The Great Lakes Region
The Dinner Party
I recently returned home from a UCC Women’s Wisconsin Conference Event on the shores of Green Lake in Ripon WI. Forty-seven women found respite and had sacred conversations at UCC’s Pilgrim Camp. We were Women Gathered at the Well. Thirsty for God’s presence…for our renewal and rebirth.
Rev. Deborah Payden of South Milwaukee was our retreat leader. She introduced us to the life and work of the feminist artist Judy Chicago. Using Chicago’s art installation known as “The Dinner Party”, Rev. Payden guided our retreat to honor the women in our lives, as well as the women that we are and that we are becoming.
Our art and craft assignment was to make a dinner plate that honored the women in our lives that have mentored or continue to guide us, shape us, and make us better women. These women could be family, friends, fictional, historical, alive or dead….a female sister of any age, race, ethnicity, culture or religion.
My plate was a picture collage of my mom, daughter and granddaughter. The collage was layered on top of a picture of river rocks...these three women are my rock, my foundation, and my source of purpose that God has given me. And the bow…a reminder of God’s gift for life…and love’s binding tie to heal a broken world.
In the evening, with our plates in hand, we chanted our way to Ley Chapel to find the setting of “Our Dinner Party”. Candlelight, tables arranged in one big triangle, wine glasses, loaves of Pan de los Muertos in a woman’s shape, and the Christ candle at our center….all sitting on a labyrinth woven into the carpet.
One by one, we Women Gathered at the Well, told our plate stories and lifted up the women they symbolized. And in the end we toasted them all and gave thanks to God in prayer. It was a powerful, emotional experience. Together, we sat in a sacred, thin place…we were all sitting next to God.
After worship the next morning, we shared our “Invitation List”…if we could invite any women for dinner, a cocktail party, a garden party, a tea party, a pot luck, etc…who would these women be? I lost count of the number of times Eleanor Roosevelt was invited. Eve, Mary – mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene were often mentioned. And, of course, our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and daughters. My favorite? Lucy and Ethel…for their friendship, humor, and wonder.
Come to the table….no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome…all are welcome. Thanks be to God!
I hummed a made-up tune as I walked along our street with my eighteen month old granddaughter Stella. I’m not sure how long she’d been humming her own version before I noticed her music keeping time with mine.
We stopped under the big oak tree in our front yard to sit awhile to rest. I lay back on the grass and looked up into the tree. Stella did the same. Both of us were quiet and still. No humming. . . just the whispering movement of the wind.
We stretched out there in silence together for what seemed like a year. There was no way for me to know what Stella was thinking about, but I looked up into the tree canopy and pondered God. Lying there under the big tree next to Stella, in that quiet time, was like being on sacred ground. I felt God’s presence and the joy of the moment moved me to tears.
Last year at this time I often took my mom for walks outside the nursing home where she lived and would eventually die. On one particular fall day, as I pushed her along in the wheelchair, she asked me if I thought she would ever get out of the nursing home. The silence that followed lasted for what seemed like a year. It was a sacred silence. Yes, a sacred silence that God slipped between us so I could feel the calm of God’s presence before I answered her.
Grief is a strange critter. It sort of gnaws away at you. Sometimes you feel immense pain from it and sometimes you feel nothing at all. You can’t see it or plan for it. It jumps out at you from the thorny thickets.
As I wander through the underbrush of my grief born from my mother’s death I wonder when my grieving really began. The last year of her life dementia gnawed away at her and she was tangled up with health problems. So, when I think about the mom that I miss, she is walking several miles a day, having coffee hour with her friends, reading a Danielle Steele novel, excited to get to choir practice, ironing and cleaning with joy, and talking with me on the phone.
My mom has been dead for almost ten months. I can’t begin to count the number of times during the day I would like to pick up the phone and call my mom. Yes, she lived only a 5 minute drive away from me but much of our relationship was over the phone. We spoke 3 to 4 times a day. Sounds crazy, huh?
What is even odder (or not!) is that my daughter Brooke and I talk on the phone daily at least twice!
All that talking with mom and Brooke was/is mostly about small things, ordinary things that keep life moving. Like recipes, nap times, laundry, movies, mail, babies, weather, books, birds, work, car batteries, air conditioning, coupons…you get the idea.
Sometimes, I feel this unexplained, sick grief that gnaws at my heart and I yearn for one of my mom’s phone calls…the ones during that final year…the kind that had distress in her voice: “Help me.” “Where am I?” “I don’t feel well.” “I fell again.” “What day is it?” “This pain is driving me nuts!” “Help me.” “Where are you?” “I want to go home.” “What have you ever done for me?” “Help me.” If that call came, if only in a dream, would I be able to finally answer the question that sometimes gnaws at my soul, “Did I do enough?”
