31 Days of Photo Journaling: Day One – An Introduction

At the beginning of September, I had such high hopes for this year’s 31-day series. I wrote the introductory theme piece several weeks ago and never got back to add more. So I have decided to change course! I will be joining Kate Montaug’s 5 Minute Friday 31 day group, writing on a particular theme each day of the 31 days of October. Hopefully, it will happen each and every day this month. Time will tell, right?

So here is the intro piece to the first series I planned to write. Who knows? Maybe I’ll try this series idea next year!

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It’s (almost!) October again, and for the sixth year in a row, I am joining Crystal Stine’s 31 Day Challenge, choosing a theme to write on every day of the month. I am trying to be just a tiny bit more intentional about this blog space again, despite the loss of subscribers I experience every time I write here!

This space has been an important part of my life for the last decade and I’d like that to continue. One way for me to do that is to be disciplined about writing short, hopefully pithy, posts on a daily basis whenever the invitation arises. And this invitation is a big one! So . . . “once more, into the breach,” right?

The theme I’ve chosen for this year is Photo-Journaling, something I love to do and can easily transfer here. I take pictures a lot. A lot. And I always have — even before the invention of phone cameras! It’s a way of documenting, remembering and reflecting on my life. My photo folders tell our story as a family, my story as a pastor and as a child of God/wife/mother/grandmother/friend. I have often used my photos to organize my blog posts or my newsletters, weaving words around the pictures as I go. Something about the combination of the photo and the words tells the story more completely.

So here are a few thoughts for day one of our journey together this year. The photo above was taken on one of the walks I take several times each week. My husband and I have headed for the marina in our town quite a lot during the last few weeks and always see something fun/interesting/educational/inspiring when we do. This particular late afternoon was an interesting one. The fog had rolled out about midday, sitting like a lurking giant just beyond the breakwater. It was a low roll, however, leaving space for the clear blue skies which had become our predominant view just a few blocks further inland.

As we walked out on that concrete barrier that protects millions of dollars worth of yachts and fishing boats, a small sailboat was cutting across the water at exactly the right angle for me to capture both the fog and the blue, blue sky behind it. Something about that image grabbed my heart. I saw myself as that little boat, sailing across the vast mystery that is our life as followers of Jesus. Sometimes thick fog blurs my view and feels as though it is limiting my options. But what I need to remember during those times is that the blue sky is still there, somewhere just above me, encircling both my small boat/life and the fog bank, no matter how huge it may appear to be at any given moment. And that boat is heading straight for safe haven, making a bee-line for the harbor entrance. That’s where I want to be — en route home.

Can I hear an ‘amen?’

Charlottesville: No Words — SheLoves, August, 2017

Do you find yourself at the limit of things right now? I do. Here are my reflections for SheLovesMagazine this month — you can begin this essay here, then click over to join the conversation there. I hope you will!

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I like to think of myself as a person of words. I love to read, talk, preach and write — all of which require some facility with language. I even had a dear friend whisper in my ear a week or so ago, “You know what I love about you? Your vocabulary!” My what?? Well, okay, I’ll take it!

But at this particular moment in time, in the aftermath of the horrors of Charlottesville this past weekend, I find myself at a complete loss. I discover very few words anywhere within my usually active brain. I feel unmoored, uncertain, frightened and deeply, truly sad.

I am a person who does not understand cruelty. So deep is this lack of comprehension that I often feel powerless and rudderless in the face of it. I’ve known a few people in my lifetime whose currency is cruelty. Blunt, thoughtless, critical remarks are their stock-in-trade, and every time one of those remarks is directed toward me, I stutter and stumble around, trying to find a comeback, a simple sentence that will stop the flood of vitriol.

Nada. Nothing. No words.

What is with that??

It’s not that I want to be cruel back. Honest and true, it is not. It’s that I simply do not know what to do in the face of it. If it’s directed at someone else in the circle, I can sometimes muster an objection or a clarification, but I never make it as far as a firm, clear, push-back that stops the ugliness. More often than not, I beat a retreat as quickly as I can and then ponder it all for days and days. What could I have said? What could I have done? What should I do next time?

Today, I am past pondering. I am done. And the one word that keeps coming back to me, over and over again is this one: ENOUGH. Stop. Just stop. Put away your swastikas, burn them all. You may have a legal right to your misguided opinion, but you do not have the right to name-call, bully, harass, or drive your automobile into a crowd of folks who disagree with you, and are brave enough to stand up and say so.

There are no more cheeks to be turned, my friends. None. And I refer you to the fine work of Walter Wink, written decades ago, about the subversive nature of the words of Jesus that have been so abused in the centuries since they were uttered. Turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile were acts of resistance to an intolerable government and they are beautiful things when rightly understood. They are not useful as tokens, bromides, or any other sugar-coating of evil words and deeds. Evil demands resistance. Full stop.

And what we witnessed this past weekend, what we’ve seen over and over and over again in the systematic killing of people of color, is evil. It is an evil that has its roots in fear, the ‘elephant in the room’ I wrote about last month, but it is evil, nonetheless.

Continue reading at SheLoves today, friends. I’d love to hear how you’re doing and, even more importantly, what you’re doing about our national sin and need for repentance. And if you are not a resident of the USA, your comments and insights are always welcome — we clearly need help. Just click right here.

The Land of Tears — SheLoves, June 2017

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            From The Little Prince: “It is such a secret place, the land of tears.”
                                                                     — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This land is a place I’ve visited many times over my life, a strange and secret country, indeed.

I could say it feels familiar, except that it doesn’t. Not quite. Each visit is unique, bringing its own sadness, regret, emptiness, and eventually, fullness and replenishment as I wend my way back to the familiar terra firma of ‘regular’ life, whatever the heck that is.

After a winding journey of several years, my mama died from Alzheimer’s disease in April of this year. There have been tears all along the highway of this Thief of Time and Remembering, of course. Oodles of them. But none quite like the ones that spilled that Wednesday afternoon in April, standing by her hospital bed. I saw her leave us — an open-eyed gaze, two loud gasps, followed by the strangest silence I’ve ever experienced. I will be forever grateful that I was able to say good-bye . . . thank you . . . I love you.

