Wednesday, April 25, 2012

I’m the Entertainment??? (Or finding a clown suit that fits)

This might not seem funny to you moms and dads. You are used to thinking up stuff to entertain children. I, on the other hand, have not had children. Only now, I have an elderly father whose jigsaw puzzle level is 25 pieces. The box says this cute 25-piece puzzle of a puppy on a red-checked picnic blanket is for people 3 years old and up. Yup, that’s about right. I like providing activities that Dad particularly enjoys and can feel successful at, since he’s lost so many abilities.

To be equipped for my weekly entertainer role at the nursing home, I now travel with the puppy puzzle in my car, along with a book of animal photographs, and a CD of Dad’s favorite music that he recorded in more lucid years. My "normal" life is reading, writing, editing, walking, cooking, and gardening—all quiet pursuits. Suddenly I’m thrust into a situation where I’m somebody’s entertainment. It feels so odd … maybe like a man who is a plumber or a painter in “real” life but who always has a clown suit in the trunk of his car for occasions when he needs to put on a happy face for kids in the local hospital’s cancer wing or show kids at the library how much fun reading is.  

Today I put my “clown suit” in a green cloth bag, sign in at the nursing home, and then hoof it halfway around the building to a free elevator. (The elevator by the sign-in desk is being held for paramedics responding to a 911 call. Paramedics say they average about 6 calls a day to this nursing home. Sigh.) First, Dad and I listen to some of his favorite songs. He bobs his head side to side to the beat. I put the CD back in my bag and pull out the nature photos. Dad sits in his wheelchair and carefully turns every page. He knows the porcupine and zebra but not bears or penguins or seals, or any others. He used to know giraffes and lions but does not mention them today. Back into the green bag goes the photography book, and I pull out the puzzle box and hold it up.

“Look at this cute puzzle! Would you like to do it?”
“Yes, I believe I would.”
“Okay, let’s ride around to find a table to put the puzzle on.”

I know he likes wheeling around the first floor. He always comments on how beautiful everything is. And he does today, too. We wheel in to the little museum. Every week I tap out a few letters on the antique Remington. Most weeks he recognizes the sound. Today he does not. Every week I tell him how hard he worked to support our family; he taught school all day and wrote textbooks at night. Every week I tell him I remember falling asleep every night to the tap-tap-tap sound of his hard work. Every week, and today too, he nods and beams.

We find an open table in a quiet sitting area. I ask him to put all the puzzle pieces right-side-up. He does. I put the bottom and top edges of the picture together, then hold back. He picks up pieces one by one and tries them. Today he is able to match the red-and-white-checked parts, the sunflower petals, and grassy background. We’re both pleased.

Puzzle back in the box, box back in the bag, Dad back up to his spot at the lunch table on his floor. Kiss, kiss, goodbye, goodbye, I’ll see you again soon, I hope so. He doesn’t cry or grab my arm today when he says, “I hope so.” I feel light-hearted as I carry my green bag of tricks back to my car. Clown gig over … and I’m surprised to be looking forward to the next time.

Monday, April 23, 2012

God’s Welcome Mats

When I think of welcome mats, I feel warm anticipation of a wonderful evening as I stand holding a bottle of wine, handful of daffodils, and a green salad, on the front porch of a friend. I’m learning there are other kinds of welcome mats.

On a recent morning our welcome mat was covered with white blossoms from our ornamental pear tree. Lest you lapse into romantic reveries involving strewn flower petals, let me explain that this mat is by our back door and the pear tree is in our front yard. Not only did the winds slamming our house all night nearly strip the pear tree, they had to swirl the pear blossoms in cyclone fashion to get them up over the house and down and around to our back door. To quote Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” 

The blossoming pear tree that had spelled h-o-p-e, or at least s-p-r-i-n-g, now spells d-o-n’-t c-o-u-n-t o-n a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g. One minute spring is lovely and white; next minute it’s brown. I’m not talking about weather. I’ve lived near Chicago all my life; changeable weather doesn’t faze me in the least. I’m talking about loss and hope, maybe even loss of hope, certainly loss of control. Not that I could ever control the wind, but you know, life rumbles along year after year, the leaves stay on your trees, the roof stays on your house, and you get to feeling secure. Then a cyclone comes along, and you see with great clarity that you are not in control. Welcome to reality.

