Sunday, November 1, 2009

Extra Ordinary Endings

Happy All Saints Day! If any of my 'regular readers' still check back from time to time, I just wanted to say I am alive and back and thanks for still checking in! I have been away from my blog for a long time for the many things of life and death and change and growth that sewn together comprise our human experience. I will attempt to tell some of the stories of my absence in this and future blog posts. The following post I originally wrote for Mom's Caring Bridge Journal on Saturday, March 28th, 2009, the day before she died. This fall whenever I see apples, I am remembering Mom and hope that you will too.

Wait for the Lord;
Be strong, and let your heart take courage;
Wait for the Lord!
– Psalm 27:14

But those who wait on the Lord
Will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
They will run and not grow weary,
They will walk and not be faint.
- Isaiah 40:31

Keeping vigil is an almost lost art that has thankfully been seeing resurgence in recent years. I wish I had a personal guide though, but I do not. The best I have found is Megory Anderson, but she is in California and not Auburndale, Florida. Plus I don't really know her personally other than having been to one of her workshops and reading her books. We accept childbirth classes, midwives and doulas, and Lamaze breathing techniques and exercises as a common practices. Lots of resources are dedicated to birthing rooms, alternative birthing methods and teaching about preparing for a new life entering this world. We don't do as well with teaching people how to help someone enter into a new life in the next world though. We call it death and focus on the endings, not the beginnings. Popular literature and films when they do address it often make it seems scary and dark. We don't like to face it because to face it we have to admit our own mortality. It is often more comfortable to take part in the funeral than the actual dying process. At funerals there are set customs, traditions, expectations, "rulebooks" by which to go. We know the drill there. Perhaps we would do better if we really embraced this time not as a death and an ending but as a time of helping to give birth to a new life. Who doesn't rejoice when a new baby is born, right?

As a society our culture is not one that likes to wait. Generally speaking Americans hate standing in lines, we hate getting stuck in traffic and we absolutely can't stand to be put on hold when we make a call. Waiting causes us stress and anxiety…we are not comfortable with the process. We want instant tax refunds…We teach our children it's better to get the "Fast Pass" at amusement parks…We like quick, convenience foods...We couldn't even think of having a dial-up internet connection any longer. Some people have even gone so far to schedule their children's births with labor inducements and C-sections just so they don't have to wait and are not inconvenienced by the act of surprise. Fortunately (aside from suicide or physician assisted suicide) we cannot schedule death.

Mom though has never been one to mind waiting and taking the extra time to do things right. She is one of the most patient people I know. She knows that good things come to those who wait. She savors and enjoys the processes almost as much as the end results and sometimes I think even a little more. For her there has always been great joy in the doing. Growing up "convenience food" was a dirty word in our house. She made dinner from scratch almost every night and for the several years we were all at home that meant dinner for eight. She baked her own bread, she grew her own vegetables, she sewed clothes for her kids (and Halloween costumes). When she still lived in Buffalo (before the age of homeowner's associations' rules) having a clothes line was one of her prized possessions so that she could hang her clothes out to dry in the fresh air whenever the weather permitted even though she had a perfectly good electric dryer in basement. She's had a dishwasher since 1985, but it has hardly ever gotten used as she would prefer to wash them by hand, even after a big dinner party. At restaurants Mom will always ask if the mashed potatoes are instant or real…if someone didn't take the time to peel and cook real potatoes and actually "mash" them, she's not interested in eating them. For as long as I can remember we always went to the country to pick every kind of fruit and vegetable in season that was available at "You-Pick" farms so Mom could bring home large quantities to can them or freeze them herself and have enough to last all year.

At Cleveland Hill Lutheran Church in Cheektowaga, NY where we were members for many years, Mom was active on the Family Life Committee which among many other wonderful things hosted a large Strawberry Social for the church and the community every year in June. She always persuaded the women of the committee to go and pick all of the strawberries themselves, rather than just buying them already picked. It was a time of fellowship, friendship and memory building…joy in the process! The rest of the committee always tried to persuade Mom to let them make drop biscuits from Bisquick each year for the shortcake, but Mom saw value in the "real thing", the slower process…so each year she volunteered herself to make all of the biscuits from scratch by hand, rolled out and cut.

Whenever she was able, she preferred to travel by car as opposed to flying anywhere because for her there was always joy in the journey, taking in the scenery. For many, many years she drove all over the country by herself or later with a couple of grandchildren in tow to visit family and friends. When she wasn't in the mood for a sit down "Cracker Barrel" type of meal while she was traveling, instead of visiting fast food restaurants, Mom would always have a cooler and a little portable grill that she travelled with and would stop at a rest area and make her own meals. One fall on a trip back to Florida from Buffalo after she had been visiting family and friends and picking bushels of apples that she could take home for making pies and eating and of course making homemade applesauce to can, she got stuck in a gridlock on the interstate. Because of a huge accident, traffic went nowhere for hours. Most of us would have been beside ourselves, but it didn't faze her one bit. Whenever one of us would comment about nothing ever bothering her, her favorite reply was "Only dogs get mad." Anyway, it was beautiful fall day and she was going to enjoy it. Mom, in typical, quintessential Leoma style, got out of her van to get to the bags of WNY McIntosh and Cortland apples (her favorite varieties) that she had in the back and walked up and down the rows of cars passing out apples and making friends. She has always had the gift of friendship and even complete strangers have felt a camaraderie with her and usually felt comfortable enough to share their whole life story with her when they met.

