Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Pastor J

I did some driving today.  SK and I drove south through a November-like rain on this last day of August so she could hitch a ride across the state with one of her house-mates.  See, SK has what they affectionately call 'Camp Whitworth' for the next week.  The week when all the students return to their dorms and apartments and houses but do nothing but play until classes start.  SK and some of her friends actually sat down and made a list of required activities for Camp Whitworth.  'Picking peaches at Greenbluff' was on the list.  So was 'Finding fringed-coats to wear to the Stewart Lawn Dance.'  We took her to Good Will last night (because Beve had promised her he would) and she found a genuine Indian sari, which, she told me, 'won't end up in our costume trunk.'  "Your house has a costume trunk?" I asked.  "Of course," she answered.  Smiling.  Knowing they aren't the typical college seniors.  But that's what I love about her, about all her housemates.  They're wild and silly and love kids and ministry and the Lord.  Yep, I really love her life behind the Pine Cone curtain.  It suits her perfectly...for one more year.

After dropping her off, I turned around and drove north to the church where our close friend J is the senior pastor.  Early in the summer, when J and K were about to leave for their summer in Great Britain (which I didn't even ask about, and now I'm feeling VERY self-involved!), J asked about Mom.  Said he was worried that she might die while they were gone and he wouldn't be able to be here for us.  So when we were sitting around Mom's bedside with our feet up on various chairs, making ourselves at home (like you always do at your Mom's!), we talked a bit (OK, maybe more than a bit) about her service (s).  It had long been in my head that I'd like J to do Mom's service.  I mean, he's our closest friend.  Baptized our kids.  He and his wife sang at our Dad's service, sang at Glo's. Then my sister said that the minister at the church where Mom's been a member more than half her life hadn't even been to see her in the nursing home, didn't actually consider her a parishioner, since he "looked in on her once and she didn't seem to recognize [him]."  Are you kidding me?  She didn't recognize her own kids, her own face in the mirror, how in tarnation (as her Kansas mother would have said) was she to recognize a man she didn't know? So he never bothered to stop by again.  Needless to say, I asked my siblings about having J do the service.  J who certainly gets having a parent with Alzheimers, having lost his own father to it.  Who'd do just about anything we asked him to do, just because he loves us.  But to do what he's called to do, qualified to do?  This is ministry to us.  My siblings, of course, are not stupid people.  Not a one of them.  They got it first time out that it was not only right but good and just about perfect to have Pastor J be our family's pastor for a day.

So I stopped by to sit in Pastor J's office for a while.  Talk through a memorial service for my mother.  It was a strange thing to be so formal with him in one sense.  Usually we're sitting around a table with our spouses, climbing all over each other's voices to ask all the questions and tell all the stories.  We can fill up hours, the four of us can.  No, we can fill up weeks.  We have.  Many weeks.  Usually in swimsuits.  With books in one hand and cold drinks in the other.  Talking the entire time.  That's when it's J and K with Beve and me.  Just friends, as if 'just' should ever be the modifier for friendship such as ours.

But today I sat there like any old parishioner, asking my pastor to do my family proud.  Except that I have no doubts he will. No doubts at all.  I know him, trust his heart, believe in his ministry.   Still, it's an odd thing to be planning a parent's memorial service, knowing this may be one of the last things I ever do for her.   How to honor her best.  What to tell him--a friend who has listened to me say so many, many things about my mother over the long years of our friendship--that describes her, and honors her.  A task for a better person than me, I think, but I was there to do it.  And, by His grace, I think I told a bit of her story...though, on the way home I thought of other things.  I thought of her generous spirit, for example--she may have been the most generous person I have ever known.  If I told you all the ways she was generous, you'd think so too.  The gifts, the trips, the cars and, well, the gifts...it was quite a gift, that generous spirit of hers. 

But Pastor J has the bones of her story, and God will give him the flesh to put on those bones, to comfort those who need comfort, and encourage those who need encouragement.  That's how the Spirit works in one called to preach.  I've seen it worked out so before.  My expectations for my friend, J, aren't too high.  But my expectation for God are.  Sky high.  I believe God will be honored--just as Mom sought, with such sweat and tears, especially toward the end of her life,to honor Him--at her memorial service.  Come, Lord Jesus, Come.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Five years ago

Five years ago today, Beve and I were flying across the country from Pennsylvania.  We'd dropped J off at the college where he was starting as a freshman, then we spent a couple of nights in Pittsburgh.  Our time in Pittsburgh was supposed to be something of a time away for Beve and me, but I spent most of the time crying.  Yep, I'd cried so long and hard as we were sitting on a bench beside J, before saying goodbye, that Beve finally said we might as well just leave him.  I mean I was a mess.  A ridiculous heap of a mess.

Sure, I was sad to leave my son.  Sure, it was perfectly natural to feel so, leaving my son all the way across the country at the age of 18, with no easy way to get to him (thirteen hours, including driving and flying, but who was counting besides me!). But it was also natural for Beve to hope that once we left I'd somehow pull myself together. However, he was sadly mistaken.  We wandered around Pittsburgh, managed to get ourselves lost, did find the University of Pittsburgh and climbed the only hill I saw in Pittsburgh and walked into their enormous basketball facility (the kind of place Beve likes to visit like some folks visit cathedrals), ate at a lovely Greek restaurant with the personal service of the owners who'd left children at college themselves, and still I kept crying.  It really was ridiculous. Finally, Beve left me alone in our hotel room and took himself for a walk--finding the company a little more pleasing, I think.  At least a little less emotional.  I took a bath, letting my tears drip unbidden into the bathwater, and when I dried off, I turned on the TV to watch CNN's coverage of a hurricane about to touch down in New Orleans.  An enormous hurricane, I should say, a world-changing one, perhaps.  And that coverage made me cry too...coverage of all those people lining up to get on buses with their small children, or trying to leave the city, or, if they couldn't, moving  the Super Dome which would surely stay dry and safe (if only they'd known!), and of people leaving their animals to fend for themselves. Yep, those animals, all those poor helpless animals and their poor helpless people really made me cry.

The next morning, as we flew back across the country, that hurricane hit, and even as far north as Pittsburgh, the rain was torrential.  You should have seen it on the runway as we tried to take off.  By the time we got to Denver, every TV station in the airport was tuned to the coverage.  And by the time we got home, once we'd checked in with our son at his college, we turned on our TV as well, to watch in horror as the water kept rising.  And my tears kept flowing at the people walking across bridges, standing on roofs, living at the Super Dome.

It was a weird thing for me to be emotional.  It wasn't until I realized I was crying harder about New Orlean's homeless pets than I had when my dad died that something had to be off-kilter with me. And to cry as I had when we said goodbye to J?  I mean, I was sad, of course, I was.  And worried about him.  But to cry like a baby so hard that I couldn't enjoy being with Beve? It wasn't like me.

And then the realization.  A couple of months earlier I'd been given a shot to make my cycle stop, in order to see if my migraines could be stopped along with it.  And that shot had worked in every way imaginable.  But what hadn't been explained to me was that the shot would also push my emotions into the full-bloom of menapause, with erratic emotions, hot flashes and all.  Erratic emotions could have been my middle name during those months.  Or maybe my full name.  With an emphasis on erratic.

When I think of Katrina, that's mostly what I think about, how sad and teary it made me.  How many tears I shed over it all.  Tears to match the waters rising, it felt then.  And none of them where they should have been.  None of them organic, if that makes sense.  I had no other connection to the hurricane or its victims and I would be presuming too much if I said I did.  Except as those tears, generated by humans, caused me to pray for them. And they certainly did that. God uses what He will.  And thank God that this is so.

Five years later, I am back to normal.  Crying only as my organic self is wont to cry.  The water in New Orleans has gone back to the sea, the levees rebuilt.  But New Orleans has changed.  It will always be measured in 'before' and 'after' Katrina terms. It's not something I can understand from this distance, from the safety of my hurricane-free world. E spent a week that New Years, helping.  Other friends went the next spring. Still others we know pulled up stakes and moved down for longer seasons to be of assistance. As for me,  I pray.  I  continue to pray and pay attention.  And so I do.  With or without tears.  As is my way.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The difference

August 27th. Quite an anniversary. A day I always mark just the way I mark other anniversaries--with reflection. Yes, I can't help reflecting, because I'm a reflecting sort of person, this 13th anniversary of the day my father died.  The other day a sister said, "From now on, we'll figure if we make it through August, we're good for the year."  August has definitely been a cruel month in our family, especially now that it really is the death-month of both of our parents.

