Becoming Norman . . . Pleased or Chagrined?

Hello on the weekend,

It has been an emotional couple weeks, and if you have been reading the blog, you have some sense of why that is, but I think there is more. There are times, and their frequency seems to be increasing at an alarming rate, that I feel like I am simply not as capable as I once was. While that might seem like a normal aging process ~ even if a reasonable explanation ~ I do not like it . . . and more so, I do not have to like it. While the GI tract stuff is a normal part of my life, some of the aches and pains logical, I have been often respected for how well I remember things, and that is where I am struggling. If I do not write it down and then follow it rather explicitly, it seems I am not as apt to remember it. Last week, and regardless the number of classes, committees, or other things, I found myself wandering around the parking lot looking for my car, for more than a half hour. In fact, in the spirit of total transparency, I wandered around two parking lots, and I could not find my car. I eventually remembered I had parked in a third possibility, but that scared me more than I have words.

The concern of some kind of memory loss concerns me more than most might realize. My father, while my adopted father, is a relative. He was a first cousin to my paternal grandmother, so that genetic tree is pretty strong. My father, each of his brothers and the daughter of a brother have all have significant difficulties with either dementia or Alzheimer’s. The number of times I have forgotten where I have placed my keys, my glasses, my phone is a number that would need an exponent. I wonder when it is time to question and if there is a reasonable way to ask about taking a benchmark level memory test. The fact that I have hydration issues, which seem to have negative outcomes for most of my body, might also exacerbate brain health. I remember going home once to check in on my father, after receiving a concerning phone call from my sister. My father was livid that I had come “to spy” on him as he angrily told me at lunch one day. Knowing what I know now because of his experience, as well as the progression of Lydia’s dementia, I have a much clearer understanding of some of the early symptoms, the markers, that might provide some earlier detection. While I certainly do not need another health battle, if I am going to battle something else, I want to take it on headfirst and with everything possible tool in my arsenal managing it the best way I can.

One of my favorite movies, certainly in my top 5, is the Academy Award winning On Golden Pond. It is an incredibly touching story of a retired professor (Henry Fonda) and his wife (Katharine Hepburn) who are spending the summer at their vacation home. They are visited by their daughter (Jane Fonda, who, of course, is the daughter of Henry). The struggle of grown adults managing their parents (as well as perhaps vice versa) and the portrayal of dementia before it was a common word as it is now is superbly done. Henry, as the cantankerous Norman Thayer Jr., is both heart-warming and frightening. I have often said to those who know me best here in Bloomsburg, that I want to be just like Norman when I get to that age. One of my former students actually refers to me as Norman because of this very movie. It is a term of endearment from her. There is hardly a time, and I have watched the movie multiple times, that I am not moved to tears as I watch it.

There are other ways I find myself becoming Norman. I seem to have less patience with absent-mindedness, or simple oblivion characterizing or plaguing some people. When something is forgotten once, I can generally find some graciousness. When it happens again and again, on a weekly (almost daily) basis, I find myself being less than charitable. That bothers me because I feel hypercritical and unfair. One of the things I have struggled with most of my life is boundaries. I know that does not make me unique, but I have a tendency to allow people the benefit of the doubt, and then I allow it again, and then again, and then  . . . you get the idea. Ultimately, I get frustrated. As I have pondered this characteristic, it seems that this time of the year is particularly when I find myself at my wit’s end. I do find some progress being made, even in my current dilemma. I made myself step back and ponder and do some analysis (and that meant working through six months of a checkbook, statements, and other items to make sure I was being fair). In addition, rather than merely hitting someone broadside, I have also stepped back and am working to manage the circumstance thoughtfully and in a way that demonstrates both appreciation for the progress made and help offered, but simultaneously to look at the reality of the situation. Of course, there are always things that seem to be tossed in to make the current state of affairs more contextually complex. Then again, I was once asked by a counselor if I ever did anything the easy way. I think my response, almost 30 years later, would be the same: probably not. There are undoubtedly times I still seem to learn slowly. What I do know is there is a genuinely caring and good heart involved in this situation (and that is on both sides). I also think there are also good intentions (again, on both sides). Part of this is merely seeing a larger picture, and when one has not really had to do that too often, knowing how to do that is not a simple or readily achievable outcome.

