Harsh Answers

On the last day of our Kansas visit, one year ago today, I dropped by Mom’s nursing home room to tell her we were returning to Tennessee.

         Her relocation had not gone well. So she decided that was the time to let me have it. Of course, it was; she probably knew that was the last time we’d meet. As soon as I sat down, she asked me, her firstborn, “Why am I here?”

         And I heard myself reply, “Because your personal care needs have grown beyond what your family can provide.” I instantly hated the way those words felt in my mouth. Like marbles, too smooth. Accurate, but manipulative. They gave me power and protection, but granted her no space or grace. That’s when I heard Him whisper…just listen to her!

         She kept rolling; her eyes were like lasers. “Your daddy and I built our home; it’s right over there (she pointed east). It’s paid for; it’s mine. Why can’t I just go home?” I wanted to throw up; I could see she’d been suffocating under a blanket of dehumanizing logic: What happened to my life? Why am I held captive so near my home? Why am I spending $5,000 a month for this 340-square-foot box when my home costs me nothing?

         “Mom, I wish you could go home, but you can’t take care of yourself.”

         “I know, Ed—” She broke, “But, my sons…DON’T WANT ME!”  

         There it was. I couldn’t imagine what it cost her to face it and to say it. Yet, I silently protested. Her three sons and daughters-in-law did want her. We deeply loved her; no one carried mommy stuff. Vernon and Betty had cared for her long and sacrificially from their home next door. And Carl and Deana had invited Mom to live with them in Colorado.

         But she was right. Our lives, homes, our ages, our patterns for living, could not absorb the disruption of a 96-year-old woman with serious health needs.

         Her wet and pleading eyes searched my face. I think she was looking for some spark of hope, some sign that the Christ lived in me. Then, dreading the moment, but feeling pressure to get on the road, I stood. “Mom, I love you so much. You’ve been a wonderful mother. But we have to go.”

         She wouldn’t let go that easy; she escorted me out of her room, down the hall, down the elevator, and right out the front door. As I approached the car, she started crying, but melted into my arms. After holding her a few minutes, I said, “Come on, Mom, we don’t live here. We have to go home.”

         “I know,” she wept, nodding and looking at the ground. In that moment, I watched her revert to that child of poverty and shame back in her native Missouri, scared and crying because the road had washed out, the water continued rising, and Daddy was gone. She had no path to a future.

         My last image of Mom frames her in the rearview mirror, as a nursing home employee lead her back inside.

         She died four months later.

         In the end, Mom was like a fearful citizen in an occupied country. She didn’t understand the noises from the street, or why strangers marched into her room day and night, or why those strangers barked orders at her. The conquering “soldiers” could not see Mary Chinn had lost her home, her privacy, her dignity. She had nothing else to lose; she just needed mercy.

          Oh, yes, “The poor plead for mercy, but the rich answer harshly.” (Proverbs 18:23) Harsh answers are the tools for enforcing the rules of the realm. They focus on the work to be done, not the ones for whom it is done.

         Gandhi said, “What you do for me, but without me, you do against me.” Older, weaker, sadder, sicker, poorer people understand that so well. They are the ones most in need of gentle answers. However, for now, they live with the harsh answers of a bloodless world that is passing away.

         But a new world is arriving. Now! Incredibly, its Creator heard all the harsh answers of the old regime during His time on earth. No wonder Isaiah wrote, “He will not cry out or raise his voice…a bruised reed He will not break, and a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish. He will bring justice to all who have been wronged.”

         At last, Mom lives in that new world. A bruised reed has “slipped the surly bonds of earth,” soaring far beyond harsh answers. I think I’ll start practicing gentle answers. Here and now.