Gladys Aylward: A Heart for China

Last week I had the chance to speak to a group of local women — and my mother, who had never heard me speak in public until then — about a group of women I’ve come to regard as my spiritual mothers: Women whose example led me, as surely as Moses led the Chosen People to the Promised Land, to where I am today. They (clockwise from upper left): My confirmation namesake, Amy Carmichael; Gertrude “Biddy” Chambers, widow of Oswald Chambers; Gladys Aylward; Mother Teresa; Elisabeth Elliot; and Corrie. ten Boom. (I’ve linked each of their names to my favorite books by or about them, in case you’d like to learn more.)

Like Moses, most of them did not “cross over,” as I did, into the Catholic Church (Mother Teresa is the only professed Catholic among them). And yet, each of them left an indelible stamp upon my spirit through their lives and writings.

Tonight mom and I finished reading the book about Gladys Aylward, the British missionary to China (1902-1970), whose story was retold (with great liberties) in the movie The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman. After twenty years preaching the Gospel to teems of people suffering under Communist oppression, she felt the Lord call her back home. At first she was incredulous — she had by that time become a Chinese citizen, dressing like them, eating like them, even thinking like them. And yet, she said,

“England, seemingly so prosperous while other countries passed through terrible suffering at the hands of Communist domination, had forgotten what was all-important — the realization that God mattered in the life of a nation no less than in that of an individual…. I knew that I must go back to the land of my birth. I must return to do what I could to dispel the spiritual lethargy that had overtaken so many. I must testify to the great faith of the Chinese church. I must let people know what great things God has done for me” (The Little Woman, 136).

This was nearly fifty years ago, and yet not much has changed. The “underground” Church of faithful Christians continues to suffer and to struggle, and even to die.

Pray with me for the Holy Father, for the Christians in China … and for all those on the front lines, who seek to ease the suffering of the “least of these” who continue to suffer simply for naming the Blessed Name. Mother Gladys, pray for us, that we might not be afraid to stand with your beloved people.

Another much admired figure, from the Civil War era at Notre Dame, I’d like to write about one day: Sister Angela Gillespie.


Tips for Caring for Parent with Dementia

womanIf you give Mom a cookie … She’ll want another one to go with it. Some days, that’s her idea of a balanced diet: one cookie in each hand.

Not always, though. Most days she’s pretty careful to eat and drink like someone with a history of diabetes. But some days, dementia wins and the child in her comes out to play.

I’ve decided that caregiving for someone with dementia is a lot like parenting a toddler. Some differences, of course … I would always want to treat her like the adult she is, and give her as much say in the details of her life as possible (clothing and drink options, etc.) But this is a marathon, not a sprint: To some degree, it’s important to manage the chaos. Especially since I have two chaos-generating teenagers as well as a husband to think of. And the dogs. Oh, Lord, the dogs.

Some of the same lessons I learned (a bit too late, in some cases) while raising Chris and Sarah have come in handy for taking care of mom:

