Life looked very dismal, she told me, my sweet teenage friend. She was disclosing her story, how she had nearly lost hope and life had for awhile seemed pointless and empty and unlivable. Someone had "rescued" her, she said, had given her reason to hope again, and truly, she was one of the most fully alive, sparkling people I have ever known.
I don't remember much more, but the little quote she scribbled on a piece of scrap paper with her characteristic loopy hand-writing has haunted me in the three decades since our paths crossed:
the only reason I have
to take another breath."
I didn't know quite what she meant, but I was happy for her, happy for me to have such a free spirited, joyful friend.
Fast forward half a lifetime, and I'm suddenly having this discussion with some of my current friends; sometimes together, sometimes in lonely quiet moments, we're thinking more deeply, more personally about hope. We're pondering what it might look like when you've lost hope for a dozen reasons that others may or may not understand...
-family system dysfunction..
-doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results over and over and over again...
-living life in the tunnel of someone else's addiction or depression or mental health diagnosis, doubting there's light at the other end,
wondering if there even is an opening out there ahead of you
in the blackness of the future that is another day/week/month/year.
You get the picture? It's a dark one. Hopeless, maybe.
I was just about there, a few weeks ago, for multilayered reasons I won't go into here. Let's just say, my life can get bleak sometimes. (Yours too, I'm guessing. And if not, don't judge. Rather give thanks, and hang on for the ride, your turn might be coming.) And one of my friends picked up on my pain, paused to pick me up, and tagged the picture I tearfully drew for her with a single word: Hope.
She saw it fading in my eyes, heard the rope running fast through my slipping grasp, burning and blistering and ready to take me into deep dark water. Hope. It was what I lost sight of on the dark days, when I could no longer hear that quiet voice that gives reason and strength and purpose to try again tomorrow.
My friend said she had a verse to give me, which made me pause. I am one who deeply loves the Holy Writ, but I've been hit over the head occasionally by (well intentioned?) folks wildly wielding the Word, so I'm just a little wary when someone wants to "give me a verse." (Remember the old advertisement, "How about a nice Hawaiian punch??" Yeah, wary like that little man in the red flowered shirt should have eventually been!) But her verse was truly a gift, and the time I spent lingering over these words refreshed me more than any glass of sugary red sweetness:
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing,
so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.
Some of you know that the way I study the Bible includes a tall stack of various translations (all paper and ink - I'm not, not, NOT an e-reader woman, but that rabbit trail is too long for today..perhaps a separate post, someday, someday.)
a stack of Bibles, including a Key Word study Bible.
a big fat Strong's Concordance (called Strong's because the wonderfully gifted and obviously ODC man who compiled it was named James Strong, not because you have to be strong to heft its 1700+ pages onto your desk).
and a fine little Zebra M-301 0.5mm lead pencil. (Okay, maybe Mr. Strong isn't the only one with a little OCD going on here…)
Seriously, I love digging around those pages, trying to more clearly understand the meaning of the phrases and ideas. And I love discovering what God seems to be saying to me, right here, right now. Sometimes I have passed along what I'm learning from a particular passage to a friend, hopefully gently and with kindness and caution and…maybe, hope. I call my ponderings the Expanded Brenda Zook Version… (EBZV) So, here are some thoughts on Romans 15:13 EBZV.
May the God of hope - God, my source of hope…
and what is hope? "the confident expectation of good"
Fill you (me!) yep, FILL. Not measure out a mouthful or pour out a three second dribble like an old time Mennonite baptism, but FILL as in cram a net, level up a hollow place, supply abundantly.
With all joy and peace – not either or, but both/and!
joy: cheerfulness, calm, delight, gladness
peace: quietness, rest tranquility, peace of mind.
In believing – in trust, you (and I!) trusting, having faith in Him,
So that by the power of the Holy Spirit – that One in me, with me, guiding, keeping, aiding… me?! Yes, me.
You – Yep, and me, again!
May abound – superabound in quantity or quality, be in excess, have enough and to spare…oh, there is just so MUCH in this phrase...so. much.hope.
In hope – in the confident expectation of good.
The bookends of this verse: beginning and end, hope.
The superlatives of this verse: fill you, all joy and peace, abound in hope.
The energy and Source and power of this reality: The God of hope, the Holy Spirit's power.
The recipients of this promise: You. And me? oh, pick me, pick me my heart is calling. Wait. He did.
And look, it's Thursday again. And Thursdays are for thankfulness. So lifting my face to heaven, to God, I give thanks for hope:
Where else could I hope to find hope but in You alone, Source and resource of hope? I want to drink my fill, to have enough and to spare, to abound in hope, based not on my efforts or plans or anything I can see or do, but in what I know of Your faithfulness and unfailing love for me. In You alone do I find hope, for on You alone I can, I must lean in confident expectation of good. My hope is in You, for You are truly, wholly, always good. I will lean on this truth and trust You. My hope is in You. Amen.
Hope...the only reason I have to take another breath...
It was a perfect day for mountain hiking, alone. The air had warmed considerably to about seventy degrees from early morning lows near forty. The breeze kept any bugs away, but I really don't think the little critters have figured out the hot/cold/hot/cold spring we've been having, so they were a non-problem all around. The birds seemed exuberantly thankful for a balmy afternoon, and the trees were alive with their songs, like beautiful background music on continuous shuffle.
