Years ago, during my Masters program, I took a course on Geriatric Counseling. We were studying the specific psychological needs of those suffering dementia, and my classmates and I had just reviewed a case study on an elderly man with Alzheimer’s. The man’s family had entered therapy in order to better cope with their loved one’s decline, and they reported to the therapist that the most upsetting aspect of the process had not been when Dad began to lose memories, eventually forgetting their names and faces; the worst part had been the complete change in personality. He had been a gentle and kind man of very strong character, but in the later phases of the disease, he had grown angry, often lashing out with obscenities and even violence. Their description was heartbreaking, and their pain translated to each of us, even through the pages of a case study.
Then one of the students spoke up and shared the story of her mother, who had also suffered from Alzheimer’s and had passed a few years earlier. Verna’s mother was a woman of strong faith, a missionary to remote cultures for most of her life, and when she was diagnosed, her first thought was that she could not bear ever forgetting her Lord. She had the family gather around her and pray that however else her mind may go, praise for her Savior would ever be on her lips and his Word would not depart from her. Verna was pleased to report that her mother spoke of nothing but Christ, sharing the Gospel with every one of her caregivers and visitors right up until her death, and that even when her words became confused and muddled, she would still recite Scripture with great clarity, comforting those around her with the enduring promises found within. “The Lord is faithful,” Verna concluded, tearing up at the memory.
On the drive home that night, I found myself unable to stop thinking of the stories we had heard in class. I was deeply troubled by the thought that who we are as individuals—our personalities, our values, our moral character—were all so intrinsically tied to basic cognitive function. I was just 23 or 24 at the time, young in the faith, and still in the process of discovering that I could really trust the Lord and the life I had found in him.
I had spent my young adult years in college trying to reconcile my undeniable experiences of God that had led me to faith with all the insight psychology, philosophy, and theology had to offer on the human condition. The parallel cases from class stirred up for me some questions related to epistemology and metaphysics that were beyond my learning: If my initial choice to believe in Christ was based on my personal experiences of him, then would my faith remain intact if I, living in a physical body with a temporal mind that would no doubt one day deteriorate for one reason or another, could no longer remember those experiences or even recall my decision to follow the Lord? Clearly, I was also stepping into a theological minefield, and my brief plunge into soteriological thought during my undergraduate studies was equally insufficient for providing full reassurance and insight in my moment of crisis.
While I was certain that a more adept theologian would have no trouble setting my mind at ease, alone there in the car one thing became clear to me: much like Verna’s mother, the thought of ever forgetting my Lord was frightening and painful to consider, so much had he done for me and so deep was my love for him. Strange though it may seem to be concerned about such things during that season of life, I felt compelled to pray and ask the Lord to always remain near to me, never allowing me to forget if ever I was to suffer any type of cognitive impairment. Inspired by Verna’s account of her mother’s unfaltering remembrance of Scripture, I also asked him to plant his Word firmly in my heart, allowing me to recall it at all times, no matter my circumstance.
For me, that prayer was to quickly be forgotten, the concern that motivated it abandoned in deference to a myriad of more pressing distractions. But at 39 years of age, as a stroke patient standing in my hospital room, scribbling Scriptures in the margins of the dry erase board on the wall amongst medical notes and therapy schedules, I was surprised by the ease at which they came to me. I could remember them word for word, often with no aid, a particularly astounding fact in light of how much trauma my brain had recently suffered. And then I heard the Lord say to me, “Why do you marvel at this? Is it not just what you asked?”
It took me a moment, but then the memory of a prayer spoken long ago came to mind, and my heart swelled with gratitude and praise as I realized, Verna was right, the Lord is faithful.
“But truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer.”Psalm 66:19