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. 

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.

When There Are No Easy Answers

Dementia is a strange process. My mother has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, but who knows exactly what kind of dementia she suffers with? On the way home from our quite wonderful worship service today, I said to my husband that I needed to be with my mom today — wonderful family events have filled our days during this graduation season and my time with her has not been quite as frequent as usual. And the sermon was on the centrality of the cross to our faith, with an emphasis on the power of self-denial (not self-abnegation or self-abuse). We were reminded, with great care and attention, that the centrality of our call to follow in the footsteps of Jesus from day to day is to, ‘pick up our cross.’

As self-serving as this may sound, I know what my cross looks like these days.

A quiet afternoon at home today would have been nice after our hectic week. A nap would have been nice. It is possible I was not in the best shape to spend three hours caring for my mother this afternoon. In truth, it is more than possible. 

As usual, I called her unit and told them I would be there at a certain time, could she please be ready? When I arrived, she knew someone was coming to get her, she knew that I was important, but she didn’t quite understand who I was or why I should come to take her out.

I do this, on average, every 3-4 days. Not daily, not yet . . . maybe never. But often and regularly. Each time, it is brand new to her.

These are the regular questions during the first five to ten minutes we are together . . . every single time:

“Where are we going?”
“Should I bring this (pointing to her walker)?”
“What a nice car! It rides so smoothly! Sure is a good thing I’m not driving — look at all those cars!”
“Now, who are you again?”
You’re my daughter?” 
“Oh, my goodness! How smart of me!”

We drove around and around the parking garage at the mall, searching for a place to put the car that wasn’t too far away from an elevator. She kept asking questions the entire time, a litany that went around and around the same territory.

Finally, a spot opened! In we went, out came the walker, out came my mama. Slowly we made our way across the row of cars to the large, very slow elevator, taking it up to the ground level and walking across the breezeway to California Pizza Kitchen.

After safely ensconcing both of us in the booth, I began to peruse the menu, trying to decide what to get for the two of us. We usually go out for lunch during the week and the CPK menu changes on the weekends. While I searched, my mother kept talking. Some of it was routine, some of it was convoluted, some of it made no sense. 

“Mom,” I said carefully and clearly. “Please do not worry so much. Let’s just stop and look around this lovely place and be glad we are here together, okay?”

She took a breath, I went back to the menu. Then she started in again. At a loss for what to do next, I picked up my cellphone, holding it in front of my face and I started taking pictures of her lovely, expressive face, wondering how to deflect this almost frantic routine. 

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“I don’t have any money. I can’t find it. I’m feeling a little confused, I guess.”

“What are you confused about, Mom?”

“Well, I think I need to find something to do, something that’s helpful.”

“What are you thinking about doing?”

“Well, I was thinking about where I go to get this done (pointing to her hair), and wondering what I might be able to do to help her up there.” (The beauty parlor is across the driveway and upstairs from where she spends her days.)

“Well, Mom, you’ve worked hard all your life. Maybe it’s time to just enjoy your life.”

“How do you know about my life?”

“Well, because I’ve known you my whole life.”

“Are you related to me?”

“Yes, Mom. We are family.”

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I then went back to reading the menu, looking somewhat frantically for the waitress to ask a question and then, hopefully, to order for us both.

She continued to talk.

“So, in some way we are related. So would it be all right if I asked you about that and we kept talking about it?”

I did not immediately reply.

“I take it from your silence that you’re not interested in a relationship with me?”

I looked up suddenly, momentarily a little confused myself! “Yes, Mom, I’m very interested in a relationship with you! That’s why I come and see you every few days, that’s why we go out to lunch together.”

“You come to see me every few days? Me? Are you sure it’s me you see?”

“Yes, Mom, I’m sure it’s you.”

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“Well, why can’t I remember that?”

“Because remembering is hard for you now, Mom.”

“I better get to the doctor!”

“We’ve been to the doctor, Mom. We’ve been to lots of doctors. I’ve taken you to doctors for the last eight years or so.”

You have? Why would you do that?”

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“Because I love you and because you wanted to find out what was wrong with your memory.”

Then, out of the blue, “I really need to go the bathroom.” So I got up, helped her to get up and we headed down the ramp just behind our table. Just then, the waitress arrived (thank goodness!) so I asked a question, got the answer I needed and quickly ordered.

