Sunday, April 28, 2013

Journey's end

April 28, 2013

Hello, good friends,

Thank you, Lori, for posting last week. And thank you—all of you—for your support and prayers over the last two difficult years.

As Lori explained, I was in Kansas to walk the last mile I could walk with my sister in this world.

I want to share something of that last part of the journey if I am able to do so. However, as a wanna-be wordsmith, I am consistently struck both by the power of words rightly used and, paradoxically, the total inadequacy of words to express our deepest human responses. Today I have little confidence in words for this task I have set myself. However (thankfully) those of you who read this have an intuitive ability to understand the white spaces. I remain grateful for that.

Beth hated funerals. While she and God maintained a life-long relationship (marked, admittedly, by sharp conflict at times), Beth was not fond of what she called “churchy” things. In her instructions for end-of-life events, she directed us to have her body cremated, then, on some nice spring day, to inter her ashes in the old country cemetery where five generations of our family now rest.

Beth directed further that we were to do so in a way that enabled us to remember her with joy and, in the presence of her death, to be glad that she had lived and loved us. Beth was an intensely private person to the end, and asked to be accompanied on this last journey only by family and a few close friends.

To the best of our ability family and friends did as she asked.

We gathered at the cemetery in late afternoon. A friend sang a portion of Psalm 23. Beth’s son deposited the urn containing her ashes in the grave he and Beth’s grandsons had prepared. Then, gently and carefully, he covered her ashes with the prairie soil she had loved. A second friend prayed, committing Beth’s body to the earth and her soul to God in the “sure and certain hope of the resurrection,” and in confidence that we will gather together again some day in a better world.

Melissa, Beth’s daughter-in-law, laid a simple heart-shaped wreath on her grave.

Then, in defiance of tradition but in congruence with Beth's wishes, we toasted her memory (choice of champagne or sparkling cider), celebrating her good life, her brave death, and the marvelous music we believe she now makes in her new world.

After the toast we stood together for a time sharing more laughter than tears, then at the end, we went away and left Beth’s ashes there. I think of her resting with her family, the prairie wind moving the tall grass in the fence rows under the bending silence of the high evening sky.

I walked on the ground beside Beth’s grave that will cover my ashes someday.

I wonder: on that day when you leave my ashes there beside Beth’s, how will you remember me?

Seeking to live so that you can say good-bye with joy, trusting in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.

See you next week.


Sunday, April 21, 2013

Gay is Away.

April 21, 2013

Dear Friends,

Gay has asked that I let all of you know that she is in Kansas this weekend for Beth's memorial service. She will be back next week. Blessings to all of you. ~lori

Sunday, April 14, 2013

New wineskins

April 14, 2013

Dear friends,

In my mind I titled the woman Executive Assistant to the Director of the Dining Room, then promptly abbreviated this longish title to EA.

In reality, EA did not hold a position. She was a resident, like me and others who appear her story here. Watching her, I guessed that in her prerehab life EA been Lady-In-Charge in her work environment. At any rate, like the Colonel EA appeared to have brought the emotional, relational habits of her old life with her [You met the Colonel in my March 24, 2013 blog].

Each day EA came to the dining room wheeling a small piece of carry-on luggage that she utilized as a brief case. At each meal EA approached her self-assigned table in a business-like hurry. Standing, she inspected the table cloth at her place for straying crumbs and delinquent coffee stains (none were allowed). When satisfied with the condition of her table, she would park her brief case, seat herself, then scrutinize carefully the residents seated around her. (Watching her reminded me of an Assistant Principal keeping a watchful eye on the school cafeteria.) When assured that all present were behaving properly, EA would then remove paper from her “brief case” and, ignoring the activity around her, would write industriously until her meal was served.

Each evening the Sergeant was present, however, EA varied her dinner routine. [The Sergeant appeared with the Colonel in the March 24, 2013 blog.]

The Sergeant  had an identified place and function in the dining room. While his role was unnamed and unofficial, he was covertly recognized by staff and residents alike as a Valuable-Care-Taker. Among other self-assigned tasks, the Sergeant managed the Colonel’s strong aversion both to green beans and the necessity to eat with the “troops” (the Colonel lived in the shadow of his past when he dined in the officers’ mess). A tiny lady who was a stoke victim routinely was seated across from the Sergeant. Without drawing attention to himself or to her, the Sergeant monitored her struggle to feed herself and watched for the danger of choking. He alertly supported an aware, appreciative staff by ratcheting up his business-as-usual voice and keeping conversation going whenever angry, loud voices erupted from the table near the door. The Sergeant’s awareness and responsive presence was important to us all.

On those evenings when the Sergeant arrived before her, EA would park her “brief case,” then visit the Sergeant’s table to talk for a bit before returning to her own. If the Sergeant were late, EA would stop by his table to visit before she left the dining room.

