Monday, December 5, 2016

Fissures and closure

I have wanted for weeks now to write about the past presidential election. Happily, I've waited, rewritten, reconsidered, and have shortened my rather bitter diatribe. I guess God's hand reached down and helped me erase the hurtful things I'd written in reactive haste; hopefully what I've penned more recently will be a more intelligent, sensitive response to how I've been feeling.

But still, the election. Wow. Sordid stuff overall. The entire experience has left an aftermath of division and hard feelings on all sides. Such an ugly campaign leaves behind a foul flavor in the mouth of every decent human being, and also a slew of destroyed friendships.

Now, some of the lost were "friends" (insert emoji or thumbs-up icon here). And most of those lost friendships don't hurt much. It's upsetting, yes, but I'm guessing that most of you, like me, can't feel too distressed over the loss of someone with whom you rarely (or never) spoke.

The lost friendships that I write about today are the at least somewhat genuine friendships. The people with whom you have a history other than online. These are the folks you are quite likely to see in the real world again, maybe even on a frequent basis. The ones you might have actually enjoyed talking with. When members of your meaningful circle dump you? Yeah, that stings a bit.

At the same time, though, these losses have begun to feel inevitable to me. What I mean is that in the cases of now-dissolved friendships killed by the election, I can't say that any of them came as a complete surprise. There were signs all along, funny looks when I spoke my true opinion about things, awkward laughter and raised eyebrows in my general direction, or just silence as a reply... Am I sad that these people and I cannot have a calm, informed dialect about important subjects? Yes. However, the past months have confirmed my suspicions as fact: those former friends and I had irreconcilably different beliefs about some pretty fundamental things.

It is much easier to get along with everyone agreeably when there is nothing on the line. In peacetime, at coffee dates and school events, and in the virtual world of cat videos, we can gloss over a lot of differences. Everyone likes pizza and puppies, right? Here's a funny meme, haha! Your child scored a point, hurray! We're friends!!! Companions are plentiful when there is no real-life tipping point forcing our hairline relationship cracks into the light.

For that is what this election has done: it has exposed pre-existing relationship cracks. The invisible lines have given way to small fissures; they weren't even discernible before, but now they yawn before us like small crevasses. That stress fracture was there all along; it required only the conversational beating of dead horses in order to be revealed. And then? Unfriends abound.

I'm going to choose to view this election season as a small but effective hammer that has brought my social stress fractures into the light. And in the same way that I've decided never to finish reading an unassigned book that I don't like, I am also coming to realize more and more that it's okay not to keep up appearances of friendships. Life is too short to expend physical and emotional energy by pouring into unfruitful relationships.

In one of my favorite books, Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the author mentions how difficult is to keep up with expanding social demands: "For life today in America is based on the premise of ever-widening circles of contact and communication." If that woman thought it was tough over 60 years ago, then imagine the challenge now! There is no feasible way you can keep up with every single contact you've encountered. There is also, I would suggest, no real reason whatsoever for attempting to do so.

Trees and bushes benefit greatly from a timely, informed trimming. (Hats off to a former co-worker, Facie, for coining this great concept!) Our social contact list can often be enriched by a good trim. That doesn't mean I will be trying to alienate anyone, or that it's acceptable to be mean or rude. Be cordial, be kind, be respectful—especially to those who disagree, as they're the most challenging. But be honest with yourself when you encounter and recognize a time- and energy-sucking situation that isn't going to change; see it truly as the fracture it is. Acknowledge it. Then smile, bite your tongue, let go the friend, and skip away to freedom and peace.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Get busy

This painting began with an offhanded conversation between my husband and the somewhat younger neighbor. The two of them had been standing in our driveway, talking cars or engines or something like that. Apparently the talk turned to age, because the next thing I knew, the two of them were strolling around the back of the house, the neighbor in the lead, joking about living in the geriatric wing of the street—declaring unapologetically that my dear hus was old.

