Merry Christmas, 2018

This Christmas was different, of course. The head of the dining room table was empty this year, with Mom passing in October. And the call to Vermont was missing a voice, with Mary’s dad passing in June. I made it through the day pretty well, but for hearing that silly “Christmas Shoes” song, and immediately thinking of Mom.  And yeah, crying.

And yet, there was brightness to the day. We were allowed to sleep in until well past nine; in fact, I was the first up, to start the coffee cake. Sarah was in much better spirits this year than in some past years, which gave me joy to see her happy and engaged. (Are the teen years ending?!?) We exchanged gifts and some very creative ones came out (I have a dozen new pairs of silly socks to wear to work, for example), and of all it, only two duplicates that we have to take care of.

In so many ways, this was a better Christmas than I expected, or have any right to deserve. I know so many others didn’t have a fire in the fireplace, or a turkey dinner, or the luxury of dozing by the first after the second. And as the years go by, the pile of presents gets a little smaller, and that’s okay: I don’t have anything to prove by great hordes of presents. In fact, quite the opposite: it truly isn’t the getting. The day is about much more.

The day is about love. The day is about the most tremendous love, far beyond anything we can imagine, breaking in and disrupting our lives. It’s about all the contradictions inherent in the fact of the Author of the Universe coming to us as a tiny, defenseless, utterly dependent baby in an insignificant backwater town two millennia ago. It’s not about the loss of our parents, it’s about love–the love they had for us, surely, but all the more, the love that wraps them now, the same love that pulls me in and won’t let go. It’s a much, much fuller Christmas than ever before. And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Merry Christmas!

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Saying “So Long”

The memorial service for Mom was last weekend, November 10, 2018. While not extensively attended, it was widely attended–people there from all aspects of our lives, and it was so heartening to see them all there. As part of the service, Joel, Deb and I each read a passage that Mom had wanted read, then offered our reflections on her. She had asked me to read 1 Corinthians 13 (the “love chapter”), and here’s what I said.

* * * * *

Love. A mother’s love.

I want to share with you some of the stories I have about my mother, and in the process, you can see what she loved, and how she loved.

One of her first memories was being taken at age three to the center square of her hometown of Easton, Pennsylvania, with the throngs of people celebrating V-E day. This began a lifelong love of history for her, and patriotism, and love of everything having to do with America and the Fourth of July, which was always a special day to her. Her love of history and government lives on in my own work for the Federal Government, as well as her grandson’s love of history and his career in archaeology, finding new history.

Her passion was teaching elementary age kids. Her first classroom was a first grade class in Allentown, PA, where she taught for a couple of years while earning her Master’s. Then after being a stay-at-home mom to us, teaching us as we grew up, she returned to teaching, and became the media center director–never just librarian–for Chamberlin Elementary School. She was the first to bring computers, including an Apple Lisa, into the school for the students to use and learn. And she took an old claw-foot tub, painted it, filled it with blankets and pillows, and set it by the check-out desk for kids to curl up in and read. All to enhance kids’ abilities to learn in a fun way.

The mother’s love extended to keeping us out of trouble. In third grade, we moved from Vermont to El Paso, Texas, and I got in trouble in my first day in Miss Escobar’s class. She had asked me a question, and I answered, “Yes.” She said, “Yes what?” I honestly didn’t know there was more to be said! My mom had to be the one to call the school and explain to the principal that “he wasn’t being disrespectful, that’s just not how teachers are addressed up north.”

In the late 1970s she rode the wave of emerging political activism, helping to found a newspaper in South Burlington, VT, and leading the League of Women Voters. She loved her music and arts: when she was at the assisted living home, she loved going with us to see Ben Cook in one of his productions, and telling everyone about it. We had to reassure the staff that yes, she really did know someone on Broadway!

She was a woman of strength. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1985, and after her second husband passed in 1987, she fought to stay independent and live in their home until 2006, when the PD began to expect more of her than she could do alone.