This jaunty little fellow greeted me almost at once; he seemed to haunt my path, disappearing and reappearing thoughout the afternoon. By the time I parked my bicycle back in the garage, my bird list totaled 29, and I'm not sure I remembered all of them. My pick-of-the-day was a pileated woodpecker whose long shadow preceeded him down the mountain, giving me a literal heads up that something big was on the way. What a treat!
Some of the early wildflowers have taken their bow for this year, but the show goes on, and new cast members appear as the weeks pass. The valley meadows are bursting with buttercups, but timid beauties like this delicate blue-eyed grass add their own splendor in small places.
I walked and walked and walked. I sat. I thought long thoughts or no thoughts at all. (Is that possible??) I fell asleep. I listened to the noisy quiet, to wind rustle and bird song. I stood perfectly still for minutes at a time. Eventually, I breathed deeply and began to look for a writing rock. A poem had been steeping in the back, back, back of my mind since my last long hike, three long weeks ago. My life and mind had been scrambled and noisy, and the words had been lingering so long, I was afraid they would dry up and disappear. I found a just right rock and penned (actually penciled...) my central Pennsylvania mountains version of John Masefield's poem, Sea Fever.
I must go back to the trees again, to the lonely trees and the sky,
And all I ask is a long path, with a sitting rock nearby.
And the wren's joy and the wind's song and the aspen quaking,
And a green dress on the shy trees, edged in greeen lace, shaking.
...and the bloom scent...
I must go back to the trees again, to the carefree hiking life,
To the squirrel's way and the fern's way, where the thrush plays a lonely fife,
And all I ask is a place to write with my thoughts upended,
And an empty page with a pencil, sharp, when the sun's descended.
And all I ask is a long path...
I must go back to the trees again, for the call of new life, restored,
Is a loud call and a clear call that cannot be ignored.
And all I ask is a breezy day with the tall trees sighing,
And the warm rays and the bloom scent, and the red tails, crying.
..and the fern's way...
It's time to write again. I've been tip-toeing my way through some kind of new non-crisis normal.
It's been two months since my mother died, and there is a question that sometimes hits me like a bowling ball to the knees.
I try to dodge it if at all possible.
It seems that everywhere I turn, people - well meaning, loving friends and acquaintances -
are asking me, asking me, asking me a question I cannot seem to answer to anyone's satisfaction, including my own.
And that unanswerable question is:
How are you doing?
How. am. I. doing.
What if I don’t know?
What if I am just getting through each day the best that I can,
tentatively putting one foot ahead of the other,
step, step, step.
What if I barely know what I'm doing, let alone how I'm doing.
What if I'm just "doing"?
How am I doing?
Doing what? Grieving?
I'm doing it very poorly today, thank you.
I feel like a trainwreck and I’m not sure I should even be seen in public,
but I had to run out to get a few things at the store because our household is completely out of toilet paper, so here I am.
I am not doing well at all but I don’t want to talk about it, not with you, not here, not now. (Maybe not ever.)
That's how I'm (not) doing.
How am I doing?
Doing what? Getting along without a mother? (Have you ever lost your mother??)
Well, in my case, she didn't leave abruptly.
God in his infinite wisdom and sense of humor knew that neither my mom nor I have ever been fond of change,
so we had plenty of time to prepare for the inevitable.
So, some days I don’t really think of bout her a whole lot
and then when I do I feel guilty about that.
Right after which I feel relieved that it's over.
Followed by more guilt.
Some (most?) days I don't have tears.
And then I feel weird about that.
Still, I no longer have a mother, and sometimes that thought hits me hard, out of the blue.
One day I was trying to remember if I'd told her about Extra Eldest's new car, and realized of course I didn't tell her because I saw it for the first time in all of its sleek newness the day of the funeral. Her funeral. So, not only didn't I tell her, I never could. And that seems like the saddest thought in the world because she would have been so proud of him. And there are suddenly plenty of tears.
Just this week, during our family vacation/spring field trip, the guys were thrilled to find a Golden Corral, a restaurant Youngest frequented with my parents "back in the day." Once Mom asked him what he was looking forward to eating, and his ready response was "cottage cheese and dill pickles." I knew if I could call her just for a moment from the parking lot, she would retell that story and we would laugh together. But I couldn't call her. And for a few moments, I wasn't doing well at all. Life is different without a mother.
How am I doing?
Don't worry, I know that if you've asked me how I'm doing you meant well, and that's exactly how I took it.
And I know, know, know
I've often posed that impossible question to others.
But I want to be more thoughtful, more careful about glibly spinning out those words.
I want to find different words, new questions, gentler ways to reach toward people walking difficult paths:
I've been thinking of you.
How can I help?
Could we clean out/wash your car for you?
Are you sleeping at night?
Are you eating?
When can I bring a meal?
You have been in my prayers. How can I pray for you? We've been praying for you.
The gift of prayers has carried me through some rough terrain.
Hearing these words has made me feel cared for and loved and not forgotten.
I know my mother prayed regularly for me, for my sons and their families,
and some days I wonder what that gap in prayer means for all of us.
So, if you've been one of those who have been praying,
whether you've told me or not,
I want to say thank you for your kind investment in my life.
And if I may, I'd like to add a request…please don’t stop just yet.
This weekend, the woods beckoned. The air was chill, but my soul was in need of the distinctive solitude of pine forest and mountain lake.