Or the tears that sprang to my cheeks as I drove out of a doctor’s parking lot one week later, remembering how I have always planned my medical appointments around mom’s schedule these last few years, and wishing fiercely that she could be next to me in my car just one more time. I know there are many tears that have not yet worked their way into the air that surrounds me, tears I carry in this body, waiting behind my eyelids, behind my heart. Each one, shed or yet to be, remind me that grief is a land of secrets, of strange and sudden surprise.

I understand that losing my last parent at the age of 72 is a rare thing. I am grateful for that truth, grateful for her long life, and for my own, glad that we could be together more closely these last few years. Nevertheless, this feeling of loss is real. It winds its tendrils around me in ways that surprise and perplex me, showing up in simple things — like driving down a particular street or watching a television series we used to enjoy together. It stings when I see the bags of clothing waiting for the Goodwill truck or when I pick up a photograph. Though I’ve been here before, this trip feels particularly treacherous and very, very lonely.

We held her memorial service a full month after her death. It was a lovely afternoon, full of memories, scripture, and sweet, old songs. There were digitized home movies, good Mexican food in our backyard after the service, and lots and lots of shared stories. She would have loved every minute of it. In fact, I’m quite sure she did.

The next morning, life moved on. It was time to be ‘the pastor’ for a while, six years into retirement. I led in worship, preached a charge to our fine new confirmand, then went home and collapsed, eager for some space to weep and rest.

But it was not to be. Why?

To find out why it was not to be, please click on this link and read the rest of this piece over at SheLoves today. Join the conversation!

One Last Good-Bye

 

It’s been a weekend.

Yesterday, we held a memorial service for my mother. My brother was well enough to travel south and as soon as he, his wife, Sandy, and their daughter, Rachel, arrived at our home on Friday night, I put the women to work creating this wonderful photo montage for the reception after the service.

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Both of them are talented artists and I was relieved to pass along this last task connected to what was a grand day of celebration and thanksgiving. About 75 of us gathered in the chapel at The Samarkand. Together, we worshiped God and celebrated mom’s life. It was a gift and a privilege to share stories, to laugh, to tear up from time to time, and to mark the passing of this valiant, vibrant woman, the last of her generation to leave us.

I’m including the words of remembrance that I shared yesterday so that family members who could not be there can read and remember with us. Some photos from the day, too.

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A lovely collection of snapshots covering several decades of mom’s life.

“For the first few years of my life, she was ‘mommy’ to me. From about the 3rd grade on, she became simply, ‘mom.’ And during these last, hard years, the name that most often came to my lips was, ‘mama.’

“I think that choice was the natural one because she had become so very frail and ‘mom’ seemed far too robust to use. I also think it came naturally because it has a tender sound, a diminutive feel. She became smaller and smaller over these last four years at the Samarkand. With each move, we re-distributed more and more of her material belongings until little was left. Her life, her surroundings, became smaller and smaller. And she herself began to shrink away from us. As she stopped even wanting to eat, she gradually became quite tiny, almost wraith-like.

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Eileen, Harold, Ruth, Al, in the back. I think Mom was about 12 in this picture.

“The irony in that, of course, is that it was her lifelong desire to be smaller than she was! Oh, how she wrestled with her weight. And she passed that wrestling right on down to me, in all kinds of ways — some of them undoubtedly genetic. But some of them, having a lot more to do with appearances, with wanting to please others, with a deep yearning to be something, someone, other than who and what she was.

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Days gone by (long gone by!)

But here is what I have I learned as I have walked with my mother through this last, long part of her journey on this earth: the truest thing I know about my mother is that she was BEAUTIFUL, in every way I can think of. The saddest thing about my mother is that she never really knew that.

Oh, how I hope she knows it now!

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Al passed away in his early 50’s, but mom and Harold and Eileen lived long and stayed close.
Mom was the last to leave us.
My dad’s distant cousin, Jan Baylor (whom we called Earleen – her middle name, after her father Earl), was a fun friend for mom, especially during the middle decades of her life. She’s in the bottom left photo and the very bottom one,  which you can barely see — in identical swimsuits (unbeknownst to them until mom visited Jan at her trailer near the beach!)

My mother radiated light. At her best, she was the most fun person I’ve ever known. She had a bawdy sense of humor and a great laugh; she took delight in her children and her grandchildren, adored her husband — even when he frustrated the daylights out of her — and she particularly loved seeing and creating beautiful things. She had an artist’s eye for color, enjoyed a minimalist, mid-century sense of décor, and could become rapturous over a sunset, a seascape, a forest or a tiny baby.

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See that look of delight on her face? Yeah, we saw that a lot at Christmas! That’s my brother Tom, back in the day . . .

Every once in a while during these last years, I would catch a glimpse of that great sense of humor and it always delighted me. Here are two small stories I recorded in my journal, one from Christmas of 2014, the other from April of last year:

Story number one, from Christmas Lunch in Heritage Court at the Samarkand:

“After lunch, we went back to her room, and she asked the same set of questions that she’s asked the last few times we’ve talked. And when I answered I tried to speak clearly. But her hearing is so bad, that she struggled to understand. Finally, the third time she asked me to repeat myself, I spoke very loudly, very slowly, very distinctly, and she looked at me, smiled and said, ‘THANK YOU,’ at the top of her lungs! It struck me as something the ‘old’ mom would do. And it made me laugh out loud. I was so tired and emotionally vulnerable — I got started laughing and couldn’t quite stop. And I remember thinking, ‘well, it’s better than crying.’”

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Goofing it up at a Christmas spent in Tom and Sandy’s cabin in Julian CA

And another story, from a year ago April, during one of our twice-weekly lunches out:

Today’s theme song was, “The Old Rugged Cross” and she sang pieces of it through our entire time together. I was able to find a couple of versions of it online and play them in the car as we drove south toward the water.

She does love taking this drive. She comments on the cars, on the houses, on the large numbers of people. The confines of her world these days are very restricted, very limited. When I take her out into the wider world, she is struck with wonder.

It is good to see where I live through her eyes, as I too often take it all for granted. We ate at Longboard’s, overlooking the harbor. And there was a cruise ship in town today, unloading its throngs of people to sit on various tour buses and populate the local seaside restaurants. The wait staff was extremely slow because of the increased numbers, and as we were waiting for our food, she said, rather than sang these two lines from the day’s theme song: “so I’ll cling to the old rugged Cross, and exchange it someday for a crown.”

And then she said, “And sometime between now and then, I’d really like a little something to eat!”

And we both busted up. These sweet moments are flashes of the mama I have always known, and I am so grateful for them.”

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There were two of these glorious arrangements for the service. We left one for the chapel service this morning and took this one home to re-use it as table decor for the family dinner that came after the reception at The Samarkand.

She was, as I told the staff here and at Hospice, the most flaming extrovert I have ever known. She loved people, was a caring neighbor and built friendships that lasted for decades. A friend reminded me the other day that on that first Valentine’s Day after my father’s death in 2005, she went to CVS and picked up a half dozen small boxes of chocolates to take to all the widows she knew at Hillcrest, their retirement community in La Verne CA. She knew their sweethearts would not be remembering them on that day. She kept up the chocolate-giving until she had to move into assisted living in 2012.

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Each of mom’s grandchildren participated in reading scripture for her service. Our three are in the top photo, doing the Old Testament readings — L to R, Lisa, Eric, Joy
The bottom picture includes Jacob Gold and Jeremy Morgan, my brother Ken’s two sons, and Rachel and Dylan Gold, Tom and Sandy’s two children.

The disease that took her life is a cruel one, a thief with no mercy, slowly stealing memory, cognition, discernment, even personality. But in my mother’s case, dementia was never able to destroy the core of who she was.

And the core of my mother was her faith.

From about the age of fifteen, my mother was an ardent follower after Jesus, wanting to go deep, to learn, to practice resurrection from day to day. Even though her background was conservative, she and my dad somehow managed to grasp the truest things about the Christian faith and to let go of much of the judgment, fear, simplistic jargon, and insider/outsider mentality that has come to characterize too much of the modern church.

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It was a beautiful and VERY WARM afternoon for an early dinner, planned and executed by my three kids and their spouses — thank you, thank you, THANK YOU to each of you.

She was grateful for her roots, for the women at Trinity Methodist Church who befriended her and encouraged her leadership skills, even paying for her to go to a special training event put on by Henrietta Mears, one of the first women leaders in the Presbyterian church of the 20th century. But she was always searching for more – and she read widely and well in order to learn more. She was not a perfect person — who is? But, man, she was a good one.

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Our funky but fun covered atrium entry greeted guests with bright colors, wooden signs . . .

I believe, in the deepest part of me, that what I saw in my mom as she slowly faded away from me, was a reflection of the light of Jesus. She always let it shine. Always. Just about 40 hours before she died, she reached out to kiss my hand as I straightened her bedding. Days before she left us, she offered that beautiful smile and those kind words — ‘thank you so much!’ ‘You look so beautiful today.’ ‘I love your hair.’ By that point, almost nothing else she said hung together with any kind of sense. But those short, kind compliments? They remained. They remained.

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. . . and some glorious blossoms, too.

Now Tom and I could tell you tales of tears, of anger, explosive and sharp, of deep-seated insecurities that often made her fearful and sometimes harsh. But you know what? As hard as those days were for us — and they were — over the span of our lives and hers, they amounted to so little. As she grew in her faith, as she and dad grew more deeply in love over the years of their marriage, and as she experienced more and more of the Love with a capital “L” that she and I believe is the power that sources our entire universe, those hard days became less and less frequent.

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My dear brother, Tom, with his amazing and talented wife, Sandy.

I had the gift of a good home and that enabled and instructed me in creating what I hope was a good home with Dick for our kids. Over these last years, I have been struck again and again by how central my mother was in my own formation and ultimately, in the formation of my kids, and now my grandkids. She came from such a place of damage, with an alcoholic father and a mother who worked full-time. But she was found by God and loved by the aunts who helped to raise her, by those women at Trinity Methodist, and then by my dad. And that made all the difference.

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Although our brother Ken passed away in 2009, his kids were part of the day — R to L,
Christina and Jeremy Morgan (I had the great gift of marrying these two five years ago; they have an adorable baby boy who did not make the three hour drive with them); Jacob Gold and his fiance, Kevin Herrera. 

Of much deeper importance than the scars I bear from my early life, are the graces that mark me because of my mother. She was the primary spiritual influence on me for many years and I am so very grateful for that truth. She modeled the honest, searching spiritual journey. She also modeled loving hospitality, and a great sense of fun and creativity.

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Our eldest grandson Ben, who arranged for some fun home movies to run on the TV in the reception hall at The Samarkand and made a video of the service, catching up with our son-in-law, Marcus

What rises to the top is her goodness. Her generosity. Her great good humor, her searching intelligence, her love for us. My brother Tom said it on Facebook this last Mother’s Day, “Ninety-five years with us. Loving, smart, funny. Give me a choice of all the mothers in the world and I’d choose the one I had.”

Yup. Give me the choice of all the mothers in this world, I’d choose the one I had.

In a heartbeat.

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Several long-time friends from Pasadena made the drive north and stayed for dinner.

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A gaggle of granchildren

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I discovered this sweet note which I believe was created by the 11-year-olds and signed by a couple of the older grandkids. And late last night (after I had collapsed into bed!), my youngest granddaughter had her mom send me a text telling me she was sad that my mama died and that she loved me. I discovered it on my way out the door today to lead in worship — another story I’ll post about later this week. It was a rich, rich weekend. But. . . we’re really, really, REALLY glad it’s over now.

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One of the best things about memorial services is the reunion piece. It was wonderful to see cousins re-connect at three generational levels, to sit and visit with old friends, and to savor the beauty of a life, well-lived.

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We miss you, Mama. But we had a GRAND time saying good-bye. You would have loved it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Honoring the Body — Remembering Ruth Gold: July 6, 1921 – April 19, 2017

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Beautiful Mom, about 1948.

For most of my life, my mother was my best friend. As she began to leave us, almost a decade ago now, the inexorable blade of dementia sliced her memory into ever smaller pieces. During these years of decline, I often wondered how I would endure, who I would become without her richly textured presence in my life. What I witnessed was remarkable: the very essence of who she was became ever more finely distilled, until only a small but brilliant shard of light remained. Slowly, I began to understand — it was enough. Even though I no longer had access to all the pieces of my mother, the stories and memories I had come to know over the decades, what I did have was lovely. In truth, it was a strange and beautiful gift. Not a gift that either of us would have chosen, but a gift nonetheless.

Not every dementia story unfolds the way my mother’s did, a truth which makes me grateful on multiple levels for this particular and exquisite experience. For the last five years, I have wandered through grief, shed copious tears, railed at God for the cruelty of this growing epidemic in our land and across the world. I have also fallen to my knees in gratitude for the shining core of her, that glorious flame that blazed up and out and into the core of every single person she encountered. As the limits of her world grew larger and darker, as she lost the desire to eat, to drink, to walk — even then, she found a smile, a sweet word of gratitude, an exclamation of complimentary joy. “You look so beautiful today!” she would say. “Thank you so much for your help.” Not one other syllable made sense toward the end, but those words of kindness remained.

Ruth was born in Duncan, a small logging town on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, the second child and first-born daughter of Harry and Elsie Hobson. They gave her a long, cumbersome name, which included the names of some female relatives who eventually left mom two small diamonds. She gave those to me — and I managed to lose them both. Mom’s full name was Edith Lemody Ruth Hobson and she was a beautiful baby. They called her Ruthie.

Two years later, the Hobsons gathered up their little family and boarded a train, with siblings and cousins, and emigrated to southern California. Two little boys, my little mom, a second daughter ‘in the oven,’ two parents, three maiden aunts, a cousin or two, and an elderly grandfather arrived in 1923 and settled into a variety of Los Angeles neighborhoods. Mom rode the street car, roller-skated or walked all over what is now Hollywood and graduated from Hollywood High School in 1938. She went to UCLA for two years, and then quit when her family ran out of money; she always regretted never finishing her college career.

Mom’s father was a difficult man, and her mother worked. My mom became a surrogate mom to her siblings and found safe harbor in a local Methodist church. She met my dad there and they married in 1941 when mom was 20. I was born four years later, while they lived in San Diego. My dad taught math and physics at a military academy in that town during WWII — he was deemed entirely too spindly to join the army. In 1947, my brother Tom was born in a tiny town in central California where dad had an in-between teaching job while he waited for an opening at Los Angeles City College. When that job opened, we moved back to Los Angeles and bought our first house — a small, post-war tract home in North Hollywood. I was four years old.

All four of us attended that old Methodist church in downtown LA for the next eight years. I loved that place. My dad was the pianist, my mom sang in the choir, my brother and I went to Sunday School. It was at Trinity Methodist that I began to love choral singing — at the tender age of six. My mom made lifelong friends in that community and was the last one left from the old gang when she died last Wednesday afternoon.

Everywhere we lived, everywhere we worshipped, my mother made friends. Fast friends. I described her to the caregivers where she lived as, “The most flaming extrovert I have ever known.” Her gregarious and compassionate nature made her an excellent neighbor, an even better friend. In the earliest days of her dementia, I discovered that she regularly purchased small boxes of candy to take to her neighbors, to let them know she was thinking about them, to tell them they were loved.

In 1955, when I was almost 11 and Tom was almost 9, our youngest brother Ken was born. One month later, we moved across town to a different valley, from San Fernando to San Gabriel, buying an English Tudor style home in Glendale, CA. I endured (and enjoyed) adolescence in that home, learned to drive on the curvy hills of Forest Lawn Memorial Park, and drove off to UCLA at the age of 17. Wanting to get my youngest brother into what they thought was a better school district, my parents moved to north Glendale while I was in college. That house was never my home in the same way that the previous two had been. I married a year later, graduated six months after that, and then my husband and I sailed off for two years of living and working in Africa.

While they lived in Glendale, my parents were active members of Glendale Presbyterian Church. Each of them served on Session, my mom on at least one pastoral search committee. They thoroughly enjoyed the Sunday school teaching of Paul Jewett, then a theology professor at nearby Fuller Seminary. My mother read widely, with a lively sense of curiosity and a commitment to growing in her faith. She read everything ever written by C.S. Lewis, Catherine Marshall, and Paul Tillich along with a long list of fiction writers. She instilled her love of language, reading, writing and beauty into the core of me at a very young age. 

She was also a ton of fun. She had an earthy sense of humor, loved to laugh, introduced us kids to British humor early on (anyone remember the “Carry On” movies??), and threw grand parties. She also decorated our homes on very little money, made most of my clothes and baked great birthday cakes. One of my daughters said to me last week, “One of my strongest memories of Momma was that she was always, ALWAYS, so happy to see me.” And that was real — she took delight in her family. De-light. Yes, she worried about us (especially Ken, whose life was difficult at many points and who died eight years ago.) But she loved us all and we knew it. Deep down, we knew we were loved. It was like oxygen — something that surrounded us always, something that gave us energy and life.

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Five generations – from lower left – Elsie Hobson, Ruth Gold, Diana Trautwein,
Lisa Fischinger, 
Ben Fischinger — taken in Orange County, 1991

My parents worked hard to create a good home for the three of us. There was one salary in our home, and that one a teacher’s salary, so we didn’t do fancy things. But we listened to all kinds of music on my dad’s home-built hi-fi set (or from his fingers at the keyboard), we camped all over California, and we enjoyed extended family gatherings on both sides, especially gatherings at some of the beaches along the southern California coast.

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Mom, doing what she loved more than almost anything else: boogey-boarding, Huntington Beach,
sometime in the 1980s, I think. She would have been in her early 60s.

Toward the end of his career as a professor and administrator at the junior college level, my dad had some serious health issues that required them to move out of the valley and closer to the sea. They lived in Oceanside for two years, then settled into a lovely town home in Mission Viejo, in Orange County. They loved that community and lived there for about fifteen years. In 2002, we moved them to a retirement community in LaVerne CA. My father died two and a half years later in February of 2005. My mom lived there independently until 2012, when Alzheimer’s put her into assisted living. The next year, we moved her to The Samarkand dementia unit, just ten minutes from our home here in Santa Barbara. 

