My friend R- said, “Before long I won’t remember who you are. I won’t really remember who I am.”
For over forty years I’ve called R- to catch up and stay connected. Who he is has shaped the course of my life.
He was a gifted teacher, dedicated to nurturing not only his students’ minds but also our souls. I was drawn to—and I try to emulate—his kindness and down-to-earth graciousness. He possessed a contagious faith that expressed itself in laughter, humility, and a lively curiosity about life’s deep, abiding questions.
R-‘s singular gift was to pass on that curiosity. Instead of giving us answers, he taught us to be stretched by the questions. To be swept up by the wonder of our very existence.
An infinite mystery lies at the heart of all things. Not only are there things that we do not yet know. There is the unknowable. Our finite minds cannot fully grasp it. We embrace that mystery by opening ourselves to it.
About a year ago R- told me that his doctor had diagnosed him with middle stage Alzheimer’s. In a matter of months he would probably descend into that cruel disease’s late stage. When I called a few weeks later, R- shared this story with me again as if for the first time.
Later he told me, “Before long I won’t remember who you are. I won’t really remember who I am.” His tone conveyed neither self-pity nor bitterness. Neither resignation nor hopelessness. He spoke those words tenderly, as if from a place of peace he was softening the blow for me.
That was so R-. He cared about the impact that this news would have on me. But he was doing something more. Something also very much in keeping with R-. He recognized a teachable moment.
He saw that his disease—a disease bent on the most ruthless kind of identity theft—gave a new poignance to, and opened a new perspective on, one of life’s enduring questions:
Who do I say that I am?
You see, R’s thinking had been shaped by existentialists like Soren Kierkegaard, Albert Camus, and Jean Paul Sartre. They believed that a meaningful life involves being true to yourself.
To be true to yourself, you have to know who you are. Each time we confront dilemmas or challenges, struggle with disappointments or navigate heartache, we will either be true to ourselves or betray ourselves in what we do and how we do it.
Since R- and I are both Christians, we share a common framework. You may not be a Christian, but I hope you’ll hang in there with what I’m about to say. Not because I’m trying to convince you to take up my faith tradition, but because I think that there’s something in it that stretches across a range of spiritual expressions.
What R- was inviting me to consider is this. Even as R- loses sight of who he is, I will remember. Sure, I’ve never known him exhaustively. Much of who he is remains a mystery to me. But my love for him as him helps him to continue to be him.
I’m reminded of a question that Jesus once asked his friends. “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29) As I hear it, Jesus was not giving his followers an orthodoxy litmus test.
He was telling them something like this. “If you can see that I am the one who loves you no matter what, you’re going to get a sense of who you truly are: the Beloved.”
When we remember that we are the Beloved, we respond to the world in love. And this is the crucial bit. We all forget. At one time or another. We forget that we are the Beloved.
And so we we need each other. Our love for each other reminds us who we really are. The Beloved. But more than that. Sometimes we need the love of others to carry us until somehow, by grace, we come back to ourselves at last.
Alzheimer’s runs in my family. I have pondered my response if it were to get this disease. My mother and I have talked about it – she reluctantly, me with my incessant desire to talk a problem to death.. Literally. Talk until the problem has sorted itself out in my mind and with others. She fears the disease, I am facing it with equanimity, I think because in the course of dealing with my chronic illness I came to understand that, for me, it isn’t me or my abilities or actions that make me who I am – it is how God sees me that makes me who I am. As I conform to the potters hands I become the most authentic me, I am, become and will be, the Beloved. So even if I don’t know myself, even if no one else knows me, I am known by the great I AM. And that is, and will be, enough.
Thank you for sharing about your friend R. My heart goes out. You’re right we all need to know there is someone who loves us. To know we are Beloved.
The title startled me because I once knew a girl named “R”. She needed to know someone loved her – unconditionally. If you’d like you can read my friend “R”’s story. It’s sad but poignant. A reminder that love by itself doesn’t always heal all of us. It requires love in action, perseverance and never giving up. (Read about my R here https://missionlog.wordpress.com/2009/09/15/a-girl-named-r/ )
Thanks for sharing the link, her story is a powerful lesson. “In effect, most people would write her off as the author of her own condition.” Sadly I know this would be true. Her testimony that you saved her life says so much though! This is a story I’ll remember.
Thank you for sharing the link to R’s moving, heartbreaking story. And thank you for the love you’ve embodied in this work. You are so right, for love to heal it has to be love in action.
Thank you, Jake! My dad is slipping down the dementia path… I needed your words of encouragement and love… thank you!
Michael I’m sorry to hear about your dad. Bless you friend. And prayers for him and you.
Thank you, Jake, that means so much to me
A “contagious faith” and a “lively curiosity”. How wonderful! As I ‘reset’, these can be new goals for me to strive for. Thanks Jake.
More in email!
“ But my love for him as him helps him to continue to be him.“
I have always had such a high need to be accepted, to be valued, to be loved – when I sense that I am, life is good if it is missing I am lost
I have this fear that we need dogs for this very reason. Do we allow dogs to provide this deeply human need instead of sharing it in the human sense? Wouldn’t it be ideal if we all loved like dogs do?
My “R” left me two years ago in August he lost a battle with depression. Despite everything I did, everything his wife did and everything counsellors and medical staff did he could not find his way to Peace.
As I write this I realize I am saying that Love provides Peace and thereby ultimate Peace (that passes all understanding) comes from God, the Father. God is Love and Love is Peace
Thanks again for allowing me to bumble along to a place of clarity
(Myself and my “R” would spend much time delving into life questions and philosophical musings and yes theological mysteries)
Thank you for sharing this tender story, Colin. And you are so right. Love provides peace. BTW, if you were to read my daily writing you would see that I too work my way toward clarity. Anything I publish arises from lots of what you call bumbling. It seems to me that there’s a contemplative element to it.
Hi Jake! This is so beautiful! I thank you for this insight and very gentle and loving response to Alzheimers. Reminding me that we all are the beloved is such a gift.
I am finding so many whose lives have been touched by dementia in one form or another. Would you consider allowing this article to be shared in our church newsletter? I will be fine with either yes or no. Of course, I hope the answer is yes because your words are gentle and they are balm. Gratefully, Sue Ray Episcopal Diocese of Northern MI
Hi Sue! Thanks for your kind words. And please feel free to use this piece. I hope it will be a help and a comfort.