Monday, May 2, 2022

One Night in an Inconvenient Hotel

 Writing from a broken chair in Guthrie, OK.  Trying to wake up and waiting for a storm to clear.  Looking at the only thing to love here…A neon heart and an ice cream cone floating in the sky.


I dried off with a hand towel and the A/C is broken, just like my chair.  But, after trying two different rooms and opening the door to two someone-has-just-been-here-and-the-sheets-are-still-twisted-kind-of-dirty at my first stop, I’m lingering in my upgrade.  

Completely grossed-out by the old smoke-and-chlorine greeting in the lobby, the “great room” where I was to enjoy my complimentary breakfast from 6:30-9:30, and the generational fingerprints covering the elevator, I wondered what my expectations should be.  Mostly, I just wanted a place to sleep… 

But, our brothers and sisters in the Ukraine keep coming to mind, and I ask myself how dare I experiment with any feelings but gratitude.  

They’re right, of course. 

So, thank you, Guthrie, Oklahoma.  If I don’t see you again, take care.  I will always remember you fondly as the place where I asked for my money back for the first time in my 44 years of life.  And thank you for the reminder that I love that little saintly saying…

When we get to heaven and look back on our earthly lives, it will seem like but one night in an inconvenient hotel. 


Saturday, February 26, 2022

Competitive Suffering

If only awareness of another’s suffering made our own disappear. 

A week ago, my Mom had her leg amputated and an inch of collarbone removed.  Even the pain between the two seems to be in competition.  Her shoulder, the clear winner in the beginning, is now falling into a tie, but only because second place is catching up.

An elderly father is hospitalized for the third time in a month.  A daughter wonders what is next and how to care for him, while working full-time to make ends meet.  A marriage ends and arbitration begins.  Someone receives a terminal diagnosis.  A husband watches his wife of 50 years linger in her last days of life and he feels like he is “going to a funeral every day.”  

The Ukraine is being invaded and bombed by Russia.  Death and terror abound, and a 90-something can’t stop looking at the spots on her hands, ashamed they concern her at all - with all of the “real suffering” going on in the world.  

If only awareness of another’s suffering made our own disappear. 

If only...  

A friend with a broken ankle decided to “stop whining” after listening to my Mom talk about her amputation.  But, her ankle is still broken and 8-weeks of healing and rehabilitation are still ahead.

As much as we wish it were different, being privy to another’s suffering doesn’t erase our own.  And sometimes, perhaps most of the time, we feel shame about that.  

But, if greater suffering vanquished lesser suffering, all who suffer less would have no suffering at all, and those who suffer most would be huddled together - suffering, without anyone who could understand or sympathize with them.  

I think it is a noble instinct, though. To consider our own suffering as nothing the moment we hear of something more uncomfortable, tragic, or grandiose.

But, whatever suffering existed before awareness of a greater suffering, isn’t nothing.  It still exists, and is perhaps even a greater suffering than before because it does exist and remains uncomfortable.

What then?  My hope is that suffering “less” than another can bring not shame, but awe. Awe at greater suffering borne bravely, with a side of fruit.  Abundant fruit.  

Inspiration.  Compassion.  Patience.  Perseverance.  Gratitude.  Goodwill.  

Ankles can break, legs can be lost, and hands can grow concerning things in times of war, as well as peace.  May sufferings great and small bring that mysterious grace which allows one to rejoice in them.

…we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Romans 5:3-5



Friday, February 4, 2022

Steve

Funerals aren’t unusual in the life of a hospice chaplain.  The outcome and terms are understood when the relationship begins.  You love and honor each person in life and death as much as they will allow.   

But, I buried a friend this week and this funeral was very, very different.  It seems that no one can bear to hear about it all at once.  Or is it me that can’t bear to talk about it, all at once?

On Tuesday of this week, Steve, “the man who makes you cry” as my boys called him in the beginning, was laid to rest.  

Our friendship began nearly seven years ago when I walked into Room 304.  I was a new chaplain at my first nursing home assignment.  He smiled, and the rest is history.  

By way of explanation, he gestured toward the Lou Gehrig poster on the wall.  Between one to two visits per week, a stylus and a letter board,  I learned what and who and how long, but never why.  

ALS.  51-years old.  Given four to five years to live - four years ago, and his children were the same ages as mine.  Yes, the more I came to understand, the more I cried. 

