The gift of presence
Oct. 16, 2015 at 9:44 a.m.
Updated Oct. 16, 2015 at 9:46 a.m.
A few weeks ago we made our yearly pilgrimage back to Byron’s homeland in eastern North Carolina, where the tea is sweet and pork barbecue with vinegar sauce reigns. It was a special time for us to do what we’ve been doing regularly these past 38 years since we became a couple – spending time with relatives and friends in Fayetteville and Morehead City, taking long walks on the beautiful Crystal Coast, eating our favorite seafood and barbecue and listening to the wind blow through the tall Carolina pines. We made plans with as many people as we could months ahead of time since we would only be there eight days.
This trip had unspoken special significance since it was going to be, in all probability, the last time Byron would be able to travel the 2,000 miles back home. For a person with Alzheimer’s, travel becomes disorienting, stressful and overwhelming as the disease progresses.
I hoped and prayed this visit wasn’t taking place too late for him to be able to recognize some of the people and places he loved. There was that priceless possibility that maybe once-familiar faces and locations would trigger snippets of memory. Sometimes it does, but you can never predict when or how. All I knew was that it was very important for us to get back to North Carolina as soon as we could.
The most significant event of our trip took place the day we arrived in N.C., and began with goodbye instead of hello.We flew out of Shreveport on a Monday morning and arrived in Raleigh midafternoon. We picked up our rental car and then drove straight to the funeral of one of Byron’s best friends from college days. We made it to the church right as the service began.
We had learned of his friend’s death a few days before our departure. Dennis had been Byron’s best man at our wedding. He and his family were dear friends and always one of our first stops on visit. We would gather at their rambling farmhouse and eat barbecue and fried chicken as Dennis, Byron and several other good college buddies retold stories, swapped lies and had the kind of time only friends who have known each other most of their lives can have. After dinner, the guitars would come out for some pickin’ and grinnin’ before the afternoon was over and we all went our separate ways for another year. Apart in location but not in spirit.
The graveside service for Dennis was held the next day. It was the same day we had scheduled months ahead to be together with him and his family. And here we were – together with him and his family. It was a sad but grace-filled time. We were deeply grateful that God allowed us the gift of being there to say goodbye to Dennis as well as the gift of being able to be present with his family.
Author and priest Henri Nouwen (Out of Solitude) wrote, “Being present to each other is what really matters; no matter what is happening in the world….Every human being has a great, yet often unknown, gift to care, to be compassionate, to become present to each other, to listen, to hear and to receive. If that gift would be set free and made available, miracles could take place.”
We spent the next week “being present” with Byron’s family members as well as friends from high school and college. We ate and laughed and had a great time. Whether or not, or to what extent Byron remembered folks did not seem to matter as much as the fact that he knew without a doubt that they cared about him. With their presence, stories and love, they gave him back to himself.
Isn’t that what it’s all about – being present for each other during our joys and sorrows? Not offering sympathy or solutions – just that greater gift – our presence, ourselves. Showing up. Sharing our stories and letting each other know we are not alone – reminding each other that God is with us and that He is good.
In a word – caring. We know all about that from the multitudes of the people who have been present with us as we continue to walk through Alzheimer’s. We are blessed and grateful for your love, and most of all -- your presence.
Find Dorothy's book, "Glimpses of Grace: Walking in Hope through Alzheimer's and Ordinary Days" on Amazon.com in Kindle and paperback.