Blessed are those who Understand

The sympathy cards have slowed to a trickle. In the beginning it was a deluge.

Many of the cards said things like this:

Your dad was an amazing man, and I consider myself very lucky to have worked with him.

What a class act!

Don was a wonderful person: friendly, compassionate, smart and extremely generous…

I felt privileged to know him.

Here’s a sampling from his church:

Don and Elinor were two of the first people I met at church and I’ll never forget how welcome they made me feel.

His church will miss him much. I think he held at least every position twice and always took on the most challenging parts.

And a few of the many from the hospital:

He was one of the “Old Guard” at Bassett and embodied all of the wonderful good things of a medical career.

He was the one who recruited me to Cooperstown. He looked after me at work and worked so hard to make sure that our department ran smoothly. I’ll always remember how much he cared about the patients and making my early years there successful.

The more specific people were in what they wrote about my father, the more it touched me. For example, this story made me laugh because it captured his frugality:

Many years ago he asked me (chairman of building and grounds) to help him dig a trench across the driveway from the church house to the manse. If we put in the wires to connect a new manse computer to the one in the secretary office ourselves, we could save a lot of money. Although he was much older than I was, he outworked me with his pick and shovel!

After I graduated from high school I learned that my father had followed each one of his little league players all the way through graduation and had given each one a baseball necktie as a graduation gift. Apparently, he continued that baseball-themed gift-giving pattern into his later years as this person mentioned:

Our son loved baseball and Don often gave him baseball-accented gifts.

The words and stories people shared became a salve for my grieving heart. I read stories of him making housecalls,  of mentoring, of swapping “sappy stories,” of his Red Sox fanaticism, of his sweet tooth.

I also received cards from people who had never met my father but who only knew him through me. People who read this blog but that I never met in person. People I met at Hutchmoot or on other travels. Even people here in Cooperstown who know me through my church or my involvement with the swim team, but never met my father. I was so grateful. I felt so loved.

Two cards that especially touched me were from people who had also recently suffered loss:

Deepest sympathies and equally deep gratitude for all the love and care you shared with your dad. I know firsthand that is a gift that goes both ways and lives in memory always. (from another caregiver whose father had recently died)

We have a wonderful hope of  resurrection, but the grief is still so real right now. (from a grieving spouse)

Blessed are those who understand for God will give them words to ease another’s pain.

Blessed are Too and To

The hardest thing about swimming laps is —

1.) Leaving the house. Walking out into the real world is cold.

2.) Getting in the water. If leaving the house is cold, getting into the water is doubly so. Changing in the locker room. Taking a shower.  Walking, dripping wet, out onto the deck. Cold. Really cold. Finally sitting on the edge and sliding into the water.

3.) Counting the laps. I’ll come back to this one.

4.) Leaky goggles. It’s annoying to have one side fill with water so that you swim like Popeye the Sailor — with one eye closed.

I asked Laurel what was the hardest thing about swimming laps. She said, “when you can’t see where the wall is because you’re crying because it hurts so bad knowing you’re not gonna make the interval even though you’re trying so hard and your legs hurt and you can’t move your arms any faster :)” She’s a teenage girl, a little overly dramatic, but speaks from her heart. Swim team workouts are rough.

Back to counting laps, though.

Swimming can be monotonous. It’s also very zen. A lap swimmer — and here I’m talking about the adult lap swimmer who isn’t trying to make the interval and crying and can’t see the wall — can get lost of the rhythm of the thing.

Splash-spalsh-splash-breathe-splash-splash-splash-breathe

I wrote the vast majority of my college papers in the pool. I organized my thoughts, sifted through ideas, tried out sentences, rearranged the words. All the while I was splash-splash-splash-breathing.

Sometimes people would ask me how many yards I did and I would have no idea. I was more worried about words than yards.

When I no longer had papers to write, I tried to count my laps the old fashioned way — with numbers. It was a struggle. I finally settled on my own system: the alphabet plus the Ten Commandments.

You may laugh, but it worked. 36 laps in a 25 yard pool comes out to just over a mile.

Each letter of the alphabet got a whole lap. I would think of words or people that began with that letter. I would pray or think on things that began with that letter. Then I would move on to the next.

I did that for years.

Until, about 15 years ago, life got in the way of my lap-swimming.

Recently, I started lap-swimming again. I was so out of shape that I didn’t try to count laps at first.

The third morning I realized I needed to focus on something other than simply reaching the wall. My mind was overactive, my body tired.

