We just came back from Penang where we celebrated my mum’s 92nd birthday. (Mum has Alzheimer’s dementia, is recovering from a broken hip, and is staying in a nursing home in Penang.) We had a great time with mum. First we took her for lunch at a fish and chips place. She finished all her chips and most of the fish. In the afternoon, we had a birthday party in her nursing home. The spirit was festive. It was a good time of celebrating her birthday. And in the few days were we there, I was gifted with a few smiles, and two kisses. Precious treasures!

In the midst of all the celebration, I almost forgot that earlier in the year, during Lunar New Year, we were not sure if mum had long more on this earth. She was hardly eating and, whatever she ate, she wouldn’t swallow. She was taking in little nutrition and the nurses had to resort to a naso-gastric tube that mum hated and which made her depressed. We looked at options like using a gastric tube. But with her dementia she was not going to cooperate. And what kind of life would it be to live her last days with her arms tied up and immobilised. And her depression would only get worse. So we decided to continue to feed her by mouth and we were prepared that the nutrition would be inadequate and that we would lose her.

Then something happened. She began to want to eat. And she began to swallow what she ate. And she has been like that since. I am sure there are all sorts of medical theories for why she turned around where eating was concerned. But we prayed for her every day. And so we know — the Lord in His mercy heard our prayers. It was also a reminder that it is the Lord who decides when we exit from this life to return to Him and to the new heavens and the new earth. Of course we speculate as to why the Lord allows a faithful capable saint like my mum to suffer dementia. But I have learnt three key lessons from the time my late wife fought cancer: 1. God is on His throne — He makes the final calls in life; 2. He has his reasons for what He does — His love and wisdom are perfect; 3. He is not obliged to tell you what they are — we have to trust Him. (God used the book of Job to teach me these lessons.)

What is clear is that we do what we can for the people we love. I have to constantly remind myself that we are indeed doing all we can under the circumstances and that she is a in a good home and under constant care. I love to visit mum and I go to Penang to see her once a month. But I still have to grapple with feelings of helplessness and guilt, especially when it comes time to return to Singapore. In all this I am receiving continuing spiritual education in the value of life, the need to be faithful and patient, and the need to continue to trust in Him.

Recently, we lost two spiritual giants from our part of the world — Bobby Sng and Jim Chew. We grapple with mixed feelings, gratitude and grief among them. Their passing reminds us again that it is God who decides how long we have on the stage of history.

Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.

(Psalm 139:16 NIV)

God hasn’t shown us His book so I guess we are not meant to know how long we have on this earth. We thank God for folks like Bobby Sng and Jim Chew, who were good stewards of their lives. We thank God for mum, who was a good steward of her life when she was lucid and free of dementia, and who continues to be a steward of her life now in ways we cannot see.

I come to the end of this year wanting to be a better steward of whatever time God has for me in this life. I know I have said it before and have not quite succeeded, but I will say it again and will try again — to live life more intentionally, doing less, or should I say doing less of what I want and more of what He wants.

And as long as mum continues to be with us, a large part of what God wants is for me to care for her. And that is a high calling indeed.

Teach us to number our days,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

(Psalm 90:12 NIV)