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Archive for July, 2010

A New Friend

I have a new friend, even though I’ve known him for many years,since he was born, in fact. My new friend is Joey, the oldest child of our next-door neighbors. Joey will be in the fourth grade this fall, but until this year, I’ve had little contact with Joey or his siblings, Johnny, David and Anna Grace. I did go over to see Joey a few weeks after he was born, but since then, my family’s schedule and our neighbors’ schedule has not allowed for much more than an occasional wave across the yard or a request to collect newspapers while on vacation.

It was, in fact, misdelivered mail that led to my new friendship with Joey. One afternoon about two weeks ago, he came over with a letter addressed to our house which had been put in their mailbox. Joey is a quiet, serious young man who gravely handed me the envelope and then asked shyly about the birds that came to my birdfeeder. The conversation which followed led to me showing Joey the horseshoe crab shell that I had found at the beach. Joey’s eyes lit up. He asked if I wanted to see his bug collection, and I said that I did. That led to me going over and sitting on Joey’s backporch, looking at the bugs Joey had mounted in his shadowbox. The next day, I took some books over to Joey [I couldn’t exclude the rest of the children, so I took something for every child. One of the benefits of having three children is having lots of leftover toys and books for every age child!]. I ended up sitting and looking at Joey’s rock collection as well as additional bugs, for which there was no room in the shadowbox.

Two days later, as I pulled into my driveway about 6 PM. I could see Joey and his brother, Johnny, playing in their backyard. Less than 15 minutes later, Joey was knocking on my backdoor. He had a huge book of insects in his hand. I told Will to tell Joey to give me a few minutes to change my clothes, and then I’d be out to see him.

Thankfully, my family is never cranky or demanding about what time they eat dinner. That flexible attitude allowed me to sit on my patio on the patio couch beside Joey, and quite literally look at every page of that insect book! EVERY SINGLE PAGE! Joey had something to tell me–in his soft, low voice–about every single bug in that book. Some of those insects were just plain awful-looking but Joey delighted in telling this fact or that story about the icky ones. Dark clouds were forming as we reached the end of the book, and Joey’s brother Johnny appeared, saying that Joey’s mom said to come home before the rain. “Wait,” Joey said to me (as if I was going anywhere!) and with that he raced away, returning minutes later with a big jug of dirty, green water. “Look,” he said, pointing to the contents of the jar. There in the bottom of the jar, two little tadpoles were swimming. And there on the side of the jar, was a teeny, tiny little green frog. Joey proudly explained to me that there had been THREE tadpoles a few days ago; now there were TWO tadpoles and frog. He was quite excited about the prospect of having THREE frogs and no tadpoles! It began to rain; Joey had to go home; I suspect that he would have stayed on if weather had not interfered.

On Thursday, our cat Edward “found” a salamander. Using knowledge from my childhood, I put it in a glass jar with grass and rocks and water, and used a nail to hammer a few holes in the lid. I took it over to Joey’s house, and laid the jar on the porch beside the tadpoles and frog, with a note, “here’s a salamander that my cat caught for you!” Joey’s family has had company, so he hasn’t been over since I left the salamander. But I spoke briefly with his father last night, and he assured me that Joey is anxious to tell me what he’s learned about salamanders.

It’s nice to have a friend who is so focused on God’s creation, whose interest reminds me that even the ickiest bug is under God’s care and has a purpose. It’s good to have a friend who–when one’s cat drags in a salamander–views it as something to be prized and not destroyed. And when the “world is too much with us,” as Matthew Arnold once wrote, it’s wonderful to have a friend who can talk about bugs and rock and tadpoles, who can bring me back to the true reality which is “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.”

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Hope and Humor

Note: if you are squeamish or uncomfortable about death talk, you might want to skip this blog.

Truth be told, my mother was ready to die about five years after my father died–maybe even sooner. That would make it about 2004 or 2005. This was certainly not the scenario she had envisioned. Many years ago, when my parents were engaging in fanciful speculation about their later years, my mother determined that she, and not my father, would go first, “because you aren’t leaving me here by myself,” she told him.
Unfortunately for her, that is not how things turned out. Until recently, she has been waiting–to put this in her words exactly: “for God to take me.” Now she has received a diagnosis of terminal colon/liver cancer and her wait, it seems, will soon be over. With all due respect to how one goes through the various stages of death and dying–denial, anger, and finally acceptance–Mom jumped straight to acceptance.
Recently I told her that we were praying for her at our prayer service, and she fixed her gaze on me and said, “You better not be praying for healing.” Now, as grim as the topic of death might be, you have to admit that’s pretty funny!
While in the hospital, my mother startled the sweet young doctor who came around to convey her sympathy upon receiving the test results. “I hope,” the sweet young doctor said, “that you have months rather than weeks to live.” “I hope, ” replied my mother, “that I die tonight!” leaving the doctor speechless.
The hospice nurse who came to see Mom concluded her visit with a hope that Mom would be comfortable in the next weeks. Mom reaffirmed her desire to die that very night, to which the hospice nurse cheerfully responded, “well, then I hope you have a comfortable evening!”