But, of course, what I notice most today, is the profound difference between how those two deaths affected me.  This isn't something I've itched to write.  In fact, I'd just as soon not.  However, I'm bent toward truth, or bent by the truth, maybe, to say and write and be true to plum, as a carpenter might say.  Square.  So here is my square truth of the day.

My father died thirteen years ago today and on that very sunny, blue-sky-ed day, I felt like a crater had opened in my world so deep I wasn't sure I'd every crawl out of it. Or perhaps, like suddenly my very backbone had fallen straight out of my body but the whole world was expecting me to walk around without it.  I could hardly imagine that I could even stand, let alone put one foot in front of the other and keep being wife, mother, daughter, sister, student, friend, and all the other things I was expected to be.  And only my siblings got it.  Only they got that not only were we orphans, real live orphans in this Daddy-less world, for all that we were grown up with families of our own, but now we had our mother to care for as well.  No, not merely to care for, but to contend with.  Yes, that's what it was, to contend with our mother.

See, the truth of it was, if we'd admitted it to more than just our own selves in the privacy of our own pillows late at night all those years ago, the wrong parent died that August day.  The parent we loved, the parent we relied on, could talk to, were teased by--that parent died.  And the one we were left with...well, it was hard. Sometimes shudderingly--can't-bear-to look-at-her, think-about-it, just-plain-can't-bear-it--hard dealing with Mom.  Especially trying to love Mom without the mitigating, buffering presence of Dad. 

I've said this all before. But today, as I'm thinking about the day Dad died, in this first week after Mom's death, I'm overcome with the stark difference.  And saddened by it, though mostly for her.  Because it's just as she thought it'd be.  A few years ago, when RE and I were going through boxes at Mom's house, we found a box jam-packed with sympathy cards addressed to her after Dad's death.  Hundreds of them.  We were shocked by the volume of cards.  Shocked because we hadn't known about them.  And especially shocked to discover that she hadn't even opened dozens of them.  We thought all these beautiful sentiments had made her miss Dad too much in the days when she was missing him every minute of the day.  But when we asked her, she said, "I couldn't bear to read them and think that people won't say such things about me when I die."

I can't speak for what people are saying as they've read her obituary this week.  But I do know that I feel differently, just as she feared. My backbone grew back after Dad died, is firmly attached to my ribs and is holding me up quite nicely, thank you very much.  I feel neither orphanless (though, technically, I am) nor in any kind of crater.  I do feel tired.  No, so far beyond tired I can't remember what mere tiredness feels like.

I also feel relieved. Yes, for her--that she doesn't have to be in that prison any longer.  But also for my sister because she won't have go to that nursing home any more, or pay the bills, or think about it.  And also for myself, because, for the first time in 40 years, I can begin to deal with my mother without also having to face her, one way or another.  She was not the mother of my dreams.  But now I also don't have to deal with the mother I actually had instead.

So, I have some healing to do.  Maybe some forgiving as well.  This story isn't over, of course.  I hope she's at peace, and I pray that I (and my sisters, especially--Mom dealt better with her sons) can come to terms with who she was and who she wasn't.  I did love that old woman who died Sunday, but what I've discovered this week is that I'm not sure I ever loved my mother. But what is also troubling to me, in a way I never thought of before, is that perhaps now that she's in heaven, that she knows it.  She actually finally knows this secret I've kept from her the last 40 years.  Imagine that.  She loved me and I didn't love her, and now perhaps she knows it.

This is how losing my mother feels.  Is it grief? Not exactly, but it's loss.  And it's true.
Hopefully, soon, there will be joy in the morning.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Indiana wants her

On our way south to drop our oldest child off for her great mid-west adventure, which might turn into the adventure of her life.  A couple months ago when this idea came up, she approached us with it with some trepidation. "So my friend, Samantha, wants me to go back to Indianapolis where there are a lot of Sport Management job opportunities in Olympic sports, colleges, the NCAA, and possibility other sports marketing firms."  She talked about how much money she'd saved up, the possibility of graduate school if no job panned out, and how dead-end, career-wise, her job here is.  She'd been thinking and praying about this a long time before talking to us. The day she talked to me, I said, "I think you should do it."  It had the 'ring' of God to it, if that makes sense.  The 'step-off-the-limb-and-trust' feel that God was in it and she needed to answer.  And, because we're so often on the same page, think alike, and have walked similar roads, Beve had said the same thing just hours earlier as they'd been driving around mowing lawns together.

So today's the day she puts feet to faith, takes that over-packed bag (I think it's all the shoes that make it too heavy, E!) and flies off to the very center of this country to look for a job. It's a three-week trip, for now, but will either last that long, be shorter (so she can hurry back, pack her car and drive across the country) and longer at the same time (that whole packing her car thing implies packing up her life, if you're following!).  But either way, there's a likely Internship waiting for her in the spring at USA gymnastics, so sooner or later, she'll find herself in Indiana. 

And with all the changes that have happened in our lives lately, all the sad things, I'm both sad and happy about this one.  I love knowing that she's listening to God, willing to take such a risk of faith.  I have always, always believed that He meets us in exact proportion to our risk.  This is a big one, and I trust with her, that he will meet her at the end of that leap.  He will be waiting at the end of the walkway in Indianapolis, and will reveal such things as she cannot yet imagine about Him, her, and what her life will be.

And, of course, I'm sad.  Beve and I always knew these months with her back in our house and life were merely a boon.  She was never going to stay in Bellingham.  She wasn't going to be a lifer in the Western Washington University transcribing program.  She was antsy from the get-go.  Anxious to put to use the rather formidable cache of skills and talents she'd acquired over the years at community college, WSU, at USA Wrestling.  She's been itching to work, to really work, in her chosen field.  This is a first-born, over-achieving driver, and simply typing for a living--as well-paying as it's been--has bored her silly (and she spent so much time typing in education classes she discovered she would NEVER want to be a teacher!).

So off she goes, with a ticket in one hand and her hopes and dreams in the other.  Having to buy all new toiletries when she gets there, she just informed the company, so that all her shoes can fit without being charged for extra-weight.

And my prayers fly with her.  Again.  Every step she's ever taken, she's taken with my prayers.  When she put her first shoe on the step of the school bus, she did it with me speaking to Jesus under my breath as I let go of her hand.  When I waved goodbye to her when she pulled out of the driveway the first day she drove off in a car by herself, my prayers were surrounding tthat car every mile.  And when we dropped her off in college and left her standing on the street outside a building at WSU (oddly, the engineering building where my dad had worked all his professional life there), my prayers covered her like a shroud.  When she left with Beve on a snowy morning for a long drive to Colorado, I was praying every mile.  And so I pray today. For the journey she will take, and the journey awaiting when she gets there. 

That's what a mother does.  It's how a mother lets go.  Praying every step our child takes.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Re-entry

I keep thinking about how, when I was a kid and watching the astronauts splash down in some ocean or other, they'd have to spend a few days in some kind of isolation booth before returning to their real lives.  And there's something a little appealing about that to me at the moment.

After spending two weeks doing one basic thing, er, watching someone do a thing so basic we all do it without even thinking about it every single moment of our conscious lives, I stepped out of the car and was swallowed up into l-l-l-l-life. At least I think that's what kids are calling it these days.  A daughter getting ready to fly off to Indianapolis for three weeks or the rest of her life, depending on...well, on what God does during that three weeks, of course.  A son with an incision on the FRONT of his left shoulder so gnarly it actually makes my insides shrivel up every time I happen to glance at it, reminding me again of why I didn't go into the health care profession (that and the math and science required!).  A couple of dogs who don't seem to know or care that I'm at about 10% (at least that's how a friend told Beve to think of me) at the moment.

And then there are the elders.  Ah yes, the elders.  The gift that keeps on giving.  My beloved in-laws who missed me greatly the last two+ weeks I was gone, and were quick to tell me all the reasons when I saw them yesterday:  Why hadn't I written down a couple of doctors' appointments, what had I done about Grampie's long-term health insurance, why didn't the urologist call them rather than us to talk about Grampie.  Where had I put this paper, that form, etc...and I just had to admit I hadn't the faintest idea about any of it.  Any of it.  Because my normally well-organized brain, the one I count on to help me keep track of all our stuff and theirs too, seems to still be in orbit somewhere.  Or it's still sitting in that room.  Or...Though they didn't seem to remember why I'd been gone, or that my mom had died, except that my absence had been incredibly inconvenient.

