Thursday, May 5, 2016

Putting it out there so I don't have to talk about it

So, my mom is dying.

I don't mean to be blunt. It is my nature, but I suppose some of you will find it offensive, even cold. I guess it's just the way I deal with what's happening. In general, I don't do sentiment very well, nor very often. It takes too long, makes a bad thing worse to me, and puffs my eyes until I'm unrecognizable. No, thank you.

Anyway, my mother has been dying for a while now. And yes, I realize that we're all dying; out of 1,000 people here on Earth, 1,000 of them will die. The odds are sort of stacked against us.

But my mom is dying in a slow, observable way. And it's been pretty damned difficult to watch.

Dementia is bad enough. Dementia combined with ill health is worse. Dementia plus general poor health plus the ticking time bomb of cancer? That, my friends, is the trifecta no one wants to hit. It happens, daily, probably to more folks around you than you realize. Once you become one those folks, then you begin to grasp how common this type of situation is. But you wish you didn't know, and you wouldn't wish it on anyone else.

As her memory faded, she began to fail physically as well. We all noticed, pushed the memory meds (which I suspect do nothing), and saw the general deterioration become a bit pronounced. And then a bit more. A urinary tract infection caused the first landslide, and we all saw the woman we know retreat into herself and become, temporarily, an unhappy and uncooperative person who wanted only her husband and to be left alone. A short stay in a rehab facility to help her regain strength was a necessary but difficult period of time; she was not a model patient. Finally, the infection cleared and she returned to us, somewhat less muddled but permanently affected.

That was 2 1/2 years ago. Since then, there have been more infections, falls, scans, biopsies, the deadly diagnosis of the "C" word, and a continuing decline. Help has been enlisted, then compounded. Some friends and family have been amazingly, touchingly supportive. Seeing this good in people, and spending time around the biggest helpers, have been humbling moments for me; I am a better person simply for proximity to these kind-hearted blessings in human form.

But the kindnesses and offerings and visits have not stopped the progression of the decline. Only God can do that, and I have to believe He has His reasons for permitting this. My heart has been softened considerably; never again will I be able to see a family dealing with a health crisis and not remember these days. I will certainly be slower to judge anyone facing terminal health problems; I will try to never take for granted my basic faculties and abilities. These are good ends, because I should never judge, and I should always be thankful. I wish there were easier means to acquire such wisdom.

She was never my best friend—we didn't have that kind of relationship. I was the third of three girls; I imagine that both of my parents were weary by then from the drama of all those female hormones. I didn't tell her my secrets, or give her every detail of my crushes at the high school dance. In the end, though, none of that matters. She is my mother, who protected me and bathed me and sat through my band concerts and made me do chores and helped me pick out clothes (until I was a teenager, at least). Her blood runs in my veins. I am here because of her, and thanks to her.

It feels now as if we are caring for a shell of the person we knew. Is she still in there somewhere? Does she remember bits and pieces, or is it mostly just gone? Sometimes she remembers me, but mostly she just knows that I am familiar. That's what she craves: the familiar. She is moving away from me, from us. I know we must be nearing the end because she has ceased to brag about her childhood singing voice; it has been months since she's told me that she was the smartest in her family, in her class even. Now she has begun to turn down sweets. My mother! Refusing a cookie! Not finishing a piece of cake. She used to declare how she loved to read—and she did, much more than housework!—and even though she hasn't read anything since this long, ugly journey began, it pains me that she doesn't even mention it anymore.

The person we knew is already gone, really. It's as if I'm watching a cheesy episode of Star Trek, where the crew members step onto those round platforms and disappear a little at a time (cue the shimmery, space-age sound effect). That is what's happening to my mom. She is getting more and more faint, even as I physically help her rise from her chair, even as we have to stand closer to each other than ever before so I can assist her with delicate matters in a way that the woman I used to know would never have permitted... Even then, she continues to vanish. She is disappearing right before my eyes.

