Now the Parent

The frail hands lay soft upon the pillow, her thin body curled on her side. Her light breathing told me she was still with us. The pain medication for the rheumatoid arthritis kept her sleeping around the clock. She woke only for tiny meals and more pain relief. She had good blood pressure, never needed medicine, and always enjoyed herbal supplements. How long does it take a strong heart to die, an even stronger will to give in?

As a teenager, I couldn’t watch with my dad the two years it took cancer to eat away his life. I rarely ventured into his bedroom, couldn’t take him lunch, wouldn’t rub his feet. His sick room horrified me. Now fifty years later I have another chance. I am in uncharted territory with my elderly mom. Am I caring for her well enough? Is it enough to bring her lunch every day? Will she fall before I come back tomorrow? Does she need a home health-care nurse or a nursing home, or will she die quietly in her bed?

Mom’s faith in Christ is strong, but she isn’t a saint. Though she prayed for her grandchildren through the decades, she alienated her children, using her strong will to dictate how we should believe. Now I found myself forgiving her as she walked bowed and feeble to the table. Struggling in family relations, never feeling as if I belonged, I struggle, too, in relationship with God. I don’t pray like I used to. The last two decades, devotions absent, I have groaned my way through each day, each year. Why can’t I get it right? I stumble toward the Celestial City. 

God’s job is Eternal Father, strong to save, as the Navy hymn declares. My job is to listen when Jesus reaches down to me and the Holy Spirit whispers, “I’m here.” Sometimes I must cling to the rock with my fingertips while the storm lashes me over and over. Watching my parent die feels like this. Her aged body is doing the next thing—shutting down. I feel inadequate, and in fact, am helpless. I need God more than ever to help me be more gracious in my late middle age. It takes courage to learn to be a caregiving daughter.

Faith also takes courage. I bow from strain and bend my heart. These are hard and holy lessons.

God holds us when He’s silent. He holds our loved ones, too. Help me ask for nothing but guidance. Help me hear Your whisper of what to do next. Help me navigate these scary waters of old age. 

And so, I go with token lunch in hand and sit by mom’s bedside. The daughter now the parent. Mom is willing to go forward into the unknown because her Father knows the way through, knows the way home.

“In my distress I cried unto the Lord, and he heard me Ps. 120:1.”

Jack

As a pup he was normal, jumping, chewing, licking, and eager, and took long naps. A few months later my younger sister Julie said, “He understands what I say. It’s uncanny.”

I watched the Heinz 57-variety mutt Jack grow into a black handsome 100-lb dog who almost speaks English. Julie tells him to “go get your ball in the kitchen and bring it here,” and he does just that. “Go do this, go get that, don’t go there.” He understands all of it. And personality plus. I am a cat-lover, and even I think Jack has special merits. We were glad when he jumped the wrong way and glanced off a car in the driveway, not hurt, only bruised and scared. He knew now about cars, about not to go out on the highway.

Ten years ago, Julie’s husband of 15 years died of cancer. For months she put her job on hold and drove daily to Indianapolis to visit him in the hospital. After the funeral, one of his sisters decided that all his things should be hers, not Julie’s. The backbiting and fighting were vicious. Precious items that Julie had bought or brought into the marriage she had to put under lock and key, and even then, she feared the the lock would be cut and things stolen. The sister said, “Everything is mine. It’s ALL mine.” Was it spite, or is it just human nature?

Life goes on and Julie became a wife again, or rather, a precious partner, since lack of medical insurance got in the way of a marriage license. Another decade gone by. Last Thanksgiving her partner died suddenly of a heart attack (see Third Chances). It was a flurried week of planning, funeral, carried-in meals, state of shock. Animal friend Jack, uncommon company of the best kind, comforted my sister. Death is always hard, but it helps to have a best friend soothe the loss, the emptiness, the “what am I going to do?” Jack answered in short barks which I could almost make out, “I am here. I love you. Let’s play ball.”

