Mortality Road

What is it like, to watch a parent die from dementia? It varies so much from person to person, of course … I can only share what it is like, watching my own mother: It is a roller coaster called Mortality Road; no one ever wants to get onboard, and once you are on, you are helpless to escape.

This roller coaster called dementia has reached a new low point for us this week. I look at my mother, curled in a ball on her bed, her eyes vacant. She does not eat, drink, or speak. And I feel as helpless as I did as a child, when her rages would drive me to my room, rooting around for a safe space. But now the only rages are taking place inside her head, where I cannot hear them — and cannot contradict.

There’s no running now. I’m in charge. Or so it says on paper. In reality, it’s her mental demons that are calling all the shots. Sometimes the voice sounds like my father, other times it’s this ever-present asshole my mother calls “The Judge,” telling her she is going to be executed for her many failings.

The chaplain at her daycare has given her a “Certificate of Innocence.” Her doctors have repeatedly told her she needs to take care of herself by eating and drinking. I have done everything I can think of, tempting her with all the things that used to make her eyes twinkle.

And here it is, 2:00 in the afternoon, and her breakfast tray remains untouched. I have to step away for a moment, just to take a deep breath and remind myself that it is the disease, and not my mother, who is at the root of the problem. She is not fighting for control. She has already been beaten by these unseen powers.

We are walking Mortality Road. And ever step gets steeper and harder.

We are facing the fact that, in the end, this disease is going to kill her.

And the only satisfaction I can take from it all.

The only thing that keeps me from feeling like a total failure.

Is knowing that we persevered, together, no matter what.

And that when it is over, the clouds will clear,

And she will know with the blessed assurance of eternity

Just how much she was loved all along.

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“A Walk in the Woods” with Mom

Every night before she goes to sleep, I read to Mom. Sometimes it’s a devotional like Jesus Calling or a chapter from her Bible. Sometimes I give her a “sneak preview” of one of the books I’m editing. (She particularly liked Forgiveness Makes You Free, by Fr. Ubald Rugirangoga.

If you liked the movie, read the book … Heck, even if you DIDN’T, read it anyway!

This weeks’ book du jour is from my favorites shelf, A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. For those who haven’t yet stumbled on this one (and who missed the movie), it’s a delightful romp about two middle-aged men who set put one spring to walk the two-thousand something miles of the Appalachian Trail.

Now, my mother and I have some history with this particular trail. When I was a Junior in Girl Scouts, and my mom was the troop leader, she and her friend decided to take a group of us to High Point State Park to practice our trail marking skills. She divided us into three groups: The first group was to mark the trail, second to follow the marks, and the third (also presumably following) would clean up as they went. We would all meet back at the car for Smores before heading back to the school parking lot to our parents.

Our third group fared best. When the second group managed to erase the trail marks in their eagerness to read the signs, the third group merely followed the path back to the car. An hour later, when the other two groups didn’t show up, the leader decided to take her group back to the school so their parents wouldn’t worry. Meanwhile, the first group had missed the park’s markings, and took a “shortcut” that put us on the Appalachian Trail. Two hours later, my mother was standing on the side of the road with eight middle-schoolers (group two had caught up with her), miles away from where we should have been.

This was long before cell phones (or Amber Alerts). As dusk fell, we emerged from the woods and found ourselves on the side of a (relatively) busy highway. And so, when a bearded gentlemen in a Volkswagen bus pulled up and offered us a lift back to the park … I guess some angels do wear flannel.

I don’t remember what happened after that, other than (a) we arrived back in the school parking lot three hours after we said we’d be there and (b) it was the last troop outing I remember my mother leading. Apart from missing the smores (the greedy guts in the first group ate them all), we were none the worse for wear. It had been an adventure, and one of the few clear memories I still have of my scouting experiences. Not all bad, right?

So … this week as Mom and I read this Appalachian Trail adventure,  and laugh over the antics of Bill and Katz, I’m happy to find that Mom is alert and seems to be enjoying it more than some of the other books I’ve tried. “I just love the Appalachian Trail,” she murmurs.

So do I, Mom. So do I.

