#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.

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How a Caregiver Spells “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”

generationsThis week I’ve been thinking a lot this week about how family roles and dynamics change — and don’t change all that much — once dementia enters the picture. Navigating those changes takes a lot of energy, willpower, and … well, sensitivity. And to be honest, that last one does not come easy to me. I’m the kind of person who can organize and execute (pardon the word) complex events and projects. When it hits the fan, I can come up with a Plan B, C, and D quickly and without a lot of fuss.

But as I was reminded earlier this week, people are not projects or events. And they don’t always fit neatly into our plans — and have some pretty big feelings when you try to impose that plan upon them. When my husband and I decided to take mom out of the home she’d been living in and bring her to live with us, our entire family breathed a collective sigh of relief. Yes, it meant getting used to the cold, and not seeing her old church friends every week. And it meant going from the quiet, controlled environment of a memory care facility to the boisterous and often chaotic one here. But she seemed happy. “She is always smiling in the pictures you post on Facebook,” Dad commented.

It turns out, however, that our lawyer was right when he advised us, “Your relationship may change once you stop being the ‘rescuer’ who takes her out of the facility for the day and become her fulltime caregiver. She may turn on you … It’s not easy to grow old and lose your independence, even when decisions are being made for you by someone who loves you dearly.”

And he was right. This week I also discovered that other family relationships can be affected by the new arrangement as well. Hurts and regrets from the past, feelings from the present, and fears about the future can make for some uncomfortable and even painful interactions, no matter how much two people love each other. And when that happens, preserving the relationship means showing a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

  • Recognize that there may be underlying feelings, issues, and concerns that must be acknowledged on both sides.
  • Encourage the other person to tell you, privately and confidentially, what they are seeing, feeling, and observing. Hear them out, even if you don’t agree with everything being said.
  • Seek outside assistance and perspective from those who are familiar with your particular situation. Sometimes having additional information can help.
  • Positivity can be a gift when a relationship is struggling. Remind the other person of what she does well, and how she contributes to your life.
  • Email is generally not the best way to resolve conflicts. It reduces the ability to offer empathy, eye contact, and elicit human contact.
  • Compassion is as much about what you don’t say as what you DO say. Sometimes the most compassionate response is … silence.
  • Touch. I once heard it said there are three parts to every good apology … the words (“I’m sorry”), the acknowledgment (“I should have… shouldn’t have … please forgive me.”), and the touch (hand on shoulder, handshake, or even simple eye contact with a smile). That personal connection can be so important when someone is feeling sad, lonely, or upset.

What are some other ways you’ve found effective in showing those you love (particularly those with dementia) respect?

Traveling with Dementia

mom going to seattleThis week my mother and I flew to Seattle to visit my sister Chris. It was the first time in the Pacific Northwest for the both of us, and we both had bucket list items to check off: My mother wanted to see a whale, or the coast of Alaska; I dreamed of having tea at the Empress Hotel in Victoria.

Sunday Mom gets her wish. I got mine LAST Sunday, when I took the Clipper Ship Cruise to Victoria for the day. It was every bit as wonderful as I’d hoped it would be … and I hope Mom has a whale of a tale after our excursion, too.

The thing is, we almost didn’t make the trip. The day before we were to leave, Mom’s delicate internal workings kicked up a fuss, requiring several doses of Imodium to get it under control. I remember what her psychiatrist had said on the last visit. “Your mom may be getting to the stage where travel is too difficult for her. People may need to start coming to her, because travel can be disorienting for dementia patients.”

Mom insisted that she wanted to go see Chris. I think that, like many times in life, the prospect was infinitely more intriguing than the reality. However, we started early, left plenty of time for rests, and contacted the airport ahead of time so they would have a wheelchair and attendant ready for every leg of the trip. We got there safe and sound … and though she is sleeping more than usual, she seems to be having a good time. I know Chris and I are enjoying this quality time with her, too.

Here are some things we did that I think makes the difference between a “not bad” trip and a great trip.

