Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Dying and Living

I have an old friend who is living with ALS. This means, of course, that he is also dying of ALS. Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS is a devastating illness and always fatal.

But then, so is life.

Not devastating, necessarily, but always fatal. I don’t say this to be flip. I say it to acknowledge the stark reality that we all do die. No way around it. Nobody gets out alive. My dad lived a good, long-enough life before he died this year. But his death continues to remind me, day by day, to live. This is my life. What do I want to do before it’s over? I’m also reading a book now – or maybe I should say experiencing a book, because reading it is only half the game – which was written after the author’s step-father died just 37 days after a terminal diagnosis.

That reality made her ask herself – what would I do with the next 37 days if they were my last? And she discovered that she wouldn’t take a trip around the world or any of those things we speculate about – like our own personal make-a-wish foundation. What she would do, she decided, is enjoy the life she has more intensely and intentionally. Patti Digh’s book, Life is a Verb, invites the reader to do the same.

My friend with ALS has a site where he and his wife write updates about their existence. Sometimes the wife gives a blow-by-blow of just what it’s like to watch your spouse deteriorate muscle by muscle. It’s excruciating.

But often the words are full of humor and love and delight in life. Especially when the writer is Rick, the friend who is dying. Rick is a gorgeous, athletic, popular, successful businessman. He and his wife were among my ex and my best friends. We spent several Thanksgivings together, none of us really wanting to spend the whole day with our families of origin. We took weekends in the Adirondacks and Finger Lakes together. The girls would have our nights out together and the boys, theirs.

Sometimes after spending extended time with this couple, my ex and I would be relieved to be home alone. It fascinated us how couples adjust to their own tensions and eccentricities, while finding other people’s hard to endure. We sometimes thought we had the stronger marriage. Now we have split and they are walking together through the valley of the shadow of death. The depth of their love and appreciation of each other rings through their writing.

I ran into another friend this week whose marriage had been up and down for a while. Then her father died. Turns out that experience did not deepen her marriage. Her husband’s emotional unavailability became the last straw and her father’s death ushered in the death of the marriage. If you only have one life to live, what are you going to do with it?

I started this blog after my own marriage broke up and I named it for that wonderful Mary Oliver quote at the top of the page. When I stop and think, honestly, about the percentage of time when I’m actually living as if my life were a wild and precious gift, it gives me pause.

I’ve been on a five-year journey of discovering what the next stage of my life should be. In the meantime, I’ve had five years of living my life as it is. Sometimes I get so frustrated that the future is not emerging in the way I expected, that I forget to live the day that has been given.

So this week, as I turn 46, I want to declare: this is my life. It isn’t the life I imagined. It isn’t the life I used to have. It isn’t the life I hope to have some years from now. But it is the one and only life I have and I intend to notice it, taste it, relish it, enjoy it, explore it, experience it in all its craziness and joy.

As we sang in church camp: This is the day that the Lord has made! I will rejoice and be glad in it!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Grief Revisited

I am remembering that grief is a sticky interconnected web, the pattern stretched across the branches of a life, one string tugging on another, all the thin threads held together in tenuous contact. My father died four weeks ago and except for moments by his bed that day and again on the morning of his funeral, my grief has not taken the form of tears. I am a crier, so this surprised me. I cry at Hallmark commercials. I cry when I see other people crying. Sometimes I cry when I'm simply in the room with somebody who I sense is holding back tears.

Last night the grief came in spasmodic waves. I had a cold, so I was already feeling punky and decided not to go out to hear a friend's band I had been hoping to hear. Instead I watched a movie. I had a few borrowed from a friend sitting around so rather than go out, I picked one off the pile. The Story of Us. About divorce. Besides the fact of a predictable story, poor acting and a Hollywood ending (in the worst sense of that phrase), it was a stupid choice. But I watched it to the end, for some unknown reason. It is the story of how a marriage falls apart. It's painful to watch.

My own marriage's demise had plenty of similarities to the movie's as well as numerous differences. But it struck enough uncomfortable chords to send me into a place of deep disappointment -- over how my marriage turned out and, truth be told, how my life has turned out. Whatever happened to all the untapped potential that seemed brimming over the edges of my life when I was 24? By 34 I had chosen to stay in a difficult marriage and given up some career opportunities to make that work. By 44 I had left that marriage and the whole career path and all of the places where I had put down tentative adult roots.

