Thanks Giving and Taking

Like most things about 2020, Thanksgiving has become an ongoing exercise in detachment. Sarah and I are encamped with our three canine companions (including Dad’s sidekick Gracie) at our family cabin in East Jordan.

Mom is spending it with her new friends in her group home. Craig is putting out fires at work in southern Michigan, having (predictably enough) been alerted to another work emergency in lieu of a family vacation. Chris went with him late last night to prevent his father from falling asleep at the wheel … and now is spending Thanksgiving dinner with relative strangers while Craig works. My sister and father are spending their day trying to get Dad discharged from the hospital (again) in Cartersville.

So here I am, keeping vigil with a 23 pound turkey in the oven. Sarah is downstairs, headphones firmly in place. Pies are made, our traditional pistachio salad and cranberries in the cooler, roasted veggies and stuffing ready for the oven. There will be no festive conversation, no furtive feedings under the table, no clinking of cutlery or glasses full of cranberry ginger ale. Just a few quiet moments to reflect about the giving, and the taking, of thanks.

“Some luck lies,” noted Garrison Keillor in his arguably greatest novel, Lake Woebegon, “not in getting what you wanted, but in wanting what you have … Which, if you are smart enough, you will discover is what you would have wanted all along, had you only known.”

However you are spending Thanksgiving this year … may your day be as full of thanksgiving as thanks-taking. God bless.

Happy Birthday to an Extraordinary Friend

celebration colorful colourful cupcakes

Photo by fu zhichao on Pexels.com

Today is the birthday of someone extraordinary. She is the Martha to my Mary, a farm girl turned IT pro from a small town in northern Michigan. My children call her “Aunt Katy” and her husband “Uncle Todd,” though we share no biological connection with either of them.

We met while both of us were single career gals — at the time she was also nursing her mom through the final leg of her earthly journey. We lost touch for a few months, then reconnected as part of a young adult group at church. We started getting together regularly with a handful of women from the group, praying with and for each other, asking God to reveal to each of us the next step.  Within a year, we were both engaged, and stood up at each other’s weddings.

Craig and I knew going into our marriage that we would likely not have children of our own. Katy and Todd soon found the same was true for them. And so, when we became foster parents, Katy was the first to show up and lend a hand. She became our son’s godmother when we were finally able to adopt them three years later. And about seven years after that, when we had to separate the children for a time while we navigated the court system, she and Todd stepped up as guardians for our son for nearly a year. In between that, they welcomed a half dozen exchange students into their home — something that I think takes a special kind of detached affection. This year Katy ran her first triathalon, having taught herself to swim. “I’m just glad I finished!” she laughed. (She did more than that, of course … but she’s not one to brag.)

Even when we moved several states away, she and Todd continued to stay involved in our lives, helping Chris to become the best version of himself — and to this day, my son lights up when his Uncle Todd walks into the room. He doesn’t say much, but what he does say goes straight to my son’s heart.

As the years have passed, we have both faced challenges with our families of origin, and Katy’s ability to face life square-on, without flinching, has given me courage when I needed it. When my mom was hospitalized in Georgia, Katy came and stayed with my dad after I had to return home. As her own family members have faced their own mortality, Katy was always there to help them weather the hard details — up to an including moving her aunt into the house that she and her husband built with their own two hands. Now that my mother is living with us, we see Katy a bit more often. It makes Mom happy, as she regards Katy as an honorary daughter. She never seems to have bad spells when Katy is around. She’s just happy to see my friend.

