Always in Threes

14 07 2017

This week three people in my circles died. Over the years I’ve noticed that it often happens that way–if there is one death, two more follow. It’s a phenomenon I’ve come to dread, the reality that death arrives in groupings at the worst times. And isn’t it true that any time is the worst time?

Because my own loss is still raw even after four years, maybe I notice these things more than in younger days. And maybe, because I am aging, the reality of that final moment causes me to stop, remember the fragility of life, and appreciate the small, seemingly insignificant occurrences which once may have passed unnoticed; those little gems happening all around me, waiting to be seen.

Last night I went to an outdoor concert with a friend. We arrived early, laden with small coolers which held our sandwiches, drinks and snacks, and carrying our chairs and a light jacket for later at sunset. The music was that of ABBA, a popular Swedish group from way back, the songs were familiar enough that we sang along much of the time. The crowd was unusually large, with most being of my generation, the remember-when group still young enough to come to such an outing, but old enough to have been in our prime when ABBA burst on the scene.

At some point in time the beach balls appeared. They were batted around from person to person all through the concert, sometimes forward and sometimes back, but always with laughter and banter. There was a young man ahead of us with Down Syndrome, who had such fun batting the beach ball, and directly behind him sat a woman I’d guess was in her mid-eighties who was more than eager to have a turn. I enjoyed watching the two of them as much as I loved the concert. The woman was fully into the music, swaying in her chair, often with arms up and waving, and singing along to all the songs. At times she would stand and dance, a huge smile on her face, pure joy pouring out of her. And I thought, I want to be her when I grow up.

Not far from us a father was dancing with his daughter, alternately swaying and twirling her around as she laughed in delight. Beyond them a woman with absolutely no abandon was doing crazy dances, her moves exaggerated and hilarious to watch.

Kids ran around with drinks spilling all over themselves, as absent minded parents wiped their clothes with napkins and sent them off to spill once again. A church group beside us had unloaded a wagon full of trays, food, chairs and blankets, and they were dancing in the aisles on the grass. The boy with Down Syndrome was coaxed into standing and dancing with his mom, a huge smile on his face as he moved in rhythm to the music. As the sun began to set and the reds and pinks and blues spread over the horizon, I couldn’t help but think what precious moments these were.

We only get one shot at this life. Death is the one inevitable thing we can count on, but what we do with our time before that, how we cherish moments and celebrate those little things like batting a beach ball, dancing with abandon, and enjoying the company of family and friends, that is what is important. Living in that moment instead of allowing ourselves to project into tomorrow, that is the gift.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





An Invaluable Legacy

8 08 2017

There is a tremendous emphasis these days on income. How much money you have and what you do with it has become a benchmark of success. As if money could be the precursor to happiness. As if your bank account equates your level of contentment. As if those with little money ought to be miserable.

I don’t deny that lack of money can make life difficult, especially for a family with children whose very existence require a decent income to sustain them. But more to the point, the richest people in the world don’t necessarily have a corner on the happiness market. Yes, those whose income is either non-existent or very low have a much harder life than the middle-income range, but here’s the thing. The most giving and kind-hearted people are often those who have the least.

These bold statements come from personal experience.  As a child, my parents were poor. Were it not for the twelve cows my dad milked for income and which provided milk and butter for us, the meager six acres of asparagus he grew, and my mother’s skillful negotiations for ‘sale’ prices on cases of dented canned sauerkraut and other vegetables, we might likely have starved. Potatoes mashed alternately with apples, kale, sauerkraut and spinach became an every-meal staple for us. Never did either my mom or dad talk about our poverty. Never once did I hear either of them complain, argue, or in any way indicate our lack of income. I wore my cousins’ hand-me-downs, as did my brother. We were always clean, always loved, and always expected to be respectful and well-behaved. Dad made a game of going to a Saturday sale, waiting until the very end when the auctioneer would pile various things into boxes and sell them for a quarter. Often those boxes yielded treasures, things Dad could fix up and use, or fix up and sell at the next auction. He took childlike delight in the money he earned in the process.

I remember vividly the generosity my parents practiced. There was always room for one more at the dinner table, and they shared as though they had more than enough. Often Dad went to the bank to borrow against the next year’s crop because the frost or drought took this year’s. His first priority the next year was to honor his commitment to pay back what he borrowed, even if that meant we got no profit.

And here’s what I learned from all that. I learned that being honorable is a great virtue. I learned that kindness can save a person from despair. I learned that generosity is possible, even when there is next to nothing to share. I learned that we are all equal on this earth if you measure equality in terms of integrity and strength of character. I learned that loving your fellow man is an active verb, something you show in a visible way. And I learned that hope is the one word we all need to hold on to. My parents did that. Their hope and their strong faith carried us all those years ago. What a legacy.