Julie has spent six months emptying the four-bedroom house and getting ready to sell, every room full to the brim of furniture, wall hangings, and memories. We painted everywhere, including the mother-in-law’s apartment. Julie packed and we moved boxes week in and week out, month after month.

The animosity from her partner’s sons about the division of things not specifically mentioned in the will became ugly and unending, like before; the last thing one needs after losing a loved one. For instance, when the wind chill plunged below zero one of the boys went to the gas company and had the heat turned off. Was it spite again? It took Julie three days to explain and get heat back on in the house. It’s been a long six months of underhanded tricks. When the tiny, red light blinks on my dumb-phone at 5 a.m., I know it’s Julie texting me. What now, I think.

Next week, court-ordered, the ugly is over. The boys will move the cars and lifts and tools out of the big barns, and Julie will be able to sell the house. Next week the ton of weight will be off her shoulders. Speaking of shoulders, she had her right one replaced last week in the midst of all the crazy and stress, and is, for now, one-armed and in need of more help than ever.

Yesterday morning at 5:24 my phone rang. Between each word she choked on a sob, “Jack’s…been…hit. Come help me… get him…off the road.”

As he lay dying, the gray dawn began to add streaks of pink. I covered my face with my hands and turned away. I could not watch the death. This beloved dog would be her constant companion no more. No more one-way conversations. No more trusting eyes turned to her in expectation. She turned to me in tears and asked again, “What am I going to do?”

On that perfect summer morning, the wide country sky now with orange clouds drifting, seemed to shout out hope. I said, “I don’t know. Keep breathing. That’s all you have to do today.”

The good neighbor helped Sam dig the dreaded hole, their shovels easily turning the soft earth. I made coffee and brought two cups out to the grave. We stood for a while longer and then Sam and I drove Julie to the cafe. Over more coffee and toast and bacon and eggs, we reminisced.

Jack’s time here was too short, but his love stays as long as we breathe.

The Pileated

“Sam! Come. Now. Pileated!” I cupped my hand around my mouth in the direction of the bedroom door hoping the big bird wouldn’t be startled. From my desk window, I saw it land on the bench seat Sam had made from the five trunks of the cedar which he had cut down.

Often, we hear the bird drumming in the woods, and sometimes see it flash by. Once, walking back to the house down the long drive, I saw the pair fly over my head. I stopped, held my breath, and gazed. Seeing the bird settle on the little bench not fifty feet from the house allowed us to watch at leisure.

Sam came at a trot. I pointed. The woodpecker hopped off the bench to the trunk, not a foot from the ground, and pecked while we stared. Sam went back to the kitchen for the binoculars. The bird hopped down to the ground and began to dip his head over and over.

“It must be eating ants,” I said. “Remember the ant hill at the base of that cedar?” Mesmerized, we observed and whispered. Ah, the wonder of nature.

We had been packing the teardrop camper and our suitcases to spend four days hiking in the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, which runs 19 miles across the state lines of Kentucky and Virginia. On the way we stopped near the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, which has over 100 natural limestone arches, and hiked a mile up to Natural Bridge Arch. Before we got to the top I panted, clutched my chest and said, “You go on without me. I think I’m done.”

He paused, looked over a small ridge and said, “While you rest, I think I’ll see what’s over there.”

I wondered how long he would be. An hour? Until dark? Tomorrow morning? How many pioneer women had thought the same and were left waiting, not knowing when or if her man would return?

It occurs to me that I haven’t described Sam’s appearance. He leads with his handsome, artist’s hands. I say you can trust a man with hands like his. He is a writer, a draftsman, a scientist, a gentle soul. As he clambered back around the rock to the narrow path, he mentioned The Last of the Mohicans and said, “This looks like a cliff face where Hawkeye, Chingachgook, and Uncas just left camp.”

We daily quote movie lines to each other. I remembered the men leading the girls to the cave underneath the waterfall, and shouted Hawkeye’s line to Cora, “You stay alive! I will find you!”

Sam raised his voice and quoted back, “Submit, do you hear?” Then he said to me, “That’s what all women need to hear.”

