The following post is copied from a letter I sent out to the mutual friends I shared with Dot and Ted Stewart back in 2012. If you read the previous post (and the comments) this will make better sense. If not, it is still a worthy tribute to pay to Dot and to Jesus who gave her strength to pour out her life as a living sacrifice for God.
Those who know me well, know that I make it my aim and life-purpose to Go to the place of shame and pain in my community and bear the image of God there. I usually treat this like a mission statement. It is something to aspire to; I shy away from suggesting that I actually accomplish it, or do it well. But today I want to turn that around and say that I have seen it done, and done well.
I need to tell you that I did not grow up knowing my cousin Dot Stewart personally. I barely met her a couple of times growing up. She was my mother’s first cousin, and close friends with my mother’s older sister as they were growing up. But when I moved to Lubbock after college ten years ago, my Pappaw told me to look up my cousin and see if she would put me to work. She did. And I quickly got to know her and her husband, Ted.
It was just about that time when Ted began suffering with dementia badly enough that he no longer worked or ran the family bookstore where I was suddenly employed. He had built a career as a missionary to Brazil and a Bible instructor at Sunset School of Preaching (as it used to be called when my dad went there), and he ran a start up bookstore that served the students and the churches all over the world where those graduates went for many, many years. These accomplishments, of course, serve to intensify the measure of the sense of loss at the time he had to step down from so many responsibilities – even more so when I say he was beloved by so many students and colleagues.
I barely knew the man or his immediate family as he began this transition. Likewise, I barely knew his wife – my cousin. I have come to know Jesus more dearly though, through knowing them these last few years, and that is because I have seen Dot go to the place of shame, pain and despair and bear God’s image there as she fulfilled her vow to love, honor and cherish her mate until death parted them last February. Dot spared no expense, whether financial, spiritual or physical, to walk by Ted’s side seeking healing and help for him and in holding his hand even as the disease ravaged his mind robbing him of any dignity he ever had without her.
Over the course of this time period, it so happens that my Mammaw also suffered dementia and she died just this month. I recall my Pappaw’s struggle to care for her, and as he neared 90 years old, the task proved insurmountable. However living in a small town, he was able to place her in a care home staffed with family and friends that tended to her intimately and allowed him to take her home frequently for visits and allowed him to come to her side daily. Though he grieves my Mammaw for having gone out of their home, he was blessed beyond measure to have her in the care of family and friends.
Dot faced that issue as well, but without the same options. She could have put Ted in a home. He might have even received quality care. But she chose, despite good arguments to the contrary, to keep Ted at home and care for him herself. That choice was grueling and heart breaking at all hours of the day and night with very precious few breaks and respite.
I recall reflecting on dementia with another cousin of mine a few years ago. We had been discussing Mammaw’s life. It seemed that she wasn’t really with us anymore. Pappaw had lost her already, but her body kept going. How can that be a human experience? She had seemed to digress to a quality of life even less than that of animal. And in fact, if she were left alone more than a few hours would likely die. The question of whether she was still human only found its answer in love. We came to a belief that as long as Pappaw and her family loved her and cared for her and kept her in her place in our home and hearts, she was still human because our love, or more specifically the love of God through us, made it possible for her to continue in her humanity.
This is what I saw Dot, my cousin, do for her mate against all odds and in a day and age when keeping marriage vows seems to have gone the way of so many endangered species. I need to tell you this because she blessed me, and I learned some things about love, life, and the age to come from this woman and her mate. They showed me the depths of God’s love, that depth at which it is hard to look. You actually want to turn away. The view there is abandoned by all sensibility and social grace. We see a man of former greatness and admiration in all the ravages of disease, and a woman who loves him, holds his hand, keeps his place at the table set for him, waits on him hand and foot, up at all hours of the night to tend to his wandering mind and footsteps, who cries out in agony every day, but won’t let go of her man! That is hard to watch. That is hard to give approval to. That makes you want to turn away, but as John’s gospel depicts, that is the point when Pilate tells the crowds, “Behold the man!” and we see Jesus ravaged by all the sin of the world bearing the image of God and healing us by his stripes. My cousin, Dot, and her mate, Ted, did this in our world. And most of us tried not to be around for too much of it.
She held his hand to the very end. She misses him even now. And I recall a conversation with my Dad a few months ago where he lamented that Pat Robertson, the TV preacher, had begun endorsing divorce for couples when one mate suffers dementia. Robertson had claimed that the afflicted mate was actually already gone, and so it was not an ungodly divorce (according to him) to put that person away and move on with life. Dad had wished that Pat Robertson knew what real godly love is. And I am telling you, I have seen it.
Dot is going on with life now without Ted at her side. He waits for her in the Bosom of Abraham, as he liked to say. She fears that she did not do enough. She says she was just a humble farm girl who got to be with such an important man. She is not sure she did her part well enough. Perhaps she could have done more and failed to do it. These are her fears, not mine. I am a witness for the defense in the trial of her conscience. I saw it differently. I saw Jesus in that couple. I saw them tell of the glory of God’s love even without using words. When “God made them male and female in His image,” Dot and Ted exemplify what that verse means.
Dot is exhausted tonight. She is suffering physical pain she acquired while helping Ted near the end. She will have back surgery tomorrow to help get relief for that. I am asking you to pray for her tonight. And if you know Dot and Ted from Sunset Church of Christ in Lubbock, Texas, it would be good if you send her a bit of encouragement. Following Jesus is not easy. We know she is a disciple because of the love she has for another. She needs us to gather around her now too. Her humanity will be found in us keeping her place at the table. And if you can sit at her feet to learn a bit about the love of God, your life will be enriched.