When Others are Weak: Look to God

By Kersley Fitzgerald

Jan took a deep breath and walked into the asisted living facility. Guilt always seemed to drive her to the sad brick building, but she liked to think it was hope that led her down the hall to her father's room.

The hum of the oxygen tank motor buzzed around the cinderblock walls. On a good day, the noise would be matched by the ceiling-mounted TV showing The Price is Right. On a bad day, he'd forget how to use the remote, and the room would be quiet. This looked like it was going to be a bad day.

He was lying on the bed, his eyes half-closed and unfocused. Jan wondered at how he could look so thin even while being so bloated. The scars from where he'd had skin cancer removed puckered off his paper-thin skin. Breakfast and drool had stained his shirt — the t-shirt she'd given him, that he insisted on wearing inside-out so the tags wouldn't scratch. Despite the fact she'd spent an hour online finding a t-shirt in a color he'd like with no tags. She's shown him a dozen times there was no tag, but by the time she'd pulled the stamped fabric away, he'd forgotten already.

A million other memories flooded back, draining into a pool of despair. He'd been her best friend her whole life. Her mother had had health problems of her own that kept her bed-ridden much of the day, but her dad was always there. He taught her to read, picked her up when she called home drunk, and gently guided her away from the idiot boyfriend, introducing her to "Mr. Right" instead. Jan's hands shook as she thought about life without him. What would she do?

A hard two hours later, Jan climbed back into her car. Her father had remembered her twice — once to berate her for scratching the car (twenty years prior) and again to blame her for something her sister had done. He never used to be that way. He'd always been so forgiving. Jan started to call Jeff, but remembered he'd dropped his phone in the lake last Saturday. She voice-dialed Trish, instead. She'd met Trish at a woman's Bible study some time before and relied on her experiences with her own aging mother. She was a lifeline of support and counsel.

Or had been. Trish hadn't actually answered Jan's calls in a week and a half, and had only sent two short texts. When voicemail cut in through the ringing, Jan threw her earpiece down and rested her head on the steering wheel. Didn't she understand? She really needed help this time. This was too hard. Everyone was abandoning her.

A rap at the window startled her, and she had the window rolled down before she'd remembered to wipe the tears off her cheeks. Jenny, the nurse on Jan's dad's ward, stood breathlessly beside the car, holding an envelope.

"Jan, I'm so glad you're still here. This is from your dad. He had a good hour on Thursday and had me write it out. I'm sorry I forgot to get it to you before."

Jan took the letter numbly and the nurse left. The envelope smelled like camphor. The writing was too round and feminine, but she knew it was from her dad the moment she started reading.

That cute nurse [I didn't tell him to say that I swear!] thought I should write some stuff out while I still got my senses. She won't say what I said to you last time you was here, but it must have been bad. I'm sorry, Butterbean. You know that's not me.

She says you're having some hard time adjusting to your old dad being shut up and fading. I guess I know how that is. It took me a long time to forgive your mom for getting sick like that. I knew it wasn't her fault. But she was so alive back when we were younger. We had all these plans. I don't think I accepted she wasn't going to get better until she was gone.

I'm not talking about going to Paris or any such nonsense. I'm just saying, you have to accept when people are fading. You have to take them as they are. Even if they're doing it to themselves, in a way. I mean, help 'em out as you can. Encourage them and all. But in the end, you can't control it.

Which means you're not supposed to. You always knew your mom as sick, so I think you just accepted that. I tried to make up for it by being what you needed. All those preachers say a kid's idea of God comes from how they think of their father. I took that to heart, because I knew you'd really need God someday. But if I did any one thing wrong, I think it was I took that too far. I think you were so surrounded by good people, you didn't need God. Or, rather, you didn't realize it was God all along. It was God what taught me how to take care of you, and it was God what sent you Jeff.

I can't be God for you anymore, Butterbean. But I don't want you going out and lookin for someone to take my place, either. Jeff can't do it, your preacher can't do it — no one can. God'll send who you need as need be, so look to him, all right?

That fella with the glasses is back on [he means Drew Carey, I think] so I'll let you go. I love you, Butterbean. Tell Jeff hi.

Jan tucked the letter away in her purse, then the Bluetooth earpiece that had rolled onto the floor. Her dad was right. She'd been looking at all the people around her when she should have been looking to God. There was a coffee shop two blocks away and she had a Bible on her IPhone. Maybe she'd wait to call Trish again when she had some good news. Or, better yet, when she was able to listen again instead of just spilling out all her drama.

I've seen less-efficient versions of that scene played out a dozen times. There is something horrible that happens when someone you trust becomes undependable. Physically, spiritually, emotionally — we all assume the great people in our lives will have this endless store of strength; that they will always have it together. That isn't the case.
• A friend had to accept that although his toddler had beat cancer, the radiation meant he'd probably never play football.
• A woman sat at the nursing home, watching her mother fade before her eyes.
• A son can't understand why his dad played catch before he went to war but can't now that he's back — even though he promised.
Spiritually, it's the same. How many people have had their faith rocked because their spiritual leader proved unfaithful? It wasn't God. God's always faithful. It was this guy who said he spoke for God. We are so quick, sometimes, to give someone authority over us. We wander through this big, ambiguous world looking for simple. A simple set of rules we can follow (or not). A simple score card. Do well, and the man in the grey suit and the red tie comes down off the stage and pats you on the head. Don't do well, and he wags a finger. But at least you know where you stand.

And then the man in the grey suit gets arrested, and we flounder.

Or even less dramatic, a person we consider to be our mentor stops taking our calls. The kid everyone "had great plans for" messes up. Our child brings home a C. In English — and you're a writer!

I think the first step is really coming to accept that it is God who takes care of us, and not a particular person. And He may use one person, or He may use a hundred in specific, individual ways. Being able to rely on Him for our needs leads to the next step: we're able to accept people for who they are. Not who we want them to be or who we think they need to be — or even who they've billed themselves to be. A fall, even a serious fall, becomes disappointment, but then changes into reevaluation. "Okay, this particular incident needs to be re-integrated into my perception of this person. This is who they are. My perception was uninformed."

Because detaching a bit and taking in the big picture allows us to love them better. It allows us to love them in the specific ways that they need. And it puts less of a drain on them to keep up the appearance of someone who can meet our needs. Our needs are met. If they drop the ball, God will find a back-up. Doesn't matter if it's a parent or a spouse or a good friend. God will get us what we need. And we can provide what others need when it's our turn.

Give people grace and space to be who they are, even if they're sick or injured or fallen from grace. Allow them a chance to breathe without the weight of your expectations. Allow that God may have a different plan for them than the one you think will serve you best or give you the most security. And look to God; He's the one that's always taken care of you.

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Published 6-23-11