She had her own style. When we were making plans to move her to her assisted living apartment in 2011, and discussing what furniture to take and what to leave, she noticed in the lease agreement that she was allowed to paint the walls in her room. And so it came to be that she moved in with walls I’d painted for her, of colors she’d chosen: slate gray on most walls, and two bright red accent walls. Staff were forever popping in just to see it, a room that wasn’t in institutional white. She was really disappointed she couldn’t do that in her nursing home room. You know, Jesus promised us that “in my father’s house, there are many rooms.” I know one of them right now is painted in slate gray and red, and decorated in Early American antiques.

There were two things she really loved: one was the music of Barry Manilow. I have no idea how she found out, after moving to Virginia in 2011, that in 2012 Barry Manilow would be at Wolf Trap, but she did, and insisted on going. So I took her, in her wheelchair, to the special seating at the back of the arena. There was a comedian who came out first, and he was OK, then the lights went down, they rearranged the stage…and a single spotlight came on, shining on a single man in a white suit as the music started…and my mother started squealing like a 16-year-old at Shea Stadium for the Beatles! I was horrified!

The other thing she loved most was the works of Beatrix Potter, and Peter Rabbit, as anyone watching her PTRABIT license plate around town would see. The last movie she went to was this spring, when Peter Rabbit came out. I took her, and we were easily the oldest people in the theatre, with dozens of five- and six-year-olds there. I would just watch her, enthralled as she was with seeing her favorite character on the big screen. At one point, the action is very slapstick, and the five-year-olds behind us are squealing with joy. Mom leaned over and said, “I’ve missed that sound.”

But what she loved most of all was her grandkids. Nothing would outdo her love of hearing stories of what they were up to.

And so what am I going to miss about my mom being gone? I’m going to miss not being able to take her to her grandkids’ college or high school graduations. I’m going to miss having her over for family dinners, or the times she would make a big production of her own family dinners. I’m going to miss Christmas: mom always made it special, always decorated so much, that this Christmas is going to be hard.

And I’m going to miss a mother’s love. I’m gonna miss my mom.

Ten Days On

Today is ten days since Mom passed away.

It’s been an uneven road. For the most part, I think, I’m doing OK. There are moments, though, and there are days that are better than others.

For instance, the other day I saw a trailer on TV for the new Disney movie, The Nutcracker. Oh good, I thought! Mom loves Disney, and she certainly loves The Nutcracker–she always used to collect nutcrackers, in fact. She’d love this, I should…take…her…oh yeah. Huh.

It’s little reminders like that that keep cropping up. Mary and I went to the funeral home to pick up Mom’s cremated remains, and we were stuck in the traffic created by the construction on Route 29 out by the nursing home. Boy, I’ll be glad when this construction is over, I thought…then it occurred to me, I won’t have to drive over here anymore. Oh yeah. Huh.

In these moments of sadness, though, it’s still been possible to find joy. Remember, joy isn’t happiness: there’s not much to be happy about in this at all. But joy is a product of God: it is the security, serenity, and yes, joy, of knowing God and knowing his grace. I can still find joy, in the absolute conviction that Mom has attained the healing that escaped her here. She has a glorified body now, one that works when she wants it to, one that won’t cause her to fall or develop infections, one that’s free of every trace of Parkinson’s Disease. She can run and play with her dog, Kep, in ways that she never could here. And she has claimed the prize of faith.

joy

There is much to be done, administratively, that will be tiresome. There are the dark moments when I wish I could just hear her voice again, or know that hopeful look she would give when I visited. Or take her down to the fish pond one more time. But I also know, she is experiencing the restoration of all things. And in that, despite the darkness, I can take joy.

It’s Not Goodbye, Mom

My mom, Sandy Stoddert, 76, passed into eternity Saturday night.