Well, the truth is, I'm numb with exhaustion and all sorts of other things.  Grief?  In a way.  Not like any grief I've experienced before, but then, as a friend told me yesterday morning, my family and I completely get, in ways that only people 'inside' get what the 'long goodbye' really means.  Eight years since a diagnosis of Alzheimers, almost two years since she even lived in her own assisted-living apartment.  A year since she was willing to get into a car, and nine months since she would even allow herself to be wheeled outside of the nursing home. And I haven't heard her say a coherent word in over a year.  In fact, I cannot remember the time I had a real conversation with my mother, but it was probably about two years ago as well. 

So, whatever it is I feel, and it is loss, I know, it is a far different shade of grief than I have ever experienced before.  Dull and gray and numb in contrast to other griefs. And in it is a huge sigh of relief, with a large inhale of joy that she's surely in heaven.  Honestly, though, mostly I'm tired and wish I could just sleep for a few days, get my sea-legs before having to face life, my real ordinary life with all its complexities and relationships.

But what God calls me to, what He calls all of us to, is life.  The reason I came home Sunday was because E is leaving--perhaps for good--and because J had surgery.  That is, Life.  I'm their mom and I chose life. This is the choice I sensed Sunday, and though I feel some regret now that I left just hours before Mom died, I can live with that regret, because it was a choice made with Him, as it says in Deuteronomy30: 19-- "This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Now choose life, so that you and your children may life and that you may love the Lord you God, listen to His voice and hold fast to Him..."

So, today--as I process this strange, un-grief-like grief--I also choose life. No matter what that life brings, or how messy or complicated it is, or how crazy it makes me.  I choose life. And Him.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Home...and home

SK and I drove across the state today.  We pulled into our western Washington driveway about 3 PM, were greeted by dogs with tennis balls in their mouths, trying to jump into our laps in the car, lick us, and bark all at once.

Yesterday, sitting at lunch, my niece said, "You know what will happen?  You'll get all the way home and that's when she'll die."  Well, it turns out that my very tall, newly-married niece is also prophetic.  We should have put her powers to work several days ago...but, apparently she wasn't feeling it then.  She was, however, absolutely right about Mom's exact time of departure from this earth and home-going to heaven.  Just as those tennis-ball toting dogs were jumping in glee at SK and me, the angels in Heaven were doing the same with Mom, to welcome her.  Yes, just after 3 PM,  Mom finally went home.

When I said goodbye to her last night, I told her I'd see her in God's throne room, but until then, to worship well for me, and, to say hi to Daddy for me.  I patted her very dry forehead and kissed it softly, just as RE and BB and I had done every time we left her for two weeks.  Last night, of course, I knew I'd never see her on this earth again.  But what I rejoice in as I write this is that the next time I see my mother, she will be complete.  Not merely back to the full-voiced, clear-minded woman she was at the height of her brain-power on earth, but to the person God always intended her to be before the human frailties, the insecurities, fears and worries overwhelmed her essential made-in-the-image-of-God self.  I wonder who she'll be.  I wonder what a wonderful world she's discovering this day in paradise with God, her parents, my dad and the host.

And, mostly, tonight, as tears fall, I keep repeating an old spiritual (and my middle sister tells me it's exactly what's been running through her mind as well):  'Free at last, Free at last, thank God Almighty, [she's] free at last."

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Alone at last

A week ago, when a large contingent of my extended family crowded into my mother's nursing home room to sing, pray and say goodbye, I didn't envision this day.  We were thirty strong then, with the voices and tears to prove it.  Today, because of another unexpected crisis which falls into the category of "when it rains it pours," I was alone in that room.  Having taking only the novel The Help (which is great, and makes me want to investigate post-Civil War, pre-Civil Rights 'slavery' in the south), a bit of knitting, and my cell-phone, I didn't have much to occupy me through those hours alone.  At one point I did find myself humming, "There was one in the bed, and the little one said, ' Alone at last!'"  My siblings and the rest of the family just kept peeling off, until it was just me and that barely, but working-hard-at-it, breathing woman.

I finished the book, finished the skein of yarn and began counting  Mom's breathing.  I thought, perhaps surprisingly, that if I put a numeric value on it, it would stop bothering me.  I don't know if you've ever sat with someone who stops breathing for longer and longer stretches, then suddenly starts back up again, like her nervous system had been jump-started, but that's the way my mother breathes these days.  And it's a bit disconcerting.  Produces a small fright, in a way.  But it doesn't take long before the strange becomes the new normal in the room of a dying person.  Her stop-gap breathing, which, we've discovered, is actually called 'Cheyne Stoking' shook us way back on Tuesday when we first heard it.  But these days, we continue to talk around it, and rarely look up, except when a new symptom is added.  Like a cough or a deep voice or something.

But today I was alone.  So that breathing was my companion.  And when it stopped, the silence from her bed was a too quiet.  Not every time, of course, but enough that butterflies would climb out of wherever they'd been hiding in my stomach, and those butterflies would begin flapping their wings against my stomach wall.  So I discovered that the best way to keep the monsters of "Eek, that's creepy!" at bay was to pay more attention to her breathing, rather than less.  To count the cycle, the breaths, the climb back up into full-on snoring, then then decline back down.  And I discovered that she's spending more time NOT breathing now than she is actually breathing.  Twice as much time.  That can't be good, right?

********

It's Saturday morning now.  I was too tired last night to finish this post.  Too numb from the strange day.  See, yesterday, my sister had to rush her farmer-husband to Spokane for an emergency surgery on a torn retina in his left eye. Yep, just one more thing to add to the laundry list of that watering down on this family right now.  This surgery means that farmer B, my brother-in-law, who lives for and stresses over and is hardly-fit-to-live-with-but-how-can-he-live-with-out-it-during harvest, must lay on his stomach with that newly repaired eye pointing toward the earth for the next week at least, maybe the next two.  And I'm not talking pointing toward the harvest gold earth.  I mean the plain old wall-to-wall carpet in their house earth.  From all points of view, this next week won't be easy: not for him and not for his wife, who surely, surely has enough on her already-just-about-tipping-over plate.  With Mom still struggling to breath, and all.  Or maybe I should say, still struggling to die.  I don't really know which Mom is struggling with now. She's not saying, after all.

But this probably be my last post from the Palouse for a while.  SK and I are driving home tomorrow.  A friend suggested yesterday that perhaps Mom is waiting until she's alone before she dies.  And maybe there's something to this.  At least it looks like she'll have her chance.

So what has been the point of all of this, then?  Several things, I think.
Time with my siblings, first of all, in a way we haven't had time together since we were children.  And as we were together, we reverted to our essential selves for a while--quibbling and whining a bit, trying to take control of an uncontrollable situation and of each other (who are likely as uncontrollable as the situation!), then coming to a consensus (which would have pleased both our parents--especially if we used that exact phrase to describe it), and finally, when that consensus had been reached, celebrating Mom and our childhood and our family.  Saying goodbye to Mom.  So what if she breathes for another few weeks?  We had that time and it was complete.

Then, when the chairs emptied and the room cleared and RE and I finished our knitting projects and Mom continued to breathe, BB, RE and I had a hard, good second week.  A powerful one.  By Wednesday of this week, we were utter basket-cases, laughing at the stupidest things, being more irreverent than even the most irreverent of us had been the week before.  We'd hit the wall, so to speak, had nothing left.  It was NOT our finest hour, or day, I can tell you that, even if the laughing felt good and the irreverence felt a little healing.

Thursday morning, I was awakened early, far earlier than I'm comfortable being awakened.  So I was pretty sure who it was waking me up.  And He wasn't slow about making it clear what He wanted from me/us.  When we got to Mom's (which is what we always call the nursing home where she 'lives', though basically it's only a room and a bed and not many of us would call what she's doing 'living' any more), I suggested to RE and BB that we begin our day with scripture and prayer.  Then I texted our whole, large family and asked them to pray with us at the same time.

