The Best Advice I Ever Had Came in the First Grade — Stop! Look! Listen!

“Look for the little things,” a friend told me. “And be thankful.”

How can I be thankful when all I see is my wife slipping away from me?! I asked myself that question more times than I care to admit. I could give lip service to being grateful, but I didn’t feel it deep inside. God and I had issues. 

Three years after my wife Martha was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, her capabilities were slipping. She could still walk and care for herself, but with some difficulty. Her speech was more erratic. And I had trouble perceiving what she understood and what she didn’t. 

About then, our friend Rev. Lacy Harwell (more on him here and here) invited Martha to lunch. I wonder how that will go, I asked myself. This is an entry from my journal, as told to me by Lacy:

“After lunch, Lacy and Martha went to Maximo Presbyterian, where he’d been the minister for a long time. They talked with several friends in the office there. Before leaving, Lacy suggested they step into the sanctuary. The two stood in the back in silence. They made quite a pair standing side-by-side—Lacy at 6-foot-4, 265 pounds and Martha at 5-foot-7, 125 pounds. 

“Lacy was distressed by problems that had arisen at the church since his retirement a few years earlier. As they stood there in the quiet, Lacy sighed. Martha looked up into his eyes and then slipped her hand into his, saying, 'It’s hard, isn’t it?'

“I was stunned when I heard this. I couldn’t remember when I saw this kind of sophistication in Martha, of being able to process the emotion of the moment. In my surprise, all I can say is thank you, my Lord. Thank you for the rays of light breaking through the darkness.” 

Look for the little things, I’m told. And be thankful. 

In my forthcoming book A Path Revealed, our son David shares his own moment of grace. After graduating from college in 1998 he spent the winter-spring ski season in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. “As a swimmer in college I had no room in my schedule to reflect on things,” he says. “I was generally successful in the areas I was supposed to be successful in, but I wasn’t happy.” So David was hoping that decompressing as a ski bum would permit him to catch up to his feelings about his mother and whatever else. It didn’t. Instead, he says, he was “depressed a lot.”

David continues: “I wasn’t in a great place. My trying to do my life hadn’t gone well. I also was trying to figure out the God and Jesus thing.” He says he listened to the John Main tapes I’d given him and tried to do “some meditation.” He also read a few books by Frederick Buechner, Thomas Merton, and other spiritual writers. When he was ready to leave Jackson Hole, he says, “I decided to try and let God do my life rather than me.” 

David and his future wife Katie pulled out in May 1999, driving west before turning back east. At a layover in southern California, David ran along a beach in Ventura then stopped short. He stooped down, cupped up a big handful of the Pacific Ocean, and poured it on his head. “Baptizing myself,” David says. “I didn’t know if that was the right theology, but I didn’t care. Jackson Hole for me was the desert, and I was coming out.” 

Stop. Look. Listen.

In 2001, four years after Martha’s diagnosis, our family got together one evening with Martha’s brothers and families to celebrate their parents’ 60th wedding anniversary. After dinner a dance band began to play, and Martha jumped up; dancing was a great love of hers. She must have danced an hour or more with her brothers and David and me. You would never have known she had difficulty walking.     

In a note to our children, I wrote: “My heart melted in joy last night, watching your Mom dance with all the family. We talked about it, David. It truly was a healing moment—for her as well as for me. Seeing her confidence, her rhythm, the fun she was having. She was an equal among equals on the dance floor, yet better than most. What a nice, welcome change.”

Look for the little things. And be grateful. 

In 2008, Martha moved into a nursing home. By this time she couldn’t walk, couldn’t talk, and couldn’t care for herself. When I visited Martha she frequently was agitated, tossing and turning in her chair or bed. Only occasionally did she recognize my voice. I would sit beside her and slowly work my hand into hers, which often was clenched into a fist. Soon, though, our hands relaxed within each other’s while I sat quietly, meditating. More times than not, a stillness descended on us. Martha’s body calmed, as did my mind. I sensed that this was Christ’s presence, but I couldn’t prove it. In no other setting, however, had I more consistently felt this peaceful presence—sitting with Martha, being still, holding her hand.  

Stop, look, and listen. And be thankful for the little things. 

Have you been able to stop in the midst of your crisis? To look and listen? To be grateful? Do you care to share? If so, email me at Or you can follow me on Facebook or Twitter.

God bless us all real good. 

I am offering a free guide, "How Can My Crisis Be Turned Into A Spiritual Journey Filled With Meaning?" which shares my experience in learning how to negotiate such a trek. To receive it, and sign up for my weekly newsletter, please fill out this form:

P.S. In closing, I remind you that I’m neither a licensed psychologist/psychiatrist nor an ordained minister. What I’m sharing in this post and others is drawn from nearly two decades of experience in wrestling with the consequences of Alzheimer’s disease on our family. Each person’s odyssey is unique. As you travel your own path and encounter serious obstacles—be they mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual—I strongly encourage you to start an ongoing conversation with a trusted counselor, guide, pastor, or doctor.