The Tie that Binds Us

Her name is Magda. I sit next to here on the train many nights while traveling home from work. I’ve known her for three years.  She has worked on the same floor of the same engineering company that I do.  Not long ago, though, our CEO moved the financial dept. to the 35th floor.  Magda, part of the financial group moved upstairs and I remained with the engineers. We were no longer able to pass each other in the hallway and talk.

We do however talk on the way home from work.  Over the past three years and many miles of track Magda has told me about her life. In turn she has asked me about my life.  She is usually reserved and business-like in her conversation.   She will ask me direct questions about my kids and my family. I will answer them and then I will ask about her family. There is parity to our conversation: with each question’s answer we become equally knowledgeable about the other. Lately, though, she has asked more probing questions, specific questions regarding my grandparents and their end-of-life care. The reason for this, I believe is that her mother, who recently turned one-hundred, is in need of continual care.

 Magda moved her mother to a senior’s home this past summer.  Prior to this, her mother lived on her own in a condo out east. Magda’s brother, who lived locally, would check in on her regularly. During the time the mother lived alone the mother’s growing frailty combined with regular falls gave the family reason enough to move her to a place where she could be monitored and cared for daily. Their mother now lives not far from our train station and not far from Magda’s home.

 Magda has confided in me about her mother.  She told me that her mother is very cognizant of her surroundings and is able to move about but she continues to fall almost daily.  Each fall is more deeply injurious and the healing process becomes longer. Her circulation is faulty.  Her drawn skin, now blotched purple, bears the bruises of everyday life. A while back the toes on one her feet had to be amputated because there was no longer any circulation to the extremities of her foot. Her mother hadn’t noticed the problem and no one knew until too late.

 Magda is married. Her husband is a retired orthopedic surgeon/medical school professor who likes to winter in Florida at one of their vacation homes.  Magda, when on vacation from work, flies down to be with him.  Right now, though, Magda has been in town helping her mother convalesce until her brother comes to town to replace her for a spell. Every night she drives the couple’s Jaguar over to the senior care home.

 We rode the train together again last night.  Magda, sitting in the seat in front of me, turned around to me as she has the past several weeks to talk. Magda was wondering how others deal people have dealt with someone who is advanced in age, still independent in mind and spirit and yet too fragile to take care of themselves.  She asked about my grandparents.

 I told her that one set of grandparents died early in my life.  My mother’s father, Simon, died before I could meet him. There is a picture of him, my mother, my father and me.  I know him through the lens of someone else’s eyes.  My mother’s mother came to live with us when I was about eight years old.  Svea was eighty-five years old and becoming more feeble every day.  Because she was from Sweden she was not always easy for us as kids to understand – her talk and her ways were strange to us.  My parent’s cared for her until she became too ill.  She was then moved to a hospital where she died not long afterward.  I remember this first great sadness and loss in my life.  Grandma was living with us and now she was gone forever.  I missed her greatly when she died.  Her bedroom was empty, her spirit gone. What remained throughout our house were the delicate lace doilies she had created.

 My father’s parents lived well into their eighties.  They sold their single family home and moved into a senior’s condo residence.  There, safe in an easy to move about environment, they knew friends who had made the same move. It was a small community of elderly people, Dutch people, who regularly met in the cafeteria to talk about their kids, their grandkids and their great-grand kids.

 My grandmother, Zena, was the first of these grandparents to die.  My grandfather was never quite the same after that.  He couldn’t function without Zena.  They had been married for over sixty five years.  Eventually, my grandfather was moved to a smaller condo in the same group of buildings. There, he deteriorated rapidly.

 By this time in his life, much of my grandfather’s family was out of state.  From what I could tell, my father was the most caring of his children.  He went out of his way to care for my grandfather.  My dad, who lived out of state with my mother, asked me to look in on my grandfather. Because I still lived in the area I would visit him on a regular basis. I would sit and talk with him.  When I left him I brought his laundry home with me to wash and then returned it on my next visit. With each reoccurring visit, though, there seemed to be less of my grandfather. In conversation, his mind fumbled for words.  In the interludes of silence, his spirit was with my grandmother.

My grandfather died about a year after my grandmother.  They found him on the floor of his condo. The cords of death loosely wrapped around him, tripping him up.

 I shared all of this with Magda.

 The difficulties of caring for an elderly parent who is rapidly deteriorating can grow exponentially.  Each detail of the elderly person’s life becomes a major life issue:  simple movement, daily exercise, eating proper food, taking medications, the continuous care funding, the provision of emotional support and so much more.  The life support system of a concerned family becomes critical to the care of the person facing their mortality.

 Last night, Magda related to me all of the things involved with her mother on a daily basis. Magda visits her mom once a day.  She drives over after work and spends time with her, walking her through the hallways. There was a night recently, Magda told me, that there was small church service going on the community room of the care center.  Magda asked her mother if she wanted to go to the service but her mother refused, saying, “It’s only a church service.”

At this point in our conversation, we were both standing and waiting for the train to pull into our station.  The hour long sometimes jolting ride is hard on the legs and back.  Neither of us can sit that long. After talking briefly about the church service, Magda changed the subject and asked me about the books that I had been reading.  She said it looked as though I was studying for something.

 I pulled the book back out of my bag:  The Rage Against God by Peter Hitchens.  I explained that Peter is the brother of well known atheist Christopher Hitchens. Christopher is an English-American journalist, author and columnist.  His writing can be found in Vanity Fair, The Atlantic and other publications.  Peter, his brother, is a British journalist and author as well.  Peter is a Christian.  The recently published The Rage Against God describes his return to faith in Jesus Christ.

 I explained further that I was reading this book and the other book I carried with me because I wanted to give these books to my two elder sons.  I wanted to know what Peter gave as his reasons to return to faith. The other book I carried and read was Nancy Pearcey’s Saving Leonardo:  A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals & Meaning.

 I told Magda that my eldest son describes himself as an atheist.  He told me this one day in the car.  He did not want to be baptized. He did not want anything to do with the church or Jesus.  He was almost eighteen at the time.

 I made it clear to Magda that I wanted to lead my sons to Jesus Christ.  With a puzzled look she said, “That will be hard.” Then she asked, “Do you think people still believe such things?” I asked her, “You mean, believe in atheism?” “No, “she answered, “do you think people still believe that Jesus saves people from theirs sins and all that?” I told her, “I absolutely believe that to be true. There is no doubt in my mind.”

 The mention of the senior’s church service by Magda was the first time in three years that she has said anything close to matters of faith. I understood from our many conversations that Magda was a self-made independent woman who reads the New York Times.  Her worldview was completely secular.  She told me that she hadn’t been to church in years. I quietly realized that the book I was reading about Peter Hitchen’s life prior to faith in Christ was parallel to much of the secular worldview Magda espoused.

 Our conversation continued as we walked out of the train towards the parking lot.  She told me that she thought it was funny that a young person would be leading a church service at an old folk’s home and that he was excitedly talking about people being saved from their sins.  It seemed completely absurd to her.

 All I could do at this point was smile and tell her that as a teenager I also went to these senior homes with a man from our church every other Saturday morning.  The man, elderly himself, would speak for a short time about Jesus Christ and I would play hymns on my trumpet. I told Magda that trumpets were good instruments for the elderly.  They had no problem hearing me play. This made her smile.

 As we began to part ways looking for our cars she said, “Well, have a nice weekend.” 

 I reached over, touched her arm and said, “Have a Merry Christmas, Magda.” 

 We would see each other again next year. God willing.