Archive for the ‘The Possibilities’ Category

Minuet

December 21, 2017

I spent the day
with good friends.
He has Parkinson’s.
She’s the caregiver.
It’s been a long,
trying journey for both.
He is different than when we met 38 years ago,
when we became colleagues,
as he became my mentor.
Today he’s both here and not quite here,
aware and not entirely aware.
It was hard for me to see.
Yet it was still a meaningful day
and I’m glad I went.
I was so impressed as I watched
the evolving relationship of this couple.
She would say gently, kindly,
“Maybe you’ll enjoy walking with Jim
to lunch rather than driving.
It’s such a beautiful day.”
She knew he couldn’t drive,
that he’d make an effort to do so,
and that he didn’t always remember
that driving is now out of the question.
He nodded, and we enjoyed our walk
in the bright sunshine.
“You can lie back on the couch,”
she said to him after we returned.
“It’s just fine; Jim won’t mind.”
So he sporadically dozed,
feeling free to do so in my presence.
Twice she handed him tissues, quietly,
almost unnoticed, without his asking.
A runny nose is characteristic of the disease.
On the long drive home
a word came into my mind: minuet.
A dance between two, and only two, people.
It’s a slow dance, in 3/4 time.
It’s performed thoughtfully, carefully,
yet it unfolds smoothly, naturally.
It’s an art form,
graceful and flowing in its appearance.

Caregiving is often like a minuet.
Two people dance closely together,
with steps that may appear simple
but can be rather complex.
They move, not with the rest of the world,
but in 3/4 time.
They communicate without always using words.
They glide in tandem, each seeking synchrony
with the other’s rhythm.
It takes real effort, and much practice,
and great sensitivity on the part of each.
The minuet of caregiving also takes this: love.
As I drove home, I felt blessed
to have been in the presence
of this couple I so respect.
Their dance is lovely,
and more than lovely.

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Journey

August 2, 2017

The call came
at 4 a.m. Tuesday.
“Your father’s on his way
to the hospital
in an ambulance.”
He had fallen again.
I drove to Warsaw where our youngest brother
was already watching over Dad’s care.
Dad was weak and disoriented,
unable to stand, much less walk.
He has improved slightly day by day,
but this morning he’s being transferred
to a skilled care setting.
I find it difficult to have him make this transition,
to make the transition with him.
But this is the next step,
the appropriate step,
the responsible step.
But, oh, it’s sad to watch,
sad to participate in.
His world keeps narrowing,
as he’s no longer able to see well,
or hear well, or think well.
Life still beats within him,
yet he makes it clear that he’s ready
to let life go.

For some of us,
this is where our caregiving inevitably leads.
Despite our best efforts,
the one in our care will not always get better.
All our love and assistance will not reverse
what has been set in motion
within the body and the mind.
As the one in our care surrenders
to that unavoidable journey,
we must surrender alongside them.
As we practice this letting go,
maybe we can find comfort in coming to believe
that this is not just a letting go of,
but a letting go into.
Into a place where memories and dreams
begin to unite in ways they never have.
Into a space that allows for a quiet, gentle preparation
for the completion of this pilgrimage on earth.
Into a territory that has plenty of expanse
for received grace, for gathered meaning,
and for ageless love.
When I began this writing,
I visualized our leading Dad
on that next leg of his journey.
As I conclude this writing,
I see Dad leading all of us
on the journey that we will all take,
that we are all well into already.
He is a wonderful guide.

May you have your wonderful guides too.

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Beauty II

July 28, 2017

My friend Steve and I
had been photographing
in the Smokies
and were headed home.
It was late at night.
Sheets of rain were falling.
A semi traveled ahead of us,
pulling a huge stainless steel tank
designed for hauling some sort of liquid.
“Wow! Look at that!” Steve said, sitting upright.
I didn’t see anything other than slanting rain
and columns of headlights in the darkness.
“Look at those gorgeous light reflections
swirling on the back of that truck!”
Steve said, leaning forward.
I squinted to see what he was seeing.
Sure enough, there it was—
a surrealistic display of dancing light,
taking on ever new and dazzling forms
each time a car passed by.
It was as if we had our own kaleidoscope,
eight feet in diameter, right before us.
Steve was the one who excitedly recognized
that nighttime appearance of beauty.
I had not seen it myself.