  • Don’t over-plan the itinerary … and build in some down time for both of you. The first two days mom stayed with my sister in her apartment, while I took a trip to Victoria on my own. Bliss.
  • Don’t cheap out. Pay for convenience. We got super-cheap airfares on Delta (who is now my airline of choice for traveling with my mother). It cost extra to check bags, but I went ahead and ponied up so I didn’t have to drag everything we both needed through two airports. I also sent a package via Amazon with toiletry products directly to my sister about a week ahead of time. Worth every penny.
  • Keep routines as familiar as possible. Bring a favorite pillow, her favorite bedtime reader, her favorite tea. Let the host know what kinds of supports would be most helpful (commode, shower bench or handles, mattress pads, etc.). Remember to pack a “travel bag” similar to the one you keep in your own car with over the counter and everyday meds, extra pants and sweater, plastic bags, disinfecting wipes, a change of clothes, list of doctors and emergency contacts (including your own cell phone number), copies of medical card and ID, and snacks and water. Put it in the rental when you get to your destination.
  • As best you can, anticipate the unexpected. Tape a small card with your name, phone number, and medical condition information inside your loved one’s shoe, in case you are separated. When you arrange for the wheelchair, you should also alert the airline that you will be traveling with an adult with cognitive impairments, in case he or she has a breakdown at the airport.
  • Be prepared to pay a price for the adventure. Either during the trip or afterwards, you may experience some temporary setbacks (tears, blank-face, belligerence, or a flare up of other symptoms). Your loved one may be happy to see your host, but be uncooperative or demanding with you, her regular caregiver. I’ve learned not to take it personally, but to chalk it up to the loved one feeling tired or overwhelmed. Tomorrow is another day. Make the most of it.
  • Remember to have fun yourself. Have your favorite treat or drink on hand, and let (or even ask) the host family members or pay a sitter to take over some of the everyday chores or just sit with your loved one so you can take a break as well. Put Netflix on your cell phone to keep your loved one (and yourself) entertained during down times.
  • Slow down, breathe deep, and notice the little pleasures of life. It all passes so fast … and the best memories are often found in the things you didn’t plan.

 

Fighting Scandals and Spirits

BlaiLike so many, I’ve been watching the unfolding of events surrounding the release of the PA grand jury report, and the subsequent response of laity and clergy alike. One aspect of the scandal that has been particularly tough to stomach is the revelation (to me at least) is the prevalence of sexually active clergy (both gay and straight) that has short-circuited the spiritual authority of the Church, reducing men who should have been warriors and spiritual fathers to weak and ineffectual CEOs fluent in empty assurances who would rather meet than lead. What are we to do? So far, even the Vatican has been distressingly silent on the matter. How are we to separate the sheep from the goats, and restore the moral authority of our leaders?

In the seventh chapter of Judges, the Lord gives Gideon the blueprint for raising the army that would conquer their feared enemies, the Midianites. “The LORD said to Gideon: You have too many soldiers with you for me to deliver Midian into their power, lest Israel vaunt itself against me and say, ‘My own power saved me.’” (Judges 7:2). After reducing the company of 22,000 soldiers to 300 stalwart, brave men, the Lord delivered into the hands of the Israelites not just the two princes of Midian, but all their troops as well. Reading this story, it seemed to me that a similar winnowing process is in store for the Church. The Lord needs not thousands of “career soldiers” who will let down their guard and seek to their own comfort, but a handful of faithful, vigilant warriors in order to take back the ground the enemy has occupied.

But how? It wasn’t until I picked up and began reading this book by Adam Blai that both the reason for this standoff and its path of resolution began to take shape. His book  Hauntings, Possessions, and Exorcisms (Emmaus) offers insights into the spirit world and articulates the rules that govern demons, malevolent spirits that roam the earth as fallen angels. Reading between the lines (he does not directly reference the scandals), Blai provides sobering insights about how we got to where we are today … and what needs to happen for our leaders to become instruments in the hands of God that will purify his Bride.

Reading this book, I was reminded of two spiritual principles that go to the heart of the current crisis: First, that darkness and hiddenness — including self-deception and rationalization — are among the devil’s most powerful tools. Second, it is those who are most ardently pursuing God who are most likely to draw the devil’s fire. Blai reminds us in his reflection on the book of Job.