Even when grief gnaws and burrows through the deepness of what is me, I still know and feel this truth: that Christ, our God made flesh, is here to heal me to a new kind of wholeness…to make me ready for yet another new thing.
I collect stones. I like the weight of them in my hand. I like their coolness and their warmth. I keep them in jars, on countertops, in purses, on shelves and tables. I give them away to friends. I collect stones because they connect me to a sacred strength of what was, is and will be.
I recently was at the UCC Wisconsin Conference Annual Meeting held at the Green Lake Conference Center. As I walked one of the paths around the beautiful, lush grounds, I came upon a memorial garden. Boulders served as the markers that honored the dead. These souls were the strong foundation of what the Conference Center came to be.The trail took me deeper into the woods and after I passed through a lazy curve, I noticed three-foot stone hedges lining the path ahead. As I walked along and admired the stones on both sides of me, I thought about God’s protection. How sometimes it is so vivid you can reach out and touch it…like my church community that supports me with acts of kindness and faithful prayers when my life journey is difficult.
Gradually the trail’s stone hedge disappeared. A thought opened up and I remembered that God’s protection was still there, invisible. I remembered that trust and faith are strong, sacred cornerstones of my temple…my life…my journey, especially in the waiting times.
Several years ago I gave my mom a stone that was engraved with the word remember. It followed her to the various facilities she was in and out of. As the road got more difficult for her and the waiting was closing in, I wanted mom to remember how much she was loved by her family, her church community, and by God. So that stone was a companion of sorts, both to her and me. Today I honor the remember stone on a table in my home.
During my mom’s dying time, I would gently rub a smooth, light-colored, flat stone on my mom’s arms and place it in her hand. It was a stone I brought home from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico when mom and I vacationed there together. I touched her with the stone and whispered lazy day memories in her ear because I wanted her to remember the coolness of the ocean spray and the sparkling pool waters. I wanted her to remember the warmth of the sun moving across the sky and the sand underneath her feet and between her toes. I wanted her to remember the beauty and love of this time and place as she was transitioning into the next. And I…I wanted to remember it too.
My now 16 month old Granddaughter Stella has developed a fondness for stones. Whenever we take a walk she brings one into the house. The first stone she gave me I keep on the windowsill above my kitchen sink. I keep it there so I can see it often. I keep it there to remember life; and the sacred strength of what was, is and will be…God.
Transitions - Life Walking
Several weeks ago I watched my twenty-six year old daughter, Brooke, (also a wife and mother) walk across the University of Wisconsin – Madison stage to receive her Masters Degree in Social Work. Her smile was wide. Her step was sure footed. The word “transition” entered my thoughts.
Transition is a wide word: Change, Changeover, Alteration, Evolution, Conversion, Shift, Move, Switch, and Modification. There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with the word. Transition requires some action….a moving forward into the future but with the past, our inheritance, walking along side. The past and present are part of who we are but both have no room for baggage. When becoming yourself into the future (who God created you to be) it is hard to walk confidently with baggage.
I’ve not written about my mom’s end of life journey and my caregiver role since just after her death in November 2010. I guess you could say that I am transitioning through grief. It is a strange, difficult walk that sometimes becomes weighed down with the unnecessary baggage of guilt, regret, doubt and fear. I consciously plod through the rough parts on the grief road because I know I need to move through the muck and mud of life to get to dry land…the promised land where accepting death and resurrection brings my soul freedom.
Brooke’s fourteen month old daughter, Stella, has just begun to walk. Granddaughter Stella is walking forward into life and she is so proud and happy with her walk. Unlike those who watch in her stumbling transition, there’s no fear in her walking – because she’s freedom walking. Stella’s balance and walking are improving day by day. I am so happy for her! There are times, however, when I watch her walk that I see my mom’s end of life walking….the arms outstretched reaching for balance, the feet slowly moving forward in a wide stance and then racing for something or someone to hold unto.
The faith of freedom walking gives me hope, even though falling is inevitable. I was there to help catch or pick up my mom. I’m here to catch and pick up my granddaughter. I’m here to catch and carry those who need it because I know that God, my inheritance, is alongside me to help manage the weight of it all.
My mom died
November 5, 2010 at 6:53 p.m. I was at
home when she died. When I got the immediate call after her death, I had
seconds before finished having a vision.
were on an eagle that hovered above the familiar stretch of highway before me
as I drove to my mom’s nursing home, Lake View Manor of Weyauwega WI. I had last seen this eagle the day before my
mom died. And now, suddenly a vivid replay
of it filled my head. Then, a random
thought – when I write a book about the journey of mom and me, how will start
it? The first sentence will be: My mom
died on (date) at (time). I saw that
first line in type face and spoke it aloud without the particulars…My mom died.
my husband handed me the phone with the news that my mom had just passed away.
