Thursday, November 7, 2013

Some Thoughts on Reading in the Sick Room

It is natural I suppose, that as our family's present concern is ministering to my mother in our home during her last weeks or days of life, I should find myself musing upon the role of books and reading in the sick room. When reading is woven into the fabric of ordinary days, its role is equally important in the tapestry of life during extraordinary times.

Usually when guests are in our home, their needs and amusements are our focus and personal pursuits are temporarily set aside to meet them. In the case of caring for a terminally ill dear one, the distractions are constant and intense. The effort is not for short-term amusement, but for immediate comfort and tending to the most basic physical needs. Each hour is a day long to the bedridden loved one whose every breath is a battle and whose each simple daily requirement is dependent on the help of others. The simplest pleasures of past healthy days grow in importance.

A friend shared how one of her precious memories of the last weeks with her mother was in reading the latest Jan Caron novel to her. My mother also is intermittently enjoying listening to books on CD, the kinds she used to turn the pages of for herself; they are a link to life, draw her attention to the plights and pleasures of characters in stories, and help carry her through the endless pain-filled hours and enforced confinement. Though visitors are a welcome break in the monotony of the sick bed, books provide company without the challenging effort to engage in conversation. They are undemanding companions that provide another form of real comfort.

I recall reading in The Plug-In Drug by Marie Winn, the shift in care of sick children that has occurred since the arrival of television. In former times tending to the sick meant sitting beside them, playing games or reading to them during convalescence. Not only has the TV replaced these activities in healthy days and become a child pacifier or "baby sitter" to keep kids occupied and out of busy parents' activities, but has become the chief form of occupying the sick child also. It keeps them quiet and allows the adult to carry on without much interruption in the normal routine. I second the author's opinion that much is lost in making use of this convenience.

Illnesses rarely appear at opportune moments. Still, unexpected interruptions do not surprise the God who has, in His loving goodness, orchestrated our days. If anything, these seeming setbacks in our plans can be a chance to enrich relationships. Our tending to, and presence with, a sick child can demonstrate a living picture of the caring presence of God to our children as we represent Him in their lives and literally show them His bearing with us in our infirmities, supporting us in our weakness. My own childhood memories of sick days holds a store of treasure: relatives who came with gifts and stayed to tell stories, who gave their undivided attention, who reassured me in my miseries that life would get better.

As veterans of many a routine virus or childhood illness, we may forget the fear and loneliness of a child that accompany sudden bouts of never before experienced attacks on the body. Our nearness is a reassurance in a child's uncomfortable experience. Besides tissues, fluffed pillows, medicines, special foods, gentle touches, smiles, and constant nearness, I also strongly recommend the generous dosing of good books and stories in caring for the sick. For those who never seem to find "time to read," here is your shining opportunity. (It also occurs to me that it may be a boon for the reluctant reader, a discovery of the pleasure of a good book.)

It makes no difference if the child drifts off to sleep during the reading or is too restless and preoccupied to pay perfect attention, because it is the sound of your voice and the aural reminder of your presence that is the medicine. Reading is often the best the doctor can offer as it is a quiet and restful activity. At the same time, it diverts the mind from the focus on the body's battle. Reading is the valuable distraction for the fretful child, not to mention furnishes the lasting benefit of the enduring memories of the enjoyable tale which outlasts the memory of the not-so-enjoyable trial. It is also valuable to the care giver, not only in giving an absorbing occupation during long bedside vigils, but our quiet reading presence is vital to the sick one, an awareness of our reassuring presence. Reading is something tangible we can do when we feel helpless to bring relief to the sufferer.

My own recollection of episodes of childhood illness - the backdrop my bed or the sofa - elicit memories of the narrator's voice, my absorption in the unfolding plot of some distant book rather than the morbid preoccupation with my illness. For instance, my seventh grade bout of strep throat is dominated with the discovery of Surrender by Robb White. I literally read the book through three times successively as I waited for health to return, accompanying those two children through the Philippine jungle behind Japanese lines while they tried to make it back to the American base. Their terror and the tension of that story definitely minimized my aches and pains at the time.

I also remember laughing through a few physical afflictions. Just as the truth the Bible points out that "a cheerful heart does good like medicine," so a hilarious story can sprinkle sunshine and laughter into the otherwise gloomy situation of the sick room. I vividly recall the pain of having the mumps, holding my neck as it increased due to giggling my way through the pages of Kildee House, delighting in the way those raccoons outsmarted that old hermit.

Even as my children adjust to the presence of a critically ill grandmother, whose constant care consumes our attention, we are finding continuity in carrying on with our reading. Within our current stack of books are valuable lessons for coping with our present situation. As I read aloud Otto of the Silver Hand, the ideas of medieval Europe's ways of life during the vengeful and murderous days of the reign of the robber barons informed our knowledge of history, while Otto's misfortunes and resulting permanent physical harm that ultimately shaped his life revealed the possibility that undeserved cruelties do not condemn us to despair and defeat, but also hold redemptive pathways for us. His story subtly instructed us in coping with illness and physical pain. Incidentally, it is while Otto is abandoned in a dungeon cell, suffering excruciating pain from wounds, that his life is sustained by the visitation of a little girl to whom he tells beloved stories of his life.

Similar messages continue in The Door in the Wall, our current read aloud, the main character is found to be mysteriously crippled by a recent illness in the opening chapter and the entire story involves his discovery of patience and productive occupations during prolonged convalescence, the invaluable lesson of finding "the door in the wall" when physical infirmity seems to have blocked the future - a pertinent reminder to any of us at any time and a further evidence of God's grace to give my children insight. I also cannot resist pointing out that one of those opportunities Robin encounters is the joy of learning to read.

Yet again I am aware of God's kind hand in our life as I "chose" these selections months before I knew the circumstances that would surround the reading of them. And, yet again, I realize that, reading itself is a tremendous gift from our Lord for good days and bad days, one which instructs and entertains in every kind of day, brings insight and truth, beauty, and goodness to us in them all. In times of illness, At the very least, books renew hope, an essential prescription toward recovery. They remind us of a future, keep us anchored in the knowledge that there is another world outside our sick room one waiting for us to return to. Often the struggles of characters in our stories seem more real as we plow through our own pain, their fortitude encourages us to endure, puts our personal situation in perspective. Above all, they nourish us back to health as our imaginations are distracted, stimulated, inspired and strengthened to live fuller and more energetically when we are well physically, and we re-enter normal life recovered in body and refreshed in spirit.

For the joy of reading,



  1. Liz,
    You always give me so much to think about - thank you, and God bless you during these precious days as you care for your mom.

    Take care,

  2. Thank you, Kelly; they are precious days.

  3. I agree. Your last two sentences made me want to go get a book right now.
    God give you strength through these days with your mom. She is well loved.

    1. Bonnie,

      His grace is sufficient, and our books are one example of His grace to us. The reader finds them friends in every season of life.