The Book of Job has two clear lessons: God is all-powerful and cannot be hindered, and the Devil has to ask permission from God for everything he does. We see that both temptation and trials come from Satan, but it is God’s protection and decrees which are important, not the Devil… People, particularly people the most committed to God, are targeted by the Devil and God allows them to be tested. We see this play out in the life of Job and in the lives of many of the saints, who are often tested fiercely by the Devil as they draw closer to God. The end reward of this struggle is the restoration of all that Satan was allowed to wound, and abundant graces beyond that in the form of an eternal life in heaven with God. (p.112-113, emphasis mine).

So … what is the pathway to healing? Ultimately, lasting justice will not be found through our legal system (though this may be the means by which the full extent of the problem must come to light). The Bride of Christ, deeply wounded by the sins of her representatives, can never be healed through a temporal legal process, by compensating victims, or by placating the public. It will come only through the winnowing of the army of the Lord so that, purified and disciplined, they are ready to serve the Bride with humility and devotion, even unto death. They must seek out the wounded, and show them the mercy of God until they open their hearts to God for healing and to find the peace they seek through the grace of forgiveness.

Healing will come when those called to be on the front lines of this great spiritual war stand up and fight to take back the ground that has been occupied by the enemy. These warriors must embrace the principles of discipline and authentic love, and refuse to give the devil the tiniest foothold through moral compromise. Only then can they make themselves battle ready, and move forward to resist the enemy at the prompting of God himself, as we read in Ephesians 6.

Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens. Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground. So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all [the] flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Eph 6:13-17).

Come, Lord Jesus, pour forth your spirit, and renew the face of the earth. Give us courage to persevere, even to the shedding of blood, to bring your light to the darkest places of the world, and to restore the glory of your Kingdom. Jesus, we trust in you.

Mother Mary, embolden your children for battle, that we might imitate you by resisting evil and crushing the serpent’s head. Take every priest to your Immaculate Heart, and enkindle in each of them the courage of a lion and the humility of a dove. Cover them with your mantle, and protect them from evil. Give them hearts of purest love, the most powerful and irresistible force in the universe.

Daycare Dilemma

woman  Sneaky Pete is on the warpath again. At least, I think that’s the source of my mother’s tears this afternoon when she came home from daycare.  “They took a vote,” she said plaintively. “They told me I drool too much to stay there, and they voted 100% that I had to go.”

Now, I suppose it’s possible that one of the other clients had said something nasty. Eldercare, I’ve found, can be a lot like going back to middle school: there are rich kids and drones, physically fit and couch potatoes. Above all, there are mean girls whose sense of social propriety has gone the way of nighttime continence.

“Who was it that said these things to you?” her afternoon aide inquired gently. “If we know who it is, we can do something about it.” Mom shook her head stubbornly. She did not want us to fight her battles. She just wanted a safe place to cry.

After a hearty dinner and a soothing bath, it was time for our nightly tuck in. Tonight’s psalm in Jesus Calling was especially sweet: “In peace will I lie down and fall asleep. For you, O Lord, make me secure” (Psalm 4:8).

Growing old is not for the faint of heart. It must be tough, losing control of functions that you once took for granted … even the ability to eat a bit of food or sing without drooling. Or have a clear sense of self, without being tormented by the never-ending accusations of Sneaky Pete. Lord, help me to remember this when I am tempted to lose patience. Help me to show love, to give her reassurance, so that she might find the strength to endure.

When Mothers Arise

IMG_4465Each year on this day Catholics all over the world remember the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the day she was taken body and soul into heaven at the end of her earthly life. In years past, some families feasted on raspberry shortcake and adorn their statues with rose garlands. Others decorated balloons with images of the Blessed Mother, and launched them heavenward.

Sadly, this isn’t a year for such celebrations. The most recent news reports outlining the depravity of some very bad men at the highest level of the Church has traumatized the Catholic community. The outraged responses are wholly understandable and natural. Sadly, all the outrage in the world is not going to fix this problem.

Last night I attended the vigil Mass at Queen of Peace, delighted to see both my children singing in the choir — something they had reluctantly agreed to after I told them it was the only birthday present I wanted this year. Even so, they grumbled … but they went. As I watched them that night, I was reminded again of the great influence women hold in the lives of their families to inspire goodness in their children.