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My parents, when they lived in Orange County

While they were in Orange County, I took the train south once each month for a long midweek visit. After they moved to LaVerne, I drove south monthly, then twice monthly, and stayed with our daughter, who lived about 30 minutes from there. All of those visits were an attempt to be as present as I could be with the two of them, and then with my mom, while their bodies breathed earth’s air.

Those bodies of theirs were holy to me, often in ways I didn’t fully understand. They had birthed me, loved me, tended me when mildly wounded or critically ill, clothed me, fed me and gave me away to my husband. (Yes, that is an outdated term, one that I no longer use, but it’s the truth of my lived experience in that season of my life.) I was with my father three days before his death, praying the blessing of Aaron over his unconscious, frail frame, telling him how much I loved him and how grateful I was for his care for me. When my brother called to tell me he had died, I asked that his body remain in the room until I could get there. Our bodies are supremely important collections of cosmic dust; they bear the image of an invisible God, they carry our stories, our selves. I wanted to honor him by honoring what remained.

Last week, I had the privilege of doing the same thing for my mama. Her journey took eight days, and every one of those days, I was by her side. Most of the time, I sat in front of a window, using only natural light. I put Pandora onto a hymn station and played it for hours. I finished a large crochet project. I called for more meds, as needed. I got up and blessed her face, stroked her shoulders. I ate the lunches I packed, I took occasional walks. I thanked every one of the Hospice team who came and cared for her so lovingly. One woman offered sponge baths, one offered quiet company, another brought her guitar and sang. The nurses were supremely skilled and compassionate, as were the caregivers at the facility. My pastor came twice, my friend Sherry, Samarkand chaplain for over twenty years, came daily.

Room 62 became holy ground during those long days.

At 4:32 p.m. on Wednesday, Sherry and I stood beside her and my friend said, “Look! Her eyes are open!” Those eyes had been closed for most of the previous five days. Her breathing was quite labored at this point, but as her eyes flew open, the noise stopped. She gasped twice and looked right into my eyes as I blessed her, thanked her, loved her. And she flew. I mean she flew to Jesus in those moments. I had been visualizing my father, my brother, her siblings, her parents and so many of her friends all around that room for days. And I do believe that in that moment, she saw them. And she was not afraid.  

All those dear ones welcomed her home — with love, joy and laughter. This I know, in the deepest part of me, this I know.

We will bury her on Tuesday morning, dropping her earthly remains into the grave plot she will share with my dad. We will hold a special service of worship to celebrate her life on May 20th at 2:00 p.m. in The Chapel at the Samarkand, the place that she called, ‘my church.’

Over and around the fatigue that I feel at this end of the journey, the strongest emotion in my heart is gratitude. It absolutely overwhelms me at some moments. There is sadness, yes, there is sadness. But over and around and in between everything else, there is thanksgiving. For 95 years, she graced this earth, 72 of them with me in the center of that grace. 

Thank you, Mama. And thank you, God.

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November, 2015, last formal portrait

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April 7, 2017

The Truest Advent

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I sit and watch the light play across the beautiful angles of her face. Even at 95, those cheekbones are breathtaking. She is tired today, battling a mild infection, with little to no appetite and even less energy. The sharp angle of the winter sun is unexpectedly flattering as it gently flickers through the window, and I draw a sharp breath as those too-familiar tears begin to form behind my eyelids. 

“Oh, Mama! I love you so. Please, Lord, let her go to sleep and wake up in the New Creation. Enough, okay? Enough.”

But who really knows how much is enough? I don’t have any special insights, only my own bedraggled emotions and growing fatigue. To me, it feels like it is time. Time to be released from this ‘body of dust,’ time to rest from the struggle, time to breathe in and never breathe out again.

We did not go out to lunch today; we barely made it from the dining room to her own sweet space, with its lounge chair in the corner, by the window. “My arms!” she cried softly as we walked. “They ache.”

Truth be told, everything aches. Every cell in her body.

As she slept in that chair, I moved my hand slightly, the one that she was clasping with both of hers. She roused a bit, turning to look in my direction.

“Oh, Mama! Thank you for being such a good, good mother,” I cried.

She didn’t understand me, so I said it again, more slowly, more loudly. She smiled slightly and said a simple, “Thank you.” Somehow her half-sleepy state made the usual questioning unnecessary. There were no confused looks, no puzzled frowns. None of this response: “I’m your mother?? Really??” 

None today. None at all.

One week ago, that’s all I heard. I came home shaking my head at my husband. “I don’t know how much more of this repetition I can navigate! We spent our entire 90 minutes together today asking and attempting to answer the same 5-6 questions — over and over and over again. Oh, Lord, give me patience!”

He and I were getting ready to leave town the next morning, our annual anniversary getaway to parts north. We both needed it — time and space to savor an ocean view, good food prepared by someone else, and quiet time together — no expectations, no obligations, no schedule. And it was good. Very, very good.

They called me from the dementia unit as we were driving home yesterday. “She has a UTI and a low-grade fever. Is it all right with you if we put her on antibiotics?” 

Yes, it was all right with me. UTIs make dementia much worse and increase confusion and disorientation. She doesn’t need any escalation of those symptoms and neither do I. But this time around, the infection plus the added medication led to extreme exhaustion — one more sign of decline, diminishment. 

And yet, as painful as it is to watch that happen, this time I will admit that my primary response is relief and gratitude. She is heading in one direction only; and today’s exhaustion underlined that truth for me. My mother is very old. She is very frail. She is extraordinarily confused.

She is also beautiful, grateful, loves people (even when she hasn’t a clue who they are), sings the old songs and hymns with a higher degree of accuracy than her illness might lead you to expect, and generally enjoys her life. It is not up to me when that life will end on this side of the mysterious veil that separates us from the eternal.

There are, however, some decisions that are up to me. When and how to treat illness, for one. I think I know what I will and will not allow — mom and I discussed it all, long before dementia took over — but until illness or accident happens, I suppose it’s all pretty hypothetical.

