Monday, August 29, 2005

Governor Dodge Vacation

We went to Governor Dodge park on Thursday, and came back Sunday. We only numbered 4 this time: Eldest Son was working, Eldest Daughter was working, and Middle Daughter was preparing to move to college. (Of course it isn't that far to move, but she wants to stay on campus and is willing to work to cover the cost.)

Of course Youngest Daughter and Youngest Son squabbled; enough to tempt me to title this "Trails and Tribulations," but on the whole we had a good time.

Forgot the tent stakes (oops), the second tarp (but we had a spare tablecloth), the handbroom and dustpan (for keeping the tent clean of course), dishpans (oh no!), and water bottles (oops) and the hand soap (uh oh). The forecast was for thunderstorms, so I decided against taking the awning. I should have brought it along anyway; we had no high winds, and shade from sun and from rain are wonderful things.

Youngest Son and I hiked to the falls. He's fearless about cliff edges: I'm not. He's got a good eye: we spotted things like a hole where a sapling had been uprooted that was taken over for a wasp's nest. When we came back 2 hours later we discovered that my wife had thought I was waking her up instead of telling her to keep resting; and that breakfast had been an hour and a half before.

The hot-dog bag leaked and filled with icewater. I know what we're having tonight! (Note to self: seal all meats/veggies in freezer bags before sticking them in the cooler).

Oddly enough, Youngest Daughter, though far more sedentary than Youngest Son, kept up better on the trails that afternoon, though we had to sit her down and make her eat grapes to keep herself hydrated. Youngest Son hung on my elbow as though he wanted to be pulled along the path. The path to the cave (used by a foreclosed-upon farm family) was clear when you realized where it was (other side trails looked quite reasonable--we kept thinking we'd walked farther than we really had). We made it back just before it started sprinkling. Rain made lighting a campfire a bit tough Friday, but perhaps I should have been more patient and started later.

The kids made sand castles by the beach (we made a sand gecko). You could see in the sand under the water footprints of a heron and raccoon. Youngest Son rebuilt part of a rock dam in the creek.

What did we have? A touch of hay fever (fields of goldenrod). Very brisk nights. Kids complaining about each other. Several trips to WalMart to get missing camp gear. Air mattresses that went flat.

What didn't we end up with? Mosquitoes. Raccoons eating our Oreos. Much rain. Anybody getting seriously sick. No poison ivy, either (they're very good about clearing that stuff away).

What did we see? A number of maple "funnel trees" with many trunks growing out of a single center. A U-tree, with a horizontal branch at the ground leading to a second trunk three feet away. A wedding party. A cat-bird and vultures. A hummingbird sitting still! A ranger trying to explain that campsites weren't interchangeable. Puffballs. A boulder on the trail that must have fallen out of a rock wall the day before. Ashes, elms, walnuts, spring houses, meadows, small caves, burbling creeks with jewel-weed in bloom.

Saturday night was beautifully clear, and I saw a few meteors. Another camper tried to find the Big Dipper while waiting for his daughter: I showed him where it really was and mentioned meteors. He said his daughter had never seen any before, and he was just mentioning them to her when she saw her first streak through the sky. (She insisted that it was a comet.)

It isn't quiet out in the forest. The crickets kept up a constant noisy background to almost everything. The catbird meowed bitterly that we camped in its territory. Coyotes howled at night, the neighbors' dogs barked, a bird that sounded like a rusty hinge chirped. We heard the squirrels chittering, the chee-chee-chee of a bird we never identified, the loud moans of the double-breasted bed thrasher and the annoyed grouse of the sleepless camper.

We didn't bring a radio, or much in the way of books--I only found out about the hurricane when casually mentioning the weather to another camper. It is tempting to try to stay connected, but then you lose the benefit of being away from it all. Of course we weren't entirely "away from it all." I like plumbing (Youngest Son found the rarely used pit-potties more comfortable than the crowded shower building, though), faucets in the campgrounds had running water we could fill up the camp-pot from, and we checked the cellphone regularly to see if there was some urgent message about my mother-in-law's condition. But aside from a few amenities we had no radio, no phone, no newspaper, no email; nothing but us and some simple chores and some beautiful landscape where we were guests and not supervisors.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

No whys

My Stepfather, Karl, was a good and kind man. He and my mother had five good years together before he began to show psychiatric symptoms. After several years of misdiagnoses and other foolishness from the medical profession, we learned that he had multi-infarct dementia (which James's dad has now).

During that time, I learned that "Why?" is the devil's question. "Why" makes us focus on the injustice and unfairness of the situation; and focussing on unfairness only leads to spinning our wheels. We can't control the "Why."

We can control the "What" and "How:"

  • How do I treat the person who hurts?
  • What is my role in dealing with this crisis?
  • How do I take care of myself so that I don't lose my marbles due to stress?

I am grateful to Pope John Paul II for allowing the world to see his weakness in his last years. He reminded us that we are all frail in some way, yet God still "loves us with an everlasting love." John Paul was dignified even when he drooled. He would not let the world pretend that decline and death don't happen.

We in the industrialized world get uncomfy when we look at weakness. We have removed ourselves as much as possible from a very real and natural part of life; and so it hits us harder when we can't hide from it anymore.

When I first developed fibromyalgia, I didn't know why I hurt and why I was too tired to move. Sometimes all I could pray was, "God; you say you're glorified in weakness. I am weak, so you be glorified in it."

How do we glorify God in these circumstances?

  • We ask for God's grace and for the discernment to recognize grace when it comes.

    Mother has lived 18 months (and counting) longer than anyone expected. She has her anxious moments, and nobody can pretend this is easy. Nevertheless she has received more peace in the last 18 months than I have seen before. I have seen God answer specific prayer, specific evidence of grace.

