A Wild and Precious Life

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life.
Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”
Mary Oliver (d.2019)

Mary Oliver (d. 1/16/2019), American poet and author of “A Thousand Mornings”

For those in the trenches of caregiving, the unrelenting rhythms of washing, dressing, feeding, waiting, listening, and redirecting can be overwhelming at times. Love keeps us moving forward, even when we would much rather skip town and, say, run to Vegas. But we are like the anchors in a luxury marina: Above the surface of the water, all is bustling activity and bubbly champagne. Or so it seems from our perspective, sunk deep in the mud, tied to a rope that keeps everything securely in place.

At some point, we have to ask ourselves: What am I doing with my one, “wild and precious life”? At the end of it, will I be content with the sum total of what I’ve done? Will my family remember me as someone who gave them joy — or a beleaguered hag who never laughed, never dreamed, and only grudgingly carved out time for the people who were supposed to matter most?

And if I’m not happy with the answer, what am I going to do to change it?

The Daze of Christmas

silent night (Christmas 2020)

Christmas Mass without carols. Christmas dinner without company (or even the whole family). Christmas Day without presents, spent in a cabin in the middle of a fifty acre wood.

okay, that last part was fun. But still, weird.

As we watched the priest fill the incense burner (having snagged what was supposed to be the last three seats at the 7:00 Christmas Eve Mass), it was so quiet …. the clank of the swinging thurible sounded just like cowbells. Kind of like the first Christmas, maybe.

Maybe that’s why the angels started singing.

But instead of complaining, I’d like to write about what went well this year. Craig is repairing the futon in the cabin after the seat cracked yesterday from a sudden, heavy load being dropped on the seat. The aroma of turkey noodle soup is still wafting around the living room. The fire is crackling. The dogs are snoring. So much to be thankful for.

Thank you, Lord, for my husband and all the good things he provides for our family.

My son is downstairs in his room, having sat up with us watching “The Commitments.” He dreams of the day when he has his own band.

Thank you, Lord, for his dreams. Use them to guide his way and help him find his purpose.

The snow has covered over the tracks of our vehicles. The dogs are reveling in their freedom. At home they are in a fenced in yard or on a leash. Here they run with joyful abandon.

Thank you, Lord, for all the freedoms we enjoy every day. Thank you for all the ways you have blessed us. Forgive me for all the ways I take these things for granted. Help me to do better next year.

Yesterday I got to visit with my extended family on Zoom, and sing carols badly but joyfully.

Thank you, Lord, for moments of spontaneous silliness. My Christmas wish: to have more of that in the year to come.

Amen

Love is a Funny Thing

Author’s Note: The other day I came across a dozen “drafted” posts that I’d written on the fly over the past few years (this one from late April, 2018), and I decided to finish them up and send them out into cyberspace for your enjoyment. So if they seem a bit … I think the word I’m looking for is “anachronistic,” you’re right! But sometimes the Life Less Traveled takes a detour, and that, too, has made all the difference.

To say that my life has changed drastically in the past six months since my mother has joined our household would be putting it mildly. Adding an elderly dementia patient to a house like ours, with two work-from-home parents and two special-needs teens and a couple of VERY spoiled dogs (one of whom cannot sleep at night unless her butt is planted firmly in my armpit) has been a real eye opener.

Sarah, circa 2007

But it’s also had some real bright spots. And that is the truth. Not just the “You’ll be so glad that you had this time with her when she dies” variety. Though there is that. But there are other perks as well.

I’ve discovered love is a funny thing. The same fashion-forward teen who can’t look in my direction without a snarky comment about my appearance will ooh and aah over her “Mammie’s” new hairdo. It lets me see a kindler, gentler side of her I’ve been missing.

Another member of the household (who shall remain nameless) who emerges from his room (oops) only for Doritos refills will make his way to her little apartment in the basement, just to make sure she is up from her nap in time for dinner.

What I’ve loved most, though, is that having mom with us has given me a fresh appreciation for my mother’s gift for friendship. Her church friends in Georgia haven’t written her off since she’s crossed the Mason-Dixon line to go live in the frozen winterland of northern Indiana. Even though she doesn’t write, doesn’t call, doesn’t send cookies anymore … they continue to love on her in every way possible: on the special Facebook group I’ve set up for her, where we’ve heard from people from my childhood who had passed out of my world years ago. In cards and notes and care packages. And yes, through the occasional phone call on my cell that makes my mother’s face light up when she hears a familiar voice on the other end.

It makes me wonder who will still be calling me thirty or forty years from now … How about you?

