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.

54 thoughts on “Harsh Answers”

    1. Yes, it was. I’m glad Mom can now look at that time, and US, from a victorious and eternally safe place.

  1. Dethrow, Dewey

    I thank you for that. I pray daily for patience, and for avoiding harsh answers. Yes, my Mom frequently used to say “A soft answer turneth away wrath”. Somewhere in the Proverbs, I think.

    1. Thanks, Dewey. You knew so much of our story. Thank you for being such a steady friend to Chinns for so long.

    2. Ed, your words touch my heart. I had the sweetest, most gentle Mom. She lost her oldest child at 26 of leukemia. She never recovered & didn’t want to. She became cruel & bitter at her 3 girls. Life stopped, no Sunday dinners, there was no room for pleasure. She resented any happiness we tried to share. Taking care of her & Dad was impossible to please her. She fought every attempt to help us. Our lives were torture. I’ve prepared to not torture my kids when I get to that place. I love them too much.❤️

    1. Morris Rex Miller

      Ed – I’ve heard you share this reaction but now you’ve taking me through the tunnel with her and you. I’m facing a similar future and all I could do is take a deep breath and ask, “Lord, am I up for the journey?”

      1. We’ve both enjoyed the reality of wonderful parents. But that road also passes through the badlands. Still a joy and an honor to walk with them. Thanks, Rex.

  2. Just yesterday, my 8-year-old granddaughter pointed out a harsh reply I made to another family member. I was stricken. The only consolation I had was that her ears perked up because it’s not my “normal” way of replying. Still, the rebuke was warranted — and your poignantly written essay underscored the critical nature of the tones of our voices when we speak to others. Thank you for another gentle, but well-deserved, rebuke.

    1. Oh, yes, we all receive those messages from our fans and observers. And I think we sometimes hear God’s private message to us, one that the speaker didn’t even consider.

  3. Jeff & Sandra Newman

    Ed, what an amazing story of your mom! The story released a river this morning. Deep calls unto deep.

    1. Thanks, Jeff. I appreciate you taking the time to read it and to respond. Haven’t seen you in so very long. But I have good memories of you; hope we connect somewhere, sometimes on this planet.

  4. Susan Crainshaw

    Ed, your story resonates with me. We are walking with my mom through a season of physical and mental decline, knowing that although joy and glory await her, the corridor to that final doorway is dark and narrowing. What a timely reminder to forbear, speak gently and remember to consider how she perceives and processes things. Jesus calls us all to do nothing less for one another. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks, Susan. I’m sorry about your mom’s decline. Yes, in a way, we all live the same story. I thank God for His reminders that our story is an UPWARD call.

  5. Your transparency has undone me this morning, Ed. Thank you for a raw look at the human heart, especially mine. I thank God for His kindness to me and the hope He gives that I can become more like Him on this journey.

  6. You, Ed Chinn, can have me in tears in moments, even on the loveliest of days. I guess that’s the mark of a great writer.
    There was so much truth and pain evoked in your few words. I saw my grandparents vivid before me and my terrified patients pleading with their eyes from hospital beds. And I was immediately slung back to my worst year when I couldn’t breathe and couldn’t work. How truly awful it was to know that that the situation and others were making the decisions FOR me, not with me.
    Again, thank you for sharing your eloquent heart.

    1. Thanks, Angela. Isn’t it just astounding that we all have so much in common and so much in divergence. Each life is so kaleidoscopic. I’m honored by your friendship.

  7. David Edgerton

    Thank you Ed. I lost Mom and Dad last year. Its been said you can know parents by the character of their children. Did not know your mom and dad but I know their Son. It is revealed in you how your parents where as human beings. The older I get the more that is going out the door than coming in. Watching my mom and dad it seems the very last things that need to deminish from us are stripped away. Pride, things of the flesh are removed before that last crossover into His Kingdom is complete . What we are for most of our lives is stripped away in the end. We cant enter His Kingdom with all that baggage. Old age seems to help us leave it behind.

  8. Joy in the desert.

    Time. It is fleeting, yet so needed to be all that we are called to be.
    Moments, hours, days, years; each frame of time deserves us to be all in or we will miss the very thing that is needed or wanted.
    Only God can turn back time. So, my prayer is to be finely attuned to each moment with all of my encounters. Whether it be with family, friends or strangers. One never knows when that moment, hour, day or year is a divine appointment. Maybe even our last chance to share the knowledge of saving grace or receive untold worth from our Heavenly Father. For at times we entertain angels unaware.

  9. Harsh answers are always dependent on the hearer rather than the speaker. With my father, we chose to share the burden between his three sons. Moving from one son to another, we thought we were providing the family care he needed. Harsh words sounded like, this is not my home, Dad it’s time to eat, Dad it’s time to bathe, Dad let’s go here or there. Eventually Dad did not want to spend his days going from house to house that wasn’t home. He ended up in a nursing home with his room, his TV, his nap time, in other words, his choice! If he heard a harsh word then it wasn’t coming from his son’s. He enjoyed his last days, much because they were on his terms. Great article Ed!

