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?

 

 

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When the Caged Bird Stops Singing

Today cyberspace was abuzz with news of the death of poet Maya Angelou, whose fearless prose, particularly I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a work of autobiographical fiction, was a bright spot in my high school career.

When I heard about Maya’s death, remembering the title of her book immediately made me think of my mother, whom I saw last weekend at a mental hospital in Atlanta. The only thing harder than seeing her there, it turns out, was leaving her there, knowing that there is a better-than-average chance it was the last time. Her carotenoid artery 90% blocked on her right sidJohn and Sandy=201250e, she is not in her right mind, yet her doctor refuses to do surgery because she is a “surgical risk.” And so, while we seek a second and even a third opinion, she waits in a ward with her “people,” a group of similarly old and confused patients.

Almost everything has been stripped away. Hospital policy prevents her from having her hardbound study Bible (only paperbacks allowed), or anything on the walls. Her life has been reduced to a few changes of clothing, a hospital bed, and one-hour visits from up to two family members a couple of times each week. She has lost 30 pounds, and there is no telling from one day to the next whether she will lash out, or reach out in a hug.

The one bright spot in the ward is a nurse I will call “Queen Winnie.” Magnificent and matronly, her close-cropped hair silvery against her ebony skin, she is kindness personified as she gently directs my mother to wherever she next needs to be. “She’s a good singer, your mother,” she told me on Sunday. “We were singing the old church hymns together before you go there.” Mom smiled and nodded.

At that moment, she wasn’t singing. “I want out of here,” she said plaintively. I want that, too.

Sometimes, though, no matter how much you want something, you have to let her go.

On the way home, I raged — feeling a little ashamed about the likelihood that I was adding to my father’s burden, but unable to contain the sense of injustice, that a woman who had spent her life in the service of others, was spending the last days so confined. And equally mad that the love of her life had been robbed of her presence long before her breath left her body.

A detachment of a most powerful and terrible kind.  It is, in the words of Sheldon Vanauken, a “severe mercy,” the moment in an adult child’s life when you realize that you cannot fix what is wrong, and you cannot save them both. All you can do is hold on, and hope.

In the words of Ms. Angelou: “Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.”

Keep singing, Momma. And when it comes time to leap that fence, know you take a piece of me with you.

when mercy moves

easter-breadThis Sunday Sarah and I sat in the choir loft, where Craig was holding court in the bass section. It was going to be the last time he was able to sing in the choir before we move to our new home in Phoenixville. And though he hadn’t been singing with them for more than a year, it was clearly a struggle for him to let go. To leave. To start over.

Me, not so much. Truth is, I have a bit of gypsy in my blood. A kind of restlessness creeps in as the time gets closer for the new adventure. The boxes packed, the electric bill switched, the new house leased. A rush of excitement as I think about being able to unpack all our things that have been languishing in temporary storage.

And yet, as we drive home I cannot help but feel the weight in the car. “Moving stinks,” Sarah volunteers. Craig grunts. I recount all the wonderful things in store: the new au pair who is coming from Germany. The park with swings in our backyard. The big deck for summer barbecues. The beautiful new school we get to visit early in May. And yes, the new parish that has both an adult and children’s choir. Good things, all of them.

Still, the silence. And in that moment, I realize: Those strains of mercy needed most, are those we dispense when we are least disposed to grant it. In the classic work The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis spoke of the Shining Ones who retrace their steps back down the mountain to meet the bus with those from the Gray Town. The grass cuts the feet of those phantom spirits. And yet the Shining Ones urge them farther and higher.

At Easter we remember those whose worlds are touched with gray, that the Spirit would make our joy contagious.

A Severe Kind of Mercy

As I contemplated writing tonight’s post, I read that Moammar Gaddafi’s youngest son and three grandchildren were killed in a NATO missile strike. The general survived, the report continued. On the other hand … how does anyone survive a loss of that magnitude?  

