One of my only memories of Pappy is of him talking to the man in the mirror. Who could blame him? The man was congenial and handsome—jet black hair, muscular physique, either clean shaven or designer beard stubble. Pappy routinely saw a stranger in windows and mirrors as he slowly became a stranger to himself and the world, which isn’t abnormal behavior for someone with Alzheimer’s disease. He looked at the puzzling, familiar face and invited the stranger inside for a place to stay. But the man could never come back inside.
I learned at an early age that when our bodies betray us that the brain can be particularly vindictive. When a neuron died, so did a memory. People and places disappeared as if they never existed. Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t discriminate—it took his PhD and his ability to swing a hammer. Finally, an entire history evaporated like a puddle of water on a sunny day.
Augustine notes that memory is the warehouse of time, but what happens when the warehouse is robbed? We are taught as children to leave a legacy, but our loved ones who suffer from dementia teach us a painful lesson: we will forget and be forgotten. Textbooks go out of print and gravestones crumble. Even Google, the world’s biggest brain, can’t retrieve a copy of his dissertation.
I’m told that there’s a remnant of his life incarnated within me, giving shape to my own identity. None of us are as unique as we think. He is enfleshed in my five-foot-nothing stature and other quirks like an affinity for chamomile tea. Gratefully, I inherited the story of Jesus that he told his daughter who then, faithfully told it to me. Somehow Kierkegaard hitched a ride with Jesus into my consciousness, even if he skipped a generation. I’m not complaining.
I can retrieve snapshots of his illness that don’t fit together to create a full portrait. Mostly, I remember how his body cried out on his mind’s behalf. As Pappy’s dementia grew worse he picked up the newspaper and underlined important phrases and paragraphs—a habit that was ingrained in his muscle memory after years of reading and studying. His bird flew around the house to my terror and sang ‘Jesus Loves Me,’ preaching the good news that he could never lose, even when he forgot it. I don’t remember much more.
After he died, Meemaw threw out all of his papers and sermons which could have given us access to his heart and brain. I’ve often thought about what he underlined in his Bible or wrote in the margins of the text. Did he prefer to preach John’s Gospel or Luke’s? What’d he say about the slaughter of the Canaanites? It’s a shame that she didn’t realize that she’d have a few grandchildren in vocational ministry who would’ve loved to know their pastor-grandfather. And the extra sermon material wouldn’t have hurt.
Twenty-five years later, all I can do is borrow another’s imperfect memory from those who knew him best.
I’ve since learned that Pappy was not a preacher or priest. He was foremost a pastor, which means that he was a shepherd. He loved to be with people—whether over coffee or on the softball field. Relationships whisked him off to bars before ‘theology on tap’ was trendy or socially acceptable. Pappy didn’t drink the stuff, but he made friends with those who did. No surprise, it got him in trouble with the churches. One thing hasn’t changed in the history of Christianity: religious people will complain if you eat and drink with ‘sinners.’
But Pappy knew that transformation was worth the headache brought by pious church ladies. His own father, who no joke had the street name “Doggie,” was an alcoholic until God made good on a bargain made over a sick daughter. Both he and the daughter were healed. Pappy must have learned that Jesus changed water to wine, but he also changes wine to water when necessary. And someone needs to be present to pray over the barrels.
My uncle recalled that he often stopped at the hospital and asked about who wasn’t getting visitors. He also asked about struggling students at the local high school. That’s not the sort of thing I’ve ever done in my ministry. I’m too busy. Pappy knew he had nothing to gain from spending time with these people except meeting Jesus.
Others have said that Pappy wanted to win at everything, especially life. He started with little and worked hard to be respected on the field, in the church, in the public’s opinion. The line between arrogance and confidence was as thin as the frames of his white-rimmed sunglasses.
At the height of his ministry, Pappy wore the latest fashion and drove a bright red Triumph Spitfire. His congregation claimed that this made him arrogant. Pastors don’t drive sports cars; they drive a beat up Bonneville Catalina that squeals when it takes a right turn. Then again, a parishioner painted a portrait of him with Jesus and he had no qualms about hanging it up in his office. Maybe they were on to something.
Pappy’s life has never been told to me as a hagiography. We all sin and our families will know our mistakes best. Many still struggle to make sense of his shadow side, especially his aggression and strict abuse that passed as spanking. Was he a product of a different era of child rearing—spare the rod spoil the child? Was this a vestige of his own gambling, heavy drinking father who also abused his family? Actions are complex and motives are often pure. Regardless, we fail each other.
One of my uncles told me that understanding a person’s history doesn’t condone the past, but it sure helps with forgiveness. Luckily, Christianity is comfortable with people who make mistakes.
I treasure these fragments, even if they’re subjective and short-sighted. We all have a bit of dementia and can’t seem to get our hands around another person. Much is still unsettled about his life and ours, too. The story we tell of ourselves might intersect and cross paths with the story told by another, but it will never line up completely. Maybe our true identity is somewhere in between the story we’ve created about ourselves and the character that we’ve played in another’s.
I wonder if this is why David Keck says that Alzheimer’s is a ‘theological disease’ that reveals how our identities are misplaced in rationality, memory, and productivity. All along one’s true identity rests secure only in God and nowhere else. That’s easy to forget.
While Jesus hung on the cross the thief next to him cried out, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It’s a curious way of asking for help. He could’ve taken his buddy’s advice and prompted Jesus to prove his divinity. Instead, he asked to catch a ride on God’s bus into God’s memory. That’s eternal life.
Salvation is being re-membered into God’s story—in God’s eternal memory. This is the work of baptism, which strips, washes, and then raises us into a new ontological reality that is larger than what we can cram into our hippocampus. It was Rene Descartes who declared, “I think therefore I am.” The Enlightenment got it backward. For Christians, God remembers and therefore we are—eternally.
We’re all looking at strangers in the mirror—familiar, yet inexhaustible mysteries. The stranger Pappy saw, the one who couldn’t come back inside the house he built with his own hands, lives in me in ways I will never know. But the better news is that he had a home all along.