I am reminded of the young person who is left with Norman and Ethel for the summer. He is not sure what to do with them and they are not sure how they will manage him. Again, I see parallels. I often wonder what I would have done had I been a parent. I was petrified to do so, mostly because I am not sure I had good role models. I think some of that fear persists. I try to do what I think is best, but sometimes (often) it seems I either enable or I have no ability to allow for mistakes. I know there is a happy medium somewhere in the middle, but I struggle to find it. I think some of my concern about what I feel now is a predicament is because there is a history. There is also experience. Undeniably, that experience, be it over the years or the last months, demonstrates a consistency from both. Again, at the same time there is progress and I have to give credit for that. One of the things I am forced to come to terms with is that I created this dilemma because I allowed it. I cannot blame anyone else for that. Again, the rationale for allowing this goes back to where I usually find myself. Someone needs help and I offer said help. The problem is I do not know how to be consistent in pushing adherence to what I said needed to happen from the outset. The question is why am I willing to allow myself to step back time and time again from what I laid out. It is my inconsistency that creates the problem and I cannot blame the other for my mistake. The anger comes, I imagine, from my realizing that I again engendered the present dilemma. I also enkindled the complications. In the movie, there are ups and downs, and at the end, there is a mutual respect produced. I am praying for something similar. I am not sure it will happen immediately. In fact, if it happens immediately, I will once again find myself believing in miracles. One of the things that most frustrates me are things I find myself doing, particularly when I fall short. Over the last months, I have worked hard to be on time. When I was growing up, I had a father who believed if you were not 15 minutes early, you were late. I am not sure that I am there, but I do try to be a few minutes early whenever possible. That is not always easy when you are dealing with other people’s needs and their schedules, but again, discipline and planning will help. The second thing I am trying to be more intentional about is remembering that I do not live in a vacuum. What I do affects other people. Therefore, my choices do also. That is probably my biggest frustration at this point, be it students or in the house. If you say you are going to be somewhere at a certain time, then just do what you say. If your schedule changes, please let someone know. That is where I have been particularly pained by the actions of others as of late.

I have a ton to get done yet tonight, but it has been a pretty productive weekend. I am always amazed by what can happen when I am frustrated. The energy in that can be channeled into some very positive outcomes. My house is pretty spotless and I got some things cleaned and organized that have been on the back burner for a while. I think there is always a fine line between helping and enabling a person. Being the co-dependent person, and one who was much more so earlier, I still struggle to find that balance between helping and hindering. It is always complicated when there is a history. Again, it reminds me of the movie. In the movie, Jane Fonda, as Chelsea, struggles with the relationship she currently has with her aging father. What I found interesting in my research about the movie is that as real father and daughter they were estranged. This movie brought them together. She, in fact, produced the movie to allow for her father to act in it. As I research things, it is interesting to see how our history and the events that cloud that history affect so much more than we are aware of.

One of the other things I have been forced to consider is how people come into and move out of our lives. In the past, I worried when people moved out of my life. I think now I see the reason for that. I do believe we lose something in their moving on, but at the same time it allows for a refocus of sorts. Perhaps the most important thing for me is learning to let go. That has never been a strength, and what I have done in the past when doing so is to walk away and say little or nothing. That is also a problem because it is more like running away. Again, On Golden Pond comes to mind. In one particular poignant scene (and again a scene where some say this is where the two Fonda family members made amends) the dialog goes something like this:

Chelsea: I don’t want anything; it just seems you and I have been mad at each other for so long.

Norman: I didn’t think we were mad; I just thought we didn’t like each other.

Chelsea: (with tears in her eyes) I want to be your friend.

Norman: This mean you would come around more often? It’d mean a lot to your mother (and you can tell he is struggling as he covers his own eyes)

Chelsea: I’ll come around more often.

Norman: Well . . .

I find this part of the movie particularly difficult because my mother and I never accomplished this sort of absolution in our relationship. I often tell students now when they say they are struggling with their parents, or note they are not speaking, that it is best to try to manage that separation. I have two or three of those situations to which I must attend even now. The question can often be what does one risk in reaching out. I think the more important point is to know how to let things go so that the separation is a reasonable one rather than merely running away. Sometimes those separations happen because people change. Sometimes they happen because locations change. I think one of the things I have been more likely to do is remain in touch. Perhaps that is why I am teased that I know everyone from everywhere. There is both a blessing and a curse to that, as it the case with most things in our lives.

By the end of the movie, the summer has passed and the Thayer’s get ready to leave Golden Pond. Sometimes we fail to comprehend how our lives are interwoven into the fabric of others. Sometimes, the fabric becomes tattered and worn, but that does not make it less valuable or important. Sometimes, we need to hold on to the things that remind us of who were are and from where we come. Other times it is reasonable to look for something new. As most things in life, there is no recipe, and much of what we do is by trial and error. Sometimes I am more like Norman that I perhaps expected to be. Sometimes, I wish I was even more like him. Here is some music from the movie. If you have not had an opportunity to see this amazing show, do yourself a favor. It is worth the time.

