I am a leaver.
This is the thunderclap of self-honesty I hear one Sunday morning in church. I am sitting midway back in the green carpeted sanctuary, next to my mother. Her husband of twenty-eight years has been dead for three days. I am home to move my mother out of the apartment they shared—and closer to us.
On this Sunday morning, I am sixteen again, and this is the church of my childhood. The heavy brass offering plates. The baggy suits. The upholstered pews and the slight Southern drawl of the preacher whose Jesus drums a steady beat during his three-point alliterated sermon. At forty-eight, I am comforted in all that’s unchanged, even if I have long chosen a degree of estrangement from it. The offertory solo. The stout-legged communion table. The organ wheezing stanzas of “Just as I Am” before the service ends. By virtue of habit, I bow my head and pray for sinners to come home.
Thirty years later, it is I who have come home, my mother who is a danger of leaving. This is the admission I sign when I complete paperwork for her application to live in an assisted living community ten minutes from the house so new to us I haven’t yet learned to work its light switches. I don’t explain to my mother what danger of elopement means when I sit her down at the wobbly card table in the center of my dining room. She just takes the pen from me and scrawls her signature diagonally through the line beside which I point. “Here, Mom, here.” Her handwriting fails too.
But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead. Until the recent diagnosis of my mother’s dementia, I would have found no oddity in the command to forget. If there is something I have pursued most of my adult life, it has been forgetting. I left before understanding the reasons I had for leaving: before the sudden deaths of my father and brother, before the rising anger against my own mother for sins real and imagined. Eleven years ago, my husband and I chose to move our family to Toronto: which is to say, far away. For the first eighteen months of the Covid-19 pandemic, the closed international border between me and my mother guaranteed the distance I never minded. Liked, in fact. In my experience, at least, absence does not always grow fondness. Sometimes it’s just a convenient way to forget.
But I’m home again—if home is really the right word for it. When we visited my mother and stepfather, a man suffering the ravages of Parkinson’s, in the fall of 2021, we faced the inescapable admission of my mother’s decline. And though I wished for other answers, there was no other way to consider how I might carry the responsibilities I owed to my mother except to sell our Toronto house and repatriate ourselves. A year later, we left—or returned, depending on how the story is told. This is to say I’ve given up on figuring out direction.
I wake up now in the early hours of dark, climb down the creaky stairs of our new (old) house, and wonder where I am, how I got here. On the one hand, my husband and I had wrestled with the clear wisdom of the scriptures to honor our parents. Do not despise your mother when she is old! May she who gave you birth be happy! What a pleasure to have children who are wise! We took into our hands the formidable agency given by God to the people who bear his creative likeness. We muddled through life’s alternatives and put our feet down, however uncertainly, on the paths perceived as righteousness. We left. But to suggest we chose our new life—pursued it—ignores that it feels as if we have been caught up in a terrifying wind, set down violently like Dorothy’s house in the middle of a strange land.
The truth is I am often afraid of my choosing, afraid of my capacity for getting it wrong. As the wisdom literature of the Bible teaches us, our trust in the good and wise providence of God does not relieve us of responsibility. We must still learn, study, discern, and decide. We aren’t spared the burden of choosing. Instead, we are taught to seek the character required for those daily acts of decision, however small or consequential. And the good news is of course that no matter how wonderful (or foolhardy) our plans might be, they do not constrain the purposes of God. Proverbs tells us, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps,” and, “A man’s steps are from the LORD; how then can man understand his way?” Ours is a two-step life, at once planned and received, pursued and established. God is never abandoning us.
I need to know this on the morning I drive my mother to the extensive cognitive assessment I’ve scheduled months ago. She is nervous, and I am too. Three hours later, the dementia diagnosis is confirmed to me by a kind and gentle doctor whose praises my mother can’t stop singing the rest of the day. “He was just so good at explaining things!” she says to me. She was not in the room when he gave me a realistic prognosis and explained to me the dying process for someone with Alzheimer’s. “She will sleep more and eat less.” I don’t start to cry until he—a fellow believer—reassures me God is in control.
I am home now, which is to say I am here for the duration of time that remains for my mother. Maybe I am not a leaver after all. At least I know this much, that the God who pilgrimed with Israel is with me on this way. He has gone before, sought out the place for us to pitch this tent of mortal life. Today, it is no longer Toronto. Instead, it is a rambling Cincinnati Tudor surrounded by tall trees, a house just ten minutes from my mother’s new apartment. The apartment where she will live and die.
On our way home from the doctor, my mother provides cheerful commentary on the places we pass. Nearing home, she recognizes the steep curve of our street and reads aloud the street sign. “That sounds familiar!” she chirps.
And it does. It does.
Cover image by Nik.