In the last
days of my mom’s life I would talk to her about the eagle I was seeing on my
ride over to visit her, for I knew “On Eagle’s Wings” was her favorite hymn and
she had chosen it to be sung at her funeral.
I would whisper in her ear to climb aboard the eagle’s wings and soar
home to God. And she has.
In the last
days of my mom’s life I would talk to her about my writing a book about our
journey together. These blog entries
I’ve been writing form a good framework for just such a book.
This morning I
awoke to the lyrics of Steve Miller Band’s Fly
Like An Eagle flying around in my head.
Do you recall song? I want to fly
like an eagle, To the sea, Fly like an eagle, Let my spirit carry me, I want to
fly like an eagle, Till I'm free…
My mom died on
November 5, 2010 at 6:53 p.m.
I’ve enacted the DNR for my mother.
Do Not Resuscitate.
Resuscitate: give the kiss of life to, save, or breathe new life into.
I have a strange calmness about me during this current and perhaps last medical crisis that my mom is experiencing. She’s hospitalized with a multitude of problems. Part of me thinks she will rally through somehow as she typically does. Well, I guess she really didn’t fully recover from each episode she’s experienced. My calmness most likely has more to do with acceptance than denial. The reality of the situation is that I’ve been losing my mom, the essence of her, slowly over the past ten years. And, it has occurred to me that I’ve been grieving for and with her for a number of years now. Grieving for her pain, confusion, emptiness, dependency, suffering and missing the woman I knew as my mom for most of her life and mine.
My mom is a fighter. We’ve always teased about that she is a tough old bird (she loves everything chickens and cardinals). Right now, I’m asking God how much more can she take? How much more suffering is she to endure?
I used to believe that picking up my cross and following Jesus meant to carry your problems, suffering, and burdens with humble dignity, and well, don’t complain about the load that is weighing you down. I had a vision of walking around in a bent over state, head down, and eyes fixed on the hem of Jesus’ robe as he led me somewhere…and thinking that the misery I was feeling was okay because it was a prerequisite for following Jesus.
Now, I believe that carrying my cross has more to do with dying to my old life and Jesus breathing new life into me so that I am transformed….resurrected. And I’ve come to realize that this saving, this resuscitation, is not a onetime event but a process that is on-going throughout my life.
I don’t believe God ever enacts a DNR on anyone, for God’s supply of grace for us to inhale is inexhaustible.
I pray for God give the kiss of life to my mom – a kiss of peace.
I’ve been in a home makeover mode lately. Over the past month I have swapped out pictures, rearranged furniture, changed an outdoor patio set into an inside conversation pit, hung the good towels and replaced the blinds and shades with sheers in the bedrooms and my office.
The sheers are the crowning jewel to the project. When the windows are open, I go from room to room to watch the sheers’ graceful movements. They are truly beautiful.
When I was a little girl visiting my grandmother, she hauled down from the attic huge plastic bags jammed full of a wide assortment of sheers – different styles and colors. She placed them outside in her front lawn under a shady tree and told me to have fun. The sheers transformed into veils, gowns and scarves. It was dreamy, magical time of dress-up and make-believe. It is a treasured memory.
Memories – clear memories – can be hard to hold onto for someone with dementia. It is as if there are layers of veils obscuring the mind’s abilities to bring a memory, a face, a time, into clear focus.
And when I think about veils, I think of 2 Corinthians 3:18… And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
My mom’s mind isn’t always clear and memories are fading. But, I believe the Holy Spirit dwells and moves gracefully within her…shifting, billowing, floating. Sometimes I am blessed to witness brief moments of unveiling…when she says something profound or speaks with surprising clarity. To me these are magical moments of grace, when the transformative power of the Spirit is revealed. I become breathless at their unveiling – perhaps my gasping is an attempt to capture these treasured moments in my own memory or just perhaps it is my recognition of the sheer reflection of hope.
I have a Post-it note on my computer with a Soren Kierkegaard quote: “Through the unspeakable grace and help of God I have become myself.” I like the quote because it reminds me that I am capable of change. The type of change that is continuous and transformative and possible only with God’s help.
After a dementia diagnosis and four weeks in a hospital, my mom was discharged into a nursing home located in a peaceful, country setting. It is a county run facility that is small and has a high staff to patient ratio. The day my mom arrived she was, literally, welcomed with open arms by administrative staff in the nicely decorated lobby/reception area. As we were escorted on a tour, several things became clear to me: that the building felt less institutional and more homelike; and, that every caregiver was aware of my mom’s impending arrival because each one greeted my mom by name prior to an introduction. All residents have private rooms, which reinforces the dignity needed to be preserved for people as they age. Her room door had a colorful sign with her name on it. A welcome basket full of assorted goodies and a fresh flower sat on the bedside stand. My mom has been in and out of half a dozen facilities over the past six months and never had we experienced such calm, genuine hospitality by a people and its building.
