Unafraid

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You will not be afraid of the terror by night,
Or of the arrow that flies by day;
Of the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
Or of the destruction that lays waste at noon.

For He will give His angels charge concerning you,
To guard you in all your ways.
They will bear you up in their hands,
That you do not strike your foot against a stone.

(Psalm 91:5-6, 11-12)

Anxiety can be one of the most crippling aspects of dementia in the elderly. It is so difficult for people who have always been in control to allow others to help them.

Psalm 91 was a great comfort to my mother. Songs remain in the mind after many other memories have faded. Musical settings of scriptures full of assurance can be such a comfort. Thank God for the strength of music.

Without those treasures buried in our hearts throughout a lifetime of learning to trust, the darkness can be very dark indeed. I see the difference in my four family members who have walked or who are walking this memory loss path. We reap what we sow. The fruit of a lifetime of sowing seeds of faith and the fruit of years of sowing seeds of fear look very different when night falls.

Lord, teach us to trust you and dwell in your shelter now, so that it will always be a familiar refuge we can slip into easily.

 

 

Teach Us to Number Our Days.

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I’m in Edmonton, Alberta this week. Autumn has begun here. Coloured leaves fall like rain when the wind shakes the elm trees arching over the streets of the older districts. This morning thick green hostas and a few remaining flowering perennials lined the flower beds outside my mother-in-law’s apartment building. This evening they are gone. This afternoon volunteers pulled up and chopped back the greenery, then toted away bags of vegetative debris for composting as they prepared the beds for winter.

I was shocked. They were still green and blooming. I guess the calendar says summer is over so the volunteer gardeners went to work while they had time. Somebody has to do it.

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I think seeing the bare beds reminded me of my own pain this week. It is becoming increasingly clear my husband’s elderly mother is moving into a new season. It’s a bit of a shock. We knew it was coming, but still… She doesn’t recognize – or remember – the ominous signs of declining health that make it unsafe for her to continue to live independently.

She is not happy with her sons and daughters-in-law or grandchildren right now. We don’t want to deprive her of freedom. There are still areas of her life that are green and thriving, but at 91 she has suffered noticeably from the shock of her second son’s death a few weeks ago. We know it is time for her to downsize so we can provide more care for her.

Because she lives in a different city than her surviving sons there is no ideal arrangement that will not involve more loss, especially of possessions that carry so much meaning for her. Frankly, we don’t really know what to do. We need wisdom.  It’s a sad season and I hate the role I now find myself in. Pushy is not a characteristic I admire or ever wanted to acquire, but somebody has to do it. Sometimes love is costly.

The hardest part for me, after seeing my mother, then my father, and now my mother-in-law lose parts of themselves to failing memory, is to confront my own mortality. I’ve noticed that it is very difficult to change in old age. For those who have survived the trauma of war and famine and death of loved ones in youth, but who never completely escaped the tyranny of fear, old age can be utterly terrifying. Frightened people can hurt the very ones who are trying to help them as they return to child-like vulnerability. This is a time of testing for all of us.

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My prayer this week is that I will end my days with a healed and whole heart, trusting in the love of my heavenly father who has promised to never leave or forsake me. I pray that he will teach me to number my days, that I may gain a heart of wisdom before my final season in this body. I pray that I may burn with the colours of love right until the end and that I would be willing to change now in order to get there.

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It’s a big request.

Bring Him Home

When I was a wee little girl I sat on my Daddy’s shoulders as he ran and my mother screamed. He had been a competitive sprinter and he didn’t hold back. I thought sitting up there was the greatest feeling in the world.

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Today I believe he knows freedom from an old man’s body and the chains of dementia and is again running as free as the wind.

His health was declining. He was becoming more child-like and he spent a lot of his time staring out the window, longing to see Jesus face to face and be reunited with Leah, the love of his life. But he told me he was afraid of pain and the process of transitioning beyond this physical place. Yesterday morning I was listening to a new recording by Josh Groban of the song “Bring Him Home” and turned it into a prayer that God would take my Daddy home, without pain, in his sleep.

My heavenly Father heard and answered, just the way he did when I prayed for Him to take Mom home. In the afternoon I got a call that when my sister-in-law went to check on him at noon she found he had passed away in his sleep. He had a recording of “How Great Thou Art” made at an anniversary party for him and Mom playing on repeat in the background.

God is good, full of mercy and very, very kind. Precious in His eyes is the death of one of His own.

I will miss him, and the conversations that never happened, but in the light of eternity, it will only be a short time before I see him again.

My Dad was a writer and a story-teller. A month ago I snapped photos of him telling one of his many tales of a Saskatchewan boyhood.

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Many people will remember him for his writing and story-telling in schools and theaters and old folks homes.

I will remember being carried on his shoulders, sitting higher and moving faster than anybody else in the crowd because my Daddy was the fastest, handsomest, greatest Daddy in the world.

The Importance of Gardens

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When my grandfather retired he became the gardener for the property he and Grandma and my parents shared.  This was a good arrangement until the signs of early dementia cropped up. The problem was that Grandpa was a farmer at heart, and not a gardener. As recent memories turned into dust in the wind, he returned to old painful memories and began to see mother’s flowers as weeds that competed for resources with the precious grain crops he fought so hard to grow during the dusty 30’s in Saskatchewan. Before Mom’s prize dahlias had a chance to bloom he hacked them down with his hoe.