Thank you as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

 

525,600 Minutes

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Hello from my dorm room in Krakow,

Most of you will see this title and instantly think of the Broadway play or the movie of the same title, Rent. It is actually one of my favorite movies and the song ranks right up there also. But this measure for me as I begin to type this next entry in my blog is because before I probably finish it, it will be a year to the minute that I got the call that Lydia had passed from this world. I am both stunned that the year has come and gone so quickly as well as wondering what the future holds as I continue through my own years. I am stunned even now that someone who mean so very much to me in life, and in a relatively short time frame so profoundly changed my existence. I would note that if it is possible, her life and memory means even more in her absence. I am grateful for some of the people I still have in my life because of her, all those COH people who cared for her so tirelessly and lovingly. I am blessed yet today that I have been given so many opportunities to care for others and give because of what she gave me. I remember after the phone call I spent the first hour making the appropriate phone calls to the United States and then laid in my bed and sobbed because I had lost yet another parent. However, this mother was the closest thing to what it seemed a mother should be. She was the most loving person I had in my life since the time of my grandmother, who had been my mother (because I had lived with those grandparents) when I was small, had been. Lydia had an incredible capacity to love and give that was actually very different that the demeanor that most perceived her to have. She loved those for whom she cared profoundly and boundlessly. The stories I could tell about her love for the “little ones,” as she called every four-legged critter that was blessed enough to find her backyard. They were fed as if they were the king of the forest and there was not enough dog food that could be bought to care for them. You could have fed three or four people in the early days of hunting from the size of the squirrels that roamed her back stoop. The crows were the size of eagles. Lydia loved to have lunch at Burger King, and while I do not think she ever saw a potato she did not love, she would keep extra fries so she could take them back to the house and feed her menagerie with a different treat.

There have been moments I wished I had met Lydia earlier in her life. The pictures of her in her 30s and 40s illustrate a person with that same forceful and determined attitude, but she was elegant. Her colleagues at UW-Stout noted that her appearance was always impeccable and she always had her hair done weekly. She never changed those habits. When I met her she would work in her yard and spend long hours daily with her broom and dustpan, but if we were going out, she would change into presentable jeans and a clean LL Bean button-down or a polo shirt. I once went shopping with her and we had to buy children’s polo shirts at Old Navy. I remember her once wanting me to go bra shopping with her when she had advanced in her struggle with dementia. I told her I drew the line there; that was not an option. She told me I was being stupid. I ended up doing camisole shopping for an 88 year old woman. Oh my!! Every Tuesday before she went to live at COH, I took her to Georgie to get her hair done. Georgie, bless her heart, continued to come to COH long after Lydia was there to still care for her hair needs. Even after Lydia moved to COH, she had her own way of doing things, all the way down to which hallway she would walk down, or push her walker down (and she was cruising let me tell you), or eventually which hallway she would push her wheelchair down. She had her own particular way the table should be set or how the napkins should be folded or how things would be set up in the middle of the table or where she would set her Wall Street Journal. And heaven forbid you think you could or should change it. She could give a look that would melt ice from 50 feet away.

I remember spending the day a year ago with Robert and Katarzyna. We had been out on New Year’s Even together and this year I was in the same place with students from the trip. I have been trying to catch up with Robert since coming this time and that has not happened yet. I know they have also had a difficult year. She too is an elegant person and Robert has a kind heart and an optimism that is unparalleled. We went out the day after I went to Auschwitz that one last night. It was so enjoyable. I remember talking with them about Lydia and I cried. I could not share what I wrote without tears welling up in my eyes. That still occurs for me at times. How do you measure the moments in a year as the song asks? What do we remember and what fades into the blur of events that somehow get lost deep in the recesses of our mind, if they even get there? There were some really difficult moments for me this past year. The first was when I went back in March to do Lydia’s committal service. The burial was a small and private service and I conducted it. I maintained until I had to commit her to the ground. It was extremely cold that day and was trembling from both the cold and the reality of her passing. As I knelt down on the cold snowy ground and kissed the urn, my tears fell and probably froze before they could touch the snow. Earlier that morning I had gone to her room at COH for the first time. That was when things really hit me. Her room was empty and the chair I had held vigil for her in December was still there. I sat in that chair one last time and I cried. It felt good to cry in that place. It felt good to be among the people who had cared for her so caringly and unpretentiously. It felt good when two days later we had a memorial service at the facility and those terrific caregivers who had become her family were there to celebrate this amazing woman. She would have been disgusted that a fuss was made over her, but that service was not for her, it was for them, and her colleagues and others who understand, and still understand, and loved, and continue to love, this marvelous woman.