Mission accomplished, we were back in our places in ten minutes.

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The questions began once again, heading in slightly different directions:

“I’m a Christian – are you a Christian?” (This particular topic was brand-new this week.)

“Yes, Mom, I am a Christian.”

“Well, that’s good. You know I used to be quite a spiritual person. And I think I need to be spending more of my time praying.”

“Well, praying is one of the best things you can do with your time these days, Mom.”

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“You called me, “Mom.” Why did you call me that?”

“Because  you are my mom, and I am your daughter.”

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“I’m your mom? Did I give birth to you? Did I take good care of you?”

“Yes, Mom. You have birth to me and you took very good care of me.”

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You’re really my daughter? Why, that’s wonderful news!!”

 

Yes, Mom. I am really, truly, forever your daughter. No matter how many times in thirty minutes I have to tell you that truth.

I am your girl.

You are my mama.

And I am exhausted.

 

When I brought her back to her room, I remembered to check her closet for the personal supplies that I provide for her care. She was out of everything. So a trip to CVS was in order, requiring a careful shuffling through my collection of coupons and discounts. I loaded my car, returned to the facility and a volunteer, seeing me fully loaded, pushed in the code required to open the door to her unit. 

As soon as that door opened, I saw my mama rushing (and I do mean rushing, moving faster than she ever does when we are together) toward the door, shouting, with a frown on her face: “Leave that door open! I’m going out!”

Ah, no, Mom. You are not going out. As much as you might like to go out, it is not to be. 

There were no jokes today. No threads of hymns, no singing. Confusion reigned completely this time. 

On my return visit, she did not see me. She did not know me at all. I was simply the one who opened the door and she wanted OUT.

I find myself praying that the way out will come near, near, near.

And in the middle of that prayer, heading my little Honda home, with tears building behind my eyes, I remembered the rest of this morning’s sermon: “Get thee behind me, Satan,” Jesus said to Peter. “Get thee behind me.” 

‘Behind me.’

Oh, Lord. Help me to place myself behind you. Not leap ahead into the future, not try to force anything by the (oh-so-limited!) power of my will. Not second-guess, not over-worry, not even ask ‘why?’ 

My mother is who she is. She is where she is. And despite all evidence to the contrary, I will choose to believe that she, too, is safely behind Jesus, following in the only way she can — blindly, gropingly, feebly . . . but . . . oh, so faithfully. 

Help me, Lord, to honor who she is right now, incessant questions, confusion, frailty — all of it — who she is right now. Help me, Lord.

 

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.

 

The Surprising Nature of Grief

He was in his late 50’s, I’m guessing. Salt and pepper hair and mustache, thick black shoes, Bermuda shorts and the usual bright red apron. I was at Home Depot, purchasing something or other for the work we’re doing on our new home, and I noticed him, cheerfully helping customers through the checkout process.

He was kind, with a peaceful, even happy expression on his face. I could see him from where I stood waiting in line, and I remember thinking, “That guy is one of the good ones. Yeah, the shoes with the shorts are a tad nerdy, but what a sweet man!”

I dug into my cart, laid my wares on the conveyor belt and he quickly moved to the end of the island, getting ready to put my purchases into a bag for me. I handed over my credit card, signed my name and turned to thank him as I got ready to exit the store. And that’s when I saw his name tag:

                                                               “KENNETH”

Big black letters, larger than life. And as I saw them, I was startled to hear a great gasping sob erupt from my mouth. The next minute, tears were streaming down beneath my sunglasses as I made my way back to the car.

I had been blindsided by grief, deep and wide.

Kenneth was my youngest brother’s name. The one who died in 2009. A man I’d never met called me early in the morning of October 2nd; he was the manager of Ken’s sober living residence. He’d found my number in my brother’s cell phone and told me tearfully that Ken passed away in his sleep. He was 53 years old.

Oh my, such a sweet man. Troubled, broken, sick and tired, but such a sweet man. I’ve written about him elsewhere, detailing his life of struggle and pain. But that day — that instant in the Home Depot — my thoughts were these:

This could have been my brother.

He would have been so good at a job like this.

Oh, how I miss him! Oh, how sorry I am for all the turmoil he endured! Oh, how I wish I could change it somehow.

