Blessed Are Those Who Grieve

It has been three and a half years since my mother passed away.

A few weeks ago my father wanted to visit my mother’s grave. In the first year after she passed, I had tried several times to get him to go.

His way of dealing with grief was avoidance.

I would ask him if he wanted to bring flowers to her grave. He wouldn’t hear me.

I would ask again. He would change the subject.

I would ask again. No response.

On the first anniversary of her death, I bought a small pot of pansies and asked Bud to drop my father and I at the cemetery before church. Slowly we started down the path, but when it came time to turn towards the Columbarium, my father picked up his pace and headed straight for the church.

Alone I set the flowers I had bought for her at the base of the Columbarium,

The Columbarium

Blessed are those who grieve.

Jesus said, Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

The difference between grieving and mourning is this: grief is private, but mourning is the outward expression of grief that allows a person to move forward.

Grief is the emotional reaction to a loss, while mourning is learning to live again.

Grief muddles the mind, but mourning begins to put things back in place.

Grief is the raw emotions that say things will never be right again.

Mourning reflects on what was and what will never be again, and then works to  deal with that void.

About a month ago, my father asked to bring flowers to my mother’s grave.

“Can I see where she’s buried?” he asked.

He didn’t remember ever going there before, so I showed him pictures from her interment.

The avoidance had finally passed. He was ready.

I purchased a bouquet and tied an orange ribbon on it. My mother always liked orange.

We drove to town and I parked as close as I could to the Columbarium. He picked his way along the dirt and gravel path that led there, struggling with his walker, while I struggled to hold the bouquet and keep my arm supporting him.

Silently we stood before the gray granite corner of the Columbarium.

“Is this it?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, and showed him my mother’s name carved in the granite.

He wept.

“Can you take a picture of it?”

I did.

 

Blessed are those who grieve, for they have loved deeply.

And blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the Advocates

Blessed are the advocates
and the whistle-blowers
for their shaky-kneed courage.
They shall hear the words,
“Well done, good and faithful servant.”


A week or two ago, a friend posted an urgent prayer request. She had reported an abusive situation and was summoned to a meeting with the higher-ups of the organization.

She had posted her prayer request the previous night but I didn’t see it until early in the morning.  I had just finished my prayer and reading time so the Beatitudes were fresh in my mind.

I prayed for my friend, and for the abused and the abuser, for the meeting. I felt overwhelmed with emotion for what she had ahead of her that day.

In a comment to her post letting her know that I was praying, I wrote the beatitude above.  I knew that if I was in that situation I would need to be reminded why I’m doing what I’m doing. It’s so much easier not to stick your neck out.

But God calls us to care for the least of these and to advocate for the person who can’t advocate for themself.

I’m sure He will someday say to her, “Well done.”

Both the young and the old — and even some in between — need advocates.

 

Update on Dad

I realize that I sidestep the issue all the time, dancing around, skirting the elephant in the room.

It’s far easier to talk about the brindle boxer that is about to be euthanized than it is to talk about my father.

“How’s your father doing?”

Golly, how many times a week do I hear that question? It’s such a kind question, too, coming from a sincere concern for a man who touched so many lives.

This road only goes in one direction, I want to tell them.

But I don’t.

Usually.

He’s having more trouble with incontinence, I think to myself, but don’t say.

That’s not the kind of thing one talks about in the lobby of the gym or the checkout of the grocery store.

He needs help getting dressed.

He’ll spend ten minutes scraping an empty bowl after lunch; he can’t stop himself from pursuing every last bit of soup that may remain.

He spends hours at his dresser, rearranging his military insignia and lapel pins and tie bars.

He has taken to sorting cards. At first I thought he was playing Solitaire, but it’s actually a sorting exercise and I marvel at the way he pushes himself.

He’ll have half a dozen books piled on the tray table next to his chair, but he’ll still scan the bookshelves and pull off another with that so-many-books-so-little-time mentality.

Even though he can still read, I don’t think he gets the sense of what he’s reading.

His favorite book to read: The Oxford Dictionary.

