It was there in that room that it happened; my heart swelled, broke down and opened up to what was being shown to me. The cheerful yellow paint popped a little too loudly off the walls and the deep red chairs offered little hope for comfort. Across the circle of people her large innocent eyes curiously glanced at me from behind her thick square glasses. As her face pulled into a smile I could not help my own from following suit. I relieved the red chair of my weight and tentatively crossed to sit by the woman with the sweet smile. As we shared words, silence, and shy smiles I felt connected to this little old woman. My feelings soared as we sat together, until she broke my heart. She uttered in a sudden and panicked manner, “What time is it? My mother will be mad if I am not home before dinner. She doesn’t like when I am out so late. It’s not good for a young girl.”
It was at the Birches Alzheimer’s Patients Home that I met this woman with the sweet smile, Molly. Far from my home in Colorado, the lush new landscape of Ireland held more than simple tourist excitements and breathtaking views. It was here, so far from home, that I learned how much I did not realize about myself, my strengths, and God given gifts. It was here that God restored my heart. Cleaning off the specs of anger and discouragement God brought sweet little Molly into my life. To this day she has touched my heart so powerfully.
Just fifteen days before Ireland became real, I sat deliberating how many scarves to bring, and whether I would really need rain boots. (Answer: yes) Filled with anticipation and apprehension I found time quickly propelling me towards my first mission’s trip. Though I had considered myself a Christian since high school, this marked the first time that I actively took a step in my faith. Boarding the plane, and awaiting the fourteen hour trip ahead of me, the unknown loomed. I had finally garnered the courage to live out my faith in a real way, however, I could not stop the pessimistic thoughts from generating. The sinking ache of homesickness already began to settle into my bones and all I could do was to attempt subduing my selfish thoughts.
Wavering and confused as to the point of my presence here in Ireland, I plodded on through church renovations, devotions, and interactions with my team.
After the initial glow of being in a stunning new fairytale landscape, the entrancing accents, and the initial fulfillment of helping Dundalk Community Church with renovations had somewhat dimmed, the real homesickness and petty frustration settled in my heart. Though I had felt called to this missions trip, so far I really had not felt anything. Expecting a shocking transformation story I was left with unfulfilled expectations. One of my team members shared in devotions how she had tangibly felt God’s presence while helping clean the prayer chapel at Dundalk Community Church. She spoke enthusiastically about her experience. Every other team member had similar experiences and revelations, and as the “whispers of the divine” remained silent to me my bitterness festered.
One night I angrily let my frustration flow from my head to my journal, “I’m done. I am done with people feeling God as I feel nothing. I never feel it, I never do. I feel like I am drowning, lost and here without a purpose.” Wavering and confused as to the point of my presence here in Ireland, I plodded on through church renovations, devotions, and interactions with my team. By the second week our daily service activities changed. We had finished church renovations and having gotten our fill of paint chips, mopping, and organizing; we were all looking forward to helping in a new way.
The next morning in devotionals we prepared to go to the Birches, an Alzheimer’s patient care home on the outskirts of Dundalk. I had never before worked with the elderly and I don’t consider myself a gregarious person. An image of me freezing during conversations, awkwardly trying to connect petrified me. I was also worried about managing with the patient’s varying severity in their stages of this terrible disease. My worries tethering me to the apartment, I slowly treaded after my team hoping that maybe I would be okay.
We arrived at the Birches, a beautiful picturesque little place. Flower blooms in every color greeted us as we arrived. The nurses warmly smiled at us as they showed us were to place our jackets and bags. Their warmth eased my fears. I knew this was out of my element but I found myself willing to try. We entered the main room. Large windows cast in the slight bit of sun that peaked over the fog left from the morning’s rain. Various chairs were arranged in different circles around the room. The patients sat in the chairs drinking their morning tea. We were instructed by the busy but kind nurses to just sit with the clients, talk to them, and allow them feel heard. I sat next to a boisterous man of eighty whom very quickly went into his life story. I smiled at him thrilled to hear about his childhood, but soon realized the true sadness of this disease when he introduced himself to me a second time, and with the same enthusiasm as before launched into the same story word for word. After nodding to his story for the sixth time Molly’s sweet tentative smile caught my attention. I sat next to her and we talked occasionally, enjoying the presence of the other’s company. We sat together for three hours. As each minute ticked by I was surprised how much I cared for Molly.
Lunch time rolled around and Molly suddenly turned to me, her innocent eyes welled with tears, as she told me that she needed to go home and it was not safe for a young girl to be out so late. As her confusion mounted she became frantic trying to leave and fighting with nurses. I was heartbroken. Alzheimer’s had stolen her memory and as she worried about going home I felt as though I had somehow caused the episode. My mind spun through the last few hours figuring out how I could have preventing Molly from being so scared and sad. I left with a heavy heart. I fretted about returning, I though the nurses would be angry I had not done more.
When we returned the nurse met me with a surprise. She pulled me aside and emphatically told me, “Thank you.” Apparently Molly was very far along in the stages. The more memories that are lost, the younger the patient tends to believe they are. She said that for months Molly would refuse to sit down. She would get worried about home and try to leave within minutes of arriving. She than told me that that was the first time she had seen Molly sit down for so long contently. “You two must have some special connection,” she said and then she went back to work.
My perspective shifted I was so joyous I had been able to help Molly. That special connection was the reason I was here. Through the weeks my heart was stolen by Molly and the people of the Birches. There was Frank who loved to sing, and we would sing everything together. Marie loved to talk about her children and her daughter in America. Kay and I did crafts together and she named a clay owl we made Bright Eyes. Though Molly never remembered me I became her friend each day. We would talk, I would paint her nails, and sometimes we would just sit. I loved all of them and I found myself experiencing God. Though it was not in the way I expected, the Birches patients showed me God through their smiles, stories, and songs.