But I cannot. I cannot go back in time, much as I might wish to do so. I cannot change one second of his life.

This much, though . . . this much, I can do:

I can acknowledge my own sadness about him.

I can make space for the grief to surprise me, again and again.

I can thank God for Ken every day.

I can pray for his sons and daughter-in-law.

I can remember the best pieces of his story.

I can pay attention to those I meet who remind me of him in some way — size, demeanor, struggle.

I can not be ashamed of the sobs, the tears, the sadness or him. Instead, I can remember him with love and gratitude, accepting him for who he was, warts and all, and rejoice that his suffering is over.

Grief comes in waves, they say. Who knew the tide would still roll after this many years? Sometimes I think I’m ‘used’ to all the death and dying we’ve experienced in our family circle. But I’m not, and — thank God — I never will be. Though it often comes disguised as blessing, especially after a long, difficult illness, death is always our last enemy, a reminder that our time in this sphere is limited and finite. Ah, Lord, I thank you that Ken’s dying was gentle, though his living was harsh.

I miss you, sweet brother of mine. I truly do. 

The Mystery Remains


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Once again, I am overwhelmed by your response to a post about my journey with my mom. It never ceases to amaze me how great an epidemic this is in our land, how many people are walking this hard, painful road through the death-by-inches and loss of self that is dementia. Thank you for your kind words and your stories — they mean the world to me, and to everyone who reads through that long comment thread.

This week has been one of gradual healing, slowly regained mobility and living right smack dab in the middle of deep wells of gratitude. I’ve spelled out a few reasons why in today’s newsletter (you can subscribe at the bottom of this post if you’d like), but I will just say here that the human body is both fragile and miraculously resilient and I am celebrating the gift of my own body in ways I never have before.

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I have abused this vessel for many years, in many ways: too many calories, too little exercise, too much stress. Slowly, slowly, I am learning to appreciate how very well it has served me over my life and I am living more fully in it than ever before. That is no small gift for a little girl who hated her height/skin/hair/self and always felt awkward and clumsy. 

The bruises from my time with mom on Mother’s Day are healing as well. I dropped off some supplies two days later and as she saw me, her eyes welled with tears and she said, with great hesitation,”Are you still mad at me?”

I almost wept again.

Somewhere in the confusing tunnels of her brain, she knows that she has upset me. And she is sorry for it.

I am sorry, too.

A trusted friend and counselor said to me this morning, “You know, Diana, your letting go of that Coumadin is a strong metaphor for the way in which you must let go of everything else that makes you bleed.”

Everything else that makes me bleed.

Well, wow.

Exactly.

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I must continue to learn how to let go of these old wounds, to offer them to my Savior as a means of grace, to say ‘thank you’ for the good gifts first and forever, to release my mother’s ultimate care and safety to Another.

I am not now, never have been, and never can be responsible for her health and happiness. That is the lie that she and I have believed for far too long and it must be jettisoned. It must be.

We cannot, any of us, be ‘the answer’ for another human person. It is not possible, nor is it desirable. We can be instruments for healing, we can be companions on the way, we can laugh and cry and worry and wonder with one another. But we cannot, we must not, we dare not ever try to fix one another.

We don’t have that power. Thank God.

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There is only one source of Healing in this universe, and it pours out on us all day after day, in mess after mess, through trial after trial. It shows up in medicine, psychology, friendship, good marriages, good parenting, healthy politics (is there such a thing?). But the Source is the same. Everything  that is good and right in this universe comes from God alone.

Not me.

Not you.

Through me, hopefully, yes. And through you, too.

But we do not have to generate it, invent it, or even package it. We simply have to allow it. That is all. 

So I am learning again to say, “YES.” With as much of me as I now know, I say, “Yes.” 

And I say, “Thank you.”

Did You Say SHORTS? A Guest Post for Jamie Wright

I had a fun thing happen! On a whim, I left a comment at TheVeryWorstMissionary.com when Jamie offered a giveaway of three guest post opps. And I WON! Begin fear and trembling. What in the name of heaven does an old lady have to say to such a young, hip crowd as those who read this woman’s amazing words? She was encouraging and I stewed and prayed for about four days, and then, this came pouring out. You can start here and then follow me on over to her place to read the rest . . . 320-main treadmillGetting old is ripe with indignities. Go ahead, ask me how I know. I watch my 93-year-old mom take daily steps further into the haze of dementia, and I fear for the future. And then I realize — the future is here. Yowza.