What I’ve Gained

28 07 2017

I’ve lost my husband. Each day that reality hits me equally hard. Sometimes there is a deep sadness that refuses to give way regardless of what I do. Sometimes the smothering heaviness of loneliness wraps itself around me, barely allowing me to breathe. But other times a larger picture pushes the sadness and loneliness aside and tells me this:

I have gained so much.

I’ve gained strength to face each day. I’ve gained the ability to see the tiniest of details all around me, those pinpoints of incredible beauty waiting for me to notice, like the hummingbird resting on the petal of an Asian lily, or the perfectly shaped leaf being shifted by the breeze. The huge waves coming in to shore not by their own will but by the will of the wind. The cloud formation that is a bird, then a kite, then a sailboat.

I’ve gained independence. Though I have no sense of direction, I’ve found my way around my state, amazed myself by navigating other places like Chicago and Milwaukee. Faced with the decision of either figuring it out or staying home, I’ve chosen to figure it out. I’ve learned to eat out alone, go to movies alone, or on a drive to enjoy nature, alone.

I’ve gained a lifetime of memories, those snapshots of family times, travels overseas, and simple Saturday mornings over coffee. Drawing on those, squeezing as much joy as possible from each precious moment, I’ve realized that I can still make memories in the future. They won’t look the same. They won’t be the memories I was hoping for five years ago. But they are there, waiting for me to recognize and take advantage of them.

I’ve gained a different kind of joy. It’s so much deeper and more permanent than the joy I had before, maybe because the heaviness of melancholy has filtered in, giving it a richness it lacked before. If nothing else, death is an unrelenting educator.  

I’ve gained the certainty that my friends are always going to surround me. What a gift! Their loyalty, camaraderie, love and thoughtfulness have daily blessed me. I am humbled by their devotion. They accept me as I am, regardless of circumstances.

I’ve gained the knowledge that petty differences are just that—petty. They are not important, and not worth wasting time and energy debating.  As individuals we have our own ideas and views of life, but at the base of it all is our love for each other. Every single person on this earth is going to say and do things that will hurt others, but those things do not define them or how they feel about the significant people in their lives.

I’ve gained a different kind of faith, one that encourages me to lean more heavily on God and accept more fully the future He has planned for me. Don’t get me wrong, I still rally against the way things are. As I sit alone in the evenings I desperately miss the companionship of my husband. I don’t relish my singleness. But acceptance is part of life. Misery is not an option. There are legions of us out there, each dealing with loss in our own unique way, taking the journey one step at a time with the faith that it will be okay. Because that’s the best decision we can make.





Walking the Path of Grief

25 04 2016

This past Sunday my church did a service on lament at which I was asked to speak on the topic of loneliness. One of the characteristics of lament is the necessity for honesty; telling it like it is. I did that.  I’ve had some requests to print the text of my talk on this blog, so here it is.

I often think of my father, a widower for twenty years. He bore the burden of his loss  quietly, rarely talking about it, and when he did, he simply said: “It’s lonely without Mom.” I thought I knew what that meant. But the depth of meaning in those few words didn’t fully impact me until loss happened to me.

When Mel died, everything about my life changed. I wasn’t prepared for his death, nor did I have any idea how impossibly challenging it would be to walk the path of grief.

Weariness became my new normal over the weeks and months as I discovered the true meaning of loneliness. My house was so very silent all the time–meals eaten alone, evenings spent alone, weekends without the companionship of my husband. I felt his absence everywhere.

And that loneliness brought me to an unexpected emotion—anger. I was surprised by the depth and force of it. Mel was a good man with much still to contribute to the world. He had great plans for volunteering in our retirement. But he never got that chance, and I was angry. I railed at God, I stormed through the house yelling, crying, shaking my fist at Him. Really, God? Why him? If You truly love me, why did You allow this? I demanded answers.

What I got was silence. God had gone, deserted me, left me to deal with all the baggage that accompanies grief. The sadness, despair, loneliness, helplessness, bitterness, anger.

And the doubt. I couldn’t feel God anywhere.

This thing called faith can be elusive. It’s hard to find in the deepest, most painful days of our lives. How can it even exist in a world where death takes children, spouses, friends and parents way before their time?

For a long while after Mel’s death I had doubts about my faith. I needed that wonderful man as my life partner—didn’t God know that?

As Christians, we believe God knows best….until things don’t go as we’ve planned. Then we have the audacity to think we can control our lives, that God needs us to direct Him. Maybe I felt that way. As if I know better than God. As if I have any say in what happens next. The hardest thing I’ve had to do is let go of all that—all the control—and trust God knows best.

