Wednesday 25 March 2009

Nobody knows who I am till the judgement morning

A funeral homily by Kim Fabricius

John, a former primary school head master, mentally and physically vigorous, died at the age of 72, within 18 months of being diagnosed with a form of dementia. He had nursed his wife Alice, now in a care home, for several years as she too succumbed to dementia. David, who gave the main eulogy, is their elder son. (The names have been changed here.)

A funeral is a time – perhaps the best time – to ask an important question – perhaps the most important question: Who am I? And perhaps at this funeral more than most, it’s a question that has quite poignant significance.

In the first act of King Lear, as the king’s two elder daughters take cruel advantage of their old father’s weakening state of mind, Lear asks, painfully, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” It’s a question that then haunts the unfolding plot as the king descends into the madness we would now call dementia. And the Fool’s answer rings true to all who have known and nursed the dementia sufferer: “Lear’s shadow.”

David has painted a detailed portrait of his dad before he had become a shadow of his old self. In Sketty we too knew John, if only in his so-called “retirement”, as a man who knew only one way to live – with energy and enthusiasm, greeting each day, like the children he used to teach, as a gift to unwrap and enjoy. Take an interest in other people, be an attentive listener and a good neighbour, keep your curiosity keen and your sense of humour humming – that was John. He said that retiring to Swansea was just the right move, living on the edge of the Gower, allowing Alice to reconnect with her West Walean roots. When his own Newport (stroke-Dragons) beat Alice’s Scarlets, he tried not to gloat – not that it was very often he had the chance!

Those who shared meals with John and Alice will attest that he liked a good table – and cellar! In fact, John himself occasionally used the kitchen as a laboratory – even if the experiments weren’t always successful. No Luddite, he had a go at the new technology – the PC, the digital camera, the iPod. He continued to caravan like a gypsy and travel abroad. Get him to sit still and he’d read an absorbing biography – and savour a fine whisky. He served on our church Social Committee, and emceed many a memorable chapel event with flair and wit – and who can forget his quizzes? For several years he coordinated our participation in Christian Aid Week. And he always pitched in at our annual autumn leaf-clearing, even providing a garden vacuum. And in most of these activities, there too, of course, was Alice. John kept his family and his friendships in good repair.

And then, so suddenly, so insidiously, so aggressively, the illness that has been called “the forgetting” (David Shenk). With Lear, John could finally say, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?”

But you know, in the deepest sense of this question, the answer, whether we are of sound or unsound mind and body, is: “No one.” No one can see into our soul, no one can read the grammar of our hearts, even if what we do on the outside, what (if you like) “it says on the tin”, usually gives a fair indication of the contents within – indeed often a fairer indication than our own self-judgements, so prone are we to self-deception. But even those who have rigorously explored their “inner life”, who have worked and prayed their way to a less obscure or fictitious, a more accurate sense of self – to self-knowledge (as we say) – nevertheless, who I am always remains just outside my field of vision.

“Who is it that can tell me who I am?” The ultimate answer to that question is to be found in the title of an old African-American spiritual: “Oh, nobody knows who I am / Till the judgement morning.” Which is why the prospect of judgement is so awesome – because our Creator, from whom no secrets are hidden, will look into our hearts; but also, ultimately, why the prospect of judgement is so comforting – because our Creator sees us in the company of our Redeemer, the Lord Jesus, who is our peace. Who are we? God knows! Who are we? The question, rather, is “Whose are we?” And the answer is: we are God’s, in Christ. God made us – and God will re-make us. “Thus it is with the resurrection of the dead,” wrote St. Paul: “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable… It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power” (I Cor. 15:42-43).

We are glad for the John we knew (as we say) in his prime. We are understandably agonised at the way John seemed to disappear down the black hole of dementia. But, as Christians, I trust we know that even as his sense – and our sense – of his self-coherence disintegrated with his failing memory, God remembered John and held him fast; trust too we know that it was love’s work that we then did the remembering for John; and, finally, in these ominous times when the so-called enlightened and progressive grow dismissive of imperfection and impatient with infirmity, I trust we know that John, even in his feebleness, had a dignity and sanctity waiting to be fully revealed. And now, in faith, behold! – John in glory, (we may imagine) mentoring children, shooting par, enjoying angelic choirs, and exploring the limitless geography of eternity.


Dan said...

Thank you for sharing this.

Rachel said...

This was so nice to read right now. My grandma (who has dementia) just got pneumonia and is subsequently in her final days. Thanks so much.

Kathryn said...

Thank you...It can be so much easier to sidestep the reality of dementia in funeral homilies but this was just right.

Tony Hunt said...

Isn't the title for this from a Rowan Williams sermon?

kim fabricius said...

Close, A. D. - "'Nobody Knows Who I Am Till the Judgement Morning'" is the title of an essay Williams wrote which is included in his On Christian Theology (2000). The essay, however, is about racism, not dementia. Nor did I give my homily the title - that was Ben's genius.

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