I had (very dirty) windows to wash at home, but it had been so long since I'd hiked beneath blue skies...
I sat on a bench that was almost warm and thought long thoughts, even did some scribbling on a scrap of paper I'd managed to remember to bring with me. I didn't see any turtles, but I felt like one, basking in the weak promise of late March sunshine.
A duckling squabble arose from the reeds nearby, (although I never saw the little ones,) and this joyful singer raised a song sparrow serenade from a nearby twig. His exuberance made me smile.
I meandered around the still, dark lake, soaking in the silence. Only my feet made a racket, scuffing through leftover leaves gathered inches thick on the seldom used trail. It felt good just to put one foot ahead of the other, following the curve of the path to wherever it led.
And then I saw these funny fellows and they made me chuckle. The roots were sprawled everywhere, and I wouldn've sprawled headlong if I hadn't been careful. They seemed posed for a picture, so I obliged. Like all the rest of us, they seemed to be waiting, waiting, waiting for the warm rays of spring sunshine. Of course, they've been lying there a long, long time. These days, I need the reminder of their patience as I wait for spring, wait, wait wait for it...
Sometimes a little humor helps me wait. Sometimes.
(a haiku for days when spring is not yet)
Lying in wait...
Gray roots line the shore,
Tired alligators longing
for first warmth of spring.
"It's Friday, but Sunday is coming." That's a quote we often hear or read during Holy Week, as we try to find a way to fast forward from the dark pain of Good Friday (which does seem like an oxymoron to me, and not only me apparently) to the light filled celebration of Easter
It's a post-resurrection privilege I enjoyed today, spending Saturday preparing home and food for the upcoming Easter feast, hiking in warm spring sunshine, humming songs like "Up from the Grave He Arose," anticipating the return of whatever was given up for Lent…(except, this year I felt like I was abruptly required to give up my mother for Lent, an irreversible loss that grieves me deeply and will never be undone…well, I cannot say "never," but that bit comes near the end of the post.)
All that to say… I spent the day looking forward, because indeed Sunday is coming. I don't think the disciples had the perspective of anticipation.
What were Jesus followers doing Saturday?
Were they gathered together, shell shocked mourners, sandal deep in pain? Were they in hiding, followers of a revolution gone bad, very very bad, now hoping against hope that those Romans weren't roaming the city, cleaning up the remaining rabble. Their Wonder Worker hadn't just let them down, he'd left them completely, and in the worst possible way.
The sun had gone down on their lives, and they weren't sure there would ever be a sunrise. There wasn't a backup plan.
As far as they could see, there hadn't even been a plan.
As far as they could see…which isn't much further than I can see most days, so I'm not giving them a hard time. I'm just figuring out that they were short sighted too. I like "it's Friday, but Sunday's coming," I just don't think they knew that. They didn't get it, shrouded as they were in vivid, ugly memories and groaning grief. They didn't remember what He had promised, not one of them.
The women trekking to the tomb early with spices didn't say, "Look, the stone is gone, He DID rise from the dead."
And when the women eventually told the disciples, no one believed them, no one said, "YES, YES, I knew He would!"
Peter and John didn't accept what their own eyes told them when they saw the empty tomb, and
the Emmaus Road travelers didn't even recognize Him when He walked and talked with them.
Grief blinded Mary mistook him for the gardener.
But all their unbelief, their short sightedness, didn't change reality.
Jesus had risen, Jesus has risen, and what a difference it made, what a difference it makes, what a difference it will make! On my own darkest days, my no-good Fridays, I no longer need to sit utterly bereft and inconsolable. I still grieve, but the resurrection of Jesus announced, pronounced, created a paradigm shift, a great divide, a watershed for all tears. On this side of Jesus death and resurrection, I grieve differently than did the disciples that awful, eternal Saturday. I grieve with heaven whispering in my ear. I say good bye, but only for now, and not forever. I wait with hope and certainty and expectation.
On days when life is harder than I'd ever dreamed, and I'm the shell shocked mourner, I know something the disciples didn't know that Saturday, that dismal day that seemed to stretch in darkness to the vanishing point of a thousand unknown tomorrows.
I know that Sunday is coming.
I've decided that March is as good a month as any for the unpredictability of grief.
There is always that question to ask, about the weather, about myself…
What will today be like?
Will the windshield wipers push away more wintry mix?
Or rain? Sleet perhaps?
Will the sky be as blue as a robin egg,
full of hope and Spring promise?
Will the bluebirds be singing or shivering?
Will the wind whisper softly in my ear as I hike the mountain, or moan around the living room window latch and tell me to stay indoors?
Will my viewfinder discover daffodils shoots or ice sculptures?
Will the sun warmly scent my sheets on the clothes line? Or,
Will the wild wind snarl them into a wrinkled mess just before yanking out every clothespin?
And the answer could be yes to any/many of these questions on any/many days. March is like that.
(I pity the poor souls who make their livelihood in weather prognostication. It is not a career for the fainthearted. Not in central Pennsylvania. Not in March.)
March weather is best described as…
Changeable: variable, unsettled, unpredictable. Hour to hour, one end of the valley to another. (Last week it was snowing in our front yard, but not in the back.)
Volatile: apt to become suddenly violent and potentially dangerous, unpredictable. (Especially if you happen to get caught driving in it.)
