Nanny’s Mugs: The Agony of Dementia – A Sermon for Easter 5C

NANNY'S MUGSIn my kitchen there are some teacups that we call Nanny’s mugs. They are smaller and more delicate than all the other mugs in the cupboard. Whenever I drink tea from them, I think of my Grandmother. That first summer, I moved to Newmarket; some 3,000 miles from my home, my Grandmother decided that she was going to move in with me.  She lived with me in the parsonage for about 3 months.  It was an impulse decision on her part; a decision that I had very little say in. Nanny decided that I was the only one in the family she could trust and so she would move in with me. She was in her late eighties at the time. I didn’t fully understand her lack of faith in the other members of the family. I never dreamed that her suspicions about the relative trustworthiness of our relatives was the beginning of the end.  I loved my Nanny and I was determined to provide a home for her. I was delighted when she arrived. I was always delighted when my Nanny arrived. I remember as a child, I would long for Nanny to arrive.

Nanny was always full of fun and I have all sorts of wonderful memories of usImage 19 getting into trouble together.  Nanny was all of 5 feet tall, she was just a wee little woman, but there was more power and strength in that wee little woman from Belfast than in most of the women I’ve ever met in my life. She was kindness and fierceness all rolled up into a woman who loved nothing better than a good laugh. Nanny was born in Belfast the oldest of 14 children. When all three of her children ended up living in Canada, even though they were well into their sixties she and my Grandda immigrated to Canada to begin a new life in a new country. Immigrating at any age is an incredible undertaking, but immigrating in your 60’s takes guts. I was twelve years old when my Grandparents arrived in Vancouver. I watched my Grandda begin a new job and my Nanny try to make the best of life far away from everything that was familiar to her. Nanny’s homesickness was palpable.

But as powerful as the longing for home was it was not as powerful as her desire to be near her children and grandchildren. So while Nanny longed for the place she always referred to as “back-home” she did her best to have a good laugh in this strange land. Nanny missed almost everything about back-home.  After about nine years of struggling in a new land, my Grandda died and Nanny’s longing for back-home became an ache that she knew would never heal. Sometimes you could see her longing for back-home settle in on her face, as if an old friend had dropped by to remind her of a great loss.

By the time Nanny came to live with me she’d spent more than two decades longing for everything back-home, so I was determined to make her feel at home with me. The truth is that it was Nanny who made me more at home here in Newmarket. But while I longed for everything back-home, my back-home was Vancouver. Nanny took one look at the meager furnishings in the parsonage and set about making it homier. After one of our many trips to the furniture store Nanny insisted that my chunky old mugs weren’t much to write home about and they were even less suited to sipping tea from than she cared to tolerate. So, she insisted on buying some new lighter, smaller and more delicate fine china cups. The cups were so fine and so delicate that all but one of them cracked and broke shortly after my Nanny moved out. But even though they are too fine and delicate for my rough use, I have long since replaced the broken ones with identical mugs. I have no idea which one of them is the one that Nanny bought so each of them are referred to as Nanny’s mugs. Sipping tea from one of Nanny’s mugs while trying to get a handle on today’s gospel lesson, I was stuck by the words of Jesus as they appear in the text.

Sometimes, particular words jump out of you and cause you to hear the Word of God in a whole new way. I don’t know why I’ve never noticed it before. Perhaps it’s because the words are so familiar that I’ve always just heard them the same old way before. But this week sipping from Nanny’s mug and reading the gospel text, the words positively jumped out at me: “Love one another. I give you a new commandment:  Love one another.” I’ve always heard theses words in the Gospel according to John as the Golden Rule. “Love your neighbour as yourself.” The Golden Rule: words to live by. Words that Jesus a Jew would have been familiar with. Words that Jews, Muslims and indeed people of all sorts of faith hold as sacred. “Love your neighbour as you love your self.  Do onto others as you would have them do unto you. Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” Except the words of the Golden Rule are not the words that appear in the Gospel according to John. According to the writer of John, Jesus adds a new twist to the familiar Golden Rule.

“I give you a new commandment: Love one another, just as I have loved you.” That’s some twist: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Harder words were never spoken. For who among us can love as Jesus loved? Jesus’ idea of loving is hard-edged.  Infinitely tender. Nearly impossible. These words haunt me. When I think about loving as Jesus loved, I begin to second-guess my ability to love.

Running my fingers around the rim of Nanny’s mug, I wonder how I could have loved her better. Did I love as Jesus loved when I—put Nanny back on a plane to Vancouver, or later when I supported her 3 children my Mother, aunt and uncle as they put her in a nursing home. Love is not simple. Clinging to Nanny’s mug, I wonder how we could have known that her suspicions about her relatives were just the first signs of the dementia that would rob us of her presence. I think about the disturbing accusations that my dear sweet wee Nanny hurled at her children, grand-children and great-grandchildren and I wonder how we could have loved her better, we didn’t mean to be unkind, you know that was the last thing on our mind.

What was the last thing on her mind as she clung to life in a care facility no longer able to recognize her children and still longing for back-home? Glancing beyond the rim of Nanny’s cup I can see the picture of Nanny back-home walking with my Grandda, they look so determined, so ready to face whatever comes their way, and yet lurking in the background of that old black and white photograph is the shadow of something menacing. I can hear her saying the most horrendous things about her own children. I still see the vacant look in her eyes, and wonder about the disturbing hallucinations. Dementia is awful. The golden years, but nothing glitters.

