by Sue Fulmore

Like the empty shell one finds on the beach; the living organism that once inhabited its form is no longer seen, only the empty casing. So it is with Dorothy, her body is holding up but the person she once was is slipping away. Dementia has, bit by bit stolen the person we love.

Last week we packed up my mother-in-law’s tiny apartment to prepare her for the move to long-term care.  All her 93 years have come down to 3 boxes of clothing, personal hygiene items, and a walker.

Looking at this tiny stack of boxes, makes me pause.  It becomes clear to me how distracted I have been in accumulating and building a comfortable life for myself and my family.  All the stuff contained in my home is not what matters.

I think of Dorothy’s life and how little she has to show for it, but this is not the full story.

Her legacy is not contained in those boxes, but in the hearts of those who felt her care, who experienced her whole-hearted hospitality, and who were seen and loved for who they were.

“The Fastest Checker in the West”, was her long-ago nickname while a cashier at the grocery store.  She knew the names of many of her customers, the number of kids they had, and what illnesses they may have been struggling with.  She was a friendly welcoming sort, like the puppy wagging its tail, happy to see people and eager to connect. Never had she spoken an unkind word about anyone, she was always generous and kind. 

The first time I met Dorothy while dating her son (now my husband), she epitomized hospitality.  There was no sense of being on trial, rather I was immediately accepted and made part of the family.  She took it upon herself to mother me as she did her own offspring.  Her characteristic Ukrainian/Polish tendency to “feed up” her family members now included me. I was treated to plates overflowing with the abundance of her cooking, an expression of her generous nature.  I saw and experienced that her large heart had room for everyone.

As a grandmother, she was doting, indulgent, adoring and protective. While out for a walk with her baby granddaughter years ago, she snatched a bee out of the air as it flew threateningly close to our baby’s head, squished it in her hand and threw it away without blinking an eye.   She was always ready and willing to read stories, have picnics, and visit the playground with her two cherished granddaughters. She would lay out a blanket on the floor so the girls could have a picnic lunch in the middle of winter. There was a secret room built under the stairs just so they could have their own space when they visited Grandma’s house.

All of these interactions and memories of Dorothy’s generous nature accumulated over the years, resulting an expansive legacy, that goes way beyond her meager material possessions. Her heart became a home for those seeking love and acceptance and a shelter.

Even though, today, Dorothy does not recognize us, her family, or have anything much to contribute to a conversation, I am still learning from her – profound lessons about love and home. She has been one of those people who contributed to my understanding of home.  It was never the place, but “it was wherever the people who loved you were, whenever you were together. Not a place, but a moment, and then another, building on each other like bricks to create a solid shelter that you take with you for your entire life, wherever you may go”[i] Even as she approaches the end of her life the sense of home she created remains.

 As we see a life coming to an end it can serve as a reminder of our own mortality, which can, ironically, be life-giving. It can make our lives more vital, if we are listening, we become more present and conscious of all that is happening right now. We begin to notice, to wake up to all we may have been taking for granted. As the sun is setting on a life it can serve as a reminder to live for the things that matter most.  Our prayer might be, “Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom” (Ps. 90:12)

[i] Sarah Dessen, What Happened to Goodbye

This piece was first shared here.

Cover photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash