Hello from my study on the Acre,
There are only a few hours beyond a day before we finish this year, marking a fifth of the way through this 21st century. Twenty years ago we were panicking about something known as Y2K, wondering if our technological world would come crashing down and create mass chaos. As we approach this new year, we have been living mass chaos for months. While some prophesied the somewhat shit-show our national politics are, few could have imagined the lockdowns, the isolation, the quarantines, the remote teaching, the trauma of illness and death that has befallen us like an Old Testament plague. There can be little wonder if the Psalmist might find themself writing a new lament, or perhaps, the words of the 22nd Psalm, cried out by Jesus on the cross are words enough. Because of either the divided nature of our country or the alarming rising death toll from COVID-19, I believe we can aptly recall the words of Shakespeare in his work, Richard III, “[n]ow is the winter of our discontent.” There is certainly more than enough discontent to go around. There are good people (and some not so good) on both sides of the political aisle who argue they care deeply about this country and yet they cannot meet somewhere in the middle on most anything or remember that they represent the American people. Then again, unfortunately, perhaps that is exactly what they are doing, representing our collective spirit of discontent, of suspicion, of unwillingness to engage with the other, or finding it possible to accept the truth of the other, to believe there is some simple answer to all of this. Humans are not simple (at least when it comes to figuring them out). This is not really the purpose of this blog; as the last blog of this calendar year, as I am sitting at home working on a chapter, trying to manage a deadline, and wishing I was once again in Poland for the holiday – but not really because of the present global concerns – I am reminiscing about this time six years ago.
I had barely finished a 12 day vigil at the bedside of Lydia, undoubtedly one of the most profound people I ever met, as she ebbed away from the long-term effects of dementia. The tickets to Poland had been purchased and the reservations for staying five days in Kraków were booked long before I went home that 14th of December. I knew she would have a doctor’s appointment on the 18th, but there was little that could prepare me for the shell of a woman waiting my return. Dementia had hollowed her mind, her body, and her ability to care for herself, but it had not vanquished her stubbornness nor her ability to make her desires known. In fact, it might have heightened both. And yet, this once proud and meticulous Austrian woman struggled to manage everything about herself, and the seizures experienced were debilitating and painful. While she would not remember the pain or the seizure, the way they exhausted her after their occurrence was as painful as an observer, and more so for me because I saw their consequence. I remember that Saturday morning, following breakfast, when she asked to go back to her room; she wanted to go back to bed. This was not her usual routine, though there was little normal to what she did those last days, besides move slowly along in her wheelchair or fall asleep. Nonetheless, she was insistent she wanted to go back to bed. In retrospect, it was amazing because she never really left her room again. However, if you think she merely retreated to her room, nothing could be further from the truth.
While I would stay with her for 10-12 hours a day, one morning as I returned from sleeping on the Circle, I walked into her room to see her with her hands wrapped in a caretaker’s hair and she held the poor girl head, her face smashed into the mattress so she could barely breathe. I asked the caretaker if she was okay, and in a muffled voice, she gasped, “Yes.” I told Lydia she needed to let her up, and she responded with a firm and insistent, “NO!”. Long-story, short, it took me five minutes or more to untangle the young woman’s hair from Lydia’s fingers. Of course, then there were the times she would slap a water glass completely across the room or refuse to open her mouth, or use her now two favorite words, bitch or bastard, to refer to something or someone about which or whom she had some disapproval. I remember on Christmas Eve Day as she looked into the corner of her room and spoke in Polish. I asked her gently if George was there, and she nodded affirmatively. I asked her again, softly, “Are you ready to go home?” She responded with as much energy as she had done in a couple of days and firmly said, “No.” And she meant it. I remember being petrified that she would die on Christmas Day and haunt me the rest of my life. You see, Lydia did not really appreciate Christmas. I never really found out why. However, she would live for another week.
As I walked around Kraków with Robert, Marysia’s father as my tour guide, I met up with Dr. Polyuha and some of the Bloomsburg students, some who are still around after finishing graduate degrees, but on the 30th, 6 years ago today as I write this, we visited the Cathedral Church in Kraków, where Karol Józef Wojtyła (Pope Saint John Paul II) had presided as the Archbishop. There, in spite of my Lutheranism, I lit a votive candle for Lydia and I prayed. I prayed both to God and in hopes that George would hear and believing they could. I knelt and prayed a simple prayer. Please convince her it is time to come home, and with that I raised back up to my feet and walked slowly from the church. Within 36 hours, Lydia would pass. Even today, I do not some times consciously comprehend that external circumstances can make the gift of a day seem to be a burden rather than a something to be cherished. I understand that there are extenuating events that impinge on that block of time overwhelming us and causing us to lose sight of the opportunities which might be presented in that time. Yet, how many times do we, in the normal course of events, lament when a period of time is coming to a close, wishing that somehow we might have managed that time better? I believe this might be how many feel about this year. I remember believing each day I sat beside Lydia wondering if the end would happen that day, but I also remember she waited for me to leave versus waiting for me to be there. I think she desired my presence to tell me she loved me and for me to spend that last Christmas holiday with her. I think the manner in which we choose to leave the world, particularly when something is not accidental, is more in our control than we often imagine. I think about my brother waiting until I came home from Ames and passing that night or my mother holding on until I came back from Pennsylvania. I believe with all my heart Lydia wanted time with me, but refused to die with me there. I remember, during one of her periods of lucidity, telling her I loved her again. She responded in her Austrian accent, “No kidding?” as if my words of care were as she often said, stupid. She understood it, and I will say I remember her eyes lighting up as she spoke her in characteristic tone and manner. Even in her last days, that sass never left her.