I decided to work on memorizing scripture — Isaiah 61. Each length got a word.

Lap 1: The Lord

Lap 2: has anointed

Lap 3: me to

Me to. Me to. The words rattled around with familiarity because of #metoo.

The #metoo movement had stirred up memories, memories of experiences that gave me common ground with many women.

But #meto — that involves purpose.

The Lord has anointed me to… Isaiah 61 lists seven things.  I found myself pondering instead, what does the Lord want ME to do?

My life is changed. To care for my father had been my purpose — and it was so fulfilling. I confess to being a little lost now.

Blessed is Too — the common ground we share with others through experience.

Blessed also is To — as in an infinitive verb suggesting purpose.

Like a college paper, I’ll use the pool to sort through my thoughts and figure things out.

First I have to leave the house, though — and sometimes that’s the hardest part of swimming laps.

Blessed are those who Stretch

I once had a pastor who loved to talk about stretching.

Not like downward dog yoga stretching, more like standing-on-tiptoes-and-reaching-a-book-off-the-top-shelf stretching.

Stretching, as in, moving beyond what you thought was possible.

He was generally talking about being uncomfortable in a situation and choosing to do the right thing. That stretches a person.

Or hardships. Those are stretching experiences — when we don’t allow them to make us brittle.

I was thinking about stretching the other day at a swim meet while watching swimmers coming into the wall. The person who won the race — often by a mere fraction of a second — was the one who reached the longest and fastest, stretching their fingers to touch the pad first.

Regular stretching can lead to increased flexibility.

An interesting thing about flexibility is that of all the types of fitness, it takes the longest to gain, but it also stays with a person the longest. A person can build up cardio ability relatively quickly, but, when aerobic exercise is abandoned, cardio gains leave fairly quickly. Flexibility, on the other hand, can take months to years of consistent stretching to improve, but that increased flexibility also lasts a loooooong time.

The other day I read this:

When the monasteries of the Middle Ages lost their fervor, the last observance that ceased to be properly carried out was the choral office. (Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer)

Regularly-practiced liturgy sticks.

And yet, liturgy is certainly NOT flexibility.

Liturgy is like the roots of a tree that stretch down, down, down to water in the driest of seasons.

Flexibility is like the tree branches reaching up, up, up, reaching for the sun and sky and rain, moving with the wind.

Blessed are those who stretch both up and down. They gain both flexibility and roots.

*****

Side note: this piece has sat in my draft folder for, um, I don’t know how long. Part of me wants to finish strong — finish these darn beatitudes that sounded like such a good idea at the time, but now feel like a weight.

Golly, it’s been a tough few months!

Perhaps, sometimes, finishing strong simply means finishing. I stare at my drafts and don’t know how to finish them.

I’ll be that girl crawling across the finish line —

So forgive the upcoming half-written beatitudes.

I’m crawling.

But, dog-gone it, I’m going to finish.

It’s a stretching experience, I suppose.

Blessed is Resurrection

When my father passed away at home, I didn’t know what would happen next — so I went for a walk.

That Sunday spent watching him decline, decline, decline — sitting by his bed — pacing — calling hospice and family and hospice again — trying to make the best decisions based on what he had said he wanted — it all made for an incredibly long day.

Yet, at the same time, the day was too short.

Suddenly he was gone.

I cut across the yard when I left the house, walking past the red maples he had planted 40 years before. Their burgundy leaves were half on, half off —  trees caught mid-way through their fall undressing.

The oak tree I passed was barer. Its brown leaves and acorns littered the ground. Many of the acorns were cracked and broken. I wondered if the damage had been done by squirrels or the fat woodchuck I often saw in that corner of the yard or the heavy equipment that had driven through there earlier in the week to replace our septic system.

The acorns held no promise of a mighty oaks, just broken pieces with jagged edges.

The walk refreshed me, but, back at the house, we moved in a thick fog.

While I had been walking others had left, or come and gone, or stayed, waiting to say good-bye to me.

My two grandsons had been in the house when my father passed. When I heard them playing in the other room, I thought about an article I once read about Irish wakes and how healthy they are for children — to be around death and see that it is a part of life.

In the midst of life we are in death.

Book of Common Prayer

I said good-bye to the grandsons and to my oldest son who looked so weary and so grown-up. I wished he was the size of his boys and this hurt was a boo-boo a bandaid could cover.

A knock on the door surprised me. The man identified himself as a hospice nurse. “I’m here to clean the body,” he said.

I showed him to the room where my father lay. My father’s face looked ashen and waxy.