I counted a bazillion losses and not a single complaint. Working, driving, bowling, volleyball, gambling, golfing, walking, talking, eating.  A two-story apartment, one-story apartment, handicapped accessible apartment.  Parenting, and all that goes with mobility and living independently, vanished one-by-one-by-one.  

And yet, he was so happy.  He was already “cried out”, accepted that he didn’t understand why him, and had made peace with it all, somehow.

Our friendship continued long after my employment ended, and we took a lot of pictures along the way. Goodbyes were consistent when little else was.  

“I’ll see you next time.”  

“I’ll be here.”

I even had a sign made to hang over his bed, which said that very thing…







 

I always wanted to “be there” for him, but living in a different town with a family and full-time job made that a nice idea, rather than a reality.  

I didn’t know how or when it could be different, until I was walking out of the hospital last week and heard someone call my name.  His sister told me he was in the hospital and not doing well.  I wrongly assumed he was still fighting.  As clear as he had been about his fight to live since I met him, he was equally clear about being done.  

I absolutely understood, and told him it was okay.  I visited again the next day and had what would be our last conversation.  I told him I would get his book published, agreed to do his funeral service, and told him I loved him.  He loved me, too. 

I got daily reports from his sister, waited for the word, and prayed.  But, it just so happened that she needed to take care of some things one morning.  Could I sit with Steve while she was out?  Could I ever.  

Three hours became eight when I asked for just a little while longer.  I just held his hand, watched him breathe, listened to 80s music, and prayed in between.  He never opened his eyes.  The sacred gift of time, nowhere to be, and a comfortable chair were altogether new to and cherished by me in Room 304.  My longest visit, and my last.

Steve died the next day.

Like all who loved him, I was happy for him and sad for me, and wondered how on earth I could do his funeral, as promised.  I looked through years of Facebook Messenger exchanges, read his book, and prayed.  The problem wasn’t what to say, but what to leave out. 

It took care of itself.  

When the time came, I liked that I could see him from where I was sitting and hide behind this when the music was playing…

With only the graveside service remaining, I was beginning to feel some relief and took my place in the funeral procession.  After the lead car, in front of the hearse.  Are you sure?

We were well on our way to the cemetery when I thought to readjust my rearview mirror.  I’m not sure how something so significant can slip your mind, but there it was. 

The hearse carrying my friend that I have only ever and always gone to, was carrying my friend toward me.  The firsts and lasts competed, and collapsed in a pile.  

Our first, last, and only road trip. Together, occupying space and time for the last time, traveling that last little stretch of blacktop.  It was his turn to leave me behind, and it was my turn to say it.

                                                                         "I’ll be here.”

I tried to freeze time the only way I knew how.


After years of wondering what the end would look like, I wonder no more.  He lived twice as long as they said he would.  In that time, he wrote his story by blinking his eyes, one-letter-at-a-time.  His story includes submissions from his friends, including me.  The day after he died, I took a deep breath and plugged his USB into my computer, and learned that he took the time to reply to each friend.  I scrolled past all the others.  What did he have to say to me?!  

He had plenty to say, and I had plenty of tears in reply.

What do you say when a man who can’t talk gets the last word?

I love you, too, Steve.  The honor was all mine.
 

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Jealous of the Cat

Sometimes, I am jealous of the cat.  

Yes, it is embarrassing.  

The thing is, she is in my husband’s lap every time he sits down.  She looks at him and he pets her, and when no one is looking, they meow at each other.  (Only, we are looking and we laugh at them.)


I’ve come to realize when our time at home increases, the cat’s time with my husband is also sure to increase, but my time may or may not.  After all, she demands it, and feels no shame about being needy.  No shame at all.

But, I’m a quality-timer, too, and while I am content with the time I get with my husband most of time, I am not content all of the time.  And in those times, I am jealous of the cat.

Ever heard that open mouths are the ones who get fed?  Sometimes, like today, I care more about getting what I need than about my pride, so I open my mouth and admit I need a little time (and that I am jealous of the cat).  

Yes, I said it!  You might guess this would get at least an eyeroll or blow up and out as a ridiculous notion that didn’t warrant a compassionate response, but you would be wrong.  Or, you might guess that it would lead to a conversation about cat behavior, that I am not at all interested in, and you would be right.  But, even that is better than most any other possibility.  