Since then, the atmosphere in the room and the attitude in our hearts has been far better, and the hysteria has abated.  OK, so we're still slightly crazy, still a little irreverent, but I have a real sense of One walking around in this fire with us.  And I think if you could look through the window to the fiery furnace in which we're dwelling, you could see Him too. Just like Shadrack, Meshack and Abendigo, exactly like them. I don't know why it took so long for us to get it.  The enemy's ploy of blinders?  Maybe. Doesn't matter.  He is here, and He is not silent.  And, whether we are here in body with Mom when she goes home or not, He will be with her.  And, after all, who else really needs to be there?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

1.5 centimeters

A dozen years ago, when my son was 11 years old, one fine spring afternoon during a little league game, J slid into second base and hurt his left shoulder.  He came home from the emergency room with his arm in a sling.  Two days later, on his way out to recess, someone tripped him, and he hurt that shoulder again.  When we took him back to the doctor, it was revealed that he had what is called a 'buckle-fracture' high on that left arm.  The orthopedic specialist gave him a sling, which he wore for weeks, but that left shoulder just kept popping out of joint.  Hurt like crazy every time it did, too. We took him to the University of Washington where a doctor asked J if he could pop the shoulder out any time he wanted.  When J showed him, the doctor almost hit the ceiling and told him never to do it again.  He produced a sling with a pillow which J had to wear for months.  At the end of that time, when there was no real change in the looseness of the ligaments, the specialist told us that J should not be allowed to play any contact sport until the shoulder could be fixed, because with every jolt, every sublux (as the popping out of joint is called) makes those ligaments looser. But the surgery wouldn't happen until J and his shoulder stopped growing.

You have to understand that our son had been an athletic little boy.  One who never went anywhere without a ball in his hand, without looking forward to the next sports season, whatever it would be.  Basketball, football, baseball, soccer: he loved them all, and wanted to play them all.  And in one motion--that slide into second--and one word,  J's life was changed.  And it was hard.  I'm telling you, it was really, really hard.  J didn't know who he was, who to be without athletics.

He changed.  Learned to be a different kind of person with different interests.  And it was ok, though he surely missed playing sports.  Of course he did.  And we counted the days until he was old enough to get that shoulder fixed because sometimes (more often than you can imagine!)--while lifting a heavy box, for instance--that shoulder still popped.  When J was 18, we took him back to that U of W specialist and found out his growth plates were still open.  When he was 20, we returned to that doctor.  This time, the doctor told us that  he didn't think it was worth it to try and fix J's shoulder.  He recommended that J simply learn to live with his shoulder.  At that point, J said, 'what the heck?' and decided to play every sport he'd ever dreamed of playing.  And for the last three years, that's what he's done.  He's shot basketballs, played touch (and tackle) football, slid into base after base playing baseball, and generally enjoyed all the sports he's always loved.

Then, several months ago, when he hurt his knee at work and had to see an orthopedist, Beve took him to the best in Bellingham.  When Dr. Thorpe walked in, he said, "I don't know what we can do about your knee, but why hasn't anyone fixed your shoulder?"

So today, more than 12 years after J first hurt that shoulder, Dr. Thorpe cut a 4 inch incision into the back of his left shoulder and carefully looked at the ligaments.  Discovered they were 1.5 centimeters too long.  1.5 centimeters.  Doesn't seem like much, does it?  If you looked at a ruler, you could cover that much with the tip of your little finger.  But that much extra 'play', as he told Beve, made those ligaments pull the joint out of place so often there was a deep bruise on the bones where they'd hit each other.  1.5 centimeters isn't much to the human eye maybe, but thank God, this good doctor sees in tiny increments. 1.5 centimeters will mean all the world to my son.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Horses

Still here...and that's all I have to say about that.

Instead, horses.
I  was one of those horse-crazy little girls who lived in town, just close enough to fields to dream about riding across them, but without the possibility of having a horse of my own.  My parents indulged my obsession enough to buy me all kinds of plastic miniature horses, until I had a collection covering my long, low dresser. The prize in my horse collection was an antique china horse made from a single mold that my grandmother had found in a thrift store in Seattle.  It was chocolate brown, shiny and, in my eyes, represented the perfect chestnut horse.  I dreamed of that horse, and probably the most upset I ever was as a teenager was when my little brothers' babysitter's daughter (whose name was Cookie) went into my room and smashed it to smitherins.  When I came home from school that afternoon and found it, I cried bloody murder so loudly you might have thought a real animal had been brutalized--and perhaps that's how I felt.  Soon after,  my dad put a lock high on the doors of all our rooms to protect them from the clutching hands of chubby little Cookies, but it was too late to save my beloved--shattered--antique horse.

In junior high, I also had the privilege of riding three out of four weekends a month.  Loved it.  LOVED it.  The smell of the leather saddle and horse together, the feel of hot, sometimes sweaty horse beneath me, the sounds of the snorting and whinnying. The height from which I looked at the world on the saddle.  If I close my eyes, it all comes rushing back at me.  Somewhere inside there is still that twelve-year-old girl who loves to climb onto the back of a beautiful giant who will do her bidding with the flick of reins.  I was even allowed to take riding lessons in a tiny riding rink in the tiny town of Albion, which might be considered a suburb of Pullman to those of you who don't know the difference.  With a couple of friends, I rode in circles around an extremely dusty rink, learned to trot, canter, post and even do certain tricks with 'our' horses.  My horse was a beautiful grey and white Appalousa that actually belonged to a friend.  Its name was Homache, though that's just a guess about spelling.  After class, we'd ride through that small town and across the fields, no matter what time of year, and it was the most free feeling, the sound of the horse's hooves and the wind blowing back my hair as we galloped.  Truly my first love.

It's been years since I've been able to ride.  And sometimes it breaks my heart that this is so. The nerve pain I live with daily would not allow for a hard saddle and my left leg straight down in a stirrup.  But the love is still there.  These days I ride vicariously through my daughters when they ride with my nieces who have had the privilege--the extreme luxury!--of riding all of their lives.  I love knowing these women are horsewomen, even my city-dwelling daughters.

For me, my horse fix comes only this way:
Petting Turk, the draft horse who pulled buggy at my niece's wedding.
And, even like this:

Isn't he gorgeous?  How about a close-up? Even now that I'm earthbound, I hold horses firmly in my heart.

 Mick and me.  Kind of like beauty and the beast...
 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

We interrupt this regular programming

Day twelve of my stay on the Palouse.  Day twelve of walking through those doors and into the darkened room where she lies in a bed. This morning while I was brushing my teeth, my sister made a rather loud response to someone on the other end of the phone and my heart leapt in my chest.  However, it was her husband asking us to come help the farmers move their equipment from one piece of property to the homeplace.  So, after 11 days of doing almost nothing but sitting in that room, we were glad for a distraction.

Down the road from RE's house, where her husband was raised, and his father born and raised before him, we picked up RE's mother-in-law, Marlene, and drove several miles over gravel roads, raising our hands to wave at every pick-up we passed, because if one doesn't know that person, surely he's a neighbor to your neighbor and likely as not would stop to help you change a spare tire even if he'd never seen you before and wouldn't again.  It's just the way of things out here among these wavy golden hills.

As we drove, Marlene talked about how she'd been just about to have her morning coffee-break with her son called.  She gets up early, after all. "With himself," she told us. Always has.  And she works hard all day, though the garden that once stretched all the way to the road from the back of the house is about a quarter of its size now that just she and 'himself' are alone in the old broad-porched farmhouse.  When we invited her to meet us in town one day last week, she had to finish the pot of apples she had on the stove.  And Friday, when we got home from our beautiful, touching family service, Marlene had left three large plates of sticky buns on RE's counter for our whole large family to have for breakfast.  

We crossed the highway (195, if you're checking the map) which runs from Pullman down the steep grade to Lewiston, Clarkston and the confluence of the Clearwater and Snake rivers.  When I was a child, the Lewiston grade was full of horseshoe turns and switchbacks along the side of the hill and so scared me that I always wanted to bury my head beneath a pillow when we had to travel it.  Years later, a new road was built, with one gentle turn up (or down) the hill, and most of my fear disappeared with those flattened turns.  RE's mother-in-law, however, told me today that she sometimes still takes the old road down to Lewiston, just for the fun of it because she remembers when it was 'the new grade.'    Across highway 195, we drove onto another gravel road, up over a hill and down into some bottomland of fields where an assembly of combines, farm-trucks and men in extremely dirty jeans and cotton plaid button-up shirts stood around.  Waiting.
"They're all loaded up and ready to go," Marlene said.  Impressed, I got the impression, that they'd moved so quickly.  Even in my limited experience, farmers have their own speed, but Marlene has lived with them--as daughter, wife and mother all her days.