“Do you have some clothes I could dress him in?” the nurse asked.

My father was still wearing his old red Fenway shirt. He liked to wear Red Sox apparel when he watched their games, and the last game of the season had been on when he passed away.

I chose a favorite flannel shirt and a pair of corduroy pants that went with it.

Leaving the room, I re-entered the family fog. Pea-soup fog, my mother would have called it, so thick you can’t see your hand in front of your face. People may, or may not, have talked with me. I may, or may not, have responded.

The nurse finished. He ushered us back in the room with my father.

My father’s hands were folded on his abdomen. It was a pose I had never seen him in before. He looked so dead.

I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Nicene Creed

*****

It has now been 3 1/2 weeks since my father passed. When I close my eyes, I see that dead body. I see my sister coming out of his room, closing the door behind her, at 2 AM. She had just arrived and wanted to see him. I see the funeral director arriving at 8 AM and using the front door to remove the body.

I close my eyes and see death.

Ah, but the Nicene Creed. “I look for the resurrection…”

When I look for resurrection and life, it’s there.

The new grass pushing through the straw where the lawn was dug up for the septic. The two stubborn Shasta daisies that refuse to give way to fall. The geese flying south, calling my attention to them with their noisy honking.

It’s a beautiful sound.

At the memorial service, my son Owen read Wendell Berry’s poem, Wild Geese.

… Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. …

I am surrounded by life in all its beautiful and terrible stages.

Many trees in the yard are already bare, but I’ve lived long enough to know that, in the spring, new leaves will appear.

I know the geese will return, too.

On my walks I see woolly bears hurrying across the road. Sometimes I help them along — picking them up and watching them curl into a ball in my palm, then gently placing them on the other side of the road. I figure it’s one less death for the day.

And I sort through a few of my father’s things.

Life goes on.

 

 

Blessed is the Quiet

I turned the monitor off Sunday morning not knowing it would be the last time.

For three and a half years I have slept with one ear open, listening to the monitor, learning the sounds of the different creaks of the hospital bed in the room below me.

One creak meant he was getting up. It was followed by the shuffle-thud of him walking with his walker into the bathrooom.

A different creak meant he was getting back into bed. I could hear the soft rustle of the bedding as he rolled onto his side and pulled the blankets up above his shoulders.

If I didn’t hear the back-to-bed creaks but heard the click of the light switch, I knew I needed to go down and redirect. He would be heading to his closet to choose clothes for church — no matter what day of the week it was. Sometimes that happened at 11:30 PM and sometimes in the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes it was every hour throughout night.

The monitor sat on my bedside table where its yellow light showed me it was on and its faint buzz served as a secondary reminder.

Now I hear the deep breathing of my husband sleeping beside me.

Just the other day I had been telling someone that I hadn’t heard the coyotes all summer. With the monitor off and the insomnia on, I could hear them, their long lonesome howls coming from somewhere farther away than previous years, but still there.

I hear a bird I can’t identify.

I hear gentle rain hitting the wide leaves of the hydrangea.

I hear the obnoxious sounds of vehicles driving on wet road. I can identify the milk truck, the speeding pick-ups, the cars. I can tell it’s foggy because everyone drives so much slower.

It’s so quiet, though, without the monitor.

Too quiet.

I want to hear the bed creak and the shuffle-thud.

My father passed away Sunday night.

He had dressed himself Saturday morning and eaten a bowl of cereal. Mid-afternoon he vomited brown-black — a sign of a GI bleed. He went to bed before dinner, and never got out of it again. The next day he was gone.

Thomas Merton said, “Prayer and Love are learned in the hour when prayer has become impossible and your heart has turned to stone.” (Seeds of Contemplation)

Prayer and love are learned in the quiet of a monitor that been turned off.

Merton also said, “The monk faces the worst, and discovers in it the hope of the best.” (Contemplative Prayer)

I’m facing the quiet.

I’m looking for the blessing.

Blessed are the P’s

Blessed are the Painters of pictures for their work brings joy to others.

Philip water-colored a picture.

Owen water-colored himself.

Two artists


Blessed are the Painters of chicken coops for they beautify the world, or at least a tiny piece of it.

1989?

2019 — a work in progress


Blessed are the Preservers of the Past; blessed are those who Push for Progress;

In a sidewalk in Boston — “Friend –  Look up and see the North Church Tower … This view preserved for all future generations…”

View of the North Church Tower

And blessed is the balance between the two.