Each choice I made along the way had an internal logic. It's hard to imagine that I could have or would have wanted to make any different choices at any particular point. But now the patchwork of ups and downs creates a strange and dissonant work of art. How have I gotten to this place -- broke, underemployed, alone? Me, with so much energy and intelligence and joie de vivre? Me, with all the economic and educational advantages I've been given? Is there something essentially broken in me that keeps me from quite getting my act together, not quite making it work, not quite making the best choices?

My mantra this year has been kindness. Whatever else I do in my life, let me be kind. But even at that goal, I often feel like a failure. And so, suddenly, I am thinking of my father and I am overwhelmed with grief. He, who led a life that reached so many tangible goals, as well as creating such vital though less tangible connections. The stories of his compassion and generosity have been pouring in from both expected and unexpected sources over the past few weeks. He was a great man. I want to believe that I was not a disappointment to him or that, even in the ways that I was, this was more about his misplaced expectations than about any real failing on my part.

Even as I write this, I can sense some Jimmy Stewart angels appearing to show me my life. I'm nowhere near jumping off any bridges and I have no doubt that I've had my moments, I've touched some lives, I've done some good. But in recent years I have come up against far more closed doors than open ones. I want to believe that even closed doors serve a purpose. I'd like to think that life is shutting off certain possibilities to me so that I can turn in a new direction and discover new opportunities. But then the furnace dies and I spend a weekend in a cold house with my son wondering how I'll pay the bill on Monday when I get it working again. And vague potentialities lose their appeal. I want steady work and a man around the house, if you must know the truth. I would settle for one or the other.

It occurs to me that I write more when I'm down than when I'm up ... perhaps the weeks and months of no blogging can be a reminder to me that I've been very happy for most of this past year. And even this past week. And probably will be most of next week. But today I'm grieving -- for dad, for my marriage, for my career, for my furnace, for that 24 year old and all her hopes and dreams, for that 34 year old, confused and determined, for that 44 year old, piecing life back together after the center did not hold. Today the tears flow. So be it. So be it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

When Death Comes*

My father died at 1 p.m. on Monday, January 12. My mother and I were with him, one on each side, as he quietly, peacefully took his last breaths. I almost missed it. I had gone for lunch. This would have been a great irony. I am, as my Gentleman Friend (GF) likes to say, a good eater. So was my dad. We could always eat. Any time of day. Even if we had just finished a large meal. We appreciate food in our family. Eating was the last of Dad's pleasures to go.

So, I had gone to the hospital cafeteria where I had salmon in creamy dill sauce, wild rice and roasted italian vegetables. I bought my mom a sandwich (her request -- I didn't mean to have a nicer meal than she did) and was heading back up to the room where dad had been moved from emergency only an hour before. As I turned onto his floor a gaggle of nurses and CNAs saw me and exclaimed, "There she is now." They were paging me to come because my dad's death was imminent. I ran into the room. A friend of the family had arrived in my absence. He left the room as I entered and I took dad's side. I can't remember what Mom and I said at that moment. Nothing to each other, but maybe to Dad. We had been singing hymns to him that morning -- Holy, Holy, Holy and For All the Saints, that sort of thing -- and quoting his two favorite psalms -- the 121st and the 23rd. We both know all of these by heart and have for most of our lives and yet we stumbled over words and phrases again and again. We didn't know that Dad was going to die when he came in by ambulance that morning or else we might have packed a bible and a hymnbook for the moment. We weren't prepared for death.

What happened was this: four days before Christmas Dad took two bad falls. He was falling more and more, so this was not especially significant, except that Mom was unable to get him up and had to call in help both times. That was a Sunday. On Tuesday morning he had another bad spill, knocking the back of his head against the corner of a metal table on the way down. This time Mom managed to get him up and to the shower where she was busy trying to clean up all the blood when she realized it was a pretty bad cut. So she finished his shower, bandaged his head, changed his clothes, got him in her car and drove to the nearest urgent care clinic. They put 10 stitches in his head and sent him home, asking Mom to note if he seemed confused. Dad had beginning stages dementia, was mostly blind, mostly deaf and took too many painkillers for the various physical disabilities that kept him in chronic, crippled pain. Knowing whether he seemed more confused than usual was not a simple task.

