A: I’m saying it can increase the odds of that occurring. I first heard such 2+2=4 logic from my mentor, the late Canon Jim Glennon, an Anglican priest in Sydney, Australia. Resentment and fear, he told me, often are drivers of stress. He learned this the hard way through his studies and personal experience. And medical research is bearing him out today as it reveals ever more clearly how long-term stress can damage our immune system. Until diving deep into Canon Glennon’s teachings, I’d always thought of forgiveness as a nice religious virtue that I could do at a time and place of my choosing, whenever it was convenient for me.
While listening to Canon Glennon’s tapes, I was reminded of this startling statement by Frederick Buechner in his book Wishful Thinking: “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
Ouch! Suddenly the importance of forgiveness hit me square between the eyes. And Martha and I began to work on our long-held resentments. I learned quickly enough the importance of not only forgiving those who hurt me through the years but also of forgiving myself of failed efforts long past as well as for my failures in caring for Martha. That’s what I mean by being gentle with myself.
Q: How did your children react to their mother’s illness?
A: I don’t have time to go into detail here; I do devote a chapter in my book A Path Revealed to their responses. Nonetheless, our children gave me the greatest gift possible—a weekend a month off while they stayed with their mother; I usually went to a nearby monastery. I believe our children today support each other more than they would have otherwise. Not that I would wish such a crisis on anyone in order for the adult children to get along.
The more I’ve talked with groups, the more I refer to our 17-year struggle with Alzheimer’s as an odyssey rather than a journey. The word “journey” feels too tame. It feels to me like you’re walking easily along a path toward some planned destination.
An “odyssey” in its classical sense begins when you find yourself lost in an alien land—hurt, scared, and confused. You want to get back home; you’re desperate to get home. You’ll risk almost anything to get there, you’ll endure almost anything. And you will experience things never before imagined. When you do get home, you realize that home is not the same place as when you left. Nor are you the same person. That better describes the path traveled by Martha, our children, and me.
I’ll close with this observation that I shared with the groups in Tennessee: Twenty years ago Martha turned 50 and within three weeks was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. After all we went through since that diagnosis, I now understand that there’s a vast difference between believing in God and in believing God. I’ll be chewing on that insight the rest of my life.
Thank you. It’s good to be back.
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P.P.S. My book, A Path Revealed: How Hope, Love, and Joy Found Us Deep in a Maze Called Alzheimer’s, can be found on Amazon or ordered from any bookstore.