My sister, RE, is a good sport about driving the farm pick-up with the combine header attached to the back.  She's done this job a time or two.  BB drove one as well.  When he was in high school, back in the nineties, he worked a summer out here on the farm.  Drove some of these farm trucks every day.  It was like old home week for him, talking to the other men who practically sweat Palouse soil.  Those who'd never dream of packing up and living their lives across the country from this place.  Unfortunately, I didn't get a picture of BB.

I did, however, get this of my brother-in-law's brother.  He's the other co-owner of the farm.  Seconds later, he started up the combine and the dust that came billowing made me scamper for the safety of the air-conditioned car.  I do have one more Palouse photo, however.  It's my brother-in-law.  Perhaps my all-time favorite photo, taken by his daughter.  The absolute quintessential picture of this farmer/rancher.  Man, horse, dog on the edge of the canyon.  And no, folks, this isn't a staged shot, but truly how he lives and works and has his being.  Living the life he's been called to, even when it's hard.  Harvest, which makes the hills so beautiful, the sunsets so bright and the moon so orange, may be glorious to watch for us who aren't called to the work of it, but it's also the hardest.  Marlene reminded me of that this morning.  "I always worry about them during harvest.  It's just such a stressful time.  So much depends on it."  Beauty and work together.

This morning was a moment out of our terrible, stressful waiting time.  They interrupted our regular schedule to ask us to be a part of theirs--their stressful work of harvest.  And for that, I'm thankful.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Driving us crazy

My mother loved to make photo albums.  After Dad died, she put together a two-volume photo history of his life that is quite remarkable.  Beautifully done.  My siblings and I have been pouring over those pictures in the last ten days, discovering new things about our parents, and remembering our childhoods.  It's been wonderful and precious and exactly what we needed. So I've been thinking of the amazing trips they took--to China (for Dad), Uzbekistan (together, to visit the Dump and her family), to the Virgin Islands, all over this country.  Countless camping trips, hikes, family vacations. 

I turned to those albums again tonight after another very long day at the nursing home.  An excruciatingly long day.  How can this woman continue to live?  It's really quite unfathomable.  She stopped eating and drinking weeks ago.  Hasn't had a single ounce of water in over a week, yet she continues to hang on to life.  That room in which we sit--now just three of her five children, after a weekend of the whole family being together in town--has grown as small and diminished as she is in the bed.  We sit and micro-analyze every nuance of her breathing, and minute movements.  Are her shoulders moving?  Is she more still than she was an hour ago?  Are her fingernails turning blue beneath the inexplicably-silver painted nails (I mean it, don't ask me!)?

BB, RE and I sat in that room today and were ready to pull our hair out, we were so bored.  Punch-drunk with boredom, emotional exhaustion.  Trying to figure it out, trying to plan our lives around this giant thing that apparently absolutely cannot be planned.  Obviously.  Trying to relax against the tension in our shoulders and necks.  We might have made a few inappropriate remarks.  Might have deep-sighed when we came back from coffee-runs and lunch to discover that those shoulders were still moving up and down.  Threw up our hands in disbelief...dismay.  You'll have to forgive us.  If you sat an hour in that room, you'd understand.  Those of you who have been here before us know exactly what I'm saying here.  

This living with the dying is just plain hard work. 

And this last trip of Mom's seems to be one she doesn't want to make.  There's some ride she refuses to get on.  That's what the head nurse at the nursing home thinks anyway.  And that sure sounds like Mom.  Deep down fear of what she doesn't know.  Even though she believes.  "Have you tried telling her it's okay to go?" The social worker asked my sister helpfully.  RE didn't even have to answer before the nurse answered in the affirmative.  If only they could see how often, how many ways we've been telling Mom we love her, that we're okay, that it's time for her to go. As I said today, I don't have any new ways to say it!  And that's saying a whole lot for me.  So, until she can relax (though she barely seems more than a piece of rock at the moment!), it could go on forever...

In the meantime, here we are.  Watching her shrink before our eyes but still continue to live.  We'd never have imagined it possible.  But I just keep reminding myself that 'her times are in His hands.'  There is no more clear picture of God's Sovereignty than these days, in a way.  He will do what He will do.  Even if it drives us crazy in the interim.  We'll try not to think of what we missed to get here last week, what we gave up to get here in time. Just keep living each day with each other (thankfully not alone!), and with this little mother who continues to breathe.
 

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Final Count

The family gathers today. Now I realize you playing along at home will notice that I haven't mentioned the actual death of the one for whom we gather.  And you're very astute. Indeed, my mother has not yet died.  However, with some of us already here, and others chomping at the bit, we decided to hold a private family memorial service for Mom this afternoon at the Methodist Church where she's been a member since 1965 or thereabouts.  She may still be breathing in and out and in and...pause...out, but that's just about it.  So we'll pull up chairs around a crude wooden cross in their fellowship hall and, for Mom's sake, count ourselves.

I walked around that church the other day.  I was shocked by the sanctuary where the long blond wooden pews had been replaced with comfortable stackable chairs set in rows of semi-circles.  Those wooden pews weren't very comfortable, but they managed to help keep us awake every Sunday, were easy to slide along when either Mom or Dad shoo-ed us farther along to fit our large family.  We also slid on the concrete floor beneath them, holding onto the bottoms and pulling ourselves along, when we played hide and seek during youth group or at midnight when my friends and I wandered through the always unlocked doors.  Our church was always a place to sit and talk.

Downstairs is a room where my older brother, next younger sister and I were in junior choir every Friday afternoon, under the direction of Mrs. Cheng, who had really, really shiny fingers, which were mesmerizing as she lifted her hands to conduct our rag-tag little crew.  My sister and I can still sing an echoing Palm Sunday duet from those days, which only works if I lead (which may be a commentary about our relationship, but I won't mention that here!).  Beside that room, in the 'new' part of the building, is what I always think of as 'Dad's Scout room' because he was the Scout Master when the remodel was completed. I wasn't in that room very often, though.  The remodel happened about the time I stopped going to church with my parents.  Or maybe even after I left town.   I was upstairs in the large fellowship hall an important time or two--for my wedding reception, when Mom retired from her 31-year teaching career, when Dad retired from his 67 Eagle-Scout-producing Scout Master career.  And, of course, when Dad died.

Yep, my parents truly lived their lives in this barn-shaped church a block up the hill from downtown in my hometown.  They had all of their six children baptized in this church, the first four of us and Dad together.  I was about twelve and somewhat horrified that we were 1. on stage; 2. so much older than the babies who cried in the minister's arms when he sprinkled water on their heads; and 3. all in a row, like a bunch of heathens, though I didn't know the word nor understand the concept.  It's no surprise that years later, in college, when I saw the meaningfulness of immersion baptism, I was hungry to experience it as a true believer rather than a belligerent, embarrassed pre-teen.

Mom taught Sunday school, played in the bell-choir and proudly counted her kids as they sat in a row between Dad and her in the long second pew on the right side.  However, one of the most amazing graces my parents extended us is that they allowed us to leave that church as we asked them.  My older brother and I, when we became believers, wished to attend a less liberal, more evangelical church across town.  It wasn't easy for our parents to let us leave their church.  I remember the conversations, the long, difficult conversations.  Mom cried some, I remember that.  But they allowed it.  And we left.  Later, of course, we went away to school, or married, or both, and that barn-like church was never our church home again, and the number between them in the pew shrank to two, then to zero.  Then for a few years, far too few, it turned out, Mom and Dad faithfully sat side-by-side in that same second-row pew, served on committees, and taught Bible studies together.

And then Dad died, leaving Mom alone in the pew.  Sitting alone in the same place where she'd once sat with eight other people, counting her six kids, husband and her mother, who lived with us for about a dozen years.  And still she was faithful, continuing her Bible study teaching--she taught a class based on old hymns for a long time--and serving on committees, until the dementia made it too hard.

Mom loved it when we came back for a visit and came to church with her, or when my sister and her family showed up for a special occasion.  She loved looking down that pew and seeing it full again, if just for a day.  She'd stand up proudly and sing out the songs she loved with gusto because we had filled the seats beside her, and she could introduce us during the "Joys and Concerns" part of the service.  She loved counting us.  Just plain counting us.