In four months, I will be 70 years old. 7-0. I remember struggling a bit with 35, taking a deep breath at 40, sort of reveling in 50 and feeling resolute about 60. But 70? The word that comes to mind is sobering. Also? More than a little bit humiliating.

Case in point. About a year ago, I injured my left foot while taking a morning walk — on vacation, no less. That led to a couple of months of physical therapy, which led to a different injury, same foot, which led to three months of tests, boots, ice packs, and assorted piles of pillows.

Ultimately, a new set of x-rays revealed a congenitally crooked heel bone, which had likely led to the two tendon insults in the first place, one of which proved to be a nearly irreparable tear.

And that meant surgery — to break and reset (with two titanium screws) that gnarly bone problem and to clean-up and re-connect the bashed tendon.  Which meant, NO weight-bearing for a minimum of two months.

And? Ta-da. MORE physical therapy.

I am happy to report that I am now walking, in two shoes, and trying to re-learn how to move this elderly ankle of mine. And just last week, I was invited to try out a brand, spankin’ new, space-age treadmill called the Super G.

What they did not tell me is that to use this machine, I had to wriggle myself into a pair of strangely shaped walking shorts made of neoprene. Listen to me now — I have not worn shorts of any kind in over twenty years. Twenty years.

Even when I was younger, stronger, and more shapely, getting into this particular pair of shorts would have been a good trick. Now? Holy Toledo, it is . . . well, humiliating.

In a good way, of course. Yeah, that is pretty much the oxymoron of the century, I know. But what this strange, gravity-defying machine is teaching me is that sometimes humiliation can be a very good thing.

Come on over to Jamie’s good place and encourage the old lady, okay?

What if . . .

photo courtesy of sfgate.com

What if . . .

we raised our hands with love and attention,

we offered our prayers with concern and commitment,

we held back judgment,

gave others the benefit of the doubt,

stood for justice,

and meant it,

from the soles of our feet to the tops our heads?

 

What if . . .

we humbled ourselves,

truly humbled ourselves,

and said, yes, I’m to blame, too,

I’ve given tacit approval to racism,

to classism,

to sexism,

to all kinds of isms

and prejudices

and fear-based opinions?

 

What if . . .

we earnestly sought for reconciliation,

with a willingness to pay the price,

whatever it might be?

 

What if we listened,

really listened,

to generations of accumulated pain,

to the voices of those who have no voice,

to the ones who are caught in the web

of evil or poverty or severe systemic dysfunction?

 

And what if . . .

we prayed up leaders,

real leaders,

with hearts and souls

and good, good minds,

people who would search for 

lasting answers and real solutions?

 

Do you think it would help?

Would we learn to see each other?

To hear each other?

To tolerate each other

and appreciate differences

as well as similarities?

 

O, I hope so.

I pray so.

 

I’m listening.

I’m learning.

I want to grow in grace,

to lean into the love of Jesus,

to offer a cup of cold water 

and work for peace.

Will you raise hands with me?

And with all who are suffering tonight,

in Ferguson, in Gaza, in Iraq,

wherever hatred and fear rule?

Report from the Front

 

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The last 12 days have felt a little like I’ve been struggling my way up from the deep water, and awkwardly paddling toward the light, the air. It’s been a limiting, sometimes frightening, always exhausting experience.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had surgery* of any kind. A long time. And I knew this would be a rough one going in — there is no way to avoid the ‘roughness’ of being almost 70 years old, with a badly injured left foot, dealing with blood thinning medication from a previous event/insult to the body, and being told that there will be no weight-bearing for eight weeks.

No way around it. 

And, to tell you the truth, it’s every bit as difficult as I anticipated. Pain medications kept me foggy and slightly nauseated for ten days, the shots-to-the-belly required to manage blood thinners lasted two full weeks instead of 10 days, and trying to be a ‘good girl,’ obedient to the doctor’s instructions to keep-that-foot-higher-than-your-heart-for-as-many-hours-a-day-as-possible-for-the-first-two-weeks. Well, let’s just say that the word ‘boredom’ has taken on several new layers of meaning.