The Apostle Paul wrote that we do not grieve as those who have no hope, and I would add that we do not grieve as those who have no hope AND no humor. Because there’s plenty of both in the remaining time my mother has on earth. For example, she asked a couple from her church who came to see her if they “hired out, since you all are such good visitors!” She spent a little time mulling over whether or not to keep or cancel her appointment to get her cavity filled, because on the one hand, what difference would it make, but on the other hand, “it’s important to take care of your teeth.” (she decided on the former, by the way). When I was reading scripture to her the other day, she patted my hand after I finished reading one passage and shaking her head said, “Please don’t read that at my funeral–it’s too confusing.”

So for the time being, my mother’s life is full of hope and humor. She hopes that every night will be her last, and every day she humorously (well, sort of) greets the staff, her family and visitors with “I’m still here–I don’t know what’s taking God so long.”

“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” We have this treasure in an 89 year old earthen vessel who demonstrates in her life as well as in her death, both hope and humor.

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His name is Jesse Lee Stark and he is roaming the circular hallway of the 7th floor round wing of Medical Center North wearing a long cotton hospital gown, fastened at the back and a pair of yellow no-slip socks. He knows who he is but he doesn’t know where he is; he knows where he used to work but he doesn’t know why he’s in the hospital. He wants to go home, so he wanders all around the 7th floor round wing, occasionally stepping into other patients’ rooms, trying to get down the hallway leading to the elevators, following the nurses behind their long desk. Containment of Jesse Lee Stark is a team effort in this geriatric unit, and everyone–from nurses to care partners to technicians to the environmental services people–take a turn steering, distracting or watching over Jesse Lee. A nurse named Joy, who has been assigned to take care of my mother and two other patients, is not assigned to Jesse Lee but as he begins to wander into my mother’s hospital room, she gently turns him around. She pulls out some labels and a marker; she writes “Jesse” on one label and places it on the back of a chair in the hallway. “There!” she says proudly, “a chair reserved for you, Jesse! Come sit in the chair reserved for you!” He is clearly pleased that the chair is reserved for him, and reads his name off the label several times before finally sitting down in the chair. For about five minutes, all is well until Jesse Lee stands up and begins to wander off down the hall. Bob, a care partner, catches him before he enters the employee break room and suggests that Jesse Lee take a nap, but that is not something Jesse Lee wants to do. Bob directs him to the chair and points out the label with his name on it, and again, Jesse Lee sits. Bob hands him a pad of paper and a pencil and asks Jesse Lee to make a list of all the things he is going to do when he leaves the hospital. “Make a list, Jesse, so that when your wife comes, you can show her what you want to do when you get home.” Jesse sets his hand to the task of making a list, and all is quiet for a few moments. But either his list is short or he gets distracted from his task because he’s up again, and goes pretty far down the hallway before another nurse takes his hand and asks him if he’d like some ice cream. He nods, and follows after the nurse who places him back in “his” chair, and brings him some ice cream. Jesse Lee sits for the most number of minutes while he eats that ice cream. He stands up, but a proactive nurse has brought him a stack of cups and lids. “Jesse, would you count these lids and cups for me? I need to know how many I have,” she tells him. Dutifully, he sits back down and begins to count cups and lids, but soon loses count or forgets what he was doing because he begins to ask about going home, and heads for the elevators. A very young nurse wraps her arm around his waist and leads him back to his chair, imploring him to tell about his life. “What did you do for a living, Jesse? How many children do you have?” she asks question after question, each one answered with a story. At one point, Jesse Lee Stark says to her, “I am telling too many stories,” and the young nurse says, “I like stories, I like your stories.” And for a few moments longer, there is peace on the 7th floor.
This gentle “hand-off” of Jesse Lee Stark continues all morning long, and into the afternoon. I listen as the different staff members speak kindly but firmly to him. They answer his questions honestly and without condescension. It is clear from how they treat him that they genuinely like Jesse Lee Stark, despite his confusion, his time-consuming wanderings, his persistent questions. He is a patient in the hospital, true; but they seem to genuinely like him as a person.

That day, in addition to observing the comings and goings of Jesse Lee Stark, I had been studying for my Sunday school lesson. And in William Barclay’s commentary on the Thessalonian letters, he wrote, “It will always remain true that we can never affect or win people at all unless we begin, quite simply, by liking them.”
Whether we are promoting the gospel or providing good health care or whatever we do, simply liking the people with whom we come into contact is fundamental. Maybe that changes Jesus’ words to “love your neighbor as yourself” to “like your neighbor as yourself.” Maybe before we can love someone else, we have to develop a basic “like” that views another person–our particular Jesse Lee Stark–with respect, dignity and compassion.

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