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To see the face of God

Scott Boyle | Wednesday, August 29, 2012

I’ve had “career angst” since I was little. While other children had dreams of becoming astronauts, teachers or firefighters, I was torn between three career paths: 1) Running a bowling alley, 2) mowing lawns or 3) manning the check out aisle at the local IGA. In spite of all this, there is one thing I have always wanted – to be more like my mom.
About eight years ago, my mom’s dad (my grandpa), died of Alzheimer’s. He was one of the most influential men in her life, a man who sacrificed his life for her dreams of college and law school. It was painful to watch my mom slowly lose one of the people she loved most. His mind, which once handled numbers and names with nimbleness and ease, slowly lost awareness of the family and the world he loved.
The disease was certainly not kind to him. It reared its ugly fangs for many years. So long, in fact, that I began to become very familiar with the commute between our hometown in Cincinnati to the nursing home in Dayton, where my grandpa was to spend the last years of his life.
We would often visit Grandpa around meal times. And, save for the slow movements of fork and knife and the occasional clinking of glass, the Alzheimer’s wing in which he lived was mostly silent. Staff shuffled around from place to place, attending to residents who needed help. Most residents, however, sat quietly and ate by themselves.
All this said, I doubt many people would say nursing homes are places of beauty. But, it hit me recently that these trips to visit my grandpa might be the closest I have ever come in my life to experiencing God, to understanding the mystery of the One who is unconditional love.
And it was my mom who helped me see it. You see, during these visits, my mom never left my grandpa’s side. Although he never responded, she would talk to him and help him eat. And if the weather was nice, she would bundle him up and take him on walks around the building’s paths.
But the most beautiful moments came when Mom would just hold Grandpa’s hand. Alexander Schmemann captures what I saw in these moments with words more eloquent than mine, “In silence: all words had been said, all passion exhausted, all storms at peace. The whole life was behind – yet all of it was now present, in this silence, in this light, in this warmth, in this silent unity of hands.”
I can only imagine the day of my mom’s birth, the day when my grandpa first looked and held her hands. Love must have burst forth from his heart, even though she could not respond or say his name. And now, in these moments, in this unity of hands, it was happening again. This time, however, it was my mom’s turn. Although it was Grandpa who now couldn’t respond, no words were necessary to express the love that burst from his daughter’s heart.
Vincent Van Gogh once wrote, “Love is something eternal – the aspect may change, but not the essence.” Alzheimer’s could not alter the essence of love present in the relationship between my mom and my grandpa. Grandpa was always “Dad” to my mom. That is something no disease could ever touch.
These experiences were poignant reminders to me that, in a similar way, nothing can alter the fact we are beloved sons and daughters of a different father, a Heavenly Father. Although we can never understand completely or respond adequately to this beautiful gift, we can, bit by bit, try to live into its truth. And we must know, no matter how much we forget or remain obstinate and silent before Him, that God always gazes on us with affection. It’s what a loving father does for his children, and it’s something we can give back to Him.
It’s what my grandpa did for my mom, and it was something she was finally able to give back. My mom is a reminder to me that we have to choose love, even when it’s hard, and even when we may not get anything in return. It’s one of the most powerful things we can do because, when we love unconditionally and without any expectation of return, we have the opportunity, as Victor Hugo once wrote, “to see the face of God.” So, this year, I am making a commitment to remembering that each time I have the opportunity to love a family member, a roommate, a stranger or a friend, I have an opportunity to experience now what awaits us in Heaven – the loving face of God.
Thanks, Mom, for modeling and showing me the way.
Scott Boyle is a graduate of Notre Dame and intern in the Office of Campus Ministry. He can be reached at sboyle2@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.