The next time I went back was in May. This was going to be the difficult time because it was the time that I was going to really say good bye to Wisconsin. Here is that rhetoric of place issue once again. Menomonie had such a wide range of memories and experiences for me to process. Her amazing home and become my sanctuary when I was back there. I called that room on the third floor “The Upper Sanctum.” I knew when I packed a truck and emptied that room, it was finished. My former colleague, and friend, Barbara Button sent me a note in the days following noting sadly that my energy had left that little space on the circle. It was a profound statement. Indeed, 10 years of connection to the town was ending. While I have important friends there yet, and particularly the Lacksonens and Amy, Charles, and Simon and some others on the circle (or not far from it, Barb and Larry). I have an amazing mentor in Dan and former colleagues in Jane, Susanne, Beth, or David, the requirement to return there is not the same. As I got into the U-Haul truck that day, again I cried. In fact, I wanted to get back before the end of the year and that did not happen. Shortly after returning, summer school began and I have been in class somehow ever since. There was not an inkling that I would be here in Poland again for New Year’s but it happened.

As I watch the students who are along on this trip, I have been given an amazing gift. There are some wonderfully intelligent and thoughtful students here. They have been serious about the classes and they have been enjoyable to observe and speak with. It is one thing to be capable, and many of them are; it is another thing to be a good person, one with some standards and a strong moral foundation. I have witnessed that among a number of the students and they seem to get along well. That too is impressive. I am pretty sure that none of them thought about going to Poland a year ago, but I know that none of them will be the same after they return. That is the amazing thing about traveling. If you honestly attempt to become part of the culture in which you are living and breathing substantive things will happen. There are two students who are Political Science and Russian majors. They are both phenomenal. There are Speech Path students and they are working hard and thinking carefully and they are all good people. I have two students that I have had in classes previously and it is fun to watch them here and relate to them in a different manner than in the typical classroom setting. I know there are some specialized biology students who I can only admire with their intelligence, work ethic, and goodness, or accounting. There are more, but I cannot remember all 30. The point is that the gift they have given me is hope. I am sure that our world has a chance when I see them and listen to them and that is important.

525, 600 minutes, how do you measure the moments in a year? Indeed, how about love? In this world that seems to want to exclude, ostracize, blame, or anything else that marginalizes could we change our frame of reference? As I have listened in my Central European History class this past week, the consequence of marginalization for the Jews began much earlier than I realized, but anyone not living under a rock for the last 80+ years certainly knows the result of the final solution. Tomorrow I will visit Auschwitz for a second time. This too is related to Lydia and George. George spent time in Dachau, another notorious camp (but for anyone held in any of the camps, the belief would be the same) as a political prisoner. I need to work on how long he was there and get more specifics, but how did he measure the minutes in a year under such duress? Lydia was sent to live with relative in Wien (Vienna) to escape what would happen to those with German or Hungarian citizenship at the end of the war? How did she measure the minutes as she and 1000s of others walked from the Sudetenland to Vienna (I think in a straight line it would be about 200 miles or over three hundred km)? How did she measure the minutes when she never saw her parents again? Why is it we spend so many minutes hating or despising or separating ourselves from those around us who are also human? I am reminded of Sting’s song, “If the Russians Love their Children too”. I have actually posted the video in an earlier blog. It has been a year since the world lost a phenomenal lady. She understood hardship, but she persevered. She understood loss, but decided to continue and strive to move forward. What I know of Lydia and many of the others who came to America in the 1950s is they left the continent behind them, seldom speaking of it, and worked to begin a new life, but the world they left behind has amazing culture. It has phenomenal beauty. It is a treasure to merely walk the streets and soak up the centuries of history. The minutes of time that amount to so much more.

Lydia, I am in Poland and the Czech Republic in a few days because of you. You taught me about this world by your stories and the things you shared with me. You have left me, but you are here with me. I wish I could be walking these streets with you. I wish I could hear what you might say about your life in this world in the 1920s and 1930s. I know the decade of the war was horrible for you. I know it scarred you, but as you seemed to always do, you put your head down and kept going. You never complained or felt sorry for yourself. When I was blessed to hear your accent that first time I walked up the driveway, I had no idea how much you would become a part of me. It has been a year and now a year and a day since I got the news that you had left this world. The minutes since have been a blur at times. They have been difficult and I still miss you. I still wake up and imagine you standing there looking at me and asking if I am awake. I still hear the soft patter of your feet coming up my steps. You make me smile even yet. The 525, 600 minutes have not been the same without you. There is no denying that. I hope I can change a few lives in the minutes I have left as you have changed mine.

Meine Liebe Lydia,

Es ist ein Jahr her, seit Sie Ihre strahlenden Augen geschlossen, dass die letzte Zeit. Ich war nicht da, und ich bedauere, dass immer noch. Es ist ein Jahr her, seit ich fühlte deine Berührung und Ihr sagt mir, Sie wüssten, dass du meine Mutter waren. Es war ein Jahr, und die Schmerz und Verlust bleibt. Ich liebe dich noch immer und immer. Segne euch meine Mutter, jetzt und immer.