Mom had struggled valiantly against the effects of Parkinson’s Disease since 1985…yes, for 33 years, and since she was 43, she’s been dealing with it. She fought to keep her independence as long as she could, taking in home-based aides for the last five years she lived in her home in Vermont. Then in 2011 she admitted it was time for more help, and she chose to move to Virginia into an assisted living home in Woodbridge. But the disease kept after her, and in parallel she began developing a series of infections that later would weaken her kidneys to the point they couldn’t cope. Just before Christmas 2016, she moved into her nursing home, and it’s there, surrounded by those who have cared for her, that she died.

I’d seen this coming for awhile, although the actual end was a little faster than I’d expected. She developed her final infection in mid September, and this time her kidneys didn’t respond. Her brother, and my sister, each came down to say what they needed to say to her last weekend.

Then it was my turn.

You see, when my dad passed ten years ago, the decline from his surgery to his passing was only six weeks, and much of it was spent in hope of recovery. But when it became obvious that his story wouldn’t end well, I wasn’t prepared to say goodbye. It was more about me, more about asking forgiveness for my own shortcomings, than about him and what was about to happen.

Enter God: he got my attention in one of the class lectures last week. The professor had in someone to talk about her call, and what she does (she’s a chaplain at a hospital in Kentucky). And when she started talking about the four things she wished everyone had the chance to say to a loved one who’s dying, I really sat up and paid attention.

I used that, then, as the basis for my own talk with mom last Wednesday.

  1. One, I forgive you. I forgive you your role in my parents’ divorce and what that meant to me at the time, I let all that go.
  2. Two, please forgive me. Forgive me for all the times I didn’t show you love, when I put myself first.
  3. Three, here’s what you meant to me. You gave me your love of reading and books, your love of history and government, and you were the one to make sure I got to church. And so here I am, a senior executive in the government and trying to follow Christ as he leads into this new adventure…and yeah, I wrote a book too.
  4. Four, I love you, and it’s OK to go. The last words I heard her say to me were on Monday, when she said she was tired. And so I told her it’s OK, we’ll be fine. My sister and I are doing OK, and all the grandkids are launching into their own lives just as you’d want them to. Go ahead and rest. Go find your beloved dog Kep, and play with her again. And take hold of the healing that we just can’t get for you here. Oh, and by the way: I love you.

Three nights later, she passed away. Go in peace, mom, and savor all the restoration that’s available now in Christ. I’ll see you again soon enough.

(PS: Here’s her obituary.)

Mom’s Ailing

I’m having to come to terms with the fact that my mother perhaps has very little time left among us.

About ten days ago, she developed an infection that affected her kidneys, causing them to be ineffective at metabolizing sodium, among other things. This is at least the third such infection in the last 14 months, and it got to the point this week that my sister and I have put her on a do-not-resuscitate, or DNR, order. She’s eating less, and at one point this week refused her medicines. The palliative care nurse practitioner noticed she looked a little sad Tuesday, and asked if Mom felt she was beginning to transition home. She nodded.

Large parts of this, of course, feel like when my dad was ailing ten autumns ago. He went in for open heart surgery, came out of that, developed complications, and slowly sank over the next six weeks: in mid September, he had surgery, and by November 6, he was gone. What feels the same is the slow-motion horror of the train wreck you can see developing and are powerless to stop.

It’s so much different from when Mary’s dad passed this summer, largely unexpectedly. And what feels different from my dad to my mom is that we’ve had 32 years to see this coming. Mom’s Parkinson’s Disease has reached a pretty advanced level, and so it’s entirely foreseen that some complicating factor will start to work on her. Still, it’s not easy seeing her drift away, unable to communicate well, weakening.