Labor Pains in the Church

This morning the top story on my Facebook newsfeed was a post about the sudden resignation of one of my former profs at Sacred Heart Major Seminary — one of the few female professors, who had taught there for decades. God alone knows the full story, and the point of sharing even this much is to acknowledge my own grief and dismay over just how broken the Body of Christ has become. Color me naïve, but never in a million years would I have suspected just how widespread this sickness had grown.

go bravelyThen, mercifully, a bit of light came in the form of another post, this one by Ave author Emily Wilson. Like me, she has grown weary of the brokenness that has surfaced in the Church. In her post, “Labor, Delivery, and Our Sick and Sorry Church” she compares what is going on in the Church today with the painful realities of childbirth, particularly C-section:

There are evil men in my Church who have abused their power at the expense of thousands of innocent people whose lives are forever altered by such abuse, and  … spineless cowards … who have covered for these monsters and done absolutely nothing to protect the vulnerable except turn a blind eye and pretend to be exhibiting “leadership.” Any person with a brain would wonder why anyone would stay when the continued cover-ups of abuse and corruption go so deep and wide it is unfathomable.

But on that Sunday in the hospital, as I sat on my bed with my baby in a clear box on wheels next to me, and this woman held up the Eucharist, I received “His body, given up” for me. Those words I had spoken to my baby so many times the day before this Eucharist…they are the reason I stay.  

To be Catholic is to understand that pain and suffering is not without purpose when it becomes a purifying force, joined to the sufferings of Christ. In his March 2002 homily that was later picked up by the Los Angeles Times,  my friend Monsignor Clem Connelly observed, “What’s happening is good for the church,” he told parishioners. “Bad for its image, maybe, but good for the church. In some miraculous way . . . through the growing of the Holy Spirit in the church, we will find our way to a new day in which there is more honesty, courage, faith and accountability.”

That was more than fifteen years ago. So much has happened since that time, and yet his words continue to hold true. The pain and suffering of the faithful — innocent laity and clergy alike — are like the labor pains of the mother whose body has betrayed her, and must be splayed open in order to give that child life. “This is my body, given up for you.”

Give us strength, dear Jesus, not to waiver. And give us sustaining faith that we might never turn away from the scalpel of the Great Physician.

Night Blessings

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Are you currently the primary caregiver for a parent or other loved one? Would you like a safe place to go for prayer or just to vent? I’ve recently started a “Catholic Caregivers” site on Facebook … It’s a closed group, but you are welcome to join!

These last few days have been sad ones for Mom. Lots of tears and confusion. She keeps writing and writing, but it only increases her frustration. She doesn’t know how to explain the conflict within her, and she is fighting a battle against accusers none of us can see, let alone help her to resist.

Last night as I tucked her I could see that she was on the edge of tears, and I wanted so much to be able to ease her mind. So I laid down beside her and sang to her some of the songs she sang to me as a little girl. As she grew calm, I decided to try a little ritual that I adapted from something that I experienced for the first time as I prepared to become Catholic, when my sponsor blessed each part of my body in preparation for the journey ahead of me — into the Church.

Now, my mother is a lifelong evangelical Christian, but she is familiar with the little rituals of Catholic prayer, and I hoped that this would help to comfort her. So I made the sign of the cross on her forehead, and said, “I bless my mother’s mind. All her life her brain stored songs and stories and wisdom that she shared with her daughters. Now there are snarls and worn places that are hurting her. Please heal her mind, Lord Jesus.”

Then I blessed her eyes and said, “I bless her eyes. She looked out at the world and saw God’s beauty, and looked at me and saw God at work in my life. Please help her to see that she is a beloved daughter of God.”

Then I went on blessing the other parts of her body, ending with the feet. “I bless her feet, shod with the Gospel of peace. She traveled all over the country to take care of her family, and never complained. Please ready her feet for that final journey, that she would walk with you always.”

Mom didn’t say anything as I left, but kissed me back as I bent down to say goodnight. I think the darkness has closed in around her, and I’m not sure she can hear truth from my lips right now. But I know her angels are taking those blessings to Jesus. And I believe that he will be able to reach where I cannot.

Today the chaplain at her daycare asked us all to come in so he could give mom a “certificate of innocence.” He told mom that he knew she was worried that someone was wanting to bring her to court over something that had happened years ago. He had checked, and everyone has agreed that she has done nothing deserving of standing trial. So he was giving her the certificate to remind her that she is not guilty of any criminal wrongdoing. It’s a tangible reminder that she is where she belongs.