That’s really tough when all you feel is gut-wrenching pain. So yes, I questioned my faith. But gradually through the days and weeks, I realized it was still there.

Because what do we have if we don’t have our faith? I admit mine was tested, but in the process it deepened as I felt the comforting arms of God around me in the middle of many sleepless nights, or in the solitude of a winter snowstorm.

And in those lonely days, God hadn’t gone away, hadn’t deserted me. Instead, He’d given me space in which to work my way through the messiness, all the while quietly walking alongside me. He allowed the process of grief to take its course, gradually lifting the initial blessing of shock so that I could do the important work of grieving.

I still have those moments when I feel as if I’m going through the grief process all over again. Some of my joy is gone, some of life’s wonders are diminished, and there is heaviness in my heart. I miss Mel. I mourn the days ahead without him, the 50th anniversary he won’t be here to celebrate with me this August. As my dad said, at the end of the day it’s lonely.

Chris Tomlin’s song God of Angel Armies says I know who goes before me; I know who stands behind. The God of angel armies is always by my side. The one who reigns forever, He is a friend of mine. The God of angel armies is always by my side.

I awoke with that song going through my head on March 17th, 2013, and I continued to hear it as the day wore on. That afternoon, God took Mel home. In His divine providence, He gave me the words of that song to carry me–then and in the weeks to follow. To remind me I’m not alone. And that has truly been evidence of His amazing grace.This





Blank Page

1 01 2016

I’m not doing resolutions this year. They set me up for failure every time. Promising myself that I’ll work out regularly, eat healthier foods, develop a better house-cleaning routine, be a better friend-mother-grandmother, be more organized and vowing to write a little every day isn’t working for me.

The thing is, I shouldn’t have to make a resolution in order to do those things. They should happen because I want to do them. The doing should be a part of me that is automatic, a natural response to all the blessings I am showered with every day–because I am grateful.

Today is page one of a 366 page book. Without those resolutions I am free to be and do what I was made for, to write an exciting story that starts on page one and continues daily. None of that grinding I-should-have-I-have-to-I-failed-to-I’ve-already-ruined-the-resolutions guilt.  I want to use my energy to look back on each day and think of the worthwhile moments that set that day apart.

Instead of a resolution, I’m starting the year with a question that has a new answer with each turn of the page. How can I make this day stand out? What can I do to make this a better world for just one person?  Call it random acts of kindness, paying it forward, doing what’s right—it doesn’t matter. It’s all about remembering to look outward.

January 1, 2016, page 1. God has gifted me with amazing friends. I have a wonderful, loving family. I am in good health and able to do whatever I want. I am blessed with reasonable security. I woke up this morning alive.

Great start, right? I don’t need resolutions. I just need to live the gratitude and stop thinking about what’s in it for me. So maybe in place of a list of resolutions, I’ll make a list of ways I can show gratitude, ways I can be a blessing, ways I can leave a legacy of giving back.

Happy New Year! God bless you all.





The Real Tragedy in Charleston

19 06 2015

Very few of us have been spared the sorrow of facing loss. I found it so incredibly sad today as I watched the families of those whose loved ones were so heartlessly massacred inside a church building during a Bible study as they struggled to understand the senseless killings. And yet, there they were, in the courtroom, speaking with such love of those who were killed, and then saying to the young man who took those lives, I forgive you.

Wow. And then the statement made later that we should be focusing on the family of the young man and the families of those who lost loved ones and not focus on the perpetrator. To hold in prayer the families involved in the tragedy, both sides of the families (please note here the compassion being shown the Roof family as well as the families of those killed).

I’ve thought about this a lot since this shooting occurred. Obviously, Dylann Roof was mentally ill. He admitted to having second thoughts about what he was about to do because “they were so nice to me.” But it makes me wonder what the real issue is in this situation as in so many others in recent months. Are we focusing on the wrong thing? Gun control is always the topic that comes to the forefront. We need more gun control. No, we need to allow people to carry guns.

My thought is this: maybe we need to do less about the whole gun issue and much more about teaching the value of life to our young people. Maybe we need to tell them that each person out there has a life that matters, has a family who loves them, has a purpose in his/her life, has a right to live that life, is a sacred being. Respect, inclusion, honoring God’s creation, agreeing to disagree, allowing for differences—isn’t that what life should be all about?

How boring it would be if we all agreed about everything. Differing opinions allow us to expand our horizons, learn to see other sides of a situation, teach us that maybe, just maybe, we aren’t always right. And differences add color and depth to our lives. And leave blame at the front door. And differences don’t kill someone for being different.

Well, that’s how I see it. God bless and comfort all those families. Maybe, especially, the Roofs.