But rather than complain about his head or his osteo-arthritis or degenerative disk disease pain, all day Dad complained about a sore place on his foot. Mom had taken him to the podiatrist a hundred times in the preceding months for this sore spot, but it clearly had become much worse -- the hole widening and deepening, the area around it turning odd, dark shades not usually associated with Caucasian skin. By the next morning, Christmas Eve, his foot was red and swollen and hot and the sore spot was black. Mom managed, once again (I'm not sure how), to get him into the car and off to a podiatrist. A different one this time, as she was fed up with the lack of help the previous one had been. This one examined Dad's foot, looked up at Mom and said, "I'll do what I can to save his foot." What???

So he cleaned and tended the wound, ordered an oral antibiotic, drew a line in red magic marker across Dad's upper foot and told Mom that if the redness and swelling got higher than the mark to go immediately to the emergency room. My son and I came to her house later that day. My ex was going to a 5 pm service at his church and then coming over to sit with Dad, so Mom, son and I could attend the 7 pm Christmas Eve service at her church. We got home from the service, looked at Dad's foot and knew we had to go to the hospital. Because my ex was there, the three of us managed to get him into a car (how had Mom done this on her own earlier that same day?) and Mom and I went off to the hospital, leaving the ex to put the son to bed and fill the stockings.

Around 2 a.m. they had run every test imaginable and admitted Dad to the hospital. He had cellulitis in the foot, as well as wicked bed sores on his rear end and signs of a small, recent heart attack. He was a mess from head to toe, quite literally. Dad stayed in the hospital for a week, one problem leading to another, but finally getting the infection under control. From there he went to a skilled nursing facility for rehab. With his fever gone and his medications more controlled than at home, Dad was actually quite lucid and in pretty good spirits for a few days. But when the first week in rehab turned to the second, he began insisting that Mom get him out of there and take him home. A week in the hospital, not moving out of bed, had greatly weakened him and he was having trouble even sitting up and holding a cup. There was no possible way he could go home. In spite of his generally good mental capacity, he could not comprehend this. Of course Mom could take care of him. She'd been doing it for years!

On Friday, January 9, Mom and I went to the financial planner's office. I am now the executor of the estate should anything happen to Mom, but this was my first time getting a real lay of the financial landscape. We needed to figure out the situation should Dad be spending months or years in nursing care, which is what we all believed we were facing at this point. The good news was, in spite of huge losses in 2008, Mom and Dad had been so frugal and wise with their money over the years that the planner assured Mom she could keep Dad in nursing care for 12 years before they'd run out of money. We all knew he wouldn't last that long, so this greatly put her mind at ease.

I spent that afternoon with Dad, so Mom could be home alone for a while. He was fairly lucid, but certainly more confused than he had been a few days before. I read him Christmas cards. He kept calling on the nurses to help him get up to pee. He could barely make it from the bed to the wheelchair even with two skilled helpers. As the afternoon wore on he got more agitated and kept saying what a mess things were. I couldn't get him to say what the mess was. Finally, I knew he needed to sleep, so I kissed him, told him I loved him and left.

I had plans to go out of town that weekend which I kept. There was no reason I shouldn't, as far as we could tell. We were gearing up for the long-haul. Months of a man miserable about being in a nursing home. He had said to Mom for years, "Don't ever put me in a nursing home! I'll die if I have to go to a nursing home!" I stayed in touch with Mom and she said that he developed an intestinal infection on Saturday. She was still able to feed him (a good eater, to the end) and get him to respond to commands ("Open your mouth a little wider"), but he stopped communicating verbally and rarely opened his eyes that weekend.