Ihr sohn,

Michael.

For those of you who do not speak German, I offer this.

My dear Lydia,

It has been a year since your radiant eyes closed that final time. I was not there and I still regret that. It has been a year since I felt your touch and your telling me you knew you were my mother. It has been a year and the hurt and loss remains. I love you still and always will. Bless you my mother, now and always.

Your son,

Michael

To everyone else, thank you for reading,

Dr. Martin

Remembering an Amazing Life

Hello from JFK,

It is exactly a year ago today that I would be leaving Lydia for a last time. It was an amazing day because Carissa was able to get the little tornado into the shower and wash her hair and get her a bit more comfortable. The picture here is of her that morning. My thoughts these last days have certainly been about her often. It seems impossible that a year has already past. I would be leaving for Poland on the 28th, so it is a couple days sooner, but this time I will be there for three weeks.

As I have lived through another calendar year, the reality of losing someone who affected me so significantly almost a year ago has really struck the core of my being in a profoundly different way. Seldom does an entire week go by that somehow, somewhere, some way my thoughts are not focused upon this strong, vibrant, and determined little two-digit-midget, as I called her. The loss of her stunning blue eyes, her infectious smile, and her strong Austrian accent are all things that  miss seeing, hearing, or experiencing. And she was an experience. Her interest in things economic and the world in general never ceased to astound those who knew her. Even for some time after she was living at COH, she watched for the mail like a hawk waiting for her Wall Street Journal (WSJ). She read the complete journal article by article and she had such disdain for those who did not care to understand such things. I remember her telling me a couple years before the 2009 economic meltdown that it was coming. She was so brilliant about such things.

I have heard her classes were very difficult, but she certainly knew her subject matter. Shortly after I started living next to her, she asked to see how I had my WPS pension invested. When I told her what I had done she said I was too conservative. She then performed a 10 year analysis on my pension, finding that the difference between a fixed account, which is what I had, and have, had performed amazingly close to what she had. She was satisfied, but only after she had done her due diligence. Of course, if you knew Lydia, even a slight bit, none of this would surprise you. She was careful and thoughtful about most things. This is not to say she could not be a bit stubborn about things. She certainly had an opinion about most anything. Well, perhaps that is a bit far-reaching. If it was worth her notice, and certainly some things were not, she probably had an opinion. Usually things that did not interest her she would note, albeit rather curtly and in her distinct Austrian accent, “that is just stupid”. I would have loved to take a class from her because she would have forced me to think. There is a rather successful business person in Menomonie who told me more than once. I had her for two economics classes and I got Ds in both of them.

Even now, there are moments I find it difficult to comprehend, nay, perhaps accept that she is actually no longer there in Menomonie. I wonder at times if it is because she seemed almost larger than life or if it is because I am, and was, in Pennsylvania when she passed? I was actually in Kraków, where I will be later today. I remember earlier that day praying in the church of Pope John Paul II that George might convince her to let go. That was New Year’s Eve day. Even now, a year later, I also have to say a most sincere thank you to the Langtons for coming in from North Carolina to be with her. Then there are all the amazing caregivers who cared for Lydia in the 4 years she lived at Comforts of Home. She changed so much in that time. While she was no longer safe in her home, she was quite an amazing person and still very independent when she came to live in a north Menomonie. She took care of the plants, she helped set the tables, and she was less than pleased when I would cook because I was not sitting next to her. She knew what she wanted and why she wanted it. I remember the first Memorial Day  I did a cookout for everyone. The residents and staff were ecstatic, save one person. She thought it was “okay” as she gave a look of nonchalance and waved her hand as if to say, “Do not think of yourself too highly, Michael.”

To this day I regret that I was not there that last day, but only God knows (and I mean that literally) how long she would have hung on had I stayed. To the last person, we are sure she did not want to put me through seeing her pass. I still feel in my heart that she became and was the mother who did as much for me as my grandmother did when she served as my mother when I was a small boy.  I have in my blogs compared them before. They were both independent; they had both lost their husbands before they were ready to do so; they were both elegant and had a beauty that endured throughout their days. They both had incredibly kind and giving hearts. When I think of either one of them I am profoundly aware of both how loved and how blessed I was, and still am, by their presence in my life. In terms of time, it has been 38 years since my Grandma Louise left this world. For Lydia, I cannot seem to come to grips with the reality of an entire year within the week. What I know is her loss has affected me more significantly than any other loss in my life. Is it because I too am older? Is it because I am still realizing how influential she was and how loved I was?