I thank God for several good gifts in the midst of the crush: my husband’s faithful attendance (much, much more is demanded of him than at any point in the previous 48 years!), my children’s kind visits and assistance, my prayer-group-friends boxes of good cheer which have been arriving with lovely regularity, and my new Kindle Fire, a Mother’s Day gift from our kids.

I have watched six seasons of “Inspector Lewis,” a six-part documentary on “The Celts,” and every Jane Austen film production my Amazon Prime account gives me for free. 

In the last three days, I have found the energy and focus to read again, and that has been delightful. I just began the “Anne” cycle last night for the first time in over 40 years, and am partway through both Emily Wierenga’s new memoir and a fun book sent by a prayer friend called, “Leonardo’s Foot.” Perfect topic, or what?

And then, of course, there is my new best friend.

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This has since been tricked out with a little scooter bling by another of the prayer group friends. Tassels and a small bell.

This handy-dandy little 4-wheeled vehicle is called a knee caddy. A wonderful invention, but not without its flaws. LOUSY turning radius, requiring me to bodily pick the entire front half up off the ground to make a 90 degree turn. Still – it’s worth it. I spent the first three days hopping behind a 2-wheel walker, so this is a vast improvement. Our son-in-law built me a ramp to cover the two steps down from the master bedroom area to the living room/kitchen and I try to carefully maneuver that at least once a day.

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I am both looking and feeling my age and am aware of some pretty deep levels of exhaustion and anxiety. By the grace of God, I am trying to remain open to the graces to be found, even here, even now. Giving up self-reliance is a huge monster of a thing for me. Just an ugly, hard thing. I like being competent and in control, even though I know that any semblance of control is always but a ghost of reality, a trick of the mind.

Because as it happens, there is very little in this life that we can control. Except, perhaps, for our responses to whatever it is life hands us at a given moment in time. I remain grateful that God invites me to partner in this life-course, daily choice business of discipleship. I am not a puppet nor is every detail of my day-to-day life mapped out ahead of time. I still get to choose. There are events, circumstances, illnesses and injuries that are beyond me, beyond any capacity of mine to change. But there are always choices. Always.

I can choose to say thank you to those who help me, who pray for me, who bring twice-weekly meals, who send love in a cardboard box, who pay a visit and offer a sympathetic smile.

I can choose to value my family, to appreciate their encouragement, support, assistance and great good humor.

I can choose to lean into the fear when it rises, to say the Jesus prayer whenever necessary, for as many times as it takes to slow my breathing and return my focus to the goodness of my life. Even here, even now.

I can choose to look for God’s grace and goodness, even when it hurts, even when I’m bored, even when I’m tired, even when I’m confused. 

I can choose to lean and to learn, to seek and to find, to listen and to look, to love and be loved.

I can choose.

And so I will.

In two days, we return to the surgeon. Hopefully the cast will come off, the stitches will come out and there will be early evidence of the bone beginning to heal, the tendon attachments beginning to take hold. Then I’ll go into a removable boot for the remaining six weeks, which I hope-and-pray will mean the ability to shower without a huge plastic cover-up over my left calf.

I’ll report again after that appointment.

*For those who do not know what this surgery was about – a brief synopsis Last summer, I injured my left achilles tendon while taking an early morning walk when we were vacationing in Hawaii. I began physical therapy when we returned home, with very good results. Near the end of those sessions, I had a firm massage from the therapist in which the outside of that foot was pressed against the edge of the massage table and I was instructed to resist that movement. In doing so, I somehow managed to rupture the pereoneus brevis tendon, which comes down from the back bone of the lower leg and wraps around the ankle before heading to the outside of the foot and attaching to the little toe. It runs adjacent to the peroneus longus, which takes a turn at the ankle, going under the foot and over to the big toe. After trying three different appliances from three different doctors in an effort to avoid this surgery, the orthopedic surgeon took an additional series of x-rays which revealed a congenital malformation of the heel bone, likely contributing greatly to the tendon rupture in the first place. So. In two different incisions, which I have yet to see, he went in and broke the heel bone, straightening it and pinning it upright with screws and he cleaned up the torn tendon and reattached it to the neighboring one. And  yes, it hurts about as much it sounds like it would.