Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Alzheimer's and the Jesus Prayer

Three hours into my nine-hour drive down to Seagrove Beach on Monday, I stopped at Lakeland Nursing Home in Jackson, Mississippi, to visit my mother. I took her a couple of her blouses which I had taken home from my last visit to wash and iron. They do her laundry at Lakeland, but they don’t iron, and sometimes I just want to see her looking the way she looked most of my life—well groomed. She resists their efforts to cut and set her hair in the beauty parlor, so it’s longer on each visit, and Monday it was pulled back in a pony tail, which actually reminded me of her younger days. They had applied a little blush and lipstick, and she looked pretty.

She was already in the dining room, waiting for lunch, when I arrived at 11 a.m. She was sitting at a table with three other women, but they weren’t talking with each other, and Mother seemed to be staring into the distance, the way old married couples do sometimes, when they fall into a comfortable silence. I broke the spell when I touched her shoulder and she burst into a grin.

“Hi, Mom!”

“Well, hi, Susan!” (I breathed an inward sigh of relief. On each visit I wonder if she’ll know me.)

We kissed on the lips. She is one of only about five people that I kiss on the lips. Three are girlfriends. One is my husband. Like Julia Roberts said in “Pretty Woman,” it’s intimate.

I told her about the blouses, which I had put in the closet (really an armoire) in her room, and she said, “blouses?” I touched her sleeve and said, “blouses, Mom, you know, shirts. I washed and ironed a couple for you.”

“I haven’t been able to find the closet for a long while. Are you sure it’s there?”

“It’s in your room, Mom. The ladies who help you get dressed know where it is.”

“Oh…” her voice trailed off and she looked away from me, at the woman sitting to her left. “Have you been here long?”

“Forever!” the woman answered.

“But have you met my daughter?”

I made conversation with the other three women for a few minutes, and then returned my attention to mother. “I brought you some of those cookies you like so much.”

“Oh?” Her face brightened. “Where are they?”

“I put the in your room.”

“Give them to me now!”

“But, Mom, you’re about to eat lunch. You can have them for dessert after lunch. Will that be okay?”

“Have what for dessert?”

“The cookies, Mom.”

“Oh, are there cookies?” She looked around the table for cookies. I just smiled at the other ladies, and re-explained about the cookies to Mom.

But as I was continuing my drive to Seagrove, I thought about how I would feel some day, if I’m in her shoes. Her mother had Alzheimer’s, so I’m thinking it wouldn’t be unlikely. It’s one of those things that keep me up at night some times. Is there something I can do that will ease the transition, the pain of loss of a mind? Suddenly it hit me—the Jesus Prayer.

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”

Short version, “Lord have mercy.”

I taught it to my father when he was dying with lung cancer.

I watched my friend Urania say it at numerous visits to the cancer clinic, and again during her final days at home before her death two years ago. If it can bring peace during physical illness and impending death, can it also bring peace as Alzheimer’s wages war with the brain?

Known as the “prayer of the heart,” ascetics have practiced it for centuries, the most skilled amongst them attaining a level of spirituality in which the prayer goes on “on its own” in the heart, almost automatically. Even if the lips aren’t saying it aloud.

About fifteen years ago, when I was in a particularly intense period of my life, spiritually, I “practiced” the Jesus Prayer fairly regularly during the day for a number of months, and I found it did bring peace. But then I got lazy and left it behind for a while, picking it back up for a few weeks in 2001 when I was diagnosed with cervical cancer and had to have numerous tests and surgery. I’m a real wimp about pain, and it really helped.

And this afternoon, at times when it was pouring down rain on the highway, so much that I could barely see the cars and trucks in front of me, I found the words returning to my lips… and hopefully, to my heart.

So now I’m thinking if there was ever a case for making the Jesus Prayer a part of my heart forever, it’s the thought of Alzheimer’s eventually grabbing hold of my brain and gradually shutting it down, trying to steal my soul in the process.

Not the blog post you were expecting from me at the beach, huh? But I’m penning this at 11 pm on my first night here, alone in a beach house, waiting for four friends and my husband to join me, two on Tuesday, two more on Wednesday, and hubby on Thursday. Tomorrow I’ll get out for a walk on the beach, and hopefully spend some time relaxing under an umbrella. We don’t have wi-fi at the beach house, but I’ll find my way to a coffee shop Tuesday afternoon and post this and check on Facebook and emails. I’ve got a Blackberry, but I don’t like to use it for “large format” activities☺

There are four televisions in this beach house, but I have all “noises off” now… and even with the French doors to the deck closed, I can hear the waves. The rhythm of the ebb and flow of the tide is a perfect accompaniment:

Lord Jesus Christ… Son of God… have mercy on me… a sinner.

Postscript: Instead of the coffee shop, I’m posting from Rendezvou Wine Bar in Seaside, Florida, one of my favorite places in the world. The beach photos from Day 1 are on my Facebook page… but maybe more will appear him in a few days. Just didn’t seem to fit with this post. Except for maybe this one, as I post... after a lunch of spinach salad and Savignon Blanc....


Brenda Mantz said...

This posting will remain with me for a long time.

Meribeth said...

I have recently acquired my first prayer rope from the monastery near here and am finding it truly helpful in helping the Jesus Prayer become more like breathing to me.

Kathy Kerr said...

The prayer and this post come at a very meaningful time for me. Alzheimers is surely the elephant sitting in my room and I understand your thoughts. Take care of you and have a great break.

Anonymous said...

here lately i've felt prompted to say, "You are my God and King" out loud, so many times every hour. i find the "y" sound of "You" coming to the tip of my tongue without even putting it there myself. here's hoping both our prayers go past our lips and into our hearts.

Grace and Peace,
katie e.

Barbara Santana said...

I have not been strong in my prayers, but you have given a wonderful gift to me: the Jesus Prayer. Thank you my friend. Signing up for your blog has been a very positive thing. I have found the true faith.

Ali said...

Susan, I read again the last comment I posted a few days ago, and clearly I need to proof my comments because I found typos! Please forgive me! Aaahhh... I hate that!

Anyway, I giggled to myself about the whole kiss on the lips comment you made. I think many times kisses can be very intimate. I am totally fine kissing my priest on the cheeks or kissing my friends on the cheeks. I converted to Orthodoxy two years ago, and I still feel a bit awkward about kissing my priest's hand for a blessing at the end of Vespers or kissing his hand after I kiss the cross at the end of Liturgy. (I know, I should get over it.. but I do struggle).

It is also often hard for me to cultivate the whole "pray without ceasing" concept of Paul's. During certain seasons of my faith, I find myself praying the Jesus prayer more regularly than others. Or I find myself praying the psalms more regularly.

But the days when I am able to cultivate the habit of prayer easily seem to go better emotionally and spiritually for me.

Okay this was long!

Deacon Charles said...

Thank you for this tender story.
Here is a website with a wealth of information about the practice of the Jesus Prayer

Erin said...

Lovely. Thanks. Moms of little kids really need the Jesus prayer, too . . .

Mimi said...

Great thoughts.
Have you read Kh. Frederica's new book?