On September 15, 2010, my grandmother, Fannie Karedis, died peacefully in her hospital bed after a decade-long struggle with Alzheimer’s. She was one-week shy of her 95th birthday. The day after I learned the news, I hosted my weekly home Bible study for college students. That semester’s study was centered on C. S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain, and that evening our focus was Lewis’s thought-provoking meditation on the fall of Adam and Eve.
The Holy Spirit used the serendipitous intersection of Lewis’s meditation and the news of Grandma’s passing to teach me a lesson about our unique status as human beings made in the image of God but fallen. Even while our minds deteriorate, our status as image bearers of the living God remains.
This helps us come to grips with the awful, slow killer, Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s Limited Thievery
Many Americans today live in fear of Alzheimer’s, for that terrible disease seems able to steal our soul and obliterate our personality. But it does not. It only has the power to lock it up for a season, until the One who made it calls it back from its troubled slumber. The psyche does not die, but goes deep down into a place where neither moth nor rust can corrupt, where thieves cannot break in and steal.
Consider the marathon runner whose car veers off the road, leaving him paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. Though his broken body prevents him for now from expressing the joy he takes in running, it does not have the power to annihilate that joy. His spirit remains that of a marathon runner, despite the condition of his legs.
Or consider the child born with Down syndrome or severe autism. Though the world often views such children as having no personality, those blessed teachers with the patience and compassion and eyes to see know differently. Such children do have a unique personality–and a unique kind of joy–but it only breaks through in glimpses and is seldom seen but by those who are pure in heart.
In the case of my grandmother, even in her final weeks—when she could barely speak and had to be spoon-fed—a trace of her personhood still shone through. Whenever the nurses lifted her from her bed to the wheelchair, she would let out a faint but audible, “Opa!” (the Greek equivalent of the Texan “yee-haw”). The Fannie Karedis who was, and still is, crafted in God’s image had not disappeared.
Safe in Christ
Many Christians, myself included, fear not only Alzheimer’s, but any mental illness that robs us of memories or alters our personality. “It is with our mind we accept Christ,” we think, “and it is by accepting Christ we are saved. But if that’s the case, will not a disease that erases my memory of accepting Christ, or changes me from the person who made that acceptance, rob me of salvation?”
This line of reasoning has a certain veneer of logic, but it’s based on two false premises. First, and most importantly, our salvation ultimately rests not on something we do (works) but on something Christ did (grace). Though we are called to receive and accept that grace, it’s grace that saves us, not our acceptance of it. Hence, we may have hope that children who die in infancy before they’re mentally equipped to accept God’s grace may be saved by that grace nonetheless.
Second, when Christians speak of accepting Christ, that acceptance is accomplished less by bending the mind to the doctrine of grace than by yielding the heart to his Lordship. We yield to God from that same deep place from which we love our spouse—and that place lies far deeper than the cold frost of schizophrenia or epilepsy or Alzheimer’s can touch.
Should we then feel anger toward the scourge of Alzheimer’s that threatens to seize of so many of our loved ones? We should indeed! It was a sad and terrible and lonely thing to watch the disease shred my grandmother’s memories. And yet, though we should be angry, we must not give in to despair. For a time is coming—for my grandmother, it has already come—when all the impediments, all the brokenness of body and mind will fall away, and the true person we are will stand before the Triune God who is.
Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. (1 Cor. 15:51–52)
Nothing that really matters dies forever. We serve a God who can restore what the locusts have devoured.
- 9 Things You Should Know about Alzheimer’s Disease by Joe Carter
- Losing Mom One Memory at a Time by Tim Thornborough
- Staring at Dementia, Fighting for Joy by Jeff Robinson
- Second Forgetting, a book review by John Dunlop
- Dignity in Dementia, a book review by Kathryn Butler