So, in addition to those prayers for patience, I also pray for wisdom, grace, kindness and insight as my mother moves ever closer to the end of her long and remarkable life. I will miss her presence in my life more than I can adequately put into words, more than language will allow.

 

Then again, I have been missing her for a very long time.

“Oh for grace to trust him more!”

This Broken Life

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It began with a glorious sunrise, pinks and purples spreading across the landscape, a low layer of fog sitting right over the city below us. We moved to this home, this new-to-us-home, because as we gazed out at the future, we began to see . . . brokenness, the brokenness that comes to each of us as we age, as we wend our way through space and time. The great gift that landed in our laps when we chose to step into rather than avoid that inevitable kind of broken is this: this view of mountain and sea, of city and sidewalk, of sky, sky, sky.

A few hours later, the glory of early morning gave way to a sweet, crisp clarity at midday. I slipped behind the steering wheel and drove down the hill to my mama’s ‘home,’ that room-with-a-bath in the dementia unit, the only home she has had for the past four years. “I’ll take her down to the beach today,” I said aloud, to the closed chamber of my Honda CR-V, maybe saying it to God, as well. “She’ll love that.” 

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Mama and I have been living in the middle of a whole lot of broken for a long time now, the kind of broken that cannot be mended, this side of heaven. Our twice-weekly lunches out make her smile and because she cannot remember anything further back than the last two minutes, each trip is brand new to her, and therefore, quite wonderful. 

The conversational themes for this particular outing are a trio of repeated questions: “How did you come to find me and take me out today?” “How long has this place been here?” “Do you live near here somewhere?”

I pray for patience as I answer each query, over and over and over again. “I found you because I know you, because you are my mother and I love you.” “This town has been built over the last 250 years of so, Mama.” “Yes, Mom, I do live near here. Just a little ways up that hill.”

She is surprised, as she always is, that I am her daughter, that I have always known her. On this day, she does not turn to me with that anguished look and ask, “What is wrong with me, that I don’t know that??” This day, I don’t have to carefully tell her that her memory is broken and cannot be fixed. This day, I don’t have to see the sweet relief flash quickly over her face when she takes in the truth that something really is broken, broken beyond repair.

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There is a table available, right on the concrete that abuts the sand at Leadbetter Beach; I carefully steer her walker towards it, pulling out the plastic chair, being careful to seat her exactly right and then pushing her safely beneath the table. She spreads her hands out in front of her, crying out: “Oh, lovely, lovely! The sun is so warm! I am so happy to be here. Thank you so much for bringing me!”

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And just like that, the broken fades away for a moment and I can drink in her delight. Ann Voskamp, in her beautiful new book, “The Broken Way: a daring path into the abundant life,” talks about, “losing the day in love,” and finding a way to “break brokenness” by letting it fully come. 

Slowly, slowly, I am learning to let the brokenness of aging come. I see it in my mother, I see it in my husband, I see it in myself. And I am asking the kinds of questions that Ann asks: 

“Why are we afraid of broken things? . . . Why are we afraid of suffering? What if the abundance of communion is only found there in the brokenness of suffering — because suffering is where God lives? . . .What if I made a habit of every day pressing my wounds into the wounds of Christ — could my brokenness be made into a healing abundance for the brokenness of the world?” – pg. 34

I do not want to be afraid of aging, I do not want to be afraid of dying, I do not want to be afraid of the brokenness that is part and parcel of who we are as human creatures. I want to learn more about embracing the broken bits, about discerning the differences that Ann references between ‘good’ broken and ‘bad’ broken; I want to live into my identity as the Beloved for as long as I breathe. And then I want to celebrate the goodness of God in that place where every bit of our brokenness will be redeemed, transformed, burnished to a high gleam and offered as a gift of gratitude to our Triune God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer — Father, Son, Spirit.

Mom and I enjoyed our lunch, even though, as soon as she withdrew her hands from the warm sunlight in the center of the table, she became vividly aware that the breeze was cool. At least three times she asked me if the visor I was wearing was helping me to stay warm by blocking that breeze. Three times, I tried to explain that a sun visor only works against the sun, not the wind. Finally, I took the visor off of my head and put it onto her lovely one. And she relaxed, convinced that now she would be warm enough.

On the way back to her unit, she began to sing, “What A Friend We Have in Jesus.” Most of the time, I join with her as she sings in the car. But this time, I listened. And I thanked God that broken as she is, my mother knows who she is. She no longer knows her own name, nor any of the details of her story. But she knows who she is — she is a friend of Jesus.

And there is nothing broken about that. Not one thing.

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I received an Advanced copy of Ann Voskamp’s book in exchange for writing about it and featuring it on social media. It is my joy and privilege to invite you to read this book for yourself, to take your time with it, to read with a pen in hand and with fingers ready to turn down a page here and there. This one is a keeper.

The Seven Sorrows

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I snuck in through the back gate, carefully closing it so that the family of deer grazing nearby could not enter the enclosed garden. Miraculous rain had fallen during the night and the air was crisp and cool, with a slight breeze from the west. The small labyrinth on the grounds of Mater Dolorosa Retreat Center was my first target that morning — I love to walk and pray, and if there is a dedicated pathway for such walking and praying, I head straight toward it. These deer were just to the east as I slowly wound my way to the center of that stone-marked pathway and back out again. They were lovely – young, strong, alert.

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The garden site took me to an entirely different place, one of tears and remembering, of death and dying, though there was beauty to be seen on all sides. The wisteria arbor pictured above was the first thing I saw as I clanged the gate behind me. Stretching out on both sides to form a circle, the entire 15-feet wide pathway fully enclosed a special, set-aside space: The Garden of the Seven Sorrows. This is a space marked for contemplation on the sorrows that Mary carried throughout her life as a mother, an idea new to me, and a surprisingly welcome one.

We Protestants don’t often think about Mary, do we? We tend to forget the depth of her spiritual maturity, her shocking availability to God. Would you be so open? Would I?

There are six niches around the circle, each with an exquisite and colorful mosaic depicting the sorrows that are mentioned in the gospel narrative. There are benches, a variety of both green and blooming plants, a fountain in the center, and a striking bronze statue duet, life-sized and haunting in its detailed depiction of mother and son locking eyes as Jesus drops the cross on his way to Calvary. That statue represents the seventh sorrow, and I saw it first from the back.

