by Rachel Bomberger
“Oh. I don’t know. I don’t like this. This. This is … not good. I don’t know where he is.”
My father-in-law has been gone for an hour, and I’ve had this exchange with my mother-in-law at least five times already. Each time, she is more agitated, more restless. It’s agony to be in the room with her; worse agony to be apart from her.
“Kent ran out to the bank, Brenda, and to pick up a few groceries. He’ll be back soon.”
“OK. Yeah, that’s right. Good. Thank you.”
Alzheimer’s is a dreadful, hateful disease. I get angry when I think of it. Because of Alzheimer’s, my mother-in-law — my dear friend, barely over 60 years old — is dying in slow motion, locked in combat with her own brain and body.
She cannot fight. She will not win.
Every day, she gets worse. Since March, she’s been on hospice, confined to a hospital bed in the living room. Every day, she loses a little more of herself — a little more of her life.
Already, she is more than halfway to becoming a lost saint.
I should be clear and careful here. When I call my mother-in-law a “lost saint,” I’m not thinking of the grand, cosmic, eternal sense of the word. I know that, sick and confused as she is, Brenda is by no means lost to God. Baptized into Christ, sustained by His Word, living each awful day under the cross, her salvation is secure. Jesus has found her and claimed her, and He will not let her go.
No, when I speak of her as a lost saint, I’m using the word “lost” in a much more selfish way. Every day, Brenda is becoming more and more lost to me. She is going where I am not, and soon I will not be able to find her again on this side of eternity.
It is this selfish sense of the word “lost,” I think, that Elizabeth Barrett Browning also employs in her best known poem, Sonnet 43.
You know the one, I’m sure. It begins, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” These beautiful words are so famous that they have almost gone from poetry to cliché. Browning answers her own question as she describes loving “to the depth and breadth and height / My soul can reach”; loving “by sun and candle-light”; loving “freely, as men strive for right.”
Then, after a barrage of lofty language, Browning slips in a line that I have puzzled over for years in my quieter moments, when mortality presses:
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints.
This simple, unassuming sentence — most readers, I’m sure, race right past it on their way to the final couplet — is laced with heavy irony.
How can someone be a saint — and yet be lost? How can someone lose (or, at least, seem to lose) love — and yet still have it to give away?
When Brenda finally slips away, not long from now, she will join all the other saints — dear, faithful people made holy and righteous by the Lamb of God — that I have loved and lost.
Each November on All Saints’ Day, the ache left by their deaths washes over me again in waves of fresh pain. The bell tolls, and I hear their names in my head. Austin. Ida Belle. Lois. Eldor. David. Sam. John. Ken. Edna Mae. Alexander. Fern. Jay. Fran. Caroline. Erma. Meta. Ruth. Edelgard …
Silently, I remember them. Silently, I thank God for their lives, and for what they meant to my life. Silently, I cry in my pew.
Even now, as I type this ever-lengthening litany of names, the tears are streaming down my cheeks. So much love. So much grief. So many lost saints.
Wiping tears away, I turn back to Browning’s sonnet and take comfort in what is perhaps the most awkward word in the entire poem: “seemed.”
Poets don’t use words like “seem.” It’s a soft, lazy word. Poetry calls for language with less equivocation, more edge.
Good poems don’t seem. They say. They do. They are.
Browning’s unexpected use of this word, then, stands out to me. Its awkwardness draws the eye. And for good reason: It is the key to solving the puzzle and resolving the irony of the line.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints.
It may seem for all the world as though death is the end of love. It may seem that, when a saint has been lost to us, the love we shared with them is also gone. But it is not so. Love doesn’t work that way at all. In Christ, love never ends (1 Cor. 13:8).
My lost saints have given and taught me so much. Because of them, I know how to make a bed, weed a garden, bake a pie, tell a story. Because of them, I have known generosity, self-sacrifice, discipline, patience, grace, virtue. These are great gifts.
But the greatest gift any of them has given me is — and could only be — love. Each of them lived in Christ’s love and in some way embodied His love in my life. Because of them, I know what it is to be loved. Because of them, I know what it is to love.
When I started writing this article, I sat less than 10 feet from Brenda’s hospital bed. Now, as I finish my draft, I’m back at my desk, nearly 3,000 miles from her. Before we parted, I told her how grateful I am to have her as my friend, my mother-in-law and my sister in Christ. I thanked God for her faith and for the hope that we both share in the resurrection. I commended her to God’s good care. We prayed, we hugged — and we cried, bitterly grieving the separation that lay ahead of us.
I don’t know whether or not Brenda still remembers that conversation. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. God remembers. He keeps all her memories, even as He keeps her whole life, body and soul, safe in His own great love.
It may be that this All Saints’ Day, the bell will toll for Brenda. Or it could be next year, or the year after or the year after that. Alzheimer’s is a capricious disease, its final prognosis frustratingly unpredictable.
But I know that, early or late, it will toll. And when it does, I know, too, that the love I seem to lose with my lost saint will not go to waste. It is a good gift of the Lord Jesus, and His gifts do not tarnish or decay. By His grace, the love I share with my mother-in-law will not dry up but, rather, flow over to those around me — my husband and children, my neighbors and friends, my brothers and sisters in Christ.
How do I love them? How do I love you? Let me remember my lost saints — and count the ways.
Rachel Bomberger is the former managing editor of The Lutheran Witness. She is a writer, editor, home educator and Navy chaplain’s wife. She is also cohost of “The Lutheran Ladies’ Lounge,” a new podcast for Lutheran women from KFUO Radio (kfuo.org).
This article originally appeared in print in the October 2019 issue of The Lutheran Witness.