When a loved one lands in the hospital, you are greeted by another form of welcome mat—the patient info board that tells you the nurse’s name. The board also has the infamous pain scale, and hey, it’s bilingual—you can describe your pain in terms of 1 to 10, or smiley to frowny faces. My husband was recently welcomed to four days of tests, blood draws, and oxygen tubes during a major health scare. If the welcome board had shown a fear spectrum, from a singing-in-the-rain face [think: Gene Kelly’s uplifted mug] to The Scream face [Edvard Munch’s painting], I would have had to circle the The Scream face. Who tap-dances up a lamp post and welcomes rain with open arms and a closed umbrella anyway? I mean, really.

Time to don different glasses—
eternal-perspective peepers.

First of all, no matter how harsh the winds, we can always count on one thing—God’s love. When white-blossomed hopes lie limp, wilting at our feet, God opens His arms to welcome and comfort us in disappointment and heartache; He cries with us over this broken world and even collects our tears. I was not able to take a photo of this type of welcome mat. Last I checked their product catalog, Home Depot did not sell Come-to-Me compassion mats. But reading the bible will help you conjure your own picture.

Secondly, no matter how scary the situation, we can trust God has loving purposes for it. He even teaches us to get better and better at trusting Him through trials. How’s this for a welcome mat? Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. [James 1:2,3] Yes, I was scared to lose my husband, but when I took my fear to my Lord, He impressed upon me the reality of His presence. I knew I could trust God to carry me, no matter what happened. My husband and I and probably most people prefer not to feel powerless, but being dependent on people’s prayers and God’s grace was sobering and humbling. If we hadn’t been needy, we wouldn’t have seen how many people cared and prayed and visited and e-mailed and called and brought food. I hope in the future we’ll be more sensitive to others’ needs when they’re overwhelmed by health trials. 

God changed us both in good, growing ways still unfolding. I may not be tap-dancing up a lamp post to welcome the rain, but at least in retrospect, I am grateful for eternal-perspective lessons in this trial. Don’t know how many more trials it will take for me to “consider it pure joy,” but I will say one thing: My drives to and from the hospital on those four days, when I cranked up the praise music and sang along, were the only times I breathed freely. When I wasn’t singing God’s praises, my chest seemed to have an elephant sitting on it.
Swirling winds and health scares welcome us to a different reality—one where God meets us, carries us, changes us. When we stand on God’s porch with daffodils, green salad, and wine, we don’t even have to ring the doorbell. He is there to welcome us into His quieting embrace, His banquet table, the garden of His presence.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Better Day

Thankfully, Friday’s visit to Dad was without Tuesday’s anniversary angst. Though Friday wasn’t one of his more responsive days, his eyes did brighten when my chatter turned to family stories. The words “You used to …” or “We kids used to …” evoked smiles, if not actual memories. Friday he didn’t seem to recognize me, so I even added a few “You and Mom used to …” phrases to give him further frame of reference. As always, when I played his music tapes, he smiled and gyrated his hands to the music. I thought about his anniversary earlier this week, but no tears came. I was just there to bring a few moments of joy, so delight being with Dad was uppermost in my heart.

The day even held some tears of laughter for me. My mom, my sister Joan, and I played Bananagrams because I was too intimidated by their linguistic litheness to play Scrabble with them. Their Scrabble playoff match (I’m serious) was scheduled for later Friday anyway, so the best I could do was warm them up with a few rounds of Bananagrams. After each round, we’d inspect, admire, and sometimes giggle at each other’s words. This reminded Joan of a Simpsons episode where Lisa’s brainiac rival and she were challenged to rearrange letters of a person’s name into an anagram describing that person. Lisa’s rival was given Alec Guinness and immediately came up with genuine class. Then Lisa was given Jeremy Irons; her lame anagram was jeremys iron. The three of us laughed till the table shook.

