Things Not Seen

August 10, 2009

Last October, my mother had a serious stroke. Before the stroke she read two novels a week, followed sports on television, and regularly beat everyone in her apartment complex at bridge. Now she can do none of these things. She is wheelchair-bound in full-time nursing care with short-term memory loss, confusion, and a condition called “left-side neglect.” Basically, she is unable to process sensory information coming from the left side of her body—which makes her feel like her left arm and leg belong to someone else, and renders her effectively blind in the left visual field of both eyes. Her long-term memory, speech, and personality are largely intact, but the loss is still catastrophic and permanent. Needless to say, I am grieving.

Patients with left-side neglect are often unaware of what they are missing—their brains create a fiction that they are still seeing and perceiving normally. Shown the word “locomotion”, my mother will read “motion”—not realizing she has failed to see half the word. And she is startled when I approach her from the left and touch her arm—as though I have materialized suddenly out of thin air.

If I have learned anything from her experience, it is how completely we are limited by what our minds can perceive—which may be only the tiniest fraction of the reality that surrounds us. Suddenly the words of scripture—”Faith is the assurance of things not seen.” and “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run the race that is set before us” —take on new meaning. We may be literally surrounded by a spiritual world that we simply cannot perceive—for we all surely suffer from “spiritual neglect.”

There’s a lot that remains unseen right now. As a result of the economic downturn, after 29 busy years and a summer of frantic activity, we look forward to a calendar with almost no out-of-town bookings after August. We still have plenty of outreach work to do, but we rely on those paid bookings for our financial survival. What am I missing, Lord?

One gift my mother has retained: she remembers all the hymns she ever knew and sings along with CD’s of church music with more abandon than she would have before the stroke. “The songs are a great comfort,” she’s told me more than once.  When we get to the last verse of “How Great Thou Art”—”When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation, and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.”—I see that comfort in her face. The words and music are an anchor tying this world to the next; a rock to cling to in a sea of confusion.

Despite everything, my mother is still running the race that is set before her. I pray I might do half as well facing an unseen future—both now and when I approach the finish line one day.