What Do You Know by Heart?

Photo: Norma Sessions

It was October 2016 and we were sitting at the kitchen table, eating our morning cereal. I was looking at news articles on my phone and mentioning headlines to Dale.

Suddenly Dale was tearful. When I asked what was wrong, he said, “I’m so sad for the bishop.”

“The bishop” was Dale’s name for our friend, Kenneth Carder. We had not been talking about him, but suddenly Dale was crying for him.

For months we had been visiting Kenneth’s wife Linda at Bethany, the memory care unit in our retirement community. With each visit, I would have to remind Dale why we were going. I had no idea that he could retain any understanding of the Carders’ situation.

Decades earlier, Dale preached a sermon with the title, “What Do You Know by Heart?” At the beginning of the sermon, Dale explained that his question was not about rote memorization, but about the things that we know by heart, that are “etched upon the walls of our inner being, stitched upon the fabric of our souls.” He then shared stories in which Grace was experienced and the person was touched deeply—and changed by—Love.

That sermon title and meaning remained with me over the years. Following the breakfast table conversation, I wrote in my journal: “He may not remember many things, but he knows the important things by heart.” I noted also that he had cried at a neighbor’s funeral the previous week and had cried when he learned about another neighbor’s illness. He would not have been able to recite any details about these people, but he was able to know deeply and share in the sadness of each situation.

Despite greater confusion and far fewer words now, Dale embodies important things by heart. He greets each person he sees with warmth and genuineness: “You’re good!” or simply, “You ARE!” One of the last times we were in our community dining room Dale told a new server, “I love you!” The light in her face revealed the power of his heartfelt statement.

I will close with words from his sermon: “…Grace spills forth…not because we earn it. We can’t. Not because we merit it. We can’t. But only because at the heart of all life beats a heart of Love. I know this by heart because it changed my life.”

Yes indeed, Dale. Thanks be to God.


“Well, that was a big mess,” Dale whispered in my ear as he sat down beside me in the pew.

It was January 2015 and Dale was serving as lector in the chapel of our retirement community. He had just read the scriptures for the day and struggled with words more than he ever had before. The parts he read well were beautiful. But alongside those words, I could hear evidence of the ones the disease had begun to steal.

Words. They were Dale’s medium.

An enthusiastic speaker, an energetic conversationalist, a voracious reader, a quick-witted tease—words were how Dale engaged in the world.

They were his tools as pastor and chaplain: words of comfort at bedsides, eloquent prayers in worship, words of instruction and challenge in teaching and preaching.

Words filled our life together. Dale would wake up talking, sharing his thoughts about what he had been reading, or a new sermon topic, or his concerns about current issues. He filled notepads with words as ideas flowed. He filled his mind with words read in newspapers, magazines, and books.

Photo: Norma Sessions

When the disease took hold, sentences began getting twisted. Reading and spelling became laborious. Comprehension started to fade. Speech grew sparse.

Like the slow defoliation of a great tree, Dale’s words began falling away.

It’s been the most shocking to me of all the losses so far, and the most challenging. As instructions became impossible for Dale to understand, I’ve had to depend on his willingness to follow as I guide us through each day.

Now few words remain. And those that do are as precious to me as the first words of a baby to a mother. Cherished. “Thank you.” “I love you.” “You’re good!” “You ARE!” “I know you!” “That’s stupid!” (Well, some cherished more than others.)

Dale and I are finding our way on new ground, without the familiar canopy of words. In its place, there is light…space…where other expressions grow: an outstretched hand, a smile, a soft pat on the back, shared laughter, a song, presence.

And in that space, love abides, words or no words.