She would probably be embarrassed to read this, but Katy is my model of what a Catholic woman should be. She doesn’t wear her faith on her sleeve, but lets it ground her to do what she must. She works hard, loves deep, and makes tough choices and difficult sacrifices without seeming to give a whole lot of thought to herself. When you need her, she is there … without fanfare, without complaint, without conditions. She will paint walls, chase chickens, and share a bottle of wine or pot of tea with equal enthusiam. And when she faces her own challenges, she doesn’t demand anything remotely resembling payback. God help me, I forgot her birthday yesterday when we went shopping for a dress for our vow renewal in Rome. (Well, I shopped and she watched me try on dresses with mom.) When it finally clicked as I was driving back home, and I called her up to apologize for our lapse, she said, “Well, I thought about suggesting we get dessert at lunch, but we were all so full …”

This fall she and Todd are schedule to go with Craig and me to Rome to renew our vows, then get on the cruise ship and set sail for Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, and Israel. The trip of a lifetime. And now that we have paid for our fares and made our plans, there is a chance Katy may not be able to go. So … if you are still reading this, please do me a favor:  Ask God to give her a very special birthday present, as a reward for a life so well lived … and because we still need her particular brand of sunshine in our lives.

They say it takes a village … But sometimes, all you really need is one good friend. Thank you, Lord, for taking good care of my sister-friend.

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?

Are We F-I-N-I-S-H-E-D Yet?

3gen.jpg

Last night I found myself in the middle of a chaotic exchange between my teenage daughter, my elderly mother, and myself. My husband was gone, and both of them were unhappy with me for reasons that made no sense to me. (I chalked my daughter’s tantrum up to teenage hormones, my mother’s up to dementia. Mine, simply to the resentment of being squeezed into an impossible situation.) When will it end? I kept asking myself. When will the nonsense end?

It was tempting to hold a ginormous pity party for myself. Or simply to put my foot firmly down, and insist that it was “my way or the highway.” But what would that have done? It would have led to a stubborn standoff, each of us retreating to our separate spaces feeling resentful, bullied, and misunderstood. Instead I took a deep breath.

I think we need to lighten things up a bit — how about a game of Scrabble?” I pulled out the board I’d inherited from my maternal grandmother, a Scrabble shark if ever there was one. Mom’s eyes lit up … dementia or no, she can always give me a run for my money. And Sarah likes nothing more than to see her mother beaten, fair and square.

I drew my seven tiles, then made my play: d-a-r-n-e-d. Six letters, not bad. Double points.

I heard an intake of breath, then with slightly shaking hands my mom built on my final “d”: F-I-N-I-S-H-E-D. Using all her tiles, she put her score light-years ahead of mine. She caught my eye, the triumphant gleam unmistakable. “You’re FINISHED!” she crowed.

Not quite, Mom. But someday. Someday.

Life Juggles: Multigenerational Family Edition

When you’re living in a multigenerational household, sometimes it helps to know where those teenage “aces” are kept … especially on business trips. (Please pray they’ll hold on till Wednesday!)

Extraordinary Moms Network

3gen.jpgWhat do you do when your husband calls in the middle of a work-related event, in Chicago, and says that your mother needs help getting on her jammies, in South Bend?

Why, you ask to speak to your daughter, of course. “But she’s already gone to bed,” he hedges nervously. I can’t see his face, but I can read the subtext clear as day: “PLEASE don’t make me go in there!” (*sigh*)

“Put her on the phone, honey.” Noises and loud protestations ensue in the background. True to form, said teenager comes to the phone snarling. “WHAT?!”

“Sweetie,” I say through clenched teeth. “Do you remember the talk we had before I left that you needed to help get Mammie ready for bed while I’m gone?”

“I’m sleeping.”

Time for the big guns. “So… You want DAD to go down there and help her get dressed? How do you think Mammie…

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Alaska Dreaming

alaskaFor as long as I can recall, my mother has talked of wanting to go to Alaska. When she was younger she dreamed of wanting to go and work as a missionary among the Native Americans. As a wife and mother, she set this dream aside … but the longing has never gone away. Something about the place fires her imagination.

When I used to visit her at the memory care facility in Georgia, one of the hardest parts of walking away and leaving her behind was knowing that, although she was still living, her life was pretty much over. An occasional visitor was the only relief of monotony in days filled with the drone of the television set or staring at the four walls of her bedroom. This, for a woman who had filled her own days with quilt making, cookie baking, and volunteering at church every time the doors opened. (After tending to her own home and husband, of course.) She and Dad traveled all over the country those last years of their marriage, making a special trip on their fiftieth anniversary. But they never made it to Alaska.

