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By Brian Keepers

When I enter the hospital room, she is sitting up in the recliner beside the bed. Her husband is on the bench next to her, in front of the large picture window. Her eyes dart back and forth, looking at me, then her husband, then back at me. They are wide, a mixture of fear and longing, searching to know my face.

Her husband leans over and takes her hand. “It’s Pastor Brian,” he says loudly but gently. “He’s come to see us.” She looks at her husband, then back at me again. Eyes still wide, she smiles. Does she smile because she recognizes me, or out of instinct? Regardless, it’s a beautiful smile. I love her smile every time I see it.

She tries to speak, but her words come out garbled, incoherent. “That’s right, Nelva,” her husband says to her, still holding her hand and leaning in. “Pastor Brian wants to read some Scripture and pray with us. Isn’t that nice of him to stop by?”

I watch him with her. I watch his tenderness, his patience, the living out in real time vows made sixty-four years ago when they stood at the altar and said, “I do,” staring out into the darkness of a future unknown.

He looks at me and smiles, a smile to mask his own sorrow, but I see it in his eyes. The eyes can’t lie. We talk for a while about how he’s holding up. It’s been five years now since the dementia became obvious, her memory slowly fading like smudges on a window and the forgetting and confusion settling in like a dense fog. Her memory had deteriorated now to the point that she isn’t able to form words, and she has spent most her days in a state of confusion. Being in a strange hospital room only makes it worse.

We would learn a few days later that her mind was shutting down, and the end was near. As I sit there with him, her hand still laced in his, I think about her many beautiful qualities, and how she will be remembered for the way she collected the stories of every single Tulip Festival in Orange City—seventy-five of them total. She was the Tulip Festival Archivist, creating scrap books for the community that captured and held the unique story of each of those festivals for the collective memory of our town. The cruel irony hits me that this dear woman, who helped the town re-member (hold together all the pieces of the past festivals), now having lost her own capacity to remember.

Memory loss, the journey of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, is among the most difficult journeys for individuals and their loved ones to make. As many as one in seven adults over the age of seventy-one suffers from Alzheimer’s or some kind of dementia. My only surviving grandmother is one of these, and I’ve talked with my mom multiple times about both the heartache and the grace of caring for her on this journey.

On this Memorial Day, I find myself thinking about memory. And stories. And how stories are not just what we remember, but in the act of remembering stories we, as individuals and a community, are ourselves re-membered, the fractured pieces put together.

How many times does the Bible (the Old Testament especially) call us as the people of God to remember? To remember God’s mighty acts of faithfulness? (See Deut. 7:17-19 as one of many examples). God is constantly calling Israel to remember the Lord their God and his commandments, lest they forget who they are and give their hearts to idols.

But what happens when one’s memory fades? When the stories of the past slip through our fingers like sand?

The call to remember God and his faithfulness was never intended to be the sole task of an individual mind; it has always been the shared task of the community. “Remembering is a social act,” insists Dr. Benjamin Mast in his excellent book Second Forgetting: Remembering the Power of the Gospel During Alzheimer’s Disease (Zondervan, 2014). We remember for each other. True remembering can only happen in community, as Christ in the Spirit takes our memories and locates them in the larger story of the triune God.

But as important as our call to remember is, what is even more important is the assurance that God remembers. God does not forget. God does not forsake or abandon us. Although we forget God, God remembers his covenant. “We’re not saved by our own memory;” writes pastor Scotty Smith, “we are saved by the God who remembers us, by the memory of a great God of grace and mercy.”

We had Nelva’s funeral on Friday–a little over a week after I went to see her in the hospital. Things deteriorated fast, which was painful and also a gift. And now I think I understand on a deeper level what we are doing when we gather for a funeral, in the hope of Christ’s resurrection. We are remembering. Remembering for the one we loved and lost, yes; but also remembering for each other. And we are being re-membered, each of us in our beauty and brokenness, fragmented pieces stitched up and put together in the Remembering God and Savior who holds all things together and promises to make all things new.

Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.

Brian Keepers

Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.

6 Comments

  • Pastor Brian- the years flowed freely as i trad this- 22 years ago i was hospitalized 3 weeks- and Nelva sent me encouraging letters. I will airways Remember those pretty eyes and Beautiful smile. I loved
    How don patiëntelu-lovingly held her hand as they walked around OC. The tears come easily bc we are in the midst of this with my own mom. We have to find her a new home bc her current assisted living is not equippes for how far she has progressed.

    Thank you Don for showing me how to love her!!
    Linda Oertel
    E

  • Matt Huisman says:

    I’ve always thought that “noticing the good” was one of the most important roles of a pastor/leader. But I like this “remembering” better.

    I’m wondering now – is sin a product of forgetting OR remembering and rebelling OR both? When our bodies fail us at the end – are they worn/tired OR do they rebel OR both?

  • Duane says:

    Brian, Thanks for sharing….. Hits close to home…. Shalom,

  • B. Hubers-Drake says:

    Thank you for sharing this remembrance about Nelva. It made me cry as Nelva and Don are two of the many happy memories I have of growing up in Orange City.

  • James Schaap says:

    Very moving, Brian. Thanks. It’s time to take that little trip out west and do some of what you’re advocating. . .

  • Terry DeYoung says:

    Thank you for this beautiful, pastoral reflection, Brian. What you describe about Nelva reflects much of what John Swinton develops so thoughtfully and theologically in “Dementia: Living in the Memories of God” (Eerdmans, 2012). Even if our memory fades, and even if we forget God, God never forgets us.
    “Devastating as dementia obviously is,” Swinton says in his introduction, “the human beings experiencing it do not dissolve. They are certainly changed, and there is much suffering and cause for lament. But these people remain tightly held in the memories of God.”
    Thank you for your pastoral demonstration that the church is uniquely positioned to offer hospitality to those who are becoming strangers to themselves and others—to offer and embody God’s unconditional welcome both to sufferers and caregivers of people living with dementia.

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