She took her story with her

She took her story with her.

She had wanted to leave it behind.

She had wanted to give it to me.

She did not have much.

Just sadness and smiles, both.

A bed with buttons. Wrinkles.

Now?

We won’t know what the sun was like, on that day the soldiers marched into the little village.

We won’t know how she looked at him.  How he looked at her.

How the bread tasted different, after the soldiers came and set them all free.

How the raindrops smelled before they began to land in the open fields.

Fields like scars, scars that bled anyway.

She took her story with her.

The place where she died smelled funny even before she died there.

And it scared me to go there and see them all.

Not her.  It scared me to go there and see them all.

They made these noises and they could not hold their mouths closed.

And they pulled their little wheel chairs by the rails on the endless sides of the endless hallways.

I lied about the sun, and how she looked at him, and the bread, and the raindrops, and the fields like scars that bled.

Don’t you understand?  She took the story with her.

It was probably not as good as the story I am guessing.

About the sun and how she looked at him and the bread and the raindrops.

Except that it is her truth.

And it died with her.

Any suggestions?

My grandmother is dying.

She has a number of days left most likely. 

One of the issues we’ve been navigating is how best to handle this with our kids.  They are aged 11, 8, and 6.  I am not proud to admit that she’s had a slowly decreasing role in our lives.  She has suffered fairly advanced dementia and has lived in a nursing home for the last several years.

She’s not often conscious, at this point, and this is a blessing.  She’s got a pretty severe respitory infection.  The other clients in the nursing home sometimes do stuff that the kids find disturbing.

We’ve done an o.k. job of talking about it and sharing our feelings.

The real struggle is this: the older two kids really don’t want to see her. 

On some level, there is no point.  She’s hardly ever even awake.  And when she is, she has no clue who she is, where she is, or who we are.

On some other level, though, visiting is the right thing to do.  I’m working really hard at sorting out what people think and say is the right thing to do, because I don’t particularly care if anybody is impressed or not.   I have been visiting her every day or two.  I’m trying to lead by example.

And one of my deals is just sorting out my own junk.  My own issues with aging, and death, and saying goodbye, and putting everything in God’s hands… She was an important figure in my life.  I am sad that she will be gone.

I just don’t know how much pressure we should put on them.  Will they someday think that we should have put more pressure on them to say goodbye?  Will they someday blame us if we do pressure them?  More important than what they will someday think, is the question of what is best for them, what is the right thing to do.  And it’s pretty hard to work that all out right now.

What do you think?

Old Age in Genesis

Genesis reports that the first several generations of humans lived for many centuries.    I’ve heard people before notice that each generation lives a few years shorter than the generation before.  The idea is that Adam was nearly genetically perfect and each generation after got further and further and further from his genetic near-perfection.

The thing that strikes me as a little odd about this idea is that it seems to suggest that the fall gets progressively worse over time.  I have no particular reason to think that we ought to be able to recover from the fall on our own: there’s no good reason to think things ought to get better.  But it’s a little strange to ponder the idea that things are slowly getting worse. 

It would seem like Adam and Eve– who after all made that fateful decision– ought to experience the effects at least as much as the rest of us.

I suppose somebody could argue that in the Garden they had some sort of advantages that lead to them later in life living longer than everybody else.  The problem with this idea is that every single generation lives shorter than the life before.  It’s not like there’s a sudden drop off.  It’s this gradual shortening of life spans, across dozens of generations.

It’s almost like the fall set loose some sort of symbolic toxin or radiation or cancer.  It’s progressing, getting worse with each generation.  On a literal and practical level, perhaps the shortening life spans are a result of increasing human foolishness, greed, and selfishness.  Each generation honored its elders less and took increasingly poor care of them.  Or each generation was marred by increasing violence making it increasingly likely that people would die at increasingly young ages.  Or each generation simply made less healthy decisions.

These don’t seem all that likely either, though, because the bible does not report these specific things (not taking care of the elderly or increasing violence) and because the drop off is so steady.

An interesting thing is that all these guys are (by our standards) incredibly old when they have our first children.  Like nearly a century old in most cases.  Presumably they aged slower as adults or simply stopped aging at some point  (Otherwise, can you imagine what it would be like to be 200?)  I wonder if they aged slower into adult hood.  If they lived five times as long as us, did it take five times as long to reach adolesence?  Would they emerge from puberty at age 90?

I feel so not up to the task of parenting sometimes.  How awesome would it be if I was able to have five times as much life experience under my belt before I became a dad?!?  This is again, assuming that I don’t get the other less-fun symptoms of being that age.  And sometimes I mourn for all those ages that are behind me.  It’d be awesome to get to spend more time in some of those ages.  (Allthough, junior high was the deepest pit of hell.  I wouldn’t want to extend that by a factor of 5)

I make no secret of the fact that I’m ambivalent on the question of whether or not these stories literally happened.  But I do notice that there is something interesting on a more symbolic level.  (This does not contradict a literal reading, it might complement it.)