Mom has been at Lakeview Manor Nursing Home for three weeks now and she has settled in and established her routine. Last week, staff removed the Wander-guard wristband so now she can come and go outside as she likes without alarms sounding off. She enjoys sitting outside and walking the nature trail that encompasses the building, which is set in an open landscape of cornfields, marshy grasslands, and natural pines. The outdoor music is filled with grass rustled breezes, birdsong and the occasional train passing by in the distance.
I have a very strange feeling every time I drive out of the Lakeview’s parking lot to make my way home. It is….lightness. And, I’m learning to trust in this lightness as an invisible sign of God’s grace and care.
The only downside to mom’s new home is that I’m an hour away. I’m used to being in control of Everything Mother and the shift in my caregiver role - the distance and the letting go - is a very hard thing to accept and to change in me. When I have to make hard decisions concerning my mom’s care, I constantly ask myself if I’m making a choice based on what is best for mom or what is best for me. It is a question that has become a prayer.
And, of course, offering up myself to God in prayer is the pathway to change and to letting go. I’ve learned a lot about myself through this family caregiver journey with my mom. In a strange way, I’ve also learned how much I don’t know about myself. All such experiences come together to change me and instill in me a hopeful realization of God’s incredible fullness and unspeakable grace.
Making Sense of Hope
For several days following my dad’s sudden death, I asked my husband more than once, “Is my dad dead?” Of course I knew that the answer would be yes, but at the same time I just wanted to be sure. Doesn’t really make sense, I know.
A little over a month ago my mom was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia. As I experience her coming in and out of herself I continually ask myself, “Is she really ill?” I know the answer is yes, especially as I see my mom’s behaviors change unpredictably and talk to doctors and nursing staff. But, then I have waves of doubt. This tension between reality and doubt makes no sense to me.
These past few days I am often overcome with a deep feeling of loss. I’m grieving for my mother and she’s not even dead. I want the conversations we used to have. I want… hope.
Right now I see no hope in dementia. I see only fear and suffering.
But, because of my faith in God and the Christ that brings new life, I know that hope is there. I just can’t see it yet.
No Translation Necessary
Before our first vacation to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, my husband and I took a conversational Spanish class at the local technical college. Because the class was fresh in our minds, we benefited greatly from what we learned and it made that first trip very memorable. That was at least fifteen years ago, and like many things in life, if you don’t use it, you lose it – it being the Spanish language.
We do travel to Vallarta often because we love the people and the city. The problem is that we don’t speak Spanish during the months between visits. When we are in Vallarta we get by with the basic travel phrases and in the tourist sections of the city you can usually find someone who speaks English if you need to. But we do try to speak Spanish when we can and ask for guidance along the way as we muddle through. The local people are happy to help you become more familiar with the Spanish language.
I was walking the Vallarta city sidewalks alone one sunny afternoon in what is known as Old Town – lots of shops and cafés. I was restless and anxious - our first grandchild was born back in the U.S. two days before. Our daughter was going to put through a video call on her computer once she was home from the hospital so we could see our granddaughter, Sumaiya. It would be several days before that connection could be made and even longer before we’d meet her in person.
So, with my nervous energy, unexpected homesickness and grandmotherly longing, I put on my sneakers, floppy straw hat, and cheap sunglasses and headed for the maze of Vallarta’s Old Town. Deep in my thoughts, I walked the streets and sidewalks. At one point I stopped to look at my surroundings - I wasn’t lost but I felt like I was. People didn’t seem to respond to me or notice me. I felt like I was in a foreign country. I know that sounds silly because I was of course; but I’d been to Vallarta too many times to recall and I never felt so alone. I was yearning for the safety net of the familiar. I was isolated in a sea of people who spoke a different language than me. I was grateful for my cheap sunglasses that hid my tear-filled eyes. I just wanted to go home.
I went to the closest thing to home as I could find, Hard Rock Café, and ordered a cheeseburger and chocolate malt.
My mom seems to be living in a foreign land lately. We are working with doctors to determine the most likely cause(s) for her symptoms: confusion, short term memory loss, fatigue, loss of words, etc. It is a process of elimination and a lot of waiting.
In the waiting time, I can see the frustration in my mother’s face as she can’t find the right word or words to tell me something. I have to decipher her sentences and ask her a few questions, but I usually get her point eventually. In one visit she will ask me 3-4 times what day it is. She nods off mid-sentence. I can see her shrinking into isolation, a foreign land of her own of sorts. Once in the doctor’s waiting room, she told me that she didn’t know what was happening to her and then she looked at me and said, I just want to go home, with quiet tears falling down her face.
