Yesterday, I went to visit a parishioner who is tending to her husband who has been slowly getting lost in the horrors of dementia/Alzheimer. He is at a VA facility in Alex City, about an hour northeast of Montgomery. The route I chose took me through Wetumka, and Santuck, then north past Equality (if I’d turned east between those two towns, I’d have reached Eclectic) and a few miles further up the road, Alex City and the Bill Nichols Veterans Home. It is a large building with plate glass windows, nicely kept large garden, good parking.
I stopped in the portico and front entrance and visited with three veterans in wheelchairs, caps telling the story of service in Korea and World War II. Courtly, they returned my greeting and when I asked how things were going, one told me they were out “enjoying the breeze, ma’am, enjoying the breeze.” The staff at the reception desk were friendly and knowledgeable. Everything looked clean and well cared for. The elevator was slow but got me to the fourth floor and from there, it was easy to find the room I was looking for.
Every person I’ve encountered in end-stage Alzheimer’s is little more than a whisp of humanity, so translucent and fragile, a strong breeze would carry them away. Every family member who has cared for a loved on in this place is exhausted. At the very end, as a person enters the stage of active dying from Alzheimer’s, the tangles of exhaustion and fear and sorrow and helplessness for the family are so very difficult. I watched the staff at this VA facility respond quickly, with compassion, with considerable competence when they were needed. I had not noticed any of the kinds of awful smells I sometimes find when I make visits to nursing home, and when I stood and waited for the elevator to take me back downstairs, I was aware of a mouth-watering aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.
I walked out thinking of how very critical we are of the VA system. And don’t get me wrong—my husband is a veteran and I get glimpses of the bureaucratic messes the VA can create for itself and the people it serves. But still. I got to see right things being done right, so my sweet parishioner and her husband could have the peace and comfort each needs.
I drove back through the beautiful, winding, country roads of Alabama, where it’s next to impossible to tell where poverty ends and grace break through, where towns have such quaint names and rivers like the Coosa and the Talapoosa run through and refresh my spirit, even on a sad and hot ride home.
Driving, I thought about the 4th of July, how we had a our traditional parade in Lowndesboro, our speeches, patriotic songs, watermelon and cake. Nothing fancy. We celebrate in a space with complicated history we don’t necessarily talk about as much as perhaps we should, but where I watch people trying awfully hard to be true, and kind—a difficult combination. I teared up when we sang America the Beautiful because of these lines especially:
America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
O beautiful for heroes proved In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life!
America! America! May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev’ry gain divine!
I love this battered, bewildered, fractured and fractious country of mine. And I especially love this bewildering, fractured, tormented and amazing state called Alabama. The little video I put together, including that wonderful traditional piece of American music, performed by a group called Grace Notes, helps to show why…