I don’t know if either of these things are going to have the desired effect. When you are dealing with a dementia patient, so much is happening beneath the surface that he or she may never be able to articulate, let alone resolve.

But God is merciful. And he loves his children — even the weak and confused ones. For the weakness and confusion is temporary. Shadows of the glory to come.

 

Together We Rise

Last June my husband and I flew to Rwanda to spend time with one of my authors, Fr. Ubald Rugirangoga, to finish up his book Forgiveness Makes You Free. It was a great privilege to meet in person those I had met only in the pages of his manuscript: his brother and sister (the only members of his family who survived the 1994 genocide), along with hundreds of others, both Tutsi and Hutu, whose lives had been indelibly scarred by the violence. The high point of the trip, however, was meeting the former burgomaster, Straton, who had given the order to slaughter the Tutsis who had come to the commune for his protection. Among them was Fr. Ubald’s mother and other family.

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Interpreter Alice, Heidi, Fr. Ubald, and Straton June 16, 2018

As I listened to him tell his story, I realized that this was no hardened criminal. Like so many Hutus at that time, he had been caught up in a wave of fear and hatred, protecting his own family, his own interests. But in the end, he failed. His wife died while he was in prison, leaving his children destitute. He lost his freedom, having chosen to return from hiding to give witness to the truth of what had happened. And when he was released from prison last year, he even lost his standing — the former community leader was now performing manual labor to support himself. And yet, as he talked I could hear no bitterness, only regret … and gratitude to the man whose profound forgiveness had changed not only his own life, but that of his children as well.

Returning to the U.S. after our trip, I recoiled at the political vitriol that seemed to be continuously spilling across my Facebook feed. I had seen firsthand what happens when two groups of people turn on one another — including former family and friends as well as fellow parishioners — according to party lines. While only a small percentage of Hutu had planned the killings against the Tutsi (and Hutus who resisted or tried to protect the refugees), thousands more were compelled to engage in the violence out of fear, anger, or self-interest. A million people were slaughtered in just 100 days, including whole families. Fr. Ubald’s message of forgiveness and mercy has helped many survivors to heal … but there is still much work to be done.

His message is one that is desperately needed today. The anger and bitterness that is pulling our country apart is turning deadly … and cannot be halted by one person, not even one as powerful as the President.

It must start with us. You and me.

When lifelong friends and family members become so embroiled in their political views that they stop speaking to one another, we must find a way to forgive and remember how much there is to love.

When toxic memes, vilifying one side or the other, come across our social media feeds, we must find the strength to unfollow, rather than share.

When we become disillusioned with our political system, we must not waste time and energy howling into the wind. Instead, we must ARISE. Speak respectfully. Act meaningfully. Love absolutely. And, to quote the great Mr. Rogers, “find the helpers.”

Because if we don’t do these things, not only will we fail to “make America great again.” We will lose even the goodness we once found in each other.

Together, We Rise. That red and blue needs to blend … pick your favorite shade, and let it inspire you. Crimson, electric purple, lilac.

What will you do?

 

“Are You My Friend?”

marymarthaDo you ever look around and wonder who your friends are? I sometimes do. I’m naturally introverted, and yet the combined effects of several relocations, caring for two special-needs kids (and now my mother), and endless work-related social media interactions (I’m an editor) have depleted my little black book on those rare occasions when I’m craving a girls’ night out.

Yesterday I was discussing this with an author friend who happens to fall in the category of both professional and personal connection. She has met my extended family, and made rosaries for my kids. I’ve slept at her house, and call her whenever I’m in her area to get together.

Apparently this sense of rootlessness is something that many women experience. She also made me sit up and take notice when she identified what is often the source of the problem. “There are persons, and there are personas,” she reminded me. “When you are a writer, you cultivate a persona that you let out into the world … but it’s not the same as the real you, known to your real friends.”

The moment she said this, a light bulb went on. Do editors have personas, too? Of course! So … how do I set aside the persona and let the “real me” out to play, to establish real friendships?

Interestingly, my friend’s first suggestion was … silence. Spending time together in silence, “until the uncomfortable silences become comfortable.” Of course, this isn’t something that can happen on Facebook, or in any other social media venue. It takes physical presence. It means stepping away from the computer and inviting others into the messiness of ordinary life.