I pray for her quick departure, that it is easy and light. Recently after waking, she announced to one of the wonderful ladies who help care for her, "Jesus loves me." Yes, He does. I trust He is preparing the arrival party.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Storms, helpers, and theories on faith-building

So, one of the best things about a blizzard—

Wait, scratch that last. Saying "one of the best things" implies that there are more than one good thing about blizzards—which is, frankly, laughable, since I'm scraping the bottom of the barrel here to find even a single good thing. So, beginning again:

The only good thing about a blizzard and subsequent heavy snowfall is that suddenly, neighborhoods become neighborly again. I suppose any natural disaster brings about this end; I recall similar friendly acts when our street flooded two summers ago. Suddenly, people who'd barely spoken to each other were sharing buckets to bail, and even the more aloof crowd up the street wandered down to assist folks on our dead end, to push cars out of harm's way, to chat amicably and offer support. We haven't seen them since, but hey...

So, when last weekend's snow began to fall, and the husband was headed out of town, and the kid was sick with a flu, we just sort of hunkered down... and I did a lot of praying. For safe travel for the hus and his gang of church kids and fellow leaders (they arrived safely and had a great time), for my loved ones to have random plowing help and for more able family shovelers to step in (all of that happened), for everyone to use good judgment and common sense and do what they could for whom they could do it. Paying it forward, so to say. I couldn't drive an hour in my low-riding sedan in the snowdrifts with an ill child, so I shoveled our own walkway and the elderly neighbor's as well, trusting that if only all of us contributed in a sensible, local way,the good deeds would work their way around to every needy soul. And from what I've found out? That's what happened.

I remember reading that Fred Rogers told kids who were struggling to comprehend disasters that they should "look for the helpers." He comforted children who were floundering in confusion and unanswered questions by pointing them toward those fellow humans who stepped up to lend a hand—to be God's hands, in a way. And Mr. Rogers was right, of course; there are always helpers, and one can take some solace in seeing the good works of those folks. Part of healing occurs when you see the helpers, and sometimes when you are the helper... and I truly believe a big part of it also happens when you accept help, because that acceptance is an admission of sorts that you needed help in the first place.

The whole disasters-and-helpers thing has me thinking about a point I keep trying to make at my Bible study, and which as far as I can see has not yet been well received. I have observed aloud a direct correlation between being in a position where you need to ask for or accept human help, and being able to ask God for His gift of salvation. The part I think most of my study-mates object to is my suggestion that when you have plenty of money and a bevy of people around you whom you can pay for help, you don't grasp the idea of needing salvation as deeply because you just don't "need" much in this earthly realm.

This is my opinion, of course. But it lines up well with what I keep hearing about people who've been to the poorest places in the world, decrepit, downtrodden villages where people hear of God's love and eternal life and embrace it with the utmost joy. These people have nothing, their very existence often depends on moment-by-moment offerings. People who need assistance with every task—the chronically ill, the disabled, the infirm—those people truly understand their own helplessness, and I suspect that understanding helps them to better grasp their absolute dependence on God's mercy and kindness.

I'm not saying I want to be ill, or incapable, or desperately poor. Of course I don't. Yet, I do see over and over that those people have far less trouble on the whole accepting their need of Jesus. They have been humbled by life, by circumstances, by hungry children in their care, by the fact that without someone else, they can't get out of bed.

Humility is a difficult state to achieve when you're healthy, able, and comfortable, with money to spare. Doesn't it make sense that it's harder for many of us to feel we truly need God because we already have all the trappings of this world? It seems that the people with the biggest concept of God are those who have the smallest, most realistic, often most broken images of themselves and their utterly fallen, current dwelling place.

That's why bad storms make us neighborly again. We are humbled by something far bigger than ourselves; we realize, at a fundamental level, that we must accept help or be cut off and have our well-being endangered by our own stubbornness. It seems to me that the storms of life have the same effect. We can sit, snowed in, by the light of a flickering candle, eating cold canned beans and feeling lonely and sorry for ourselves... or we can open the door, accept the hand that is proffered, be humbled yet thankful, and then pass on the gift to others.

