No Hospice Time

Trigger Warning: Parental Death

Several of my friends have lost or are in the process of losing parents, parents who have been or are in hospice care.  I admit to being a bit envious.

When my dad was diagnosed eighteen months ago with lung cancer for the third time, he and my once-stepmother-back-together-again immediately began looking at treatment options.  The initial information was sobering — multiple lesions in his lung — and the news became more dire as a scope was recommended and then not, due to a tumor wrapped around his pulmonary artery.  I was surprised that he was considering chemo, as the brutal death of his fourth wife, from lung cancer treatment as much as from the cancer itself, had caused him to swear several years earlier never to fall victim again to such medical excess.  But the impetus to live is strong . . .

I went down to visit for a couple of days while he awaited further testing which he had inexplicably rejected a couple of weeks earlier.  I said that if the cancer had spread beyond his lungs, he might want to consider wrapping up in a sleeping bag and spending his remaining time sitting on his deck, enjoying the woods and creek below, and the birds visiting his feeder.  It was November and he was nearing 85; it seemed like a plan to me.  He seemed to hear and not to hear.

My stepmother told me later that they were hoping that the chemo would eradicate the cancer as quickly as it had appeared, and that he would have several good years left.  I decided to remain silent, and headed home, beginning to work out in  my head how I might arrange my schedule to accommodate several trips to their home four hours from mine, as I had been able to manage when my previous stepmother was dying.  I had read about tumors encasing pulmonary arteries, but I permitted myself to imagine that it would be a privilege to care for my father, if there were time in which to do so.

Three mornings later he was doing laundry just off the bedroom, and collapsed and died. Presumably that wraparound tumor had ruptured the artery. After a mad dash to the hospital and a declaration of death, the paperwork for his donation of his body to the medical school was completed and he was transported to . . . somewhere.  The test results, confirming the spread of the cancer across and into multiple areas, came back a few days later.

I admit to being a bit envious of my friends who’ve had hospice time.  I guess that conversation about the deck and the sleeping bag and the birds was it for us.

 

Who Knows Where the Time Goes?

 

Judywhoknows

A friend just published a post, on another topic entirely, in which she quotes a song from Judy Collins’s album, Who Knows Where the Time Goes?  My friend’s post is about a memory significant to Lent.  She dredged up some memories for me as well.

It’s the fall of my junior year in boarding school in western Massachusetts.  I am “campused” (like being grounded, boarding school style), due to an unfortunate encounter with a teacher who discovered a friend and me visiting the boys’ school five miles away in the middle of the night the previous spring.  Thus I spend a lot of time on my own, gliding around my dorm room or sprawled on  my bed, listening to music, when my friends are away – which means that 50 years later (FIFTY ?!?!) I will still know all those songs by heart.  At sixteen, I have loooong brown hair with red and gold highlights, a romance going very badly, and a stack of English papers to write, having largely given up on Algebra II.

I do not know that some thirty years later, I will have a son who will be a high school senior and living in the same dorm, with the same view of the mountains stretching before him.  I do not know that, like Judy Collins’ son, mine will die of suicide only a few years later, and that her music and those memories will all be wound into one ball of yarn, forever unraveling.

I still like the music, though.

Nine

Some days, I try to figure out which is worse.  Is it that he is not here, living his life to the fullest, that life in which we had invested every square inch of our own beings, everything we had to offer?  Not enjoying a family, not succeeding in his work, not taking photographs or making pottery?

Or is it that he is not in this world, sharing his multitude of gifts?  At only twenty-four, he was fluent in French, a comfortable world traveler, a gifted writer, knowledgeable about history and science and literature.  I glance at an article about desperate need in French-speaking Africa and wonder why he is not here, lending his talents and expertise to creating solutions.   I see a new architectural design and imagine that he might have participated in its development.

Or is it that he is not here with us?  Not here to add his considerable wit to the political predicament in which we find ourselves?  Not here to share his young adulthood with his twin brother and their little sister?  Not here to help us as we age, become less able, falter, and die?

Sometimes, in the course of my ministry, I meet elderly men and women who tell me how close they are to the brother or sister with whom they have shared eight, once even nine, decades.  I smile and say something encouraging.  I want to hollow out the landscape with my cry into the nothingness that is left.