Beautiful Endings

A busy week. My father’s heart surgery had complications, we are moving mom into a group home, and I’ve had back-to-back meetings at work, “launching” next fall’s new titles. Including a new prayerbook I’m compiling for them. Oh, and Craig is heading to Michigan this week. So … yeah. It’s been busy.

Then a friend sent out a notice that Annie had died. Annie was an influential figure for me in the early 80s when I was going to Bible school and living in a Christian community in Bloomington, MN. Annie was in charge of the cleaning crew, one of the work assignments frequently handed out to freshman. Every day before doling out assignments she would gather us girls around (it was always girls who did the cleaning) and talk to us about how to clean for Christ. She never used the words #femininegenius; many years would pass before I heard them on the lips of John Paul II. But she lived them. Lord, how she lived them.

One day I was in the library and spotted some old yearbooks from the earliest days of the community. As I looked through the pictures of the early community, going back to the fifties, I was amazed at how the homely young women in the pictures had transformed. Like the proverbial Ugly Ducklings, they had grown into beautiful swans. The reason was clear: each of them had lived with heaven in view. They had worked and sacrificed to accomplish a singular mission … and love had transformed them from the inside out.

Living in community presents real challenges, and they were not immune to the vagaries of human weakness. But seeing Annie’s face again, emblazoned on that memorial card, I was reminded of something she would often say to us before releasing the Bucket Brigade:

Only one life, will soon be past.

Only what’s done for Christ will last.

Rest In Peace, Annie Flack.

A Sandwich Dream

Today it felt like I won the caregiver lottery…

All I did was make a turkey sandwich. Actually, three of them: one for my husband, one for my son, and one for his friend. But it was like a dream.

Mom was back at her daycare for the first time in four months. My daughter was outside pulling weeds, having been given a temporary reprieve from her online school and work. She was singing and taking tons of selfies. But she wasn’t shouting or swearing, wasn’t irritating the dogs or mocking her parents. Apparently fresh air is a good bipolar antidote.

And me … I was downstairs in my office, working. Until I realized I was (get this) hungry! At 1:15, having started work at 8:01 after the caregiver got here.

So I went upstairs. And I made sandwiches. And it was like I was on holiday.

Yesterday I won the caregiver lottery: a family friend offered to take mom for a month, so I could spend time attending to my family. It was a gift straight from heaven. Since returning from our trip to Acadia, I’d been noticing the old anxiety and stress creeping back to unhealthy levels. We had even talked about the possibility of long-term care for mom (who is not enjoying the manifestations of Sarah’s condition any more than we are). But this … this was unmitigated grace. Mom wouldn’t have to go to a nursing facility. She could live with her friend. At least for a few weeks. A few weeks more to breathe. To spend time with Sarah. To do the mom things I should have been doing — I WANT to be doing — all along.

Like making a turkey sandwich for the boys.

Dementia Pandem(ic)onium

the-caregivers-companion300dpiAt six this morning, I heard it: the whirr of my mother’s chair lift coming up from the basement. She was fully dressed, and had her bags packed, which means she must have been up since at least three.

“It’s time to go to the train. Judge says I have to go to Vermont.”

That damned Judge — the one in her head, who keeps giving her these untimely messages — is getting on my last nerve. Now, some experts will tell you that when someone with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia has hallucinations like these, it’s better to go with them to their world, rather than force them back to yours. These experts have never dealt with a pandemic, so I try to find middle ground.

“Remember the quarantine, Mom? The governor says we all have to stay put … the planes and trains aren’t even running right now.”

“Your Dad says they want me there today. Then it’s off with my head.”

Her head is down, her expression angry. She is waiting for the next move. In this case, distraction. Time for the big guns.

“You know, Mom, we’ve been cooped up here for a few weeks now. I could really go for an Egg McMuffin. How about you? Would you like to go to McDonalds with me? We could wear those fancy masks I’ve been making, and take Sarah with us.”

“And orange juice? And hash browns?”

“Sure. Let’s get a little fresh air. We can’t go to the train because of the quarantine. But if we wear our masks, we can do the drive-through at McDonalds.” And, thanks be to heaven, she nodded her head and grabbed her cane.

I grabbed the car keys and followed. That Egg McMuffin was going to give us a stay of execution.

Has your loved one been experiencing a greater number of auditory or visual hallucinations in the last six weeks, since the quarantine began? How have you been coping? My friends Debra Kelsey-Davis and Kelly Johnson over at “Nourish for Caregivers” are putting the finishing touches on their new full-color journal, “The Caregiver’s Companion: A Christ-Centered Journal to Nourish Your Soul,” available in August through Ave Maria Press (you can pre-order the book here).