In my uninformed, simple opinion, this is one of America's greatest weaknesses: Our wealth. It's hard to see ourselves as we really are, when we've heaped up so much shoddy "finery" and just-released technology around our pathetic, messed-up selves. That stuff affects our perception of ourselves. It's piled so high that we can't even see Him knocking at the window. I hate storms... but I could probably do with more of them. Think about it: when have you felt closest to God? I don't feel joy when faced with trials, not yet, but I'm going to work on my big-picture viewpoint about the whole thing.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. -James 1:2-4

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The state of things

So this is it: the new normal. Awake by 4:30a, checking the clock periodically before finally admitting defeat and rising in the deep darkness. Not a nightly occurrence, yet. Often enough, however, that I discern a pattern.

Could it be my own fault? That glass of wine last night, imbibed well after the safe time of early evening? Perhaps. Or it might be that helping of leftover broccoli salad that I enjoyed far beyond the dinner hour (unless I am suddenly Spanish and regularly dining late in the evening... but I'm not, and we don't.) I could blame the endless-but-finally waning holidays, too—Lord knows I've blamed them for everything else these past few weeks... Or the oddly warm weather, necessitating far fewer bedclothes than is normal for late December, causing too-warm discomfort.

But the uncomfortable truth is that I wake in wee hours even when I don't indulge myself foolishly in the ways I just mentioned, even when there are no encroaching holidays, and even when the weather is utterly and predictably seasonal. I still jerk into awareness at odd times, lie there, fret, pray, fret again. I am afraid that this frequent occurrence is the new normal. Middle age, cultural concerns, lingering health situations and relationship issues with family--all of it has wrought its resulting and most unwelcome wakefulness in my little world.

I am unhappy about this, to say the least.

I take a tiny bit of comfort in knowing that it happens to others, as well. Cranky conversations with people close to me reveal that they, too, suffer the same frustrations. I am not the only person tossing fitfully, over-thinking situations, attempting to calm both irrational and rational fears, trying to hear God's still, small voice amid the rush of restless thoughts in my ownskull. But mostly? I wish this didn't happen to any of us.

I have never excelled at sitting still, and age has worsened this twitchiness. I can clearly see how that makes the night-time wakings so painful; I can't effectively distract myself with any real busy-ness at that hour, not if I want to be a considerate housemate. I can't clean our home with gusto, I can't clomp up and down stairs with baskets of clothes and towels, I can't sing along with music to take my mind off of the sobering thoughts that spin themselves in my weary, woolly brain: I am old. i am too heavy. I am impatient; I fail daily at basic kindness and compassion, at not gossiping, at playing with and showing patience with my son. I am not as well off as I imagined I would be at this age; I don't have enough money reserved for retirement. Our house is too small, our cars dangerously old, my love too weak and my faith watery thin.

Did I mention that all those thoughts are compounded exponentially in the middle of the night?

Mostly, the sleepless hours remind me of my own powerlessness and helplessness; at all times, but especially at that hour, I am awash in the fact that I can control nothing—except how I respond to any given situation. Even this current uprising, my body's and brain's determined mutiny against me—all I control is how I react.

Not my favorite season. I miss true rest. In the meantime, I think I'll make some coffee to accompany my frets and prayers.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Crazy chair lady

My husband and son think I'm insane with my craigslist addiction, my need to scour the listings for things I must have. Our tiny home bursts at the seams, trying to hold all of my fantastic finds. Oh, for a storefront, to help other [literally] poor, wayward home-shoppers find just the right items to make them smile each time they gaze upon their own abode.

But it's the chairs that really break my heart, people. The chairs.

I am a crazy chair lady. I cannot pass the sad, abandoned pieces on the roadside without a deep sigh, or (if they look promising) a quick-as-I-can U-turn to further peruse the cast-off.

I cannot tell you (and would be too embarrassed to tell you, even if I could) the number of times I've tried to save homeless chairs. I truly cannot help myself; it is an illness. I acknowledge this. Our home has been an ongoing parade of ever-changing chairs, from my single days onward... But I can't leave them, alone and unused. It's a crime to me. Even if I merely play the part of deliverer, hoisting them into the trunk of the Honda, where they hang out halfway, bungie-corded into submission, whilst I drive them to the "chair rescue" (Goodwill)... I drop them off in hopes that someone else can finish the mission I've begun.