So today, if she could count, here's the total:  WE'RE ALL HERE!  All five of her living children, all their spouses, all ten of her grandchildren, all their spouses.  Both of her living sister-in-laws, and her one living brother-in-law.  Her important niece and family.  It's a grand total.  One she'd be flabbergasted, and, hopefully, awed by.  I hope she'd know--I hope somehow she DOES know.  We're here because we love her. And that's the final count.  Amen.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Running High

My siblings, assorted nieces and nephews, an aunt and I are still hanging around a room in a nursing home in our home town, watching Mom breath.  It's excruciating and boring all at once.  We've talked to her, talked around her, prayed for her, and sang to her, including one very sick rendition of "There was an old woman who swallowed a fly...I guess she'll die."  When Mom coughed at the end of one verse, we all laughed and came to our senses.  But mostly, we just continue to sit there and watch her breath.  Wonder how on earth she can continue to breath at this point.  She's a whole lot more stubborn than we ever knew.

And we snipe at each other.  Yep, it's the truth.  Tensions are running high here, folks, and we're not being the best of sports every minute.  We're acting a little like the children we were when we were last all together in just this formation without spouses or other responsibilities to occupy our time and minds, that is, when the most important person in the world to each of us was our 'mommy'. It's not big things we're fighting over, like who'll get her house--which she disposed of years ago--or her estate--that, too, has been taken care of.  No, it's just little things. 

But the fact is, we're all used to being in charge of our own lives and our own families.  Our parents taught us well to lead and think.  There's no shrinking violet among us.  Not really.  We're strong capable adults, with a whole lot of brain power between us, and we're not afraid to use them. And we learned to plan at our mother's waist and our father's knee.  So we each retreat to our own spaces at night and begin to plan the next day or the next big event or whatever...then we are shocked to discover that someone else has also come up with a plan that conflicts with ours. 

These are tough days, filled with tension and pain and boredom and waiting and, left to our own devices, we're bent toward selfishness.  Or at least I am.  I suppose I should speak only for myself.  As usual.  I was thinking last night that the last time a majority of us were together in such a tension-filled week was the week our brother died.  And similar conflicts arose.  And I came to the same conclusion: that I had to lay down my life.  My will.  As usual.  It's always the same lesson.  Yet it takes a pressure cooker to actually acknowledge that I haven't accomplished this into my deep core.  God calls me to lay down my wants, my desires, my plans.  My ways are NOT His ways.  And, above all, it's His ways that I want.  Especially for Mom.

So...my prayer for the rest of this week is that i (purposely in lower-case) live with grace toward those around me, pray for His will to be done on earth, in Mom, in her living and in her dying.  Her times are in HIS hands.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Palouse

Still in an interminable waiting mode around here.  So, while we wait, I thought I'd take you on a small tour of the 'home-land.'  I love the western side of this state, have made it my home for many, many years, but there is beauty to behold here, folks, and I'm happy to show it to you.  This picture tour comes to you with thanks to three of my four siblings who each took at least one of the photos, and to my youngest daughter, SK, who also contributed to it. 
The Snake River and the beautiful, very steep canyons where we swam as children, rode in boats as young adults, and my sister's husband's family has a ranch.  At the top of the canyon (which is called 'the breaks') are the rolling hills one usually thinks of as the Palouse.



SK and I standing in a wheatfield, ripe for the harvest, on a hot August afternoon, just to show you how high the wheat grows.  When it's ripe, wheat isn't prickly to walk in, though it also isn't as soft as it appears in this picture, when you might imagine you could lay on it like on a down mattress.
Kamiak Butte beyond the fields, from the road into town from my sister's.  The rolling hills are mirrored by the rolling clouds.  I love how those clouds play over the hills, changing the color of the fields.

Wheat, white with harvest, with garbanzo beans beyond.  And the Moscow mountains of Idaho in the distance.

 This is my Father's world...I hear Him pass in the rustling grass, He speaks to me everywhere.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Being with her

I've done this before.  Gathered in rooms to watch a loved one die.  Sat in hard chairs which have little or no support in unattractive rooms, making desultory conversation while the loved one sleeps, just so we can hop up and speak when she opens her eyes.  Saying the things we need to say to her, maybe things we should have said years ago, but it takes this exact set of circumstances to make those phrases pass from our hearts to our lips.  "You were the Mom God intended for us.  We wouldn't be who we are if you hadn't been our mother." "It's time to go, now, Mom.  It's okay to go." Such words make us cry, even though the person in the bed, the one dull of eye and cold of hand, barely changes expression no matter what is said.  In a different situation, she'd be crying too, right now. Tears of joy that we're all here, together at her bedside, lined up (metaphorically), oldest to youngest, participating in her send-off.  And tears of sadness that the send-off is at hand. For years Mom cried when she said goodbye to us.  I remember her tears from when I left for college, from the end of every vacation home with my family, and every trip she took to our house.  She never, ever like leave-taking.

So it shouldn't surprise me that she's having a hard time letting go now.  It's also fundamental to her nature that this is so.  My sister speculates that I'm trying to be Mom's mouth-piece when I say 'Mom likes it when we sing,' or some other such thing.  She looks at this woman, this silent, almost immobile woman and sees NOTHING.  Thinks, "There's nothing to see here, folks."  And, in one sense, she's absolutely right.  There's nothing to see in this shell of a person.  But we know Mom's real self.  We know who she really is.  The people who work at the nursing home where she has but one narrow bed, a dresser, a couple of children's books, and a few stuffed animals--they actually know nothing of Mom.  They've said several times that they love Mom, because she's 'so easy-going.'  EASY-GOING?  My mother has been called a lot of things in her life, but easy-going is absolutely NOT one of them.  One nurse told me yesterday, 'I just heard she used to be a teacher, and that she liked books.'  These two facts, which are merely activities/profession she chose, come far closer to the core nature of Mom, than the idea of her having an easy-going temperament. 

But we know that core nature.  Right here, right now we know it, even as she lies in a bed, her breath sometimes shallow, sometime hitched, sometimes simply deep.  We recognize her cough, her throat-clearing, her frown-lines from a lifetime of such habits and reactions.  So we can imagine what she'd be thinking in these last days, had she the mind power behind it and the word power in front of such thoughts.   So I can say with some confidence that Mom would love it if we sang for her, and we can all come up with songs she sang to us:  Waltzing Matilda, Edelweiss, Down by the Old Mill Stream, and most importantly, Ash Grove (her very favorite song).  These are all songs we sang in the car.  Lots and lots of car rides with lots and lots of singing.  When I told Beve tonight about the singing, he said, "Was it hard to talk them into singing?"  Just shows how much I failed to pass this activity on to my own family, more's the pity. 

It was a long day in a small room in a nursing home. Just like they were long days in the hospital when it was Glo lying in the bed, or Beve's mom. Or Dad.  Yes, I've sat in such rooms before.  And other than the day before Dad died, I haven't had the advantage, the gift, of final thoughts from the dying.  Nor will I--we--this time.  But we have two things.  We have each other: my siblings, some of our kids, and spouses.  We have our family, near and far to walk through these last days with us.  And, more importantly, we--the collective we that is the family she and the dad who waits in heaven for her--are in these last days with her.  We are simply in them with her.  Being with her.

This post has been carefully proofed for my brother and his wife, so that they'll know I'm neither a poor speller, nor incapable or finding flaws in my own writing.  In truth, no one can be as hard on a writer as she is on herself.  But thanks for pointing out my weaknesses.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Here for Harvest

I'm in the Palouse, the land of hills so steep, some non-natives might call them mountains.  In other parts of this country, hills far less steep with just a few more trees on them are considered full-fledged ski-resorts.  Crazy to think of, if you're from here, but if you aren't it's far more crazy to watch the large machines race across those hills just this time a year, uncaring of angles.  When I was a young girl, I rode on a few combines across a few very steep hills, and held on for dear life to the single bar protecting me from that large fiercely twirling blade below the open air driver's cab.  Because of my allergies to dust and grain, I had to wear a bandana across my face to protect my breathing, but that wasn't nearly enough protection.  Not early enough.  There was something about harvest that got into my blood all those years ago.  So much that I kept writing about it, breathing it in and out and dreaming about it even when it tore up my chest to do it.  I love the raised dust across the horizon that fully tints the color of the sky and brightens the sun as it sets (and, hence, the so-named harvest moon).  I love the trucks on the road, downshifting in front of us, spraying their kernels of wheat behind them as they speed toward the elevators.  I love the glorious golden fields ripe and ready, the wheat tall and waving like the royalty it is as we drive past.  And the other fields, shorn of that golden wheat, with clear firm tracks machines systematically followed and the chaff just lying sadly on the ground, unnecessary, it's job--to hold the wheat up--finished.  As fast life, those stalks had, but a purposeful one.  I love watching it all.  From the relative safety of my own air-conditioned car, or my sister's house, I love them, yes (I'm not stupid enough to risk an asthma attack again), a degree-removed from the dust and dirt, but close enough to smell, to taste, to see.