  • We look for victories. With 3 kids who have Aspergers Syndrome, it's easy to focus on what they can't do. Often we miss the progress or the victory until somebody points it out.

The victories are the small rewards that tell you "You're doing something right." "You've grown in this area." "Your kid will make it, and he'll be stronger because he has worked harder."

When my eldest was three, he was playing with words and sounds. He came up with the phrase "Thank you thinking." For me, the phrase reminds me "Look for evidence of God's love even in a mess."

The greatest source of peace: "We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace,, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in times of need." Hebrews 4:15-16

Jesus didn't spring from God's head full grown and armored. He was God in a baby's body, needing his diapers changed. He was the weird kid on the block--"Can you believe that goody-goody Jesus bar Joseph? He never sins." He lost his earthly father some time before he began his ministry, and as eldest son he was chief care-giver and provider during Joseph's last days. He suffered ghastly pain and humiliation on the cross.

God knows our deepest need not because he is God Almighty and knows everything anyway (though He does). "Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows"--borne our sins on the cross, and borne the same trials we face daily. He's been there, done that, got scars.

Mrs. James

"The Battle Doors are Open!"

I don't know why we must grow old and die. Sometimes there's injury or disease to smash the delicate body we casually control. If not, we endure the awful humiliation of slowly losing each power of body and mind, till it seems nothing is left but the helpless naked soul drifting out of sight.

My father, once dignified, strong, and wise, now shivers in a bed he cannot rise from, and can only speak by fits and starts. He knew my name, but could not tell that I was there. At night he called for my mother and my sister--and for the dog he once pretended to disdain because a dachshund wasn't a real dog. And from some unknown distress he warned us that "The battle doors are open!" Only God knows if that was memory or metaphor.

Every power we thought was ours by gift or by mastery, we find instead was merely intrusted to us for a while. Money slips away, and we cannot sign the checks to guide it any more. We spent eager hours learning to drive a car, and that skill slips away in confusion and sluggishness. Even the simple joy of swinging your legs out of bed in the morning is only on loan.

Some of us die as my mother-in-law is dying: crippled by bone cancer and with her mind blurred by exhaustion and the pain-killers (or blurred by the pain when the dose is wrong). She too cannot get up without help, and just getting into a wheelchair seems a crazy risk of her brittle bones. She still has lucid times, and with patience you can collect the threads of her conversation. But lucid times are fewer and the exhaustion eats more of her day.

Our parents are still there, of course, even if more helpless than the babies they once were who could smile and coo. They wait for the final humiliation: that they cannot even keep themselves alive. And who knows what eyes will watch God's judgement of the choices of our souls?

They are going the way their parents went before them, and we will follow them. May we have mercy on each other. And may God have mercy on us all, and reclothe us in glory.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Final Gifts by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Helley

Subtitled Understanding the special awareness, needs, and communications of the dying, this uses anecdotes to illustrate a set of general observations about the dying and the living.

Slow dying, as opposed to death by heart attack or accident, often follows a common pattern near the end. Some of these, such as unability to drink or the "death rattle" are more frightening to the family than painful to the dying. The family and the dying frequently react somewhere along Kubler-Ross' sequence: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance--though they don't always "follow the sequence."

The authors' main contribution is to emphasize the need to listen carefully to the dying to discover what they are trying to say. People sometimes feel the need to wrap up their affairs, say goodbyes, reconcile with estranged family, or offer some encouragement themselves. Unfortunately, near the end, clear communication can become difficult. Probably most of us have been in the situation of wanting to say something, but, having forgeten the right word, trying to use a phrase that almost fits, or even trying to use some simile instead of clear prose. Apparently the dying are more aware of what is going on around them than one might expect given the closed eyes and lack of reaction.

If we pay careful attention to what they say, we can sometimes figure out what they mean despite some confusion. Some things are fairly clear: a man who laments that the trolley won't stop for him seems to be wondering why it is taking so long to die. Mentioning "Dad" in the middle of otherwise incomprehensible mumbles might mean that the woman wants to see her estranged father before she dies.

Or, of course, it might not. You have to know the person and their situation fairly well to figure out something like that.

The authors suggest that some people can "let go" at will. This is plausible: as the body begins shutting down functions, you might become more aware of the remaining ones--there's less distraction. And if with awareness of the action comes a little control, letting go seems more possible. We can all recall people who died after some milestone: Charles Schultz died days after his last Peanuts strip.

Some people want family around, while others, satisfied that they are loved, prefer not to be a bother and die when nobody is around. The authors say that many people blame themselves for not being there: "I just stepped out for a minute and he was gone!" Maybe the deceased wanted it that way.

Summary: The dying quite likely know what's going on (hearing is one of the last things to go), and you should pay attention to what they're saying. It may be in fragments, or even symbolic, but hear them out.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Treasures of the "deep"

Youngest son and I went down to the creek running through the park today; a followup to the exploration with him and youngest daughter yesterday. It isn't a wild area, but they kept enough of the woods on each side to make it seem so. In this weather the water level is low enough that we were able to walk on rocks along either bank for quite a way before it all turned to mud and the various inlets raised the water level too high.

Along the way we saw green frogs, a (unfortunately dead) hermit crab, a large dragonfly, and a groundhog. Along the way we collected 2 baseballs and a softball (the ball fields are close to the creek), a Florida driver's license, lots of pop-tops, and a suction ball. (He wants to make a chain-mail vest out of pop-tops.)

Friday, August 05, 2005

Customer service story

Middle daughter was handling electronics returns at Walmart last week, when a woman wanted to return a printer. It was returnable, but what was the reason for return? The woman claimed "One of your electronics people said I could use this printer without a computer."