A year ago I was praying you would let go, only because I wanted you to leave a life that was little more than mere existence. A year later it is me struggling to let go. I cannot seem to finish everything or anything I need to do  (and that seems to be across the board). Too often I seem stuck in a haze of my own existence, but an existence missing its heart. You found your way into my heart, Lydia. You made life worth doing in ways I did not know before. You were my mother, my family. As I write this I am struggling to see the screen through the tears that have welled up in my eyes and now trace their paths down my cheeks. It is not the first time this has happened, and it will probably not be the last. I remember last Spring in class I cried more than once in class. My image as a hard-ass professor was pretty well blown.

I remember writing last year at this time you are my guardian angel and I would try to not make your job too difficult. As you know, once again, I am in George’s country; you also know that I wrote a sabbatical proposal to work on the historical fictional novel I promised I would write. I am hoping that proposal is approved. We’ll see what happens. As I approach the first anniversary of your passing, ironically I am in the same place I was a year ago. I remember lying in bed and sobbing, sobbing that you were released from the shell of the phenomenal woman you had once been; sobbing because of the hurt from the profound loss I was experiencing. Sobbing because I was not with you. As I am preparing to land in Kraków I have been up for about 36 hours and I am tired, but I am thinking of you, remembering with both joy for the amazing life you lived and how I was blessed that you loved me so much, and a sadness that I am writing about your memory, about your beautiful eyes, the radiance of your smile and that amazing accent calling my name. What I wouldn’t give to see and hear you again. What I wouldn’t give to have one of the caregivers, usually Leighann, calling to tell me you wanted to talk to me. What I wouldn’t give to have Carissa sending me another picture of you and her. I love you still and forever.

Michael

When Days Turn to Hours Turn to Minutes

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Hello from Comforts of Home in Menomonie,

I am sitting at Lydia’s bedside and she continues to amaze us as she has slept, but continues to simultaneously fight and fade. I use those words in that order intentionally because up to this morning that was the order in which I would say things have occurred. This morning, however, there is a change. I think there is much more fading and significantly less fighting. In spite of my background as a former parish pastor and with my experience in hospital chaplaincy, the process of leaving this world for the next is such an individual experience, both for the person passing and for those watching. When I came back to Wisconsin this time, I did not expect that this would be a final visit to Lydia. She is sleeping almost constantly though from time to time she opens her eyes and looks around. This morning, her eyes were bright and she gave Carissa the biggest smile as Carissa came into to  greet her. It is now about 2:00 in the afternoon and she is resting comfortably. A bit ago she did open her eyes and looked at me. As I told her I loved her, she nodded her head yes and mouthed the words “I love you” in return. It reminded me of 17 years ago almost to the day that I told my father on the phone that I loved him and he responded that he loved me also. He passed away about 12 hours later.

During the past four days I have had a lot of time to reflect on what I believe a life well-lived might resemble. As I have noted at other times, Lydia (and George, her late husband) was/were quite the story. While I was never fortunate enough to meet him, I have heard some stories. Together they created a life that spanned countries and continents, languages and cultures. From his time in a concentration camp to her losing members of her family as a consequence of WWII, the war than encompassed a generation and most of the world. I am pretty sure that George and she had no idea what their coming to America and Chicago would have in store for them. I remember that she told me that they both worked two jobs when they first got to Chicago and worked hard to make this new country their home. At one point when she was a student at Northwestern University, she remembered working hard on her English to get rid of her Austrian accent. It never happened. That accent stayed with her for the rest of her life. I used to tease her when I would encourage her to say words with a “th” sound. Of course, I could get her laughing hysterically when I tried to say German words that contained an “umlaut o”. She, of course, could make that sound with no difficulty.

Today, the 23rd, has been another lesson in reality and fragility. While Lydia hangs on to her life, the son of her doctor, the person who has been so supportive of her, and the person I noted as brilliant texted me about 5:00 p.m. this evening to tell me that he had lost his son in an lake mishap on Lake Superior. His matter of fact statement that he would be distracted was heartbreaking. Here Lydia is hanging on, but she has lived her life and at 90 is ready to depart this world. I am not sure how old his son is, but the doctor and I must be contemporaries at least within a few years and I would imagine his son was probably in his late 30s. There is no reasonable time to lose a child, but to lose them unexpectedly, tragically and two days before Christmas is beyond what any person should have to bear. My heart goes out to him. We had the most wonderful talk this past Friday. It is ironic that I have the title for this blog I do because what I have learned is he went into the water and could not get out. Another person also died trying to rescue him. One of the lines in the song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, is “does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?” It was that very song I was thinking of when I reversed those words for the title. He lost his son on Lake Superior, which is where the Edmund Fitzgerald sunk in 1975. I remember the first time I ever saw my father cry was when my older brother passed away. Parents are not supposed to bury their children.