No translation for that was necessary – my mom needed the safety net of the familiar. I took her to Dairy Queen for an old fashioned strawberry soda (her favorite treat) and then took her home.
When I was twenty-six years old, married and eight months pregnant my then husband unexpectedly ran off with another woman. I moved in with my parents, gave birth to my daughter, Brooke, got divorced and one year later met my present husband, Jim. Within six months we became engaged.
In the spring of 1986, about two months before our summer wedding, I sat down with my mom and told her that my daughter and I were moving out after almost two years and in with fiancé Jim. I can still see and hear her at the kitchen table, sobbing and verbally attacking me (for compromising myself by moving in with a man, unmarried).
I didn’t know it then, but I was witnessing fear throughout her entire body - I was taking her nearly two year old granddaughter, whom she helped raise since birth, away from her to a nearby town some fifteen miles away. She was in attack mode and from years of knowing her, I knew better than to respond in a way that would bring me into her drama of the moment. So I sat and took her abuse. But we still moved out.
Now I’m fifty-two years old, married to Jim for almost twenty-five years, and yesterday we helped move Brooke, her husband, Steve, and our one month old granddaughter, Stella, into their new home some forty-five miles away.
Pregnant Brooke and Steve moved in with us six months ago due to their job changes from the Madison, Wisconsin area and into the north central part of the state. The move into our home in Wisconsin Rapids was temporary - until after Stella was born and they could find their own home in their nearby work community.
As I began to leave Brooke, Steve and Stella yesterday, all moved in, I felt a wave of emotion take over my body as I stood on the porch. Tears came unexpectedly and I couldn’t explain them. Brooke was overcome too and we just hugged each other. Brooke and I laughed and cried as we couldn’t explain our communal tears.
This porch experience with my daughter jolted me back into the kitchen table experience with my mom those many years ago. I wrestled with that on the car ride home yesterday afternoon, last night when I cleaned house and did laundry and this morning sitting in my very quiet house. After some reflection, I come to embrace that the bundled emotion I’ve got is…transformative fear, painful joy and unspeakable gratitude.
When my caregiver role for someone is no longer as primary, does the thought of now having the time to live out my own vision, hopes and dreams, my own life, scare me? You bet! But it is how I respond to that fear of the unknown that transforms me into the person God knows I can be. Do I respond to the fear with anger or love?
When my caregiver role for someone is no longer as primary, do I celebrate my independence yet yearn to be needed? You bet! When I acknowledge and accept God’s will it can be painful for my self, but following God’s will leads me to joy and peace. I then see my caregiver role as a privilege from God and not a cultural burden.
When my caregiver role for someone is no longer as primary, do I feel grateful to God for the caregiver journey I’ve been on? You bet! But there are not adequate words to thank and give praise to God. I can only show it. I can only do it. My actions are my voice. So I move on with my experiences. My caregiver role is not for one person for a specific time span – it is for all of creation and is infinite. Just as God’s caregiver role for me and the rest of the creation will always…be.
TWO days ago, I looked new life, literally, in the eyes. My daughter gave birth to a darling girl, Stella. Looking at this new life that is only minutes old, naturally gives me new life as well. My own rebirth happens when the hopes, possibilities, dreams and love are reflected back to me as I gaze at this gift from God.
THREE days ago, while my daughter started her final journey to give birth, I sat vigil with my mom in the same hospital. My mom was getting new life by means of a blood transfusion.
Sometimes the idea of a new life for me is a distant, foggy dream. Another caregiver obligation for my mom clouds my vision as I look to the future wondering what I want to be when I grow up (I’m 52!). But God moments, like Stella’s birth, clear things up. The mist is washed away with cleansing, nurturing tears and I am reborn again too….ready to face all of life.
TAKE CARE! Take care of yourself. Eat healthier. Exercise – just walk! Take some time to pray. All these and similar words have invaded my thoughts these past few weeks. Witnessing new life through the birth of a child or transformation by a blood transfusion, I think I’m rounding a corner to actually turn these healing, new life thoughts into some action.
TAKE CARE! Self Care of the Family Caregiver is a quarterly publication by the National Family Caregivers Association. Recently, its Winter 2010 issue fell off my bookshelf when I was rearranging books and magazines. It was like manna from heaven for me! I was drowning in my mom’s paperwork (and my own) and that particular issue was extremely helpful to me with tips on how to keep organized.
Re-discovering the TAKE CARE! newsletter prompted me to search out its website again. It had been a long time since I had visited it and I believe it gave some hopeful and helpful spark to my life. I encourage all family caregivers to do the same at www.thefamilycaregiver.org
As the mystery of the Easter season promises, new life is possible. Take care.