I immediately reminded this neighbor that I am even older than my husband (which sadly did not quell his commentary whatsoever.) My husband explained that he had just remarked that in 14 years, he'd be 60 years old. The neighbor's wife and I took this in; it was one of those "aha" moments, and in the second or two that followed, you could almost hear everyone within earshot performing a quick calculation in their heads. I don't think anyone who stops for a moment to do that math is terribly pleased with the answer, especially if you're over 40. It's disturbing to realize just how close 60 really is. And if you're reading this and you're already over 60? Then you might be plugging in a higher number, and figuring that ever-shortening distance between current age and the unwanted goal...

Either way, it made me stop and ponder that I, too, am fast approaching 60—that is, if I am blessed with that many years on this earth.

Which in turn reminded me of the quote from a fabulous movie, The Shawshank Redemption (the Stephen King novella was even better), when a freshly paroled character—Red—comments that he'd better get busy living, or get busy dying. He's absolutely right. Every day, if we wake, we are given another day, another chance at bat, another breath to take in with gladness and purpose.

...Which is why this very picturesque morning found me loading my foldable easel into the trunk of the car, along with a slightly minimized collection of paints and brushes and a too-small canvas. It was the largest blank canvas I had. There wasn't time to go purchase larger—I needed to get busy living, see? Because I yearn to improve my plein air painting skills, and I can guarantee that I will never get better at it if I never do it. Inactivity and lack of effort, my friends, ensures stagnation.

So, I did it. I emulated my local art crush, Ron Donoughe (please Google him and join me in my adoration), and I packed my stuff and hauled it out to a scenic "rails-to-trails" path near our home (the Panhandle Trail—I highly recommend it—this view is a detail of the quarry wall). I gimped to a good spot (sore knee, doc appointment next week); then I fought at length with the easel's intricate setup mechanisms. And then, I did what I came to do.

It isn't my finest work, and it isn't quite finished. I took a photo before the lighting changed too dramatically, and I will try to refine it a bit at home tomorrow, perhaps. But today, I reveled in the morning, the developing sunshine and accompanying warmth, the passers-by, the cacophony of birds, the impossibly blue sky. I claimed it for my own in that pretty little spot with brush in hand.

Get busy living. Don't wait. Even if you're gimpy, or the canvas is too small, or you know the result might not be pretty. There will never be a better time than right now!

Monday, September 5, 2016

Meaningful greenery

If you've ever been to our current house, then you likely know that we have one real tree.

We had trees at our last two houses, and they were all right... Some pines at the end of the yard of one, a raggedy old nondescript tree at the other (which happily attracted the sweetest little owls). They served the purpose; a tree is a tree. Right?

Wrong. There are certain trees that simply represent treedom with more class, more presence. Like people. They're all unique, they all legally fit the bill by definition, yet that is where the similarity ends.

This tree in my yard now? It is an ambassador of trees. A Kentucky Coffee Tree, the only one around us that I'm aware of. It's a behemoth. Our first summer here, we were moved to pay far too many hundreds to have it pruned out of fear it would blow onto our roof. But the tree man did his job well, and our beautiful giant flourishes. All the years that our diminutive house sat empty, waiting for grandma to get better and come back, or later for a grandchild to decide to live here (neither of which happened), our tree grew tall and proud, dwarfing the house below it.

If you look into images of the tree type, you'll see that the branches grow downward; when it's leafless, it could even be described as creepy (as deemed by a neighbor, viewing it in its naked state). But I love it. I love it best on days such as this, when I've worked hard, pulling and hauling spent garden plants, and have earned the gorgeous shady canopy of my tree's low-hanging front limbs. On this particular day, I hide beneath its shadows, camouflaged from curious neighbors by its green arms, able to observe the street's goings on without being observed in turn.

I love the tree on warm nights, when I sneak out in the dark to swing on a wonderful rope swing my husband had the genius to install shortly after our arrival. To ride loftily into those branches at night, to feel weightless, communing with the leaves and sky, is a heady, inimitable sensation.

Mostly, I love the tree because it reminds me that I am small. That my roots will never be as expansive as this verdant structure's, that a tree such as this can subtly and unobtrusively become the focal point of a yard without even trying just because it is a wonderfully made, living thing.

I want to weep when I remember that in two short months, it will shed its green/gold-turned-red mantel and stand unadorned once more. But then I fast-forward more months, to next spring, when it will once again grow its lovely, rich raiment. As it did for all those years when no one lived here. And I am happy again, knowing the tree is at least properly appreciated these days. As is my Creator, each time I behold the tree's beauty and majesty.