I laughed and choked on my water bottle. Sam is a gentleman to the core, and he’s nothing if not sympathetic to a woman’s perspective. Telling me to submit would be the last thing out of his mouth. The comic relief made me ready to climb again, and we plodded on and upward.

We made it to the top and stood on the 65-foot wide limestone arch and viewed the valley below. The vista was breathtaking, a good climb worth the effort.

On the way down we heard a pileated, and talked again about the one in the front yard. “What do you suppose ‘pileated’ means,” I asked.

Sam got out his magic pocket computer and read — “having a crest covering the pileum (from the Latin meaning ‘felt cap’), the top of a bird’s head from the bill to the nape.”

Good for me to know, and for all my inquisitive readers.

Early-bird

I wrote last week about going to bed with the chickens. Every day of my life I have sighed with profound pleasure when my head hits the pillow. Especially as a child I put my head heavily on the supper table and thought, Please, oh please, like the little Lord Jesus, let me lay down my sweet head and go to bed.

Birdsong at dawn is a hallelujah chorus. I can’t wait to get up – Let’s do chores! – and usually have a great idea to tell Sam. He is a polite man, too be sure, and tries to listen, but he really doesn’t want to speak until he’s had two cups of coffee. Any chores for him couldn’t be attempted until say, 11:00.

According to the internet, about 10% of us are early birds. I suppose the world needs more night-owls for all those after-dark events – noisy restaurants, noisy bars, glaring lights. I do not go out at night. The obnoxious street-lamp on the utility pole burned out a year ago and I asked Sam not to fix it. “If I ever am up at night, at least I can see more stars when the yard is dark.”

The last day of January I took a nap because I wanted to see the super blood moon lunar eclipse after midnight. It was bitter, below zero. I almost didn’t get up with the alarm, but decided it was worth it. Sam tossed back the covers, too. We stood out on the boardwalk in our slippers, with coats and hoods. The red disk looked other-worldly. He said, “I’ve never seen this before. Thanks for getting us up.”

Then I had a bright idea. “Let’s go upstairs to the south window. We can see it from inside.” I opened the window, stuck my head out, and leaned to get the right angle to see through the bare trees. Sam gripped my arm just in case. Then I held onto Sam while he took a turn. Satisfied, we hurriedly closed the window and slipped back under the warm covers.

A few weeks later, I woke in the middle of the night and noticed the sparkling stars. The next morning, I asked Sam, “I didn’t see that one star that I have seen before.”

He smiled at me, held up his index finger and went to get his old star-gazing chart hanging by the front door. He put on his professor’s hat and explained, “See the months around the edge of the circle? Now move the wheel to today’s date and time. The right hand of the star map shows what will appear in the east.”

“Wow. I’ve never looked at this. How did I never notice? I mean, how did I never figure that out?”

“You had other things to think about,” he said kindly.

I felt pretty sheepish. “For heaven’s sake, don’t tell John (our friend and retired history teacher who knows pretty much everything). He’ll choke on his coffee.”

Anyway, early birds (10%). I’m also left-handed (10%), and an innate Type-A neatnik competitive, impatient introvert. Now what do you suppose the percentage is of people with all three? Does that make Sam a really lucky guy?

More About Sam

I can now take a direct flight to Pacific Northwest Paradise (see Sleep-deprived but Happy) and fly home before dark, but once I came back on a red-eye. Changing planes at one a.m. is just wrong for me. I usually go to sleep with the chickens. That night when I made the connecting flight, I might have been sleep-walking as I climbed into the bus to go from one end of the airport to the other. I slept fitfully the last leg of the flight in that cold, dark cabin. Would morning never come?!

Sam held the car door open for me at 7 a.m. and I fell inside. My feet and ankles were badly swollen. It had been a long, long night. He had brought a thermos of hot tea, cheese, crackers, and apples for a respite during the ninety-minute car ride home. Back at the house, I dumped my luggage on the bed and heard him running a hot bath. “I’ll make a fresh pot of coffee and bring it in,” he said. I slid down under the soothing water, legs stretched out, and sighed. The aroma of the vanilla candle he had lit on the edge of the tub brought back memories of all things fine and good. Here was a man to keep.