Fickle: indecisive, inconsistent, unpredictable, vacillating, capricious. Changeable in mood, temper or desire. (The poor robins can't seem to decide if they should begin nest building or fly south!)
Erratic: not predictable, regular, or consistent, especially in being likely to depart from expected standards at any time. (Last year at this time, I had flowers blooming in my garden. Lots of them. And I have picture evidence.)
And suddenly I'm not talking about the weather anymore, at least not the weather outside my Hickory Lane window. I’m describing grief. Again. Still. Grief is the window pain through which I'm viewing my world these days, and I'm never sure what I'll see.
The weather of grief is ..changeable, volatile, fickle, erratic, and most of all, unpredictable.
Some days, memories parade past my window.
There is chaos in the chronology.
My hours of picture sorting in the room I've dubbed "The Museum" contribute to the anarchy.
The photos seem to have taken on a life of their own, calling to me, marching through my days and haunting my nights.
It is perhaps my own version of March Madness.
Two sunbrowned boys are frolicking wildly in the pool at Grandma's house...and, just a few feet to the right stands a child ready for Sunday school, and I remember wearing that dress...
Now another girl smiles at me,
but I don't quite know her, not yet.
One day, she will become my mother.
My mother is holding a baby I know is me, and then
she's patting blue pajamied Youngest Mystery, and she's gained about 45 years. I blink, and I'm sharing secrets with Grandson C, and I'm older than Mom was when she held her first grandson.
The pictures are black and white. Or full color. Or sepia. They're clear. Vivid. Sharply focused. Or blurry.
Which could also be my eyes.
Mournful mix today, early tears, with a chance of late afternoon sobbing.
There are days when I gaze out the window of grief and there is only darkness.
I see nothing, I feel nothing.
I don't know if my emotional eyes are closed, or if there is a shutter closing off the view from the other direction.
I don't know why or how or who closed it or if it "should" be closed. I only know the quiet darkness.
Perhaps it is my soul's night and it is not the time for seeing.
Maybe it is a time for finding rest or at least a pause from the intensity of grief's seeing and feeling.
I don't know how long the darkness will last, or when it will return,
for grief work, grief weather is erratic.
Which is why March is a good month for grieving.
Occasionally I look through my window pain and see what is (almost) a normal landscape. (except that it is snowing. Again.)And I (almost) feel guilty about that. (Not about the snow, but about the normalness I feel.)
Relentlessly, life moves on and the neighbors prepare their fields for seeds but then it is snowing wildly again.
The robins are back, and the redwing blackbirds, and it doesn't seem possible that I will greet spring without my mother. I have never done that before, and there is nothing normal about it. Now the colors are all wrong or at least altered.
Oh dear, no one predicted heavy showers, but tears sweep the countryside. There is a chance the sun will break through later in the day…but don’t count on it. It is, after all, March. Not predictable.
But next weekend, March will end and my grief will continue. It will change of course, it already has, but I am under no illusion that turning a calendar page will bring an end to the unpredictability of my heart's weather. In fact, thoughts of balmy days, with blue skies and blooming flowers leave me feeling a little hesitant. What will it be like to grieve when everyone is feeling all happy happy about spring?
But I can't go there. Not yet.
Even on this difficult path,
I must choose
to be where my feet are.
Whatever comes in this journey,
I know I can lean heavily on God's arm.
I can count on His promised Presence,
(Oh, this One is predictable in all the best ways)
I know He will be walking with me through each day,
each changeable, volatile, fickle, erratic March day.
And when April comes
and May and June…
His extravagant grace will be new for me each day,
whatever the weather may be on either side of my window pain.
So, I'll keep walking...
I can't believe it's been a week since the world changed forever and my mother quietly finished her long uphill journey. Many people have expressed their love and care to our family, and we have been carried by that love. But of course we are bereft, and I find my thoughts churning like waves after a storm along the Jersey Shore that my mom loved so much. I might try to write more about those thoughts another time. But for now, I will reprint here, with a few changes, the informal obituary I prepared for my mother's memorial service last Wednesday. Who was Evelyn Mellinger Eby?
Evelyn Mellinger Eby was a daughter, a sister, a wife, a friend, a neighbor, a mother, and a grandma. Just three months ago, she became a great grandma, a fact that she gladly, proudly told everyone who came through her door in Oregon North at Landis Homes. Meeting Connor was a highlight of her final weeks. >>>
April ?, 1959
January 20, 2013
Mom loved plants and flowers and marveled at the Creator's work wherever she saw it. She (and Dad) tucked annuals everywhere around their house with the blue shutters on Main Street.
Mom's favorite family vacation spot was Ocean City, New Jersey, where she never tired of simply watching the waves roll in. Most desired Boardwalk stops were Mack and Manco's Pizza (which she always called Peesa) and Kohr's frozen custard. She liked morning surrey rides but wanted to be sure to steer clear of Fenwick's.
When she and Dad traveled to far flung corners with their
Circle gang, she reveled in the natural beauty of tropical blossoms, islands, volcanoes, and glaciers. Bald eagle watching topped almost every other activity.
