Updated: Feb 29, 2020
My sweet Aunt Velma passed away at the old age of 95 years. She was the best human I have ever known. I loved her so very much and I knew she loved me. Our lives have always been intertwined but especially so the last eight years of her life. I made decisions for her - financial and medical. I was her care-giver. The last two years of her life she just lingered in a nursing home. And I've been really contemplating the why of that.
Why God did she have to linger for so long? What was the purpose in that?
My aunt had never married or had children. She lived in a small house in a small town which was a nine hour drive from where I lived. My mother had died when I was 20 years old and Aunt Velma had stepped in to be a mother figure to me. She and I were especially close.
It was in 2011 I found out Aunt Velma was diagnosed with dementia. The year sort of progressed downhill rather quickly and I had to step up to the plate.
Aunt Velma had always been so strong and independent and it was difficult for her to give up that independence.
Six days before Christmas 2011, my sister and I went to move her to a personal care facility. At first she said "No way! And you can't make me move." (My husband had told me don't let her talk you out of it. Don't come home until you have moved her and know she is safe and sound.) I went to bed that night praying, Please Lord, help me figure out how to handle this. The next morning Aunt Velma came out of her room and asked excitedly when she was moving! Thank you Lord.
Aunt Velma and I have always been able to talk about everything. She was aware of what was happening to her mind and very honest about it. She told me in 2012 she was afraid. Very afraid. She knew her mind didn't work right and she couldn't seem to force it to work. She told me she hoped she would just die suddenly. She wanted to go to sleep one night and not wake up. She said she wasn't afraid of dying. I knew it was because she loved and served the Lord her whole life. She knew she would be with Jesus soon. She looked forward to it. She was afraid of lingering on, unable to think clearly, unable to communicate, unable to take care of herself. And that is exactly what happened.
When the time came to move her from the personal care facility to a nursing home in 2017, she physically and mentally went down hill very fast. It scared her if I tried to take her outside. She was terrified to leave the building. She became mean to the nursing home workers - so very unlike her personality. She didn't want to be around others at the nursing home. She refused to go to any activities and if you tried to take her she would scream. She could no longer walk and had to be taken to the bathroom where she would cry and yell. She had to be fed. She had to be bathed. She had to be dressed. She hated to be touched. She would scream if you tried to put lotion on her. I don't think she knew who I was, but yet she would smile and laugh when I visited. I think even if she wasn't sure who I was, she knew I was someone she loved. She let me hug her. And then she pretty much lost the ability to talk. Some words would come out, but not anything really coherent. That was the worst. I would sit there and talk to her or read the Bible to her. But she really couldn't communicate with me.
I never knew what condition I was going to find her in when I went to visit her. Sometimes she was so out of it. I would get in the car and just cry. And then sometimes she seemed so much better. I thought she had long ago forgotten how to read. And yet about a year and a half before she died I brought her a gift bag and she read the writing on the gift bag. I was shocked! The next to the last time I saw her, they took her to the bathroom and when they brought her out about five minutes later she clearly said, "Where's Carolyn?" I wasn't sure she even knew who I was and here five minutes later she not only remembered I was visiting but she remembered my name! It was as if her mind was mostly checked out, but every now and then it would come back into focus. Physically her body was just giving out. Something as minor as an ingrown toenail would turn into a major infection. Each visit I knew it might be the last one.
Eight. Long. Years. Passed.
What she had hoped for at the very beginning - to die quietly and quickly - didn't happen. She lingered in that nursing home for 2 years and 3 months. And then at 95 years old she fell asleep one night and was gone in the morning.
I had been praying for awhile that God would take her. Probably the entire time she was in the nursing home. And then I would feel guilty for praying that. Please God don't let her suffer anymore. This is not any quality of life. This is not what she wanted. Please take her to be with You. And His answer seemed to be not yet. I know He heard my prayers. So why Lord?
When I finally got the phone call she had passed, I was strangely unprepared. I had been working on getting everything in order for eight years and in the sense of having her funeral planned, her obituary ready, her financials ready - I was prepared. But I wasn't prepared for the immense loss which swept over me. I was heartbroken.
I pondered what possibly could have been the purpose of her hanging on like that for so very long.
I have had glimpses of knowing why God let her linger. I think the main reason was to change me. Aunt Velma was already good to go to heaven. I think God's work in her was done. But He had a lot of lessons to teach me through caring for her.
I came to know Aunt Velma in a way I hadn't before. I came to really know her life. I got to know her friends and people from her church who showered her and me with kindness and service. Many of them became my friends. I relied on their help. I witnessed the church being a church in a genuine way.
Aunt Velma and I had plenty of time to talk during our many visits together over the years. I found out she was Valedictorian of her senior class. That she excelled at business college. That she had been a bridesmaid in seven weddings! (Maybe it was nine weddings.) 'Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.' she would laugh. Stories about my parents. Insights into our family dynamics. Aunt Velma was into genealogy and I learned about my ancestors all the way back to the 1700's when they came to America. That was something she had tried to share with me for years and I had no interest in learning about it until now. I was suddenly fascinated to learn of my heritage. I was able to see the little country church my great-great-great-great grandparents helped build in 1842. And their 1806 log cabin they lived in with their 7 children. All which wouldn't have been possible if I hadn't been making trips to see her.
I learned about Aunt Velma's service to the community. I had known she was involved at her church and that she worked with some mentally handicapped adults, but I had no idea to the extent. Elder, deacon, Sunday School teacher, Clerk of Session, Moderator for the regional Presbyterian Women, mission trips. I found out she visited and worked with a mentally handicapped woman every week for over 20 years! She modeled a servant's heart to me.
I had a front row seat to seeing how she loved others and how very much they loved her. I had truly never witnessed this before. Aunt Velma's parents and siblings and most of her 71 first cousins (whoa!) were gone and yet she was surrounded by people of many generations who loved her. She had spent her life serving others. Loving them as Christ loves them. Being Jesus' hands and feet in this broken world. She had spent time investing in others. Putting their needs ahead of her own needs and wants. It was a model life for me. I found myself wanting what she had... for my life to matter like hers had.
I had to rely on God in those eight years. Things that were frustrating or seemed impossible, I would pray about and I felt Him in the midst of the situation. I felt His comfort and His guidance. My trust grew. My faith grew.
I suspect God used her situation to not only teach me life lessons and impact my life, but to impact others as well.
I believe in the sanctity of life. All life. I believe it is God who gives life and only He should decide when it is time for a person to move on to the next life. I thought she was lingering on. I prayed for it to end. I know I have only caught a glimpse of the purposes of those eight years. But I am certain there was a purpose to all that happened, when it happened, and how it happened.
God's plan for each of our lives is perfect and overflows with purpose.
For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to harvest. A time to kill and a time to heal. A time to tear down and a time to build up. A time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance. A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones. A time to embrace and a time to turn away. A time to search and a time to quit searching. A time to keep and a time to throw away. A time to tear and a time to mend. A time to be quiet and a time to speak. A time to love and a time to hate. A time for war and a time for peace.
Every breath, every moment of Aunt Velma's 95 years had a purpose and I know each and every one was held in His Almighty hand. The experience changed me. In a very good way. I had the privilege of taking care of my sweet aunt for eight years. Thank you Lord. I am reminded He works all things together for good. Nothing is wasted.
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
For the life of every living thing is in his hand, and the breath of every human being.
There is no safer place for any of us to be.