Joyce Kilmer knew of what he wrote.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016


Note: This isn't quite finished. I doubt it will be "finished," ever. But I want to share it anyway, instead of fussing over each detail. The gist is here, and it's finished enough. It's a little bit too close for me to be completely objective. You'll understand when you read it.


We all knew my mother's days were drawing to a close.

The nearness of death was palpable. There had been other times prior, when the end had seemed certain… And then she had rallied, strengthened, come back to us. This time, though, it was different. The labored breathing, which suddenly required supplemental oxygen; the blank expression, except when it became rapt and attentive—and that, oddly, when she was looking past us. I couldn't help noticing that her most alert moments, when she murmured unintelligible words with purpose, happened when she was not looking at anyone in the room. At those moments, my mother spoke to someone else.

In a period of about 36 hours, she had changed from a somewhat functional and responsive person to a gaunt ghost of the woman she had been. It was clear the cancer and dementia were teaming up to claim her; she would not be celebrating her 84th birthday in a few weeks.

The family was in and out, my father a constant, anxious presence. My oldest sister, Sarah, had been there the day before, and now was out of town. Others had stopped by, and had ended up outside on the patio, unable to ignore her worsening condition, her obvious increased stress when noise levels rose in the room where she lay. The caregivers had been working around the clock for the past couple of months as the situation deteriorated, and had borne the brunt of it, all with unflappable patience.

On Saturday evening, the day before her passing, discussion ensued about proper care for the overnight shift. The regular night nurse, Lin, had reservations about being alone. She'd seen this stage before, had witnessed the last hours of her other charges, and she knew the signs. The Hospice packet of heavy-duty meds lay waiting in the refrigerator, and had already been accessed several times... It would likely be needed again, and soon. Lin and Lottie conferenced quietly, then approached my dad to explain Lin's concern.

I listened to their conversation. I had been there through the day, and now was heading home to be with my young son; I knew I couldn't stay to support Lin on this night.

"I can stay with you," said the main nurse, Lottie; she also happened to be Lin's sister, and the very person who had recently enlisted her. 

"But you've been here all day," Lin argued.

"I'll be all right. It's typical at this point to have two people on duty," Lottie replied. This wasn't her first rodeo, she had reminded us many times as my mom got worse. Lottie knew the end-of-life signs even better than Lin, having made caring for others her life's work.

My father agreed to the double coverage without hesitation. At this point, all hands were needed on deck; we had stayed the course throughout the journey thus far, and there was no reason to falter now. We had entrusted these ladies with my mother's life, literally. She had been in very capable hands.

"I'll come back tomorrow, and stay tomorrow night. Okay?" I offered. "Tom is home tomorrow night, and that will work fine. Mark can be home with him while I'm here."

"All right, Alyssa. That will work," Lottie responded. The plan was laid.

I gathered my belongings, said my goodbyes, and stopped last at Mom's bedside. "'Bye, Mom—I'll see you tomorrow." There was no response, her eyes were mostly closed, so I kissed her on the cheek and headed out.

The drive home was uneventful, the roads fairly clear, unlike the fullness of my brain. Mostly, I prayed the same thing I'd been praying: Lord, please don't let her suffer. Lord, please take her before this gets any worse, please don't let her hang on and on when she is actually already gone from us. God had been so faithful already: there had been no pain in a situation where every doc told us to expect it. Lottie for over two years, and then also her sister—the wonderful women who had come to our aid were truly angels. The visiting Hospice nurse, the friends and family who'd brought food and laughter and distraction, the pastor who'd stopped to encourage so faithfully. Even my mother's last two weeks were blessed; she had told my father she was going to take a long journey, was going to see her family… and she was the last surviving member of her family. I think she knew, through the fog of dementia, what was happening. She was ready. So, so many answers to my prayers.

At home, I immediately sent messages to my sisters and a niece, reiterating the seriousness of the situation. The niece and her little girl had been there with me earlier in the day. She echoed my sentiments; the words "death bed" were aptly used.

