bread”?

I can only hope so. That’s probably really what I’m praying for as I sit in this nursing home and try not to see myself in that high-backed wheelchair.

Until then I eat every lunch in defiance and fear of that day.

Comments

  1. I always find your thoughts and insight into this area of life’s journey profound. I appreciate your honest grappling that you as an individual convey. I think God’s love and mercy on the patient is shown though his wife, his Pastor and your efforts. That there is even a facility that can handle those in this condition in our land is God given blessing that most take for granted. I really appreciate your frank, honest and truthful last sentence that I so identify with. I will try to receive my daily bread with thanksgiving, with gratitude and with an earnest prayer God will continue to allow me to provide my own daily bread. I will fail in this as I forget the message and how I feel at this moment but it will be in my memory bank. I am totally dependent on others at some time now and of course to God all the time, it will do me good to remember that. Matthew 6 verse 25 I know the words , I am trying to trust the words, and it is a struggle. Thanks for your work in this mission field and sharing your humanity with us.

  2. Raw and profound in a way that shines the light on one of our primal fears. Thank you CM — even for this distress.

    I’m learning that growing old takes more courage than I may be able to muster…

    • It is our final purification.

      Dana

    • what distracts one from growing older is when you have to take care of a spouse a bit older than yourself and that absorbs your time and energy and focus,
      so there is not a whole lot of anything left in you for ‘worrying’ about getting older yourself, a small mercy I suppose, but a distraction none the less

      the medicine schedule, the appointments to be kept, directions to those medical offices and the waiting, always the waiting, the laundry, the special diet, the worrying that cherishing someone can bring when you see signs of lost ground and weakening, and hope when you see signs of light in the eyes of someone whom you recognize in that aged body, now growing frail . . . they are still the eyes of a young man first met over half a century ago . . . same eyes, same soul, yes . . . same person, yes

      ‘for better, for worse . . . ‘ sacramental words vowed . . . giving strength and perspective for a time to come

      each day comes and goes and I am reminded of some words from a novel by Thomas Hardy:
      Gabriel Oak:
      “At home by the fire, whenever I look up, there you will be. And whenever you look up, there I shall be.”

      for a time, we will abide and cherish what is ‘now’

  3. This speaks to me too. For most of my life I have resisted dependence on others, mainly out of fear that the help I need might not in fact be there for me . Now I simply I hang onto faith in God, because I have to trust the promises, and I am becoming far, far better at gratitude for the daily blessings, including the daily bread, than I used to be. Thank you CM.

  4. I am glad that you are there for him. And for so many others in their needs. I don’t think I could emotionally handle it. You have and incredible gift.
    My life is so disconnected from people like this – to the point that most days I don’t even know they exist.
    Thank you for continuing to share your life with people in need.
    Thank you for sharing with us your very human struggles.
    I need reminders that life can take us down paths like this and I am not immune.

    The Lord bless you and keep you;
    The Lord make His face shine upon you,
    And be gracious to you;
    The Lord lift up His countenance upon you,
    And give you peace.

  5. Thank you for putting into words something that rarely gets expressed. My mother died in a care facility last year after being completely dependent on others for care for a number of years, both physically and because of advanced dementia.

    One thing we forget is how much of this is cultural.

    We Americans live in a society that lionizes independence and individualism. The dark side of that it treats dependence as a personal and moral failure to such an extent that it doesn’t know what to do in cases where dependence clearly has nothing to do with any moral or personal failure.

    Not all cultures do this. Many have an ethos of honor and care for the elderly, no matter their frailties.

    We have lessons to learn from other cultures, even (perhaps especially) spiritual lessons.

    • 18 “Truly, truly, I tell you, when you were young, you dressed yourself and walked 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)

    • David Greene says

      Many years ago I was an EMT and worked for an ambulance company driving a “cabulance” which is a wheel chair taxi. I was around such folk all the time, some in worse shape some much better but still needing some assistance. Being in and out of nursing homes all the time I saw many more but it never bothered me then, I was young, strong and I knew it would never happen to me. But now, decades later, “The words cover an existential fear so pure we’re obliged to avoid it” and facing those with such disabilities has become difficult as I am no longer sure it will never happen to me.

  6. Thanks, CM, for your post. I always am enriched when you share about your work with folks at the end of their
    life and in the hospital.

    There’s a book by Tom Wright about the fate of the “dearly departed.” In there he says he believes that this
    life is purgatory — I’m summarizing it and probably woefully. It does help me to realize that greater things
    are coming, and also to ‘fight the good fight’ now.

  7. Susan Dumbrell says

    I wish I could write something profound.
    This touches my heart so it bleeds.
    My visits to John are so painful.

  8. Loss of mobility. Dwindling brain function. Decreasing control over bodily functions.

    Watching people age is depressing. Watching myself age is depressing.

    Lord have mercy on us all.

  9. Hoy me has hecho llorar.
    También es bueno llorar