My mother lives far from me, many states away; it takes me about twelve or thirteen hours to drive there. So I don’t get there that often. I usually fly down about once a month. I didn’t used to go that often, but she had emergency surgery last January, and ever since then she’s been in a nursing home, and her mind is a little fuzzier than it used to be. She’s never quite gotten her strength back, never gotten on her feet again. Eighty-two years old, and it’s hard to foresee what the future holds. At present it looks like she just might continue being in that nursing home. I’m grateful that my two sisters live closer, so they can go there frequently, and one of them goes every day.
But when I go down there, I do see how much care it requires; that her food must be not just cooked, but then put through a blender so it’s soft, and spoon-fed to her; that she has to be picked up bodily in order to be bathed or to have the changes made, or to change the bed, the sheets; it’s hard work, taking care of an older person. I was thinking that, it’s kind of an ominous thing, to realize that. To think about the whole stretch of human history, going back to the beginning of time, how much elder abuse there probably was. And, how many older people probably did not come to a natural end, just because someone was tired of taking care of them. The mess happens after you give them food. If you don’t give them food, you won’t have the same mess. I can sure picture people throughout history making that decision. If you think about it from an aspect of cold calculation, then elder neglect or elder abuse is a sensible crime.
Little children are equally demanding, of course; little children and babies are not productive, they soil their pants. But with children you can expect a return on your labor one day. Elderly parents are every bit as troublesome, and they’re heavier, but they’re not going to get better. They’re larger, they’re more trouble, and sometimes they smell just as bad as the babies do. Interacting with a baby can be fun. It gives mom and dad satisfaction and joy. But the emotions aren’t as sunny, it’s not as unclouded when all the parties involved are older and care is moving in the other direction, from the child to the parent. A son or daughter may feel a complex net of resentments and fears toward the parent they must now take care of, tend, wipe and feed.
I was thinking about this because of the feast of the Dormition, thinking about Mary as an elderly woman, and what the end of her life was like. She must have been quite old by then. We never picture her that way, of course; we picture her like in icons, she’s always young. She’s always holding a baby. But her days of holding Jesus as a baby were at least thirty-three years before the crucifixion, so a lot of time has gone by. She must have been, I’m guessing, at least fifty when she gathered with the rest of the apostles on the day of Pentecost. I assume that she was at that point still pretty strong and healthy, because our tradition says that she took part when everyone drew lots to see what nation they would go to in order to evangelize, as they all went out to spread the Gospel. The tradition says that she drew the lot for the nation of Georgia, but then received word from the Holy Spirit that she was not to go, and that someone else would go in her place, later on of course. That’s St. Nina of Georgia, a couple of hundred years later.
In her old age Mary was living with St. John the Evangelist. That would have been in Jerusalem. I know that there’s a recent tradition that she died in Ephesus, that she was living with John in Ephesus; John ended his life in Ephesus, but apparently she died before he moved there. Her death was actually in Jerusalem, and she was buried in the garden of Gethsemane. There is a church there, the Sepulcher of the Holy Virgin, and down at the lowest level, you keep going down to the very bottom, it is a first century tomb, and that is where Christian memory has always said was the burial place of the Virgin Mary. So in the end she was living with St. John the Evangelist, the same John who was standing next to her at the foot of the cross. We see them like that in icons of the Crucifixion. When Jesus spoke, he said, “Woman, behold your son.” And he said to John, “Behold your mother.” We can’t even imagine what Jesus was thinking about when He was on the cross. That was a period of such intense cosmic spiritual warfare. But whatever else was going through his mind, one thing he was thinking about was his mother. He thought about her, and He wanted her to be taken care of. He wanted John to love her like a son, to love her like He did.