***

I remember little of the first years.  Some things.  The suffocating, nauseating guilt.  The icy rejection which slammed me against a brick wall.  The feeling of falling, falling, falling . . .  of stepping across shards of glass. The way my joints, and back, and head, and gut, and everything, hurt.  The way I went to classes and wrote papers and looked at the grades . . .  always good grades, always gracious comments, always such a disciplined and even sometimes insightful student . . . with no recollection whatever of having written those pages.  The way I walked, and walked, and walked, wondering if I might simply walk right into the stratosphere.  The questions people asked me . . .  isn’t it time to focus on life? don’t you feel wiser, more compassionate?  don’t you find comfort in your faith?  . . .  causing me to understand that I had moved to Jupiter, or perhaps little Pluto, not even an official planet anymore.  Pluto. That sounds about right.

***

It takes a long time.  A recently widowed parishioner wrote me a note this past week, mentioning that she believes that the American tolerance for grief lasts about three months.  I can understand how it is that no one knows about this.  I look at my friends, reeling from the deaths of children six, seven, eight, nine, ten years and more ago, and I see how productive and engaged and filled with joy we all are . . . and yes, we are, filled with costly and hard-won joy, for we know, if we did not before (and I, actually, did . . .  I’ve known since I was seven . . . ) that it can all be erased in a second . . .  but I also see the things which are not so visible.  The shadow which crosses a face standing in the crowd at a wedding.   The smile and slight shake of the head when a baby is offered as a gift from a beaming mother.  The step out the door and onto the porch when the laughter over the antics of small children echoes throughout the house.

***

The last couple of years have been much easier.  I don’t know why.  I suppose the wavelengths of grief stretch and become more flexible, given enough time and practice.  That did not stop me from twice bursting into tears at my desk during the most recent Christmas season, grateful to be the only one in the building when an unexpected letter arrived from a high school classmate, last heard from 45 years earlier, who has lost one of her own sons, and when a FB message appeared from one of my son’s roommates, silent since the shocked condolence letter written years ago, and now a husband and father in his home country, France.

***

Who, I wonder would he have become?  Would he have continued with his corporate career; would we have returned to Chicago for a B-school graduation?  (Unlikely.)  Would he have left that life behind and begun to nourish the artistic gifts he resisted, begun to write and travel, relaxed into the world that beckoned him to so much? (More probable, given enough time.)   Would he have become a husband and father?  That woman, or another?  Would he have been tormented by episodes of depression, or would he have found hope and possibility where it one night seemed that none existed?   Would he be up in Canada right now, or out on a soccer field, introducing a small son or daughter to the world?

***

I live my life.  I do good work, important work.  I extend myself for my family.  I do love this world.

***

And there is not a day on which I do not breathe, Come back. Come back to me. Come back.

 


Our son Josh died by suicide on September 2, 2008.

 

 

 

 

When I’m 64 ~ 3

64th

On the plus side: I had a great birthday!  My family arrived and, picnic gear assembled, we headed to our city’s outdoor ampitheatre for dinner on the lawn and an Apollo’s Fire concert of music by Vivaldi.  Apollo’s Fire plays baroque music using period instruments, and Vivaldi is often my favorite composer, so it was a wonderful evening for me.  The last time I heard The Four Seasons performed live,  we were in St. Chappelle in Paris on a simmering summer evening; Saturday evening was as delightful, and a good deal more pleasant insofar as temperatures were concerned.

On the downside, no sooner I had resolved, as I described in my last post, that the future would hold more time for family and friends than . . . it didn’t.  As I opened gifts on Saturday evening before our picnic, I learned that my daughter had spent the previous several days organizing a surprise birthday party for me for the night before!  A party that had been cancelled because I was conducting a funeral that evening. I was crushed when the surprise was inadvertently revealed by my son (who assumed that I must have known by then) ~ I had had NO idea and have always wished that someone would plan a surprise party for me!  Well, as a friend pointed out, I did get my wish  . . .  someone did plan a party.

A few nights later, I missed my book club, a bi-monthly gathering of women friends, because I was en route home from an out-of-state training event.  I am so often flummoxed in my efforts to spend more time on my own relationships, and so disappointed when that happens; I am beginning to see retirement as a necessity more for creating time with those I love than for anything else!

 

Scholarships!

bcu

For many, a college education is out of reach, financially and practically.  For others, a foray into a huge university leads to confusion, disillusionment, and drop-out status.

Enter Chatfield College, a small institution in southwest Ohio, designed to serve students against whom the odds are stacked.

Chatfield began in 1960 on the campus of a Catholic convent and boarding school (which, full disclosure: I attended for three years), the dream-child of a senior Ursuline sister.  Ursulines at that time were destined to spend their lives as teachers, but when they entered the convent, typically at about age 18, they spent two years in seclusion on the convent campus before beginning their college studies.  Sister Miriam saw time and talent being wasted, and wondered why the young women could not complete two years of college right were they were, right where they needed to be for their initial religious formation.  Thus in a small building without even a telephone, a fully-accredited two-year college was born.  The young sisters were able to begin their studies immediately, and transfer to four-year colleges and universities later, having lost no time and no ground.