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I walked around, under the arbor, to begin my pilgrimage at the beginning, stepping into each niche in turn and then returning to the center magnificence to further contemplate that bronze tableau, this time from the front and from the side. I invite you to come along with me as I walk, enjoying a more distant view and then a closeup of each sorrow in turn. Take a moment to savor the detail, to reflect on the moment captured by the artwork. See what rises in you.

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It began in the earliest days of her motherhood experience, didn’t it? Taking her new little boy to the temple for blessing and dedication, Simeon had a hard word for her
“. . . and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”

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Joseph holds the infant Jesus and the heart of Mary beats almost out of her chest at Simeon’s heavy words. Eight days old and her heart is filled with foreboding.

The Second Sorrow focuses on the flight into Egypt. With a toddler in tow, Mary and her husband were forced to flee their homeland, not knowing exactly when they might return. This is, to me, a poignant picture of the plight of so many refugees in our world today — forced out, running away to a foreign place, uncertain about the future, wanting protection and safety for their family.

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Sorrow Three comes twelve years later, when Jesus remains in the temple, worrying his parents by his absence, and then by his response: “Didn’t you know, Mother? Didn’t you know where I would be?” 

Do we know where our children are? Can we?

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img_0634The artist has managed to capture Mary’s pain and confusion, using just small pieces of colored ceramic. Jesus is rapt, his hand raised and open. Always, his hands were open.

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And this is Sorrow Four — the only one not specifically recorded in scripture, but one that surely could have happened — Mary meeting her son on the road. I do not know who the artists were, for either the mosaics or the sculpture, but I am grateful for them and to them. This is one of the most moving sights I’ve ever experienced. Contemplate the detail on their faces with me, won’t you?

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Deep grief marks a person in every way — physically, emotionally, spiritually. Her tears elicit my own.

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And Jesus turns to look at his mother, his mama. How difficult this entire event must have been for both of them. The gospel writers give us tiny glimpses; artists take those glimpses and give us wider, deeper vistas.

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I think he must have been a strong man — I like the musculature outlined here. But he was also a very weary man at this point in the journey, a heartbroken man. And all of that shows in that face. All of it.

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Though I do not subscribe to the Catholic doctrines about Mary, I completely understand how they developed. The mother-son bond is a strange and wondrous one, and like it or not, we moms are of primary importance to and a strong influence on our children, daughters and sons alike. While I believe the Catholic church has overplayed the importance of that bond, I fear we Protestants have seriously underplayed it. 

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And here is the one we are probably most familiar with — Sorrow Five — Mary watching her beloved son die on that tree. The apostle John appears to the right, turned away from the sight; Mary looks, but weeps. What must that have been like?

img_0642The Sixth Sorrow is the one made famous by Pietas across the ages — Mary holding her son as he is taken down from the cross. “Has there been any sorrow like unto my sorrow?”

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The final sorrow comes at the gravesite. The women are all there and it is hard to know which one is Mary. Who do you think it is?

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The rose bush effectively hid all of their faces, but I snuck my camera around the blooms and thorns and got each of them:

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As I walked this beautiful, yet somewhat strange new circle, I found myself saying, ‘thank you,’ over and over again. Thank you to the Son, yes, of course. Of course. But also — thank you to the mother, the dear mother, the one who said ‘yes’ to the mystery, who opened herself to unspeakable pain, who loved her child with her whole heart. She was not perfect, but she was deeply good and I am grateful.

As I turned to leave this glorious space, I noticed a flash of color just off to my right. Two colors, to be exact — two colors of the church year, in point of fact: red (this one was pinkish) and purple — red for sorrow and purple for royalty. Seemed fitting, somehow. Perfectly fitting.

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We will return to this same retreat center in 18 months. You can be sure that the Garden of the Seven Sorrows will be a part of my own meditative experience in 2018. It will be springtime then. How lovely!

Battle Fatigue

IMG_0459You know, it’s just lunch. Simple, right? I get in the car, I drive over to Mom’s care facility, I punch in the magic code to open the door, I gather her up, confused and beautiful as she is, I open the door so we can both go out into the sunshine.

She says, “Do you really want to bring this old thing?” pointing to her walker.

Every time, she asks me this question.

EVERY TIME.

“Yes, Mom. You can’t really walk well without it and it fits right into the back of my car.”

I settle her into the front seat, lock the seat belt around her, nudge her gently to move her feet completely inside the car. I load the walker in the back and come around to the driver’s door, belt myself in and begin to drive out of the residence area.

“What a good driver you are. What a nice car this is — so smooth!”

“Thank  you, Mom.”

I hear these two sentences EVERY SINGLE TIME WE GO OUT, which is every 3 to 4 days. But 3 to 4 days is an eternity to someone whose brain is full of holes. 3 to 4 minutes is an eternity. Somedays, 3 to 4 seconds.

“Now tell me your name again and why you came over to get me today?”

And we’re off. The litany begins.

Again.

And again.

“Do you have children?”
“Do you live nearby?”
“What do you do?”

“Where are we going?”
“Why are you being kind to me?”
“Now tell me your name, please.”
“Do you know my family?”

Round and round we go, the same set of questions, the same set of answers.

Today we went to a place we have not visited often. She is, however, convinced that she has been here, “many years ago.” Often, this is at least partially true. Not today. We’ve been here exactly twice in the last 3 3/4 years.

The sun is warm, but the restaurant, located directly on the sands of Ledbetter Beach, acts as a wind tunnel for the ocean breeze. She is immediately shivering, despite being fully covered with two layers of clothing.

So I return to the car, get my wool shawl and my wide-brimmed black hat with the droop-down brim and wrap her up as much as I can. She continues to hold down the brim of the hat or to place her hand over her ear during the entire meal, despite the fact that she is no longer in direct contact with any kind of air movement whatsoever. Once cold, always cold, I guess.

I order her a diet Coke and get a glass of water for myself. We sip quietly as we wait for our lunches to be delivered — a kid’s sized grilled cheese with fries for her, a salad with grilled salmon for me. 

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“Here, don’t you want some of this?” she asks.

