“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
– John 15:12-13
“Does Abuelo love Abuela?” my daughter asked when we were alone in the car.
She asked this as we left their house, and I had to pause because I wasn’t sure how to answer.
They’ve been married for almost 45 years. I always considered myself so lucky because I knew my parents loved each other. They were always affectionate and kind to one another. They laughed with each other. As sure as I was that they loved me, I was sure that they loved each other. Still, I completely understood why my child would ask.
For the last 20 years, my family has been struggling with changes in my mother. In my growing up, she had been the matriarch of the family. She was strong, independent, kind, intelligent and modeled great faith. She would go from singing, “What a Friend We Have In Jesus” to “Superfreak” during her cooking and would correct us by saying things like,
“No, you’re not lucky …You are blessed.”
When I’d get my feathers ruffled because the person at the drive-thru window wasn’t “nice enough,” she would say, “You don’t know what that person’s day has been like. You don’t know the hurts she’s had to bear.” That always shut me up, real quick.
This is the woman who taught me to sing and dance like no one’s watching; who taught me to jump at every opportunity because God will always be there to catch me if I fall; who comforted me with the certainty that it didn’t matter what “they” thought because in God’s eyes I was precious and love. And then, she began to act differently….
It feels like it began around the time I got married and went off to seminary. I wasn’t around to see all that was going on, but my father would complain about my mother’s changes in behavior: impulsive, inconsiderate, forgetful, irrational, a bit of a hypochondriac, always angry.
Eventually, we moved back home, close to my parents. By then, she was on medication for new diagnoses of depression and bipolar disorder. Being Little Ms. Fix-It, I would have these “come to Jesus” sit-downs with my parents – you guys need counseling; ma, you need to get a part-time job and get out of the house; sign up for classes; go spend some time with the family in Puerto Rico; will shock therapy work for this?
But nothing helped. She kept getting worse. It got to the point that no one would stop in to visit them because she was so unpleasant to be with. She was going to neurologists, a psychiatrist and endocrinologists. I think we even went to an acupuncturist to try to help the situation because regardless of the meds, she was so angry and hurtful and just difficult to be around. She had some serious memory problems, but she could remember every hurt and wrong done to her … especially by my father.
Eventually, she ended up in a study that diagnosed her with temporal frontal lobe dementia, a slow degenerative disease causing little strokes in her brain, which will continue to “turn off the lights” until it all goes dark.
This has been difficult for all of us, but especially for my dad. He has had to bear the brunt of her anger while still caring for her. He cooks, he cleans, he takes her to most appointments – where he gets to listen to her complain about how terrible he is. When it all started and we didn’t know it was mental illness, my brother and I talked to him about the possibility of a divorce. We assured him we were adults, we could handle it and would support them both during the process.
He said no.
“But, Papi,” we continued, “if you are both so miserable, you may want to consider…”
“No! … I made a commitment… No.”
It wasn’t long after that she was given the first diagnosis of depression.
The divorce discussion didn’t come up again, even though sometimes I would joke with him on particularly difficult days, “You should’ve run when you had the chance!” (We are sick and twisted like that.)
“Does Abuelo love Abuela?” was still hanging in the air.
“Yes,” I said, “sometimes it’s hard for him to be affectionate towards her, but yes, he loves her very much.”
Gracious and Merciful God, you command us to love one another, but do You know how hard it is to love sometimes? I guess You do since You love us unconditionally and completely, even when we love You half-heartedly. Lord, help us to love when loving is hard. Help us to be patient and considerate with each other, especially with family. And Lord, be with our brothers and sisters who find themselves in the fog of mental illness, both those who are ill and those who love and care for them. May we find comfort in trusting that even when we can’t seem to reach them, You can. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.
LOLIMARTA ROS REITER, or as most of her friends know her, Loli, ministers alongside the fine folks at The Presbyterian Church of Seffner outside of Tampa, FL. She was born in Puerto Rico but has lived on the mainland since she was 9. Her daughter Isabel (10 years old) wants you to know her mom is funny; Olivia (7 years old) wants you to know she likes to talk about God…a lot; and John, her husband, wants you to know that she is the best wife, ever…Such a smart man!