It is now about 8:00 p.m. and I am still sitting in the room with Lydia and merely keeping her company. She has opened her eyes a few times today and she has actually seemed more lucid than she has the last few days. I remember these sort of swings in patients when I was a hospital chaplain. The body is an amazing thing and each of us go about leaving this world in our own unique way. While this past day has helped me come to terms with her passing, it has also exhausted me. I do not feeling this completely tired for a very long time. I remember one person in particular who had gone through so much in the hospital before the doctors were willing to let her go. I am going to go home and try to get some sleep. . . .

It is now Christmas Eve day and about 9:30 in the morning. I had some breakfast before coming back to COH and when I got here, I found, I guess not surprisingly, that Lydia continues to defy odds. Her vital signs are actually better and yet, she is noticeably weaker this morning. She does not want water and has had no food since Saturday morning. I remember flying back to Sioux City over 25 years ago to watch as my mother passed away. Her situation was much more difficult because she had been put on life support and that had to be removed. In this case, there are no IVs, no tubes, and nothing to prolong Lydia’s life, which were her wishes. They are the same wishes I would have for myself. I think there is a time for the body to merely let go and be allowed to stop.

What I am realizing in the last day is the tenuousness of our existence. I have found out that her doctor’s son was 40 years old and his brother (and I think wife) had to witness this tragedy. I cannot imagine the trauma of having to watch someone struggle to live and lose their life in such an unexpected way. The cliches that are possible do nothing to explain the unexplainable. As I watch Lydia fade into a new life, we are in her room alone and it is actually peaceful. I am listening to Pandora and I have it playing classical holiday music. I have been told that our hearing is the last sense of the body to quit working at the time death arrives. If this music can help her be more peaceful, I am more grateful for the time we have had these past 5 days. Yesterday she was quite lucid and actually was able to answer questions at least minimally. When I showed her a picture of George, which is on her headboard bookcase, from his younger days, she got the largest smile on her face that I had seen in a while.  When we consider carefully what we are offered daily, it seems that too often we do not see it as an offering or a gift. I do understand 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 the extenuating events that impinge on that block of time can overwhelm us and cause us to lose sight of the opportunities that 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 am not sure if it is because I have approached the ending of another decade of my life that I have found myself reflecting on what time means and feeling perhaps a sense of urgency for those things I have not yet completed. On the other hand, I find myself with a sense of calmness that I have not often felt. I am actually pretty content. I have been pushed to consider mortality in more than one way this year, but I believe our mortality is always something we must, or at least should, appreciate and ponder. What does our humanness offer that no other creature, at least to our knowledge, possesses? I think it is both the ability to remember as well as the ability to imagine. Remembering, of course, offers us a glimpse into our past; imagining offers us the possibility to wonder about the future. In both of these we begin to understand who we are, but also why we are. This returns me to the phrase with which I began the post: a life well-lived. Whether we have an opportunity to grace this world for 90 years and leave it compassionately or we have 40 years and our life is ended tragically, each person has the possibility of having a life well-lived.

I think as we continue our lives and our days become hours and our hours become minutes, we always have the opportunity to love and care for those around us. Too often we fail to recognize those possibilities and chances. Too often we concentrate on ourselves, worried about the morrow. This past year I have been given many opportunities to share with others. Sometimes I have succeeded in those moments and other times I have failed miserably. Nevertheless, yet today, tonight, or tomorrow, I will be afforded yet another chance. How do I know this? I know it because I see it in the smile of someone who is leaving this world, but still recognizes my voice and the words “I love you.” I see it in the amazing caregivers who tend to her needs and care for her gently and lovingly. I received it in a video tonight telling me I was missed. As I have been reminded of again and again, love is the most unparalleled gift we can offer another person. In the past 10 years I have been graced with the presence of one of the greatest personalities in the smallest of frames. I have been confounded by her stubbornness and blessed with her boundless love all at the same time. As she rests quietly in her bed this Christmas Eve, she still recognizes me and smiles knowingly at my presence. She has told me on more than one occasion today that there is someone in the room coming for her and she points to their presence. Perhaps what she sees is the coming that all Christian believers celebrate this Christmas Eve, the incarnation of the Christ child. Perhaps it is appropriate that as we move into this most holy of nights in the Christian calendar, Lydia points to something much like the shepherds must have pointed or the Wise men must have pointed. Perhaps she knows better than any of us when her time to leave this world is and she will, as she has always done, decide just how this will be managed. When I once told her that I was not sure that God would be ready for her and that he might have to clean some things up, she responded knowingly, “I will take my broom.” Those of you who really know her, know just how true that statement is. She managed her life and she was always in charge. To allow God to be in charge will be something difficult, but then it is difficult for most of us. As I leave her for the moment to attend Christmas Eve services, I hope should she leave before I return that she knows how much I love her and how grateful I am for her presence in my life.

