“…Your mom’s disease has progressed. Last night, she wandered over to Mrs. O’Dell’s house after dark. It was cold outside, and she didn’t have a coat on. Your dad never knew she had left the house….”
For several years, Alzheimer’s had been twisting the fibers of my mother’s brain. The exhaustion of daily caregiving wore on Dad. Family members and church friends graciously and lovingly cared for them in my absence. The years of decline then arrived at that moment when everything changes. Mom was out. Alone. At night.
Honor thy father and thy mother. When the message about my mother’s late-night outing reached me, I was in Vietnam, the land where honor thy father and thy mother is lived as the first and greatest command. Decisions about career, marriage, childrearing, and even one’s eternal destiny are surrendered to parents. After the death of a parent, a place may be set at the table and food prepared for him or her for as long as a year. Incense is offered, and death anniversaries are celebrated for decades. They have a story about a man in a sinking boat with his wife and his mother, but he can only save one of them. With straight face, the storyteller relates that the man can always get another wife, but he only has one mother.
Over the years, I had avoided sinking boats and come to embrace many aspects of Vietnamese daily life. The stages of culture shock had passed, and I inched closer to living the Jeremiah 29 life: Build houses…plant gardens…have sons…increase; don’t decrease…pray for the peace of the city…you too will prosper…; for I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end. I ate the fruit of the gardens; I delivered a son in their hospital; I prayed for their peace; my husband planted a church. God gave us a hope and a future. My Vietnam roots ran deep.
Honor thy father and thy mother.
I struggled: Isn’t there anyone else who can help Mom and Dad? Can’t they move closer to help? Aren’t we doing the work of the kingdom? If I left Vietnam, would “having put his hand to the plow…looking back…not fit for the kingdom” replace Jeremiah 29 and the promise of peace?
The reality lingered: It doesn’t matter who else can help. I am commanded to honor them. It is no longer honorable for my parents to live in the conditions they are in. God used His commands, coupled with a wrestling against principalities and powers (we lost our legal residency), plus our personal failures and successes, to lead us back “home.” I say “home”—but my children would be leaving “home” to go to a place only their mother called “home.”
Over the ensuing weeks, God bottled tears as my family of five dwindled twelve years of stuff down to ten suitcases and a little stack of money. And then, the goodbyes as we clung to the necks of friends. The flight. The trip to Goodwill for winter clothes. The friends and churches who ministered in a thousand tangible ways. My parents, who were far frailer than their brave voices and the phone lines had exposed.
The raw pain of re-entry and the paralyzing grief of my mother’s decline were constant companions as I went through the motions of housekeeping, caregiving, and homeschooling. In March, when cold winds still cut the air, my husband began clearing a small plot of land for a garden.
My thoughts turned back to Jeremiah 29: Plant gardens…seek the peace. Was it possible that my loving Father sought to prosper me here, not punish me for leaving Vietnam? Could tender, broken roots be transplanted to Appalachia’s rich soil so soon? Yes, and yes. Personal failures, disease, and fragile emotions did not stand a chance against God’s plans.
And so we start again. One year after re-entry, we have planted our garden and eaten the fruit of it. My husband makes quarterly trips back to the house-church pastors of Vietnam while I give food and water to the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for the sick here. We are seeking peace for my disease-torn family and for the impoverished, addiction-plagued people in our community, confident that in their peace, we will know peace once more.
Question to consider: How have you been led to “honor thy father and mother” while serving cross-culturally?