And she asks.

And she asks.

AND SHE ASKS.

“No, Mom, ” I tell her each time. “That is your drink. See, I have one of my own. I don’t need yours.”

When lunch arrives, she relishes each bite. But begins immediately with the same, recurring question/statement: “Oh  my, this is delicious! I am so happy, so happy, so happy! Here, take some of this. It is really good.”

She seems to be unable to see that I am already eating from a very full plate. I tell her exactly that, every single time she invites me to eat her lunch. “No, thank you, Mom. I have my own lunch. I don’t need to eat yours. Please enjoy your meal and stop worrying about me — I am doing just fine.”

“Well,” she says timidly, “I surely do not want to ever seem to be selfish.”

“You are not being selfish, Mom. You’re enjoying your lunch, which is yours, all  yours. Please enjoy it!”

After I finish my salad — which I always do, LONG before she is halfway through her own plate — I begin to take a French fry or two from her plate. And she is ecstatic!

“Oh, here! Have some more!”

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I cannot even begin to put into words how deeply enervating I find these outings. I love that she loves to go. I love that she finds happiness in simple things. I love her. But being with her is the most exhausting thing I do these days.  

And there is no end in sight.

I heard a bit of a cough today and, God help me, I found myself wondering if this might possibly progress into something serious, something that might help her transition to that place where she will once again be able to think and remember. 

That is not likely. She is 95 years old, can’t see, can’t hear, can’t remember, can walk short distances only. But otherwise, her health is excellent. Her mother lived to be 101. Her mother’s sister to 102. So chances are, she’ll be with us physically long past the time when what remains of her mind has completely left the building.

I give thanks daily for her life. I see the beauty shining out of her face, the unceasingly cheerful spirit that is indomitable and gracious. I enjoy her occasional attempts at humor and the increasingly rare flashes of that mom-that-used-to-be insight and self-deprecating trash talk. (Today for example: “I imagine those children I hear are looking over here and wondering what strange sort of woman is sitting there under that hat!”)

But I am tired. I am tired of continually telling myself to keep my ever-present impatience at bay, to respond with kindness to the 20th version of the same comment/question, to smile, to hug, to touch, to encourage. I do it, yes, I do it. But sometimes it feels forced, even phony, and I don’t like that part. No, I don’t like it at all.

So I am weary at times. Today is one of those times. I returned her to her room a bit earlier than usual, settled her into that recliner chair in the corner, the one by the window that looks out onto the patio with bright red geraniums. I kiss her and tell her I love her and that I’ll see her next week. I find someone on the care team to tell them she is back in her room.

And I exit the building as fast as these aging legs of mine will carry me, willing myself not to cry out, “How long, O Lord!! How long?”


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Looking at the Whole Truth

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“Oh, Diana,” friends tell me, looking into my eyes with tenderness and concern. “You are so lucky to have your mom still with you!”

I offer a small smile, nod my head and reply, “Yes, I know that I am.”

And I do know that. I do. But there is also this other truth, ever-present and insistent. The hard, hard truth that the lovely old woman inhabiting my mother’s body is not at all the mother I have known for most of my life. She is beautiful to see, kind to everyone around her, breaks into old hymns multiple times an hour, and loves to visit the outside world.

But she is not my mother. At least, not in the ways that I wish she could be.

That woman, that mama, has been slip-sliding away for nearly a decade now, steadily losing pieces of herself. And as she drifts further and further from me, I feel as though there are large chunks of me fading into the ether right along with her. Huge chunks of my own history are gone forever, never to be found again. 

I miss my mother. I miss being known by her. I miss sharing history with her, I miss swapping stories, wrestling with hard truths, reading books, going to the movies, taking trips, making fudge, having her give me driving directions, watching her interact with my children and grandchildren, marveling at her insight into people and situations, laughing at her ribald jokes. 

She is here with me in physical form, and for that I give thanks. But she is not here in any of the ways that make her my mother. She is a beautiful, loving, sometimes forlorn, and very old woman. On July 6th, she will be 95, a fact that startles her every time I tell her. Last week, she turned to me and asked, “I wonder who I am?” 

I wonder who I am! 

Ah, Mom. I wonder, too.

 

As I stood under the shower’s spray this morning, I offered small prayers of thanksgiving:

     “Thank you, Lord, for hot water and plenty of it.”
     “Thank you, Lord, for my good husband and his careful attention to our finances.”
     “And thank you, Lord, for my sweet mama . . .”

And with those words, I found myself sobbing. Not gentle tears these, but hard-wrought, heart-felt, gut-wrenching sobs. “Where is this coming from?” I wondered. Most of the time, the tears are far away these days, leading me to believe that I have come to some place of peace and acceptance about the way things are. But today’s meltdown reminds me that below the surface, my own emotions about mom’s situation are deeply unsettled.

My only brother arrives today and I will be glad to see him and his wife. But we four aging children must have a difficult conversation this afternoon. We have a scheduled meeting with the finance guy at Mom’s care facility, that place where she is safe, well-cared for, loved. The cost of her care is climbing while her small investment account is diminishing, so we’re looking for answers today. How can we best manage her care? Will she be alright?

The better, and I hope bigger, part of me is not worried about this, trusting that there will be enough, that God will provide a way for this daughter, this faithful Jesus-follower, this disciple. But I found myself crying out to the God we both love this morning, asking how long? and, are you there? and, why? 

No answers appeared in the shampoo bubbles. Not one. Nothing but the strong sense that the invitation continues to be this one: trust meTrust that I see your mama, that I love her, that she is safe. Trust that your own love and care for her are enough, that you are doing the best you can, that she has not been abandoned. Trust that there will be enough.

Enough.

And so I will choose to do so. We four will be as careful, mindful and loving as we possibly can. And God will carry us through. 

In the meantime, I will call to mind that image I was given over four years ago now* — that image of my small mama, held safe within the immense sacred heart of Jesus Christ, the One who was present before the universe was breathed into existence, the One who sees each of us with eyes of love and concern, the One who is the only place of true safety any of us will ever experience.

I am trusting that that image will carry me through whatever lies ahead.

 

*I wrote a lengthy post with lots of photos about how that image was given to me here.