My friend Nelson was dying, the email said. He had been dying a little bit every day from Lewy body dementia, from the time he was first diagnosed 16 years ago until now, when he stopped being able to eat or drink.
Hospice care was called, and for the next few days, his body would be cared for as his wife, Ginnie, and their children and his friends and his family all surrounded him like that great cloud of witnesses talked about in Hebrews.
I had a business trip I had to go on, and was afraid I would miss the funeral, so I called Ginnie and asked if I could come out and say goodbye to Nelson, and she said yes.
When I got to the nursing home, I walked back to his unit, and his room, and the sign on the door said to come in. I opened it, and walked in, and saw Ginnie laying on the bed, curled up next to the man she had been married to for 48 years, and I almost walked right back out because what I saw looked so intimate, so loving.
I have always been uncomfortable with the phrase “making love.”
I never felt that I was “making” love, and in the best of times, I knew I was sharing love, but had never really felt I made something that was not there before.
What I saw in that one brief second, and then more as I walked in the room, was something I had never seen before. I want to make sure I don’t miscommunicate as I write this, so I will use a new term—adding love—to describe and capture what I saw.
Ginnie was laying on the bed, with a washcloth in her hand, laying next to her man, her husband, whose body was fighting death and the heat of the fight caused his body to respond with a fever, and she was cooling him off.
She lay next to him, and had a pile of washcloths, and would trade them out as one got warm. The window was open to let cool air in, and I came in and asked what I could do. For the next half hour or so I took care of the washcloths and kept a running supply going.
Ginnie was adding love to the world. It is said that love is the most powerful force in the universe, and I felt it that night. She added love by giving with absolutely no expectation of return. Nelson could not return anything.
Lewy body dementia had finally closed off Nelson’s mind, and now it was closing off his body and Nelson could not step outside himself, could not give back anything, and Ginnie kept on loving him, with no expectation, no thought of “what will I get if I do this?”
I will confess that when I have said “I love you” a little part of me has expected to hear those words in return. I have done the dance of love and always had the thought that something would be given to me in return, if not by that person then by God who was certainly watching me. I have this little voice in my head from my third grade Sunday School teacher that when you do works of service for others you will get a “jewel in your crown” when you get to heaven.
Ginnie had no such thought. I could see it, feel it, that this was how you “made” love, by adding it to someone’s life.
It was what Jesus did his whole life and in his whole death. He had no expectation of return, no thought that others would give anything back to him, he just gave. That is what Ginnie did that night. She added love to the world, to her husband’s world, and to mine through her simple act of service.
Nelson died several days later.
I was able to make it to the funeral, sat with our friends and sang the songs of love that bridge the gap between life and death. I added my voice to that of others, with no expectation of return. Since that night I have learned that I can add love to the world in hundreds of different ways, perhaps thousands, perhaps there is such a thing as infinity.
I can, we can, add love in all kinds of ways, by simple acts of human interaction, without expecting anything in return.
That night, Ginnie took the place of Jesus, adding love not just to Nelson’s world, but to a world that is wounded an in desperate need of love.
Bowen is a member of First Mennonite Church in Canton, Ohio.