Theological disease teaches about the love of God
By TIM UNSWORTH
My mother died in 1991 at age 93. Well before she died, she had lost all sense of self, all memory, all inner-directedness. Her memory had predeceased her.
To feed her baby food, one had to spoon it into her mouth and then stroke her throat. She had forgotten how to swallow. Her once serene face that looked like the depictions of the martyrs in church now looked frightened and confused. Her family had to witness someone they loved disintegrate before their eyes.
She died of a mix of old age and the complications of Alzheimers disease, a lethal disease that confronts us with sustained dying and is an inescapable reminder that we will all die.
Alzheimers disease is a degenerative disease of the nerve cells in the cerebral cortex that leads to the atrophy of the brain and dementia. It was first described by a German doctor, Alois Alzheimer, in 1906 and 07. Presently, it is the fourth leading cause of death among adults, following heart disease, cancer and strokes.
People over 85 have a 50 percent chance of getting the disease, which will affect an estimated 14 million people by 2025.
Alzheimers is an equal opportunity destroyer. Its victims generally suffer from four to eight years. Presently, there is no balm in Gilead to ease their distress. Long-term care costs now exceed $40 billion per year and will soon rise to $100 billion. Alzheimers patients will then account for over half of all nursing home patients. At the present time, over 70 percent of Alzheimers patients live with families. They live in the spare room that is carpeted with vinyl to spare the floor from their incontinent bodies.
My sainted mother, who could squeeze a nickel until the bull hollered, died penniless. Nursing home care had emptied her bank account. My sister the nun had to find her a dress.
Currently, there is no cure. One drug -- Tacrine -- can ease the symptoms; and there are tranquilizers. But both only prolong lives that drain the marrow from caring families or cause some desperate children to dress their parent or relative in unmarked clothing and dump them in a train station waiting room.
The disease forces Christians back to the basics of their faith more than any other contemporary plague. We are asked to love people even as they waste away before our very eyes. As we stand by their beds, we find ourselves asking: When they forget God, does God remember them? Has God created this ugliness? Why has God allowed it to flourish? When the mind loses its ability to remember, what happens to the life of the soul? They can no longer read, no longer speak, but they can still teach us a thing or two about the love of God.
Back in June, hundreds of Chicago clergy gathered for a memorable convocation during which they heard Passionist Fr. Donald Senior, president of Catholic Theological Union of Chicago and general editor of the New American Bible. Senior, now in his third term as president, had recently buried his mother, another victim of Alzheimers. The priests were still mourning the death of Larry Gorman, one of their most gifted priests, who had suffered over a decade from the disease and who had died in February at only 66.
Toward the end of his presentation, Senior closed with an image that allowed a theology of Alzheimers. He cited David Kecks book, Forgetting Whose We Are: Alzheimers Disease and the Love of God (Abingdon Press, 1996, $20, paperback). Keck is the son of New Testament scholar Leander Keck and of Janice Osburn Keck, who contracted Alzheimers when she was only 57 years old.
She lives on, unable to read her sons book but in his words, can still teach us all about the love of God.
I bought the book and learned that Alzheimers is a theological disease.
From Kecks writings, Donald Senior extracts some of the reasons why Alzheimers can be called a theological disease. First, it reminds us of some basic realities. We learn that we are not as autonomous as we sometimes think we are. We are not really in control of our destinies even when we think we might be. We leave life as we entered it -- helpless and dependent upon others for the care of our bodies and our spirits. Donald Keck sums it up with an analogy that gets our undivided attention: When you are nailed to a cross, you can no longer control your bodys motions.
Senior reminded his audience of hundreds of priests, virtually all of whom had anointed an Alzheimers victim. Most of all, he said, this disease reminds us of how hard it is to remember.
He cites the Shema prayer of Judaism -- that daily prayer that affirms Gods creative and redemptory roles -- and he reminds us that the Bible, too, is an attempt to remember all the stories, the poems and the rituals that can be viewed as Israels attempt not to forget who God is and to whom we as a people ultimately belong.
The beautiful thought of the biblical tradition, Senior said, is that God is the one who never forgets, even when we do.
Keck suggests that we think of ourselves as caregivers for a family that has lost its memory of who they truly are, of whose they truly are. Senior, who is a veritable concordance of biblical references, reminds us of the exquisite text of Isaiah 49: Can a mother forget her child? Can a woman be forgetful of the fruit of her own womb? Even if she should forget, I will never forget you, says the Lord. See, I have written your names on the palms of my hands.
Now, Senior remembers that he is beloved by an utterly gracious God. I think about this each time I find myself saying at the Eucharist: Do this in memory of me, he said.
Remember what? he asks. The unconditional love of God for us and our world that is the ultimate meaning of the bread broken and the blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins.
Donald Keck asks us to read Romans 8. It doesnt explain away Alzheimers but it does help us fathom what is going on and what is at stake. He reminds us that St. Paul takes suffering seriously because he recognizes that God has chosen his own pain on the cross as the vehicle for our redemption. With Pauls help, we come to see that the soul-crushing experiences of Alzheimers are consistent to what is central to Gods own work.
Read Kecks book. Then, reach out to the Alzheimers victim nearest you.
Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he has acquired a multiple personality disorder. He thinks hes the College of Cardinals. Chat with him at firstname.lastname@example.org
National Catholic Reporter, December 17, 1999