My husband graciously and generously granted my wish (like a really handsome genie) and we walked, and talked.  By the time we were through, I realized that mainly, I don’t want our lives and the interactions they consist of, to be in passing.  

Boys need to build stuff, fix bikes, replace brakes on trucks, and go hunting and fishing.  They make it known and they get the time they need to do those things with their Dad.  Wives need…  Well, wives need none of those things.  Not this wife, anyway.

There is no existing hobby or project that leads to sitting on the driveway for an afternoon or in a hunting blind all weekend.  Not for this wife. There’s always plenty to do in and around the house, but those things have fallen comfortably into his and hers, and rarely the two shall meet.  

We’ve hiked, canoed, and golfed, and there are a lot of things we haven’t tried.  Of course, I can also sit idly by watching his projects, go hunting, or any number of things to gain time.  But, “it shouldn’t be so hard” lurks in the background and suggests that something is wrong with the arrangement.

Thankfully, I’ve seen a lot of hard situations in marriage and know that this is a lot of crap.  (Please, excuse the term.)  Imagine being the keeper of all of your spouse’s memories when they don’t even know your name.  “It shouldn’t be so hard” needs to be checked early and often.  Its insistence doesn’t make it true.  Just because something is natural or beautiful or noble, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be hard. Breastfeeding, anyone?

In the end, I got what I needed with the walking and talking, and know that healthy relationships must undergo and remain open to negotiation.

As love matures, it also learns to “negotiate”.  Far from anything selfish or calculating, such negotiation is an exercise of mutual love, an interplay of give and take, for the good of the family.  At each new stage of married life, there is a need to sit down and renegotiate agreements, so that there will be no winners and losers, but rather two winners.” Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, The Joy of Love

Meow.



Sunday, January 9, 2022

Life's Pages

I've been thinking about writing a book for as long as people have been telling me I should, which has been awhile now.

My husband insists I have "a book in me" and breakfast with one of my dearest friends always starts with the same question.  "Have you found a publisher, yet?"

Honestly, I laugh at the thought of having anything left to write (and the irony of this post in light of that).  Ecclesiastes and nothing-new-under-the-sun are forerunners in reasons why not.  There is no storehouse of ideas, or anything within me that feels like it is waiting to be written.   

Perhaps, it is what I've already written, they suggest.  

While this is very nice and affirming, it hasn’t proven a springboard for anything other than good feelings about what has already been done. 

But, occasionally things happen which feel like a nudge toward something. Things that make me think that maybe I shouldn’t rule it out.  Not just, yet.

Little things like little questions in little blue books that say, “Take something that feels big and make it smaller.  What is the first step?”

And big things, like meeting a new hospice patient and her family. Carol.  Her greatness unfolded right there at the kitchen table, in part, but not exclusively borne of her length of years.  I admired her bright eyes, painted fingernails, and her paintings on the walls.  

I inquired about whether she'd ever consider writing a book.  Her daughter-in-law replied that she already had.  Her son disappeared from the table and placed it into my very hands.

I had to fight back tears, and said as much.  Not just because she'd done the work of it, but because an aggressive dementia has closed the window of time when doing any such thing again would be out of the question.  She simply stated that she started with a table of contents, went as far back as she could remember, and went from there.  

I’ve only just begun to read it, but I am in awe of it.  Its cover, contents, and weight.  I think about all that has happened within her life and its pages, and wonder how much of it she remembers or would have been lost without her rendition.

She reminds me that there is more than one reason to write a book. For yourself, now.  For your family.  For hospice chaplains and interested strangers.  For profit, if you have the means.  And for yourself, later.

Only the last reason might be the one for me.  The one that pushes me over the edge from dreaming to doing.  What if by writing these things now, I can revisit my life again as me with intimate knowledge or as an outsider who has forgotten?  As one who admires the main character in the story, but has forgotten I was her?  Or as one who gains some warmth of soul by hearing a “new” story written in a really, really, really familiar way?  

Carol’s first chapter begins with a quote by James Barrie. “God gave us memories that we might have June roses in the December of our lives.”  

Thank God for difficult ideas and realities put simply and beautifully. 

