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 Brindle Boxer

When I pulled in to the veterinarian’s office, the red-bearded man with the brindle boxer was standing out front.

Maggie was fluctuating between ecstasy and fear. She had been delighted when she got to go for a ride in the car, but she recognized the building when we pulled in. The dog out front delighted her — Maggie is very social — but the door just beyond terrified.

She jumped willingly out of the car. The boxer squared off in the middle of the sidewalk.

It was a big dog, solidly built. She laid claim to the sidewalk, blocking our way to the entrance. The man made no move to move her. I nudged Maggie to my right side so I would be between her and the boxer. I knew Maggie would want to give an exuberant hello and I wasn’t the boxer shared the sentiment.

The man watched me shift Maggie.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “she can’t see nothing.”

I had already launched into my usual Maggie’s-biggest-problem-is-she’s-overly-friendly line when I heard him add as we passed, “She’s dying anyway.”

His words seeped in as I took Maggie through the door.

I should go out and say something, I thought, as I sat on the bench in the waiting room, but Maggie had already started her shiver-and-shed routine. She really doesn’t like visiting the vet.

Maggie at the vet

While calming Maggie, I made small talk with a woman who had worked with my father. Her cat waited quietly in a red backpack cat carrier on the bench next to her. We waited and chatted while people dropped off and picked up their cats, mostly. Through a window, I could see the man with the brindle boxer standing outside, still owning the sidewalk, although it looked a lot less like ownership now.

A technician came out and called a name. Three people, a woman roughly my age and two young adult children, stood. The girl went outside and came back in with the man and the boxer.

“We have a private room here,” said the technician as she opened a door behind her.

I couldn’t see the other faces, but I could see the man, pressing his lips together, the corners of his mouth turned down, as he slowly led the boxer in. A few minutes later, the girl came out again, her eyes red and puffy. She went outside and came back with an older man, who walked very slowly.

The door to the room opened.

“Pop, we’re in here,” said the red-bearded man. His voice broke.

The girl followed her grandfather. She was openly weeping now. With her back to me, I saw the large sparkly letters on her gray hoodie — “LOVE LOVE PINK.”

I wished I could magically change it to read “LOVE LOVE BRINDLE” because I knew that’s what she was feeling.

The small talk ended. My father’s friend and I both watched the drama with heavy laden eyes as the family closed the door to their private room at the vet.

“So hard,” she whispered to me.

Yet, we were witness to a well-loved dog surrounded at the end by three generations.

Sometimes the most terrible things are also the most beautiful.

The Dream Job

Not quite a year ago I challenged myself to learn the names of the early morning swimmers at the pool.

Yes, I was lifeguarding, which I suppose sounds weird — to be pushing 60 and standing on deck with a rescue tube — but it was a fun distraction from the weightier things in my life.

Plus pools are one of my happy places. For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved swimming.

So I lifeguarded from 5:15 AM to 7:15 AM.

And I loved it.

Friday was my last day on that shift. It was a little bittersweet.

“Was this your choice?” one of the early morning crowd asked when I told her.

Yes, it was. Sometimes it’s important to review priorities.

But I had unfinished business — some names I hadn’t yet learned.

When I lifeguarded, I would scan the pool and repeat the names of the swimmers to myself — Bonnie, Karen, Louise, Jean, MaryAnn, Maureen, Scott, Mike, and so on.

One woman came every Monday, Wednesday, Friday — and I could tell you a lot of things about her, but I couldn’t tell you her name.

She was elderly.

She walked with a limp.

She wore a unique gold necklace that I asked her about once. It was a track medal that her father had won in 1916 (or something like that) and she had it made into a necklace.

She had limited range of motion on one side.

She always walked down the steps in lane 1 and then ducked under lane lines until she reached lane 8. It was like a game of Frogger the way she crossed lanes without interfering with other swimmers.

She swam a modified elementary backstroke.

She always smiled and said good morning as she backstroked past the lifeguard stand.

One morning a couple of weeks ago I saw her stop to speak with another swimmer. I knew the other person well enough to ask her the name of the woman I didn’t know.

She told me — and it was a name I immediately recognized but couldn’t place.

I asked my husband. He’s got a great memory when it comes to people.

“Oh, I know her! She was a pediatric neurologist,” he said.

Ah — my dream job. When I didn’t think I’d be able to have children, I wanted to be a neurologist. Specifically, a pediatric neurologist.

So, back in the day, my ears had perked up when I heard that the hospital had hired a woman pediatric neurologist.

I spoke with her last week.

“You know, you had my dream job,” I told her. “I used to want to be a pediatric neurologist, but instead I had a family.”

“And I always wanted children,” she said to me.

I was so humbled.

I’ve been haunted by her words and mine.

I would never trade any of my children to be a pediatric neurologist. As it is, my life is rich and full.

I imagine her patients, too, are grateful for the path her life took.

Life has a way of working out.

I love being a mom —

I’ve had my dream job all along.

A Year With Merton

2019 is the year of Encouragement.
(I wrote about it here.)

2019 is the year of No Snark.
(I decided this after laboring over a response to an upset swim mom in December. She had been rude and unreasonable, so the first things I thought about saying were on that level. Then I went snarky. Then I wrote a reasoned response. I thought, I need to train myself so that the reasoned response comes more readily. So I’m setting snark aside.)

2019 is the year of Merton.
(Thomas Merton, that is. I realized that I’ve read essays and quotes but never a whole book of his. I’m going to start and keep going to see how many Merton books I can complete in one year.)

I finished my first Merton book today — Ishi Means Man. If you’ve never heard of it, don’t worry. I don’t think it’s one of his better known works.

Honestly, I thought I had grabbed Seeds of Contemplation. That sounded like a nice way to begin the year. But when I settled in my chair on the morning of January 1, I saw that I must have pulled off the shelf the book next to Seeds of Contemplation. 

Chapter One — The Shoshoneans. Merton comes out with guns blazing. Literally. He goes back to the days of our country when the Native Americans were called Indians and considered a problem. We found a solution.

In putting the Indian under tutelage to our own supposedly superior generosity and intelligence, we are in fact defining our own inhumanity, our own insensitivity, our own blindness to human values. In effect, how is the Indian defined and hemmed in by the relationship we have imposed on him? His reservation existence… is as close to non-existence as we can get him without annihilating him altogether. I fully realize that this will arouse instant protest.The Indian is not confined to his reservation: he has another choice. He is free to raise himself up, to get out and improve his lot, to make himself human, and how? Why, of course, by joining us, by doing as we do, by manifesting business acumen and American know-how, by making money, and by being integrated into our affluent society. Very generous indeed.

Was Thomas Merton just snarky?

In another chapter, Merton tells the haunting story of Ishi, the last of the Mill Creek, or Yana, Indians in California. I always thought that genocide was something that happened other places — Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Bosnia. But we annihilated an entire tribe. I can’t read the story without feeling sick inside.

Honestly, one of the things that has bothered me about Germany’s holocaust is the question of what the people who lived on the other side of the death camps did. How can someone live on one side of a wall enjoying warmth and food and relative prosperity, while on the other side people are being slaughtered? I never want to be the idle bystander.

What would I have done if I lived in turn-of-the-twentieth century California?

What will I do in 2019?

Ishi Means Man seems an inauspicious beginning to 2019. A little foreboding.

But Seeds of Contemplation seems to be missing now from the shelf and I’m not sure where to go.

How about here?

 

Top Fives

Three Top Fives of 2018.

Top five books — Les Miserables, The Hate U Give, Imitation of Christ, Conscience, and the whole series of The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place.

Top five places I visited — Ales Stenar (the sun-ship in Sweden), Troldhaugen (Edvard Grieg’s home in Bergen, Norway), kayaking in a fjord (Gudvangen, Norway), Laity Lodge (with my husband!), and Charleston, SC (with Mary).

Ales Stenar

Edvard Grieg’s composing house

Kayaking in a fjord

Threshold at Laity Lodge

Mary and her French toast at Toast! in Charleston

Top five encouraging moments. (I want 2019 to be the year where I practice encouragement, so I’m trying to learn from looking back.)

1. Andrew Peterson — at Laity Lodge (which is the nearest place to heaven I know in the United States). After insulting Andrew (I think I told him that he looked nerdy in his glasses — and then I wondered why on earth I said such a thing), I finally bolstered the courage (thanks in large part to my friend, Kim) to ask him about the possibility of a caregiving session at Hutchmoot.

“I think that’s a great idea,” he said. “Check in with Pete (his brother) in a couple of months when we’re starting to plan out the sessions.”

I’m an idea person — and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had ideas shut down right from the start. It can be crushing. Even if an idea is totally wacky, encouragers can see the glimmer of good in it and water the seed a little. Andrew did that for me.

I already knew that Andrew was an encourager. At my very first retreat at Laity Lodge, when I was saying my good-byes, Andrew touched my arm and said, “You have important things to say. Don’t ever doubt that.”

2. Rachel Speer Donahue — Well, I did the session at Hutchmoot.

I was so full of doubt about my tiny portion of it. I had sent the written text of it to my friend, Alyssa, who also is an encourager. Her words helped me go through with the whole thing. (Seriously — up to the last minute, I considered politely bowing out.) Afterwards, my mental replays of my portion were all of me babbling. (Side note: I saw a book recently called, “Your Inner Critic is a Big Jerk” and I wished I had read the book before Hutchmoot.)

Enter Rachel. After Hutchmoot, the guy who puts together the photo book put out a call for quotes. Rachel was an early responder — and she quoted ME. I was horrified and honored at the same time. The horror has long since subsided, and I go back to that moment over and over. Rachel sat in on my session and valued what I said enough to quote me. It was a HUGE encouragement.

3. Jonathan Rogers — I’ve taken a number of writing classes from Jonathan Rogers. The best thing about his classes are the critiques he gives to the submitted assignments. He is blunt and honest. Jonathan has told me when things I have written are unclear or, worse, boring. He’s always right on the money.

Jonathan recently started a subscription website of writing advice called Field Notes for Writers. I HIGHLY recommend it.

He asked me if he could use one of my pieces for an exercise he calls “Line Edits.” With great fear and trepidation, I gave permission, but when I watched the video of his edits of my piece, “Old Porch,” I was so touched. Seeing my writing through his eyes was such an encouragement.

You, too, can receive encouragement from Jonathan by taking any of his upcoming classes or attending his free monthly webinar.

4. Elizabeth Dunn — We’ve been attending Methodist churches for five or six years now (maybe more). I am NOT a cradle Methodist and honestly don’t understand the inner workings of the Methodist Church. I had never been to a “Charge Conference” until this year.

At the Charge Conference, Bishop Webb came and heard the reports from the various committees in the church. Then he asked for people to share what good things were going on in the Cooperstown Methodist Church. The first person to speak was Elizabeth. She said, “Sally Zaengle has been playing her flute during church and it really adds something special.”

Let me back up to say, yes, I play the flute, but not terribly well. It’s something I do for fun — and more, it’s something that helps me worship. I believe music is a language God speaks.

When Elizabeth acknowledged my playing and that it blessed her — that was so encouraging. Even with all my bloopers, it adds something positive to the worship.

5.Lisa Birdsall and Kristen Griger — My role changed with the swim team this year. With my father declining, I couldn’t commit to coaching again. It made me a little sad, but Lisa (the Aquatics Director) and Kristen (the head coach) found a new role for me — team registrar. As team registrar, I handle all the athlete registrations as well as all the meet entries.

I love my new job! I love learning new things and I can do much of the work from home. Additionally, I’ve been working to educate the new parents on the ins and outs of swimming by holding informational meetings and sending out regular newsletters.

Lisa arranged for me to have an email address with the facility. While that sounds like a small thing, it really isn’t. I’m the only part-time person with a Clark Sports Center email and the recipient of the last email address available on their server.

Not only that, but Lisa started referring to an empty office there as my office. My office. Of course, it’s not my office yet. Someone else needs it while some work is being done outside her office. But I’ve never had an office before. I may still never have the office. You never know.

But the thought of an office is an encouragement. And the email address is a reality — a real work email.

You really never know where encouragement will come from.

In 2019, I hope a little encouragement will come from me.

Encourager or Discourager

Last week, I sat at the timing table in my effort to learn how to run the computer for swim meets.

The woman on my right was the embodiment of sugar-and-spice-and-everything-nice. She was genuine, kind, enthusiastic, and, like me, new and a little overwhelmed by the goings-on at the table.

The woman on my left was a pro. She had been working the table for many years. She was calm and unflustered, even when things got crazy.

Pool acoustics are never great, so neither woman could not hear what the other was saying.

Sugar-and-spice nudged my elbow during the 50 Free. “See that boy over there?” She nodded at a swimmer in the far lane. “I wish I had taken a video of him on the first day of practice,” she said. “He could barely swim. Look at him go!”

I watched the boy thrashing at the water slowly making his way down the pool far behind the other swimmers.

On my other side Ms. Pro said, “Oh, God! I don’t know why they allow that kid to swim! He moves in inches! This is going to take forever!”

Behind her, a young woman echoed her sentiments. “His stroke is awful! Look at him. He’s not cupping his hands!”

Sugar-and-spice said again, “He’s doing so well!”

Ms. Pro groaned at his slow progress.

I felt like I was sitting with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, one focusing on what the swimmer could do and the other focusing on everything he couldn’t.

I told Laurel about it on the car ride home. “I know which one I want to be,” I said.

Later that night — midnight to be exact — I was up with my father. He had changed mostly out of his pajamas and had his shoes on. That night’s self-donned wardrobe consisted of four layers of shirts, one-and-a-half layers of pants (don’t ask), three socks on one foot, and a single compression stocking on the other.

“Dad,” I complained, “what are you doing?!”

“I thought I was doing the right thing,” he said.

After getting him changed into his pajamas and back to bed, I lay in my own bed thinking about the swim meet, and how easily I became the person I didn’t want to be. I was frustrated with what my father.

“Lord,” I prayed, “help me appreciate the fact that he can still put on a compression stocking — because that’s hard. He can still tie his shoes. He can still walk. And talk. And feed himself.”

I fell back asleep counting his abilities.

Two hours later he was up again. And I forgot again.

“Dad,” I said, “you’ve got to get some sleep!” By which I meant I need sleep.

“I’m doing the best I can,” he said.

And I remembered again the boy with uncupped hands struggling down the pool. I remembered Sugar-and-spice cheering him on.

Again I prayed. “Thank you, Lord, for my father. Help me help him. Help me give back to him a little of the lifetime of caring he has given to so many. Thank you for the lessons that he still teaches me. And thank you that he’s back to sleep.”

For now, I thought, and smiled.

Treasure

At church on Sunday, the visiting pastor asked people to share “God moments” during a time when people usually share prayer requests. I knew exactly what I would say if only I were brave enough.

My God moment had started at the end of September, when my anxiety was at an all time high. I received an unexpected package in the mail that contained a t-shirt and coffee. Coffee is one of my love languages — and the t-shirt, soft and gray, with a rabbit and the rhythm of a beating heart, was perfect. I pressed it against my cheek and thought of the dear friend from Indiana who had sent it.

wearing the shirt at Hutchmoot (photo credit Lisa Eldred)

St. Teresa of Avila said, “Christ has no body now, but yours. No hands, no feet on earth, but yours. … Yours are the hands with which Christ blesses the world.”

In that moment, my far-away friend was Christ to me, soothing my anxieties and reminding me that I was loved.

A few days later, another Indiana friend unexpectedly pressed a little package into my hand — a tiny clay rabbit she had made for me. Rabbits are another my love languages.

In the weeks that followed, as I dealt with a lot of interrupted sleep because of my father, my husband being quite ill with what we now know to be Lyme’s Disease, and my youngest daughter suffering a concussion, other packages showed up at my house.

A hand-crocheted hat and scarf.

Mary borrowing my new hat.

A mug to replace one I broke years before and never thought I would hold another like it.

A FreeWrite — a portable smart typewriter that I had off-and-on looked at wistfully for a couple of years.

The packages came from Alabama, Florida, and Michigan.

On a day when I was feeling overwhelmed, one would arrive.

I sat one morning drinking good coffee from my new mug, feeling very rich indeed, and a story came flooding back to me. It was a Dr. Purple story that I stumbled across when I was researching this 19th century physician from the village of Greene.

In 1826, Dr. Purple has acted as clerk for a trial in the village of Bainbridge, a nearby town. Joseph Smith (yes, that Joseph Smith) was on trial. He claimed to have a stone that could reveal to him where treasure was buried. For a fee, he would tell the landowner where to dig. When the man started digging, the treasure would recede and never be actually found. The landowner would be disappointed. Until, of course, Joseph Smith with his seer stone claimed to have found the treasure again in a different spot on his land. For a fee, he would tell the landowner where to dig.

I thought about the disappointment of that treasure that could never be grasped — and the depth of the treasure I held in my hand in the form of a mug sent by the generosity of a friend.

All that ran through my head when the pastor asked for a God moment — I had had a whole month of God moments, and then some.

The riches we have in Christ are riches indeed.

Sometimes they come in the form of rabbits and hats and typewriters.

And sometimes it’s a mug full of coffee.

Yes, definitely coffee.