Feeling Useful Even When You’re Sick

My mom in Useful, Missouri

February 11th, 2022 – Post #32

I’ve always liked this picture of my mom.

I don’t know where the town of “Useful” is, but who doesn’t want to go there?

I think so many of us live our lives looking for meaning, hoping somehow, we can be “Useful”.

We have our own ideas of what being “Useful” looks like, and when we don’t get to implement our plans, it can be frustrating.

Watching my mom wander around in her bathrobe, saying she ought to be doing something, and then sitting down again, too tired to try working on her To Do List, makes me think of how the seasons of what “Useful” looks like change throughout a person’s life. My mom has always been a hard worker. Her parents were farmers. They were called “Grandpa and Grandma Woody” by the time I came along.

I remember Grandma Woody starting every day with a To Do List, written on a used envelope, and slid under her placemat at the table for safekeeping. She usually had several items scratched off before the sun, or any of us grandkids, had risen. Grandma Woody was a busy lady. We loved her cooking, and she worked hard to keep us clean, but I can’t say I got to know her too well when I was young.

Once, my mom got the idea to use a powder puff to create “bunny tracks”, so we kids could find where the “easter bunny” had supposedly left our baskets. Grandma Woody found those footprints first. Her vacuum was running well before dawn, as she wondered aloud what in the name of common sense all that white powder was doing on her clean carpet?!

She wasn’t too happy when her grandkids left tracks in her house either. Ours were usually comprised of mud, straw, and perhaps some residue from playing in the pigsty… As time went by, we got more conscientious about her carpet, and she got a little less particular about stray particles landing on it. I think in some ways, deteriorating eyesight can be God’s kindness to little old ladies who like everything to be “just so”, but lack the energy to keep things sparkling clean.

As Grandma Woody aged, she used to say, “My get up and go has got up and gone.” At times she seemed to feel guilty about that, but from my perspective, it wasn’t until she got too tired to keep a To Do List that we got a chance to sit and talk. Those last few years of her life are the ones I treasure most. She wasn’t in a hurry, and I no longer felt like I was in her way.

I remember once, helping her get ready for bed in the nursing home. She looked down at her bare chest and admitted rather dryly, “The Old Gray Mare ain’t what she used to be.” We both laughed out loud. She’d been a real workhorse in her day, but some of our most precious moments together happened after she’d gotten “put out to pasture”. At times she wondered out loud why God had kept her alive for one-hundred-and one years. I couldn’t say all the reasons for sure, but I was glad He did, because I knew that she was a gift to me. I don’t know if I ever did convince her that He had a purpose for her life every day He gave her breath, but I knew in my heart that it was true, whether she felt “Useful” or not.

As for Grandpa Woody, I remember my mom’s brother, Danny, talking about their dad, being frustrated about being old. Danny told me, “Your grandpa would stand at those windows on the back porch, leanin’ on his elbows, lookin’ out at the fields, watchin’ me pass back and forth on the tractor. He wore out the paint on the windowsills with his elbows, standin’ there so much. He wanted so badly to be out there himself.”

Grandpa Woody had farmed all his life, and I suppose he felt like that’s what he’d been born to do, but he’d gotten to a point when getting in and out of a tractor was just too much. I didn’t know that at the time. I had no idea Grandpa Woody didn’t feel “Useful”. I only knew I was so glad to sit with him on his enclosed back porch in his orange chair. That particular piece of furniture had to be fortified with the miraculous help of duct tape, because we grandkids gathered there so often.

Grandpa Woody never ran out of room in his recliner, showing hospitality by letting us crawl up in his lap, and pile along the arms of that poor, dilapidated chair. I remember him trying to watch a little black and white toaster oven sized TV, upgraded with the additional technology of aluminum foil covering the rabbit ears. Whatever was showing on the screen usually just looked like a snowstorm, because of the poor reception. It wouldn’t have mattered if the picture had been crystal clear, because our heads would have been blocking his view anyway.

I never once remember him complaining. He’d patiently let us play with his astonishingly long earlobes, but those weren’t nearly as fascinating as the round ball near the bend of his elbow. When his shirt sleeves were rolled up, exposing his tanned arms, I liked to wiggle that lump back and forth in circles. I remember asking him once what that mysterious thing was. He told me he’d swallowed a marble as a kid. I swallowed that story as gospel truth and didn’t clue in that it was some kind of cyst until I was in my twenties – finally realizing our intestines aren’t designed to divert foreign objects into our limbs. It’s a wonder I didn’t swallow a marble myself since Grandpa Woody’s was so fun to play with.

Anyway, looking back at two of the people I’ve loved best, I can see that they went through seasons when they didn’t feel “Useful” like they wanted to, and all I can say is, I’m so glad they could no longer do what they liked, because I would have missed so much if they’d been in mission-mode, instead of sitting still, taking time to tell stories, and laugh, and sit quietly, with nowhere to rush off to.

A verse in the Bible that has been on my heart a long time is Romans 8:28, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”

I’m seeing that when our plans for how to be “Useful” fail, God still has purpose for each of us. Getting frustrated, or fighting against the reality of our situations doesn’t get us very far. I’ve been learning more and more, sometimes it’s best not to hold too tightly to my To Do List. Sometimes sitting still is the most “Useful” thing I can do in a day, especially if it’s with someone who isn’t moving very fast.

That phrase “all things” sticks out to me – “all things work together for good” – even old age, sickness, pancreatic cancer, and To Do Lists that never quite get done. The main thing is to keep loving God through it all, and watch to see how His purposes are fulfilled when we most fear everything around us is just falling apart.

I know that my mom still has a To Do List that she keeps wishing she could get done.

She wants to sew.

She wants to wash the windows.

She wants to work in the yard.

She wants to write Thank You notes.

She wants to clean out closets.

She wants to do all sorts of thing.

Mostly she ends up just sitting still.

A lot of times she ends up telling stories.

We almost always end up laughing.

I have to say, I like it.

There are still things to get done:

It’s often a team effort to get her Cheerios assembled in the morning.

Getting dressed doesn’t always happen.

As for a shower, well, she probably doesn’t want her hit or miss hygeine schedule disclosed on CaringBridge…

She keeps saying she ought to be getting something done.

I imagine she doesn’t feel “Useful”.

But I think someday I will look back on this season as some of my favorite times with her.

It hasn’t been easy, but I’m grateful we’ve gotten this time together.

She’s “Useful” to have around.

  • My mom just informed me that Useful is in Missouri – so that’s fitting, since I guess we can find something “Useful” even in a state that sounds like “Misery”.

Click here to read my mom’s reaction to high beam radiation.

*To read more on my mom’s cancer journey from the beginning, or share it, please click below:


I'm not sure what to say here: I once got second place in a dog-look-alike-contest? I know how to fold a fitted sheet? I'm pretty much a poster child for social backwardness - at least as far as social media is concerned; but I have some stories I think I'm supposed to share and am attempting to do that here, in this space.

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