Mother was not pleased. She was a farm girl too, and admired waves of wheat in an open field, and vegetable patches dripping with peas and beans as much as anyone, but she also appreciated “impractical”  flower gardens that produced nothing more than visual pleasure.

When there is not enough to go around, survival comes first. The problem is that many of us return to familiar barrenness of past pain, and live our lives in fear of want, as if God is on a budget and there is not enough to go around. Without new memories our relationship with him can be one based merely on survival (what do I need to do to be saved?) and neglect appreciation of his beauty and abundance. Francis Frangipane wrote:

Indeed, Jesus frequently drew revelation about the Father from the observable world around Him. He told His disciples to “consider the lilies” (Luke 12:27) and spoke of God’s love and care, even for the sparrows (v. 6). He saw miracles of life contained within the power of a simple seed, and He made this revelation a centerpiece of His teaching (Matt. 13).

Indeed, many of the Lord’s greatest sermons were presented, not in the temple or behind the pulpit of a local synagogue, but in the cathedral of creation, at lakesides and hilltops.

We think of Gethsemane as the place where Jesus sweat blood in prayer, and so it was. But Gethsemane was a garden, and the Bible tells us that Jesus “often met there with His disciples”(John 18:2). I love the fact that the Lord routinely found joy among flowers and landscaping, and that He “often” brought His disciples there to teach them.

Yet not only was the setting of a garden a familiar place for Jesus while He was alive, but even in death His tomb was set in the midst of a garden (John 19:41). In fact, when He rose from the dead, a distressed Mary thought Him to be the gardener (John 20:15).

Jesus obviously saw the creation as an echo of the Father’s heart. He found in nature a place, a quiet place, to seek and find communion with God. Beloved don’t deny yourself this exquisite pleasure.”

There is more beauty, so much more beauty, in Jesus Christ than we yet know.

Mom’s treasure

I grieved my mother’s death ten years before she died. Like a lot of nurses her body gave out under the physical strain of caring for people. Pain forced her to leave her perfectly starched cap on the shelf and her white stockings in the drawer. She never gave up her duty shoes though. Years after she went on disability she would lean on Dad’s arm and hobble in to the same shop downtown to buy another pair.

We assumed it was the pain meds that clouded her once brilliant mind -that or the chronic lack of sleep. Even after the pain gave her an excuse to stay in bed she seldom slept more than four or five hours a night. She would bake bread and wash floors before her day shift when she still rushed into the oncology ward for report. I don’t think she knew how to sleep more than that. She was the hardest worker I ever knew. Sitting still was a sin. A dreamy bookish daughter was a totally alien creature to her.

The Alzheimer’s kind of snuck up on us. But she knew -and wrote final letters to her children and gave instructions for her funeral while she could still write. We found them stored in her security box.

My greatest grief came early in the disease process after we finally sat down for the heart-to-heart she had been promising for so many years. She finally listened.

An hour later she repeated a question that made me realize she had not retained a word of what I said.

I grieved for the conversation that would never happen. I drove home and stopped at a roadside rest area when I couldn’t stop the tears. I never cried like that again, even though I was aware, at every visit, of saying goodbye to another little part of her that was gone forever.

The disease progressed relatively slowly. Dad was heroic in his efforts to care for her by himself, but after he had a mild stroke and wouldn’t consider moving and none of us lived close enough to take over the 24 hour intensive care she required, there was no choice but to find a facility to look after her.

She was a lousy patient. This frail little lady who was too weak to lift a piece of sandwich to her mouth decked two nurses she considered to be incompetent.

Here’s the other embarrassing thing. Mom was never racist -well, perhaps mildly, but less than most people of her generation — but to her it was 1930 something in Saskatchewan and she was a young girl who had never seen a person of colour before. She was very frightened of the staff who were all, with the exception of one fiery no-nonsense Scottish woman, Asia or Jamaica born. She didn’t know what country she was in. She thought she had been abducted.

There was one night though, when she and I sang our way through a dozen hymns. She didn’t know who I was, but she knew all the words and even sang harmony. After she sang she told me about the Jesus she was singing about. She lit up, “Oh, he’s wonderful.”

Two minutes later she was crying out in agony. When a young patient was rolled through the hospital on a stretcher she thought it was her dear brother who been killed in a car accident. He died in that accident sixty years before, but her grief was as fresh as if she was hearing the news for the first time.

One afternoon while out for a hike I cried out to the Jesus she loved and asked him to please take her. I hated to see her suffer. She was so confused and no position the nurses put her in was comfortable.

Two hours after I prayed my brother called. Mom died –two hours ago.

I didn’t cry.

Dad said he was holding her hand as he read a book. She had been in a lot of pain that day. When he looked up again to check on her, her eyes were focussed on something on the other side of the room. He said she had a look of surprised delight on her face, as if she recognized someone she loved and had been waiting for. He tried to see who it was, but before he could ask Mom, he knew she was gone.

When I was sorting through my mother’s things in drawers and closets I found bits of rolled up paper with bible verses written on them. Promises. I knew that at one point she had memorized huge portions of scripture and quoted it at night when she couldn’t sleep. I took the verses and put them in a wooden box. They are my treasure.

Yes, I have a good inheritance.