“Love as I have loved you,” Jesus said. But I hated those last visits when she lay there in the bed not knowing where she was or who I was. Clinging to life. 99 years old and clinging to life. I could barely stay in the room. “Love as I have loved you,” Jesus said. How?  How do we love? How many situations do all of us have, as common as they are utterly unique, where loving another—the Golden Rule with Jesus’ twist—is among the hardest things we do? Jesus spoke simply, and yet no true love—whether golden or not is simple.

Tracing the rim of Nanny’s cup, I remember her dementia. The way she beganViolet Anderson hording little things, suspicious that loved ones were stealing from her. When the diagnosis did come and we all realized that dementia had been incrementally destroying her mind for years, it was almost a relief to know that it wasn’t Nanny making those horrible accusations but the disease.  And yet it was Nanny. All those moments when various members of her family tried to hide her behaviour behind feeble excuses designed to hide the bitter truth of dementia’s cruel plan to transform our beloved into a stranger. On more than one occasion, I wanted to shake the cruel accusations from her, determined to reach the wee woman I loved, but I was unable to get past the fog. 

Tracing the rim of Nanny’s mug, I wonder …when was the final time I engaged in a lively, give-and-take conversation with Nanny. Was there a day, some, lazy summer evening, before dementia’s subtle, unrelenting grip, that we experienced a last, real talk?  Was it trivial… was it important?  I can’t remember. But at some point I wasn’t talking to my Nanny just the illness.

Dementia is only one of the many things that rob us of our loved ones. Illness and disease, bring with them, pains that can rob us of the person we love, long before we must part.  Each one of us is wounded by these losses in our own way. Many of us are haunted by the questions of the quality of our love for those we love. Did we do enough? Could we have done more? Did they know how much we loved them? Do they know how much we miss them still? For some of us the questions are more immediate. Are we doing enough? Is there something more we should be doing? Do they know we love them? How should we love them? Is this love? Why am I so angry with him? Why can’t I help her? What should I do? What can I do? Love them as Jesus loved me? Harder words were never spoken.

“Then I saw new heavens and a new earth. The former heavens and the former earth had passed away, and the sea existed no longer. I also saw a new Jerusalem, the holy city, coming down out of heaven from God, beautiful as a bride and groom on their wedding day. And I heard a loud voice calling from the throne, ‘Look!  God’s Tabernacle is among humankind! God will live with them; they will be God’s people and God will be fully present among them.   The Most High will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  And death, mourning, crying and pain will be no more, for the old order has fallen.’ The One who sat on the throne said, ‘Look!  I’m making everything new!’  and added, ‘Write this, for what I am saying is trustworthy and true.’ And that One continued, ‘It is finished. I AM the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To those who are thirsty I will give drink freely from the spring of the water of life.”

I wish I could remember the last real conversation I had with my Nanny. But I can only remember the last time I saw her, a tiny remnant of herself, confined to a bed in an anonymous ward. Family members were bustling about, Nanny was agitated and I desperately wanted to leave. I kissed her forehead and struggled to say something anything that might penetrate the chasm between us.

I struggle to remember something anything that might comfort her. I snuggled in close to her ear and whispered. “It’s time to go back-home Nanny…it’s all right you can go back home now.  Go back home darling.”

Love one another just as Jesus loved us. Harder words were never spoken. Loving is not easy, but we do not love as ones who have no hope. God dwells with us in the loving. The Holy One will wipe every tear from our eyes. And death, mourning, crying and pain will be no more. Our God will make all things new. Let it be so dear God.  Let it be so for Nanny, and for all the wounded ones, for those who live in our hearts and minds and those who live with us here and now. When the time comes let them go back-home. Wipe every tear from every eye. Let death, mourning, crying and pain be no more. Make all things new dear God, make all things new. Let it be so. Amen.

 After this sermon we sang the hymn of lament by Mary Louise Bringle:

When Memory Fades to the tune FINLANDIA

“When Memory Fades and Recognition falters.

When eyes we love grow dim and minds confused.

Speak to our souls of love that never alters;

Speak to our hearts, by pain and fear abused.

O God of life and healing peace, empower us

with patient courage, by your grace infused.

As frailness grows, and youthful strengths diminish,

in weary arms which worked their earnest fill,

your aging servants labor now to finish

their earthly tasks, as fits your mercy’s will.

We grieve their waning, yet rejoice, believing,

your arms, unwearied, shall uphold us still.

Within your Spirit, goodness lives unfading.

The past and future mingle into one.

All joys remain, un-shadowed light pervading.

No valued deed will ever be undone.

Your mind enfolds all finite acts and offerings.

Held in your heart, our deathless life is won.


3 thoughts on “Nanny’s Mugs: The Agony of Dementia – A Sermon for Easter 5C

  1. This reminded me so much of my Mother, who came to Australia with my father after I came. The agony of dementia and the changes in the loved and loving person are cruel and all we can do is try to let them know they are loved. Thank you Dawn.

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