A New & Difficult Dance
We’ve been silent for awhile. Thank you for your patience. The following will explain.
On December 24th, 1950, my wife’s father, Kermit Hammond, drove one of the last trucks onto a U.S. Navy ship at the port of Hungnam, North Korea. Moments later, army and navy explosive teams blew up abandoned allied weapons and supplies to keep them out of the hands of the advancing Chinese Communist forces.
He was one of nearly 100,000 allied soldiers – and another 100,000 North Korean refugees – who were a part of what has come to be known as the Korean Dunkirk. In a matter of days, two hundred thousand soldiers and refugees were evacuated to safety. Over the years, Kermit has told us the story of how close he and his comrades came to death at Hungnam.
That was not his only or even closest call. On one occasion he was driving his communications truck in a convoy along a rutted dirt road. The trick, he said, was to stay in the tracks of the vehicle in front of you. If the guy in front of you didn’t hit a land mine, neither would you. Suddenly, the truck behind him blew up, killing every man inside. The trailing vehicle was heavier than Kermit’s by a few hundred pounds setting off the mine his truck had been too light to trigger.
After Korea, Kermit worked at a steel plant in Gadsden, Alabama. His steel plant stories, as you might imagine, were a sight more entertaining than his war stories. They included memorable characters like Moose, Too Tall and Booger. But it was hot, dirty and often dangerous work. Some of his coworkers suffered severe injuries in that plant. Some died there.
Whether serving his country, millwrighting in the steel plant or working his farm, Kermit knew how to handle himself. He was comfortable with hard work, big machines and large animals. If you asked, and if it was within his power, he’d do anything in the world for you. My father-in-law was a man’s man. But time and age catch up with the strongest.
A few weeks after Lisa’s mom passed away, we moved Kermit to a memory care facility in Huntsville. It was a scant two miles from our house so we were able to drop in multiple times a day to check on him. Things were going pretty well until he fell and broke his leg. That resulted in a hospital stay followed by rehab. During that time, it became clear that the best place for him was at home with us. If you have a loved one in an assisted living, memory care or some other facility, please do not draw any judgment from our decision. The needs of each family and each family’s aging member are unique.
So for the last couple of months Lisa, Kermit and I have been learning a new and difficult dance. And the first thing we have learned is that while the music sometimes slows down, it never stops. Kermit has advanced Parkinson’s disease. Everything you do to feed, bathe, cloth and care for yourself has to be done for him. His ability to swallow is so compromised that Lisa blends all of his food or thickens all of his liquids to the consistency of yogurt. She spoons every bite he eats and every drop he drinks into his mouth.
We do not consider our care for him to be a burden. It is, rather, a blessing. But as any caregiver will tell you, the blessing walks hand in hand with a lot of hard work. The hardest work, though, falls to the one receiving the care. Often, when I see Kermit straining to swallow or struggling to make sense of a reality that Parkinson’s related dementia has confused, I remember a story at the end of John’s gospel.
The last scene opens on a note of grace. Jesus’ resurrection has proven that death is not as final as the disciples had feared. He asks Peter the same penetrating question three times. Each time Peter answers, Jesus recommissions him to continue serving in the Kingdom. For those of us whose spiritual resumes include epic failure, this tender scene confers enormous hope.
But the passage also pricks us with a needle of truth. Jesus says to Peter, “I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”
That’s the part that connects with my father-in-law’s story.
When he was young, Kermit was fully in charge of his own life. He dressed himself, went where he wanted to go and did what he wanted to do. Now, nearly every decision is made for him. What he wears. What, when and how much he eats. Which room he occupies. Whether he lies in the bed or sits in a chair. The temperature of the room, the television channel he watches, the time he gets up or goes to bed. Age and disease have taken from him all but the last ounce of autonomy.
But not his dignity. Human dignity is intrinsic. It traces further back than the miracle of man’s creation to the moment when God the Father turned to God the Son and God the Spirit and said, “Let us make man in our image and in our likeness.”
Respect is earned. Dignity is conferred. It derives not from our ability to add value to another’s life but from the image of God in whose likeness we were created. Whether we can plumb the deep mysteries of science or need someone to wipe the spittle from the corners of our mouth, we are possessed of inherent, essential and irrevocable worth.
If I am able to remember anything at all when someone else dresses and leads me, I hope I remember that.