A Sacred Space to Let Down My Hair
On February 7th I participated in a Women's Week worship service at Immanuel UCC in Plymouth WI. Afterwards, I met with members of the women's fellowship to begin a conversation about their ministries and about their needs and passions.
One woman bravely shared that she is worn out and tired from her involvement with the church and that she would like to be a part of something where she can let her hair down, vent, have a good time and then go back to church refreshed and renewed. The rest of the group nodded. WOW! We could all relate to that!
Let's face it ladies, by nature, we nurture. Our caregiver roles shift and evolve throughout our lives and we often don't take the time to nurture ourselves. So, we are vulnerable to caregiver burnout whether it is caring for children, parents, co-workers, employees, friends, neighbors, or … church people and buildings. How do we take care of ourselves?
Jesus' acts of going to deserted places to pray teaches us that we need to find our own sacred spaces, where we can be alone with God, let down our hair, and start a conversation – to pray. Such God solitude will be the balm that we seek. To honor Lent I created a sacred space in my home office, an altar table of sorts where I too can let my hair down – be myself. On it I have a bible, a quilted candle cloth, prayer beads, a seashell, a candle and a prayer bowl.
During this Lenten season, I try to squeeze out just ten minutes a day to sit at my altar table, to be still with God and to listen. On the days when I feel my own life is being squeezed out of me because of life's obligations, I simply look at the altar table and take a slow, deep breath. Sometimes just a reminder of what is God possible is enough to sustain me and then my heart, spirit and mind are opened up to listen for the still speaking God in life's ordinary moments.
Yesterday I discovered that even the social networking site, Facebook, can be a sacred space where God speaks: A friend wrote me, They call us the squeezed generation. Maybe that is because my days range from teaching a toddler to say some of his first words to quietly listening to my Mother say some of her last.
A TABLE GATHERING
I just arrived home from a nursing home visit with my mom. We shared communion together with our pastor. It was a moving, spirit filled experience.
We used the worn out hospital bed table for an altar. I looked up from prayer and saw a wheelchair bound man looking in my mom's room from the hallway. I closed my eyes for a moment then opened them again ready to invite him in, but he was gone.
I noticed a nurse hesitate at our door and then quickly move on. As I helped our pastor distribute the elements among us, a nursing assistant left her cart at the door entryway, walked over to my mom and whispered in her ear, "Would you like a snack?" Mom kept her eyes closed and said no. Just then I heard a distant bed alarm go off and phones began to ring from the nurse's station. Even trace, mixed smells of disinfectant and urine found their way into the room.
In spite of all the distracting busyness and routine of the nursing home, God's communion with humanity was with us as we gathered around the worn out hospital bed table. My spirit was so moved…we were on holy ground.
The moment reminded me of a time I was at an art gallery in Ocean Springs MS shortly after Hurricane Katrina. The artist's studio in Biloxi was destroyed and she recently had settled her work in a different building. I stood at an oblong table in the middle of the room ready to pay for my purchase; and then the owner made some comment about my t-shirt (Back Bay Mission Hurricane Recovery). Yes, I told her, I was there to help with rebuilding as best I could. She thanked me and told me her heart wrenching story of storm survival. As she spoke, a worker from the back room came up to the table and then shared her story. The artist's cousin came into the store, came up to the table and told his story. He talked about the smell and sound of death.
Over thirty minutes had passed and the four of us were still closely gathered around that oblong table in the center of the room. After they had finished talking, there was a very long silent pause. My spirit was so moved and tears were my only voice. I knew I was on holy ground. The telling and hearing of their stories was God's communion with humanity. It was one of the most powerful moments of my life.
…until this morning, around that worn out, hospital bed table.
Is God Well Pleased?
There is a quiet calm outside. Everyone is waiting for a treacherous winter storm that has been forecasted for several days but right now, outside my home office window, as the world lightens to a gray sky there is only slight movement of the remaining leaves on the front yard oak.
I've been trying to establish a routine to wake up early in the morning, around 5:30, so I can a better handle on the day before me. I start in the quiet and it is hard to leave it.
This morning I've been thinking about storms and whether or not I'm weathering this family caregiver storm I'm in the middle of. Do I measure up? Am I making the right decisions? Are the decisions I make based on what is best for my mom and not what is most convenient for me? How am I handling the resentment I sometimes feel for my uninvolved siblings? Do I take time for myself to refuel my mind, body and spirit? Why do I feel selfish about the small amount of Me Time I've managed to carve into of my life? Before my dad died nine years ago, he asked me to take care of my mom after his death, would he be well pleased? Is God well pleased? Am I?
When I sat down at my desk today I searched the scriptures assigned for the season of Epiphany hoping one of them would calm my growing anxiety fueled by self-doubt and guilt. Luke 3: 22 released me.
And the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.
And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased".