The Gospel of John tells us, the next line is, “From that hour, the disciple took her to his own home.” So this adoption of him taking Mary as his mother was something that began on the day of the crucifixion and continued through the end of her life. As I was saying, if you picture what it’s like to care for an elderly person, this requirement that the Lord laid on John was more than just being hospitable. In taking on the duty of a son to the Virgin Mary, John assumed whatever burdens might come, as well as the blessings. Some cultures have even permitted adult children to abandon or even end the life of an elderly parent. But the tradition in the Hebrew scriptures and of course in the Christian Tradition as well is that the elderly must be treated with respect, they must be respected, they must be care for to the very end.
It takes a strong command to guarantee that kind of care, because eruptions of frustration and disgust and the obvious question, “What am I getting out of this?” are going to push natural inclinations the other way. A grown child, in fact, might get more out of a parent’s death than his continuing life, if the child calculates that lingering, ugly old age is the only thing standing in the way of an inheritance. So when John took Mary to his own home, along with the wonderful blessing of having the light of her life in his own home, he was also accepting anything that might come at the end, any dementia, any physical weaknesses. Whatever it took, he was going to care for her to the end of her life. It’s a solemn obligation.
We don’t know what Mary’s declining years were like. She may have been toothless. She may have had to have her food crushed up small and soft, like my mother does. Her memories might have become dim. Maybe she wasn’t talking much at the end. Picture this: picture St. John feeding her soup from a spoon, settling her head on fresh pillows, turning her, changing her dressings. It’s very hot in the middle east in August. You can imagine a one-room stone house on a hillside. Inside it’s dark and still; yellow flowers are dusting pollen outside the open window. You can hear the children shouting outside as they play in the declining sunlight. A fly is buzzing outside the wooden door. As one day after another succeeded each other in early August, it must have been obvious that her end was drawing near.
I recently received a book from an iconographer who had put together plain, line-drawing examples of all the icons from the life of the Theotokos, from her conception by St. Anna all through her Dormition. I was surprised that there were eight different images, icons, having to do with the Dormition alone. It gave me a little more insight into what the last days of her life were like. The first one showed the Angel Gabriel appearing to the Theotokos to tell her that her end was near, and he gave her a palm branch as a symbol of her victory. In the next image we see her going out to the garden to pray, and carrying the palm branch, and all the trees are bowing down to her. The image of the Dormition itself, of course, is familiar to us; it shows all the apostles gathered around her bedside. I had known that the tradition is that some of them were brought miraculously from far away by the Holy Spirit. But until I was reading about these images, it hadn’t occurred to me that some of these Apostles had already been martyred and were brought back from paradise to stand in attendance at her Dormition. The remaining icons after that, the beautiful one of the apostles grieving and the Lord carrying her soul up to Heaven- the remaining icons show the discovery of her empty tomb, St. Thomas praying and having a vision of the Virgin Mary in Heaven and she drops her sash to him as a sign that she has, indeed, gone up into heaven. And the last of the icons shows St. Thomas showing the sash to the other apostles, the evidence that the body of the Theotokos has been taken up into Paradise.
It’s the icon of the Dormition itself which I think is the most moving. In the icon we see them standing and kneeling around her little body stretched on a bed. Her eyes are closed and her small, thin hands are crossed over her chest. The Apostles are beside themselves, they stare and weep in distress at the departure of their beloved mother. Christ stands in the midst of them unseen, within a shimmering blue halo that surrounds his whole body, holding a tiny, white-swaddled figure in his arms. It reminds us of the familiar images of young Mary clasping her infant child, but this time it is the Son who holds the radiant soul of his mother.
The feast of the Dormition focuses on the departure of the Virgin Mary from this mortal human life. But there is another person in the story, St. John, who cared for her through all her last years, up till her death on that hot August day. In the icon, he is kneeling next to her bed, tear-struck, clutching a bit of her mantle in his hands. He loved her so much.
Many of us care for and worry about elderly parents, and we can use need a patron saint to be a guiding example, to support us through the hard daily toil and through even harder decisions that we face while caring for the elderly. Dear St. John, pray for us. Be our inspiration and out guide. Show us how to be good caregivers to our elderly parents, and to show to them the love and respect that you were so blessed to give to our mother, the Virgin Theotokos.