There was a subtle attention-getting “look-at-me” air to EA’s obviously calculated trips. Initially, my casual impression of her interaction with the Sergeant suggested a mild, socially-awkward flirtation. After more careful observation, however, I concluded that this first impression was misleading—in fact, quite wide of the mark. Something else was happening—something important that lay behind the non-verbal sexually-tinged behavior EA publicly displayed.

What I have caught of EA’s story is only a fragment, likely a fragment from the middle or the beginning of the end. What I saw was a pattern: During my time in the rehab unit, EA did not alter the frequency or nature of her contacts with the Sergeant. The Sergeant did not alter his friendly response, his pattern of verbal-sparring that drew others into the conversation, his consistent non-verbal messages of good humor and good will without a hint of anything else. He terminated every conversation with EA with a smile and a half-wave of his hand.

Think with me: What was EA seeking from the Sergeant? Recognition? Affiliation that would burnish her sense of identity as a powerful person? Connection that would increase her control of her environment? Reassurance that the skills she had learned in early life would still enable her to reach her goals? Assurance of her worth? An experience of feeling "special"?

While I can only guess, I believe that EA had more than one goal, and that few of these goals were consciously clear to her. What I could see, day after day, however, was an effort that saddened me. Always the brief case and the paper work; always her search for relationship focused primarily on the Sergeant; always that faintly sexual air that, I sensed, camouflaged something that was serious business indeed but that had little to do with actual sex. And always the Sergeant’s friendly response of personal attention held firmly in the context of boundaries EA could not breech.

EA interested me. It seemed to me that EA consistently announced nonverbally that she was an important person with lots of important work to do. She demonstrated daily her difference from the majority of the residents—she had work to do even at meals. She sought to ally with the Sergeant (I guessed) because, among other reasons, she saw him as someone like her—an important person with important work to do.

As I watched, I concluded that her flirtatious behavior was merely an old often used tool. This approach had become so automatic to EA that emotional habit and lack of alternative skills prohibited her from trying something new despite the limited payoff she now received. In the context of the rehab unit, I came to see EA’s pattern much like the behavior of the man who cried daily to go home. [Blog, January 13, 2013] You may remember that he appeared to believe that he could go home if only he could open the outside door. EA appeared to believe that personal importance and sex would lead to relationships that would ease the hungers of her heart.

I will grant that old tools provide the comfort of the familiar. Unfortunately, this comfort holds a misleading promise of safety and productiveness.  New times in life bring change and its paradoxical tension of gain and loss. Choosing life requires both acquision of new tools and the willingness to risk mastering their use.

Jesus cautioned us about putting new wine in old wineskins.

As an octogenarian, I increasingly covet the energy and wisdom that will permit me consciously to remain aware of my changing world and accept the need for new tools.  I have yet to discover easy aging, and seriously doubt that such an experience exists.

Exploring with you the challenge of laying down old tools and the courage necessary to brew new wine and buy new wineskins.

See you next week.


Sunday, April 7, 2013

Space, please?

April 7, 2013

Dear friends,

I make no promises regarding this blog. As a reader you may invest attention and careful thinking, then, at the end, conclude that you have had a poor return on your investment. Full disclosure: possibly elusive personal significance.

While I was living my adventure at the rehab center, inspectors came to examine the facility and, presumably, insure a proper level of care for residents.

Their visit told a story, but the story was difficult to hear while it was being lived out. Beginning, middle and ending were oddly muddled and fragmented. Important segments of the story were played behind the scenes of the daily communal life of residents.

Nevertheless, residents sensed that something important we could not see was happening around us. We were uneasy at levels we could not explain even to ourselves. The staff too was uneasy. We sensed as well their tension with us and with each other. Without words we recognized the scent of risk, a low level of danger in the air.

The first part of the story that I heard came in a carefully low-key announcement by the young woman who came to help me dress. “Inspectors are here today,” she said quietly, “and will be here through Friday. This is just a routine visit. There is nothing wrong. It will not change your day.”

In retrospect I think many residents unconsciously translated the official notice into a warning. I think I heard: “Strangers are coming. Powerful outsiders are here among us. Be alert.”

I watched and listened. Already my day was changed.

My first glimpse of the strangers occurred shortly before lunch. There were three of them, two men and a woman. They entered the unit from the administrative wing carrying thick folders, looking officially impeccable in their dark business suits. As I watched, they walked briskly three abreast down the busy hallway between the therapy room and the dining room. They were laughing and talking to each other, sharing without thought the privileged world of the easily ambulatory, confident of their right to the space they commanded.

All of us scattered—slowly, but we scattered. Wheelchairs moved back against the walls; walkers moved back into open doorways, those of us with canes moved with careful haste to the side.

After they had walked by, there was an odd utterly quiet moment when in the wake of their passing some wordless intensity seemed to fill the very air.

The strangers had arrived and showed us their lordly wholeness. And we understood. Those of us who made our way slowly, haltingly, with great effort, we were called to make space for them.

Learning with you in life's journey the importance of keeping a generous space for those who walk slowly. May my passing, by God’s grace, leave a gentle footprint behind.

See you next week.