The spiritual veteran

Phyllis Arbaiza with her daughter
Lee Arbaiza Hutchinson. Photo courtesy of Sara Arbaiza Higgins

There are two kinds of “veterans.” There is the traditional veteran who confronts fear with selfless abandon, facing a known enemy and fighting for others. And then there is the spiritual veteran who clings to faith, facing an unseen enemy and fighting for souls. Neither veteran runs from fear nor indulges in self-pity. Both are oblivious to the degree they impact others or the magnitude of how they please God. 

My mother is a spiritual veteran with a profound understanding of forgiveness and its power against the unseen enemy who tried to break her spirit during the most vulnerable moments of her life. She endured the death of four sisters, faced harsh ridicule because she lacked a high school diploma, mourned the loss of an infant, experienced a broken marriage, felt rejection from loved ones, suffered bouts of loneliness, battled breast cancer, and now fights against the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

Despite knowing something is wrong with her, she never complains. Since her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, she has only cried once. And that was my fault. The image of that day will be indelible in my heart forever, because that day I was the “enemy.”

I lost my patience as I tried to get her ready for Mass that morning. I saw the sadness on her face as she struggled down the porch steps and into the car. I told her not to worry about latching her seat belt because we were only going a short distance. I knew that latching her seat belt was important to her. It gave her a feeling of accomplishment, because she could do that by herself, and it gave her a sense of security, since she was frightened by car rides. My dismissive attitude toward her safety added to her feelings of unworthiness. 

After we arrived, I jutted my hand out to help her into the church with such force that it was clear my help was given out of obligation and not love. Her dejected look confirmed that she knew. Her face revealed such an ineffable sadness that it sent a jolt through my body, stinging the depths of my heart — the kind of sadness that creates tears that cannot be controlled by mind or will.

Nevertheless, I turned sharply on my heels, muttering to myself. As I approached the church doors, I realized that I could not walk in by myself with my mom trailing so far behind me, partially blind and struggling with her cane. Too many people knew us. Too many people praised me for caring for my mom. No, I had to act like the loyal daughter, which on that day and many others, I was not. Clearly I was more concerned with what others thought of me than with the pain I was causing my elderly, handicapped mother.

We sat down in the pew, and I absent-mindedly glanced her way. And then my ice-cold heart suddenly melted into a pool of shame as I watched my mother’s tiny, fragile body wrack with light spasms as she quietly sobbed. That was the first time she had cried in more than three years.

My mom was not crying because she felt sorry for herself. She was weeping from anguish, because she hated to be a burden. At least, there was no mistaking in her mind that she was my burden. My actions told her that she was not worthy of my time and attention. 

I grabbed hold of her hand with desperation. Mass had already begun, but I desperately needed God’s help. I half-whispered, half-cried to her, “Let’s go tell Jesus our problems.” She nodded. So, we stumbled to the side chapel, both of us crying and clinging to each other tightly. 

We knelt before the Blessed Sacrament, but I couldn’t think of any words to express the sorrow I felt for my transgressions against my mother, whom I am commanded to honor. My mom taught me long ago that when I could not find the words to pray, I should simply say, “Jesus.” She told me that the Holy Spirit would pray for me instead. So I did. 

Eventually we rejoined the Mass with a sense of peace and the ability to reconcile. My sinful, selfish day turned into a day of humility, forgiveness, and love.

Why am I revealing such an ugly part of myself?  Because my mother, the spiritual veteran, speaks with remarkable clarity by the way she lives her life. Long ago she taught me to abandon my pride and self-serving ways through a humble confession and a contrite heart. This courageous veteran needs a voice so that others might hear what she teaches me every day of her life: Love and forgiveness are, indeed, powerful and synonymous.

Did she forgive me? Of course she did … she loves me. 

Alzheimer's diseaseelderlyLee Arabaiza Hutchinsonmotherhoodpatience
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