1I will lift up my eyes to the mountains;
From where shall my help come?
2My help comes from the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth.
3He will not allow your foot to slip;
He who keeps you will not slumber.
4Behold, He who keeps Israel
Will neither slumber nor sleep.
5The LORD is your keeper;
The LORD is your shade on your right hand.
6The sun will not smite you by day,
Nor the moon by night.
7The LORD will protect you from all evil;
He will keep your soul.
8The LORD will guard your going out and your coming in
From this time forth and forever.
I’ve had a lot going on lately. Specifically, had a crazy couple of weeks back in the middle of September. On September 14th, I received a call from my mother. She and my father had just returned from an appointment with my father’s neurologist.
Back in the early spring, my 63 year old father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. This was a hefty blow to the former Marine Master Sgt., and a Teamster who made his living carrying refrigerators around. It was also a mighty blow to the three women of his life: his wife of 41 years and his two grown daughters. Visions of watching this strong, proud man who had worked so hard, so well, his whole life—beginning at the age of 12—physically weaken and deteriorate before our eyes began creeping in from the deep, dark corners of our minds.
This was not how it was supposed to be. We had all grown convinced of an entirely different scenario for his death. His own father, along with his father’s brother, had died of sudden heart attacks at the tender age of 42. Their sister also had her first heart attack at 42, however it wasn’t until suffering her second at 54 that she joined her brothers in early death. Losing his father when he was twelve and a most beloved uncle when he was 16 left my father with an immense appreciation for life. He never took a moment for granted, and began counting every year past age 42 as an especially precious gift.
The other side of that coin was that, as a family, we all assumed that my father, like his father before him, would be cut down swiftly and in the prime of his life. That image, that fear, truly was a driving force in our life.
But. But then came the diagnosis in the spring: Parkinson’s. And our vision of my father being struck down suddenly, in all of his strength, were replaced with shadows of deterioration and longterm care. Devastating. And certainly bad enough.
Now. Back to September 14th. . . . During this, my father’s second visit with the neurologist, issues beyond my father’s tremors were raised. Behavioral changes, cognitive changes—changes we had attributed to something else—changes observable to the neurologist, put something new on his radar screen: dementia. Specifically, Lewy Body dementia.
Suddenly our vision for my father’s last years shifted yet again. Instead of a strong body failing and deteriorating, we now imagine my father’s mind failing, growing incapable of speech, of even recognizing me or my sister or the woman he’s loved since he was 17 or even his 5 grandchildren.
The thing is, I don’t have to work very hard to imagine the realities of dementia. My 64 year old father-in-law is in the later stages of his own bout with dementia. Diagnosed nearly seven years ago with a form of dementia called Frontotemporal Dementia (or FTD)–go ahead, do the math . . . that’s right, he was 57 when he was diagnosed—the dementia’s effects on him are profound. And heartbreaking.
When I heard of my father’s possible diagnosis of dementia, Ry and I were actually waiting to hear details on his step-mother’s trip to visit her brother on the other side of the country. Feeling a deep need to visit her ailing brother, my step-mother-in-law reluctantly asked if we could go and care for my father-in-law while she left town for 5 days. We were happy to oblige. Our plans were confirmed midweek: we would leave Sunday to spend the week with my father-in-law.
Ry and I slogged through that week: spending extra time with my mother and sister—all of us reeling from my father’s new diagnosis—making arrangements with the school to get work for my 2nd grader to do while we were out of town for a week, both of us preparing sermons for Sunday morning in two different pulpits. Too late to arrange for pulpit supply for Ry, and with me as the pulpit supply at another church, we decided to head south after we all returned home from church on Sunday and packed up the minivan with all our stuff and three kids. We began the 530 mile trip at 3:30 in the afternoon and arrived at my in-law’s at 2:30 in the morning. Ry’s step-mother left home at 10 the next morning, and on two to three hours of sleep for each of us, Ry and I hit the ground running.
Our week consisted of a whole lot of care-taking, lots and lots of dishes, and what seemed to be a continual parade of meals and snacks and drinks. And our week was filled with amazing blessing as we were able to express our love for my father-in-law in real and tangible ways, and watch our children learn by example our family’s expectation for loving one another.
However. I’ll be honest. Our week was exhausting. And our week was overwhelming. And because the days following my own father’s diagnosis were spent in that flurry of activity, I hadn’t time to stop and really think things through, to really process it. Still the news was weighing on me, and somewhere around mid-week, on a morning after both my father-in-law and our youngest had a bad night’s sleep, I hit a wall.
