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The Formless Void

He’s sitting at the table when I arrive, half a smile tugging on the corner of his lips, eyes staring vacantly forward. There’s a woman beside him scrutinizing the glass of milk sitting in front of her. She, too, has a hint of a smile on her face. I watch the two of them for a few seconds. I wonder if they will say anything to each other. But they don’t. They just sit there, half-smiling. I guess half of anything isn’t bad in the dementia ward.

I make my way over to the table and say hello. It usually takes him a while to remember who I am but today it takes even longer. I have to repeat my name a few times, talk about the church, mention that I’m his pastor. Eventually his lights up in recognition. For a few moments, at least, the scrambled neurons have decided to behave themselves.

He points to the woman beside him. “This is… she’s… well, I don’t know… she’s good… she knows everything…” The lady smiles broadly. “Do you know where… It isn’t the way… I guess it’s time for…” He smiles back at her. “We should have food soon… I don’t know who everyone is…. And then they went… But… It’s over in the…” It goes like this for a few minutes, random, disconnected sentence fragments crisscrossing the air between us. Disordered words, words with no apparent meaning, words that don’t land, words that struggle to escape.

One of the care workers comes by with a basket of laundry. The lady laughs with delight. Can she help fold them? Yes, of course she can. She takes an apron out of the basket and begins to move it around in her hand, folding it this way and that, putting it down, picking it up. She takes the string and tries to make a knot. She looks at my friend and says, “Do you know how this works? Where do I… How does it…” She puts it down and looks at her milk. She smiles.

My friend wants to take me for a walk. We trudge down the hallway at a glacial pace. He stops every now and then to look around. He lifts his hand to point at the wall, but there’s nothing there. “I think it’s time… this is a good place… I like… I need my jacket… I wonder when it’s time to eat…” We reach his room. There’s a sign on his door with his name in large letters. “This is my house… these are my… sometimes they… I like him… I don’t think that… he’s big… sometimes it seems like…” There’s an electronic sign on his wall that says, “Today is Thursday.” The TV is blaring in the corner. HGTV. Young beautiful people with unscrambled neurons scrambling to acquire, renovate, re-sell all their beautiful homes. Beachfront property. Parties on the ocean. I look back at the wall. “Today is Thursday.”

“My favourite part of the day is swimming,” he say. “We should go see the pool.” We trudge back down the hallway, through the common area. There’s a little old man sleeping in front of a TV. Another is standing in front of an empty wall. Another is sitting at a table, staring at what looks like a bowl of porridge. He’s wearing a bib. My friend walks over to him. “This is… um… he’s a good man.” The man with the bib reaches up toward my friend. They grab one another’s hands and hang on for a good half minute. For dear life, perhaps.

“I wonder where the pool is?” We’re in the kitchen now. One of the workers looks at me and smiles before mouthing the obvious, “There’s no pool here.” I smile and nod. “We can look for the pool another day,” I say, “why don’t we go back to your room?” And so we do. He sits on his bed. I sit on the chair beside him. The beautiful people are still loudly renovating their beach-y houses. We sit wordlessly for a few minutes.

There’s a picture of Jesus on his wall. Jesus is praying. I point to it and say, “Do you know who that is?” He looks at the picture. “My wife painted that.” “It’s lovely,” I say. “But who is it?” He gets slightly agitated. “My wife!” I walk over to the picture of Jesus and point right at him. “Do you know who this is? Do you think it’s Jesus?” He smiles. “Yes, that’s Jesus.” “What do you think he is praying for?” I ask. He pauses. Looks at the floor. Looks at me, then back at the picture. “That, I couldn’t say.”

In Genesis 1, the Spirit of God is said to hover over the void that is formless, empty, dark. The creation story is that of order being wrested out of chaos. What spirit, I wonder, hovers over the dementia ward where chaos overwhelms order? Where formlessness and darkness bounce off the walls, where words don’t land, where nothing escapes, where even smiles seem empty.

“I think Jesus is praying for us,” I say to my friend, pointing back at his wife’s picture. “I think we need it.” He looks at me. “Sometimes the workers take away part of my room in the morning… I don’t know why… This is a good place… I like him… My son has a dog…”

The house on the beach is going to sell for $50 000 more than the beautiful people with unscrambled neurons paid for it. Thank God. I sigh and look at my friend. He smiles.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Patricia Wirth #

    Usually your blogs are thought-provoking, funny, or interesting. This one makes me sad because I have dementia, in its very early treatable stages. To think that this may await any of us is a lonely, frightening future.

    July 14, 2017
    • Patricia, I am so very sorry to hear this. I can well imagine how a post like this would produce sadness and anxiety for the future. Actually, truth be told, I probably can’t imagine it. Not yet, at any rate.

      I always feel somewhat torn when I write posts like this one because I know that there are people out there for whom this isn’t an afternoon in the dementia ward but daily reality. I don’t write to cause pain. I suppose I write to bear witness. But as sad as it was to watch my friend in that place, and as sad as I feel for you feel as you look ahead to the future, I also do not doubt that Christ is present in such lives and in such places. And I pray that whatever your own future holds, you will experience this presence at each stage of the journey.

      Peace to you.

      July 14, 2017
  2. Jeff Kisner #

    The Hollanders get so many things right, eh? I used to live across the river from Windsor.

    July 15, 2017
    • Yeah, I’ve heard of this model—sure seems to have a great deal to commend it!

      July 16, 2017
  3. Thanks so much for visiting these people, Ryan. I loved serving them and being a part of them. Such beautiful people. You describe their reality very accurately. My God bless you for your kindness!

    July 16, 2017
    • May God bless you for loving and serving also. You’re right—beautiful people.

      July 16, 2017
  4. Paul M #

    thank you Ryan.

    August 2, 2017

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