Christmas in the Nursing Home

I first met the man who would become my father-in-law on Thanksgiving Day, 1998. I had gone with my girlfriend, Jana, to her hometown in eastern New Mexico, to eat lunch and hang out with her family. I was met at the door by a bear of a man – 6 feet 2 inches, 225 pounds. He was a lawyer in their town and regularly biked upwards of 90 miles on Saturdays. He had hands like a bear and a voice to match. He probably said 7 words to me that day, and my lasting memory is when I “helped” him put up the outside Christmas lights on their house. We walked out together, he dumped a box at my feet, and promptly put on his headphones to listen to the Dallas Cowboy football game and went to another part of the yard.

Intimidating? Not really. More like wet-your-pants scared. But, as Jana would later tell me, Joe went to her later that evening after I had gone home and told her he thought I was a good boy. So I must have hung the lights okay after all.

My love and respect for Joe grew as time went on. I found a gentle man who loved the Lord and loved his family. And as I heard more and more of his story, it only served to make me appreciate this quiet man more. Here was a guy who faithfully served his church as a Sunday school teacher for decades. He was a man who worked days as a coach and teacher and nights as a clerk at a gas station to provide for his family. He chucked it all when his three daughters were young to move to Kansas and go to law school. Then he moved back to New Mexico and eventually opened up his own law practice, one in which he worked side by side with his wife where they both regularly helped people who couldn’t pay them, working for hams and chickens if they needed to. When Joe was appointed by the governor to be a district judge, no one was really surprised given his reputation of strength and honor in the community.

That was right around the time when Joe was diagnosed with a particularly fast-moving and devastating breed of Parkinson’s disease. The bike rides stopped. The shaking and shuffling started. And with them came the occasional hallucination and confusion.

This Christmas, like the past four, when we went to visit our families, we did the thing that has become the ritual for so many people in our aging society – we spent some time at the nursing home that now houses Joe. He is weak and frail, a shell of the man he once was. He has occasional lucid moments, but those moments are rapidly diminishing. Surrounded by the other residents, we looked again in the face of a terrible disease and we were forced again to confront head-on the truly broken nature of the world.

And we were left thinking that it should not be like this. Not to this good man. Not to a 60-year-old father and grandfather. I looked in the faces of my 3 children and realized that this is the only Papa Joe they will ever know. They’ll never know what it’s like to see him standing. They’ll never feel him lift them over his head up into the sky. They will only have the stories Jana and I will be able to relate to them in the years to come.

And as we left to drive back to Tennessee, the only thing I could think to say quietly to Joe might be the same thing you thought if you spent any time this Christmas in the nursing home:

“Jesus is going to fix this.”

And He is. When He comes back, He’s going to make war on His enemies. He is going to rout sin and disease. He will bring them to ruin and put things as they should be. Then – and only then – will we see the real Joe again.

Amen. Come Lord Jesus.

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  • Kristi S. says:

    amen to that, michael

  • Amy says:

    This is such a tribute–to Joe and to Jesus.

  • Aaron Mitchell says:

    Michael, you write as if we were all there in the room with you and Jana, loving Joe through this disease. Thank you for inviting us in and thank you for a good, good cry. Longing for the fixin’ to begin.

  • Elaine Atchison says:

    Right where I’m living today. Thanks for honoring Joe . . . And Jesus!

  • Rebecca Swift says:

    thanks for this word of hope. both my g-fathers had parkinson’s too.

  • Gary says:

    What a beautiful tribute to a great man and a great family.

  • Elvis says:

    When we were going to have a child and picking names, we wanted something different, yet we wanted him to be named after someone we could point to and say this was a very good person. My sons first name might make it obvious to some what we thought of the other prominent male who shared that name, but there were several Joes in our lives we were fortunate to have known. This Joe is one of the major ones.

  • Brenda Stephens says:

    Michael- What an amazing tribute to my Uncle Joe. The article brought back such wonderful memories for me. My family was fortunate to keep Jana for several days while the rest of family went to Kansas to look their new home. What fun we had with Jana! It took a lot of talking to convince Uncle Joe to let us keep her. He liked all of his family to be together. I completely understand that now as a mother.

    Thanks for sharing this story!


  • Jeanette says:

    Wanted to re-read. Thanks for this post.

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