Planning for Later

Every now and then, I want to point to the increasing need for people I love to have hard conversations about life, about living, and about dying. As an educator and pastor and father and relative, this video touches upon some critical issues worth talking about.

I don’t agree with literal exactness that we can or should choose the way we die, but I do agree with the intentionality behind living well, planning for later, and communicating with loved ones over these matters. I do believe in exercising as much right as we have. And we have the right to communicate our wishes around intensive medical treatment, aggressive and life-sustaining measures, and so forth.

This video feels close, real to me. Even though that rapid response team is small by the comparisons at NMH. I’ve seen 15-20 people in a room and crowding a hall easily, cracking ribs, pumping and sticking, and pounding and trying. And then a nurse, timing the scenario, calling for another person to step up and take over. I’ve seen that for 30-45 minutes.

Beyond that, listen to the story of the video and talk to people about an advance directive for healthcare. And if you can, let that be a part of other important conversations.

And that’s not including talking about money and life insurance and diet and family history. There are many conversations to have. But this one is important.

It’s not morbid. It’s responsible. It’s not short-sighted. It’s visionary and realistic. It’s helpful for you to think through things about your care. It’s relieving for those you love.

Advertisements

Among Many Tasks

The fall will bring a slightly different schedule for me.  The whole thing holds together and will open me to new ways of deepening my vocation and the little works which make up my vocation.  I’ll be doing a lot, and I’m looking forward to it.

Perhaps it seems inappropriate to hold this poem on this blog, but it seems a striking reminder for me as a parent.  In the end, as I see it and believe it and imagine it, all our small works turn to one task of continued self-surrender, continued dying.

That dying sits at the bottom of my faith, though that bottom would quickly, almost too effortlessly, be named as living.  That eternal life only comes after one has regularly and daily passed through the gates of death.  Life comes from death, says the One we follow.  May this poet’s words be a reminder of these things to me:

Among Many Tasks

Among many tasks

very urgent

I’ve forgotten that

it’s also necessary

to be dying

frivolous

I have neglected this obligation

or have been fulfilling it

superficially

beginning tomorrow

everything will change

I will start dying assiduously

wisely optimistically

without wasting time

Tadeusz Rozewicz (From The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry)

Things That Strengthen Us, pt 1 of 2

From Christman Wiman’s meditation, in My Bright Abyss, undoubtedly written first to the close loves of his life (pg. 161):

My loves, I will be with you, even if I am not with you.  Every day I feel a little more the impress of eternity, learn a little more “the discipline of suffering which leads to peace of the spirit,” as T. S. Eliot said, writing of the seventeenth-century poet and priest George Herbert (read him!), who died when he was thirty-nine and had only recently found true happiness with his new wife and new commitment to God.  My loves, I love you with all the volatility and expansiveness of spirit that you have taught me to feel, and I feel your futures opening out from you, and in those futures I know my own.  I will be with you.  I will comfort you in your despair and I will share in your joy.  They need not be only grief, only pain, these black holes in our lives.  If we can learn to live not merely with them but by means of them, if we can let them be part of the works of sacred art that we in fact are, then these apparent weaknesses can be the very things that strengthen us.

The Way Whole Worlds Change

Experiencing and anticipating all the anniversaries of my father’s death bring me both a sense of tenderness and pain.  The tenderness is joyous, the pain striking.

It was in April that me and Mark went to church with Pop, worshiped with him for the first and only time.  We drove down for the occasion and had planned to return within 24 hours.

We saw him serving as an usher.  He was proud to stand at the door of the church, excited in his way to greet people who came to church.  He was glad we were there, too.  I remember how he dressed that morning, after a night of laughing at me because I couldn’t sleep with my brother’s loud snores.  We didn’t eat breakfast because we were planning to see our friends at the Ole Saw Mill, a tradition for our dinners when we visited on short trips.

That was the morning my dad’s decline started as far as we could see.  He fainted in church that morning, during a not-so-engaging sermon.  My cousin called the paramedics, and they took a very long time to come.  There had been an accident at the Food Lion and “all” the trucks (two of them) were occupied by the injured going to the small hospital.  We didn’t eat at Saw Mill, not with dad.  Instead, we went to the hospital, called our aunts who came from Little Rock that afternoon, and waited to hear what dad’s condition was.