It is an ongoing mystery, a God surprise, to me how the voice of the Sacred Spirit starts in the quiet calm…with a slight movement, like a gentle rustling of leaves…it wells up like an ascending storm and then…speaks. The surprise comes as the mystery of God's emanating voice floods forth within me by way of clear, soothing baptismal tears and at that moment I know I am reborn, beloved.
There's No Place Like Home
by Deb Hoogesteger
Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore…Well, I'm not a witch at all, I'm Dorothy Gale from Kansas…Surrender Dorothy…There's no place like home.
Familiar phrases from the movie Wizard of Oz twist and turn in my mind often lately. Why? First, there's been resurgence in its popularity this year as Oz lovers celebrate its 75th anniversary. Second, with Christmas approaching I'm also thinking of my tree decorations – a fun, nostalgic collection of Wizard of Oz ornaments. But mostly because my mom's words haunt me, "I want to go home." And, yes, Dorothy, there is no place like home.
My mom, coincidently named Dorothy, fell and broke her back in early October. The road to where she lives now was not unlike that scary, treacherous, yellow brick road that Dorothy Gale and friends took. After falling, mom stayed in the hospital for one week then was discharged to a nursing home for rehabilitation. She fell at the nursing home and that led to another stay in the hospital until the burst fracture in her back was checked out - thankfully no further injury was made due to the second fall. She was discharged again but to an assisted living facility for two nights because no nursing homes would take her on the weekend. Finally, mother Dorothy moved to a different care center closer to my home, where she now resides. Hopefully, in mid-January she will be discharged into a new home, an assisted living community.
Changes, particularly changes in environment, are difficult for elderly people. Each move my mom has made for the past eight weeks has included lots of drama. The fact that she suffered from two urinary tract infections during all these changes didn't help her situation. These infections played a major role in her increased anxiety, confusion, fear and agitation. Mom just wanted to go home. "Please take me home," was her mantra. She lamented it to me or she prayed it to God. It was unsettling to hear and watch. But I'm sure even more unsettling to live it.
Two weeks ago I had to clean out my mom's apartment and move all her things into a storage unit. Sometimes it was creepy for me to sort through all her stuff (lions and tigers and bears, oh my!)…would I uncover any deep, dark family secrets? Thank God, none were found. The project took me over a week – not that the work was hard but what made it tough and lengthy was the emotional component (the flying monkeys messing with my mind). Mom fell in her apartment and was rescued by emergency responders and taken to the hospital. She left her home unexpectedly and not by choice – never to return. Many nights I lay in bed thinking about how she must feel about not being able to go back to her home. When she eventually leaves the care center she will move into an assisted living facility…mom and I often talk about her moving into a new home, a new community. Sometimes in those conversations my mom is the good witch and other times the bad witch. But I always look for the shining moments of hope to bring God's color back into mom's focus.
The hope of Advent is upon us. We Christians look to the Advent season to put the past behind us and move forward in faith into a new life, a new beginning in and with Christ. The hard work is looking to the future with faith and hope in what seems to be a broken world. My mom wears an uncomfortable, confining cache brace to heal her broken back and January 4th is her release date from it. I remind her of that date when she is in the midst of her melancholy moments – those “I want to go home” moments. Looking forward is a difficult thing to do when despair feels like a close friend. I also remind my mom that Jesus Christ is her true, inseparable friend - the truth born of God that heals and comforts in her broken world where she feels homeless, lost and at times, abandoned.
Advent gives us hope. Advent leads us home to Christ. And there’s no place like home.
by Deborah Hoogesteger
Mom recently had a bad bout with anemia. She was in the hospital last week for a tune up and received four units of blood. She’s been home a few days and I thought we both could use a hair makeover as well. Today, two fine looking cuts later and a tote full of hair products on mom’s lap, we smiled at each other all the drive home from Funky Diva’s Salon. It felt good to have some normalcy in our lives after some chaotic days of care-giving and care-receiving. It is amazing how a little blood and a fresh haircut can transform a woman.
This transformation notion triggered memories in me from when I worked fulltime and had resigned myself to the weekday grind of wearing pantyhose. Whenever I had on a new pair of Hanes control tops I felt like a new woman. It was very liberating in a strange sort of way.
That’s how I felt today with the warm fall breeze dipping into my car’s open moon-roof and flipping our hair every which way around our faces. Mom gave me her signature crooked smile and we actually, dare I say, giggled together. Yes! It was a liberation moment between mother and daughter. We had a small window of reprieve from our care-giver and care-receiver roles.
God is ever present during those long days and hours when we cry out in despair and confusion. God is ever present during those breezy moments of freedom when we giggle and rejoice.
Praise and Thank God from whom all blessings flow!
