Friday, June 12, 2009

Late Nights With Lily

It was 11 p.m. and she still wasn't in bed. “Let me sit and think for a while,” I heard her say from the kitchen. She rested her head on the table. “Just another five minutes.”

Another five minutes had already turned into 90 minutes past her bedtime, but there was no point in telling her this. She would not remember. We went through this dance of wills at least three times a week, and I was grouchy and wanting to be in bed myself.

“No, Lily,” I said, the edge in my voice obvious. “It’s time to sleep.” I reached for her arm and tried to lead her out of the room. I would more easily have moved a block of lead.

“Bed?” she cried, raising a hand to strike my face when I touched her. “At home I didn’t go to bed until 1 or 2 in the morning if I didn’t want to! Who are you to tell me what to do?”

Indeed. It felt like a good question. Who was I, a 31-year-old, to tell an 85-year-old when to go to bed? More than once I'd felt awkward as I mothered the 10 women in the assisted-living facility. While I understood my responsibilities and rights to carry them out, the role reversal with each of the women made me grieve. Most had raised children who were older than I, been married decades longer than I had been alive, and lived a lifetime more of wisdom, joys and sorrows. My heart wanted people to prosper and continue to grow, not decline and suffer as so many of the residents did. It was especially difficult with Lily, an emotionally unstable and very needy Alzheimer’s patient.

“Don’t let her manipulate you,” the management had warned me. “Don’t give in to her. She’ll use you and drive you crazy. You must ignore her.”

My iron will was determined to follow instructions and not be taken advantage of. It must be what’s best for her anyway, I thought. After all, they’re the professionals. I had no previous experience, so I followed the managers’ and daytime nurses’ examples of curtness, orders and stern words. I ignored her repeated pleas for conversation and attention.

As Lily dissolved into tears and apologies in the kitchen, the growing realization that the “experts’” approach was getting us nowhere hit me full force — and something in me broke. As I watched this violent but emotionally defenseless person who could not remember her own last name, I wondered why God had seemingly abandoned her. I also realized I could no longer ignore her. I had an epiphany that should have come naturally to me: Love her.

That night I tried something other than the frustration I had met her with during the two months she had been at the house. She was always thirsty but couldn't tolerate milk, so I stooped to meet her at eye level and said, “Lily, do you want a cookie and a glass of water?”

“Yes,” she said, looking at me with relief and gratitude as if I were Santa Claus and she were a child receiving a long-awaited gift. “Oh, yes. And can I sit and talk to you for a while?”

“Sure, Lily,” I said, “But you sit in your bed and I’ll sit in the chair beside it.” Even her fragile and childlike mind saw through the bribery, but my offer was too good to refuse for long. This time she took my outstretched hand. She shuffled with me to her bedroom where I sat in an armchair and gladly offered her pecan Sandies and a glass of water. She held my hand as she ate. Her gauzy skin and pronounced veins felt odd and uncomfortable under my fingertips. It had been years since I had held anyone’s hand that long, let alone one I felt I could injure if I moved the wrong way. Everything in me wanted to pull away to safety, but I did not. I felt her relax, and that night she slept peacefully for the first time in weeks.

From then on whenever she was exhausted but too escalated to be still on her own, we sat in her bedroom and discussed the world as she knew it during that difficult season of her life. “I believe that Jesus and all the angels are watching me,” she said one night, though my first thought was, I can’t see that they are caring for you well. Some nights she scolded me because she needed an outlet for her anger. Occasionally we giggled about the house rules or something funny that had happened during her day. Sometimes she wept for no apparent reason, so we prayed. Some nights we sat quietly until she fell asleep, she with her cookies and water and I with a book, just the companionship being enough for both of us.

At times she couldn't remember how to dress herself, but she still remembered fragments of her childhood and shared them repeatedly, each time with enthusiasm as if she had ridden the pony or sneaked the kiss from the boy next door just yesterday. As I listened I saw that in her wrinkled face was a life story. And despite her condition, I uncovered a devilish sense of playfulness, compassion and unselfishness that lived on in Lily despite the disease that attacked her brain. When she was cogent and calm she was concerned about me and my problems. I knew that whatever I said to her would be quickly forgotten, but I shared the goings-on of my day anyway, including my joys and some of my problems.

“Whatever you do for the least of these you do for me,” Jesus once said. I wondered what I had done for them, but I knew it was not enough. It began to dawn on me the inexpressible and inestimable worth of each human being, simply because God created them. I knew enough of Lily’s background information to see that her life had been full of mistakes — alcoholism, estranged relationships, gambling, abuse. Still, I was humbled in her presence. Through this obstinate, fierce, humorous, caring woman, God showed me how much He loves even the least of us, including me. I was embarrassed by my years of indifference and I thought of other people I had carefully chosen not to love because they were too messy, too boring, too difficult, too whatever. The reasons looked hollow on examination. I realized how supremely selfish it is to withhold love when it is within our ability to give it. I also realized that I might be one of the tools God used to show Lily His love. Maybe Jesus and the angels really were watching after her.

Lily’s needs had always been beyond the capabilities of the care facility, but because of what some may call a clerical error — I call it a God-ordained mistake — she was allowed to live with us for four months. Eventually, when her needs became so severe that we could not cope with her, she was transferred to an Alzheimer’s unit that could better handle her outbursts. Her final words to me were, “And what was your name again, honey?”

I hope we can meet each other in the perfection of Heaven where she will finally know who I am. And I will carry what God taught me through her for as long as my mind can contain it.


  1. Life is truly precious! I remember my grandpa, in his final few years, developed dementia. The summer before he died, I was blessed to spend some time back home with family and purposely went in to sit at his feet, while he was in his rocking chair. One question is all I asked - Grandpa, tell me what you remember. It was then he shared stories I had heard of his childhood, but also a story of him and his Army company being among the first to go in to Hiroshima after the bombing. He told how he and his men sacrificed their packed lunches to feed it to the starving children through the perimeter fence. I'll never forget that story, and how his eyes welled with tears. That is the only time I remember him talking of anything specific about being in the war.