  • Enjoy the moment. When they were little, I would attempt to work when they were on the floor playing. In retrospect, life would have been much sweeter if I had joined the fun more often, instead of powering through. Now, with Mom, I move at a slower pace — but, thanks to the kids, I’ve learned to stop fuming and to reset my internal clock. I may not get as much done — but I’m enjoying it more.
  • Think twice, act once. Thinking through the steps of a task while changing, bathing, or transporting her saves wear and tear on the body from lifting her or getting myself on the floor (or up again). Gathering everything ahead of time – lotion, clothes, socks and shoes, wipes and bags, etc. – and putting them in arm’s reach can save a lot of wear and tear on both of us.
  • Go-Bag at the ready. When the kids were little, I’d never go anywhere without an emergency bag (diapers and wipes, sunscreen, change of clothes, snack and juice box, activities, emergency Diet Coke and clean shirt for me). Add a few tabs of Ammodium and an emergency set of morning meds, it comes in handy now, too.
  • Morning and evening routines make for a better day. When the kids were little, doing the same things in the same order in the morning and again at night was our best shot at a good night’s sleep. Now they are MOM’s best chance. Change into nighty, warm socks, tuck in with a kiss, soft music while I read to her, lights out. After about 10 minutes, gentle snores come over the monitor. All is well. The next morning, turn on a gentle light and a five-minute warning before getting her up helps her to be relatively alert and steady on her feet.
  • Soothing music and baby monitors. As a new parent, I discovered that the monitor was as much about my peace of mind as their safety – which holds true for the elderly, too. When she seems especially agitated, my piano music or a few Gospel favorites can soon get her humming along.
  • Encourage independence as much as possible. At bathtime, a sitting bench and detachable and/or adjustable showerhead allows her to do much of her own personal care and preserves her modesty. I’ve also learned to give ample time for her to attempt to dress and undress herself. Just as when they were little, it would be much simpler and faster for me to do it for her … but faster is not always better.
  • Anticipate changes. Ten years ago, Mom could whip up a double batch of cookies faster than you could say “oatmeal chip with walnuts.” Now I do the mixing and oven work, and she scoops the dough onto the trays. Once I made the mistake of leaving her with my teenage daughter to finish the last few pans … and Mom burned herself badly. I would never have left a toddler alone near the stove. This incident taught me the hard way that I can’t leave her, either.
  • Bribes can be your friend. As every experienced parent knows, the occasional bribe is a useful tool in the parental tool belt. The same is true for caregiving. Mom will do almost anything for sweet potato pie. I have four of them in the freezer, just in case I need to hack off a slice to make the pills go down.
  • Beware diaper butt syndrome. It’s hard to take advice from someone whose butt you once diapered. Even with dementia, parents sometimes need to hear the tough messages from others (doctors, pastor, hired caregiver, friends) in order to let it really sink in. When Mom refused to take her meds because of her auditory hallucinations, I made an appointment with her doctor, who wrote a letter I could post on the refrigerator that reads: “Sandy, as your doctor I’m telling you to listen to your daughter. She is in charge. Take all your meds every day. Drink lots of water. Keep eating to keep up your meds. If you do these things, you will stay as healthy as possible, as long as possible.” From that moment, she has not missed a pill.

What tips would you add to the list?


Night Driving

night driveTomorrow afternoon we load up the car — kids, elderly mother, dog, and presents. Lots and lots of presents. Then we head down 75 for 20 hours or so for our annual adventure to visit my mother-in-law in West Palm Beach.

It’s Craig’s annual opportunity to see how many times we can let the house-sitter set off the house alarm. Just in case you’re wondering, the record is 6 in a single day. We had to get a new house sitter after that. Also a new bedroom carpet, which Gretta soiled with the ferocity of a fireman’s hose every time the alarm went off. Good times.

My favorite part of this drive is … the night driving. Late into the night, as one by one the rest of the family nods and dreams, I sit behind the wheel, listening to a book on CD, pounding Diet Coke and Christmas cookies. My personal record is eight hours without a rest stop … with luck, I’ll be able to match it.

With night driving, you don’t have to listen to kids squabble, or play endless rounds of the Alphabet Game, or stop every ten minutes for water and bathroom breaks (you’d think they’d catch on to the fact that the two are directly related after the first twelve stops). No snarky drivers, or traffic jams, or construction pile-ups. Just the hum of the engine, the gentle lull of the reader, and the faint illumination of my husband’s LED screen. It’s pretty perfect, really.

Of course, this doesn’t last for long. Sooner or later, the aroma of Christmas cookies hits the nose of my teenage son, who hones in like a drone (despite the fact that he can’t smell the underwear rotting in his room for months on end). Sarah argues in her sleep, even if no one takes the other end of the debate stick. It’s okay, though. This is what it means to embark on a family adventure.

I wonder if this is what it was like for the Magi as they followed the trail of the star(bucks) toward Bethlehem, to find the newborn King, their camels laden with gifts and provisions and their hearts full of hope.

St. Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar — patron saints of road trips — pray for us.

When God’s Will Hurts

Today I am sitting at a desk that used to be my home-away-from-home three years ago, when I worked for this company full time. I’m here to attend a Christmas party before going to pick up my mom from her daycare facility.

nativity-447767About an hour ago, I was standing outside in the cold, unable to get into the building because — as a contract employee — I had no way to access the building. No keypad code. No card. For the first time, I felt the full weight of what it means to be a contract employee. This was reinforced when someone finally let me in — through the delivery door. (I should point out that this was doubtless not the intention — it was simply that everyone was gathered for the meeting. Most days, I really love the arrangement. It was just unfortunate timing!)