Sam says he was smitten with me the first night we met. Mutual friends conspired to get us together on the last night of the century. Known as Y2K, even experts wondered if all computers around the world would crash. What would happen when the computer clocks flipped to a date beginning with a “2?” They had only been programmed to begin with “19xx.” At the stroke of midnight, when clocks changed from 12:00:00 to 12:00:01, would all data be lost?

The next day, the world continued to turn.

Sam didn’t call, but e-mailed periodically. Polite and non-committal, I didn’t give in until nine months later, saying, “Why don’t we go out instead of e-mailing?” In September, he asked me to go canoeing with him. He couldn’t have known how I would like that. He had been a boy scout, and after college spent two years as a scout master. Camping and canoeing were a part of him. I had lived most of my life near the Mississinewa River, and crossed it back and forth daily to go to town, but I had never been on it. It was a good first date.

We discovered we had both taken piano lessons from Miss Shannon (see Turtles and Teapots). Growing up in small towns seven miles apart, we had probably seen each other in passing. Easy-going, he likes making tea in a teapot, and with a bit of panache serves cookies warm out of the oven.

In a few weeks we’ll celebrate sixteen years of marriage. We’ve had some rough years, but this has been a good one. It means a lot to visit family, but it’s always good to come home to Sam – and afternoon tea.

Third Chances

Frank and Opal are upset this year (see Frank and Opal). The last plunge of the polar vortex kept them away from Flesher Pond until March 18. Sam texted me while I was in baby heaven (see Sleep-deprived but Happy) in the Pacific Northwest: “Frank and Opal have arrived.” He said they wandered over the yard, and came and left, and came again. Opal still hasn’t nested. We don’t think it’s “Frank” or “Opal.” We go along for years, and even decades in the case of our resident geese, and then everything changes. Sometimes, too, the Big Ds invade our lives: disease, divorce, death.

Last Thanksgiving, Sam and I were too busy to get to the hospital. Our brother-in-law just had his second “little” heart attack in two weeks. We decided to wait and see him on the weekend, back at his home. On Saturday, both cars were there when we pulled into the drive. My younger sister didn’t answer her phone or my text so I sheepishly walked into the garage and pushed open the kitchen door. The dogs didn’t come to greet me, and that was strange. It felt too intrusive to go to the bottom of the stairs and call up, “Are you up there?” But I felt strongly that I should see him NOW.

Instead we drove away. At 3:30 the next morning, she called. “He fell to the floor and is not responding. Meet me at the hospital.”

I had to wash my hair, but we were still in the car in twenty minutes. In the E.R., I asked her to take me in to see him. His body was still warm when I touched his forehead. It just wasn’t right. Nothing about it was right. But he was gone.

Four years ago, I was busy planning my own 60th birthday party. I thought maybe that would bring my children home. And it worked! Spring was a happy time planning and preparing for my family. Then things turned the wrong way. A month before Party Day, we got word that my cousin was diagnosed with leukemia. My older sister, K.S. (see Jerky and Pears, Two Good Women, and The Red Truck) and I, busy with party planning, decided to wait to visit her.

Ten days before the party the toilet started to leak. Sam had to tear out the floor; and finished the sub-floor, vinyl, and new low-flow toilet in record time. In the living room, a crack in the wall became large enough that we knew it wasn’t just our old house shifting. I cleaned up the drywall dust on the floor and Sam went outside to tear off the cedar siding. Extensive termite damage, up waist high. We called the bug man. Then the u-joint and the air conditioner went out on the Jeep Cherokee. Then the fridge died, and the dryer, too (no kidding). Just before the party one night, my cousin needed emergency surgery. The next morning, we heard she did not pull through. My sister and I had missed the window to say, “Hello. We’re so sorry you are sick.” We missed saying goodbye.

