“This story is mine, but it is much like your — or your story — soon will be, but it is definitely our story,” said the Rev. Katharine Rhodes Henderson at the 9:15 a.m. Wednesday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. Her sermon title was “Living in the World Between Two Worlds,” and the Scripture was Psalm 139: 1-18; 23-24.
Henderson gave a brief biographical sketch of the life of her mother, Leila Nelson Rhodes. She was born on a farm near Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1920.
“Her dream is to have a woman president, but that is a story for another day,” the chaplain said. “When she was born, the boy down the road came to look at her in her crib. He did not know he would marry her, but that, too, is a story for another day.”
One of her ancestors, Thomas Nelson, signed the Declaration of Independence. She was good with a shotgun. She was smart and good at math and started college at age 15. She migrated to Louisville, Kentucky, with her husband and ran the Louisville Seminary bookstore and was the unofficial seminary pastor.
“She taught Sunday School, listened to all my father’s sermons and was the mother my friends wished they had,” Henderson said. “My daughter, Julia, said she knew what God was like because of her grandmother.”
Leila Rhodes lives in New York City now, in an apartment next door to her daughter. She is 95 and has dementia. She has a stuffed dog that she treats like her last baby.
“She has become a stranger to herself and to us,” Henderson said. “We have migrated to a world between the worlds where past, present and future blend in an Impressionistic collage. It is a land not of our choosing.”
There is a team on this side caring for her mother, she said. There’s also a team on the other side that has gone before. It cares for her too.
“ ‘Who thought that up,’ she asked. I told her, ‘God, I think,’ ” Henderson said. “This homily is not her eulogy, but the details are important to get down before they are forgotten and lost to the book of life.”
Henderson said her mother’s young, handsome doctor was no help in finding care. He told her to do some research.
“There are all kinds of people who expedite things in New York City, I told my husband,” Henderson said. “We need to find one. And 18 months later, Dionne from Jamaica, who has a calling for care for the elderly, lives with my mother.
“Dionne has a lightness of being and delights in my mother and calls her mother, which confuses people in the neighborhood,” Henderson continued. “My mother offers Dionne the essence of unconditional love that was missing in her life. Dionne’s paycheck flows back to her family in Jamaica and her daughter, who is in medical school.”
When the stranger or other is an intimate partner, it is a new story and an old story.
“All life is interrelated, and we are caught in a net of mutuality,” Henderson said. “As Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.’ My mother is a tiny tributary in a whole ocean of stories that are going to grow, and I wish my mom could bring her skills to the metanarrative,” she said.
There are 4.5 million people with Alzheimer’s today, and that number will increase four times by 2050. The number of people over the age of 65 will increase from 40 million to 70 million. Today, there are only 2 million in-home caregivers.
“Many [caregivers] are from foreign lands and are undocumented. This is one of the fastest growing industries that is largely unregulated,” Henderson said. She cited National Domestic Workers Alliance Director Ai-jen Poo for her work to “bring the dignity that we want for our mothers and spouses to the immigrant workers who are denied worker’s rights and immigration status.” Poo was named a 2014
MacArthur Fellow for her work and has published a book called The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America.
“This emerging symbiosis is an escalating moral dilemma,” Henderson said. “Ai-jen Poo sees opportunity in this crisis to build a momentum in how we think about aging. She thinks we can build an infrastructure of care, a caring majority. Care is a basic value that connects all of us. It is one way out of our polarization and politicization.”
The psalmist in Psalm 139 wrote, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away,” Henderson said. “We could add, ‘And when I became a stranger in a strange land to those around me.’ ”
God moves between the closeness of “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine” to “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.”
“This is the swing of God as we live in the world between two worlds,” Henderson said. “The heralded wisdom of old age gives way to childhood delight in a stuffed dog. My mother’s sweet nature still shines through. One day, she said to me, ‘Be assured, love abounds.’ ”
Henderson said she had to learn to give up control and have a quiet mind, to hold her mother’s hand and learn to be present.
“God is the great web of our mutual destiny,” she said. “Thanks be to God for all our days.”
The Rev. William N. Jackson presided. Erin Sears, a scholarship student with the International Order of the King’s Daughters and Sons and a vocal performance major at Marshall University, read the Scripture. Jared Jacobsen, organist and worship coordinator, directed the Motet choir. The choir sang “Send Out Thy Light” by M.A. Balakireff, based on Psalm 43, verses three and six. The Harold F. Reed Sr. Memorial Chaplaincy supports this week’s services.