Fingerprints of God

This is my Grammy. She will be 90 in three months. She has cancer. After she was released from the hospital with this diagnosis, she moved in with my family in early December.

It was 5 years ago when she sat for this photo, the summer of 2007. She was also living with us then, but things were different. Then, she was in transition to a nearby retirement community.  She laughed often, had a Rodgers and Hammerstein song for everything we said, and took fastidious care of her makeup. Always an artist, she clipped pictures of interesting faces from the newspaper and used glitter pens to make and sell handmade cards. For my birthdays, I could count on gold ink on the inside of the card as well as the outside, bold loops in her confident calligraphy: Much love and luck. Grammy M. After she moved into her own place, I couldn’t stop by without being metaphorically lassoed and force-fed: I remember a day when she asked me at least 15 times if I wanted a sandwich. Her easel always in the corner, her walls were practically papered with photographs of her family: four children, their spouses, nine grandchildren, two great-grandchildren. It was easier to talk then. We talked about reading: biographies, mysteries, classics, the latest article in Time or Newsweek, interviews with the actresses of The Help. We swapped cooking tips and recipes, and I accompanied her to dinner in her retirement community a few times, enjoying conversation with some lively ladies who had experienced much of life.

A lot has changed in the last 5 years—really, in the last 5 months we’ve been caring for her. Now she spends her days in her recliner or in the backyard, watching squirrels or observing that all the trees are on the other side of the fence. Her routine is limited, but strict: eat Cream of Wheat and drink coffee, bathe with the help of a Hospice health aide, sit in the sun, nap, read, watch Jeopardy and Dancing with the Stars. Actions like climbing four stairs or pushing a chair into place sap her energy. Her physical limitations are growing but understandable; it’s harder for me to cope with the sunset of her mind. She asks to eat whatever she sees me eating and becomes fixated on issues that appear in commercials. A fog seems to be moving over her, limiting the scope of her vision, shrinking our range of conversation topics until often it’s just silence or us reading side by side at lunchtime.
It’s hard to love the helpless. It’s hard when the relationship becomes one-way. Much of the time now, Grammy can only absorb, not give back. I get tired and frustrated, and sometimes I catch myself writing her off, treating her as a burden rather than a person with dignity and value.

But when I find myself there, I’m basically saying that personhood is dependent on utility. Isn’t that often how we view people? We prefer the young, the beautiful, the intelligent, the rich, the witty, to those who don’t “contribute” as much to society. We’d rather discard them than care for them. It makes me think me of the young adult book The Giver, in which the helpless are simply disposed of—the elderly, the weak, the sick, the deformed, the disabled. Their worth is measured based on their abilities.

But even as I scrape another morning’s gloppy Cream of Wheat leftovers into the garbage can or have another conversation about squirrels, I have to realize that personhood is not dependent on abilities. It’s a stamp on all human beings: intrinsic, irreducible, universal. It was there from the beginning, when God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). Every person bears the image of God. Whether they can get up from a recliner or dress themselves or hold a lucid conversation is irrelevant to that. And thank God! Because one day, if I’m given the chance to grow old, even if I can’t walk, can’t hear, and can’t remember their names, I want my grandchildren to treat me with the respect and love that belongs to a fellow image-bearer.

My Grammy was young once; she drove a car and did Tai Chi; she was an artist who moved to Mexico and learned Spanish from scratch; she went through 8 pregnancies, lived in 4 states and 2 countries, and loved to dance. But even if she hadn’t done all those things, she would still be a person of infinite worth because she is fashioned and designed uniquely by God. So is every person: the homeless, children, the uneducated, the unborn, the comatose, the disabled. All are valuable and worth loving, covered with the fingerprints of God. And how we treat them, regardless of their utility, is the litmus test of our faith.  

And so I pray for love and for patience with my Grammy. I don’t always show her the kindness I want to. But even when she can’t do the things she used to be able to do, even when we just read side by side or settle in for another night of Jeopardy, she is a one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable child of God, never before seen and never to be seen again. And that makes her more than worthy of my love and respect.

How do you love the helpless? What image-bearers in your life deserve your love and respect?