This morning I was sitting on a bench by the beach, brushing the sand from my feet, when I was joined by an elderly couple, in their mid 80’s. The wife, let’s call her Dora, has Alzheimer’s and her husband, we can call him Ian, is her carer. Me and the dogs nudged up to make room for them and soon we were swapping ‘where do you come from?’ and ‘this is better than the South of France, isn’t it?” and all that stuff. Dora was sweet and smiling and just a tiny bit agitated, not noticeable unless you were sitting with her, talking to her. I’m sure that to everyone walking past they just appeared to be a normal elderly couple chatting in the sunshine, but actually nothing Dora said made sense, it was a steady babbling brook of chuckles and words and gestures, light and tinkling, but meaningless. We mentioned the nearby cafe and I said they had great doughnuts and OKish coffee…. Ian said it sounded good but he can’t queue with Dora. And he never goes for a meal with her, because she intrudes on the other customers, and sometimes forgets how to eat. I asked how long it was since Ian had been out for a meal, and he couldn’t remember. “Maybe,” he said, “nine years? Ten? Something like that.”
I queued up. I got three coffees and doughnuts. We sat in the sunshine and got to know each other. Ian doesn’t sleep well because Dora wakes every hour or so and goes walk-about. This is their first holiday for nearly six years and today they’re travelling back to Guildford, and home. With the long journey in front of them, he now wishes that they hadn’t come because, removed from the familiarity of home and routine, her confusion has been even worse. They chose West Wales because she always loved the area but “She has no idea where we are, what we’re doing.” His love for Dora shines through his exhaustion and his mild exasperation, his weary patience. This is something a million times crueller than ‘Till death do us part’, it’s a slow heartbreak and torture. He gets a weekend ‘off’ every month when Dora goes into a care home, but he doesn’t manage to get out for a meal, doesn’t go into town, just tidies the house, allows himself a bottle of wine and a take-away, and has the luxury of an undisturbed night – that’s just 12 in a year! He’d love, he said, to go to a pub, but he’s forgotten how to, feeling awkward on his own.
I wonder how many of us singletons will have forgotten how to walk into a busy church when this Covid time is over?
I can’t imagine what their journey home will involve, but I know that love will play the biggest part.
Place me like a seal over your heart,
like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;
rivers cannot sweep it away.
Song of Solomon 8:6&7
Ian said that he looks at his wife sometimes and asks ‘why her?’ and I know what he means. It’s much easier to accept our own troubles than the troubles of those we love. I know couples in their late 50’s who still have each other, each have their parents, their children and grandchildren are well and thriving, they still have their love for each other, their shared faith… they live together, pray together, laugh together…. face the adventure of old age together… and I know others who lost parents when they were tiny, who went through horrible years of abuse and lovelessness, and who, at the end of it all are left ill or alone, or – like Ian – exhausted, broken-hearted and just a bit bewildered. It’s easy to focus on the unfairness of life, but it’s so much more nourishing to focus on the great gift of life. But I kept that thought to myself.
There’s a time for words of comfort and there’s a time for coffee and a salted caramel doughnut. Words are just too easy. All I managed was “God sees it all, and he loves you, he loves you both.” Tears came to his eyes. Poor lad. And then Dora had to be sorted out, her face and hands wiped, and he led her into the ladies loo as I kept cavey on the door.
We can’t know what troubles other people carry, what’s in their minds, the lives they lead, unless we talk to them, and take all the time they need, willing to listen until we understand, offering more than a smiley “How are you?” as we scurry on our busy way. That’s what church should be and do. A place of love, offering time. Sad to say, I don’t know any like that. Not one.