I’ve never been on this road before.
A walk tonight has me on an untraveled road. I grew up near Spokane … visited all my life, but the South hill is mostly new territory, especially on foot. Historic homes, picturesque parks, hospitals and medical buildings that stand stalwart at the bottom of the hill … much to explore.
However, this isn’t a pleasure walk. I’m prayer walking, letting my feet pound out whirlwinds of thoughts while Mom is finally resting a few blocks behind me.
She is in Hospice House.
I’ve never been down this road before.
It’s not that I haven’t lost loved ones. Dad left us over 20 years ago. I lived far away at the time and thankfully was able to visit a few days before he left this world for his heavenly adventure. His passing, however, felt so different than this and I’m not really sure why.
Maybe it’s because I’m the one being asked to make so many of the decisions this time.
The week started with a fall. Mom, on one of her good days … when you’d be hard pressed to know that she suffers from dementia … managed to fall while getting up to look in her closet or find a snack in the fridge or any of the things she loved to do when she felt able and briefly independent.
But this time she wasn’t so independent and apparently not so steady as she fell somehow … breaking her hip.
It’s been awful. The pain she’s enduring. The confusion that comes with the dementia. The decisions. Having to admit that it’s time to bring in hospice care.
The diagnosis of dementia two yeas ago seemed rough enough. She faded from us rather quickly it seemed … went through a long season of paranoia … fear … confusion. Then she rallied almost a year later by emerging out of the fog and giving us full on glimpses of herself … talking … dreaming … bossing us around … coming home to visit … resorting to her famed spunk and orneriness.
Last Friday was such a day … or least mostly so. Someone left a stack of gardening magazines in her room. She read every one of them, with special attention on the seed catalogue.
Let’s plant some walnut trees … and we need two apricots to see if we can get that one your dad planted 40 years ago to finally produce. If not, we’ll take it out.
Let’s fix my old barn … put a greenhouse on one side. You guys can plant berry bushes on the south side. I want to plant Christmas trees and pumpkins on the north.
On and on … and on. Dreaming … kid-like excitement.
I’ll help with the planting, you know. She added, as if worried that she was putting too much on me. I just smiled, knowing that her heart wanted to do much more than her body will allow her anymore in this world.
The broken hip came within 48 hours. My heart dropped at the news. This very thing was something she feared in her younger days. “A broken hip is a death sentence,” … her words. I would say that as a believer in the Promises of Christ, it is not a death sentence but it certainly shortens the distance from this life to next … a sad parting for those of us left behind.
I think I tried to be too optimistic. Even knowing that Mom is close to crossing over into an amazing and healed journey, I am ripped up by the onslaught of suffering as her broken body struggles to free her spirit. I can hardly stand it.
A few years ago I read an English anthology that public schools use to prep AP students. There was a story about an elderly husband and wife who sat in their car at the edge of the gulf, sharing the close sentiments one would expect of a decades-long relationship. Into their view comes a pair of whooping cranes … a rare site … also rare for the fact that they mate for life … rare like the couple watching them. (“The Cranes” by Peter Meinke)
In the middle of the story the man reaches under the seat of his car and pulls out an object wrapped in cloth. At the story’s end, a gunshot is heard … the cranes fly away and the story ends.
The wife, it turns out, had a terminal illness. Their plan was to end things on their own terms … to escape the suffering.
The story rattled me to the core.
The man either shot her, and would, it is assumed, also take his own life. Or, she died as they were talking, and the shot heard was the taking of his own life.
How can that be the answer?
That fictional couple has haunted me for years. I think of them, and I scream inside …
“You blasted cowards!”
You took away suffering but what did you rob yourselves of by not letting God finish the story His way?
Could stories like “The Crane” be blamed for the increasing number of suicides in our country? I hardly know a person who hasn’t been touched close range by suicide as our world has decided that suffering is just too much … that there is no reason to endure it.
I’ve preached myself many solid sermons of this nature. Then … I look at Mom … hear the crying out … see the suffering … think of the many days since the onset of dementia when she said to me, “I just can’t keep on like this.”
I’m not sure I’m any less of a coward.
But what if we had gone down that road and emulated this fictional couple? What if we had encouraged Mom to approach suffering on our own terms, making light of God and faith as did the “Crane” couple in their jaded remarks again religion.