And thank God for Carol and the Prestenbach family, The Bends In My Road, and the ability to inspire at every age and in every circumstance.  For June roses in December, thoughtful planting, safe-keeping, and books waiting to be written…




Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Marriage Counseling on Mondays

Today is our 19th wedding anniversary.  It would be easy just to post a pretty picture and congratulate ourselves on a marriage that keeps getting better and better, because it does.  But, it could not convey the gratitude I have for Monday meetings that hold my feet to the marriage fire (however uncomfortable that may be) nor let my marriage counselors know their message is out, and you’ve been invited in.

Today is our 19th wedding anniversary, and there is something you should know.  I meet regularly with 20 or so marriage counselors.  Every Monday.  All at the same time.  

I agree.  It’s a little unconventional.  

But, it works.  

My marriage counselors understand the blessing and the work required in marriage.  They understand keeping your vows in sickness and in health until “death do us part.”  They believe in a love stronger than death because they lived it, and they continue to live it.  Their spouses of 7, 38, 56, 60 years and all the years in between, left this earthly life without them.

They show up on Mondays to learn from each other, and I am there to learn from them.  They don’t talk at the same time, but they say the same thing.  

They share their undying love for their spouse and their horror as they observe husbands and wives taking each other for granted, being cool, dismissive, and unkind.  They want to shake us, or avoid us altogether because our ignorance hurts them so.  

Oh, what they would give for what we blindly throw away. 

Everyone in the room has lost their spouse, but me.  Yet, they let me sit at the table and ask questions, and pray, and learn. 

I pry.  No, they don’t ever remember being lonely in their marriage before their spouse died.  

Really?  

Yes, really.  Because their spouse was still there, they tell me.  Any loneliness they felt in marriage while their spouse was living was so pale in comparison to the loneliness of widowhood, it slips into non-existence.  All of the loneliness, little annoyances and irritations, hurts and disagreements slip into…

I wish we had room for silent observers, I tell them.  I wish other married people could sit where I sit, and see what I see, and hear what I hear.  Especially those who are coasting along, those who are troubled, and those who are ready to quit…The tired, fed-up, and unhappy.  

I also wish scarcity of time and abiding love weren’t so-darn-easy to doubt.  But, I’m a married woman staying up late to write while my husband sleeps in our bed, and I know that they are.  Only I have years of Mondays to remind me of the truth, and when I forget, Monday is never more than seven days away.

So, Happy 19th Anniversary to us!  It just keeps getting better and better.  Mondays (and all of the days) remind me of the treasure I have in my husband, the time we have, the life we share, the memories we’ve made and the pictures we’re lucky enough to keep taking.  Thank you to my husband whose love continues to mold me and to all who make sure I never forget.  





Sunday, September 12, 2021

Lingering Dragonflies

Once upon a time, a beautiful girl sat on her driveway and talked to a dragonfly, as she cupped him in her hands, and cried.  

I know this because that beautiful girl is my niece, my sister is her Mom, and once upon a time was this morning.  


I love my niece and I like dragonflies, and I think it is cool that she got to hold one, but there is more.

One of her best friends died from brain cancer in July.  He was only 22.  He promised his Mom he would come back and visit as a dragonfly.  And this isn’t the first time he’s visited.

I want to believe this, but I also want to reject the idea that would allow a human to visit his loved ones as a dragonfly, but not as a…human.  

But, then I remember a Scripture I recently read about freedom…


What would a soul do, if it were free?  

If a human dies, it is because the body has stopped living.  The soul remains unharmed and is freed from the confines of its weighty clothes, which previously bound it to the earth when walking, or the bed when walking became no more.

So, a body has died and a soul has returned to its Creator.  By some heavenly agreement, souls are allowed to visit those they love.  Maybe to keep their word.  Maybe to offer consolation and hope.  But, what to wear?

One woman described re-entering her body after a near-death experience as donning an old, heavy, wet pair of coveralls.  Blech.

If souls are truly free, can they choose to wear anything they want (except for their old body, which they wouldn’t want, anyway)?  It seems as though they should.  Today, a dragonfly visited a friend. Cardinals and butterflies are visiting others, elsewhere.  Who can blame them? 

Those who have visited heaven describe traveling at the speed of thought.  Barriers do not impede and effort is not required.  If I were to visit the earth after living in such a way, I would certainly choose to visit as something that could fly.  

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom…