Staying Afloat in a Sinking Boat

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I wanted to fix the problem, but all I could do was pray their boat would stay afloat, that it wouldn’t sink with the weight of the burden it was now carrying.

I remember one summer before the diagnosis.

Tom and I pulled into the peaceful bay and waved when we spotted my parents’ boat. While dropping our lines, I noticed Dad scrambling around and realized something was wrong.

From his knees in the front of the boat, he shouted, “We’re taking on water!” Mom gestured to show that several inches of water had already filled the bottom. After a few tense minutes, Dad yelled, “I lost my boat plug!”

 We’ve faced many unexpected events during our vacations at the lake, but this was a first.

***

Fast-forward 15 months. At the psychologist’s office, my parents, my sisters, and I all filed into the conference room. The doctor took a seat at the head of the table and, looking over his glasses, shared the results of Mom’s testing.

“The MRI shows areas of shrinkage of the brain, and testing indicates cognitive decline consistent with a degenerative disease. Her short-term memory loss ...” The doctor kept talking, but he didn’t need to. I knew exactly what he would say.

Mom had Alzheimer’s.

***

As Mom loses her memory, I search mine. I want to preserve the images of her I’ve always held there.

I can picture Mom cooking dinner for a family of seven and cleaning up the kitchen late into the night without complaint. I see her jotting a note on the wall calendar in her meticulous habit of making sure we are all where we need to be when we need to be there. Practices, swim meets, basketball games, band concerts, and plays—she gets us there and cheers us on. And when I’m sick, she feeds me chicken noodle soup, takes me to the doctor, and makes me finish every drop of pink penicillin.

I recall standing next to Mom in church as she belted out the opening hymn: “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation! O my soul, praise him, for he is my help and salvation!” Her strong alto voice comes through as she leans toward me so I can learn to sing harmony too. I squirm through the sermon and the long prayer, looking forward to the doxology when I can sing with her again: “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow!”

The memories bring me solace for a time. But Mom’s skills are descending, much as their boat did on the lake that summer day.

***

The wind picked up and the water climbed higher up the sides of the boat. Dad started up his engine and moved toward the dock at a nearby resort. We followed closely behind, me gripping my seat cushion.

After docking the boat, Dad raced to the boathouse and came hustling back with an old plug the boathands had scrounged up. We held our breath as he tried it. It didn’t fit.

“Now what are we going to do?” Mom’s eyes darted from Dad to me. I wondered the same thing.

Dad thought for a minute, watching the water rise again on the floor of the boat.

“When we went forward, the water drained out the back.” Dad took his seat behind the wheel. “But now that we’ve stopped, it’s refilling. If we keep moving, I think we can make it to the marina. They should have a plug.” He started up his engine.

“We’re following them,” I directed Tom. I couldn’t let my parents cross the lake with a hole in their vessel. I hadn’t a clue what I’d do if their boat sank, but I knew I couldn’t let them go down with it.

Tom hollered over to Dad, “We’ve got your back!”

I gazed upward. “Please, Lord, just get them safely to the other side.”

***

It’s been nearly four years since that meeting with the doctor. Four years of gradual decline in Mom’s cognitive abilities. Four years of slowly losing the mom I remember.

I try to visit at least once a month. I bring ingredients for a pot of soup. Cooking has become difficult, so we bring meals and have hired a home helper.

Under stacks of unopened mail and church bulletins, I find their calendar. There are sparse marks for doctor, dentist, and hair salon visits. I match their scribbles to the joint electronic calendar my siblings and I share to track their appointments.

Each month I fill Mom’s MedMinder. She calls me “Nurse Linda” as I call in prescription refills, consult with doctors, and file insurance claims.

Changes keep coming like waves on the shore, and I can’t stop them. As Mom’s disease progresses, we have no choice but to move along with it.

***

As we left the dock, the story of Jesus and his disciples in the boat came to mind (Matt. 8:23-27). When a storm came up, “the disciples went and woke him, saying, ‘Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!’” Jesus rebuked the wind and the waves and calmed the storm.

I don’t know what Jesus would have done if the disciples’ boat had sprung a leak, but I felt his presence that day on the lake as Dad realized they needed to keep moving. Staying put and waiting for a miracle to happen would not keep them afloat.

We followed as they made their way across the lake. The boat was dragging, its sterncutting heavily into the water. I wanted to fix the problem, but all I could do was pray their boat would stay afloat, that it wouldn’t sink with the weight of the burden it was now carrying. Again, Jesus’ words to his disciples came to mind, reassuring me: “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (Mark 4:40).

Mom and Dad moved forward, taking each wave in stride as it splashed against the boat. As they approached the marina, a gentle wind blew them into the harbor. I knew they’d get just what they needed now, and I offered up a prayer of thanks.

***

The Mom I grew up with continues to fade and drift away. Losing her is painful. Watching my parents struggle is hard. And yet Mom continues to exude joy and contentment at every turn. I sense my parents’ trust in the one who hears our cries for help.

On a recent visit I had the chance to attend church with them. Standing next to Mom, I noticed her now-shaky alto voice on the old familiar hymns. I listened to the sermon but sensed her fleeting attention as she fidgeted next to me. After the congregational prayer, we stood to sing another song, a more contemporary tune less familiar to Mom: “Your mercy flows upon us like a river. Your mercy stands unshakable and true. Most Holy God, of all good things the giver, we turn and lift our fervent prayer to you” (Your Mercy Flows, by Wes Sutton, 1988).

Mom tried to sing harmony but couldn’t. She was even struggling with the melody and was considerably off key, hitting all the wrong notes.

She was joyfully oblivious, but I was painfully aware. Remembering her example, I leaned in and sang a little louder:

“Hear our cry, oh Lord; be merciful once more!”

About the Author

Linda L. Hanstra writes about faith, empty-nesting, and other topics at lindahanstra.com. She works as a Speech-Language Pathologist in Edwardsburg, Mich. She and her husband, Tom, attend Church of the Savior CRC in South Bend, Ind.

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