I also thought about the redemptive power of a mother’s love to make wrongs right, and to guide her children to repentance. While we were in Rwanda, attending an open-air Mass, during communion the religious sisters in front of us left their seats to distribute the consecrated hosts. During that time, a man came and swiped this sister’s purse (pictured above) and tried to make off with it … and was promptly taken into custody by vigilant security. At first he glared about him, defiant. Then, when the sister returned and learned what had happened, she said not a word. She just turned and looked at the man full in the face. He crumbled into a chair and covered his face. Then she sat beside him and began speaking gently to him. (I don’t know what was said — she was speaking in Kinyarwanda). As he was being led away, I thought about the way her mother’s heart had touched him and inspired him to recognize and regret the wrong he had done.

I don’t know exactly how this applies to our current crisis, except to say that a mother’s heart is a powerful force for change. Frankly, I don’t know if it is even possible to exact true justice through the judicial system we have today … I sincerely doubt it, based on our own experiences with the juvenile justice system (ironically, in Pennsylvania). What I do know is that true repentance and conversion is possible only in hearts that are open and unguarded, who love God more than they love themselves. Men who love their Mother enough to be willing to endure any trial in service to her. If there is going to be true change in the hearts of those who lead our Church, it will come only as they are drawn once more to fall in love with God, and with their Blessed Mother. That is where they will find the strength to do what must be done … and to stay the course.

My friends, as we continue to pray for God’s will in this ongoing battle for the souls of both perpetrators and their victims, on this day of the Assumption I will be praying that the love of Our Blessed Mother will arise and blanket the earth afresh, and that we will all find the courage and humility to seek not simply justice, but true healing and reconciliation. Our Lord promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against his Church. We must remember that those gates swing both ways — and that the forces of destruction can come from without as well as from within. Lord willing, so will the forces of healing and reconciliation.

Our Lady of the Assumption, Arise! Spread your mantle of love over us, and pray for us, that we will soon be able to proclaim the Good News with pure and loving hearts. Amen.

Making Time for What Matters

night driveMom has been visiting with my sister in New Hampshire for the past two weeks, and yesterday was the day Sarah and I drove to Toledo (which Kathy insisted was the most convenient meeting place … it involved twelve hours of driving for her, two and a half for me, but … well, okay.)

While we waited for my sister to arrive, Sarah and I hit the movies and took in Mama Mia 2: Here We Go Again. In this movie, the mother (played by Meryl Streep) has died and the daughter (Amanda Seyfried) is about to have a grand re-opening party for the hotel that she has remodeled as a memorial. The movie itself is a series of flashbacks and forwards, showing how the daughter is following in her mother’s footsteps all along the way (except for the crazy gal pals, I guess). Each generation in turn sets a goal, makes a plan, and rallies those near and dear to help pull it off with single-minded ferocity.

And everything is beautifully color coordinated in Elysian Blue.

Late last night, my sister and I talked for a long time about our respective lives, how things have changed since mom has joined us (and they have). Their two weeks were replete with quilt shops, swimming holes, and homemade sweet potato pie. By contrast, mine is full of laundry, getting kids to do their chores, and pill counting. At the end of the day I collapse and either heat or ice my shoulder in an effort to get the ache to go away long enough for the Tylenol PM to kick in so I can sleep.

No twinkly lights. No spontaneous bursts of song. Unless you count the fifteen minutes I spent forcing my daughter to go over her choir music. Although she has an amazing voice, she doesn’t like people to look at her, and so getting her to sing in the new youth choir required a minor miracle. I told her I didn’t want a birthday present if she would just sing for one performance. Mama Mia, here we go again…

Then, unexpectedly, my mom wandered into the room and sat in her recliner, fixed her gaze on Sarah, and smiled. And if by magic, Sarah started to sing Panis Angelicus. A little breathy at first, then with greater confidence. I tried to reinforce the Latin pronunciations and got the stink eye … but as long as Mammy was watching, all was well.

So glad you made it home, Mama Mia.