Wretchedly Familiar: When Life Feels Unfair — SheLoves, November 2017

Have you ever had a really bad day, or an even worse week? How about a terrible month? Try multiple months? Yeah. That’s kinda like where I’ve been this year. So I did some reflecting on that over at SheLoves this month. The theme this month? “Return.” Please come on over and join us!

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Wasn’t it just two months ago that I wrote about lament in this space? I checked, friends, and yes, it was. In September. Today, I find myself needing to return to those songs-in-a-minor-key for a while longer. October’s theme opened my sad heart to a season of rejoicing, for remembering all of the gracious things in my life for which I can joyfully and loudly thank God.

But at this moment in time, as I sit down to write for November, I find the syllables of lament are oh-so-necessary. I am returning to the language that lets me enter my own sadness, that gives me permission to fully experience the pain of this moment on the journey that is my life.

One month ago yesterday, an ER doc told me that I had blood clots in both lungs and that one of them had caused an ‘infarct,’ which means tissue death (!!), thus causing the sudden, severe back pain of the previous 30 hours. He sent me home that evening with a new blood thinning medication, to be taken twice a day for the next month. I was also told to visit a long list of specialists, including the hematologist who had been working with me for the last seven years. He would prescribe a new drug at a new dosage to try and prevent this from happening again.

Because, you see, it had already happened once. Which is exactly why this particular ‘returning’ was not on my bucket list. The first event in 2010 put me on the only blood thinner available back then – Coumadin, a drug difficult to manage and which complicated my life for five years. In 2015, I managed to tear a muscle in my abdomen, causing significant internal bleeding and sending me to the hospital for two days. At that point, they reversed the effects of the Coumadin and took me off blood thinning meds, hopefully forever. Hooray!

Now, I am back on them — this time, for good. There are newer versions today, easier to manage, but not without risk. That is sobering. I am seeing a long list of specialists to rule out any other kind of damage to heart or kidneys and must take it easy for another couple of months. And all of it feels so wretchedly familiar. I did not want this to happen again, but . . . it has.

So now, what do I do about this particular ‘return’ in my life? Part of me wants to put on my big-girl pants and suck it up. That’s my go-to, life-long pattern. It feels familiar and even a little comforting. But the reality is, I am now seven years older than I was the last time this happened. And I’m in a season of grief and loss. SEVEN people close to me have died since my mom’s death in April. Two others (three, if I include myself) have received difficult medical news, all involving ongoing treatment, one with a terminal diagnosis, most likely in the next few years.

I feel inundated by sadness, overwhelmed by all the pain in the world at large and in my circle of family and friends in particular. And far more than action, or even re-action, I find that what I need is . . .

Click right here to discover what is helping in this season . . .

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

Parsing It Out: Sacrifice or Duty? SheLoves

It’s time to write for SheLoves once again, and the theme this month is “Willing Sacrifice.” This one gets pretty personal and you can finish it by clicking on the link.

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My beautiful mama, picture taken  yesterday, week three on hospice care.

What is it that makes a sacrifice truly sacrificial? Seems to me it has to be the modifier chosen for this month’s theme at SheLoves — willingness. I’m not sure that one idea can ever be successfully separated from the other, to tell you the truth. Choosing to give something up for the sake of someone else is what makes a sacrifice real. If the giving-up is not chosen, but forced — by pressure, either external or internal — then it becomes a demand, a duty or an expectation. And that is not the same thing at all, is it?

But sometimes, learning how to parse out that difference is one of the hardest parts of our journey toward becoming mature, loving, insightful and empathetic human persons. I have spent a good portion of my later adult life trying to peel away the multiple, nuanced layers of my own story, looking hard at the motivations behind a lot of my choices over the years. This business of learning to own your own crap is hard work!

I suppose the most central piece of the story for me is my long and complicated relationship with my mother. I’ve written about the last decade of our journey together in multiple places on the internet, including here. The hard, sad loss of this once vibrant woman is filled with pain and sadness, yet even this last stage through dementia has shed some light on who she is, on how her childhood both nourished and scarred her and how those scars had an impact on me. The act of writing things down has involved some hard, deep work and none of it has been easy. My mom was the very best mom she could be, loving me and my brothers well, providing care, concern, fun, beauty, color and laughter for us all. I am deeply grateful for her and to her and love her very much indeed.