Today, Chatfield serves a much broader community, with both its original rural campus intact and a newer campus now established in Cincinnati.  Some students start with a GED program, some come because it provides an inexpensive, small, and nurturing opportunity close to home, and some have been stranded in large universities difficult to navigate.  Many are single, working parents.  You can read one of their stories here.

After our son died, we wondered what we might do to honor his memory.   Some years later, the lightbulb glowed:  Why not a scholarship at Chatfield?  After some conversations with the Development Director, we decided to establish a fund to support travel in memory of my mother and youngest brother as well as our son.  Travel is a passion in our family, and is the sort of adventure difficult for Chatfield students to afford.  In November, after my father died, we added his name to the fund, and were able to reach our first goal.  Some of the interest income has already been spent!

Last week I had the pleasure of travelling to Chatfield for the annual scholarship luncheon, at which I kept running into people with inspirational stories.  The president of the college is, like me, a former practicing attorney.  He dreams of taking a group of students to Virginia to see constitutional history come alive, and asked if I’d like to join them.  Another dream for the future!

What Do You Remember? (Retreat for Suicide Survivors ~ Third Friday in Lent)

starfish 0217

Nature has proven itself to be the greatest source of solace for me.  Not from the beginning ~ it was months, perhaps even more than a year, before I became of aware of my surroundings again.  I remember identifying a migrating sparrow on the sidewalk one day, surprised that the recesses of my mind had produced a name in response to a familiar annual sighting.  It seemed odd to me that such a sparrow still existed, and that it still had  a name.  My inner world was that altered.

When our children were small, we went to the Florida beach every spring.  I don’t know what these particular starfish are called, but they frequently appear along the Atlantic coast south of St. Augustine.  We used to occasionally  place one of our finds into a bucket of sand and saltwater and take it up to our porch to watch for awhile.  Eventually, satisfied by having enjoyed its companionable presence for a bit, we would return it to the waves.

Last month, we ventured to the beach again.  I felt very brave, returning to what had been the site of such joyful times for me.  It had taken more than a decade, and perhaps that would turn out not to have been long enough.

The starfish are still there.

What about you?  What creatures or sights in the natural world call out to you, saying, “Remember, and come home to yourself”?

Christmas Hope

tree-2016

New family members . . .  a hoped-for daughter-in-law and her son, Muslims whose journey has taken them from Somalia to Italy to France to England to America.  The world with its news and conflicts and politics has landed in our living room, where the young people played a game on the floor last night, as loud and boisterous as any game ever played there before.  The challenges of religious interface have landed in our kitchen, where the dinnertime conversation covered holidays, and around the tree, where presents have been carefully wrapped so that all are included.

A new and soon-to-be former church . . .  I have been pastoring a Lutheran congregation this year as they have worked through the transition from former pastor of nearly 40 years to someone new and unexpected.  They are ready, I think, to say good-bye and hello, and to embrace ways of being church which will bring fresh delights as their gifts are ignited and expanded.  Tonight and tomorrow, probably my first and last Lutheran Christmas liturgies as I near the conclusion of a year of surprise and growth.

A new sense of where I fit in my family’s puzzled pieces . . .  my dad died six weeks ago,  and with him went most memories of my mother and youngest brother.  Not that he mentioned them much over the past 56 years, but he knew them better than I did, better than my brother who recalls them not at all.  The moment which has flashed into my mind most frequently over the past weeks?  I am six years old, and my dad is teaching me to ride my bike without its training wheels, out in front of our new house on Azalea Lane in Vero Beach.  I am terrified, and the bike veers in lopsided arcs across the street and onto the sidewalk — without crashing, for reasons which remain a mystery to me.  My dad seems confident that I will triumph in the end.

I have never had much of an idea of how to do anything that my life has demanded of me.  How to care for a daughter-in-law and grandson from other worlds, pastor a church, ride a bike.  But the light shines and the darkness has not overcome it.  The light shines, as I tell sometimes skeptical Christians, on all of us, and it seeps into places of worship, and it flashes from the metal of blue Schwinn bikes.

Merry Christmas.

 

 

Saying good-by to my dad ~ Part 2

Sudden death has been a constant in my family’s history.

