When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put childish ways behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
1 Corinthians 13:12
Before 7:00 a.m. this morning, I had learned a new word—ousia. I found the word buried in the 9th chapter of a new book I am reading, which is really an old paperback I purchased for a dollar on a clearance rack: Madeleine L’Engle’s The Summer of the Great-Grandmother, first published in 1974. I was not attracted to the cover or the title, but rather to the author who also wrote A Wrinkle in Time, a favorite book of mine as a child.
I expected The Summer of the Great-Grandmother to be fictitious, but it’s not. It’s L’Engle’s autobiographical account of her struggles to comprehend and care for her aging mother as she slips deeper into senility. Sadly, I am able to identify all too well with many of the emotions L’Engle shares in her book.
A couple weeks ago my mother turned 84. She is in a nursing home in upstate New York, close to the farm where she grew up and the house where she reared five children. Both properties have been sold and now exist for her only in her memories, if at all. Unfortunately, we do not know what she remembers or what she comprehends. A serious stroke in 2015 left my mother paralyzed on her right side and stripped her of her ability to speak. She recognizes most people and seems to provide appropriate facial expressions when we tell her stories, but then there are times when she doesn’t appear to understand us at all. She is confined to a wheelchair, has lost several teeth, and there is often leftover food on her clothing as a result of feeding herself with her weaker left hand. She is not the mother I remember, nor is she the mother I want to remember.
Which brings me to ousia. Ousia is a Greek word that means “true being or divine essence.” It is a touch of God in each of us that lies beneath the perceived outward image. There is very little trace of my mother’s ousia in her outward appearance, what with her messy hair and stained clothes. Luckily, there are no mirrors in the nursing home—a deliberate omission, I’m sure, to keep the guests from realizing how pathetic they look.
Jesus tells Peter in the last chapter of the Book of John, “I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted: but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”
To honor my mother, I try to look beyond the obvious and focus on her ousia. I look into her eyes and tell her that she is amazing and loved. If my eyes reflect back competence, strength, vulnerability, and creativity, it is only because a competent, strong, vulnerable, and creative woman raised me. She reminds me who I am.
I miss her so much, and yet she is all around me. Sometimes when I walk past a mirror, I catch a glimpse of my mother in me—the same facial structure, the same nose, the same eyes. I recognize her skills when I cook, knit, or pull weeds from the garden, bending at my waist rather than my knees. I hear my mother when I laugh abruptly or talk back at the TV. And apparently, I’ve acquired some of my mother’s habits, which I will refrain from sharing. Without a doubt, I am my mother’s daughter.
With that said, I know it is quite possible that I, too, will end up in a nursing home due to complications from a stroke. After all, my mother’s mother and all her sisters died of stroke, and I had one several years ago, though my brain has since healed. If this is my fate, so be it. However, if I do end up in a nursing home in a wheelchair, unable to speak, I pray God will bless me with at least one person who will look beyond my outward appearance and attempt see my essence. May we all be striving to see each other through such a lens.
THE SONG THAT COMES TO MIND IS Remind Me Who I Am by Jason Gray.
Lyrics: “When I lose my way and I forget my name, remind me who I am.”