Remembering that drive home, I state my belief:
beauty is everywhere around us.
We need not stand on a mountain peak
or linger beside a sunset-lit sea
to witness true presentations of beauty.
Loveliness may show itself in the way
sunlight filters through a nearby window
or radiance filters through a loved one’s eyes.
Beauty may make itself known in
an unexpected flash of color,
an interesting arrangement of shapes,
or a lovely design where you wouldn’t expect
such design to appear.
Life-giving beauty often manifests itself
ever so simply—
one solitary flower,
one dangling wisp of hair,
one luminous look on a face.
Ultimately beauty is a gift we’re given,
wherever we are,
whatever we’re doing.
We need only our eyes to open it.

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Beauty

June 25, 2017

I’ve been reading
recently about beauty.
What is beauty?
How do you know
when you see it
or hear it?
What are its signs?
What is its purpose?
In the midst of my readings
I came across this quotation
from the French writer Blaise Pascal:
In difficult times you should always carry
something of the beautiful in your mind.

My initial response to his advice,
well over three hundred years old,
was mild surprise.
The paying of attention to beauty,
I had tended to think,
was for other sorts of times.
Times of leisure, for example.
Or when we’re feeling particularly creative.
Or when we’ve become inspired.
But Pascal says,
“Be sure to maintain a connection with beauty
when times are tough.”
I believe his words must have arisen
from the truth of his own life.
He was in frail health
most of his adult life,
and often in physical pain.
He lived his last years without much companionship
and in relative poverty.
He died when he was only 38.

For some of us, this may be a time
of great difficulty.
Even if that’s not entirely the case,
we each have those moments that try us,
those days that wear on us.
Those are the times, Pascal says,
to carry something beautiful within,
in our minds, in our hearts.
Such are the times to let beauty shine its light
on our spirits, in our souls.
We’re encouraged to allow
what is lovely to see and hear and touch
to be close enough to us
that we can see it and hear it and touch it.
How close?
As close as our own minds, our own hearts.
The reason is simple.
When we carry something of beauty within,
that beauty will carry us.

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Web

April 3, 2017

Mary and my wife Bernie
are very good friends.
They see one another
regularly.
Mary is very engaged
as a caregiver.
Her husband is in poor health,
with three separate medical conditions,
each very serious.
I spoke with Mary by herself recently
and asked about her caregiving—
what was hard and what wasn’t,
what helped and what didn’t.
She was clear about what helps a lot:
“I don’t like to burden family members
with all that continues to happen
and all that I feel in response.
It helps so much to turn to Bernie
to get things off my chest
when I need to.”
“Bernie finds your time together meaningful,”
I said, knowing that to be true.
“But,” Mary went on, “I don’t think she realizes
how much good it does when she listens
and lets me talk all I want.
It always helps me.
It also helps my children
because then they don’t have to hear
the same things over and over,
things that no one can change.
And it helps my husband
because after ventilating my feelings to Bernie,
I return to my role with more energy
and more acceptance.
When Bernie helps me,
she is helping many others too,
even if she doesn’t always know it.”

That’s a magic of thoughtful caregiving:
one act of care often splits off
in several different directions,
whether that’s intended or unintended,
touching the lives of unseen others.
It becomes less a direct line of care
and more an expanding web of care,
branching out every chance it gets.
Rather lovely, isn’t it?

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Slow II

March 13, 2008

It all started
with a hamburger.
In 1986 McDonald’s
opened a franchise
in Rome, Italy,
near the Spanish Steps.
The Italians were not happy.
They had always cooked slowly and eaten leisurely,
allowing plenty of time to savor
the food and drink and company.
They had no desire for fast food,
which included fast ordering,
fast cooking, and fast eating.
So they organized an angry protest,
brandishing bowls of penne pasta.
Thus the Slow Food movement began.
The idea soon spread:
Slow Cities,
Slow Travel,
Slow Living,
always spelled with a capital “S.”
Now Dennis McCullough, M.D. has written
a book entitled My Mother, Your Mother
in which he advocates Slow Medicine
for caring for our aging loved ones.
He writes about those over eighty,
“…[T]his particular group of elders has the highest likelihood of benefiting from care that is more measured and reflective, and that actually stands back from the rushed, in-hospital interventions and slows down to balance thoughtfully the separate, multiple, and complex issues of late life.”
I agree with Dr. McCullough’s assessment.
I would go so far as to argue
that all people, whatever their age,
can benefit from measured and reflective care,
beyond emergency situations, of course.
That includes the kinds of situations
in which most of us are involved
as we care for our loved ones,
in our homes, in their homes,
and in healthcare facilities of many sorts.
Following Dr. McCullough’s lead,
I suggest that we practice Slow Caregiving.
I advocate that we go slow enough
so we can have time enough.
Time enough to really look at the other person,
to really see them.
Time enough to really hear
what they have to say,
to really listen to their hearts,
to really connect with their souls.
Time enough to come to understand
how and when our caregiving succeeds,
as well as how and when and where
our caregiving could be more useful,
more appropriate, more caring.
Time enough to savor any joy,
to linger over any closeness,
to fully appreciate every single appearance
of authenticity.
Time enough, in short,
to really care.

