Theological reflection is an ordered inquiry into an individual or corporate experience in conversation with the wisdom of religious and cultural traditions. It produces a conceptual framework that leads to action. As a practical theologian immersed in this method, I teach theological reflection at a seminary. It is a foundational skill for students studying to be religious leaders. It makes meaning of our experience through engagement with our faith and cultural traditions.
“Contemplating Radical Love” is a theological reflection on my experience of caring for my mother. My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2008, though we suspected that her memory had been slipping for a while. Since she was prone to forgetting, we had hoped that her visible decline was simply due to aging — “We all become more so with age.” Her clinical diagnosis brought an unexpected shift in my role as the primary caretaker. As an immigrant child, I always negotiated the role reversal with our parents due to their limited English language facility. I interpreted the language and culture for them. But being a caretaker where I facilitated her daily needs and made every decision for her, the role reversal that was for so long contextual and temporary, was made final and permanent.
This unexpected responsibility was both deeply painful and deeply joyous. The continuous caretaking meant a drastic change for me and my partner. The seemingly unending long days, weeks, months, and years of caretaking required an inner resilience that I was not sure we had. And yet, through caretaking, my relationship with my mother changed and grew in mysterious ways throughout the various stages of her Alzheimer’s. This was an unexpected gift and joy.
One of the resilience strategies I employed was theological reflection. I wrote regularly to reflect on what I was experiencing as I cared for my mother. It was a survival skill to make meaning of what was happening to her and to me. “Contemplating Radical Love” is a poem that explores this changing relationship between my mother and me. She lived with us for a period of time and then in a nursing home where she felt “at home” or “at work” to continue her nursing career. When she passed away on March 14, 2017, this poem was read by my daughter, Chloe, at her funeral.
Contemplating Radical Love
By Su Yon Pak
She made her rounds today.
She cares for them as she did for many years, a resident alien
nursing in a nursing home
now, she is the resident,
Stealthily, dementia began to visit her.
She started to forget things,
little by little,
where she put things,
ingredients in our favorite food
where she was.
Like a thief it visited her ...
stealing mementos with each visit.
Then, dementia set up house there, rearranging furniture.
And she forgot things boldly,
big chunks at a time,
40 years of immigrant life…
husband of over 50 years…
several decades of shared stories.
Her house proudly swept of memories.
Whose house is this?
Say, tell me, why does its lock fit my key?*
But she remembers that I am her daughter…
no, her sister?
Well, she remembers that I am the one
yes, THAT one.
The Bible commands;
Remember, that you were slaves in Egypt
the Lord your God redeemed you
Remember the days of old, consider
the years long past;
ask your mother,
she will inform you;
they will tell you.
Remember, I have bore you on eagles’ wings
and brought you to myself.
the sticky “thingness” of love
Sticky web, catching its prey so love can feed and grow
even hard memories,
especially those hard memories.
To love without memories,
to love the morphing self,
like chasing after a chicken in a yard.
Shared memories, the hyphen between mother—daughter,
Can daughter exist when mother does not?
Dangling as a participle searching for the subject to modify.
And I love her.
I love her defying the grammar of love,
contemplating radical love.
Contemplating radical love, I enter her world
a world of ghosts, war and ancestors that terrifies me.
With love’s rope tied around my waist, I enter her holy of holies.
The other end of the rope, tethered firmly to this world.
Contemplating radical love, I risk loving
knowing that I cease to exist, when I leave her room.
Contemplating radical love, I tend daily to my altar because—
I too, forget
that this is how God loves me
chasing after me, like a chicken in a yard.
I ask my mother
about the rounds she made today.
She tells me how busy she is.
I urge her to take a break,
before getting back to work.
We enjoy coffee and donuts,
delighting in each other’s bittersweet presence.