What lives are these?

My children hate it when they ask me something and I tell them to go read my blog to find the answer, but now I am doing it to some other people too. Many people ask me why I do not encourage euthanasia and what is the point of existence, really, at the end of many of my guests’ lives. 

Maybe, this question cuts too close to the bone. My own dad, Oupa Spencer, has dementia and physically battles with many ailments. Others looking in from the outside might think that his life has been reduced to his children making all his decisions, people assisting him with the most intimate and private bodily functions and that his days consists of sitting at our fire place and taking walks with his little walker at snail’s pace.

My husband says to me, “what life is that?”, but I think he asks the wrong question. Our world has become so focused on the individual, our own happiness, our own security, our own little plans and dreams, that we forget we were created in community. The question we need to ask is: what LIVES are these?

We do not exist in isolation and the lives around my father are richer because of his life being, on an insular level, poorer. Because of his condition, relationships with my siblings have reached deeper levels. We are forced to come out of our comfort zones and address hard questions and spend strange moments together. We have found new roles which require sacrifice, but what I love is that as siblings we have realised how we need each other and how caring for Oupa is a team effort in which all of us are essential.  Relationships with my mother have grown and taken on a different dimension as the balance of many years is shifting.  I have seen a young man, unemployed until a few months ago, find purpose and self-worth by caring for my dad. My father’s main carer, Gift, was completely new to this career 18 months ago. Today I cannot think of a more accomplished and compassionate carer, and his confidence has sky-rocketed. His own life has more meaning than ever. He knows Oupa relies on him for just about everything.

Every visitor, every guest that walks past Oupa where he sits in his usual spot in front of the fire, gets a smile and a handshake and in Oupa’s beautiful vulnerability, they can also break down some of their own barriers.

And boy have we found joy! Oupa says the funniest things. It could depress us if we were to compare him to who he was before, but why not embrace this season? I can honestly say that I have never had so many belly laughs with anyone else in my life.

I have done some research (in other words, I have googled some things and read the odd book) about the purpose of life. A book I have read repeatedly is The purpose driven life by Rick Warren, but this is maybe a perspective from my faith. If you look at the purpose of life from other contexts, be it religious or philosophical or even scientific, it all boils down to ‘connectedness.’ Maybe this statement explains it: “Confucianism places the meaning of life in the context of human relationships. People’s character is formed in the given relationships to their parents, siblings, spouse, friends and social roles. There is need for discipline and education to learn the ways of harmony and success within these social contexts.”

Is Oupa’s life now not teaching us? Is that not his role? There is a beautiful ebb and flow; as his life diminishes there is growth in the relationships around him.

He is not the only one. Last week three daughters took their mom, who is desperately ill and has been with us a few months, to the Kruger. The trip was planned with military precision, apart from almost a whole pharmacy and enough oxygen to fix the ozone layer, they took one of our carers and rented a specialised bus. All this, just to spend time together in the bush and build memories. As this amazing woman slowly grows weaker, she is seeing her children rally around her, laughing, planning and making memories. What we see is that her own life is small and simple; she sleeps a lot and seldom leaves her room, but the truth is that her life is enormous and rich. It is filled with love and relationships and laughter and a legacy of daughters and grandchildren who adore her.

We have another guest who is very ill and frail. There is nothing wrong with her mind, but her body is failing her. She is lucky that the pain control is not affecting her cognitive function. She never complains of boredom or frustration. She is taking a keen interest in everyone and everything around her. We have positioned her bed to look out on to the patio in such a way that she can see every door and at any minute of the day she knows who is doing what; who chose a jersey that does not match their pants and which flowers need to be watered in our garden. I see how her children are spending hours together, their silent presence day in and day out, a testimony of their love for her and solidarity with one another. These bonds will stay in place long after she is not with us anymore.

I find comfort in the lives of people who are living life differently, at a different pace and very much from a different viewpoint. Gone is the frantic desire to gather belongings, winning the rat race and desperately trying to be happy. The secret is that they are wonderfully content and they certainly do not need our pity.

Share this post