A Whisper


A once-vibrant woman from our congregation has been suffering from Parkinson’s-related dementia that attacked relentlessly less than a year after her dear husband died about six years ago. She has been living for the past four and half-years in a regional nursing home. Her six daughters visit her frequently, three of them coming from the centre and of the opposite ends of continent around four times a year. They all bring themselves, write notes and letters, read them to their mom.

About a month ago I bumped into one of the daughters as she was visiting a local sister. I had recently visited her mom. We shared our experiences, wondering what stuck in her mom’s mind, what penetrated the formerly glowing eyes that only infrequently glimmer with God-knows-what powerful memory or affection. At one time the daughter sighed, “We all wonder what purpose God has for letting Mom live like this. Why is Mom still hanging on?”

Not always given to waiting before responding, this time I chewed on the daughter’s words, eventually, slowly responding, “Sometimes I think that people like your mom are living so that they can be cared for by those who love them--to be listened to attentively, carefully, for what they might tell us.”

I wish I could say that I came up with that idea myself, but I am happier to say that I intentionally borrowed it from friend and colleague Pastor Fred VanderBerg, Chaplain of Shalom Manor and Gardens in Grimsby, Ontario. Below I am offering for you to read the brief, touching, thoughtful report that Fred presented to Classes Niagara and Hamilton in our respective May, 2010 meetings. Thanks for Fred for his tender, compassionate memories of Donna—whose children also wonder….

“I walked into her room the first week on the job, now two and one half years ago. She lay quietly, still one might say. She had been lying like this for fifteen years. Uncontrolled bleeding after removing a tumor from her brain had caused her to be in this state: “Vegetative,” the doctors say.

“’No,’ the staff says. ‘She follows with her good eye.’ Who knows? Her black hair was tied back, a bit severely, I thought. Her complexion was pale. I bent down toward her and introduced myself, spoke a few words and being at a loss for further words, looked around the room.

“There were photos, there was a white paper filled with printed words, laminated, hanging on the walls. I moved away from the bed toward the photos. There was a picture of her deceased husband. He had died a few years ago—cancer. There were pictures of her two, young-adult daughters; both with beautiful brown eyes. There was a later picture of one on her two daughters with a husband and two little children. I walked up to the laminated white piece of paper and began reading. It was the story of her life, beautifully written by one of her children. The way the room was decorated, it radiated love. Quietly, reverently almost, I walked back to the woman lying on her bed.

“Donna was her name. I prayed with her; praying for her, her daughters and her grandchildren. Maybe she heard me, maybe not. In the month of March, Donna died, a Wednesday night. Walking down the corridor early Thursday morning, I asked myself, ‘Should I do a remembering-of-her-life with the residents on the third floor? What would I say about her? I’ve only known her lying in bed, always silent.’ My first inclination was not to gather the residents together to remember her life.

Then I thought, ‘She had a presence on the floor. The floor was different from other floors because of her. Every time I walked past her room, it is as if I hear a whisper, ‘Fred, don’t forget about me.’ I decided to do a reflection with the residents.

“Later that morning, Wilma, the receptionist, came into my office followed by two young adult women, one with two small children. I immediately recognized them from the pictures hanging in their mother’s room. I offered my condolences. We sat down and we talked: about their mother, themselves, funeral possibilities. After we prayed, I invited them to come to the remembering of their mother on Friday morning. They said that they would be there.

“After praying for them many times over the past two and one half years, it was a delight to meet them and pray with them. On Friday morning, the two daughters were there. Donna’s brother and sister-in-law from Brantford were there. Shalom’s CEO, the Director of Care and various nurses/personal support workers (psw’s) from other floors were there.

“I read about Elijah fleeing into the wilderness, despairing because things had not gone as he had anticipated. I read about Elijah standing on a mountain, about a violent wind, a frightening earthquake, a raging fire and about God being in a whisper. I talked with those present about hearing the whisper, ‘Fred, remember me, the least of them’ every time I passed her room. I talked about going in her room, looking at the pictures, talking to Donna and praying with her.

“When I invited others to reflect on Donna’s life, I discovered that others too had heard her whisper. For eleven years, a person on the recreational staff had read stories to Donna every week. Another person on the recreational staff, a young person, had discovered that Donna’s CD collection almost mirrored the songs she had downloaded on her i-Pod. Every morning she had gone into Donna’s room and put on a CD. Nurses had administered medication and psw’s had attended to her physical needs everyday while engaging Donna in one way conversations.

“That morning, there were more hugs, more tears shed and more love expressed than during any other “remembering” I had participated in! Listening, I thought, “In some marvelous way, Donna has made me a better chaplain, the recreation persons better recreationalists, the nurses and psw’s better care givers! I discovered that God was in the whisper, like God was so long ago on that mountain. My ministry at Shalom begins by listening for the whispers. --Fred VanderBerg

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