But she was far from perfect. No big surprise there, right? Only been One person to walk this earth in perfection — the rest of us muddle along, wounding and being wounded, falling and getting up again. Just today, in the midst of her confusion, I heard these kinds of phrases: “I’m trying to be a good girl.” “I hope it’s not my fault.” “I think I did it right.”

Breaks. My. Heart. These are the wounds of early childhood, worming their way to the surface of a 95-year-old, deteriorating brain, even when nothing else she says makes any sense whatsoever. How can this be?

From about the age of seven, my mother took on the responsibility of protecting her mother from her father, who was given to binge drinking and gambling. Mom cleaned up his messes, stood up to him in her 7-year-old righteous indignation, and worried over her younger brother and sister. She had an older brother, too, but he was the crown prince of the family and apparently could do no wrong. It fell to mom to be the family guardian and watchdog.

And she passed that message, that burden, that responsibility . . . but not that sacrifice . . . to me when I was about seven. “Daughters take care of mothers, “ were her words and they came right into me, body and soul. I’m here to tell you that age seven is way too young for anything to be ‘chosen.’ Instead, the act of care-giving becomes part of your very DNA. Seven-year-olds are not, and cannot be, willing participants. Assumptions are made, expectations are parceled out and burdens are borne.

But for too many years, none of that was what I would call a willing sacrifice. . . 

Read the rest of this essay by clicking over from this link right here. 

Baby Steps — For SheLoves, March 2017

It must be the second Saturday of the month because I’m live at SheLoves again today! You can start this reflection here and then follow the links over to that good place to join the conversation. Our theme for March is “Be Bold for Change.”

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Several members of our family taking ‘baby steps’ on a hiking trail near Palm Springs last week.

Bold is a great big word. Only four small letters, but oh, my! — such freight. I don’t use it often, to tell you the truth. About 90% of the time, my use of the term is limited to clicking Command-B on my computer keyboard! I seem to be more willing to occasionally make a written word stand out than to actually be bold in my day-to-day life.

In fact, as I thought about writing for this month’s theme, I began to wonder if I have ever been a bold person, someone who steps out and speaks up and makes a change. I know I am not bold physically — I KNOW this. I don’t like high places, I am terminally uncoordinated, any size or shape of sports-ball coming my direction is a source of terror. I have a friend — one of my dearest friends — who is brazenly, maybe even crazily, bold physically. She learned to kite-surf in her 50’s and is now an expert. Last year, she and a friend hiked from the Alps of Switzerland to the shores of the Mediterranean in France. This week, she left for Nepal to climb to the base camp of Mt. Everest. Yes, really. The base camp of Mt. Everest.

Uh, no thank you. Much as I love and admire her, that kind of bold feels cray-cray to me. Just plain c r a z y.

Then I began to broaden my horizons and think about other bold women I have known. I soon realized that there are lots of different ways to step up, to step out, to take a chance, to risk failure, to make a difference. Some of those other bold women are the ones I’ve met here at SheLoves — Idelette, Tina, Kelley, Kathy, Helen, Bev, Erin, Cindy, Claire, Heather, Sarah, Michaela, Bethany — too many to list. Each of them, women who have had the courage to dream and the stick-to-it-ive-ness to realize those dreams — often despite fear, hardship, and loss.

Guess what? There are lots of ways to be bold. And every single one of those ways begins with a single step. One decision. One moment of courage. One instant of recognition that this — this idea, this project, this act of grace, this stand-up-and-be-counted moment — is do-able. These women — and so many others — believed in possibilities and then they walked those possibilities into reality.

Every bold step begins with a baby one. Dramatic change does not happen overnight. Sometimes, it takes a lifetime — even more than a lifetime. Really bold change only happens when lots of different people take lots of different kinds of baby steps, all of them heading in the same direction.

Come on over and read the rest of this piece and tell me about some baby steps of your own, okay?

First, the Tomb — SheLoves, February 2017

The silence at this blog has been rather deafening thus far in 2017. Part of the reason for that is the event described in this essay. I wrote it for SheLoves, that special place on the internet where I am privileged to write once each month. Please start here and then follow the links over there to join in the conversation.

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The rain falls steadily, beating against the translucent plastic of the skylight across the hall from where I write. A drumbeat that reminds me that fruitfulness requires dark, wet days. Lots and lots of dark, wet days.