Being a child of the Great Depression, Mom was also hip well before her time and had "gone green" many, many years before being environmentally conscious was popular. For at least my entire life Mom has been an avid recycler and conservationist. One time in the 1970's she even got a spot on the local TV news for her recycling efforts. If it could be reduced, reused and recycled, Mom found a way to do it. She even washed and reused "disposable" plastic plates, cups and utensils from parties that were designed to make clean-up a breeze. "Waste not, want not" could have been her motto. If you ask any of my siblings about some of their favorite meals from growing up they will surely include some of her leftover creations like something we have come to affectionately call "Stupid Meat Pie." We learned to turn off lights and appliances, conserve water and so much more. Mom, until the neuropathy or numbness in her fingers (a side effect from the treatments) made it difficult, even darned her socks if they got a hole. Today Mom continues in her conservationist spirit and is making the most of every breath, getting as much use out of it as she possibly can. Her periods of apnea (even when she is awake) are now lasting sometime a full minute or longer, but her heart keeps ticking and she is conserving her energy for when she needs it most.

To know our Mom is also to know that at the heart of who she is as a person is one of her greatest spiritual gifts, that of hospitality. At her home, her work, her church or wherever Mom goes nothing makes her happier than making those around her feel welcomed and valued, usually that in some way also involves food. Hospitality is her forte and she has used every resource God has given her to share that gift with others. She has always been the coffee hour queen for her churches both in Buffalo as a member of the Family Life Committee and more recently at Abiding Savior in Winter Haven, often times as the one woman show. Where others see work, she finds pleasure. She also loved to have people over to her house for dinner, as many as would fit around her tables and sometimes more. She made birthday cakes or other favorite treats for everyone she worked with when their special day arrived and sometimes, "Just because." She truly cared about the people who came into her life. To this end, the other one of the Hospice Aides (CNAs) shared this with me: she was caring for Mom and was having a particularly bad day and started to cry because she didn't think Mom was really aware or communicative anymore, but then Mom said, "Why are you crying? Don't be sad."

Also in using her gift of hospitality, Mom loved any occasion for a party, reunion or get-together. She had so much fun planning a surprise 25th wedding anniversary party for my brother Don and his wife Robin several years ago. Holidays were also a great time of feasting at Mom's house. My husband still reminisces about the first Thanksgiving he spent with the "Knitt Clan", there were eight or ten different pies (all homemade) and a buffet line to rival any -- Coming from a small family with a mom who didn't like to cook, he had never seen anything like it before. One can only dream and imagine what the future holds for Mom if this life has offered her only a "foretaste of the feast to come."

The doctor and nurses say there is really no reason medically at this point why Mom should still be with us. Sometime on Wednesday she started to decline dramatically. She has not even had water for a few days now, but she remains with us content, pain free and at peace just to be sharing in the moments of the days. Her vital signs are so low that her temperature and blood pressure will no longer register on the equipment they use to check it. She has stopped initiating communication with us but on rare occasion now she may still surprise us with a very simple reply. Mostly though when we are able to "converse" it is through body language, facial expressions, the blink of an eye, the slight movement of her lips or hand. Occasionally she will still have the reflex to kiss back when we kiss her. Usually it is just us talking to her and her listening, telling her things about the day, sharing memories, affirming the love we and all of you have for her, but I know she still hears. This IS God's time and Mom's time, we are on their schedule now and the doctor and nurses reassure us that each person's journey is unique.

Since yesterday afternoon, I have had the awesome privilege and responsibility of being the sole person keeping vigil with Mom until my brother, Doug, returns sometime later with his wife, Ann. We have listened to soft music and hymns, prayed together, read scripture and "talked." Even though I work in the hospice field teaching others about the dying process and grieving, about how we as a community can carry each other at our times of greatest need, meeting the needs of other families going through this same journey by providing them with compassionate volunteers to share the experience, at times I feel hopelessly inadequate. Keeping vigil, especially with one's mother, is a whole different ballgame. I question… Am I talking to her too much? Am I not talking to her enough? Have I shared all of the memories that I need to share? Am I forgetting something important? What if I spend too long getting something to eat or resting? Should I be doing something different to make it a more spiritual experience? Thankfully people who love us both help me to quiet the questions and just "be." It is too late to ask any more "important" questions that only she knows the answer to…hopefully I have all the answers I will need to know stored away somewhere and in the future recall them when necessary.

Although at first glance she seems to be mostly in a vegetative state, a closer look reveals that she is not. She is thinking -- her eyebrows sometimes go up and down in expression. There is a brightness to her eyes when she is looking at things and perhaps people that we cannot see. She attempts to mouth words at times…Wednesday through the late afternoon and night, she spoke at intervals, but not to us. At one point completely unprovoked she clearly said, "I miss you, Mom" and raised up her arm and made the "Come here" motion. It sent a shiver down my spine. Because often times the waiting is uncomfortable, the natural instinct is to try to help "troubleshoot" the "problem" so that the waiting can be over more quickly… maybe she is waiting for us to give her 'permission' …maybe she is waiting for reassurance that everything is going to be okay - we have done these things and continue to do them. Maybe she is waiting to talk to or see someone one last time…maybe she is waiting for the right person to come for her? These questions could be endless, but I am finding comfort in the thought that maybe she is just enjoying the process and the journey, taking the time to take in all of the scenery along the way and doing it "right" as she has always done, making the most of her resources and allowing them time in heaven to prepare the greatest feast and party she has ever known. I'm sure she won't be late!

When I am talking to groups about the hospice experience I share that although it is true as they say in educational circles that it "takes a village to raise a child," I believe it is also true that it takes a "village" to help an individual and their loved ones through a terminal illness. Thank you for being a part of our village!

I hope while you wait with us, you find a way to share your own special "apples" with those with whom you come in contact!

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, 'Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night',
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.

In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.

Psalm 139:1 - 16


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