When my father was in the last few months of his life, we bought him a clock. This was a date-and-time clock, intended to help keep him oriented as his dementia worsened. “Today is,” it would shine in bright yellow letters and numbers, “Wednesday Morning. 7:41. March 4, 2020.” It cycled through the date and time, day after day, until one day in June, it suddenly changed to read It’s Monday Morning. No time. No date. Just a day and a general time of day. “It’s Monday Afternoon.” “It’s Monday Evening.” “It’s Time for Sleeping.” My family and I have no idea why the clock suddenly changed to this mode, or how it happened, but it did. As my dad’s concept of time faded, somehow this clock changed to this very basic way of orienting to time.
We joked about our clock, quite a bit, because this change also happened in the middle of the pandemic. Working from home, schooling from home, divorced from the regular rhythm of our life of music lessons, swim class, and soccer practice, we realized that all of our days kind of blurred together. Mid-week was often hardest for us when it came to orientation to date, as it was for many of our friends. It’s Thursday Night, said the clock, on a picture we shared to social media. “Wow, I need that clock,” said many of our friends, also in a daze from a life punctuated by Zoom meetings taken in an office carved out of a bedroom. “I can’t even tell what day it is anymore. They all look the same.” While our struggle with time and date wasn’t Dad’s struggle, we all shared a sense of disorientation in this time of the pandemic.
It’s Sunday Morning. “Rich,” my mom calls to Dad. “Rachael’s church is on.” My dad, a retired Methodist pastor, stumbles into the living room, clutching his worn and torn copy of a book by his favorite seminary professor. “Rachael?” he asks. “Yes, Rich,” Mom replies. “Rachael’s church service is here on TV.” He sits down. “That’s Rachael,” he says about the woman preaching on TV. “Church is on TV?” His favorite hymn, “To God be the Glory,” is sung that day, and his eyes briefly sparkle as he sings along in his signature out-of-tune and slightly out of rhythm style. “Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, let the Earth hear his voice.” And for a moment on Sunday morning, I see my dad as he was, before the dementia.
It’s Monday afternoon. It’s a warm day. The sun is shining, and the sky is a blue that we haven’t seen in years. We are sitting out on the back patio, and Dad finds his way outside. He’s in his socks and has a jacket on upside down. His eyes adjust to the light, and he sits down in one of our lawn chairs. My spouse, my mother, and I are enjoying a glass of wine while the children play on our neighbor’s grandkids’ playset, offered as pandemic entertainment to my kids, as her grandkids are grown. “Would you like a ginger ale?” my mom asks him. He nods, and eventually says, “Yeah.” He sits with us, briefly enjoys the time with family, and without saying much, heads back inside. Back inside, he obsessively reads copies of “The Upper Room.” It’s Monday afternoon, and Dad can really no longer have a conversation. But he is still seeking connection and meaning…presence with family, and still trying to understand his walk with God.
It’s Tuesday morning. It’s September and Dad’s 74th birthday is today. We haven’t been shopping, because of COVID restrictions. But it’s also hard to buy a present for someone who doesn’t enjoy much anymore. My sisters, living far away, send a fruit arrangement to our home. Dad enjoys a few pieces. We also give him some new items with his favorite football team’s logo. My seven-year-old daughter draws a card for him that says “Happy Day” with a picture of a dog and balloons on it. And that’s the party – a celebration of another year of life that doesn’t look anything like the life we’ve known.
It’s Saturday afternoon. My spouse, kids, and I are heading up to the mountains for the day. My mom calls in a panic. Dad has had some sort of crisis, and we’ve had to call the ambulance. My gentle, patient father who lovingly raised us has become enraged, out of control, and the police come to check on my mother’s safety. Dad then walks into the ambulance and out of my house, which he has called home for two years.
From the ambulance to the hospital. From the hospital to a nursing home. From the nursing home into hospice. The hours and days fly by. We can’t see him because of COVID restrictions. He continues to decline. The chaplain (a rabbi) lovingly reads to him from the Sermon on the Mount. My father no longer eats or talks, but he opens his eyes to hear the words of Christ. The home makes special arrangements for us to visit Dad, to sit in silence with him. My sisters come to say goodbye.
It’s Time for Sleeping, between Wednesday and Thursday. My dad returns to our Creator. Time stops.
And again, It’s Sunday morning. The church service is on TV. The pastor on the screen seems remarkably composed, despite being me, as the service was recorded hours before Dad died. In it is comfort. In it is rhythm. In it is the assurance that when all else fails, God is there. For God is the God of the living and the dead. On all days and at all times. And with those assurances, time restarts.
And, as mysteriously as it changed the first time, somehow our clock reset itself to telling the time normally. But it will always serve as a reminder that we are living in God’s time.
Rachael Lawrence, PhD, is acting pastor of Second Baptist Church, Suffield, Connecticut, and assistant director at the Center for Education Policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is also a classical musician.
Photo by noor Younis on Unsplash