From my own reference point ~ myself (!) ~ my mother was killed instantly in a car accident when I was seven, and my almost-year-old brother died a few hours later of injuries sustained in that accident.  My first step-mother died immediately after a fall from a window the summer after I graduated from high school.  A few years later, while I was in law school, one of my aunts died quickly of a heart attack or stroke.  When my third step-mother died about ten years ago from lung cancer, I was somewhat surprised by the time it had taken.  But then a couple of years later, my 24-year-old son died of suicide.  We were back on track for disaster and its consequences: sudden horror and heartache.

When my third step-mother died, I was also surprised by her age ~ she was in her early seventies.  By that point, several of my friends had recently lost parents, and I was adjusting to the idea that death was not always sudden and did not claim only the young.  Fewer than 10% of Americans die suddenly, and the average life expectancy in this country is 76 for men and 81 for women, but my experience had indicated otherwise.

My father’s death was, I suppose, more typical of the American experience.  He was a few weeks short of his 85th birthday and, while his actual demise was unexpectedly sudden, he was suffering his third bout of lung cancer and had been experiencing symptoms for several weeks (although the latter had been news to me).

A lot of statistics . . . but I am seeking a context for my father’s death.  My life has been overshadowed by the instantaneous disappearance of one person after another, and now,  yet another.  Although I had been informed by internet sources that he might well die from a sudden hemorrhage, I suppose that I imagined a lingering end.  I had already been mentally preparing for several drives across the state to spend time with him during what I suspected would be his final weeks.

But, no.  Vanished.  Again.

I wonder where they have all gone.

Saying good-bye to my dad ~ part 1

I don’t even remember it; so casual was the moment.  I’m sure there was a quick hug and a “see you later” before I walked down the path from my dad’s woodland house to my car.  I had spent the  first two days of a planned staycation week visiting with him and my former stepmother, B., his partner of the last eight years, following his previous week’s diagnosis of lung cancer.  Third time around.  The news over the week-end was confusing and I had expected, when I left my house at about 7:00 on Monday morning, to be going to the hospital, where he was scheduled for a biopsy.  But before I arrived a few hours later, he had been sent home.  With one of the tumors wrapped around a pulmonary artery, the doctors had concluded that no surgical procedures would be possible.

We spent the next day or so relaxing and talking. It seemed that the cancer had appeared recently and spread rapidly. He and B. were optimistic, anticipating a short round of chemo and radiation and, B. told me privately, perhaps a few more good years. “Perhaps it will disappear as quickly as it arrived.” I did not say anything about that not being the way in which cancer behaves.  My dad seemed to have completely forgotten the horrors of his last wife’s debilitating treatment for the same vicious disease, and his resolution at that time that he would never pursue a similar path.  I did try to present some of the realities of treatment and to question its advisability, although some serious testing loomed ahead and it was impossible to get too far in our discussions.

Before I left, I asked my dad to try to consider what he would want if he had five years left, or a year, or weeks.  “If the latter,” I said, “you may want to purchase a new winter sleeping bag and curl up on the deck to watch the birds.”

I meant to ask Dad and B. to be sure that his living will and health care power of attorney were next to the front door, but I got distracted and forgot.

I drove home Tuesday afternoon, wondering about my own answers to the questions I had asked him to ponder.  I read about the consequences of a tumor tangled around a pulmonary artery ~ quite possibly catastrophic.

On Wednesday there were visits to oncologists, and on Thursday, extensive testing.  And on Friday morning at about 9:15, I received a frantic call from B.  “Robin!  Your father is dying!”  It developed that the EMT guys were there, engaged in all the activities he had hoped to avoid, and she couldn’t find the paperwork and hoped I had it.  My cousin, a vet, was standing there with her and repeating, “Peter wouldn’t want this; Peter wouldn’t want this.”  The medical personnel were apologetic, saying that in the absence of his instructions to the contrary, they had to act.  We found the file in our house, and my husband went off to fax the papers to the hospital, while I started to pack.

No one called.  I talked to a nurse at the hospital, explaining that my dad was en route.  A few minutes later, I called again, and reached a neighbor, who was there with B. and my cousin.  After a couple of exchanges, I said, “Well, how is he?”

“Uh. . . he died,” she said.

Oh.

Later, as those who were there put the pieces together, they concluded that he had gone into the bathroom off the bedroom, begun to load the washing machine, and collapsed — probably gone before he hit the floor.

B. said that a few minutes earlier he had dressed and been sitting on the bed, and she had brought in an email harshly critical of the president-elect, to ask him whether it was too much to send to an acquaintance three days after the election.  He read it, gave her a big grin, and said, “Send it.”

A few days later, the test results came back ~ extensive metastases.

My dad had always articulated a desire to depart this life quickly and without fuss.  I would have been honored to care for him for a bit.  But quickly and without fuss it was to be.  Thanks be to God.  Sort of.

 

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