When our relatives arrived, dressed in their Sunday’s best, we went to get socks and fast food for dad.  Our aunts loved us, greeted us, checked in on their brother, and released us to go eat around 5pm that afternoon.  Some time after we got back to the hospital, it was clear that we could leave, that dad was going to transfer to the hospital in Little Rock the next day, and that, looking back, everything  was different.  That was in April.  May is dad’s birth month, the day being a week away.  Now that he’s gone, I’m looking at it on the calendar like a day I don’t want to come.

It’s strange being so close, and so far, from one year ago.  The whole world can change in such a short time.

Cornelius Eady’s Travelin’ Shoes

It’s something how poetry—and literature in general—can touch your reality with words that feel so much like your own.  I read this poem by Cornelius Eady last night and thought it an appropriate, almost exact, reflection of life right now.  It’s called “Travelin’ Shoes.”

And at last, I get the phone call.  The blues rolls into

my sleepy ears at five A.M., a dry, official voice from

my father’s hospital.  A question, a few quick facts,

and my daddy’s lying upstate on the coolin’ floor.

Death, it seems, was kinder to him in his last hour

than life was in his last four months.

Death, who pulls him to a low ebb, then slowly

floods over his wrecked body like a lover.

Cardio-vascular collapse, the polite voice is telling

me, but later my cousin tells me, he arrives on the

ward before they shut my father’s eyes and mouth to

see the joy still resting on his face from the moment

my daddy finally split his misery open.

I Didn’t Realize He Was Leaving

On Wednesday evening, December 26, I was sitting next to Dawn and in front of Bryce in the B concourse of Midway airport.  We had successfully pressed through the security checkpoint, rearranged our clothes and shoes, and walked to our gate to wait for an hour before boarding a plane.  Bryce was eyeing some passenger’s ice cream, whispering to me about wanting some.  I told him to wait, to let me get settled.  I told him I had just sat down.  I told him to stop looking at the woman’s ice cream like that because he was scaring me and probably scaring her.

We were heading to Charlotte, North Carolina ultimately to complete our annual time with Grammie Joseph.  It would be a week where we would see the Gant museum, walk through the botanical gardens in Belmont, eat at Captain Steve’s, talk a lot, catch up, do nothing.  My aunt, Lynnie, called me while we were waiting to board.  I have a rule when certain people call my phone: I always answer.  I do not observe this rule for most people.  I’m a pastor so I cannot.  I meet with people and they say things to me, and when they say these things, it makes a lot of sense for me to stop the rest of the world as those people present their worlds to me.  So I’m “present” with them as they talk.  I ignore the phone.  I don’t hear rings in those moments.  But I make exceptions.  When my aunt calls, because my father has been in the nursing home in her city, I take her call, even if I need to ask if I can call right back.

As she always does, she asked me how I was.  There was static in the line.  Perhaps it wasn’t static.  Do cell towers allow for static?  It was choppy.  Whatever the interference, I couldn’t quite hear her clearly.  Some voice was droning about a passenger whose flight was leaving or some gate change.  There was Bryce switching to his mother and asking her for ice cream.  He’s been doing that more and more: shifting to her when I don’t answer the way he thinks I should.

Aunt Lynnie asked if I had gotten her message.  I pulled my phone from my ear and looked at it as if to ask it if it had rung without my hearing it.  Perhaps it sang while we were in the cab with the preacher cab driver who I talked theology with on the way to the airport.  “No,” I told her, “I didn’t.”  Then I thought—as she let out a long “Well,”—perhaps she called the house.  I heard her “Welling” and I had a flash of some indication of what was to come.  It was something spiritual, like and unlike the Welling in the black church, when people sometimes rock while they hear the preacher.  They say “Well” as they listen, and something about the “Well” makes what they hear stick.  My aunt’s well was different; she was stalling just for a moment, and auntie, in my experience, didn’t stall.  She breathed and she said it, quickly and clearly, without interference from cell towers or airport clutter.  My dad had passed an hour or so before that moment.

They were just arriving to the nursing home; the snow had prevented them from getting there sooner.  I knew Little Rock didn’t get snow.  I imagined my three Little Rock aunts, wrapped in coats, looking as lovely as always, dressed in care and concern and love and something familiar.  They were there, three of my father’s sisters, a group of faithful friends to him, and he was dead.  I asked her to repeat herself.  Actually, I said, “What?” I had heard her, but something in me got very cliche in that moment.  Or something in me needed to hear again.  Dawn heard me and she knew.  She had been down a path like this one when her father was snatched over six months after his stroke two years ago.  I felt Dawn turn to me.  I saw her take Bryce by the hand.  I was really surprised at that simple sentence from my aunt.  I wanted to turn to Dawn; I wanted to turn away.