Why is God doing this to me?
by Deborah Hoogesteger
When I was eight months pregnant with my daughter twenty four years ago, my first husband blindsided me one night after Lamaze class, “I don’t know if I love you anymore”. Within a week I found myself and our unborn child lying in the twin bed of my parent’s spare bedroom, screaming above my sobs, “WHY is this happening to me? WHY is God doing this to me?” My husband had abandoned us and I thought God had done likewise.
Under doctor’s orders I was to stay in bed until the baby was born. My mom sat vigil with me every day, sitting in my great-grandmother’s rocking chair either reading Danielle Steele or embroidering pillow cases. In bed, I read Stephen King and struggled with a counted cross stitch project. One day when I was particularly agitated with my situation, mom asked if I would like the new pastor from the UCC church to come and visit me. Yes! Surely the pastor would have answers for me.
Well, long story short, the new, young pastor did not have any answers for me. I remember thinking at the time, “ALL he is doing is sitting there and nodding his head once and awhile.” After he left that afternoon, I actually felt bad for him….poor kid, just a couple years younger than me, coming over to my parents’ house and expected to minister to a hysterical pregnant woman who is a stranger. There I was, swollen and blubbering, demanding answers from God and asking over and over again WHY? I figured that this guy had a lot to learn.
Fast forward to present day.
Last night I visited my mother in her apartment. She sat still in her recliner in a cockeyed position (she’d arranged her body to get the most relief from her back pain). I sat in a eather beaten, wooden rocking chair that my older brother had given her years ago. We sat. We sat together. Sometimes the silence between us was interrupted by the emerging night noises filtering through the open patio door. Sometimes the quiet ceased as her voice talked about ordinary things…birds singing, things she’d forgotten to buy at the grocery store, the lack of rain. Then came the questions that were hauntingly familiar… “Why is God doing this to me? What have I done that God is punishing me with all this pain?”
My Caregiver Journey...Moments of Wilderness and Blessing
by Deborah Hoogesteger
It has sputtered rain continuously for three days. Although the grass, flowers and trees are soaking up the life forces of this slow drizzle, when I look up to the gray skies a heaviness seeps into my soul. When will it end? This rain. This dreariness. My mother's pain.
I am a retired, fifty-one year old woman and I have been the primary caregiver for my chronically ill mother since my father died nine years ago. My caregiver role keeps evolving in spits and spurts and often I feel totally out of control and alone moving from one crisis to the next. So how do I find shelter in the storms brought on by this caregiver role that is my inheritance?
It has been said that there are only four kinds of people: those who have been caregivers, those who currently are caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need care. So, one in four of the faces you encounter today is a family caregiver. Remembering that I am part of this caregiver club helps me realize that I am not alone and this belonging gives me a bit of comfort.
Last year I was affiliated with a non-profit end of life coalition whose primary mission was to provide caregiver support through education, referrals and resources. I was amazed at the vast amount of caregiver support content out there on the internet! I'm always looking for a way to make my caregiver role less stressful. There is a torrential amount of caregiver support information pouring out over the World Wide Web. But to access it, I must first acknowledge that I need the help, the shoring up, (which is hard for us independent, self-sufficient folks!) and then make time to search it out.
Sometimes when I am sitting vigil in my mother's apartment, dispensing medications in her pill-minder, scheduling a doctor appointment or helping with errands, I start to lose my compassion for her and her situation, her pain. A deluge of self-centeredness and martyrdom saturates my soul and I become miserable and overburdened. I don't understand it. It doesn't make sense to me that this leaching monster of indifference has replaced my compassion. How can this be? This is my mother! But then, in my lamenting, a dawning light opens up a thought for me…where will my strength come from to handle this journey I'm on with my mother? It won't come from self-pity. I won't come from a quick fix. It won't come from one thing or person, not even a mountain. I remember the hope of Psalm 121 (The Message Bible)…
I look up to the mountains;
Does my strength come from the mountains?
No, my strength comes from GOD,
Who made heaven, and earth, and mountains.
He won't let you stumble,
Your Guardian God won't fall asleep.
Not on your life! Israel's
Guardian will never doze or sleep,
God's your Guardian,
Right at your side to protect you –
Shielding you from sunstroke,
Sheltering you from moon stroke.
God guards you from every evil,
He guards your very life.
He guards you when you leave and when you return,
He guards you now, he guards you always.
Now, whenever I read or hear this Psalm my spirit moves. It doesn't twitch, sputter, or nudge…it swells and bursts forth! I am simply overwhelmed with a flood of thanksgiving, grace and compassion. During stressful care giving moments, Psalm 121 allows me to face the next minute in a way that honors God - and the next minute and next and then the next…
It is my hope that blogging about caregiver issues…through my own caregiver struggles and discoveries…that together we can find shelter and comfort, not by looking up to gray skies or to mountains but by resting in God.
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