To all of you reading, I wish you a very blessed Christmas.

Michael

The Weekend

Buenas dia,

Estoy sentado en de balcón. Yo puedo caminar des de cuarto. Antes noche yo dormí aproximo 9 1/2 hora. Yo pienso que es que más yo he dormido en años. Es el sábado por la mañana y espero que pasan la mayor parte del día en la playa mirando el océano y leyendo un libro. So . . . with some help on verb tenses, there is about 5 minutes worth the work. I must admit it is really enjoyable to work at this. I am finding that all the vocabulary I learned is helpful, but only to a certain extent. Words alone do not help my sentence construction beyond a certain point. It does help when I am listening because I can pick things up, but like yesterday when I could not remember the word for “word” (yes, ironic). I could not get Juan Carlos to figure out what I was saying. I ended up texting Melissa and wrote to NY to get a single word in the República Dominicana. Soy afortunado de tener diccionarios humanas que están dispuestos a aguantar a mí.

Jordan, esto es para ti; ¿¿descargar el ‘whatsapp’? Te he enviado un par de preguntas y tengo un poco más. ¿Puedes volver a mí, por favor? ¿Cómo va el video? Sé cuánto te gusta responder a mensajes de texto? I know it is summer, though I am amazed at how quickly it had gone by. I am reminded of how parents or older people always told me how time would seem to go more quickly the older we get. The truthfulness in that statement is alarmingly correct. I was thinking about how much more quickly the second almost 30 years of my life went than the first 30. It is simply because we do not have a reference point when we are younger. It the words of Rent a year is 525,600 minutes long. “How do you measure a year in the life?” I have been reminded this summer, and again in the past few days, to measure it in love. Back to the point at hand: what is it about experience and reflection that seems to make things move so much differently or pass by so much more quickly? Something for me to ponder as I read and lay on the beach today.

So it was a beach day. How ironic that the two people I would find to lay down next to were Germans. That was amazing and enjoyable. I was speaking in English, Spanish and German for about 4 hours. It was a wonderful day. While we were there the drinks were free on this beach and there was a sushi bar. It was a really tough experience let me tell you. There was a drink called “coco loco” (crazy coconut) . They were delicious and contained Bacardi 151 in them and tasted like they had no alcohol. I did get out on a ocean for a quick dip, but most of the time I relaxed and read. I found out that everyone else went out after I went to bed and I think the same is on tap tonight. We’ll see. I am pretty wiped out from the sun today, but it was the first time I have done this in years too. I just had my second Nutribullet juice of the day: cactus, red pepper, pineapple and lime, a combination of sweet and spicy. We went to the same restaurant today for “cenar” and I did eat un pescado llame “chillo”. I did get a picture, but I am posting on my phone and have not figured out how to get a picture in yet. We had pictures taken with the family (staff) of the restaurant . However we used Sr. Galán’s phone, so I have yet to get them from him.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my first two days and I am almost over my cough. I think I only coughed four or five times all day. That is the first time in over a month. We set up an excursion on Tuesday. It is on a boat and we go to an island beach and snorkeling and a whole bunch of things. Monday might there is Michael Jackson tribute show I think I want to attend. Needless to say, I never saw the real person, so this is as close as I might get. Today continued the world of crazy driving. They all laugh at me because I am in the back seat just shaking my head and saying, “oh my!!” I am listening to music out the window as everyone is getting ready to go out. I wish I could put sound into this post. It is amazing.

As we were coming back to the resort I observed all the little shops and shacks in which people live. I am forced to consider what we have an take for granted and yet so many of us are unhappy. While I saw a number of people walking who looked a bit haggard, I think many of them are working tremendously hard at jobs for every little money. The family that has the restaurant consists of a mother, who started things I imagine and is now retired or around sparingly. There is the daughter who is probably my age or a bit younger, and then a next generation of children and cousins. They have treated us like family. I think we will be there almost everyday. The woman my age has Wednesday off and I am not sure if we will be there Tuesday. I want to get names and addresses so I can write and send them something.

I am going to do some reading and call it a night. The second complete day has been “muy bien”. I am so grateful to be here and experience this amazing country. It is beautiful and the people are wonderful. It is not what I imagined because of what I have heard about those in New York. While I might have witnessed a brief second or two of that in three days, that is the exception. I actually asked Jacqueline about it. I am hoping this is the first of more trips to this amazing place. The other thing I want is to be able to listen to a conversation and understand. More work to do.

Well everyone else has left for the evening. I am going to read a bit and call it a night. Thanks for reading.

Michael