My mom lived nearly all of her years in the little one-traffic-light town of Strasburg. (Oh, wait, I think it's a two traffic light town now.) She liked to eat part of her breakfast standing at the kitchen sink, enjoying this view of rural Strasburg and keeping her eye on the bluebird boxes and birdfeeders. Bluebirds, wrens, and cardinals were her favorite feathered friends, but she had no time at all for mockingbirds, starlings or hawks. She kept a cap gun in the drawer just inside the kitchen door to scare away the squirrels when Mart wasn't home to do more serious damage. Most days, Evelyn wore belted cotton dresses that zipped up the front and had a pocket for her "hankie." On cold days, she added a sweater and switched from ankle socks to knee highs. She loved coconut and asparagus, and had no time at all for peanut butter or blueberries.
Ham loaf in Grandma's kitchen!
Mom was a wonderful cook, and liked to fix everyone's favorite dishes for birthdays or any occasion! Her ham loaf, fried egg plant, and chocolate topped caramel pudding were the best! Mandarin orange jello salad was always a favorite, and even people who didn't like cranberries loved her holiday cranberry salad. She was pleased to share her recipes, especially when her grandsons began adding some women to the family. Mom and Dad ate out regularly through the years, an activity which consisted of finding and frequenting restaurants with food that tasted as much like Mom's as possible. Mom was a generous tipper, or perhaps it's more accurate to say she helped Dad to be a generous tipper. This might have been a flash back from her days as a Dutch Haven waitress when Dad was surely her favorite customer. (The question is, how well did he tip?)
My mother had a fairly extensive purse collection, but she always called them pocketbooks, and whatever you needed, it was in there… although sometimes it took quite awhile to find it. If there was a zipper pouch, it probably had a little money stashed in it, "just in case."
But that wasn't the only place Mom stashed money, for she had a giving heart. She and Dad helped purchase college textbooks and plane tickets to South Africa. Young people undertaking short term missions were likely to find themselves holding an envelope containing an encouraging note and some cash or a check tucked in to be used for the upcoming adventure. For decades, letters arrived from Christian Children's Fund expressing appreciation for monthly support. Quiz teams expenses were underwritten, missionaries opened envelopes with unexpected gifts.
Mom's life was framed by giving. And it wasn't just money. It was applesauce. Or plants from the flowerbeds. Or canned fruit. And even more often, her time.
For my mom always seemed to have time.
I don't remember my mom playing with me a lot when I was a child, but I remember her giving me lots of unstructured time and the freedom to be a kid. We saved orange juice concentrate cylinders so I could "can" in the sandbox; having a friend over meant tea parties for girls and dollies. But in the past decades, I observed a more playful side of my mom. She glady left "the work" go and played with grandsons, neighbor children, and some of her great nieces and nephews whom she babysat in later years. She ever so patiently played store, taking time to empty and restock her pantry shelves over and over again for small shoppers and fledgling cashiers.
Mom never had any interest at all in any professional sports team, including the Phillies, to the annual dismay of Dad. But if a grandson (or in earlier years…much earlier... a daughter) was involved in a sporting event (or any event for that matter) it changed everything. If our tiny town gave a prize for the grandparents who had traveled the most miles to support the team, my parents would have been the winners for over a dozen years now, from the days Oldest first played soccer, then basketball, right up through Youngest Mystery's debut in t-ball...soccer... baseball. It wasn't the event, it was the person. Home school programs, graduations, Suzuki concerts, Christmas programs; Grandma was proudly present. (Grandpa too.) Grandsons enjoyed their individual time at Grandma and Grandpa's house each summer, and Grandma made time for playing games, reading stacks of books and stopping at Freeze and Frizz; she planned special outings like trips to Lake Tobias and the Philadelphia Zoo.
But immediate family members were not the only recipients of this investment of time. When we became involved in foster care, my mom opened her heart and home to a few extra boys. There were always Christmas gifts for even the newest member of the family. Schedules and visits were often rearranged to fit the many needs of the extra guys. Grandsons, foster grandsons, Laotian refugees, carloads of kids for summer Bible school; my mom made time for people.
My mother deeply loved the church of which she had been a part from her earliest days. For many years, she taught Sunday School in the "upstairs" which is what the children's department was always called because that's where it was located. Summer Bible School meant soliciting Main Street with cards of invitation and then making multiple trips to the church with carloads of neighbor children. (In the days before seatbelt regulations, she could really pack them in!) Mom was a long time member of the Happy Helpers class, and her job as treasurer was one of the last activities she relinquished oh so reluctantly. She wanted to be faithful to her commitments.
Four of Mom's lifelong friends, Rosie, Evie, Ruth, Emma, gift receivers at her wedding.
Mom was always interested. She asked questions. She remembered names. She cared. She listened. It was what she did best. Ask her friends from Sunday school or from the Circle gangs. Ask her lifelong neighbors, her "other family," my almost brother, his wife and two children, now also grown up and moved away.
Even as sickness took its toll on her body, and she spent hours in bed every day with her feet happily protruding from her red blanket as she desired, Mom continued to be an attentive, caring listener. Wherever she live, first in a personal care apartment, and for her last six months in her one small room in health care, she connected with her nurses and caregivers. An overheard conversation one day during a blood sugar check began with Mom's quiet voice saying, "Now tell me about your boys." Mom cared deeply and she showed it by listening.
Psalm 1, Mom's Bible
When Mom was still at home on Main Street, her radio stayed tuned to a local Christian radio station, WDAC, all day, every day. She loved the Gaithers and John Starnes. The Sunday School Meditations program on Saturday evening was hallowed ground. For many years, contacting her by phone between 9:30 and 10 am was a no-no, because she was listening to Chuck Swindoll. She did more than just listen, she studied, she absorbed, she took notes, and she desired to apply what she learned in her daily time of Bible study. Her delight was in the word of God, and she studied faithfully.