  10. Wonderful story Ed. Brings back memories of parents and in-laws and all they went through during their last chapters here on earth. Whether stories of blessing “all the way home”, or challenge and moments of heartache, I’m encouraged that in the end, my cloud of witnesses grows. My list of folks I need to spend a century with here or there in heaven is growing; it’s long and getting longer.

    And what an encouragement to speak life and listen!

    Oh what joy awaits us in our homecoming!

    1. Yes, you’re right; that cloud grows. As I age, I think of so many who crossed over ahead of me. And I do so love that I will see them again. Thanks, Tim.

  11. Ed, I was deeply touched reading this…I truly desire to become more like Him and see the deepest needs that cry out from the heart of another and respond as He would to touch them there…

  12. Well, my tears have dried sufficiently to see the monitor as I enter “data.” One of my first thoughts was, it’s not only verbal harsh answers, but also harsh answers to problems, i.e. the solution to the problem. Also, harsh assessments of a situation, of people. We tend to step into the role of God in making those judgments. I’m not sure if I’m right in this, but I also thought about the elderly (and I shudder every time I realize I’m in that category) who have the wisdom of age and experience, but tend to revert to the emotions and fears of their (our) youth. As you know, we cared for all our parents and each one responded to their condition differently. It was a real learning experience for Bob and me and I do regret all the times I failed, but I also treasure the times I didn’t fail and was able to be what each of them needed me to be at the time. I choose to concentrate on those moments. Thank you, Ed.

    1. Thanks, Sue. I identify with everything you wrote here. I so appreciate you and Bob and your stability…caring for land, parents, community, the Church…and, as I wrote to someone else, you did the best you could. We all do. It never seems to be enough, but it is.

  13. Ed,
    I so want the courage to look into my own heart you have demonstrated. Thank you for sharing this raw and challenging experience.

    I lost my Dad last year. He was a very difficult person to relate to, but we both worked at it and we each knew were loved. Much of the time I spent with him, I spent trying to talk about Jesus, but he never seemed interested. He was a very proud, independent man who had little room for what he saw as the weakness of religious sentimentality. At least not until his last Thanksgiving with us, where I found him apparently engrossed In a copy of Lee Strobel’s book, The Case For Christ. However, when I offered it to him, he quickly tossed it aside, denying any interest.

    A few short months later, the time came for him to go to an assisted living facility. This created a tremendous strain in our relationship. My last conversation with him required me to take a tough stance. Although I tried to say what I did in a tender and compassionate way, I knew he would take it hard and feared he might hang up on me or say something hurtful. He had often done this when things weren’t to his liking. To my amazement, he accepted what I said and then said “OK.” Then a pause and then “Son, I love you very much.” Although he was still healthy and quite mobile and able to go out to dinner that night, he passed before the next morning. My brother found him kneeling beside his bed in a praying position. When I went to his old house to take care of his things I found a well-worn copy of The Case For Christ.

    1. What an astounding story! The Lord takes His own path in His own time with His own creatures. Every story is unique and personal. Trust. I so appreciate you taking the time to tell your dad’s story. Thank you.

  14. You touched something tender here Ed. I lost my 102 year old mom a few months ago.
    My brothers and I had to do a lot of what your family did. You can always think, “Well maybe I should have done more.” The truth of the matter is we all probably did everything that we needed to do. I still love the precious memories of my young and vibrant mom and I know that is the way she is now with Jesus. Thanks Ed for sharing.

    1. Lanny, I think you’re right. We probably did everything we could. No one tries to do it wrong; most people do the best they can. I really have no regrets.

  15. Excellent article of self-reflection. I am in the same season of eldercare. My approach was different. So, I moved in with mom, to look after her. I’m no “super saint,” doing what I feel I was supposed to do. And my life was such (no husband or kids) where I was able to do it. Has it been easy, absolutely not. Had to move cross country, sibling drama, lost pension and salary. But the rewards are invaluable. Harsh words, yeah sometimes. But from her, ha! In her frustration, “calling me out my name,” a “b#$ch,” when I would try to get her to do something she thought she’s done, or doesn’t want to do (dementia),. She always apologizes, and there are times my words have been harsh, tinged with bitterness or regret for a decade of service in this capacity. Ultimately, the good far outweighs the bad, and God’s blessings are bubbling up and overflowing. The main consolation is her contentment. She feels the love and frequently smiles, and in the midst of the pandemic I feel relieved that she’s in her own home, winding down the way she wants to. I have become kinder, but still from time to time have to watch my words so they aren’t harsh. Thanks so much for the reminder

  16. Ed,
    Thank you for sharing your amazing words. Even though I am 68 and think my being released from the chains which keep me in this world I do think about the freedom which is coming. I hope and pray that as it approaches a grace that I have known in this life will usher me into the next. Thank you for your encouragement to measure our words so that they present value to others.

