It's an anniversary summer of sorts for me. Ten years ago this summer, I began my training as a chaplain in long-term care, and 10 years ago, I had to admit my own dad to a nursing home.
I wasn't ready for the latter. Are we ever ready for that move? My folks had assured me they were doing just fine at home, even though I sensed that my mom was physically exhausted from caring for my dad, who had suffered a massive stroke. But when my mom's back gave out and the doctor ordered her on bed rest for two full weeks, Dad and I had no other choice. We had to turn to other people for help.
And so, my dad was admitted to a nursing home ... the very nursing home where I was working as a chaplain intern. And so, I began my education, not only as a chaplain, but also as a family member of a nursing home resident. It was a summer of recognizing limits, as well as possibilities. It was a summer of endings and new beginnings. It was a summer of loss, as well as gain.
I hated the idea that I had to put my dad into a nursing home. I felt guilty. I was angry and disappointed with myself. I was sure that if only I had been a better daughter, I could have found another solution for my father's care. It was hard for me to admit that I wasn't the perfect daughter, especially since I was my daddy's girl.
The first night after my dad was admitted, I had to summon every ounce of courage I had within me to hug my dad goodnight and walk away. I had visited many residents on that same hallway; I had said a cheery goodnight to each and every one of them, but when I had to leave my dad behind, it wasn't the chaplain who said, "Sleep tight." It was the teary-eyed daughter.
You may wonder, as I did, what possibilities, new beginnings and gains there were for me and my dad that summer. At the time Dad had his stroke, he was still serving a church parish as visitation minister. I was working as a chaplain intern just to fulfill a seminary graduation requirement. The local church was our paradigm -- surely that's where God had called both of us to ministry. We had no idea that a long-term care center could also be the church. The move to the nursing home was the beginning of a new understanding of church for both of us.
"Church" -- "ekklesia." The word means the whole people of God or a community of faith. And, what an amazing community of faith the care center turned out to be. We discovered that it was a church that was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We learned that the church was people -- people of all faiths -- staff, volunteers, residents and their families, who reached out to guide us through the ups and downs of community life. We were inspired by countless ministers -- and they were people whose name tags identified them as therapists, dietary staff, nursing assistants, activity leaders and housekeepers. We could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit, alive and joyous and hope-filled, even in a place where disability and death took their toll.
I can think of no better example of ekklesia than this: Each night at bedtime, two Ethiopian nursing assistants sang my dad to sleep. With broad smiles on all their faces, these immigrants to a foreign land proclaimed, "Oh, the Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord, for giving me the things I need: the sun and the rain and the appleseed. The Lord is good to me."
Before his stroke, my dad had been a robust songleader. He knew hundreds of hymns by heart, and the "Johnny Appleseed Grace" was OK, but it had not been in his top 10. After the stroke, somehow the song became Dad's theme song, and two men from northern Africa helped him sing it with gusto. How, indeed, can we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land? Only with the help of the community.
That song helped me leave the nursing home each night. It was never easy to leave, for life becomes very precious once you've admitted a loved one to the nursing home; but I knew it was possible to leave Dad, for God had introduced me to a new church family and I knew that family would care for him with as much compassion as any daughter could want.
The song also helped me recognize the goodness that God provided, even in a dreaded nursing home admission. I didn't want my dad to be there, but once he and I were there, God began planting the "seeds" we needed: understanding social workers, nurses who could cajole him into taking the next med, creative physical therapists and activity staff who delighted us with their shenanigans. Oh, how we thrived on the shenanigans.
Day in and day out, God provided a community of faith for my dad and me. They changed our lives for the better. At the end of that tough summer, chaplaincy was no longer just a class requirement for me. It had become a calling. In spite of the pain I had witnessed and endured, I knew I needed to work in an environment where God's spirit was tangibly present, especially when it was time to say goodnight.
And when after three years, my dad's earthly life came to an end, the care center staff was there to help me say one last goodnight. They sang for me, and they helped my dad die with a song on his lips.
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