I spent the summer of 2009 taking care of a feeble old woman. Birdie was just short of 90 years old and suffering from many of the afflictions that plague the elderly: dementia, Parkinsons, and a developing case of Alzheimer’s. My responsiblities were to make sure she took her medication, to help with rehab excercises, and to keep her company. At first working with Birdie was overwhelming. All I could see when I looked at her was brokenness and hopelessness. She had come to the end of her life and her palpable suffering was almost too much to bear. Her body was becoming more fragile and broken every day and I was terrified she would die in my presence.
One day while preparing for work I came across this passage:
Luke 7:36-39. It says, “And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.”
I was shocked. I had been treating Birdie like a Pharisee would have treated her: disgusted by her pain and bothered by her brokenness. I was unwilling to see her as Christ saw her: a beautiful creation, broken by the world but still a daughter of the King.
Afterwards, I began to notice things about Birdie, like how she loved her kids, how she missed her husband. I would watch her look out her window for hours, waiting for her to tell me a story. Every once in awhile she would break her silence, starting off saying something like, “Now did I ever tell you about my son Brian…” Her stories were beautiful, sad, full of tears and bursting with joy. Through these stories I began to understand even more how Christ sees us: a canvas complete with failures, fleeting happiness, and small glimpses of Him.
There is undeniable beauty in pain and suffering when we hope for the eternal despite being bent and bruised by the pain in this world. That is what I soon saw in Birdie’s life – and what I’ve seen in the lives of others since. There is imperfection and loss in this world, and a wonderful hope in the next.
Now to me, there is beauty in growing old, in being hurt, in feeling deeply, in being broken, and I have Birdie to thank for helping me see all of it.
One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from the old tree. I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house. I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight. Mom frowned at me. “You’d be destroying what makes it special,” she said. “It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.”
– Jeanette Walls, from “The Glass Castle”