Life continues to teach me that there is no resurrection without the darkness of death, there is no rising without first being down. Sometimes that down-ness is imposed on us — by life, by circumstance, by some kind of struggle, which we did not deserve or earn. Other times, we trip and fall, choosing unwisely or forgetting what we know to be true. No matter what has brought us low, however, the truth of it remains: there is nowhere to go but up.

 I am watching closely as my mother winds down for the last time in her long life. We moved her this week — again. Fifteen years ago, we moved her and my dad from their lovely retirement home in Orange County CA to a smaller, 2-bedroom apartment in a senior community nearer to family. Three years later, after my dad’s death, we moved my mother to a 1-bedroom unit in the same facility. Eight years after that, we moved her across the street, into an assisted living studio. One year later, we moved her 120 miles north, to a single room with bath, inside a dementia unit, minutes from our home.

Now, four years further down this journey toward death, she is in a still smaller room, one with a hospital bed and an RN down the hall. We moved mama into skilled nursing last week, sorting through the debris of her life one more time, parsing her existence into smaller and smaller pieces.

I hoped she would be oblivious to this change. So much of her cognition is gone, so many pieces missing from the beautiful puzzle that is my mother. But she knew. And she was frightened and confused, wondering why ‘her family’ wasn’t nearby. Though she couldn’t tell you a single name, she somehow knew the residents and the caregivers in her 16-bed assisted living wing. Now she is part of a much larger space, with many more people, many more wheelchairs, longer distances to travel from bedroom to activity center to dining room. . . 

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Yes, it’s been a tough few weeks, friends. We’re at the last bend in the road. Please do come on over to SheLoves and read a bit more about this journey.

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!”

A Legacy — SheLoves, November 2016

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She fell down yesterday. No one saw it happen, but when she winced while they were getting her dressed, they spotted the fresh bruising, all down her flank. What happened? everyone wondered.

Who knows?

I was in telephone contact with the nurse and the staff and in text contact with my son the MD. Yes, she can bear weight. No, she was never unconscious. No, the doctor has not returned our FAX.

And so we waited it out. And I had to make some hard choices during that long night. If she broke something, would I authorize surgical treatment? No, I decided. I would not. At age 95, with only fitful eyesight, hearing and balance, and no working memory, surgery would wreak havoc with her diminishing brain cells and would not improve either the length or the quality of her life.

So I decided. And I wept.

And then today, when I went to see her, to assure myself that nothing had been broken, I carefully hugged and kissed her and said, “Oh, Mama, I am so sorry you fell down!”

“I did?” she asked, with an extremely puzzled look on her lovely face. “I have no memory of that happening.”

She was right. She has no memory. Of anything.

BUT I DO.

I remember — and still see —

I’m up earlier than usual over at SheLoves this month. Come over and read more of the memories I try to carry for my mother, why she is the one I consider my ‘legacy’ champion.

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.

31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Sixteen

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We have a small fishing industry here in Santa Barbara. I love to see their small boats sitting just off shore during the various seasons of the year — lobster, crab, salmon. halibut, even sea cucumbers!

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They look tiny against the horizon, don’t they?

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This one was checking traps last week — you can see the trap markers to the left of the picture.
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Working boats and pleasure craft share our marina space and each type brings its own unique kind of beauty to our waterfront. I love to watch a graceful sloop or a sturdy looking catamaran sail by. But it is the working boats my eye is drawn to most often. Some of those boats have been part of the story of our town for decades, holding deliciousness in their freezers and hard working men and women at their helm.

Fishing is work. Yes, it is often pleasurable. But it is work, first and foremost. And somehow the phrasing of today’s quote from St. Paul of the Cross stirs in me a deep reminder of that truth. To fish in the sea of Christ’s sorrow is work, plain and not-so-simple. It does not come naturally to us to reflect on sad things, to step into another’s suffering and see what nourishment we might find there. But oh! It is good work. And necessary work.

Once again, the key word in this quote is ‘love.’ If we can firmly hold onto that powerful truth, everything changes. Christ willingly stepped into that sea of suffering because of divine love — divine love for human persons. This is the kind of ‘atonement theory’ that resonates with me at the deepest level: for God so loved the world. This is the bedrock truth of our faith and taking time to fish in these good waters is one of the healthiest and most life-giving things we can do.

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