It's another kind of harvest that I'm here for this month, but it's a happy boon that they're harvesting the fields while I'm here. My nephew, M, told his mother, RE, to remind me that it's harvest right now.  For me that means worrying about my allergies.  They are no small inconvenience.  A few years ago, Beve, RE and I went into the fields to watch the combines come down off a hill, and as the dust stirred up around those giant grasshoppers, my chest began to close.  It was NOT a pretty sight, I can tell you that.  I wasn't very rational about it either.  I just couldn't believe the next breath wouldn't be forthcoming.  I kept trying and trying, and that breath wouldn't come.  It was startling and disconcerting, but I was certain the next one would.  Beve and RE were much more clear thinkers that afternoon.  They knew what I couldn't understand, that I was in grave danger of really not being able to breath.  So they bundled me into a car and we drove away. And--oddly, really oddly--once I was out of that dust and grain, I began to be able to breath again.  Almost immediately.
Now, of course, the culmination of the season of Mom's life that I watch and wait now, just as farmers watch and wait for the harvest.  In a way, death is like harvest. The stalks that gives nourishment keeps plants alive in one fashion, but they're cut down to become something else. So too, Mom is just about ready to become something/someone else.  Someone new in a new body, in a new place.  I wonder if she's just become so allergic to life on this planet that she's unable to see, to even understand how badly this world is not working for her, how even her own body in this world has stopped working. And what she needs is the fresh air, the real, new, fresh air of heaven to breathe and clear her head and see and understand again.  This is why I'm in the Palouse, of course.  To see her 'harvest'--to be with her as she breathes the last big sighs of earth and takes the first large draught of heaven.  That's a harvest indeed.

It is odd that it's August.  Harvest.  Dad died during harvest.  His sister, also harvest. Beve's mom?  She barely made it into September (by a week).  There's just something about this time of year, I guess. At least for us. We love the harvest.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Counting

My mother was a counter.  A life-long champion at it, as far as I can tell.  Perhaps it was because when she was a little girl and moved so many times with her mother that anyone else would have lost track of all the homes, all the school districts, all the zip-codes.  And she was an only child and spent her childhood counting the siblings she didn't have in all those moves as she and her mother were following the navy's equivalent to 'the drum'.  Counting the miscarriages, tubal pregnancies that could have/ should have been instant playmates for her.  Instead she was always the new girl, the towering, smarter new girl, with a 'bull in a china shop' way of entering into conversations.  In any case, something made her a counter and by the time she was our mother, it was marrow-deep and blood-running to her core.

One of the things Mom counted was gifts.  Both those given and those received.  Part of every Christmas morning, along with the stockings, breakfast and pile under the tree, were pens and paper so she could--and later, we could--write lists of what gifts we'd received.  And, on every gift tag, she also wrote what the gift was.  When the pile under the tree had disappeared, the floor strewn with paper and the fire in the fireplace burning with wrapping paper, Mom always counted her tags and doubled-checked them against her list. Dad learned VERY early in their marriage that quantity counted with Mom because Mom counted.  I wasn't around before he learned that lesson, but I can imagine the snide comment or two, the hurt feelings possible if she gave him more gifts than he gave her.  Dad, thankfully, was a very quick study.  Of course she also counted gifts she gave as well, and was known to send Dad down to the nearest grocery store on Christmas Eve because someone's list was short a gift.  "Just get anything, it doesn't matter what!" she'd tell him. As I say, with her it was about quantity.

But what Mom perpetually counted was people.  Mostly her kids.  In fact, we've often speculated that she wanted a large family for two reasons: to have the siblings she'd missed as a child, and so there'd be more to count.  I don't think we noticed the counting of us too often when we were young, but once we all left home, it became more and more evident, then more and more eschewed as her brain deteriorated.  No matter when I  called her on her birthday or Mother's Day, she'd tell me which number I was in the counting of her kids. "You're the first one to say that to me," she'd say with obvious delight.  Or, "Now all my kids have finally called me today," she'd respond if we happened to be last.  This latter somehow made me feel I needed to apologize for calling so late in the day, even if it was only 10 AM. 

And the older she got, the more important this counting seemed to become.  Sometimes when I called her, she'd tell me, "You're the first person I've talked to in a week" (which wasn't true--she called my sister a dozen times a day, at least).  Or she'd say, "Not one of you has told me you love me/hugged me in ____" (whatever her latest timeline was). And once her grandchildren were old enough to be part of this equation, she began counting them exactly the same way. It wasn't until we cleaned out her house that we realized how she knew all this, when she could turn on water in the kitchen, walk away and leave it running for hours.  She kept a daily calendar, which she wrote in when we called. "Talked to R today, he didn't say 'I love you.'" would be a notation.  Or, talked to every one but C.'  I can well imagine her keeping that notebook by the phone, then checking it before she went to bed, just so she could count us...and therefore, decide how important or worthy or valuable she was.

See, Mom's counting was her way of reassuring herself of her own value.  Always. Value as a mother, a grandmother, a human being. She didn't feel any inherent only reflected value.  Once Dad died, it was up to us, whether we actually understood this or not, to make her feel important.  It's hard to imagine someone who achieved as much as she did professionally, with as happy as marriage as she had, and as many bright and amazing children and grandchildren as she has, needing to be perpetually reassured that she means something, but it's the case.

In a few days, all of Mom's living children will be gathered under one roof for the first time since Dad died.  Well, we were together when BB got married two years ago, but we weren't under one roof and Mom wasn't there, and it wasn't about her, so it doesn't count.  Get it? Count?  But this time counts.  It absolutely, totally, FINALLY, counts.  And I'm wondering if she'll know. Those who work with the dying believe that the dying have more control than we tend to imagine over their home-going, and mothers most of all. When LD heard about Mom saying 'Andrew' last week to our sister, her comment was, "She's still counting."  So maybe Mom will know.  Maybe what Mom is holding out for, why she's still clutching her blankets and clinging to life is that she wants to count her five living children in the same room one more time.  Maybe she'll open her eyes and we won't see life in them, maybe those small eyes will seem as dull and dying as they've been for weeks, but deep down, she'll be somewhere looking out from her soul, and will count her kids one last time before she takes her leave of this body and earth.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A side of nausea with your dinner, anyone?

OK, so a little lighter fare tonight.  Just because...well, just because Beve said I absolutely had to tell this story and I've been somewhat preoccupied with heavy-duty things like sick and dying parents, parents who need constant care, and so many plate spinning in the air Beve and I collapse into bed at night only to discover sleep isn't happening.  I can't fall asleep and he can't stay asleep and our hyper-crazy Springer, Jamaica, bays in the middle of our insomnia for no particular reason that we can discern.  All this to say what I've said over and over, that it's a bit of a hard season for us.

So a little vignette from our life: 
A few days ago, while E was off sunning herself at her BFF's lake place in Idaho, we went out for half-price appetizers after Beve finished mowing.  Beve parked the car and we walked around the building toward the front of the restaurant, where, sitting on a bench right outside the front door, was a very large woman, holding a metal dog dish, making a kind of gurgling sound.   On the sidewalk was a HUGE, spreading flood of vomit, and let me tell you, that extra-large dog dish was insufficient for the task at hand, or at mouth in her case.  Another woman stood beside her, kind of wringing her hands and rocking on her heels. 

Now I should tell you one thing I inherited from my mother was a very quick gag reflex.  I'm not kidding, back in the days of small children, Beve knew he had to be on deck when vomiting was involved or he'd be taking care of me as well.  Just the thought can turn my stomach slightly, so the sight of such, shall we say robust, purging was chilling.  And it was truly Olympic vomiting.  Beve kept saying, "She wasn't even taking breathes, it was just gurgling up like a fountain."  Now that's a picture, huh?