This is risky, of course. I’ve had women — from church, for example — who have reached out and made an effort to connect with my daughter and me. It always surprises me a bit, to experience such kindness, knowing that I’m not really in a position to reciprocate meaningfully. What is more, the way my life is set up right now, it seems almost impossible to set up regular get-togethers. And yet, this is exactly the kind of effort true intimacy in friendship requires.

The topic of friendship is very much on trend these days. Emily Jaminet and Michele Fahnle’s The Friendship Project is being discussed in book clubs and parish women’s groups across the country. Elizabeth Foss published True Friend, a four-week devotional to help kick-start friendship in your own life.

And yet all these wonderful books won’t do a bit of good unless I’m willing to venture into that scary territory of vulnerability and initiate contact. Invite someone over (or invite myself over) for a cup of tea. Strike up a conversation with someone at a bookstore who is carrying a book I’ve recently read. Even (*gasp*) take that water aerobics class for us grannies-in-training and chat up the friendly looking lady on the kickboard next to me.

Because every decades-old friendship begins with the touch of a real, live person.

 

#WomanSpeak… at the Dinner Table

IMG_2966Every night at dinnertime, it’s the same routine: Mom painstakingly circles the table, putting each place setting carefully in order. Cups and plates, silverware and napkins, condiments and trivets, each has a rightful place on the cloth. As dinner is called, she waits for my son to pull out her chair so she can settle in and wait to be served.

She doesn’t say much as the kids tease and squabble, and we parents ride herd, hoping to turn it into a meaningful connection rather than a free-for-all. She just smiles, sometimes knowingly and other times absently. When I bring out the squirt bottle and administer justice when things get too out of control, I sometimes hear a chuckle. And when she speaks, the whole table grows quiet, waiting to hear what she has to say.

Meals are such a microcosm of family life. My culinary skills were honed at an early age, and I learned to take pride in cooking for my family, expressing my love for them by creating beautiful family memories around the kitchen table. While most of the time I manage to get dinner on the table in 30 minutes or less, I enjoy cooking on weekends when I can slow down and put together something delicious, something a bit more memorable. Something that will be savored, and will inspire those I love to slow down, put away the electronics, and enjoy each other.

As time has passed, this particular expression of motherly love is too often downgraded to a chore to be resented and, when possible, delegated. But when this happens, something important is lost to the cultural zeitgeist, which demands that men and women be equal, dammit. Each chore split fifty-fifty because a man should be called upon to do anything a woman needs to do (and vice versa).

Me? I kind of miss the days when mothers understood the influence they wielded within the family. When adults understood (and taught to the next generation) that these gestures of love and respect matter, that they are the glue of family life. I confess I liked it when men and women both took pride in what they wore, how they carried themselves, how they spent their time; how they treated others in public and private meant something. There was a common moral code of conduct that was understood to be in the best interests of everyone. You held up your end, and focused more on your personal responsibilities than your personal rights.

Looking back, I appreciate the struggle my own parents endured to keep us going. Dad drove buses and served in the military, and commuted three hours each day to provide for his family, while my mother stayed home with us. They seldom had two extra pennies to rub together, but every last bill was paid in full. Eventually. Even if that meant eating a lot of soup and wearing only hand-me-downs. Mom made it work, though we didn’t realize how stressful it was at the time. It’s no wonder she had migraines.

Time passed, and once more Mom and I are under the same roof. I feel certain that she doesn’t completely understand some of the choices I’ve made, particularly regarding our work/life balance. I’ve made very different choices than she did … and those choices, like hers, deeply affected our own children in ways we couldn’t fully appreciate at that time. As I’ve often said to my kids, “You can choose your actions, but not always the consequences.” That truism has reverberated in my head quite often lately.

As women, we speak as eloquently through our choices and actions as wives, mothers, and women, as we do through our words. What we say and do, perhaps especially when it comes to those thankless tasks no one notices, matters. God created both fathers and mothers, and yet they are not interchangeable. What we put on the table — and say at the table — speaks volumes to those we love. With every gesture, every sigh, every directive, we are shaping not just our own family, but that of generations to come.

Because we are not raising victims. We are raising hopes.