Middle sister Anne was planning to go back on Monday, when kids would be back in school and she'd have a few hours free from playing taxi. "Anne—I don't think we have until Monday," I messaged back. Anne made a new plan, to visit the next day, Sunday. The evening slipped away quickly, my mind heavy.

And then it was Sunday morning, time for church, the hustle and bustle, hurrying to get there on time. We sang a praise song, and I remember feeling very peaceful, mentally rested, in spite of everything. Nothing had changed with Mom's condition—I had checked with my father earlier Sunday morning—but something had relaxed inside of me. I went home with my son, and we waited for my husband Tom to get home from his Sunday school class so I could head down with bag packed for an overnight stay.

And then, a text message. From sister Anne. They needed the Hospice nurse's private number, right now. I had left it on the refrigerator, but in the confusion of the previous day, had forgotten to mention that to anyone. I texted it to her quickly, and as I sent it on its way, it crossed paths with another note from Anne: "We think she may be gone."

Oh. My. There's a simple phrase that'll make your heart flop.

But I don't want to tell a story about my mother's passing. I want to tell a story about God's goodness. So here is where I skip ahead a bit. Of course I drove quickly down to stay as planned, thanking Jesus through tears for yet another answered prayer—a quick departure, and no lingering. As you probably have guessed, I did not see my mother alive again. We all gathered for the next three days, my father and sisters and I, and did what needed to be done. We spent a couple of days in a blur of grief diffused by a whirlwind of activity, of company, of throngs of people and hugs and tears and flowers and food and wine.

And somehow, we reached the burial day. A lovely day it was, weather-wise and otherwise. The churchyard where her body lies is situated on a hilltop, and I wondered, looking into that stunning blue sky, how much more beauty must surround my mother in Paradise. The pastor shared wonderful, hopeful words, honored her, buoyed our spirits. We held a casual luncheon with those who'd known her best, and shared a meal, but mostly we shared memories.

As we cleaned up afterward, and carried bowls and slow cookers back to vehicles, I had a moment to chat with Lin and Lottie, to thank them again for their selfless care of my mother. "We knew it was close," said Lin. "That's why I wanted Lottie to stay with me that last night. I knew. And then I saw those angels."

"What?" I asked. "What angels?"

"I saw three angels through the night. I sat facing the front door, and Lottie sat in the other chair next to the bed, and your dad lay on the couch when he wasn't sitting next to your mom… We were all trying to get some rest between checking on her… And I saw an angel in the front doorway, three times."

"What did it look like?" I asked.

"Just a bright outline of light. Just there in the doorway, three different times. And there were those voices, too."


"Lottie and I both heard them, those last couple of days leading up to her passing. In the next room where the television is. I thought I was losing my mind until I mentioned them to Lottie, and then she said she'd heard them, too. Murmuring, they were, not words you could make out, just quiet talking. It wasn't scary or anything, and then the day and night before she passed, I heard them again, louder." Lin was very matter-of-fact about it.

"I'd heard them, too. You couldn't tell what they were saying, just the sound of voices, like they were having a conversation," Lottie chimed in, nodding.

I processed this for a minute. Was that who my mother had been talking with when she looked past me? And I haven't explained her last few hours on this earth, and I should. She was hanging on, stubbornly clinging to life. The pastor was called in, and then my sister Anne and her girls arrived. My mother was in her favorite place, her home; she was surrounded by love, her husband by her side; she had a chance to say goodbye to all of her close family. The pastor and a granddaughter sang to her, and she took her last breath.

She hadn't lasted more than an hour after Anne's arrival. I suspect that's what she was waiting for, to see and hear each of us. I like to think that's what she was murmuring about, with those angels, maybe with Jesus himself—arranging her departure, every detail, just the way she wanted it. She was attended by earthly and heavenly angels, and music. She said her goodbyes, and then she was escorted to the Next Place.

It was as good an end as it could have been. I think about it, and am amazed again and again. How good He was to her, to us. I am thankful. My faith is strengthened and confirmed. We are loved more than we could imagine; we need only receive, accept, be grateful. And tell people, too. My mother's story becomes my story to share, so that others can see the lovingkindness of God even in terrible trials.

I hope for a heavenly escort myself, someday. Music and blue skies? That would be icing on the cake.

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