Then Monday morning came and the call that he was being sent to the hospital. Even then, Mom figured he'd gotten dehydrated from the infection or in need of IV antibiotics. As they took his vital signs, his fever was 106. His breathing was labored and his blood pressure was dropping rapidly. Just before I arrived the doctor asked Mom if she wanted extreme measures taken or just comfort care. She asked for comfort care. "Then I give him 24 to 48 hours to live." Death. We didn't know. When I arrived I spoke with the social worker and asked a hospice representative to come meet with us. I thought perhaps we could move him into a hospice facility and out of the emergency room for his last days. I knew from my time as a volunteer hospice chaplain that people could inexplicably hang on longer than expected and I wanted to be ready for the possibility of several days of bedside vigil. Hospice came, but the doctor arranged with the nursing home for us to take him back there, as he didn't think a hospice bed would open in time and knew we could get palliative care at the home. Discharge papers were in place when the doctor came in and told us that he had changed his mind. Dad wouldn't survive the transfer, he thought. They promised to find a bed in the hospital and admit him as quickly as possible, which they did, with great kindness and efficiency. Around noon, Dad was finally settled into his new room -- a quiet one with a beautiful view of the mountains. It was a gorgeous, bright winter day.

Mom and I sat with Dad for a few minutes and then we both realized we were hungry. Even at this point, we figured we had hours ahead of us. Mom asked me to go eat and bring her something. So I did. And almost missed the last moment. But not quite. I'm glad I was there.

I have no regrets, nor does Mom, but one can't help but think about some "what ifs" in those final moments. Mom would have spent the night with Dad, had she any idea of the severity of this infection. I would have gone to see him when I got home on Sunday. And more than that, I would have been kinder to him on Friday.

When I last saw him, he seemed so like he had for months. Demanding, irritable, but pretty lucid and generally OK. I was frustrated with him for not trying harder to sit up, to feed himself. He seemed perfectly happy to have it all done for him, but then angry that he couldn't go home even though he was making no efforts at rehabilitation. He complained about how tired he was. When he asked for water, I tried to insist that he hold the cup himself and get the straw to his mouth. I put it directly in both hands and shaped the one hand around the cup and the other around the handle. He dropped it. I caught it before it spilled and tried again. I snipped at him for not holding on, for not listening to what I was asking him to do. After a third attempt, I held it for him and put the straw in his mouth. But not compassionately. I did it with a huff.

I am not haunted by this interaction. I know that I am forgiven by God and by Dad, if that is a post-life possibility. I can forgive myself. But forgive does not mean forget and I believe that I will remember this moment for a long time. I hope I do. Because it is easy for me to think that had I known this would be the last time I saw my dad with any real life in him, I would have been so much more kind and gentle and patient. I would have compassionately given him the water as he asked and not scolded him. I would have gently rubbed his bald head while he drank. Had I known death was coming in a matter of days rather than months, I'm sure I would have been kind. I was kind on Monday, when it hardly mattered any more.

It's so utterly predictable to learn this lesson now. We never know which interactions will be our last ones. And so every single moment we are called to compassionate presence. There is not a one of us that doesn't know this. But how easy it is to live out of the grudges, the impatience, the frustration. How very human.

Dad is gone. We had a wonderful and difficult relationship for many years. We loved each other fiercely and wounded each other deeply. We fought and we made up. We criticized and we praised. We prayed together and we yelled at each other. We both clamored for Mom's attention and affection in our own ways and often in competition with each other. We could stay angry at each other for too long, but we were never estranged. We both knew we were the apple of the other's eye.

People have been saying this week, "Now he can see again and hear again and walk again!" I really don't know about that. I believe in resurrection, but I have no earthly idea what it means. What it looks like. Does Dad really have a healthy body now? We have joked about him being reunited with some of his obnoxious friends, about them all giving God hell together. Maybe. I don't know. What I do know is this: he lived 81 years. He touched more lives than I will ever know with his own compassion and faith and preaching of the gospel, in both word and deed. He loved Mom passionately, even though he demanded far too much of her for far too long. He did much good in his life -- serving every community he lived in with civic zeal, every church he pastored with vigor and enthusiasm. He loved life. He loved people. He loved God. He loved me.

And now he is gone. Blessed are those who die in the Lord.

