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The Years My Mother Vanished: What the Savior Taught Me About Compassion Because of Her Life

At first, I didn’t really understand that she was slowly slipping away. My father had died suddenly just as he was turning 65. He had been the stabilizing influence in our family, and without him, I remember feeling as though I was trying to balance my life on a two-legged stool. In addition, after he died I became aware of how much he had encouraged and supported our mother. He was the one who calmed her when she was anxious or fearful.

Several years after his death, my mother retired from a long career in elementary education and found some comfort in a second marriage to a kind man 10 years her senior. He died after only a year or so of an awkward companionship.

It was then that Mom’s disappearing act gradually accelerated. She was never one to manage the truth of things very well. Indeed, Dad would often say, “Now Ruth, . . . “ followed by a gentle reminder that she needed to track back to reality. But without him, her stories became more and more exaggerated. I remember being more alarmed by her “stretching the truth.” Eventually, it had also vanished.

Then Publisher’s Clearing House started a campaign. Ads advertised that the more subscriptions or purchases someone made the better the chances of winning millions of dollars. The ads seduced her. Her apartment became a hoarder’s dream with stacks of magazines and kitschy gifts of all sorts tucked in corners, under the bed, in the bathroom, on kitchen counters, eventually even in the oven.

She swore she bathed regularly, changed her bed linens, and brushed her teeth. But none of that was true. Like most Alzheimer’s patients, she simply forgot how to do such basic tasks.

She began to wander the streets of downtown Salt Lake City looking like a homeless person.

I clearly remember the day I took her to the doctor who administered a simple cognitive test. She could not remember who was president or what day it was. She could not tell what time it was or how old she was.

I was somehow devastated but not surprised.

My brother and his wife found an assisted living situation that met our needs and budget. At this point, she often didn’t recognize family members and believed people in the dining room were her attackers. She was aggressive and confused much of the time. 

Her care gradually became more comprehensive. We moved her to a more secure part of the center where she could have 24/7 care. One day she fell out of her chair; she was taken to the emergency room. And as her family gathered to consider what should come next, she quietly passed to the next part of eternity.

The Savior’s Model for Honoring the Lost and Lonely

 I can genuinely say that I loved my mother, notwithstanding that I was often embarrassed by her and that, as a teen especially, I wanted her to be more like my friends’ mothers--whatever that meant. But I now realize that my mother was incredibly brave; she faced terrors that my father knew about but that we as children were mercifully spared from knowing.

Day after day, year after year, she got in her car to drive to her school where she was gifted as a teacher of little ones. Her classroom or library was a wonder of colors, objects, books, visually stimulating bulletin boards, and music. She mostly supplied the extras from her own pocket. She taught herself to play the piano with considerable skill. Her parents could afford lessons for only one of her eight siblings. She was a child of the Great Depression and made do with all sorts of compromises and sacrifices. She was a working mother when some in the neighborhood, who hardly disguised their disdain, frowned upon “those” women.

She must have been horribly, devastatingly lonely and frightened as she undoubtedly realized her decline.

It has been more than a decade since she was finally finished with this mortal travail. And now that I have age and distance to help me understand her, I must concede that I often lacked the compassion Jesus commanded us to extend to all His Father’s children, but especially to our parents. With the benefit of years and the perspective those years have brought, together with a concerted study of the four Gospels with my husband of more than half a century, I have been given a sense that there is a difference, a nuanced one to be sure, between loving someone and feeling compassion for them. Perhaps now I feel both for my mother.

Consider Jesus’s reaction to the wealthy young man, a fellow who by his own admission kept all the Ten Commandments of Moses’s Law. But he could not give up his possessions in order to live the higher law of consecration. Nonetheless, Mark says that “Jesus loved him” (See Mark 10:17-25.) He felt after him. He looked tenderly at the self-centered young man. He was kindly disposed to refrain from condemnation at the young man’s immaturity. It was His grace, His gift to the young man. The text conveys to me the sense of confidence Jesus had in the young man’s and our own ultimate decisions and thus our salvation.

I may be reading too much into the passage, but I want to see that sentiment as a model of the Messiah’s agape (a Greek word meaning a mature sense of concern for the life and welfare and goodness of another). I believe that after all these years I can feel that kind of affection for my mother.

But then comes the word compassion in the text: Mark says Jesus felt compassion for a man who asked to be healed of his blindness. The Amplified Bible reads that He had “compassion for his suffering” (Mark 1:41). The word actually comes from two Latin words meaning “to feel after, to participate in another’s suffering.”

Jesus felt compassion for the thousands who had come to hear Him but had nothing to eat and “He was moved with compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd [lacking guidance]” (Mark 6:34).

Luke tells us of a widow from a village called Nain near Nazareth. Jesus stopped at the bier of a dead man being carried out of the village. He was “the only son of his mother. . . . When the Lord saw her, He felt [great] compassion for her,” and said to her, “Do not weep.” He touched the bier; the pallbearers stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise [from death]!” The young man arose, alive once more. And in a supreme act of compassion, “Jesus gave him back to his mother” (Luke 7:11-15). I cannot read that passage without believing that He will “give me back” my mother. Aware. Unafraid.

I now can appreciate this word compassion a bit better. I feel deeply for my poor mother in her suffering, for all the years she spent alone and with a physical infirmity that caused who she was to vanish.

As this Mother’s Day approaches, I feel boundless love and compassion for her. I feel enormous admiration for her. And I have a conviction that she is safe and whole and happy now. I bless her name.

Lead image from Getty Images

Judith McConkie, along with her husband James, are the authors of Whom Say Ye That I Am: Lessons from the Jesus of Nazareth, published by Kofford Books. It is available in print, Kindle and Audible formats at Deseret Book stores and online and through barnesandnoble.com and amazon.com. This is the eleventh in a series of essays about the book. Watch for more on ldsliving.com. 

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