I had just seen him.  This was my first thought: I had just seen him.  One week ago at the hospital in Searcy.  He hugged me twice.  I held him, walked with him.  I showed him pictures, something, I realize now, I did often on my trips to see him.  My second thought was: I just talked to him.  It was on Christmas Eve, two days before.  His voice was bright, brighter than usual even.  he talked to Bryce, asked about Dawn.  I thought he was getting better.  I didn’t realize he was leaving.

Dancing with Death

When I started blogging, my friend David told me to blog about the things that I think about, the things that matter to me.  Lately I’ve been thinking about the decline of my father’s health.  That’s why I’m posting this on both blogs.  I’ve not had much free mental space over the last few months because my dad has been there taking it up with a thousand questions of varying sizes and shapes.

My dad is demented, meaning, he has dementia.  What is the appropriate form for that sentence?  Is my father demented?  It feels like a misuse of language to have to write that way: my father has dementia.  It’s one word or two too long.  Plus, it isn’t true.  Particularly since it feels most days like dementia has my father, like the synapses in his brain are freezing over or cracking or deteriorating or doing anything but firing in the way all my college classes suggested synapses do.  I paid a lot of attention to those classes at U of I.  I got mostly good grades, though I hated statistics and could have done better in Don Dulany’s course, especially if I hadn’t been devoting all that time talking to schizophrenics at strange hours through the night.  But these days I’m thinking that I could have paid more attention.

Anyway, my father’s dementia and the accompanying decline in his condition is essentially unsettling.  My experience of him and his health feels like all the sturdy things in my history with him are getting up, spinning around, and landing in a different place from before.  It feels like every conversation with him, each road trip to Little Rock, leaves me tired from the passing lane and sweating after a long dance with this disease.

And I’m not the one doing the real dancing.  I catch myself to say this.  Over the last six months, since we found out about the strokes and since we’ve started to confuse (i.e., not be able to tell) the stroke’s grip for the dementia’s, I’ve remembered consciously that it’s my father who is suffering.  And that’s the worse part.  Not our collective suffering as we watch or join in as a family responding to our loss and grief.  His suffering is the basic problem here.  I can recover.  Can he?

And I wonder to myself if there is a little grace in my dad not knowing how much he’s suffering.  And I check myself again at the hint of such arrogance.  Can my father, complex man that he is, be written off by my saying, “Well, he doesn’t realize what’s happening to him?”  How can I trust that?  How can I take comfort in the corrosive way the disease is handling him so that his head is all messed up, his memories following?  How can I be encouraged that his brain, eating or sucking or dropping away all the memories which make him him, is so distorting his reality that he is in some way spared?

I ask these questions because I want to be spared.  My father isn’t spared.  We aren’t either.  And these instances of death, these suspensions of time, when I’m not sure if my dad is “there” or “somewhere else,” are not healing.  They are small deaths, and they are upsetting, unsettling, and disturbing.  He is as pained as anyone in this.  He didn’t wish for this end.  And he can’t find the ways to express that any more.  Not on most days.  He’s the one really dancing.

Even though his feet are inching into a straddle some days and stepping normally on other days, it is my dad’s feet that I’m watching.  It is his pair of legs that my eyes fell to the other day as he walked to me on the arm of that nurse.  I had been buzzed into the acute care facility in Searcy, the place where they specialize in treating elderly men and women with psychiatric problems stemming from the disease I keep thinking looks like Skeletor.

He was shuffling slowly, arm wrapped in a sturdy nurse who introduced himself as Billy.  Daddy recognized me and that recognition was a gift even if I was struck by my dad’s gait.  It was an interior compromise, thankful for the recognition and willingness to overlook the pulchritude.

I could overlook that daddy looked bad, really bad.  Bad the way he was when he had the stroke in July.  Bad like when I first saw him in July, my brother Mark at my side, I was wondering where my father’s weight went.  Bad like I saw him for the first time as a truly different figure, no longer the man with muscles and a bench press in his basement with weights I’d never be able to lift.

My father’s arm was attached to his nurse, straddling, dancing, and I met him the rest of the way, took the other arm, and listened to the music of his experience and started dancing with him.  We walked slowly, really slowly.  And instead of going to the designated room, we sat in the closest chairs.  I suggested them because the distance to the room was too far for daddy after the stint from his room and too far for me after driving those eleven hours.