Now that she’s with me, her life has gotten better. Her lift recliner is squarely in the middle of the family room, where she is in the middle of all our comings and goings. She goes to daycare four days a week, so she can interact with people her own age. I’ve made efforts to help her find a church home, but she seems content going with us. And when we go places, she hops in the car and rides along. This summer she’s going to go visit my sister Kathy … and if I can manage it, we’re going to go visit my other sister in Washington, too. I’ve never been to Seattle, so this is on my bucket list, too.

As I think about making the trip west, though … Alaska is just a little further, beckoning me. We could take a train to Vancouver (another place I’ve always wanted to see), and then … what would it take to make it to Alaska?

I don’t know if we can do it. But I’d sure like to try. What wouldn’t I give to be able to say that I was able to make my mother’s dreams come true?

 

 

“Am I not your mother?” The pressing question of Our Lady of Guadalupe


This photo of Basilica de Santa Maria de Guadalupe is courtesy of TripAdvisor.

Today Catholics all over the world celebrate the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the appearances of the Blessed Mother to a poor Indian named Juan Diego shortly after the fall of the Aztec capitol city of Tenochtitlan to Cortez in 1521. Four times she appeared to him, dressed as a pregnant Aztec maiden, calling him her “son” and sending him to the bishop in Mexico City, where she wanted a shrine built.

“My dear little son, I love you. I desire you to know who I am. I am the Ever-Virgin Mary, Mother of the true God who gives life and maintains its existence. He created all things. He is in all places. He is Lord of Heaven and Earth. I desire a church in this place where your people may experience my compassion…”

Reluctantly, he eventually went — but the bishop did not immediately believe him. Returning to the hill where he first met the Lady, he found her waiting for him. Her first words ring down to us through the ages …

“My little son, am I not your Mother? Do not fear.”

Instructing him to gather the roses that had suddenly sprung up on the hillside (out of season), she sent him back to the vision. And when the poor man opened his mantle, the roses had imprinted a miraculous image — and the original tilma with the image has survived centuries of devotion, still on display behind the altar, perfectly preserved, at the basilica.

“Am I not your mother?” This question has new meaning for me right now. I recently started caring for my elderly mother, whose mind is burdened with dementia. There are some times when we don’t know how to reach each other, even while looking right into each other’s eyes. It’s a question I find myself repeating, over and over: “Is this not my mother?”

She is. And yet, not the mother I’ve always known. In fact, some days I think that the mantle has passed from her shoulders to mine.

I wonder, Juan Diego, if you ever looked into the eyes of that Lady and wondered yourself. “Who is this person? And what does she want from me that I haven’t already done? When will she be satisfied?” I understand, more than ever, the desire to escape, to go around the other way. Then, in a flash, I see her again, and I feel a little ashamed of myself. How could I NOT see that she is, indeed, my own?

I will not fear. For she is with me. And so, my Lord, are you.

Cookie Chronicles

blueberry zucchiniThis year, with Mom helping with the baking, I decided to dig out the old family receipe files and mix things up a bit from the tried-and-true gingerbread and candy cane routine.

In addition to the traditional banana bread (to use up the sour cream from the sugar cookie recipe I usually use), we are making:

Almond sugar cookies (my Aunt Lolly’s recipe), with crushed almonds and almond flavoring in place of vanilla. The scent was so heady, Chris wandered out of his room just to find out what was going on!

Next up, peanut butter cookies, using the “natural peanut butter” Craig asked for, then decided wasn’t crunchy enough. I added some crushed peanuts, just to be safe. Then roll ’em in more crushed peanuts and sugar. Because … well, you just can’t get enough peanuts in a peanut butter cookie!

Finally, my grandmother’s (Dixie’s) oatmeal chip cookies. I remember making these with her when I was a little girl, measuring out the oats and dumping them in the bowl. I figured we need at least one kind of cookie that will satisfy the sweet tooth of someone with a nut allergy, right?