And yet, I have to confess to a certain peace about this. Perhaps because it’s been developing for so long, but also perhaps because of what I know. I know, for instance, that I’ve done all I can for mom, and so I really don’t think whether she knows I love her is in question. And all the more, I know there is a restoration of all things that awaits her. There is newness, wholeness, beyond anything we can imagine. Mom will be restored, not only to how she was before the PD afflicted her, but also to what she was always intended to be, in a resurrected body free from everything. This is the promise in Christ: this is the fruit of his resurrection, opening the way for us to follow him into glory. We don’t follow Christ because we get eternal life: we get eternal life because we follow Christ. Makes all the difference in the world.

The medical team hastens to say that the new antibiotics are working better, her numbers are improving, and in any case, it could be some time still, months even, before the end. But for the first time we are talking about an end, which in turn gives me hope for a new beginning. Alleluia...come, Lord Jesus.

 

Sudden Hard Turns

She got the call today, one out of the gray,
And when the smoke cleared, it took her breath away.
She said she didn’t believe
It could happen to me.
I guess we’re all one phone call from our knees
We’re gonna get there soon.

–Mat Kearney, “Closer to Love”

I got the call myself this past Wednesday morning: my mom has been taken to hospital. I knew she hadn’t been feeling herself the day before, but I didn’t expect it was this bad. Kidney infection. I rushed over to the ER feeling anxious, more anxious than I had expected I would. She was asleep, and really groggy–not waking up. I was alarmed but the staff reassured me she was sleeping well, and needed rest more than anything.

Over the last few days we’ve learned that the infection had seeped into the bloodstream (boo) but was a bug that was very responsive to basic antibiotics (yay), so it should be on the easier side to treat. She’s still in hospital as I write on Sunday afternoon, four days later, and may or may not be released tomorrow.

But I’ve also come to appreciate how fragile my mom really is now, at 75 and after three decades with Parkinson’s Disease. Her mental acuity is duller, her speech is quieter, it’s harder for her to put into words what she’s thinking. There’s no way she could manage her own care now, and the move into a nursing home, which I’d kinda didn’t want to do last year, turns out to have been a good thing.

At present, the kidney function numbers and the blood test numbers are all moving in the right direction. This doesn’t appear to be more serious. But, of course, when it’s your mom, and it’s a hospital, you start to think about such things. Fortunately, I can say (at least today) that unlike my dad, there isn’t anything I haven’t said to her yet that I need to. And so in that regard, the idea of perhaps having to do this drill over something more serious someday doesn’t leave me with the feeling that I have unfinished business. Having the call come that my mom is in the hospital was a sudden hard turn that threw me on Wednesday. But it wasn’t as hard a turn as it could have been. For that I’m grateful.

Happy Mother’s Day?

My mother has had Parkinson’s Disease since she was 42. For the most part, the last three-plus decades were fairly benign to her, but this year finds her in a nursing home and wheelchair-bound. In photos from her high-school days in the late 1950s, she sits demurely, legs crossed at the ankles; today, that lifelong habit means she trips on trying to stand up, or walks unsteadily instead of with a firm base.

Each year for the past few, our Mother’s Day tradition has been to go out–I’ll take her clothes shopping for a new summer wardrobe, then we’ll get lunch or dinner out. And each year, it’s gotten progressively more challenging to accomplish: first adjusting to using the wheelchair, then, as her voice has gotten softer and her words less distinct, trying to listen for what she wants among the racks of clothes at Kohl’s.

This year’s wrinkle was that she hasn’t been as hungry, and so she didn’t want to get a meal after shopping. And while we never did anything extravagant–maybe just going to a diner, or out for a burger–it was still something I missed being able to do this year, and one more piece of evidence of how her long, slow fade continues.

Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

With each passing year, my mother becomes more a reflection of her former self. It’s painful to her, and to me, to know she is fading. And yet I can take heart, that while outwardly she is wasting, one day, Jesus promises, he will make all things new, and all the brokenness will be stripped away, and she will be like that teenaged girl once again.

Until then, we wait, we help her in and out of the car, we struggle to maneuver, and while we are sad at what changes each Mother’s Day brings, we can at least take some joy in being able to share one more holiday with her.