Love, from the Cradle to the Grave

March 10, 2022 by

Maureen on her 97th birthday
Maureen celebrates her 97th birthday

Our life together gives us opportunities to show love to one another at every stage of life, from welcoming a newborn baby to attending older brothers and sisters in their last years. Deeds of love are not routine but personal – a matter of following Christ’s command to “wash one another’s feet.” We want to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
Foundations of our Faith and Calling

At our Sunday service recently we welcomed the newest baby, only five days old, into our community. This special service is known as a “Darstellung,” and I have always loved this – when we gather together and parents present their baby to the church, and the church gives the child back to his or her parents to raise. It is a symbolic act recognizing the age-old adage that “it takes a village to raise a child,” and the fact that parents are ultimately responsible for the education of any children they bring into the world. This is not to be confused with infant baptism, nor does it make the baby a member of the Bruderhof. Rather it is a simple and child-like gathering that binds the community, the child, and the parents together in the journey of raising a child in the ways of the Lord.

On this particular day the service was especially poignant as the baby, Larry, was blessed by his grandfather and namesake, who is battling a serious cancer. Humanly speaking Grandpa Larry will probably not be with us for long, and the prayer he spoke for his little grandson was beautiful and striking. Here was someone on his homeward journey blessing and welcoming a soul so recently arrived. It was heaven touching earth, earth reaching up to heaven.

Walking away from that service, I went to spend the afternoon with my friend Sandra. At the age of eighty-four Sandra has lived a long and active life – she was never one to sit around. But COVID has left her with little energy. My task is simple – to be present if she needs help getting from her bed to the recliner; to offer her a drink; to make conversation as her strength allows. A few weeks ago I visited her several times at a local rehabilitation center outside of our community, and while the staff did their best for her, I came away from those visits realizing the pearl we have in offering cradle-to-grave care right here at home. In her room on Sunday the sounds of children echoed down the hallway, as neighbors celebrated a five-year-old’s birthday on one side, and a one-year-old came to say hello from the other.

I can recall many people, from the youngest to the oldest, with whom I have had such encounters over the years. There was Daniel, my cousin’s son, born seven weeks premature. After two weeks in the NICU he came home weighing just over four pounds, and for his first week home I cared for him each night so his mother could sleep. I had never held such a tiny baby, and we counted the cc’s of formula that we fed him every two hours. His dad, a construction worker with huge hands like our Grandpa Jim, showed me how to scratch the end of Daniel’s tiny bottle to keep him awake at feeding time. Daniel looked even smaller when held by his father, and I marveled at the honor of being allowed to care for such a tiny baby.

Then there was Maureen, the first elderly person I cared for. I was only nineteen or twenty at the time, and had never provided personal care for anyone. Understandably I was nervous, but Maureen had served for years in a clinic in South America, and she had an earthy and refreshing sense of humor that soon put me at ease. Before long we were cracking jokes about her doctor, whom she affectionately called “old saw-bones,” and hosting hilarious parties for other young people. Her favorite prank was an act she put on called “the mummy” where she would have the guest blindfolded and led on an expedition of the “tomb of the pharaohs.” One of us caregivers would be lying “dead” on the bed, trying (sometimes unsuccessfully) not to bust out laughing while she carefully traced various limbs with the unsuspecting guest’s finger, describing which part of the “mummy” they were feeling. The punch line was at the face: after outlining the forehead, nose, and chin, she would declare “eye!” – and plunge the guest’s finger into a pot of Vaseline that the “mummy” was holding! Needless to say, this always brought loud shrieks from the poor wound-up guest. The rest of us, now familiar with the routine, fell about uproariously laughing.

Marianne was another favorite of mine. She lived with her (also aging) daughter, Mathilde, and although she was quite well physically, she required companionship. My friend Chloe and I shared a room in Marianne’s apartment and took turns in various caregiver roles. As is often the case, Marianne and Mathilde actually gave much more to me than I gave to them, and I simply loved their company. Their home became my home. Of sturdy German stock, they were tireless and adventuresome, and Mathilde had the most hilarious cackle that burst forth at any and all appropriate and inappropriate moments. Legend has it that when Marianne was a young mother she was taken to the hospital to give birth on a sled of all things, racing down the steep mountainsides of Lichtenstein! I mean, if you can survive that, then there’s not much you can’t do! It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me on my birthday that year that she never got tired. We pushed her several miles in her wheelchair, down to the Hudson River where we sat and enjoyed the day, and then the same distance back home. I was sure she would crash on her bed, exhausted by the excursion, but instead she sat on the couch and watched us prepare dinner – not a hint of tiredness showing.