Ordinarily the news might not have made such an impression on me. However, I recently took my children to see their birthparents, who had not seen any of their four kids in seven years.  It was supposed to be another seven years before Chris was supposed to see them, but Christopher’s birthdad had been having heart trouble. Craig and I talked about it off and on for months, until he finally — reluctantly — agreed to a single visit.  We didn’t want Christopher to miss seeing him altogether.

As we walked into the home, Christopher became very animated, shouting, “I remember! I remember!” He ran upstairs to his old room, which seemed not to have been touched since he left it. All his toys and toddler-sized clothes were still there, as though he would be home to stay any minute. As though the little boy he once was had been frozen in time.

It was the same with Sarah’s room. The crib, the rocking chair, the baby swing … Everything was still there. Quickly their birthmom began digging through toys, handing them to the kids until their arms were full as the birthdad left the room so the kids didn’t see his tears. On the way home, I contemplated what I had seen and wondered if I’d done the right thing. 

Then, as if in response to my unspoken thoughts, Christopher piped up, “I can’t wait until I turn 18, so I can move back with my real family.”

I swallowed hard, trying not to show how his words had hurt. “You already live with your real family, Christopher.  You will always be part of our family, no matter how old you are. That’s adoption.”

He thought about that for a minute. “Well… maybe I can live in the middle.”

This “living in the middle” feeling was understandable, and I didn’t take it personally. I have read of adoptive families that  successfully integrate birthfamily members into their extended family. Even so, my son’s comment made me wonder: How can a child who has contact with two sets of parents grow up feeling anything but “in the middle”?

A few weeks have passed, and I’m still not sure it was the right choice.  Time will tell.  What I do know is that once again Sarah is sleeping with us every night, and Christopher has been having nightmares in which I disappear and he can’t find me. I agreed to the visit out of love . . . and yet I can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t a severe kind of mercy.

God’s mercy can also seem severe sometimes. This is the side of grace we don’t often consider. When Craig and I were presented to John Paul II in 1999, while in Rome on our honeymoon, I distinctly remember looking into the man’s clear blue eyes and thinking that I’d seen heaven there.  He could barely walk, and was a shell of the vital man he once was. Six more years would pass before he was finally laid to rest. Six more years of walking through that valley of the shadow, one painful step at a time.

However, the man Karol Wojtyla had embraced the job God had given him to do: to take up a particular cross that would uniquely reflect the self-donating love of God to all his children. As Pope John Paul II, he reminded us how utterly we need that hard-won, amazing grace every day of our lives. Even, and perhaps especially, when that way grows difficult, when it would be easier just to give in to despair and bitterness.  It is an uncommon kind of mercy, which drives the nails into the cross we have been called to carry.

As we celebrate the beatification of John Paul the Great tomorrow, let us remember the Divine Mercy that guides each of us all the way to heaven.  Together, as a family, in good times and bad, let us recall the act of grace emblazoned on Faustina’s image:

Jesus, we trust in you!

Miracle Monday: Ben’s Bells Project

ben_collage

Update: On April 15 I got a note from Ben’s mother, thanking me for the post … and letting me know that, two years after Ben’s death, they adopted two girls from Russia!

On March 29, 2002 — Good Friday seven years ago — three-year-old Ben Packard suddenly died of croup. His parents desperately wanted to find a way to bring some kind of healing out of their personal tragedy.

They created “Ben’s Bells” to recognize acts of kindness in their community — in their own words, “to inspire, educate, and motivate each other to realize the impact of intentional kindness and to empower individuals to act accordingly to that awareness, thereby changing our world.”

“Ben’s Bells,” grew to become a community effort that recognizes the power of kindness. In memory of little Ben, people in the Tucson, Arizona area gather to create these beautiful ceramic windchimes … and send them to selected recipients (it’s called “belling”), whose act of kindness has made a difference in the life of local residents. To date more than 11,000 sets of bells have been distributed.

One of the recent recipients of this award are foster parents Barbara and James Reyes, whose story was run in the Arizona Daily Star last February.

Ben’s mother Jeannette tells their story here.  The site offers instructions on how to start a chapter of the “Bells” in your own community as well!