One of the ways I make sense of the bible’s talk about sons inheriting the sins of the father is by adressing the fact that we see this all the time anyway.  It seems unfair, but it’s undeniable that if I make a lousy decision in many cases my kids will pay the price for it, too.  I break a law and go to jail, they end up growing up with out a dad.  I become addicted to drugs they have to deal with all the stupid things I did under the influence.  I get a divorce and they grow up with all the challenges a divorce brings.

The question I never considered before this morning was this: who pays more, the father or the son?

Perhaps the idea that is illustrated in these shrinking life spans is that sometimes the sons will pay a much higher price than the father.  Maybe it’s more difficult to grow up without a dad than it is to go to jail.  Maybe some sin has a snow ball effect, and we start just a little ball of the stuff rolling down hill.  It’s a knee-high ball for our kids.  Our grand kids cope with a snow ball the size of a house.  Our great grand kids face a full blown avalanche.

The hand that feeds her

It was mostly out of a sense of duty that I visited my grandmother.  I don’t really believe myself when I say it’s not that I don’t care for her; it’s that I cared so much.  It’s hard to see her not know who I am, to be bed-ridden, and so confused about where she is, and so deaf she can not hear me, and so unable to talk above a mumble that really I can not hear her, either.

In honesty I’d have to admit that I was relieved when I found her sleeping in the dining hall.  I was home free!  I didn’t have a whole lot of time.  I’d made an attempt.  I did my duty.  Now, I could go about my day feeling like at least I had tried.

I think that God smiled, though, as he put a nurse in my path.  One of the things about God: he figures out a way to make who we really are show through.  He exposes when we’re posturing and when we’re the real deal.

  “We can bring her out here and you can talk with her.” The women motioned to the sitting room I was passing.  It had a decent sized television screen mounted on the wall and a book case with ancient paperbacks and a few semi-comfortable, institutional chairs and love seats.

“Oh, sure.” I said, with mixed feelings.   I took a seat and watched the news for a few minutes on the television.

They brought her in this wheeled, reclining seat.  A tray was across the front.  It featured a strange assortment of food: milk, orange juice, oat meal, ice cream, tuna-fish sandwhich, pasta salad.   The nurse smiled at me.

“She needs to be fed these days.” She explained simply and to be honest I was shocked.  I had no idea that things had come this far: she needs to be fed!   She’d once been so fierce and vital: more a force of nature than a grandmother.  How could it have come to this?  How could I have been so out-of-touch that I didn’t know?

 

“If you’re not comfortable doing this then we’ll have to bring her back to the dining hall and feed her ourselves.” she continued, and I thought, “What?”

I had this ungenerous moment when I wondered if she minored in being a used car salesman in nursing school.  I’d agreed to hang out with my grand mother, not feed her!

I am not proud of how those words look.  I was not then and I am not now.  I have all these rationalizations and explanations.  But the truth is that they do not matter.  I had a choice to make at that point.

And I’m not proud to admit that having that nurse watch me and wait for me to make a decision was what tipped the scales.  I should do it because it’s the right thing.  I should do it because God’s wants me to.  I’d probably never see this nurse again.  Why should I care what she thinks?  The fact that God is always with me and always will be is what should matter.  But if the nurse hadn’t been there, what would I have done? 

I don’t know.

But in my brokeness I care what she thinks too much.  And I don’t care enough what God thinks.    I guess that God knows this.  I suspect that he orchestrated this whole thing in a way that would nudge me toward doing the right thing.

I nodded.  I wondered if my grand mother understood what was going on.  She’d once fed me.  I wondered if she felt something, anything, about the idea that I’d now feed her.  The nurse smiled and made the food ready.  “She loves her sugar” she said affectionately, dumping a packet into the oat meal.  “And her ice cream.” She opened the little styrofoam container.  “She’s not eating much these days, so do what you can.”

Perhaps this was the best moment of the afternoon: My grandmother always had a sweet tooth.  It was so reassuring to know that there was somebody in this place who knew that, who took care of her.

I’ve been a Christian long enough to know how these stories are supposed to end.  This kind-of story is a sub-genre unto itself.  The writer is supposed to write about finding Jesus in the least of these.  We’re supposed to revel in the idea that we get to pay back some of the care that we were raised with.  Through this experience, we’re supposed to find this whole new level of communing, me, and my Grandmother, and God.

The closest I can offer to any of this is that I did what I new I was supposed to do.  And it did make me happy to do it, to have something I can do with my grandmother.  But it freaked me out, too.

I’m acutely aware of how much this isn’t about her at all.  It’s about my own selfishness, my own fear of loss of power and control, my fear of aging, of not being taken care of… and I can pray that someday it’ll feel like this spiritual act.

But it doesn’t yet.  And I don’t do anybody a service by pretending that it does.  Pray for me.  Maybe someday it will.

A tribute to my grandmother

She was a fixture of my childhood.   When I was in elementary school I thought she was like everybody else’s grandma.

