Monday, July 21, 2008

Those who forget

It was an ordinary Sunday Mass in St Paul’s basilica in Rome. I’m sure everybody was touched as the priest started to speak.

He opened his homily by referring to his recent visit to his homeland, his first for some years, when he went directly to visit his mother. With the renowned love of the Italians for their mothers, congregation gave a sigh of approval and warmth when the celebrant explained that his own parent has recently celebrated her 100th Birthday.

But the sigh was premature, for the monk continued. His mother did not recognise him. “Who are you?” she asked. Try as he might, he was unable to have her remember her son. “But I have no son by that name”, the old lady declared.

Had a pin dropped, it would have been heard, even in the huge basilica, as we heard of the pain of having been forgotten.

As it happened, the personal illustration was perfect in setting the scene in order to highlight the Gospel. Yet it was also true that it was something with which everybody present could identify and offer their sympathy, regardless of nationality and language, social status and experience.

For my own part, I need look back to the moment when I met up with a friend of mine who has Alzheimer’s. I’d been scared, I freely admit. She had recognised me last year and, for a few minutes, we’d managed an almost normal conversation by keeping it short and very concrete. It had been a joy. This year, I’d more than half-expected not to be remembered, and yet, once again, the mists cleared sufficiently for her to remember my name and to attempt to chat. This time, it was not a very sensible dialogue. I offered many little prompts even in those few minutes that we were together. Yet, when our ways parted, I carried with me the thought that not everything had passed into a relative oblivion.

It was strange. It was as if a second person had come to live inside the body of someone whom I regard with abundant affection. There is still the warm smile, the consistently gracious demeanour, the friendliness and the wish to be involved in whatever is happening, but there has also been an irreversible change. Whilst rejoicing in being recognised, I mourn the loss of a cherished friend.

Alzheimer’s has hit the headlines. Yet it often slips away from the limelight.

Before I left Rome, a young man could be seen, at about the same time each day, taking his father for a walk around the streets surrounding the Beda and St. Paul’s basilica. The older man had no conversation and could just shuffle at a painfully slow rate. Yet, daily, his son took him for a stroll and, with great love, guided him across busy roads. Gradually the father’s walking pace slowed so much that his carer would also carry a newspaper and read it on the way…but the daily exercise continued, and did so with the same care and respect. It was a beautiful example of love that does not care about appearances.

I’ve then did not see the two men for the few months leading up to my departure. Perhaps the old man’s condition has deteriorated to the extent that he can no longer go for a walk with his son…but their place was taken by a man who ferries his mother backwards and forwards to Mass in St. Paul’s basilica and, with similarly exquisite attention, makes sure that she can find her place in the leaflet provided on a Sunday. He adjusts her hearing aid and ensures that she is comfortable. Love continues…

Lord, help us to remember those who forget. Let us cherish their past, their present and their future.

God bless,
Sr Janet