“My goodness. Who do these children belong to?” The question, coming from my father-in-law, seemed an odd one as he gestured with interest toward our three kids. It was a hard thing to realize he did not know them—at 94, both his memory and his eyesight had faded considerably. But my husband readily responded, “Why, those are our children, Dad…this is Katrina, and this is Louisa, and this is Ted.” As they were introduced, our kids (ages 12, 9, and 6) stepped forward and smiled into Grandpa’s face, the better to be seen by him.
John held up the camera he was carrying and said, “Dad, would you like to have your picture taken with them?” Grandpa looked delightedly around him at his grandchildren and said, “Why yes, I believe I would!” So the kids climbed up on the bed where he was sitting, gathered around Grandpa, and John took their picture. After a bit of chatter, I took our children out to the nursing home lobby so John and his Dad could visit in peace.
In due time, we came back to the room, and Grandpa again remarked, in surprise “Well, where did these children come from?” John again introduced our three youngsters, and Grandpa exclaimed, “Well, I’ll be! I think I’d like to have my picture taken with them!” John smiled and agreed that this was a good idea and motioned to our kids. With sideways grins in our direction, the they climbed up on the bed again, gathered around Grandpa, and John took their picture.
These were bittersweet moments during one of our last visits with John’s Dad in the summer of 2001. As difficult as it was that he did not know his grandchildren, we got some wonderful photos of them all together on this occasion—photos that we treasure, to be sure.
In many ways, Dad Mehl’s loss of memory was especially striking because he was always a strong advocate of memorization, including Bible passages, the catechism, or really anything he learned. He grew up in an era when learning things “by heart” was the order of the day, and it was common for him to remind us that the things we know by heart give us “hooks to hang our thoughts on.” He was also fond of the Latin phrase “Repetitio est mater studiorum” (in English, “repetition is the mother of study”). He read widely, had a broad scope of knowledge, shunned calculators, loved word puzzles. He had a keen, active and organized mind which carried him through many life experiences and situations, touching lives and leaving solid foundations.
Our visit with Dad Mehl and the snapshots of that day have been on my mind in recent weeks because John and I have learned of several people among our extended family and friend groups who are also facing the effects of memory loss. Some of these people are recently diagnosed, and some are to the point of entering “memory care” facilities. And while John’s Dad, at 94 years of age, might reasonably have expected to have failings of mind and body, these friends are much younger and may have many years, yet, to live.
There are two related themes that seem common when families face the loss of memory in one of their own. On one hand, the ones with memory issues may fear that they, themselves, will be forgotten—and their loved ones likewise hate this thought. If the situation deteriorates and being cared for at home becomes impossible, will they be remembered? Or will they live out their lives in an institution, both forgetting and forgotten? And on the other hand, loved ones anticipate with sorrow the day their husband, wife, mom, dad, sibling, or friend will see them, but without recognition. For all concerned, the phrase “Remember me” is both a question—”Remember me??”—and a plea—”Remember me!!”
Recently, for my personal Bible study, I began reading 1 Samuel, which opens with the story of Hannah, mother of Samuel the prophet. Many of us know about Hannah. She was barren and longed to have a child. Her situation was made more difficult by the fact that her husband’s other wife had several children and felt free to mock Hannah for the fact that she was childless. (And let me just say that I appreciate the fact that Hannah’s husband was loving and tender toward her, not seeing her as a failure or disappointment… Still, his question, “Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” may be evidence that he did not fully understand Hannah’s grief!)
Every year Hannah’s family group went up to the temple at Shiloh to worship and sacrifice during the Feast of Tabernacles. There came a year when Hannah had apparently reached her breaking point. Unable to eat, she rose from the meal and went to pray, and with many tears she made a vow to God, “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life…”
Remember me. Have you noticed that the phrases, “Remember me” and “God remembered” appear frequently in the interplay between God and his people, especially in the Old Testament? In our experience, a plea like “Remember me,” spoken to another person, most often means something like, “Hey—don’t forget me!” knowing that this is all too likely to happen. But when God’s people raised this plea in the Bible, it was a request for something far more active and purposeful. When Hannah asked God to remember her, she was not simply asking God to acknowledge her existence, but she was begging him to act on her behalf.
Acting on our behalf. What a powerful way God has of remembering his people. It’s so much more than tapping his forehead as he recalls, “Hannah…Hannah—Oh, yeah! Hannah’s that barren woman with the spiteful sister wife.” It’s not simply His calling to mind who we are but his coming to our aid because we are His. In Hannah’s case, this meant opening her womb and giving her a son. When we ask God to remember us, we acknowledge His power and ask him to act on our behalf when we are overwhelmed and completely lacking in power–whether on a personal scale or a scale of worldly proportions.
God’s “memory” is a remarkable thing. A quick search produced this short list of people and things God remembered, sometimes in a response to a plea to “Remember me” or “Remember your people,” and sometimes simply because He is a faithful God: Noah and his family, Rachel, Abraham, and God’s covenant with Abraham, the children of Israel in Egypt, Samson, Hezekiah, the thief on the cross next to Jesus. Most notably, God remembered (acted on behalf of) the entire world, mired in sin and in need of a Savior. As promised already in Genesis, He gave His Son Jesus for the sake of the world and every single person in it. Through Jesus’ saving sacrifice and resurrection, he has provided for our complete forgiveness.
When we ask God to remember us, not only in our sin, but also in our disappointment and our suffering from the mortality of our bodies—even the bewildering situation of memory loss—we can be sure that he does, because he has. Hannah’s story continues in 1 Samuel 1:20 , where we read that, when they returned to their home, Hannah’s husband, Elkanah, “made love to his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. So in the course of time Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son.” Acting on her behalf, God made it possible for her to have a child, Samuel, a leader of God’s people–and later five more sons and daughters.
Do you have stories that can start with the phrase, “God remembered…?” I do. That’s part of why I write. From very real needs of daily life, to waiting on Him and his timing, to relationships among family and friends, to my need for forgiveness, he has acted on my behalf, beyond my human ability to comprehend. Quite often, God remembers us through the actions of other people, in ways we hardly expect. He has done this in my life, and I pray to be ready when the opportunity arises to be that person for others–especially to be aware that the words, “I remember you!” bring great assurance from God, but are also treasured when spoken and demonstrated person-to-person.
We are now in the midst of the season of Lent. There is much to be remembered in these weeks, beginning with the shame of remembering and acknowledging our sins before the Lord. We would like to just forget them, but in truth they are “ever before us,” as David wrote in Psalm 51. And how well we know that forgetting them does not remove them. So we plead with God, “Remember me! Act on my behalf in my sinful condition!” In return, God calls on us to remember him—his mighty deeds, his miracles, his judgments, his mercy and his promises, kept when he sent Jesus to be our Savior. We consider these and stand in awe of them.
Perhaps most remarkable, in this season, is to ponder the one situation in which God does not remember. It is not a memory failure, but an act of will. In Isaiah 43:25 he reminds us, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” We lay the burden of our sin before the Lord, and Jesus takes it on himself, and God removes it “as far as the East is from the West.” Remembered no more.
We may sometimes feel that we approach God tentatively, doubtfully– “Remember me?” Instead, because we have been made his through Jesus, we can be confident in our plea—“Remember me, O Lord! Act on my behalf! Act on behalf of those I love!” And when we read God’s command to “Remember me!” let’s do it with praise for His power to act in our most powerless situations, whether in our immediate circumstances, or in the scope of eternity. In our humanity and our mortality, our memories may fail, but God has demonstrated again and again, “Remember me? Remember me! For I remember you, my child. For now and for eternity, I am acting on your behalf.”