The dictionary that his father gave him before he went to college still sits on a shelf here. A few months ago, my father pulled it off and said to me, “We should probably get rid of this. It’s falling apart.”

But I know why he kept it all these years — and I’m not going to throw it away.

Some things you hold onto, and clasp to your heart, even though they’re old and falling apart.

“How’s your father doing?”

“He’s happy,” I tell them. “I’m so glad we can keep him at home.”

And they pat me on the arm, or look knowingly at me, and smile.

“Thanks for asking,” I say.

It’s nice to know people care.

The Lucky One

I was sitting at the train station in Charleston, South Carolina.

The evening was a balmy 60-something — balmy in comparison with the 30-something I left behind in New York that morning. The station was clean, well-lit, and sparsely populated. I sat on a blue bench playing word games on my phone while waiting for Mary’s train to arrive.

“Last time I rode this train, it was an hour and a half late,” a man said. I looked up to see a wiry African-American man with gray bristle-y hair poking out from the edges of his Kufi. “Folks waiting for me in Savannah had to change their plans all around because of this train.”

I just smiled at him. My train experience is pretty close to nil.

A few minutes later my daughter texted me from the train. “Conductor says we should be in Charleston around 8 – 8:15.” Over an hour late.

Image result for north charleston train station

North Charleston train station, photo from abcnews4.com

The man was pacing the train station. On his next pass near me I told him what Mary had said.

He shook his head and sat down beside me. “This train never runs on time,” he said.

How we got from there to where our nearly hour-long conversation took us, I don’t know. Before I knew it, he was telling me about “Mama.”

“I was the lucky one,” he told me. “I took care of Mama. They was eleven of us, and I was lucky number nine.”

He shook his head and smiled, a gesture he repeated often as he remembered his mother.

“Mama was smart. She got her degree in journalism. You better believe we learned how to write. She and Daddy sent us to parochial school in New York — all eleven of us.”

I thought of how my parents valued education. My grandfather, my father’s father, never went to high school, but each of his children went to college and graduate school.

“Mama worked for Richard Nixon. She helped with his campaigns in New Jersey and he gave her a job with the federal prisons there.”

My father loves to tell people how he met Haile Selassie. Rubbing shoulders with the mighty.

“When my daddy was dying, he called me to his bedside. ‘Ali,’ he says, ‘Ali, you take care of your mama.’ I said to him, ‘Daddy, of course I’ll take care of Mama.’ But he says, ‘No, I mean it — you really take care of Mama.'”

He shook his head and smiled. “I was the lucky one.”

My father outlived my mother — but I watched him take care of her and I helped where I could. Making sure my mother was well-cared-for was a priority.

“I moved in with Mama.”

I moved in with my father.

“Mama fell and broke her femur. The doctors wouldn’t operate. They said nobody would operate on her. She was too frail. 90 years old. 90 pounds. All they give her was morphine to ease her pain. That was her last month alive. I kept her in her own home.”

We aren’t there yet. I try not to think about my father’s last days.

“I give the eulogy at Mama’s funeral. I look over at my brothers and sisters boohooing, and I said, ‘What you boohooing about? You didn’t come see her. You didn’t take care of her. You just feeling sorry for yourself.’ I said that to them. And they was mad. Hoo-boy! They was mad.”

He chuckled a little to himself. “But, you see, I was the lucky one. I got to care for my mama. When she died, I didn’t cry. I had given her everything I had.”

No regrets living — I could relate to that, too.

I’m thankful that my family pulls together. My siblings help — but I know that I’m the lucky one, too.

The train pulled in to the station and we both stood.

“Been real nice talking to you,” he said, and he extended his hand to me. “I’m Ali.”

I already knew that.

“I’m Sally,” I said, and shook his hand.

“Been real nice talking to you,” he said again.

It had been real nice listening.

 

 

Guilty

When I first laid eyes on Joseph Zupnik three and a half years ago, he was late for the Family Council meeting at my mother’s nursing home, Focus Otsego.

“LATE!” I jotted into my little notebook. Not a good first impression.

He walked in the door and I barely noticed him. I thought he was a late-arriving family member, but he walked right over to the seat next to the administrator.

Joseph Zupnik was tall and thin, the kind of person who folds when he sits down and unfolds when he stands again. His pants were about an inch too short at the ankles and an inch too high at the waist. The muted tones of his plaid shirt were understated and unassuming, like he was. Quiet, mild, articulate. And young.

Almost immediately people started demanding answers from him about staff shortages and retention of the remaining staff. The rumor was that Focus cut salaries by 15% across the board when they took over. The fact was that staff had left in droves.

Joseph sat, calmly folded in his chair, legs folded as he crossed them at the knee, manicured hands folded across his knee, body folded somewhere between slouched and erect. He seemed so relaxed.

And he calmly fielded the questions and spoke of industry standards and union negotiations.

I wanted to say that no one cares about industry standards. These are our parents, not statistics.

Others spoke up though, and talked of how much better this place was than other ones.

And I wanted to say to them that I don’t want relatively good care for my mother. I want the best care.

He stayed with us for an hour and a half. Listening, responding, listening some more.

He knew his stuff. He fully understood the business end of this industry.

He was clinical and dispassionate — a walking statistics book.

Yesterday, Joseph Zupnik pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of an incompetent or physically disabled person.

Seven other charges against him were dismissed.

His slap on the wrist includes community service. I’d like him to work as an aide in a nursing home for the same number of years he owned nursing homes.

And I’d like him to live on the same pay as the aides who had worked under him.

To me, that would be justice.

And mercy.

He would be a better man for it.


A little background and a final thought.

In the early 1970’s a new building combining the Otsego County Home and the Otsego County Infirmary was built down the road from where I grew up. It was renamed The Meadows, and I remember visiting there with my father when I was young. I believe he was the Medical Director.

When I took a year off from college in 1979, I worked as a nurse’s aide there. Everyone should work in a nursing home at some point to learn compassion (if that can be learned) and to experience how hard and thankless the work is.

Both of my grandmothers and one grandfather were residents at The Meadows.

My father-in-law was a resident of The Meadows when the new building, The Manor, was built. He was among the first crop of residents at The Manor.

My mother lived at The Manor. She was there when it changed hands.

When the county decided to sell, my father had been on the task force charged with finding a buyer.

We had ties to the Otsego County nursing home no matter what its name was.

In the end, the legislators voted to sell to the highest bidder instead of the most qualified purchaser. It was more of an “unloading” than understanding what an important part of this rural area that county facility served. They simply wanted to be rid of it. In my mind those legislators who voted to sell The Manor to Focus Corporation (and Joseph Zupnik) also bear some culpability.

 

Buried Gold

It’s been a rough few days… make that weeks.

My father has been struggling with anxiety. Anxiety and dementia go hand-in-hand. The world doesn’t make sense. Memories jumble around. People telescope in and out. Switchbacks define the landscape.

“DON’T GO THROUGH THAT DOOR!” he cries whenever I leave him alone in his room. Waylaying me with his hand on my arm, he looks over his glasses and says in a confidential tone, “There’s nothing out there. Nothing. You can’t go there.”

But I must and I do. His world may be confined to one room. Mine is not.

If I coax him out to the sun porch, I struggle to coax him back in.

He’s leery of entering the dining room. He forgets that he sits at the head of the table and takes my seat.

Which, of course, is fine. Just odd.

“When I was in World War II, I was stationed by the Red Sea. I buried a lot of gold there. We need to go back and get it,” he told me the other day. Except he was in high school during WWII and was never stationed by the Red Sea. He went there on holiday when he was stationed in Ethiopia in the early 60s, but not WWII.

He told someone today that gold was buried in the back yard. Here.

The only gold we have here are little bits of dental gold that the dentist gave me after she removed some of his teeth. It’s gross, probably not worth much, and certainly not buried. That sounds like a good idea though because I don’t know what else to do with it.

I’ve been so tired because I’m up multiple times during the night with him. He can’t sleep. He’s so anxious.

Last night I made a to-do list so I could make sure I got done what needed doing today. Phone calls, shopping, and mail.

Mary added the part about rainbow sprinkles. Rainbow sprinkles make things better.

Karl added the great mom part. The pat on the back meant a lot.

Sometimes life gives more gut punches than pats on the back.

My father didn’t get to sleep last night until 11 PM — which meant that I didn’t either. He woke me at 5:05 AM.

Through the monitor I heard, “Sally! SALLY!”

I ran downstairs, my heart pounding.

“I’m having terrible chest pain,” he said. I called the ambulance.

The paramedic asked him about the pain.

“10,” my father replied. “Crushing chest pain,” he added.

By the time he got to the Emergency Room, he was fine.

“He has dementia,” I told the ER doctor.

“I got that,” she said, smiling.

“Can I get you something to drink?” she asked my father.

“I like beer,” he said. It was 6:15 AM.

He hasn’t had a beer since he ordered a flight a couple of months ago at his favorite restaurant. He was baffled by the four little beers served on a board. “What do I do with this?” he asked.

“You taste them,” I said.

He gave them to Karl.

We were home from the ER shortly after 7 AM. God bless the ER doctor who didn’t do a full cardiac workup.

Sometimes gold is in rainbow sprinkles and kind words.

Sometimes it’s in the not following protocol and using common sense.

Sometimes it’s buried in the backyard but I’m not going to count on that today.

Y is for Young

In March 2011, I wrote the following post.  It’s a sweet story — and a reminder. I took it out of storage and dusted it off for today.

A number of years ago, I was able to accompany my father on his trip to his hometown.  He was meeting with his siblings and their spouses to inter my grandparents’ remains.  My mother was planning to go with him, but got sick just before they were supposed to leave.  I filled in for her.

I had no idea what a special trip that would turn out to be.  We went to the cemetery and sat on a little knoll while my father and his brother and sister reminisced about their parents.  They each shared memories of how their parents had made their house a home.  They talked about my grandmother making elaborate Halloween costumes for them, her competitive side coming out, so that they could win the town’s contest.  They talked about their cousins and their pets and their school and their growing up years.  Then my uncle said something which I will never forget.

He said, “They were young once.  They fell in love.  They had dreams and passions just like we do.”

I don’t know why that was so profound, but it hit me squarely in the heart.

My grandparents were old the whole time I knew them.  My grandmother had Alzheimer’s.  She smoked and drank martinis.  I have seen her wedding picture and she was once beautiful.

My grandfather had Guillain-Barre syndrome in the late 70’s or early 80’s, I think. (Perhaps one of my siblings has a better memory for these details.)  It transformed him from the robust, fun Grampa that I loved to go see, to a weak man confined to a wheelchair.  I have wonderful earlier memories of him throwing the Hollywood brick (it was made of foam) at us, and tricking us every time with it.  In fact, I think we all (the grandchildren) wanted that brick when they were emptying out the apartment, but no one seems to know where it went.

Unfortunately, my mind doesn’t always go back to happy memories.  I remember my grandfather weeping in a wheelchair when I came to visit when I was pregnant with Philip.  I remember my grandmother smoking and sniping.

“They were young once.  They fell in love…”  I chose, then and there, to replace my memories with happier ones.

Yesterday, I caught a little glimpse of that with my mother.  We were sitting at the table, with a full plate of marmalade sandwiches.  She had made ten or so before I got there — for the others.  She looked up at a window ledge, and asked my father, “What’s in that vase?”

Now, you need to know that my mother has always a way with plants.  Her home was filled with them.  She had the most beautiful Christmas cactus I have ever seen.  She would take little pieces of the Christmas cactus, stick them in a cup of water, wait for them to send out little roots and then move them to pots.  She started so many plants that way.  And the house is still littered with pieces of Christmas cactus stuck in water.  That’s what was in the vase.

My father looked up at the milk-glass vase with the sad little piece of Christmas cactus drooping over the edge. “Well, that’s a genie in a bottle,” he said.  “If you rub it, he’ll come out and grant your wish.”

My mother giggled like a schoolgirl.  She looked at him and smiled.

When he left the room, she said, “I’m so lucky I found him.”

Oh, Mom, you have no idea.

“They were young once.  They fell in love…”  She was back to that point in her life.  I want to remember her that way.