 

“What Can I Do?” a Note for Special Needs Grandparents

familyToday I got a lovely note from a reader of one of my books, who asked for advice about how to have a better relationship with her daughter and the daughter’s adolescent child, who has special needs (unspecified). Her daughter didn’t really open up to her about what life was like, and the reader asked, “What can I do? Do you have any advice?”

Here is what I said:

Here are a few things I wish someone had told me when I first got my kids, that this woman can pass along to her daughter:

  1. Raising special needs kids can be exhausting – both physically and especially emotionally. Get as much rest as you can, and take care of your body as carefully as you tends to your child’s. It’s easy to turn to coping mechanisms like alcohol and sweets – and they do feel good going down. Balance it out with salads and water, to have the strength to keep going. Embrace  opportunities to nap.
  2. Don’t forget to enjoy your child. Every challenge has its silver lining – and your child has gifts, too. It can be tempting to focus on the things they CAN’T do so you can find work-arounds and supports. But be intentional about seeking out and affirming the things they CAN do well, whether it’s singing or joke-telling or running or coloring. They need to hear this from you, because if it’s all about the “you can’t,” they will give up trying.
  3. Celebrate the small steps and successes. This is probably one of your biggest jobs of a grandparent. Cards, phone calls, outings, babysitting (parents need down time, too), little gifts, making cookies together – whatever ways you can connect with your grandchild, do it. Do it as often as you can. Show you are as proud of THIS grandchild as you are of all your others.
  4. Pray regularly for your daughter and her family. There is a loud voice going off in her head (if she’s anything like me) accusing her of all the things she isn’t doing for her daughter, all the things she SHOULD have done and didn’t, and all the bad choices she thinks she made, based on the information she had at the time. Catch her doing good for your granddaughter, and admire it out loud. Affirm her ability as a mother – both to her special needs child and to her other children (if she has any). She may not be able to see it sometimes, and she needs you to encourage her.
  5. Don’t offer advice unless asked. This is a hard one for parents. Special needs parents tend to be great researchers, and have reasons for doing the things they do that may appear strange or even neglectful to you (my parents couldn’t understand why I didn’t turn my son over my knee when he misbehaved – and there were several reasons for this, including it is illegal to use corporal punishment on a foster child). Twenty years later, the kids still struggle, but their teachers and others tell me they are good kids. Twenty years from now, no doubt your granddaughter’s “circle” will say the same thing. So continue to affirm the good you see her doing, and keep your mouth closed in the tough spots. Follow her directions carefully, as the mom. It’s okay to ask questions for clarification or understanding – but not to second-guess her mothering.
  6. Did I mention, pray for your daughter and her family? Pray for her marriage, too. In fact, offer a rosary every day for her and her husband. That is the one most important thing you could do.

 

I hope that helps!

 

Heidi

Praying Across America: Our Adventure Begins

Craig has a dream. He wants to see all 47 of the National Parks in the continental U.S. with me and whichever family members are around to enjoy it.

I have a dream, too. I want to see my husband fulfill his dream without giving up running water and indoor plumbing. Or beds with actual sheets and pillows.

Is that too much to ask? As it turns out … not at all!  See?

  • Jayco 212QB 2019

This little beauty will be ours on Friday. That and the vehicle Craig is picking up as I type this, large enough to pull it from state to state.

Would you like to come along with us? I’d love that. I’ve set up a special page here where you can follow along. Feel free to send us your tips (or a shout out for a visit, if it looks like it will be in your area … Did I mention this thing has a picnic awning?). We can only travel about 200-300 miles a day. So we won’t get there fast … but we will get there!

If you want to be sure not to miss an installment, feel free to add your email address to our newsletter, or friend me on Facebook. I hope to acquire a Facebook Live habit along the way. Fingers crossed.

St. Christopher, keep us in your sights as we are #livingthedream as we are #prayingacrossamerica. Our first trip begins in April!

On Making Plans

If all had gone according to plan, I would be arriving in Rome today with my husband and our friends Katy and Todd, to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversaries. On Monday we would have boarded a cruise ship, which would have conveyed us across the waters to the single most important item on my bucket list: a guided tour of the Holy Land. All the while we were planning it, my heart raced to think of what it would be like to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, to visit the place where heaven truly touched earth.

This was my plan. As it turns out, God had a different plan. And so, this year Craig and I hosted Thanksgiving for a small group of family and friends, while Katy prepares to take the last round of chemo. They had tried to get us to go on the trip anyway … but I had made a pact with God. “Just make her well. The trip will wait until we can go together.”

Of course, it’s a bit foolish to bargain with God, who I am sure sees how it all turns out, and even knows whether we ever get to make that trip. All our plans, seen on that scale, really don’t matter. One of the most important lessons we need to learn in this life is that there is precious little that we can control ourselves. That’s why it’s so important to learn to trust.

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.