My father died of a brain tumor when I was 19. I am not really sure what impact the finality of losing him had on me, I actually lost him probably a year before his physical death. I believe watching the strong, retired USMC Drill Instructor deteriorate into a helpless man, losing his mental capacity and grip on reality, and once begging for me to shoot him, left a lasting impression. Since then, I have not really been able to be around anybody who is sick and dying…
My wife has an Aunt who is in the last leg of her life, Aunt Dorothy. She deteriorated rapidly after her husband passed, and has been bedridden in a home about 5 minutes from where I work for quite some time. I met Aunt Dorothy a couple of handfuls of times at family events, her husband had been a Pastor and he married my wife and I, but I did not really have a relationship with her. On a couple of occasions my wife expressed some displeasure that I did not visit Dorothy, since I worked so close. Whatever, too painful for me to go, didn’t really know her, etc. Bondage of Self.
When I hit 6 months of sobriety I decided to visit Dorothy, after my first visit I decided I would go every week – I chose Monday’s as it would be a good way to start the week. I have not missed a weekly visit in 3 months. It was still selfish to some degree, I was doing it for my recovery. to be of service to others, to practice relief from the bondage of self, to feel good about my progress in recovery, to make amends to the people I hadn’t visited; grandmothers and aunts who had been ill and died and had never seen me cross their threshold. There was also that thought of “I will show my wife I have changed”, but that one was easy to identify as self serving, so I worked hard to put that aside – I did not even tell her about this at first (she now knows that I visit).
It was difficult. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t know what to do or talk about. I felt stupid and thought “What’s the use.” Dorothy seems to know what is going on and can respond appropriately, but only really single words or short sentences, and I am not a conversationalist by trade – especially with not a lot of shared history. I tried to explain to her who I was, for some reason it was important to me that she knew who I was. Even at this point I have really no idea if she knows who I am or remembers that I visit regularly. My second visit was literally less than one minute, I just did not know what to do… But I kept going back.
Aunt Dorothy is religious, and some time after that second visit I realized I could read to her from her bible. That wasn’t my first thought, in recovery I seek a higher power, but I am still not one for bibles or organized religion. I now exchange pleasantries and I start at Psalm 23 (her favorite) and keep going, finally circling back to 23 to wrap up. It was uncomfortable for me – Mr. Literal. There are passages about your enemies rising up against you with violence and hate, and overcoming them through your faith in God. I wanted to skip over these parts, this poor woman can barely move her head or arms, how can it be good for her to hear about enemies?
What’s it like now?
I still don’t want to go sometimes, but I do. I have learned it doesn’t matter if she knows who I am or not, or remembers my visits – that would only be for me. I have faith that she enjoys my visits, she once asked “Will you come back next time?”. I have realized that those “enemies” could represent her illness, and hearing about overcoming them gives her the strength and comfort to accept her journey, that her faith will guide her through. I now understand those passages in a different way. I have learned about acceptance: Dorothy never complains, she is always “good”, she has fully accepted God’s will for her and that reminds me that I should do the same. I have learned to give without expecting something back, the irony being that I do get something back – though I can never be sure what that will be.
I can say with 100% certainty that had I not been an alcoholic, and practicing a recovery program, that this door in my heart would have remained rusted shut forever. For that I am grateful.