Sitting here at the desk, I ask myself why this bothers me so much. Last week when I found out my application to become an employee again had been passed over in favor of someone else, my immediate reaction (and my reaction for several days after that) was relief. This meant I could keep working from home, and could have a flexible schedule. I was confident that this was the hand of God, arranging everything in the best interest of all his children.

It was just today, standing out in the cold and waiting for someone to see me, that I felt another, darker side: as a contract worker, I don’t really belong, not like I used to. And in that moment, I realized something else: that sometimes following the will of God — even when you know in your head it is the right way — can sting. When Simeon saw Mary in the Temple, holding the infant Jesus, his words to her were a dire warning: “a sword shall pierce your heart.” She had surrendered unconditionally to the will of God.

Still, she had been warned, the way will not always be lined with palm branches and dancing shepherds. One day, that way will involve a cross. One day, she will feel like an outsider — out in the cold, people staring, judging, pitying. She will be the mother of a criminal executed in the most horrific way possible. She will be an outcast by association.

And so, my friends, will you. Because following God’s will always entails a cross. Jesus promised it: “If anyone comes after me, let him take up his cross daily and follow me.”

That wood that once shaped a manger, is the same substance that shaped a cross. And the way that God calls us to follow from the moment of baptism, and again at confirmation … will entail the sufferings that are necessary for us to grow in perfect love.

Mary, Queen of Sorrows, pray for us.




“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!

Resources for Those Who Grieve

DSCF0569When someone dies, and we are enveloped by our own grief, the thought of explaining what has happened to a child or grandchild can be truly overwhelming. Whether the death is sudden or is the culmination of an extended period of grieving, finding the right words is so, so hard.

A few years after our children came to us, our family pet — a much beloved border collie named Missy — was hit by a truck. Judging by the pile we found by the side of the road, she couldn’t have suffered. But the horror and shock quickly gave way to a kind of numbness that felt like swimming through mountains of batted grey cotton. Jut awful.

“I’ll bury her, if you tell the kids,” Craig offered. I’m not sure who got the harder task. All of us cried as I held the kids and waited for the initial tears to subside. “Why did Missy have to DIE?” Chris asked.

The simple answer was not the right answer. Missy died because she escaped the confines of our yard and wandered into a busy street. But this is not really what my son was asking. He had endured so much loss already — nearly his entire original family, except his sister. Why had God allowed so much pain to enter into one little life?

“When God sends a baby into the world,” I found myself saying, “He sends three things along: a gift to share, a burden to carry, and a job to do. When that job is done, if we stay close to God, he takes us back to heaven to be with him forever. Christopher, you have already been such a gift to us, and you have so much more to share. The burdens you have carried are so very big, and so very hard. I can only imagine that one day God is going to give you a VERY special job to do. Something that you could only do if you stayed very close to God. All that you have suffered, all that you have lost, can help you stay close to God if you choose. God does not cause our pain — he cries along with us, when he sees us suffer. And he always helps us carry it if we ask.”

I meant every word. And as the years went by, I realized that my son had heard me not just with his ears, but with his heart. He still feels the loss, but he trusts in the goodness of God. This, I think, is the best we can hope for when we explain death and grief to our children, that they understand that (1) death is a part of life and (2) suffering is never wasted when we offer it back to God.

In my last article, about starting the adventure of elder care with my mother, I mentioned that a woman named Jennifer Scott had sent me links to a couple of articles about coping with grief. These are not written specifically from a faith-based perspective. However, I think the information about what children are capable of handling at various developmental stages is useful, and so I wanted to offer it here as a resource for you.

Saying Goodbye: Talking to Kids About Death

Preparing for the Death of a Terminally-Ill Loved One: What to Expect, and How to Help the Entire Family Move Forward

Letting Children Share in Grief

The Bereaved Employee: Returning to Work

How to Create a Peaceful At-Home Hospice for Your Loved One

Keeping the Peace While Settling a Family Estate

5 Things You Must Know as the Executor of an Estate