THEN we had a great party.

Since there were too many expenses before the party, Sam and I exchanged our two-week vacation at the Outer Banks for two days in Michigan. Our in-laws joined us, and the second afternoon they drove our Jeep back to the campsite. Not knowing how to tell us, they pointed to the back bumper. A telephone pole in the restaurant parking lot had reached out and bashed them. With a shrug, I calmed the worried look on their faces. I would rather have a broken bumper than another funeral.

Change is hard, but also inevitable. The geese aren’t nesting. And God gives third chances.

“If you do not start choosing to get lost in some fairly low-risk ways, then how will you ever manage when one of life’s big winds knocks you clean off your course? …In my life, I have lost my way more times than I can count. I have set out to be married and ended up divorced. I have set out to be healthy and ended up sick…I have found things while I was lost that I might never have discovered if I had stayed on the path.” Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World

Sleep-deprived but Happy

I don’t know what day it is again. I escaped the polar vortex wind-chills in Indiana by flying across the country to Seattle, today sunny and seventy. It’s not supposed to be this beautiful until summer, but there it is. A week of heaven on earth.

Coming from flat corn fields, the snow-covered mountains always take my breath, and then I gawk again at Mt. Ranier, the highest in the Cascades. I’ve been flying out here for eighteen years, and it still stuns, an immense lone spectacle. The air is different in the Pacific Northwest – the latitude, rainforest, saltwater, and mountains – and I feel sure that this invigorating healthy atmosphere is adding years to my life.

Hiking up Little Si; Seattle Aquarium with the Puget Sound flowing in and out of the outer tanks; famous Pike Place or orca whale watching – all things tourist must take a back seat this trip. I have babies to see to.

Newborn twin boys have kept me busy this week. I walk the 23 steps between kitchen, dining, and Baby-Central living room where my 4 a.m. shift begins. Back and forth, heating bottles filled with vitamin-rich formula added to mama’s milk, changing diapers, fixing breakfast for three-and-a half-year-old Big Brother who sweetly asks, “Would you please put the baby down and help me now?”

I scoot Marbles off the couch, the heaviest ball of fur I’ve ever seen; and intelligent, trustworthy golden retriever Ranger nearly wags his tail off as he slips in a forbidden lick to the milk running down baby’s cheek. There’s all kind of happy here.

Mom is sleep-deprived and still smiling, and dad, who has taken several all-night shifts this week, sleepwalks through his day while running his own business. Even fifteen-year-old Steady Son offers to babysit while the parents run to the grocery.

Born two months early at three-and-a-half pounds, the twins are now eight pounds of sacred wonder. Peaceful Merrick smiles at me so hard his eyes crinkle. He is Darling Angel. Wyatt, the older by two minutes, grunts, groans, and carries on so long and loud that I laugh. He will be Strong Protector. These perfect little boys, alive for ten weeks now, have enlarged our hearts by magnitudes.

A newborn’s rhythm takes a mom down to the core of what’s important: meeting the basic needs of the defenseless, providing safety and shelter, all with a love so deep it aches. Parents live on a simple plane for long months, and then suddenly infancy is over. Baby, like Big Brother, wants to take matters into his own hands.

The second week I drive up the road twelve miles to watch three-year-old grandson daredevil on his little scooter, and help Mother Abby sort through tubs of baby clothes while we await another precious this summer. If I ever move, it will be to Edmonds, Washington. The historic downtown, a few blocks from the ferry, is often filled with tourists and unfamiliar languages, but still feels homey and quiet. Volunteers spruce up garden spaces along the sidewalks, store owners put out water dishes for the walked dogs, and flower baskets hang on every corner and then some. I’ve never seen a prettier town. Out my bedroom window the Olympic Mountains beckon across Puget Sound and soothing train whistles fill this magical air night and day. Three weeks here isn’t long enough.

I’m a happy grandma in Pacific Northwest Paradise, but Sam just called from Indiana and said it snowed again.