Mom never wanted to suffer; she stated many times that she hoped she would be able to pass peaceably in her sleep. I thought God knew that.
Then the suffering started three years with the onset of dementia. It brought hallucinations and fear and paranoia. Like throwing myself in front of a bus before it hit an innocent child, who wouldn’t do just about anything to stop the angst of a loved one who is scared because things are wildly out of control?
Had we been able to snuff out the suffering, Mom would certainly certainly have side-stepped the awfulness that dementia brings.
She also would not have had experienced the lucid days that suddenly appeared a year into the journey … days we had learned not to expect anymore.
But they came … so many sweet, sweet moments tucked between the pain.
Had she (we) refused this rugged, yucky journey, she would not have been able to say good bye to a Dear Friend or her grandchildren or her partner of the last 23 years.
She would not have called out of the blue and asked to come help make the Thanksgiving pies this year or sit with me last week and plan out this summer’s garden.
She would not have planned out her 79th birthday party and been excited to celebrate with her hometown friends … an amazement to everyone who knows her and the fact that she usually hated being fussed over on her birthday.
But is it her suffering that I hate … or my own as I watch her?
It’s probably both but what would I lack … my children lack … without those precious extra times we’ve had with Mom, dementia and all? The pain has woven a dark-colored yet strangely beautiful pattern into our family’s story … the threads of which shimmer with gold polished by suffering.
There has been a gift in all of this for my children and my brother’s children. They aren’t robbed from the truth that life comes with suffering included … and that suffering together as a family has made us a richer, unbreakable force.
My sister-in-law wrote me earlier in the week in regards to her mother’s passing just a few days ago, “We have a lot of strength and support in our family.”
Yes, we have our layers of dysfunctions too, but rallying together in this kind of muck is something my mom did for her mother and for my dad … and is something her grandchildren will hopefully all have the courage to do when the pages of their own stories are not Cinderella perfect.
As I’ve wrestled through all this and hated myself for flip-flopping into a fickle empathy for a fictional couple in a cowardly story, an incredible thing happened a little while ago.
My “clear-my-head-walk” finished, I’ve was sitting by Mom’s bed when a hospice volunteer walked into our room and asked to visit.
Pulling up a chair, he urged, “Tell me about your mother.”
He was sincerely interested in knowing about her life. He asked a few questions along the way and allowed me to ask about the loss of his wife, which is what led to his desire to be a volunteer for seven years now.
At the end, he asked if he could pray for Mom. Turns out, he was a retired Lutheran pastor. Mom was raised Lutheran. No one here knew that. It was like they had intentionally arranged for this very volunteer … but they didn’t. His once a month visit just happened to coincide with our arrival.
As he leaned down to pray, Mom opened her eyes.
“Nothing shall separate us from the love of God ….” She kept her eyes open.
“Not death or fear or worry …”
“Lord, I thank you for the gift of Anne’s life and that soon You will bring her fully into your presence because of the gift You’ve given us by way of the Cross and by Your Son. Let her know your peace.”
At the end, he began to recite the Lord’s prayer. This was the amazing part.
Without prompting, Mom joined and mouthed every word of the prayer with him.
At the “Amen”, she closed her eyes and went into the deepest rest I’ve seen so far..
Two days have passed since I wrote the above. The pain and suffering are only very slowly diminishing. She is so ready to be done with this life, but in this “stay” she is getting goodbyes from all of the family … something I see that deeply comforts her.
I hate this suffering.
I haven’t been down this road before.
But the visit from that Pastor and a flock of wild turkeys (sorry, gonna save the turkeys for the next post … ) have revealed the Author’s hand. I don’t like the road … certainly not every chapter … not one bit … but my shaky bit of hope is fixed on a story that only Jesus can finish.
Mom, our world’s going a little crazy right now. The Coronavirus, empty shelves at the grocery store, endless toilet paper memes on Facebook, and now the schools, restaurants, and bars are closed in our state. I know these things would deeply worry you. So, it’s okay that you’re leaving us now. Your Savior will soon be holding you tight … no hand sanitizer needed. (The twisted humor comes from you, you know.)
I love you Mom.