Similar adventures were had with Johanna, a Dutch woman I lived with for several years. The highlight was a Sunday when four of us practically carried her, wheelchair and all, up the ridge behind our community as she had never been and wanted to see the view. It was exhausting – Johanna was a large woman and her chair wasn’t light, but we managed, lifting her over sticks and stones. The journey down was equally challenging, and we carried her backwards so she wouldn’t see the steep terrain we were traversing. She laughed all the way down, even though we paid for it later when she panicked, realizing what we had done, and told us we were crazy and irresponsible. We probably were, but it was still fun, and she had loved every moment of it at the time!

Johanna had cerebral palsy, but lived to the age of seventy-nine. That is miraculous, considering the challenges that attend CP. There were moments when caring for her taxed every ounce of my patience and love, and even made me question the purpose of a life burdened with such suffering. In her last years she couldn’t feed herself, couldn’t scratch her face, couldn’t do her hair. In fact, she couldn’t do anything on her own. At the time I wrote to one of our pastors as I struggled to understand her suffering:

I often find it hard to know what to say or how to respond when she says that she only has a few more days to live (she’s been saying that for years). Part of me longs that soon she can go – that she won’t have to live in constant pain any more, and I even often find myself asking God to take her so that she can be free. Is that wrong? Is it wrong to wonder why she continues to live in pain, and why it can’t be over?

But on the other hand, it’s so clear to me why she’s here. It’s for us, not for her, and she has so much to teach each one of us who cares for her. The lessons of learning to love someone regardless of what they do or say, or how much you want to do what you want to do is one that I know will stand each of us in good stead no matter what else comes our way.

I guess it’s sometimes (often) just hard when you can’t “do” anything to help someone, except to pray for them. And maybe that’s one of the things we need to learn in caring for someone – that often the only help is in God and in prayer.

Maybe that’s one of the things we need to learn in caring for someone – that often the only help is in God and in prayer. Of all the people I have cared for, Johanna’s illness and suffering challenged me the most, and therefore probably taught me the most. Because of her illness and its effects on her mind she could say hurtful things to those of us caring for her, and I had to learn not to take it personally. She also suffered a great deal of pain which, more often than not, we could not ease despite the efforts of doctors and specialists. This idea that the suffering of one individual is more for others than for the one who suffers is difficult to comprehend. It seems so unfair. And when the sufferer is in such pain, or when their mental capacity has deteriorated to the point that they don’t know what they are saying and how it might hurt their caregivers, the struggle to love can seem insurmountable. During the difficult last months of her life I found these words of Meister Eckhart, (emphasis mine) which I wrote in my journal and which pretty much summed up how I wished I could care for Johanna.

As long as we look for some kind of pay for what we do, as long as we want to get something from God in some kind of exchange, we are like the merchants. If you want to be rid of the commercial spirit, then by all means do all you can in the way of good works, but do so solely for the praise of God. Live as if you did not exist. Expect and ask nothing in return. Then the merchant inside you will be driven out of the temple God has made. Then God alone dwells there. See! This is how the temple is cleared: when a person thinks only of God and honors him alone. Only such a person is free and genuine.

In the end I was given a very deep love for Johanna, and the final weeks of her life, although fraught with suffering and pain, were nonetheless victorious. We started out the day she died by reading 2 Timothy 4:7–8:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

None of us knew it would be her last day on earth, but when she passed peacefully later that afternoon, I knew she truly had fought the good fight and that she had a most glorious crown in heaven!

As these memories turn over in my heart I marvel again at this very special gift we have in community, of being able to provide care for the youngest to the oldest. I could fill a book with the crazy adventures we had with Johanna and Maureen – not to mention Valerie, my friend who, despite being wheelchair bound, was determined to have me get her up at midnight in the dead of winter to watch a lunar eclipse. Glory be – the eclipse, and the joy and excitement of Valerie watching it, was worth it! I feel so blessed for the undeserved part I have been allowed to play in the lives of each of them.

It is something I often think about as friends of mine outside the community struggle to care for their aging parents or disabled siblings. Despite their best efforts and their deep and unfailing love, they are often forced to place their parents in care homes or hire caregivers. How hard that must be! All I can do is to thank God for a community where mutual love and care are so highly prized, where burdens are shared and we can help each other out when the caring becomes difficult or we are too tired to go on.

And when all is said and done, the fight has been fought, and a life has been lived, whether to the full, or cut short in our eyes, there is a crown waiting.


About the author

Vivian Warren

Vivian Warren

Vivian Warren lives at The Mount Community, where she cares for the elderly and works in the community kitchen.

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