Just a few weeks ago, when Max was reading scripture to her, he selected a rather obscure verse from his upcoming sermon, "Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness." (Lamentations 3:22,23) When he asked her if she knew where it was found, she smiled and replied, "Somewhere in Lamentations." She knew and loved her Bible, and it was her heart's desire to live a life faithful to the truth, to be a tree planted with roots deep in living water.
To her last days, my mom modeled what she had absorbed from the Word, not perfectly but faithfully. She was like a tree planted by streams of water and her life yielded the fruit of faithfulness and generosity. If we desire to finish our lives with faithfulness and gentle joy as she did, we would do well to follow her lifelong example, meditating on and delighting in God's word, for therein will we find the relationship that is source and resource for a generous, compassionate life.
This post is a continuation from last time, a record of some of my thoughts and memories from a day in November when my dad made a brief but intense visit to the hospital. Much has changed since that day two months ago. Dad has moved across campus to a memory support unit, and he probably doesn't remember the events I'm describing. But somehow, words help me to process this one way street of change I've been traveling with my parents for the past two years. And I hope that some of you might be helped along in your own journeys as parents, children, fellow travelers.
(When I left off earlier, Dad and I had walked down and around a few hallways to check on Mom. And it was almost time for supper:)
May 22, 2012
Dad is reluctant about leaving Mom in her room as suppertime approaches. Oh, he is definitely ready to go back to his supper spot, but he wants her to go along. His hospital stay has stirred the pot a bit, and he seems to think they are (or should be!) living together in their assisted living apartment, although Mom's been over here in rehab/health care since breaking her shoulder in August. He wants her to have supper with him "over there" in the worst way. Explanations aren't helping, so finally Mom just says, "No I think I'll stay here." And Dad gives up, shaking his head. As we walk back across the campus, he leans over, confiding, "That's how it is with your mother, sometimes she doesn't want to do something just because it's different, and there's no changing her mind." For a man in the throes of memory loss, he has a more than adequate understanding of this piece of "the way things work" or at least the way they used to work.
As we make our way to the dining room, we are welcomed on every side by staff and residents. Clearly, Dad's been missed. One of my favorite residents, Tommy, points his walker in our direction and makes a bee-line toward us. His blinding smile communicates that he is delighted to see us, thrilled that I've brought my dad back from the hospital after that scary incident at supper last evening. "OH MY," he exclaims very, very loudly standing right beside my chair. "I THOUGHT, OH NO IS HE GOING TO PASS AWAY RIGHT THERE IN HIS CHAIR IN THE DINING ROOM?"
And again. And again. It is his way of communicating, emphasizing his concern. Pete and Repeat.
But traffic is backing up behind him; an assortment of wheelchairs, canes and walkers and their owners seek their own tables. I'm thankful for my Dad's hearing loss oblivion at this moment, as I try to acknowledge Tommy's concern while helping him to move on to his table. One of the staff explains to me, "He worried all night about him." Throughout the meal, Tommy raises his drooping head to look our way, and every time I meet his gaze, his face is transformed, radiant.
A lady in a motorized chair finesses her way to the table next to ours. One leg juts straight out, and getting situated isn't easy. She teases her tablemates about what would happen if she would hit the wrong lever and keep moving forward, toppling the table. "Poor Gladys, she'd be covered in water and peaches." The laughter is easy, the camaraderie obvious. Gladys' giggle makes me smile.
I hear two ladies at a nearby table talking about walking –
Lady Number One:"You mean you can't walk at all?"
Lady Number Two: "No I can't."
Lady Number One: "Not one step?"
Lady Number Two: "Not one step. They even use a wheel chair to move me from one chair to another."
They talk in loud, matter-of-fact voices. The tone, volume of Lady Number Two asks no pity. It is what it is. Next sentence, same tone, same volume- "And they have pork barbecue sandwiches for dinner tonight." Life goes on.
Meanwhile, Tommy likes the sandwiches too; he would like another one. "Please. They were just so good."
Staff: "So you want another pork barbeque sandwich?"
Tommy: "Yes, but don’t put it in a bun. Oh, it was so delicious." This amuses me because I know Tommy is Jewish, and I suspect he is making up for a lifetime of not eating pork barbeque with or without the bun when he "lived with Mother."
Charles walks by, cane in hand, and says goodnight as he does without fail, even though my dad never hears him and never answers. I comment on his snazzy cane – I've seen him mostly with a walker recently. "Oh, I use both," he tells me. "I use the walker when I'm going a long distance." He doesn't complain, and we don’t discuss it further, but I know "a long distance" is his daily walk down two hallways and around a few corners where he visits his wife in a memory loss unit.
Nosey Clarence annoys me, calling questions across the dining room in his abrasive, loud voice, trying to get my dad to explain what went on last evening. Even at a nursing home, "becoming unresponsive" in the dining room was apparently the event of the day. "I can't believe someone could do that and be alive," he comments doubtfully. ( I wonder if he doesn't believe my dad is alive, or if he thinks my dad was faking last evening. It's hard to tell with Clarence.)