What is it about chairs? Especially small ones—those petite resting places, so hard to find in modern furniture stores, where the entire showroom floor is awash in gargantuan, overstuffed monsters that wouldn't fit through our front door. Those diminutive forms, the ones that hug you when you sit down? Those are my chairs. When they rock or swivel? I sigh with delight. The low profile styles are my favorite. Even sweet wood dining chairs, or stools, the precursors to poufs... All of them make my heart go pitter-pat.

And I am sickened when I think of them languishing in a landfill. Why?! Why do I care so much? They are not alive. They have no souls, no feelings. But it breaks me. Secondhand stores, flea markets, yard sales–in each one, there hides a sad assortment of haunch holders that have been left behind in the rush to clutter our homes with chairs-and-a-half. What body could possibly need more than a single chair? No one will sit with you in that spacious, oversized mockery! Even if they did, what would it matter? Real intimacy can only be found when close proximity is chosen within a tight space.

So, my life's work has been reduced to this: save the chair. The cute little boudoir chair, the darling mid-century slipper chair, the dear barrel chair, the unaccompanied desk chair... All alone, all still full of purpose, some with weary upholstery but sporting those fabulous bones, and begging for a bright new interpretation.

Won't you join me? Better yet, for cryin' out loud: won't you be my patron? My kingdom for a storefront!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Terms

I've been in a strange season for the past year. Longer than that, actually—but the last 11 months or so have been the strangest thus far. I'm not alone in this season; others, mostly family members, are in it too. We're waiting for the other shoe to drop. Have you experienced a season like this? Where you cannot escape the (to coin a double entendre) "terminal awareness"? Where your thoughts constantly hover between the facts that our lives are finite, and that you can never, not for a moment, escape that reality?

I truly hope that it's not the new normal for me to wake each night, while the little world around me sleeps, and lie in bed pondering all the terrible potential scenarios of my own life and the people closest to me. I'm hoping that the night frets are just part of this *#!&?$ season. I suspect they are going to stick around for a long time, but I'd happily be wrong about that suspicion.

Either way, I haven't been up and out of bed really early for quite some time. This morning, though, I rose while darkness was still settled over our home. I poured a cup of coffee, began to do dishes, and noticed the overflowing recyclables container on the floor by the garbage. I'll take that out, I thought.

When I unchained the kitchen door and stepped out on the side porch, my eyes were instantly drawn upward, to the deep midnight-blue sky hanging above. I carefully, quietly deposited the items in our recycling container, then simply stood staring into the heavens. The night had been clear; stars stared back at me, some bright, some dim and twinkly, representing galaxies that were light years away.

Words to a church worship song popped into my head: "You made the stars in the sky, and you know them by name." I studied those hand-placed balls of fire and considered the power behind such arrangements. I thought again of my mortal nature here on Earth, of illness, of worry, of broken hearts and homes. It was still so dark outside.

And then, over the trees at the tip of the hilltop, a flash, a quick arc of light, there and gone in a fraction of a second. A shooting star. Not a star at all, but a piece of something, meteor, chunk of planet, whatever—being burned up. Dying. Ending.

Terminating.

And I thought to myself, that is the message for me today: that God is in this—even this.

I have to be reminded that God is in all things, not just the lollipops and unicorns of life. Not just the sunny days, not just the happy healthy moments. In all things, He is God. (I especially need this reminder in mid-winter. Bleeeech.)

I always get annoyed at people who say, "If we didn't have winter we wouldn't appreciate summer." I suspect, however, that there is some truth to that sentiment. My son had to read Tuck Everlasting, so I read along with him, about a family that accidentally drinks water from an eternal fountain. They can't die. And it's a burden to them, to be everlasting in this messed-up world with their human emotions and needs and pains. The book, while not my favorite, made me consider how pointless would be a life without end in this setting.

That's really all I have to say right about that. Oh, and this, which happened to turn up in my Daily Bread for today:

The Lord comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones. Isaiah 49:13

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Trusting in a season of loss

The past seven days have brought much loss—many endings. Some expected, some unexpected. All painful.