    1. I loved this article as our nearly 100 year old relative who has chosen to be alone is now saying she is not wanted by her family (who for years tried to get her to be near them in other states.) I still want to ask you how you handled those hurtful comments from your loved one. (“Her sons don’t want her.”)
      No one wants those to be the last words they hear from a loved one.

      1. Thank you, SB. I appreciate the peek into your story. I don’t think you can “handle” the words. They are what they are; they do what they do. Best to just ingest them and let them their work.

  17. Ed, I applaud your article. Thank you for sharing your heart. Today I unpacked one of my mother’s old Bibles, with her many notes and the crocheted cross bookmarks her mother had made. Mom passed away in 1980. The church elders bought the plane fare to send my brother and me to her funeral. I am grateful. Thank God for our mothers who loved us.

    1. Thanks, Ron. Imagine, you unpack old and cherished possessions only to discover they still speak to your heart. A beautiful mystery. Thank you for sharing this. I appreciate you taking the time to read it and to write. Blessings on you and Lana and your whole vine!

  18. Ed: thank you for capturing my heart in this article. I am learning to slow down and listen more. People, and particularly family, comprise what we do take with us to the next realm – or not. Careless comments can slash another’s heart. Uplifting comments can provide the energy to soar. Both without the speaker’s awareness. I hope to learn how to better control what my heart ruminates on, so that my mouth will be life-giving. Thank you deeply for pausing my day so I can get clarity on what really matters.

    1. Thanks, Sally. Yes, we really do carry the power of life and death in our tongue. You have spoken life for as long as I’ve known you.

  19. Ed, Thank you for those loving words. “Why am I here, Toots?” The very words I heard from my mother when first in a nursing home. Heart wrenching to see her frightened eyes. My brothers and I moved her back home with the help of a woman to be with her. A relief not only for her, but for us.
    These days my heart breaks for Coronavirus patients and their loved ones. They are separated and alone with only masked medical angels to care for them. Too many ultimately dying without the touch or voice of a loved one. That’s harsh indeed. God must love them greatly. Blessings to you and Joanne, my friend.

    1. So true about patients in this age of Coronavirus. Our approach seems so mechanical and cold. I know unusual measures may be necessary, but it seems they are applied with so little grace. Thank you so much, Mary Ann. You’re a good observer of the times.

  20. Glen Roachelle

    Ed, this is such a richly textured treatment of a grievous condition in the human social order. This was a window into what happens when people age in our fast moving way of life. Aging slows one’s life pace while younger generations are carried on at a pace the older generation cannot normally maintain. Then there are the demands of aging that require the training and resources outside our normal lives.

    It also helped me see a new side to the spirit if this present age. It is diabolically unkind and bruising to the human spirit. This is especially true of the very senior and needy of a society.

    My heart went out to our precious Mary Chinn in those last moments you were with her. Then there were heartbreaking last months she was in that “box canyon of health care,” as you phrased it to Vernon.

    Roberta and I are now dressed to go have dinner with you and Joanne tonight as we both read this. I am now resolved to speak kind words to you and Joanne in a few minutes. I only wish some of my kind words could reach Mary back when she was alive. But then I realize that the Lord has already dried her tears and cause all her bad experiences to disappear.

    Oh Jack and Mary, I am so glad you are not here to experience the harshness of this difficult time in America’s history. And Ed I pray for sweet consolations to attend you and all the Chinn tribe. May you all learn how to release more of the timelessness of the eternal essence from our Lord into your ways of life.

    Thank you, Ed, for this awakening of more of my own need for grace that restrains the ugliness of this present age.

  21. Thank you, Glen. What an elegant and truthful view of aging. Your phrase so captures this age of harsh answers: “…diabolically unkind and bruising to the human spirit. This is especially true of the very senior and needy of a society.” That really says it.

  22. There comes a time when the parade has passed by, the distracting noise has abated, and the thoughts of our actions come home to roost within our brains: I spoke too much and listened too little. I yielded not enough. Exhaustion held me captive.

    Most every Saturday for the past five years I drove two hours each way to visit Dad. That’s 182 trips, 182 Saturdays. Yes, I counted, to remind myself that I really was doing something tangible for Dad because during the return trip home, late at night, it often felt nothing at all like victorious or selfless caring. Shopping at Target, collecting phone messages, cleaning the apartment, paying the bills, doing the laundry, much of it while he napped, was grueling.

    Then, wash, rinse, and repeat six days later.

    This January, at 102, we moved Dad to a close-by assisted living community. Now, we talk, Covid-free, via FaceTime. Yesterday, for the first time, we spoke through a glass window. Though I live a mere ten minutes away, I resort to writing weekly Covid-free letters to him.

    We’re all in this together, right? This Covid-world. This aging world of of aging loved ones. This aging world of our own, our mortal bodies proving their mortality.

    But what a wonderful world. Tomorrow morning, we will open our eyes and again be reminded that we have been forgiven and that we can forgive. God’s love relentlessly washes away our worst best efforts and our best worst efforts, and all the rest.

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