Lydia was no ordinary person, and while I did not know her during her earlier life, there are a couple of stories she loved to tell. She came from an educated family as an only child, but I believe she was probably quite precocious. She tells of sneaking up into the pantry to eat the caviar they had in the house. Another time, when she was young, going to Catholic School, she noted she was supposed to kneel at some point, but refused to do so. When she finally slammed herself down in disgust, she cut both of her knees open to the point of needing stitches, but refused to move as she knelt in her own blood in some also stigmatic way. Likewise, I never met George, but there was a significant period of time when he lived in Oak Park, IL and she was in Menomonie. They had a commuter marriage of sorts long before anyone considered such a thing. When her Stout colleagues once asked who George was, her response, “That is Mr. Rutkowski to you.” When he moved to Menomonie, they renovated two houses and he created a deck closer to the lake as well as a path all the way down the hill. She would not go down there, and from the stories, he went there for refuge. Supposedly, he would sometimes walk around the yard muttering, “Oh my God, that woman.” She was going to do what she wanted and no one, regardless of gender or size was going to persuade this amazing two-digit-midget (no offense intended to small people). Likewise in her stubborn, independent nature, she crawled along the gutters of her three story house regularly, intent that you could eat out of them should there be such a need. It mattered not who admonished her or worried about her, she continued to do so. Even the neighborhood dog would walk below the gutters when she was up there in case she fell. One of my many responsibilities was to drive her around (imagine Driving Miss Daisy except she sat in the front passenger seat). When we went clothes shopping, she purchased her polo shirts in the children’s section. Her front closet, in fact most of her closets, could have been an LL Bean warehouse. There is so much to be said about Lydia, and her incredibly brilliant blue eyes and her indefatigable smile were mesmerizing. When she lived on the Circle, she was often up before 6:00 a.m. and the miles she walked with her broom and extended dustpan daily literally wore out her shoes. She made sure every single leaf was accounted for once they fell. If she was behind, she would exclaim with her never-lost accent, “It looks like a slum.” Heaven forbid such a calamity.
It is hard to imagine she has been gone six years. I am still grateful to Nathan and Theresa Langton and the entire family because they gave up much to care for her too. Without them, undoubtedly, the care accomplished for her, her property, and even for the residents of COH would not have occurred in the manner they did. She might have been less than 100 pounds, but it took two of us to manage her, and that does not include the unparalleled staff at Comforts of Home. She was one of the first two residents in that facility 10 years ago and they, almost without exception, did everything they could to care for her. To this day, I am in contact with some of them, and blessed to have them in my life. One of the things I have thought about many times this year is how many grandmothers or grandfathers, mothers or fathers, or siblings are now isolated from anyone. Carissa, her former administrator and I have spoken a couple of times this year about what it would have been like to get Lydia to wear a mask or manage isolation. Oh my goodness, that would have been a battle to end all battles. Nonetheless, there are tens of thousands of people who are living that struggle now, and my heart breaks for both those confined and those who cannot see them. We need to think about what people need and contact is essential to us because we are innately communal. Again, the deep-seated sadness this causes me is immeasurable. To anyone doing this work as an aide, as a meal attendant, as someone cleaning, please accept my prayers of praise and thankfulness. If you know someone, reach out to them. If your loved one is there, create a prayer circle to support them and yourself. To all those caring for those who struggle with agedness, thank you for all you do. I know you are not paid nearly enough and the thanks you get is seldom enough.
Back to Lydia, as tough as she was, when she trusted someone, by extension, she loved them. In spite of the fact she never weighed more than 100 pounds until the last couple years of her life, and ended her life under 5’0″ tall, her heart must have taken up most of that space because it was incredibly large and strong. I also think it is what kept her alive during her last days. To this day, I am grateful to the entire staff of Comforts of Home, but particularly to Carissa, who treated her as her own relative. Carissa came in on that New Year’s Day and spent three hours on her day off to be with her. What I know from the bottom of my heart, Lydia came to love Carissa and it was evident in the way Lydia looked at her. In fact, Lydia’s entire affect changed when Carissa would come near. Finally, Lydia, as I told you six years ago,”Sie wurde die Mutter, die ich nicht hatte, und ich werde geehrt und demütigt, um einfach und liebevoll zu ihr zu sagen: ‘Lydia, ich liebe dich und auch heute, sechs Jahre später, bist du immer noch meine Mutter.’
Lydia, after leaving the Sudentenland, moved to Vienna. She would grow up there until eventually leaving for London and then to the states. She loved the Vienna Boys Choir. To all of you who read this, I wish you a blessed continued Christmas season, a good new year, and hopefully a 2021 that is safer, saner, and happier.