Anne Karoly: Dementia has destroyed my mother's memory, but not her surety of God's presence

Bigstock / Kasia Bialasiewicz

Caring for her 87-year-old mother has helped deepen the faith of an Episcopal laywoman.

I pad into my mother’s room in my bare feet. I say, “Mom, it’s morning.” Her blue eyes pop open. “Is today Sunday?”

“No,” I tell her. “Oh,” she says. Disappointment clouds her voice.

On Saturday evenings, she repeatedly asks about our Sunday morning plans. I tamp down my irritation and tell her again that we’ll go to the 8 a.m. church service.

When we get there, we slip into our front pew with three minutes to spare. My mother slides over while I hover, clutching the side of the pew. She is 87 and has dementia. This afternoon, I know, I’ll have to assure her that we did indeed go to church.

The liturgy is so ingrained that she can still recite prayers and responses, even as other memories recede. She listens attentively during the sermon, even though none of the words will stick. She pesters me until our check is deposited in the plate. At communion, she offers thanksgiving while consuming the bread and wine.

Sunday worship is still central to her life. She’s been all-in since she was a babe in her mother’s arms. And even now, as her memories slip into a dementia-induced fog, she retains a firm grasp on her Episcopal identity.

I have taken care of Mom for the last six years. I have watched as her memories and abilities disappear. But I marvel at what remains: her surety of God’s presence in her life.

These years with Mom take me back to my earliest memories. Church was the clear center of my family’s life, just as backpacking and skiing were our pastimes.

Mom’s faith was the seed -- my father had grown up unchurched, and he was baptized and confirmed at my baptism.

From our family’s front pew, I watched my parents’ faith grow from an obligation to a deep-rooted trust in Jesus and God’s redeeming love. I saw this love manifested in my parents’ love for me.

They advocated for the creation of a diocesan camp backpacking program for teenage girls, forgave me when I failed a semester in college, and accepted me even when I held them at arm’s length.

Sometime in my 20s, my faith became my own; it was no longer an extension of my parents’. I had left church. I was questioning my belief in God. Then a youth minister reached out to me and offered room for me to arrive at my own conclusions. This helped me reconnect with God. Once again, I looked forward to Sundays.

Through the intervening years, I have remained an active member of the Episcopal Church, and in the last 20 years have been a lay professional in the church.

Even after my return to church, I sometimes still kept my mother at arm’s length. But caring for her makes me close to her in a way I never expected. Dressing, for example, has become a team sport. I say, “Get your girls in,” and lean close to Mom. I deftly use my arm and hands to accomplish our goal. I’ve learned that dressing another person demands a particular kind of intimacy.

Sometimes, sitting in her chair, she beckons me to lean in until our noses touch. “You will never know how much I love you,” she says. Hugging back, I tell her, “You are my best Mom.”

I reassure her she is not a burden. I mean it. It is an honor to have a front-row seat to her dementia and her stalwart faith.

As we get ready on Sunday mornings, we go through our mantra: “Does God love you?”

“Yes,” she says.

“Do the arms of Jesus wrap around you?” Again she answers in the affirmative.

“Has the Spirit anointed you?”

“Yes.”

While we walk to the car, I ask why we are attending church. Mom says, “To talk with Jesus and to share our love.”

She might have forgotten how to dress herself, but she has not forgotten this.

Once we get there, I move into the center of the pew. Mom’s radiance washes over me. We recite the words of liturgy while we hug, sway and sing hymns.

Her faith has deepened my own reliance on God -- also a new intimacy.

So when she asks, I respond, again and again: “Yes, Mom, we’re going to church on Sunday.”