On Wednesday morning, I had a few quiet moments to myself in the only place a mom can have in her own home, provided the room has a room that locks: the shower. In the quiet, I reflected on my week. I had spent the week caring for my father-in-law, loving on him, his face with only glimmers of expression, his brown eyes only occasionally finding my own in any meaningful way, sometimes confused, often simply staring to space. These images of him raced through my mind, but then before I knew what was happening, the images changed. My father-in-law’s brown eyes were replaced by the clear blue eyes of my father, the expressionless face grew broader, fairer. My mind continued down the path of foreseeing. Thoughts of how I would explain to my children how the brain of their other grandfather now has something wrong with it. I wondered if they would begin to consider this brain deterioration as simply the way the world works and then would begin to worry about their own father’s brain or even their own. I began to wonder how my mother with her own health concerns would be able to care for my father and I realized she would need a great deal of help from my sister and me. I started to think about how after seven years it seemed I was finally putting that Master’s of Divinity to work, serving churches, but how would I balance that now? Throughout my thoughts of all the ways my life would be affected by my father’s future, my father’s face, superimposed over my father-in-law’s condition, continued to come in and out of focus before my mind.
My mind was whirling, buzzing, with all of what would be required of my family in the coming years, while at the same time feeling intensely the heart-wrenching burden of my father-in-law’s condition. Aching for him, and for his wife and for my husband. Knowing that the end is in sight, realizing the huge hole that will open up in our lives without him in it. And my heart ached for my father, for the things he’d have to go through before he lost awareness. Truly, this was not all about me.
Whirring, buzzing, spinning, turning, every which way a big, scary mess. Until finally I found myself completely overwhelmed by all that lay ahead.
And it’s at this point that I did the only thing I think anyone in those circumstances would do, can do. I cried out to God. “Lord, how am I going to get through this? How are we all going to get through this?” An image had formed in my head. A mountain. I was staring at this enormous mountain in front of me and somehow, some way, I needed to climb up and over it and pass through to the other side. “How, Lord? How am I going to get over that mountain?!”
It doesn’t happen often. I think because I don’t listen often enough, but I believe the Lord answered me. And he answered me with his very own Word.
“I lift my eyes up to the mountains. Where will my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
To be honest, I heard the verse in the form of the song I know. “I lift my eyes up. Up to the mountains. Where does my help come from? My help comes from you, maker of heaven. Creator of the earth.”
How many times had I sung that song? Countless. Countless many. Many many. With my hands raised and my eyes closed (even though I’m Presbyterian), I had envisioned a vast open space with big mountains, like the rockies—enormous, jagged, imposing mountains. Mountains that demonstrate the power of the One who made them. I envisioned God above those mountains. You know, kind of a Mt. Sinai vision: God, himself, dwelling on a high, rocky mountain. God of power. Beautiful vision, truly. I had sung the song marveling at God’s awesome power to have created such magnificent mountains and to be so beyond the scope of those magnificent mountains, that he dwells above them and beyond them. So to this point this song, this Psalm, was a song that reminded me of God’s strength and power, but in a far off sort of way. God, Big God, way above the mountains, providing help to me. A beautiful image. Truly.
But not the one that came to mind on that day I cried out to him and he answered with this Psalm. Suddenly, I saw things much differently. Suddenly the mountain was not evidence of God’s majesty, of his amazing power of creativity. Suddenly, the mountain was this overwhelming task that was set before me. In my mind I was now at the foot of one of those enormous, imposing Rockies, and my task was to scale it. And I’m no outdoors-woman. But God was assuring me I would make it over to the other side.
When I had a chance to sit down with a Bible and look at the rest of the Psalm, it came into still fuller clarity for me. It does not describe a far-off God providing help from on high. It describes a God who is my climbing partner and then some. “He will not let your foot be moved.” I trip a lot. The image of God holding onto my foot so it doesn’t slip on the graveled terrain? Wow. Suddenly I had a clear image of the ultimate hiking partner. One who would stay right by my side and compensate for any uneven terrain, keeping me on track.
“He who keeps you will not slumber.” You know this is talking about a place where critters come and eat you in the night while you sleep. But God never sleeps, so when you need rest, he keeps things going, he keeps you safe. I was assured that even in the midst of the worst moments to come, there would be time and space for my rest. I cannot keep watch at all times, but when I can’t, the Lord, who never sleeps, will keep it all in his sight and care.
“The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.” Day and night, the Lord will be there, protecting me from the elements, protecting me from the harsh realities of the journey.
“The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.” I will survive this. I will. I will not plummet to my death. I will not be buried in an avalanche or a mudslide. The Lord will keep me.
“The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” The Lord will be here with me through it all. Wherever I go, whatever I do. In this life as well as the one to come.
Praise and thanks be to God for his Word.