His next question: "Hey, is that your wife?" Pause. Then, "Are you his wife?" I try to explain from four tables away that I'm the daughter, but he doesn't get it. Cheerful Waitress tries to intervene when Clarence grumbles loudly, "Why don't he answer?" She explains that my dad is very hard of hearing, which is obviously true of Clarence too, but it hasn't made him more understanding. His wife is wheeled to her spot across from him; she's visiting tonight from wherever she usually has dinner in another part of the campus. As she is settled into place, the nurse reminds Clarence, "Now we're only going to say kind things to her tonight, right?" Hmmm. I wouldn't count on it. But I can count on Cheerful Waitress to dish up joy unmeasured alongside every bowl of steaming soup (would you like the broccoli cheddar, chicken noodle, or butternut bisque tonight? ) Even Clarence will be served with that which he did not order. Kindness.
Usually Dad is anxious to leave the table and hurry back to his room at meal's end. He never lingers anymore. But tonight is different. He leans forward and informs me, "They have some good ice cream here." I know this is his way of saying he wants dessert. "Oh, what is that
kind," he ponders. When the waitress stops to take our order, she lists the flavors and reminds me that he likes Moose Tracks, so I request one for each of us. The mound in his dish dwindles as he savors every bite. He is nearly finished when it dawns on him - "Oh, this is the kind!" he declares. "This is it – Moose Steps."
I agree; it is delicious.
We return to his apartment and visit a bit longer; strangely, his memory is clearer, his words come more steadily than they have in weeks. We linger over a photo from "down home," the phrase he has always used to describe the farm where he spent his boyhood. I ask him questions about the house, and he seems to hear and understand almost every word. He tells me about changes that have been made to the house through the years. Just as I'm about to leave I notice his hearing aids resting on the dresser. All of this interaction, and his hearing aids are over there???
It is time for me to leave. He likes to walk with me to the door, to "see me off" like he always did, with Mom, watching at the kitchen window on Main Street. So much has changed. I turn and wave; there's a lump in my throat. I might not be able to sing on the way home. I swing the Grandpa-mobile out of the parking lot and head home the same way I came. The same way.
But not the same person.
Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings,
turn routine jobs into joy,
ordinary opportunities into blessings."
William Arthur Ward
"Serving One Another"
So, no, I might not be singing,
but I will be giving thanks.
It's the least I can do.
Those little transforming moments waved at me all day long – it seems I was surrounded by grateful people, people singing smack dab in the middle of their own evenings. I remember Gladys's easy chuckle, Tommy's radiant smile, Charles' kindly greeting, Cheerful Waitress's joyful assistance, even for Clarence.
Oh, Clarence. His evening is songless, and,
Oh God, that is not how I want live out my evenings.
So, it's gratitude again. I give thanks for…
-the warm "welcome home" my dad receives.
(I can't say enough good things about a facility with a towel and basin for a logo and the motto "Serving One Another." It's clearly what they do here.)
-shoes beside the favorite chair, and Dad sitting in it.
-shared "moose steps."
-Dad's peaceful contentment in being "home."
-the opportunity to be present one more day. Hummin' B.
(As you may have guessed, all names have been changed to respect the privacy of both the grateful and ungrateful.)
I made (another) unplanned trip to visit my parents a few weeks back, before the wild holiday season. I can't exactly say the trips are unexpected anymore, but somehow I'm still never prepared to hear the voice on the other side of the phone telling me as gently as possible that the ambulance is (again) carrying one of my parents to the ER.
It was my dad this time which hasn't been the case since his stroke early last year. There was an incident in the dining room, Kind Nurse begins, but when she says he became unresponsive, I hear little else. My evening fills abruptly with phone calls, contingency plans, and a
swirl of thoughts that take on a life of their own, like great flocks of geese, rising from unseen resting places, squawking doubts and anxieties and so much more.
Dad is apparently mostly "with it" by the time he arrives at the hospital, although the word alert doesn't quite describe him apparently. I get an update via phone; the ER nurse tells me he isn't responding to commands. (Which is pretty typical for him, he's been leaving us for awhile.) "But," she says, "He has dementia you know." Why does this comment annoy me so much? I try to maintain my politeness, but I
want to shout, "He is MY father, Of course I know."
We talk about strategies to reach him, and she promises to keep in touch, and does. He's staying overnight for observation. The tests show nothing acute or definitive. He is resting comfortably, she says. So I try to do that too. Oh sweet oblivion of sleep.
Morning comes, and my geese are flying in formation now. It seems clear that I must put on my Daughter-Nurse hat and travel two hours south bearing the gift of presence. It is what I can give. I drive the Grandpa-mobile past autumn bronze mountains and sun dappled rivers, listening to Matt Redman's song,
The sun comes up, it's a new day dawning
It's time to sing Your song again
Whatever may pass, and whatever lies before me
Let me be singing when the evening comes...
No small challenge there. No guarantees either.
You're rich in love, and You're slow to anger
Your name is great, and Your heart is kind
For all Your goodness I will keep on singing
Ten thousand reasons for my heart to find.
Oh, here is the rock solid guarantee, the unfailing love and faithfulness of this God whose heart is kind. So I keep on singing, and I find a few of those reasons for giving thanks. It is, after all, Thursday. I turn the music loud, and then I turn it off and direct my geese thoughts into the direction of gratitude.