I recently went to Boston with my daughter, Mary. We walked the Freedom Trail from Faneuil Hall to the Massachusetts State House. Along the way, we saw the large medallion pictured above, telling us to “Look up and see the North Church Tower.”

“One if by land and two if by sea…” My mother could recite Paul Revere’s Ride well into her dementia. Earlier that day, I had attended worship at the old North Church, where the usher let me into my own private box. I read the sign on wall there that told of Charles Wesley preaching there. I was in awe.

But I could barely see the North Church from the site of medallion. Oh, it’s there. It’s spire rises above whatever that blue-green thing is.

Boston is a city that works hard to preserve the past.

It’s a balancing act, though.

For instance, the Old Corner Bookstore, built in 1716, is now a Chipotle restaurant. Mary bemoaned its fate. On the other hand, I pointed out to her that the building was going to be demolished in 1960 and turned into a parking lot, but investors purchased it and revitalized it. It’s still standing.

Preservation versus progress.

Both are necessary.


Blessed are the Perseverators.

I can’t remember exactly what my father was doing at the time, but I remember Helen telling me that he was perseverating. It was a new word for me,

but certainly not a new concept.

The repetition that goes with dementia, or autism, or brain injury may be all too familiar to some of us.

Lately my father has been perseverating over church. Our conversations go like this:

Dad: So are you going to take me to church?

Me: No, Dad. Today is (fill in the weekday). You go to church on Sunday.

Dad: Why?

Me: Because that’s when they have worship services. If we went there right now, nobody would be there. You go on Sunday.

Dad: Ok. (short pause) Are you going to take me to church now?

Me: No, Dad. Today is (fill in the weekday). You go to church on Sunday.

And so on.

He wants to go to church, and I remind myself what a blessing that is. He perseverates over a positive.

Blessed are those who Persevere.

I admit that I get frustrated with the perseverating.

It happens all day.

It happens all night.

I’m getting tired.

Yesterday I had to re-certify my lifeguarding. For the first time, the pre-test — a 300 yard swim followed by a timed brick retrieval — was daunting.

I knew I could do it, but my body wasn’t so sure.

Had I thought of it, I could have sung the Dorie song — “Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…”

Instead, I did the Little Engine That Could — “I think I can, I think I can,” and slowly, slowly I completed the swim. (Okay, well, not too slowly. I swam it well within the allotted time.)

Perseverance sometimes requires a series of inner pep talks.

Each time I had to climb out of the pool at the wall, I had to remind myself that I could do it.

Each time I start feeling frustrated with the perseverating, I also have to remind myself that I can do this.

I can.

I can.

I love this man and I can answer the same question 257 times.

In one day.

Blessed are those who persevere, who run the race with endurance, who finish the swim test, who live with perseverators, for they shall hear, “Well done.”

Blessed are those with Open Hands

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with my hands clenched and guarding my heart. I’m sure it’s stress, but it doesn’t change the little exercise I go through — opening my hands wide and spreading my fingers, willing them to stay open while I fall back asleep.

Open hands feel vulnerable. I have to be very intentional about it.


My son Sam went to British Columbia for school and adventure. Adventures like climbing sheer rock faces.

I had to ask him to stop sending photographs. I could handle ones like this:

But not ones like this:

Once he called me and said, “Mom! The coolest thing happened this weekend while I was climbing!”

“What?” I asked, thinking it would be a wildlife sighting or a beautiful vista.

“”I fell!!” he said.

My heart stopped. I felt my stomach squeeze.

“It was so cool!” he continued. “The rope caught me!”

“Don’t tell me stories like that,” I said.

Really. I can’t handle them.

But while Sam was out there, I learned to pray with open hands. I could do nothing to change what would happen — just pray.

And let go.

It felt very vulnerable.


I emptied a drawer in my mother’s dresser a month or so ago.

It was still filled with her things and the smell of my mother overwhelmed me when I pulled the drawer open. I don’t know that I can accurately describe what that smell is. Powder? Tussy deodorant? Sachets? Tissue?

I pressed my lips into a grim line and dumped the contents of the drawer into a large tote.

Then I did the same with another drawer.

And another.

Nearly four years after my mother died, I finally emptied her dresser.

When my sister came to visit, I pulled the tote downstairs for her to sort through.

Letting go of my mother’s things felt vulnerable. But right.


I’m worrier by nature.

And a breath-holder in stressful situations.

I don’t like change.

My tendency is to hold on.

Tight.

But…

Blessed are those with open hands, for they shall know peace.