Her freezer was always stocked with treats that were rare and precious like the good brand of popsicles and Stover’s French Bread pizzas.   She had this basement that had wonders that made Willy Wonka’s candy factory pale in comparison.  There was this shed that was only half-full of tools.  Tons of room for us to have our own little kingdom.  A forest behind her home was nothing short of magical.  I remember in particular this one fallen tree that I’d sit on, and the smell: a smell of damnpness, even decomposition.  But it wasn’t a bad thing.  Even then, I think I sensed the amazing transformation of old life being transformed to new,

She had this “thing” about her “shows”… Soap operas.  But she’d interupt her shows in order to play Yatzee, and teach us how to play other games… Like poker.

The first time I started to sense that Grandma wasn’t like other Grandmas was when she started teaching my brothers and I to play cards.  Not go-fish.  Not old maid.  Poker.  Texas Hold ’em.  Five card stud.

She had this wicker basket that she collected pennies in.  Thousands of pennies.  She’d bust this out and dump it on these brown, folding TV trays.  Some of the pennies would fall on to the floor but we’d ignore them.

Grandma would start herself off with some tiny fraction of the total loot.  She’d split the remainder up between my brothers and I.  And then we’d play.  For hours.

And grandma?  She’d slowly win her pennies back.

It was unbelievable.  She was fierce.  A warrior behind the cards.  Like some mutation of little red riding hood, a Shark dressed like a grandma.

I remember, at one point, being very young, and thinking “Isn’t she supposed to let us win.”

The word ruthless doesn’t quite describe it.  Because she was loving.  But unmerciful.  Slowly, the size of the piles of pennies would shift.

“Ante up!” She’d yell.  To call it a cackle might sound unkind.  But it really was a cackle.  “Ante up!  Ante up!”

Somehow, it was a good time, though.  Perhaps this was because we always ended up with the pennies anyway.

Her ability and interest at cards was this gateway to the realization: she was not like everybody else’s grandma.  She was, in fact, this paradox.

On the one hand, she divinely probabalities effortlessly.  Not only cards, but also Yatzee.  Often times she can even explain why a certain decision makes more sense.  She didn’t just memorize a bunch of patterns and strategies.  She actually could explain the math beneath them.

Yet, at the same time, I remember her asking me to show her how to use a calculator.  She was notoriously absent-minded, bordering on the clueless.   Some well-meaning neighbors once followed her driving home.  She was absurdly lost, driving into a nieghborhood that she’d lived in for years.

She was incredibly loving and gentle.  I remember how she’d kiss my forehead and say “Remember that grandma loves ya’ ” And at the same time, she had this hilarious, profane side.  I remember her introducing me to phrases like “She’s uglier than a bucket full of …holes” From my very own grandmother.  No matter how you feel about profanity, it’s hard to deny that there’s something perfect about a 70 year old giggling with a 10 year old over this phrase.

As time went on, I got glimpses of her story.  She had over a dozen siblings.  Her father worked in the mines, and spent nine months away from home.  He’d come home each year and impregnate his wife and then return to the coal mines. 

She and my grandfather got engaged right before he left for World War II.  She stayed in Canada, riveting together planes or something.  He returned, they immigrated to America and made a better life for themselves.  (My grandfather drowned when I was little.)

Now… now my grandmother is old.  And lost.  I went to visit her yesterday at the nursing home.  That’s a whole post in itself.  But right now, I’m not ready to post about that.

 

A victory

The sticky warmth carries the smell,A smell which is like the green-black swamp muck color

which resulted from mixing all the paints together

in elementary school.

I pass by the nurses station.

I suspect there is a magnet underneath.

The wheelchairs make a semi-circle around it.

The too-puny occupants stare at me.

They are all alike

except that they are all different.

Some have wispy white hair. Some look at the sky with their mouths hanging perpetually open.

Once they were riveters and mothers and tax evaders and charity workers and soldiers.

She is new here.

And so the anger has motivated her to fight the draw of the nurses station.

She is new here.

And though she lies in her bed she wears slacks and a polyester blouse, not a night gown.

She talks and I talk

Sometimes our words find each other in mid air,

like second string trapeze artists

usually our words miss their targets and we sit in a pseudo silence.

I think about mowing her lawn as a chubby kid

I think about her endless supply of Popsicles

And her basement, the hours I skulked among the detruis of her life

And I think about Yachtzee.

Her eyes would twinkle fiercly when she held the cup and shook it.

She surveyed the dice like a general eyeing her last five loyal foot soldiers.

Though she could not operate a calculator

she could divine probalities effortlessly

She did not let me win.

And I never did win.

A lifetime later I find a battered box with tape-reinforced corners

laying among her cherished few remaining possessions and so I take it down.

I wondered if Salvador Dali had rewritten the rules since the last time I had played.

If I better understood irrational numbers it would’ve been easier to record her score

But her eyes twinkled, they still twinkled fiercely

The aged general looked over her aging troops.

It hurt to pay her the same respect she had paid me as a child.

I did not let her win.

I wondered if she’d ever been tempted

to let me.