-It is (another!) lovely day to travel. The predicted Nor'easter apparently moved further nor and east… (poor New York and New Jersey) and I am surrounded by blue sky and sunshine and the weathered patina of the last brave oaks.
-Rare quiet moments surround me. I revel in them. I choose the music, or no music.
-Lesson plans are (uncharacteristically!) in place in detail, and Max is willing and able to invest his "Day Off" with Youngest Mystery. Which means it won't exactly be a day off. Again.)
-A kind friend's pizza casserole waited in the freezer like money in the bank. I've made a withdrawal, cashed it in. It's thawing on the countertop. No one will be hungry while I'm gone.
-Dad's lovely car, a tank full of gas, and good roads round out my list, and all, all of my "gratitudes"are gift wrapped in the reality of God present in my present, His Presence traveling with me.
The CD moves on to another song, "Never once have I ever walked alone…" I pray for the cognizance of this reality for myself –and for my dad too, waiting in a strange place, surrounded by strangers and medical gadgets and wearing a dress. (So many the incredible medical advances…yet he will be wearing the ridiculous dress with the gaping back…) –and for my mom, waiting in her own room, in her own pain, her own grief at all she has already lost.
When I walk into his room, his face is like a sunrise without clouds. "How did you know to find me here?" he queries. I wonder for a moment if he is remembering my (nonexistent) sense of direction, and if he is really asking where I parked and how I found the hospital and will I be able to get him home from here…but no, those are my questions (which we will face together, soon enough.) Three people are trying to take his blood pressure – they want a reading lying down, sitting up, and standing. Their machine isn't working, and the scene is a bit chaotic even for me, and I know what they want. And then I notice his hearing aids. Or rather, the absence thereof. He really doesn't have much of a chance of processing information if it doesn't get there in the first place. Soon the deed is done, and he's resting peacefully, wearing hearing aids and glasses. Again he thanks me for coming, for being there. And I tell him how glad I am to be present.
When they tell us we can head home, back to the retirement home that is now his home, he is very pleased. "Let's go!" The staff help him dress (sometimes I need to just be the daughter) and we discover he has no shoes to wear. I remember some discussion about him wanting the shoes OFF in the confusion of being transported to the hospital, so I reassure him that his shoes are waiting for him back in his room. And I hope, hope, hope I'm right, or there will be trouble. It seems that the distress regarding items lost is directly proportional to the frequency of such losses, which I think is extremely unfortunate for individuals with memory loss. And their daughters.
I ask the garage attendant for the most direct path from the hospital to what is now "home," for three reasons. One - neither Dad nor I have ever driven from here to there which wouldn't have mattered a few years but… Two - Dad has lost his sense of direction, and that becomes a problem because Three -I've never claimed to have an internal compass although I've faked it a few times to my own embarrassment. (Separate blog post necessary for that one.)
My inability to get anywhere always drove him crazy. "Just look," he'd say. "Pay At-TEN-tion!!" Which I did. But not to road signs and the like. I was more apt to observe hawks soaring above us, brightly colored laundry waving at me, or architectural line designs flowing past my window.
Fortunately, the attendant's directions are impeccable, and I am more
than a little pleased to make it from inner city hospital to remote retirement community seamlessly. Dad is more aware of the texture of the carpet beneath his shoeless toes, and I hear him shuffling his feet back and forth, then chuckling, "I'm not wearing shoes?!"
He seems genuinely glad to be back in his room, and oh joy, the shoes are waiting by his favorite chair. After a quick stop in his room, he's ready for a long trek across campus to visit mom in healthcare, to "check on her," as he does every day about this time. Here, he knows the way without pause, and I follow him, having learned weeks ago that he's found the quickest route down this hallway, turn here, up this ramp…
Mom is surprised and glad to see him. He dozes off in the chair, and is soon ready to head back for his evening meal. He is satisfied that she is okay (he seems to think he is still taking care of her, somehow, when he checks on her like this) and she is glad that he is no longer in the hospital.
Equilibrium is restored, sort of. All is well once again. Sort of. For now. But I feel my heart longing for something more….permanent, more finished, complete, a day when there won't be another "bad news" phone call, when all is well finally, eternally, forevermore. When, as Julian of Norwich said, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."
It is evening now in so many ways, and I remember the final verse of the song that carried me here hours ago; I do so want to be singing when the evening comes...
And on that day when my strength is failing
The end draws near and my time has come
Still my soul will sing Your praise unending
Ten thousand years and then forevermore
Bless the Lord, O my soul,O my soul.
Worship His holy name.
Sing like never before,O my soul
I'll worship Your holy name.
Oh, let me be singing when the evening comes, when my evening comes. Thursdays are for thankfulness. Even a Thursday such as this.
Solitude is... (excerpts from Bread for the Journey by Henri J.M. Nouwen)
Solitude is the garden for our hearts...
Solitude is the place where our aloneness can bear fruit...
Solitude is essential for our spiritual lives...
Solitude is not an easy place to be,
since we are so insecure and fearful that we are easily distracted by
whatever promises immediate satisfaction.
Solitude is not immediately satisfiying because in solitude we meet
our feelings of lust and anger,
and our immense need for recognition and approval.
But if we do not run away, we will meet there also the One who says:
Do not be afraid.
I am with you,
And I will guide you through the valley of darkness.
Let us keep returning to our solitude.
All quotes excerpted from the writings of Henri J.M. Nouwen. Hummin'B