The Forgotten Ones

6 04 2015

IMG_1145I have this picture of my mom. She’s wearing a kerchief over her hair, a knife in one hand, an apple in the other. She has the serene smile of someone who has  a deep-seated contentment, a trait she shared with my dad. Mom loved all fruit, but the apple is the one I associate with her the most because of that smile as she sliced it. She was a purist–loving all things in their simplest form. Meat was always cooked with salt and a little Dutch spice, potatoes were ungarnished and served quartered, vegetables had freshly grated nutmeg and a pat of butter on them. Dessert was pudding and stewed or fresh fruit. On special occasions we were allowed home-made ice cream.

In the summer as she gardened Mom would pop a carrot or radish into her mouth. I can still smell the earthy odor of the garden soil as she pulled root vegetables free, shaking each before laying it in the bucket beside her. The red of beets, the orange of carrots, the white of peppery radishes, the brown of potatoes she dug out of the hills, each with its own brilliant green foliage, all colors of summer.

Year round Mom hung wash on the line strung in the back yard, allowing it to flop in the breeze until the smell of fresh premeated each piece. Sheets carried the sweet scent of outdoors, and I remember as a child burying my nose in in them after climbing into bed on washday. I followed her lead  after starting my own family. I gardened, froze and canned the produce, hung out the wash, allowing my children to enjoy that experience of freshness only Mother  Nature can provide.

And then one year it was Dad who planted and tended the garden while Mom sat motionless in her chair gazing out the living room window at nothing. She had ceased to speak or acknowledge us. Dad was the one who froze the strawberries and canned the abundant harvest of beans. Dad cut the juicy stalks of rhubarb, discarded the poisonous leaves, sliced the sour stalk into a cooking pot and covered it with sugar. Dad fried the meat, peeled the potatoes, topped the beans before settling them into boiling water. And Dad decided to use the dryer instead of the wash line.

Mom had slowly walked into the mist of Alzheimer’s Disease. Bit by bit, her spirit ceased to exist as she became a shell of the person we loved. Dad was her sole caregiver (by choice), at first handling things well. Mom was docile, easily steered to the table or her favorite chair, able to take care of her private needs, to feed herself. That lasted only months, soon giving way to Dad having to take her to the bathroom, help her take care of her hygiene. Then the night wanderings began, and the care that had covered daytime hours stretched to 24 hours a day. She lost bladder and bowel control, so he changed her adult diapers,cleaned her, washed sheets, towels, clothing as they were soiled. He carefully fed her at each meal. And he lost weight, this tiny man who hadn’t an ounce to spare. He looked weary. He looked old.

Everyone asked after Mom. How was Anne? She didn’t look sick. Was she in need of anything? She seemed fine in church on Sunday. Did she get around all right? Was she staying healthy? How was the disease progressing? (Dad had fed and dressed her, guided her to the car, put on her seatbelt, taken her out of the car, steered her toward the church building, gotten her through the door and delivered her to a pew before sitting beside her. And then he did it all in reverse after the service).

But here’s what amazes me. No one, not one person, bothered to ask how Dad was doing. All the attention was focused on my mom, and Dad became secondary. He’d lost 20 pounds (a huge amount for a man who weighed 140 at his peak) and his face was drawn, the lines of exhaustion right there for them to see. I was over 2000 miles away, raising a family and holding down a full-time job, unable to help more than a couple of times a year, but I saw what his care-giving was doing to him. Was I the only one? Really?

I begged Dad to get help, hire someone, have Mom admitted to the local nursing home. He refused (I promised ‘in sickness and in health’) until he had no choice. One day Mom couldn’t stand. When Dad tried to get her out of bed she crumpled to the floor, and he couldn’t get her up. Not only did she outweigh him, she had become inert. At last he acquiesced and had her admitted to nursing care. Six weeks later she died. Though he mourned losing her (he said he lost her twice; once to Alzheimer’s and then again through death), gradually, my dad became his old self. The weight came back on, his humor returned, he slept well at night. But it took a while.

I know several caregivers, individuals who dedicate each day to filling the needs of a loved one, ministering to both their physical and their spiritual needs. I see it happening to them just as it did to my father, that gradual wearing down. People show concern for the ill person. Ask questions as to the sick one’s welfare. But what about the caregiver? I try very hard to let those earthly angels know that they are in my prayers along with the one they care for. They are heroes, every one of them. I know it’s lonely work, I know they’re exhausted. Do you know what they tell me when I thank them for their service, these invisible, forgotten  people? They consider it holy work, a sacred gift, a privilege. A privilege. That gives me chills. It is all they have to give their beloved one who is dying, and they give it with joy.

I am in awe. God bless them, every one.