Summer (the school-free part, anyway) ended. My long stretch of no illness ended (thanks, stomach flu from hell). And on a more serious note, a few lives ended here on Earth. We lost an older woman my husband knew, mother to a close friend of his who preceded her in death, at 41, from cancer. I'm hoping he was there to greet his mom on her arrival. Another friend left us unexpectedly, of a heart attack. He was only a few years older than I am, and left a wife, children, and parents who never thought they'd outlast their youngest.

When people die at an old age, we can take some comfort in the length of their lives. When people die young? Suddenly? When widows are bereft with children still at home, and the one who is gone leaves big, gaping holes in many lives? There is honestly no comfort then, none that we can find here. It is tragic, and awful. No question.

I waver between acceptance, and argument. Why? I ask God. Why are evil people roaming, healthy? Why are sick, tired elderly clinging to life while elsewhere a young family mourns Dad?

There is no reply. I must return to acceptance: Acceptance of my place in this universe (quite lowly); acceptance of my gratitude that good people are among us at all, and I've been blessed to know them; acceptance of the fact that I have created nothing, and therefore have claim on neither the extension nor the snuffing out of life.

I know in my heart there is a Creator. I know He is great; I see His works and His wonders. I know the Holy Spirit is real, because I have heard that voice inside me, so sure and true and clear that it cannot possibly be attributed to any other source. I know that this world around me now is not a good one, that it is fueled and ruled by a force that wishes me to be discontent, depressed, disconsolate, and doubtful. Lastly, I remember who I was before I knew that Creator and his saving Son. She was a miserable girl, and I don't miss her.

So, I trust. I think of this hurtful place, in time and space, as a stop on a longer ride to my true destination. I will visit here, and find good here; I will try to be good here. I will also try to hold tight to promises of salvation, and an eternity of pure love and worship so fabulous that I cannot imagine it with my small, pea brain.

Sometimes faith, like contentment, is a choice.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Melmantra

Always leave while you're still having fun.

That's it. Honestly, that's the mantra. So simple. And yet, so hard for some people to do.

I guess it began in the "early summer" of my lifespan, when I was venturing out at night with friends, winking at occasions and locations that skirted the edge of "trouble," and partaking of legal libations in said situations. I began to see that sticking around, late at night, usually resulted in my wishing I'd departed earlier. I had some friends, too, who never quite absorbed the truth of this realization—those people who never knew when to quit. Eventually, our different philosophies caused some tension at times... And then, we simply got older, and/or parted ways due to unrelated circumstances... and over-staying night-life events became a non-issue.

But I still fall back on that mantra. It's my own, it has served me well—and it's still true today. Although nowadays, we're not talking about clubs or parties. Now, it applies to family life: vacation, Kennywood, school events, picnics, canoe excursions. Leave while you're still having fun. Leave so that the good memories prevail, instead of being erased by memories of tempers flaring, or crowds surging, or sunburn and bug bites overtaking all else. Leave while you're still wide awake to drive home, before you overeat, or injure yourself pretending you're still youthful. Leave the park before you become nauseous from one more ride; depart the lovely beach before you have sufficient time to grow weary of sand in your undergarments. Be decisive, be disciplined, be a leader, and declare a finish time. Then, stick to it within reason.

Since I am the ruiner of fun in my home, this forthright task usually falls on me. Most of the unsavory tasks do. I'm at home more; it's inevitable. But I resignedly don my bleak crown.

Does this mantra work in all things? No, of course not. You can't apply it to marriage; there would be very few marriages remaining! You can't apply it to jobs, at least not on a daily basis. (However, I do believe that for those of us with choices, you can apply the mantra in a bigger way when you see an emerging pattern of unhappiness, dissatisfaction, or poor management in a workplace). You can't apply my fab mantra to family, either. You're sort of stuck there. I've learned the hard way, too, that you shouldn't apply it to church life within short spans. Some folks do, skipping from place to place each time they are bored or offended... only to find that other churches are full of flawed people, too. All of them.

I have found, though, that the melmantra makes sense for excursions of all kinds, and for hobbies and pastimes. My family grows weary of hearing it. I tire of repeating it. Yet, I think back on times when I did not apply it... And I press on.