We thought it our civic duty, when the hostess asked how we were doing, to tell her about what was going on right outside the front door to their business--in full view of patrons through the windows, even!  She was quite appalled, seated us and went running for some water.  Our waitress (though my appetite was compromised, Beve's never is!) was a former student of Beve's so she plopped down and we told her the whole story.  Before too long, we were watching the hostess, our waitress, the manager carrying increasingly larger vessels of water out the front door.  They must have carted ten or more gallons of water past our table, in pitchers, clear square tubs, buckets, etc.  The manager diplomatically moved the women, but what was left was much, much harder to remove.  Stubbornly hard.

And that's probably always the truth, isn't it?  There's actually even a Biblical truth here. Jesus said, "Listen and understand.  What doesn't into your mouth does not defile you, but what comes out of your mouth, that is what defiles you."  (Matthew 15:11)  Of course He is speaking the words we speak as what actually defiles us, but the picture of this stubborn bile on that sidewalk and the many people and work it took to clean it way is a great metaphor for what happens when we vomit cruelty, insensitivity, intolerance toward others.  I think of things people say that they couch as 'jokes'--really, really hurtful words that are not jokes at all.  How long does it take for that vomit to be cleaned out of someone's life?  It is what comes out of your mouth that defiles you. No wonder I'm feeling a little nauseated.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

George Bailey

I've been writing this blog since the end of March of 2008.  This means that, in the circle of life, this date has come around twice.  Still, because I am who I am, someone with a veritable library of dates in my brain (many of which have almost no importance to my actual life), I can't help taking stock on a day like today.  An actual anniversary.  The anniversary, I should say.  The New Testament calls it being born again, what happened to me on this date in 1971.  Through overuse, misuse and sometimes even abuse, the power's been taken out of that phrase, so much so that many of us don't wish to associate with it.  However, Jesus was pretty clear with Nicodemus that this is exactly what it is.  Our becoming His, lock, stock and barrel is in every way that counts, is being born again.  And for me, I have to admit, this is EXACTLY what it felt like when I met Jesus that long ago day at that camp on a lake up on the panhandle of Idaho.  Either the whole world was brand-spanking new, or I was, and it was pretty obvious which had changed.  Clean, new, fresh--yep, all those words one might use for a brand new baby could have been used for me back then.  Complete with the bonafide hunger I had for milk, and more milk and more and more and more, said the baby.

Another word the New Testament uses with great abandon, no, with great purpose--a word that we shudder to use these days--is saved.  "I was saved." "When were you saved?"  But I've been thinking a whole lot recently about that word again.  Just yesterday I had a conversation with a doctor (at one of Thyrza's appointments) about Job.  He suggested we all always ask the question, "Why me?"  I'm sure over the long years of his practice (he's mostly retired now), he's seen enough to know this is true.  But I told him honestly that I've never really asked that question.  I said I might as well ask the question, "Why NOT me?"  I mean, why shouldn't difficulties happen to me?  Why not disease, discomfort, pain and trial?  Why should I be exempt from anything that He intends for me?  This doctor was a little startled by me, it was clear, and we had a very good conversation, until his nurse knocked on the door, reminding him of his business.  But on the way home I got to thinking about why on earth my attitude is so unusual.  And all I can come up with is that He saved me all those years ago, He did what He promised He'd do, which is to take up residence in me and re-create me.  It's His influence.  Or not merely His influence, but His very presence in me, indwelling me that makes me view things differently than other people.

I can take little credit for it.  I know exactly who I am, exactly what I'm capable of.  How petty, selfish, weak.  Any good that I do, is Him.  That's what I claim on this day of my re-birth.  On my salvation anniversary.  Thankfully, I don't fully know who I would have been without Him.  I don't need a George Bailey "It's a Wonderful Life" experience in order to value this life.  39 years and counting, I've been living reborn, re-created and indwelt. Just call me George Bailey, without all that drama.  That's good enough for me.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Pentimento

So I'm leaving Friday for my hometown where I'll sit by my mother's bedside, watching her sleep, watching her small dull eyes with their short lashes and flecks of brown open and close, seeing nothing.  Watch her breath.  Just that.  Watch her breath for the last days of her life.  I'll be there for the duration, whatever the duration is.  A day, a week, ten days.  It can't be long now.  Not when no nourishment is going in and no elimination is going out.  These are the last days.  So, in her honor, and because I've become a scanning fool this summer, I thought I'd post some pictures of Mom through the years.  I don't have any from her childhood at hand, but one delightful (NOT!) one from my own, which makes me either laugh or cry hysterically, depending on my mood.  Let me just say this to my girls, though: it obviously came naturally for me to clothe you in matching dresses, and I'd like to thank you now for being better sports about it than I was! I'm the one with the frown...oh wait, I guess that's all of us. 
Here's the family on my wedding day.  I have mentioned the 'little Bo-Peep' dresses complete with hoop-skirts RE and I made for the bridesmaids. The only redeeming thing about them was their color, chosen because it's Beve's favorite.  We bought so much of it, I had enough to make my daughters matching dresses years later.  Sigh.  Mom and the little brothers were wearing the outfits bought for RE's wedding the fall before (she's the really pretty one sitting on the floor).  BB is crouching because he'd grown so much in the months between our weddings he was sporting high waters, but things were slightly crazy in our lives that spring.  Dad, white as a sheet, is sitting because he'd just flown in from Seattle where he was undergoing cancer treatments.  Mom was a mess, the wedding was planned in all of 6 weeks, and the 'dang dog' (as Mom called her) even had unexpected puppies that week.  It really wasn't high on her priority list to check BB's pants until he put them on that morning and discovered they were about two inches too short.  Tough luck then, BB. 
We're on our way from a camping trip to Ashland to see a play.  I left my nursing son with Beve for far too long...though whether it was too long for him or me is up for grabs.  All I know is there was some speeding involved on the way back to get me to my frantic baby, and to relieve my own pressure (you women will understand!).  That's what I remember--nothing about the play, not even the name.  Maybe Richard II?
A couple of different times when the four of us lined up and went off somewhere together. In this second shot, we're being more than a little goofy, making Mom crack up.  It was quite the trick that week.  We were at the Oregon coast, she was definitely in the moderate Alzheimers' stage, and everything was an issue.  We were taking her out for her birthday dinner.  And what she wanted for her birthday was this:

Yep, it's what she wanted.  Seriously.  And it just cracks me up.  We were absolutely against the idea that day.  You can't imagine how against it.  But she threw a hissy-fit, and we gave in.  She was, after all, our little-girl mother by that time, so what were we to do?  And it came out looking like this. So funny, I can't stand it.  Clockwise around Mom here's E in her braids, who looks like the darling milk-maid.  Behind her is RE, who looks like she could chop wood, build the fire, churn butter, bake bread, hoe the fields all before breakfast.  I look like I ate about a dozen lemons and haven't a good thing to say about anyone or anything as a result. LD (the Dump), beside me, must be about to take off on her sailing voyage, and SER, (RE's daughter) is just plain unhappy about the whole business.  And Mom, oh my goodness, she was determined to have that shawl over her hair because she's the 'old widdow woman, after all."

I have to go find some tissue.  It just makes me laugh.

Here's perhaps the last photo we have of Mom, or at least the last event she came to.  SER-B's wedding last summer.  All of Mom's grandchildren behind her.  It's nice to have this picture.  Mom looks pretty good, was even looking at the camera, and the kids look even better. Before many more months, Mom was refusing to even go outdoors, let alone get into a car. So this moment is even more important than we knew then.

People keep asking how I feel about my mom's dying.  And here's what I tell them.  I'm glad that Mom will be freed from this body and brain that have stopped serving her, and are now simply imprisoning her.  I'm glad she'll walk again, think again, speak with clarity, and know without question that she is valuable in God's eyes. And I'm also glad that she is not dying unloved.  There were years after my dad died when I worried that this might be the case...at least by me (I should not speak for anyone else).  I prayed long and hard that I'd feel love for her before she died.  And I do.  I really, truly do.  It isn't a love that has revised the past, that pretends our relationship was something other than it was. She was difficult, I wasn't understanding, and it was rough going for most of my life.  However, what I prayed--that I could love her--God answered.  And for that I am exceedingly grateful.  So what the grieving will look like I do not know.  I pray the idea of pentimento will be the case here, where the earlier images will come through these last years, but the brush strokes of love that God's given me will cover all the conflict.

And that pentimento--earlier images painted over by this new, late love for my mother--will last.