Tomorrow is Sarah’s first guitar concert. She’s only been playing a couple of months, but the teacher already has her in a group of girls playing Taylor Swift’s “Last Christmas.” Looking forward to the fun!

Lessons in Poverty

IMatterA red-haired girl, about 7, energetically dragged her prize — a rolling Disney princess bag — toward my table as her beleaguered grandparents followed, their arms laden with treasures of their own. Six panels of curtains, a leather jacket, an assortment of glasses. On top of this, a dizzying assortment of tiny, sparkly skirts and tees that were clearly intended for the little fashionista who stood in front of me, ready to check out. Her dirty face shone as she squealed again over each bit of clothing as my daughter loaded it in to shopping bags with a smile. I was so glad she’d decided to come; it had been a good day.

At 2:00 I dropped off Sarah (who promptly went upstairs for a nap) and picked up Christopher, and headed to meet the others at the Center for the Homeless, to unpack the trucks full of donations for the food pantry. I have never seen more boxed mac and cheese in my entire life, and made a mental note to start donating more toiletries — toothpaste, laundry soap, and aspirin had been much asked-for items at the Cove. I made a mental note to collect soda bottles and fill them with detergent for next time.

After spending a full day rubbing elbows with the neediest members of our community, first at the Shepherd’s Cove Clothing Pantry (Elkhart), and then at the
Center for the Homeless
(South Bend), I dragged my body home and collapsed on the couch. I was tired and sore all over from the lifting, bending, and stretching. But I had learned a few things as well.

Don’t forget to pray. I saw an elderly woman’s eyes tear up in front of me when I asked if I could pray with her. Her granddaughter was moving in with her, and she had just found out her kidney cancer was back. She grabbed both my hands as I asked God to heal her, and to keep her granddaughter safe.

Little things mean a lot. A little kid tripped and fell, and his mother and grandmother both had their hands full. So I went over and picked him up … and saw that this was precisely the wrong thing to do. So I set him down and did a little song and dance, and got a laugh, the boo-boo forgotten. At the end of the tally, little Richard waved at me. “See you next time!”

Fear can make you greedy. I’d often heard this in foster training, in relation to food hoarding, but it came back to me as I watched people bring 30 shirts and 20 pairs of pants to clothe a single child. I wondered why they needed so much … but quickly dismissed the idea. I had seen the mountains of unopened donation bags. There would always be more. If this is what they believed they needed to get by, who was I to say no?

It really does take a village. I was surprised to see how much “stuff” was available for the people who needed it. The problem was that there were so few volunteers to sort, organize, and help the clients that much of the stuff sat there for weeks, unopened and unused. Donating just five hours a month — a single Friday or Saturday — could make a real difference.

If you live in St. Joseph County (IN) and would like to volunteer your time, or if you live outside the area and want to make a donation to keep the lights and heat going, contact Sharlee Morain at shepherdscove@hotmail.com 

 

“How Was Your Trip?”

It’s a question we’re getting a lot these days, now that we are home again from our family excursion to Costa Rica. The truth is, the effects of this trip will stay with us a long time. The friends we made challenged us, blessed us, and made us look at the world — and ourselves — in new ways.

Dios te salve, Maria, llena eres de gracia; el Senor es contigo…

"Angie" at midwife'sOur experience at the Center was eye-opening. One fifteen-year-old girl, great with child and terrified of the pain of labor and delivery, had a healthy baby girl … and returned just days later with a dehydrated infant whose umbilical cord had become infected. “Angie” did not want to be a mother, she wanted to go back to school. But the hospital sent her back to the Center to learn how to care for her infant, and to care for herself, and to take up the mantle of maternity. Another mother, “Patricia,” seventeen with two children, came alongside Angie and empathized with how hard it was, and how important.

Benedita tu eres entre todas las mujeres, y benedito es el fruto de tu vientre, Jesus.

In a few days, Angie’s smile had returned, and her daughter’s cheeks began to plump. I had not touched the baby, except to smile at her in passing — it was critical that the mother bond uninterrupted with her child. But there were others in need of holding, in need of changing, in need of singing. There were older ones, too, who needed to be reminded of how much God loved them, too. We colored and sang and read aloud in my deplorable Spanish. Soon ten-year-old Lola was reading, too.

Labor room - before

Labor room – before

 

Baby Room Costa Rica 001

New Labor Room

Santa Maria, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores,

When my own family joined me and the Spanish-speaking volunteers who had started the trip with me left, things took a different turn. Susana, the woman in charge of running the Center, a no-nonsense “Tico” (as they call themselves, native Costa Rican – as opposed to the indigenous Cebecar who come from the mountains to have their children) had very different ideas about how much babies should be held. Susana was of the mind that there was too much house-cleaning to be done, that they should be left alone to go to sleep.

At one point just before I left, we were all getting ready for the new bishop to visit the Center, to give his blessing to the women there. Susana had everyone busy scrubbing and tidying the common areas; after doing the breakfast dishes I went out on the porch and tended the children so the others could work undistracted. Around noon lunch was served, and Susana told me to put the baby I was holding in his crib so I could eat my lunch. I had just gotten him to sleep, and the moment his head hit the pillow, he started crying. So I picked him up again … and Susana grabbed him from my arms, took him to the sink, and doused him in cold water. Above his screams, she lectured me in Spanish. Even if I could have understood her, I doubt I would have listened. At that moment, I just wanted to grab the baby and run. Instead I stood there, rooted to the floor, as she wrapped the baby in a towel and handed him off to his mother to nurse. Gradually his sobs relented and he drifted off to sleep.

I realized at that moment it was time for me to go home. A journalist from the diocesan paper came ahead of the bishop, to do a story on the Center. I chatted with her about my visit, about setting up the laboring room and sharing about the Center with people in the United States. At that moment, my daughter came up cradling a kitten, who was rapidly declining from the combined factors of not enough food (his mother had run off, and he had to subsist on whatever the dogs didn’t eat from the mealtime scraps) and too much rough handling from the older children. Animals serve a utilitarian function in Costa Rica, something Sarah had a hard time understanding. “Why don’t you take him to the vet? He’s going to DIE!!!” she sobbed. Seeing the cat’s neck was nearly devoid of fur, I wondered if he had mange. Gently I took the animal from her grasp and set it down so I could give her a hug. “I know. It’s hard. Life here is harder that it is in the States, honey. We can’t really change that. All we can do is love them as long as we are here.”

She looked at me, accusing. “You don’t care about that cat! You’re mean!!!”

Ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amen.

Her words rattled me a bit. Yes, her teenage outburst wasn’t unprecedented. And I knew it would be impossible to explain to the satisfaction of her tender heart why I was not taking a more active role in saving the kitten. Just as I had not been able to persuade Susana that the babies needed the stimulation I had been giving them, that I was not just spoiling them. When two worlds collide, there is always the risk of misunderstanding. But it is also at this crossroads that transformation can occur.

It had been years since I’d been engaged in any kind of missionary work. Frankly, I should have learned more Spanish before undertaking this trip … though I quickly learned that not all the indigenous women were fluent in the language. I saw these women sit at the back of the church, unable to go forward to receive the sacraments, and wished I had been able to teach them. I saw the mountain of suitcases containing baby clothes from previous volunteers, and realized that they didn’t need more onesies. What they needed was for someone to tell them, in their own language, how much their Father in heaven loved them and their children.

Saida and KennethThese young mothers could not count on the support of husbands, or even the financial security of a job back on the reservation. Based on what I had seen, it was very likely some of them would be back the following year, with another baby. Would someone be ready to teach them then?

During my time in Costa Rica, I was reminded of how short and hard life can be, despite its wild beauty. I saw that love does not always come wrapped in soft flannel and warm water. Sometimes it simply stays, bearing silent and prayerful witness to the longing of the human heart. And sometimes, love cries along.