Evenings with Bishop Hank

“Dominus vobiscum!” I called as the white-haired gentleman opened the front door.

“Et cum spiritu tuo!” answered Bishop Hank, his dark brown eyes laughing.

Reciting this ancient Latin greeting was a ritual with us. Thankfully, we never prayed the Kyrie asking for God’s mercy. I felt guilty enough about telling the good bishop fibs.

old-man-down-the-road-1514842 copy
freeimages.com / James Goneaux

Bishop Hank had dementia, and maybe I did, too. Sometimes I’d forget he wasn’t a real bishop. For three years, I had been staying with Hank in the evenings while his daughter was at work. Like many caregiver situations, this one began with a scare. One wintry night Hank was found wandering the streets looking for his deceased wife, Betty. For his safety, he could no longer be left alone.

I didn’t have much experience with dementia or Alzheimer’s when I met Hank, but I quickly learned how short a short-term memory could be. I learned not to ask Hank his golfing score. What happened that morning might be gone from his memory by evening. Instead, I’d asked him something silly like, “Did you see my double on the golf course?”

“Yes,” he’d quip, “and she was no angel!”

I learned to live in the past—Hank’s past. I was with Hank on Midway Island when he and fellow Marines heard by radio that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor. When the military supply plane was late, we dined on goony bird, a local bird that ate fish and tasted like it, too. My heart nearly stopped when a young Marine mistook Hank for the enemy and cocked his gun. “He was a jumpy fellow,” Hank explained.

I was there when Hank and Betty got married. I heard stories about their two daughters, Penni and Sandy. When Sandy was a tyke, she ventured into her grandfather’s barnyard and walked right under the belly of a horse. “The horse never moved!” Hank said, still in awe a half-century later. “It was like she was one of them.”

As we got to know each other better, our conversations regressed even further in time. Sometimes Hank was a lad fishing the Red River on the Minnesota-Canada border, a river that flows north, not south. At other times, Hank skated across frozen fields to his small-town high school, where he graduated number two in his class.

“I always knew you were a smart one,” I said.

Hank looked at me, a devilish glint in his eyes. “There were only two students in my class. The other student was a girl—and girls always go first!”

The months passed, and my fondness for Hank grew. He talked about growing up on a Minnesota farm and serving Sunday Mass at his church. “I thought about becoming a priest,” Hank confessed one evening, “but I was having so much fun I never entered the cemetery.” This time he wasn’t intentionally being funny. As memory diseases progress, people often have difficulty finding the right word. “I wonder where I’d be today if I had gone to the cemetery,” he mused.

“Maybe you didn’t attend the seminary,” I told Hank, “but in my book you’re a bishop! You helped take care of the flock.”

“Bishop Hank” seemed to enjoy his new title, and our conversations grew more philosophical. One night we began discussing white lies. When does a white lie become a black lie? Do white liars have speckled souls? Did I have a speckled soul? For months I’d been telling Bishop Hank fibs to spare him the embarrassment of not remembering.

As time went by, I watched as Hank’s disease took its toll. He lost weight and began withdrawing from social activities. Watching TV no longer interested him, and his passion for golf waned. Instead of waning, our conversations deepened—not in intellectual content but in what wasn’t said. I learned to listen better and not be a step ahead of Hank’s thinking or ready with a comeback pun. I tried to walk in his moccasins and have empathy.

How would it feel to lose a spouse and not remember? I wondered. To relive that grief over and over every time you’re told they’re gone? How would it feel to know you’re not the person you used to be? Not to understand why your zest for life has evaporated?

How would it feel to be reminded to put on fresh clothes or take a shower? How would it feel when you’ve forgotten that you already salted your food? How would it feel to know you’re confused? How would it feel to be really close to meeting your Maker?

Months passed and another winter settled in. Hank’s eyesight and hearing were getting worse. When I mentioned I had a chiropractor’s appointment, he heard choir practice. When I said plaza, he heard plasma. We’d laugh about the hearing bloopers, but I tried to enunciate better and construct simpler sentences.

The more I accepted Hank’s limitations, the easier it was to accept my own. Or maybe I was returning Hank the favor—he always accepted me for who I was. “Your spots look good on you,” he teased. “Spots!” I’d retaliate in good humor. “Angels don’t have spots.”

Then, without warning, Hank took a turn for the worse and had to be moved to a nursing home. On the Sunday before Hank’s 90th birthday, I suddenly felt compelled to visit him. He looked so frail, wisps of white hair playing on his forehead. He grabbed my hand and tried to stay awake but couldn’t. The veil separating heaven from earth had already begun to descend. A couple days later, my good friend—a friend like no other—stepped into eternity.

“Dominus vobiscum, Bishop Hank.”

“Et cum spiritu tuo!” I can still hear him say.

Copyright 2017 by Marion Amberg


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