When we examined Psalm 34 a couple of weeks ago I noted that the Hebrew word lev is rendered in English sometimes as heart and other times as mind. To do justice to the original meaning in translation the English word would need to embody both heart and mind, just as the Hebrew does. The inability to do so points to something much more profound than a simple linguistic shortcoming. It relates instead to the fundamental understanding of the nature of man. To the ancient Hebrew, human beings were indivisibly body, heart, mind, soul and spirit. There simply was no separating one aspect from the others. Some who live in post-Enlightenment times might find that concept difficult. But it is important to recognize this Hebrew perspective, which David embraced and the Hebrew Bible assumes, before we go forward to the next paragraph. And the next paragraph is not so much about language as it is about experience and life, although words absolutely play an important part in it.
My mother was an extraordinarily bright woman. That is an objective assessment, bolstered by facts, and not simply a memory tinted by my affection or nostalgia. She had an incredible mind, and lots of people said so. She was more than brilliant, of course, and some of my fondest memories are of the two of us giggling at the dinner table over things in which my father and brother saw no humor. That, of course, only made matters more amusing to us and before we knew it we’d be caught up in uncontrollable laughter.
As a matter of fact, my mother could find a chuckle in almost everything and everyone, and she did not spare herself. Innumerable times — and by that I mean literally at least hundreds and probably thousands — during my adolescent and teen years I remember her saying with a snicker to me and my brother “when I lose my mind, you are going to have to take care of me.” Such statements usually came after she had made a silly mistake. But they were repeated with such frequency that they began to take on meaning beyond an off-hand quip. They seemed in no way connected to her experience of having dealt with her own mother’s “hardening of the arteries,” as it was called in those days, and they certainly reflected no bitterness or fear. All she was doing was poking fun at herself and making light of the human foibles we all share. While she joked frequently about losing her mind, I don’t ever recall her saying “when I lose my heart.” She did not say it, because it was inconceivable to her; and because losing heart was an entirely different thing, having little to do with mental faculties (or was it?). She might get a little discouraged now and then, yet cheerful Mom the Encourager would never lose heart — or allow us to either.
But back to losing her extraordinary mind. Surely by now you are not going to be surprised when I say that the day came. The day the Alzheimer’s diagnosis was confirmed. The dark and daunting and devastating day. Doomsday, it seemed, in those days when even the name of the disease was unfamiliar. She lived for about ten years with that “lost mind,” as she surely would have described it if she could have witnessed her own situation from outside herself. It was hard to try to maintain a relationship when the person with whom I had laughed had lost her memory of that — and of my name and who I was. But the hardest thing to deal with was her silence. There came a time (a prolonged time) when my previously loquacious mother, the woman who was never for a second without something to say and saying it, stopped talking entirely.
The final couple of days of her life I sat beside her hospital bed watching her ebb away. It was just the two of us. Other family members and close friends were miles from us. Sometimes the silence in that room– even though I had grown accustomed to it in other settings — became more than I could bear. When it did I would find myself talking to her with no expectation of a reply.
In the quiet early one morning I decided to recite something I knew she’d held close her whole life. The 23rd psalm. As I began, her motionless body stirred. Her eyes that had been closed for days opened. She looked straight at me and then I heard, for the first time in months, her familiar voice. It wasn’t a whisper. It was strong. She began to say along with me, in clearly articulated syllables, in the same cadence in which I was speaking, apparently with the same level of understanding I had…yes…she began to recite out loud perfectly every word of the 23rd psalm. As she concluded “and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” she nodded her head with a sweet certainty and closed her eyes again. Then, within minutes, she went to claim that new house. Full of joy and probably singing. I am certain. That is just who she was.
Has my reminiscence drawn us off topic here? I don’t think so. Rather, I believe we have just come full circle back to the first paragraph and to that word lev. Heart. Heart and mind. Indivisible heart, mind, body, spirit. My mother never lost heart, and what I learned that morning is that she never lost heart’s memory either.
When I was in grade school the phrase we used to describe the process of memorizing something was to “learn it by heart.” So my mother had learned the 23rd psalm by heart; because she had, she could call to mind every word of it. Her heart knew, so her mind remembered, her soul was satisfied, her spirit rejoiced and her body followed right along. Her mind had only seemed to dis-integrate from the rest of her during her illness. Only seemed. It just took a jogging of the heart’s memory, prompted by the magnificently simple, true and holy words of the man after God’s heart, to reveal what was still an indivisible, inseparable part of who she was all along.
That morning my mother and the psalm she and I loved taught me again about the truth that abides. About learning and knowing and grasping, yes, holding on to it– by lev.