Even though I was likely the only one at the table who felt how Lisa Simpson felt, Joan’s story had warmed me up for more humor therapy. Driving home, I chuckled at the totally serious No More Head Lice billboard I passed.  At home, a full apron to protect my church outfit did not help when I splattered grease all the way up onto my shoulder. Uncharacteristically, I found that funny, as well as getting hiccups right before our somber Good Friday service at church. Reverence replaced hiccups just in time for me to be deeply touched anew by Christ’s sobering, life-giving death. But on this particular Good Friday, I had also needed a lighter touch, and God provided that as well.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Sappy Anniversary

I really don’t want to think about this anniversary. 

Unlike tomorrow, which is the 10th anniversary of our being in this house. I will want to celebrate that. I will want to hold my husband’s hand and walk around the yard and celebrate every strawberry, blueberry, and raspberry we savored from our own fruit patches. I will want for us to tell their stories. For example, when we first moved here to a house we had little furniture to fill, we made a trip to southwest Michigan and purchased one-of-a-kind cottage-style stuff, which we crammed into our little red Mazda up to its ceiling. On the way home, we passed a blueberry farm selling blueberry bushes for $3. We bought six and since the only space left in the car was the back shelf, that’s where the bushes rode on their way to their new home in Chicago.

Today, however, is not a homey blueberry-cobbler type of anniversary. Rather, it was one year ago today that my sweet father, content to smile over peanut butter sandwiches at his beloved wife of 62 years, entered the Alzheimer’s wing of a nursing home so near and yet so far from the kitchen table where he’d squeeze Mom's hand after lunch and announce, “I’m going to go brush my tooth.” It was what he had said for years after meals, and we always laughed. Not so much because it was funny or even one of his many priceless puns. Just because he thought it was funny. And he was so happy to toddle around his home from table to toothbrush to TV with maybe an unannounced stop at the cookie jar

Home is where the heart is. One year later, my dad’s distance from his home evokes strong emotions in me. My broken heart over his broken heart, which he keenly felt one year ago but most likely rarely remembers now, is a hand holding an hourglass whose “sand” is my life, my very breath, and my tears. Sometimes Dad’s safety in the nursing home opens my grateful palm to lightly swing the timepiece in rhythm with the folks who kindly feed and clothe, cheerfully bathe and diaper my hero as Alzheimer’s shuts off switch after switch in his body. Sometimes, with reminders of his simple pleasures stolen, choking grief tightens its grip on the hourglass throat so that my breaths trying to flow freely barely dribble through. Sometimes, outrage that he is reduced to helplessness is a fist angry enough to crush the hourglass to shards, sending tears cascading.

Yesterday I drove 20 miles to visit my father. I was crying so hard in the car that I drove right past the nursing home and drove 20 miles back home. The last few months my hand has been swinging the hourglass. I’ve been able to breathe okay and haven’t cried much for my father. My mom’s health crisis in February rendered my visits to Dad delightful child’s play. I thought perhaps my grief over his decline had plateaued in the acceptance stage. 

But yesterday I passed a tiny, white brick, two-dormer colonial house that played a part of an early childhood memory for me. When the high school my dad taught at was still the only one for four towns around, its homecoming parade route went past this house, which in the 1950s was red brick. What most fascinated me as a little girl was a tiny pond with gold fish in the front yard near where my parents, my brother, and I sat on a blanket to watch the home team’s cheerleaders, pompom squad, and spirited band march by in all their red-and-white youthful glory. No one else in my family remembers this event. The pond has long been sodded over. Memory Lane hit me hard as I drove to visit my father on the day before his one-year anniversary. I couldn’t visit him. I just couldn’t.