Two weeks ago I was diagnosed with Macular Degeneration. It was not a complete surprise. My mother developed the disease in her 80s, despite the tons of greens and carrots she ate during her lifetime. For those who are unacquainted with Macular Degeneration, the conclusion of the disease is the functional loss of eyesight. Peripheral vision remains but reading becomes impossible. I am only at the beginning stage. The doctor could not predict how long it will take me to move into stage 2 and finally into stage 3. It could be five years or twenty years.
My personal reaction to the diagnosis was … curious. The doctor might just as well have told me, “Al, you will most likely die in the next thirty years.” All one can do is nod. Christine, knowing how I love to read, tried to buck me up: “Don’t worry, dear, I’ll read your theology books to you.” “I won’t want you to read me theology books,” I replied. Scripture, novels, poems, yes, but not theology. At the moment I can no longer read, it will be time for me to embrace a more contemplative life. I probably should be embracing that life sooner rather than later. I love theology, but I am finding it increasingly difficult to hold on to what I read. That’s one reason I blog. If I didn’t, all the material I am reading would simply disappear into the black hole of my forgetfulness.
Last week I signed up for Medicare. That is an official turning point—a societal announcement that one has graduated into the elder years. As my “young” insurance broker explained in the telephone conversation with the Anthem agent, “My client has aged into Medicare.” I shot him a glance of mild disapproval.
My father developed Alzheimer’s in his early 80s. The last ten years of his life were awful, awful for him, awful for my mother and sister who took such good care of him. I worry. My own memory lapses are increasing. My active vocabulary seems to have been reduced to about a hundred words (okay, maybe five hundred). The thesaurus is now my best friend. I can no longer recall the names of movies and actors, at least not at those moments I want to recall them. “Oh [looking at the TV screen] that’s … err … what’s his name. He starred in … umm … you know, that movie about an alien race on another planet. It was directed by … that guy who directed Aliens.” I had to check IMDB to find that the name of the actor was Stephen Lang and the name of the movie was Avatar. At least I remembered Aliens. Forgetfulness-events like that seem to happen every day now. More worrisome is that I recently misplaced the diamond ring that my father used to wear. He gave it to me twenty-odd years ago. It was the one gift from him that I truly cherished. I intended to bequeath it to my eldest son. I have no idea what could have happened to it. I have a clear memory of putting it into the top drawer of the chest. We have searched the house, top to bottom, multiple times over. It is simply gone. I frequently ask myself, is this normal for a person of my age or am I beginning to experience the initial stages of dementia? I’ll have to ask my physician in February when I go in for my physical.
I am not feeling depressed. Life is miraculously better now than it was four and a half years ago when we lost our son. The sorrow does not go away, but it no longer overwhelms. Christine and I have together stepped out of that terrible, dark tunnel. She still suffers from the debilitating chronic migraines that have afflicted her for over a decade, but their severity has diminished somewhat. On occasion we are able to dine out and enjoy a fine meal. I find that I am able to enjoy small blessings that before I overlooked or ignored—that itself is a blessing.
When Aaron died all I could pray was the Jesus Prayer. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me.” All other words were impossible. There was just the keening and the prayer. The Jesus Prayer remains my principal mode of intercourse with God. I no longer have long conversations with God, as I once did. They were never really conversations anyway but rather monologues. Another interesting change in my spiritual life: I only occasionally pray for specific things for myself. This has not been an intentional change. The Jesus Prayer just seems sufficient. I still pray for my family and friends, of course, yet I sometimes wonder if and how the intercessions matter. I have at hand a ready-made catechetical answer (every priest does), but at the moment I do not find it existentially persuasive. I prayed for Aaron intensely and frequently during that last year when he was drowning in despair. Despite my prayers, he died. I could not save him. God did not save him. And there have been other losses—not as traumatic, perhaps, but crippling nonetheless. Prayer brings its own suffering. The divine “no” can be unbearable.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
So I retreat into the invocation, “Lord Jesus Christ …” When I am driving or walking that prayer quietly comes into my mind. “… have mercy upon me.” Sometimes it seems as if it is praying itself. I have not had any mystical experiences. There are no special spiritual feelings. The deep silence I desire remains illusive. There is just the prayer … and the living that is life.
My Medicare card should arrive in a couple of weeks.