This week I’m doing something that I have never done before. You can call it a mindful memorial, a tribute, or just trying to deal with the reality of being surrounded by death from various neurodegenerative diseases – the actual label doesn’t really matter, I guess. On any given day, the various support forums carry a litany of death from a multitude of causes that have nothing to do with viruses, and so unfortunately draw little attention.
These brief notices are typically written by the deceased’s caregiver and naturally talk about how wonderful their late loved one was – which is as it should be. But something can get lost with that approach to memorialization: the caring people left behind. These short obituaries talk about the deceased’s challenges and bravery in the face of adversity, but rarely mention the sacrifices that the caregiver makes to allow their loved one to reach the end of their days with some dignity. Neither is it mentioned that these extraordinary measures are undertaken knowing that they won’t change the long-term prognosis even one single bit.
So this week I want to talk about one particular HD-related death from the standpoint of the patient’s caregiver – his mother. Please don’t see this choice as in any way denigrating the contributions of people with other relationships. Fathers lose daughters, children lose parents, and spouses lose each other, and they all perform noble service.
Rather, my choice of subject to stand in for the hundreds of thousands of caregivers worldwide was simple and pragmatic. It is someone that I know personally, and her son is also the fourth family member with HD that she has cared for.
The mother’s name is Maria and she might be familiar to some of you. She lives in Italy and over the past month I have posted several prayer requests for her and her son Giuseppe. So many of you have responded that Maria was, at one point, left speechless. She thought she was the only asking God to give her strength. Not quite! And for the record, I am incredibly proud of the family we have assembled here.
To make a long story short, Giuseppe had JHD and like so many of his countrymen, contracted the coronavirus. Maria spent many long hours living at the hospital helping to care for him. In fact, at one point she went 48 hours without sleeping or eating, and ended up collapsing on the floor. She said the nursing staff was initially afraid that she had suffered a heart attack, but she was just exhausted.
Then during Holy Week, the end came. Since then, there has been an unending stream of details to be managed and arrangements to be made. As I was thinking about this today (Wednesday, April 15th), I started writing. Even though I never met the young man, I had come to feel very close to him, despite his being on the other side of a very large ocean. So the writing was initially to clear my own head and help deal with my own sense of loss – though, to tell the truth, I felt a bit embarrassed to even mention my feelings.
Eventually, my feelings fell to the wayside and the writing morphed into a series of thoughts on motherhood in general, and Maria’s loving dedication to her family in particular.
I have been thinking about it and it seems to me that, for mothers, raising children involves a long series of “letting go” events. For nine months you carry them in the womb but even here, at the very beginning, they are a separate person, so there is a relationship with the child, a connection. The paradox is that they are at once, in you and yet distinct from you. They have their own gender, their own blood type, and their own heartbeat. While this heartbeat may from time to time synchronize with yours, it is unique.
This point becomes obvious at birth when the umbilical cord connecting the two of you is severed and they can become a fully independent human being. But still, you feed them from your breast and change their diapers. Then one day you have to let go of that connection because they no longer need the same degree of attention. I well remember the poignant moment when my Janet realized that she had just breast-fed our son for the last time. But he made it clear that, while milk was all fine and good, he wanted solid food – and lots of it!
After that, life seems full of letting go events that strain, redefine and restructure the connection: potty training, starting school, dances, dating, graduation, college, marriage, and parenthood – each with its own unique set of letting go moments.
But sometimes something goes wrong with that neat plan, and there are other things that a mother has to let go of. When Maria realized that Giuseppe had the Juvenile form of Huntington’s Disease, she had to learn to let go of his laughter and smiles, and eventually the personable young man that he was. Then in a kind of hellish regression, she had to return to feeding and changing him, and doing her very best to care for his most basic physical and emotional needs. But then, doctors and nurses became involved.
I will always remember the message I got from Maria when Giuseppe was being taken to the hospital. I am just learning Italian, but even without running the text through Google Translate, I recognized the words or phrases for “my son”, “hospital”, “intubated”, and “panicking”. The resulting online prayer request is when many of you became acquainted with her name, and there were dozens of you. (Thank you Pamela at the Huntington’s Disease Prayer Support Group!)
Eventually, in the final stages, Maria had to face letting him go completely in death. But even then, her mother’s love was so strong that she continued hanging on, becoming a living “la Pietà” mourning a son, not of marble, but of flesh and blood. She cradled him, craving one more moment of human contact. Soon even that was gone, as people explained to her about “contagions” and the necessity of cremation. She had to let go of even his physical body. In the end, it appeared that all she would have left to show for a lifetime of love and commitment, was just a few handfuls of ashes.
But no, God does not leave His children so destitute. Maria also has memories: The warmth and intimacy of suckling him that first time in the delivery room. The look of brave determination on his face as he headed off for the first day of elementary school. The pride he showed at graduation, and many, many more treasured moments that “moths cannot eat nor rust destroy.”
But in addition to the memories, God also has promises for the future. Promises of renewed hope and love that can, frankly, be so hard to hear while we are in the midst of the mourning. However, we can be confident that these promises have no “expiration date” and their time will come. For example, as people of faith, we have the assurance that death is not the hopeless end to an essentially meaningless life. Rather, one of the great lessons of Easter is that, as strange as it may sound, in death there is healing. When Jesus appeared to his disciple following the resurrection, He still bore the marks of the crucifixion. The difference was that they were no longer bleeding wounds, they were healed and Jesus was none the worse for wear. And so it is for Giuseppe and all our loved ones: There is no HD in heaven.
But for right now those around Maria are supporting her, and while she is so tired and full of grief that she doesn’t at times know which way to turn, she is not the kind to stay down. The life of a Christian in this world is not about “either/or” but “both/and”. We aren’t confronted with the alternatives of either sinner or saint, or either being faithful or grieving. In both cases, we are “both/and”. Always remember that the opposite of grief is not faithfulness, but rather apathy.
So if you have been praying for Maria, please continue to do so – which if you thinks about it is another case of “both/and”. She is both in need of prayer and already under infinite God’s care. To protect her from total despair, God is continuing to fill her heart every day with fresh hope, and the rod of steel that He placed in her spine means that this time of pain and sorrow will not leave her permanently bowed down.
This loss will not be the end of her, and the testimony of her story is yet another assurance that ours won’t be the end of us either…
In Christ, Amen ☩
A prayer for when you mourn…
“Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe. It is right that I should at all times and in all circumstances bless You for your wonderous promises. But today I want to bless you especially for understanding and sanctifying our grief. In scripture we see Jesus first weeping at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, and then reassuring the two grieving sisters that in Him there is life regardless of how things look at the moment. And then again, we have Jesus’ reassuring words, ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’ Thank you for the opportunity to experience the grief of separations so we might experience an even greater joy at our reunions. Amen”