*With apologies to Mary Oliver

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Sunday School Redux

For anyone who actually still reads this blog (that would be you, PJ), you may remember the Sunday School concerns I've had. This fall my ex decided to enroll our son in the Sunday School at the church that he has been attending for the past 2 years. This is a weird and wild post-Christian, creation spirituality church. I enjoy attending it once or twice a month and have agreed to support the boy's participation in the SS program. To give you an idea of the religious education my son is now part of, here is the teen's Christmas story performed in church recently. What can I say?

Merry Christmas, my friends.

Monday, December 1, 2008

My Thanksgiving

This year I traveled to Cleveland for Thanksgiving to meet my new friend's family and friends. My friend used to be in a rock band, playing lead guitar. The band-leader/song-writer was Kevin McMahon, who went on to form other bands, including one called Prick (yeah, I know). In this video he's the guy singing and swinging on the perch, wearing the black bird suit. We spent half a day in his studio, listening to old cuts from the original band and jamming. (Well, I didn't jam, I listened and bopped around a bit).

Can I just say that this is kind of different than participating in an ecumenical Thanksgiving service at a local main-line church?

(Technical difficulties prevented me from posting the video itself -- the link should work).

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Democracy Taking Root

There is no way to describe the euphoria everywhere I've been this week. A cosmic shift has taken place and we know it. I'm basking in it and I know we all want to bask in it for as long as we can. But basking can only be the beginning, not the end. I believe, as does Colin Powell, that Obama is a transformational leader. I would add that I believe his election in this moment of national crisis is a gift from God.

I also believe, as does Barack Obama, that power does not concede and that the road ahead for this country is a steep and rocky one. Gifts from God are not to be hoarded. They are meant to inspire us to generosity and compassion and courage. And courage will be needed in the months to come. This is no time to gloat, no time to let up. This is a time to stand up and fight. We no longer have the excuse that nothing can change in the current administration. We have seen the grass-roots at work and we have begun to remember that we can make a difference.

But just in case you doubt it, let me recommend a stirring documentary. Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai won the award for best documentary at this weekend's Asheville Film Festival. The film looks not only at her work in the Greenbelt Movement, but also her grass-roots democratic work for better government. I have admired Maathai for years, but I learned more about her courage, her commitment, her suffering on behalf of Kenya and her impact on that nation than I ever knew. Weaving Kenyan political history through the story of her life and work, the film highlights the enormous obstacles she had to overcome to do her work of planting trees to re-forest her native land. It's a must-see for anyone who cares about the environment. It reminds us in no uncertain terms that it is WE THE PEOPLE who must save our land. We cannot wait for the government to do it. We are the ones we have been waiting for.

And, not to boast too much, but can I just say that seeing this film was the highlight of a wonderful weekend in a beautiful city? Honestly, I do live in the nicest place ever. The River Arts District Studio Stroll was this weekend and I met a fabulous artist who inspired me with her faith, as well as with her beautiful work. The Film Festival brought to town a host of independent movies that, unfortunately, probably won't be making it to your local multi-plex. My new neighborhood night club had a fun, funky dance band Friday night and my son's neighborhood school had a sweet, playful Fall Festival that made lots of money for our Title I school, which needs it, while demonstrating work on our cob shed in our organic garden. Plus, the weather has been just dog-gone beautiful.

OK, back to basking while I sweep the leaves off my deck.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Pissed Off Presbyterians

Kay Hagan, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senator from North Carolina, is running a strong race against Republican incumbent Elizabeth Dole. In fact, most polls show that Hagan is very likely to win, providing one of the turn-over seats in this year's senate. Because Dole, in spite of her money and Washington connections, has run out of ideas, she turned vicious. She's running an ad accusing Kay of being "godless." Kay happens to be an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church and a Sunday School teacher. Kay's campaign ordered a "cease and desist" order which the Dole campaign (literally) laughed off. So now Kay is suing Dole for defamation of character. Her pastor and the Presbytery Executive have gone on the offensive for her. My mom, also a long-time Sunday School teacher and ordained Presbyterian elder, wrote Dole today saying "Shame on you!" Read more here ... if you aren't yet sick of nasty lies and character assassinations.