Sundowning

July 26, 2010

During the day, her mother’s confusion was manageable, more or less.
They would wake up, have their tea and toast and walk around the house,
noticing which flowers were waxing and which were waning. After their
mid-morning nap, they would have lunch and then settle into a long game
of cards or—her mother’s favorite—dominoes.

“My mother is fine
all day long,” she’d say to the doctor. “But at night she gets so
agitated, so confused. She sees things that aren’t there. She thinks the
house is being broken into, and when I try to help her, she backs away
from me like I’m a stranger.”

The doctor nodded. “We call that
‘sundowning,’” he said. “When the sun goes down, dementia rises like the
moon.” He suggested some calming pre-bedtime rituals such as warm milk
and soft music, maybe a night light.

“Think about when you were a
child,” he said. “When the light drained out of your room and the
darkness poured in—it can be very disconcerting, very disorienting.”

Psalm
107 is a psalm of lament, a song sung by a disoriented soul watching
the light drain out of the world and the shadows of death and pain pour
in. It is the psalm sung by someone caring for an aging parent, someone
who has been newly diagnosed, someone who is lonely or scared or
suffering. Yet hear how the psalmist begins: “O give thanks to the Lord,
for God is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever.”

At first
glance, it seems harsh and unfeeling to command the daughter whose
mother is evaporating to give thanks to God. But the deep wisdom in
Psalm 107 is this: God is with her. God lives and breathes and moves in
the valley of the shadow of death and dementia, making mugs of warm
milk, playing dominoes and whispering into the darkness, “Let there be
light! Let there be hope and healing! The sun will not go down on my
people!”

As people of faith, this is what we are called to
believe, who we are called to be and what we are called to proclaim. The
psalmist makes this very clear (here in The Message): “Oh, thank God—God is so good! God’s love never runs out. All of you set free by God, tell the world!”

In Mary Oliver’s tender and powerful new collection of poems,
she takes the psalmist’s charge to heart. Even in the valley of the
shadow of grief, even in the very presence of death, her eyes and ears
are open to the grace of God through creation. Meadowlarks, crows,
hummingbirds, sparrows, ducks, red birds and her dog Percy all sing of a
God who is at work in the world. In the poem, “Sometimes,” she sums it
all up with her instruction for living a life: “Pay attention. Be
astonished. Tell about it.”

Additional lectionary columns by Myer Boulton appear in the July 27 issue of the Century—click here to subscribe.

Comments

Anonymous said... A long

Anonymous said...

A long time ago, when I was really struggling with the needs of a special needs child, 3 others kids, and the rest that every day life brings. I asked my spiritual director what to do and how to pray. I couldn't pray any more. He looked at me and told me to say "thank you" and quoted Meister Eckhardt's words: "if the only prayer you say in your life is thank you, that would be enough." I must have given him a look that said something to the effect that "you've got to be kidding" or "I am paying you for this?". I told him I could say, but I couldn't mean it. He told me I didn't have to. In saying "thank you" all we do is dispose ourselves to God working in the chaos of our lives. All I can tell you, is that when I do say thank you, while the outcome doesn't change, I am aware of God's steadfast love and with that, I can weather anything.
Jan K.