Book Review: Take a Larger Way: Reflections of a Dementia Caregiver
by Jay Brenneman
In Take a Larger Way, Jay pulls together his meditations on his experiences of loss and confusion into a book of reflections charting his and Janene’s journeys, one into wounded caregiving and the other into suffering darkness. Jay tells his story well, describing the rich and rewarding life he and his wife shared, with a past rooted in family goodness, a treasury of love in their daughters, and the hope of golden years. Then, quite abruptly, that rich and rewarding life seemed over. Janene’s verbal lapses, odd forgetfulness, and personality shifts all began to add up to a devastating diagnosis.
In Take a Larger Way, Jay tells the good stories—vignettes from their past and unexpected glimpses of mercy, even in the raw suffering, that sustained faith. The story about her daughter’s touch and soft repetition of “Mama, Mama” opens up possibilities—“scientifically and neurologically impossible” possibilities—of experiencing grace when all the doors of grace seemed slammed shut.
He also tells the bad stories—stories about his own spiritual and relational disorientation, loss, gloom, shock, and grief at the letting go of expectations and plans and dreams. He tells the bad stories about Janene’s fall from the peaks of achievement and talent and vigor and joy into the darkness of forgetfulness and lethargy. Anyone who has cared for someone they love who is seriously ill, who is slipping away from them day by day, will understand these good stories and bad stories. They weave in and out of one another with just enough exquisite pain and love to keep us tracing them over in our minds, wondering that so much love can be so very painful.
Jay also probes, gently, the spiritual ramifications of apparently random suffering. If, indeed, we live in a world where the supernatural is real and present, what does that mean for our long journeys of suffering? What? No magic wands? Rather, Jay suggests, we should be weighing the likelihood that our journeys themselves are paths of holiness, sometimes shadowed so deeply that they seem to lead to death, but still the path of accompanying angels.
Jay closes his book with a remarkable story about some of Janene’s last words to him, words that, again, are logically quite unlikely, perhaps impossible. Long after she had lost most language abilities, she gave to him one last message from her heart. That message launched Jay into a deeper, fuller “spiritual awakening,” a new vista both for their relationship of loss and grief and his own journey forward.
That message was rich and beautiful and evocative, and while Jay’s interpretation of her words is surely a true one, perhaps there is another that is equally true. Perhaps with those few words, she gave him, and us, the readers, a glimpse into her own experience. For, you see, I came away from the book wondering about Janene’s experience.
We accompany Jay, and we can relate to his raw emotions and honest explorations, but Janene too is on a journey. Of course, we know her disease has ravaged her, saturating her mind and body with intense suffering, but perhaps that “larger way” she speaks to him is a word to us all about how we should view ourselves, our experiences, and our God. He is larger, always larger—greater, wiser, more compassionate and more tender than anything we have yet conceived of. She, too, even in her darkness, may be experiencing a path of holiness, glimpses of glory, and new vistas of grace. She too is on a larger way. I rather hope so.