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Unexpected

February 14, 2008

My friend Paul Johnson
is primary caregiver
for his wife Barb.
Recently he told me
a funny story
from two years ago.
Barb was at the Mayo Clinic,
about to undergo her third brain surgery
in just over four weeks.
There was real uncertainty
about her surviving the procedure.
It was a very stressful time.
Standing beside the gurney,
a nurse asked Barb three questions
to confirm that the right patient
was about to have the correct surgery.
“Your name, birth date, and type of procedure,”
said the nurse.
In an especially clear voice Barb said,
“Barbara Johnson, March 26, 1951,
breast augmentation surgery.”
It took a couple of eyeblinks
following Barb’s unexpected response
before Paul and the nurse, in his words,
“totally cracked up.”
Barb’s lively sense of humor lightened
an uncomfortably tense time,
and it continued to do so
each time Paul retold the story
to her concerned family and friends.

Paul now calls these experiences of finding
the humorous in caregiving situations
“like finding an oasis in the desert.”
It’s cheering and refreshing.
Such joking, especially from the care receiver,
also puts the topic being joked about
out in view of everyone.
It gives gentle permission to talk about
what may have been avoided in conversation
even if it’s been on everyone’s mind.
Often all it takes is a couple of words,
a look on one’s face,
or a wink of the eye.
This slightly unexpected human exchange
can brighten spirits and lighten loads instantly.
An infectious smile or a sudden laugh
can illumine a space that had been
uncomfortably dark only a moment before.

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Baggage

January 31, 2008

Abigail Thomas gave care
to her husband, Rich,
after an accident.
He was hospitalized
for many weeks.
The future was uncertain.
In “The Day the World Split Open,”
she explained one way that experience
helped change her life:
I seem to be leaving in the road behind me all sorts of unnecessary baggage, stuff too heavy to carry. Old fears are evaporating: the claustrophobia that crippled me for years is gone, vanished. I used to climb the thirteen flights to our apartment because I was terrified of being alone in the elevator. What if it got stuck? What if I never got out? Then there I was one Sunday morning in the hospital, Rich on the eighth floor, the elevator empty. What had for years terrified me now seemed ridiculously easy. I haven’t got time for this, I thought, and got right in.

The fact that we’ve become a caregiver,
whether willingly or unwillingly,
often changes how we approach life.
Like Abigail, we may find
we’ve been carrying baggage
that’s gotten too heavy to handle.
We don’t have the energy for it now.
We don’t have the time.
Moreover, the baggage we choose to drop
may be an unnecessary load,
one we’ve shouldered far too long.
I know a caregiver who chose
to set down her agoraphobia—
her fear of leaving familiar space—
when it got in the way of caring
for her ill daughter far from home.
I know a man who gave up
his chronic penchant for disorganization;
he needed a different way of managing his days
as the primary caregiver to his wife.
I know another man who,
when his mother needed his care,
dropped the burden of old wounds
he had been hanging on to for years.
He forgave her for having hurt him
and they spent her last days
in relative closeness.
It’s possible our caregiving can become
an opportunity for us to assess
the life situation we’re currently in,
the life choices we’ve previously made.
What’s really important to us in life,
given these new responsibilities?
What’s not important?
What has become a priority
that wasn’t one before?
What makes most sense
for how our days are lived out?
What no longer makes sense?
What would be most healing,
most life-giving,
not just for the one in our care,
but for ourselves?
Our caregiving may point us in directions
that surprise us,
even please us.

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