Friday, September 25, 2015

A Legacy of Caretakers

While this isn’t true of everyone in my family, we do have a history of being a people who know how to take care of one another.

I distinctly remember when we brought my maternal grandmother into our home to live when she needed continual care. Grandma lived with us for probably a year. She was bedfast, on oxygen, and needed constant care, so we welcomed her into our tiny house and my mother cared for her every need until she died peacefully in the back bedroom of our home. I was just seven years old, but the sacrifice my parents made for her care made a deep impression on me.

My other grandmother lived in the same community and we saw her often. She never needed the kind of continual care that Grandma did, but I do remember how my dad dropped in every day to check on her. He was a devoted son and she knew she could depend on him.

When my mother was in her 60s, her older sister required some extra care and there was no one else to manage it. My parents arranged for Aunt Velma to have a daytime caregiver, but they checked on her every day for years. They helped manage her care and her personal business until she died.

My mother began having some significant physical problems in her late 70s. Although my dad was still working part-time, he eventually quit his job to be home with her because her doctor appointments and the demands of keeping a household going required more of his time. She gradually deteriorated to the point where she could not care for herself, and was unable to do the many things she had done all of her life.

Mama was always very involved when my sister and I were growing up, volunteering to be room mother, band booster, PTA officer, Girl Scout leader, Sunday School teacher, or whatever job needed to be done. She was an excellent cook and a great housekeeper. But she also loved doing creative things, and kept busy with sewing and craft projects. Yet after seventy-something years of service to others, Mama had come to the point that she could hardly do basic things for herself. 

Although my dad was several years her senior, he was a natural caregiver. His father had been ill when he was just a boy, so he learned how to care for people who couldn’t care for themselves, and with practiced ease he stepped into that role of making life more comfortable for his bride. Daddy devoted himself to her care, which not only meant doing things for her comfort but also managing the everyday cooking, cleaning, and shopping. I never heard him utter a word of complaint, and he always seemed to find joy in doing those things for the woman he loved. 

All these memories flooded my mind last week when I learned that the wife of a cousin had died. When you hear their history, it bears a close resemblance to stories I already know from my own DNA, tales that are clinging to my own branch of the family tree.

Harvey’s beautiful wife, Helen, started down the Alzheimer’s road twelve years ago, and as is often the case, it was a slow, gradually descending path. I know it must have been heartbreaking for the entire family. Despite the pain of watching Helen deteriorate, my cousin Harvey became singularly devoted to his wife . . . not just devoted to Helen’s care, but to HELEN!

He took her out to eat; he took her on trips to the Oregon coast. He staged family gatherings for her birthday and other occasions. He took pictures of his beloved wife and posted them on Facebook with captions like “my beautiful bride”. He pointed out things that would give her pleasure, such as the beauty of a sunset or a bird fluttering outside her window.

Harvey was under no illusion about the way the disease was taking her away from him. There was no denial of reality. He simply chose to make every day a happy one for her; he determined that she would have a safe, peaceful place, surrounded by happy things, with a minimum of stress and fear. It was surely a costly choice for him, but it was indeed his choice. And now that she has gone to be with her Lord (after walking beside Harvey on earth for sixty years!), she is healed of the ravages of Alzheimer’s, healed of body and mind. And she will now know, in a way she did not comprehend over the past few years, what a sacrifice of love Harvey made for her. Harvey is a prime example of how our family cares for one another.

A dear friend of mine shared with me recently that she is teetering on the edge of a decision to assume a major portion of the care for her aging mother. But unlike Harvey’s decision to care for Helen, this one carries an even heavier burden . . . for this friend expressed that her mother has not been particularly kind or loving to her all her life. As she related her plans to me, my friend described how the words of Scripture call her to this sacrifice: “I am to honor my father and mother, and to give Mom good care in her later years is not only the humane thing to do, but the Christian thing. I would want to show kindness and wish good care for anyone else in her situation who needed it; why not for my own mother?” And that, too, is a legacy of faithful caregiving.

Many of us are either currently facing this decision, or will be soon. May God grant us all the grace and mercy to live out the Jesus principles of caring for one another with love—not simply because it’s our duty, but because it’s the right thing to do, the loving thing.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Turning Loose

I recently watched a small child struggling to master bike riding, and it swept me back to my childhood when I feared I would never learn such a complicated skill. 

I was eight years old, and my dad fixed up my sister’s old bicycle and repainted it for my birthday. It was a used bike when she got it, so it wasn’t a shiny state-of-the-art model by the time it was passed down to me. Nevertheless I was excited to have my own wheels at last. 
Excitement turned to frustration as my dad took me down our street countless times, walking beside me with his hand on the rear of the bike to steady it as I wobbled my way from block to block. I remember shouting, “Are you still holding on? Don’t turn loose!” for fear that I didn’t have what it took to keep it steady and upright, even past the time when I was managing pretty well with only a few tumbles. Daddy kept assuring me that yes, he still had a hand loosely on the bike ~ until the day I turned, looked back,  and saw that he was jogging alongside me but had let go and was not touching the bike at all.

I had a momentary shuddering loss of confidence until I realized that I no longer needed his constant hand, keeping me headed in a straight line. I was doing it on my own . . . and it was an exhilarating sensation!

Fast forward to my first day of college. I had thought myself strongly independent and so ready to fly the coop and be on my own. We packed my car and my parents’ car and drove to the college campus 180 miles from home. The first day was spent dealing with financial aid and other paperwork, and I stayed in the hotel with my parents that first night. The next day, we moved all my belongings into the dormitory. Too quickly the deed was done, and I followed them back downstairs to their car where we hugged a tearful goodbye. I bawled for days, and I’m quite certain my mother did, too.

This past week, the college campus where I work welcomed close to three hundred new freshmen to our school. We made sure they were given information about all the services and resources available; we met with parents to assure them we had the best interests of their children in our hearts. We provided fun times and special memories, but in the end it was time for the parents to turn loose of their youngsters and go back home. 

Last Friday around noon, staff and faculty members grouped around parents and new students in front of the university administration building and prayed. We prayed for these students and their college careers, for each to have a successful future; we prayed for their safety and for them to make good choices. We prayed for spiritual direction. And we prayed for their parents and families heading back home, because we knew they would be returning to familiar surroundings but with perhaps unfamiliar emotions. So we asked God’s blessings and care over each of these families transitioning to a new family structure.

Glancing around at the crowd, my heart clenched with remembered pain as I watched the parents next to me. The dad stood, stoically staring straight ahead and not daring to look at his wife—or his daughter who stood in front of them clad in a University t-shirt, her face reflecting both the excitement and fear of the moment. The mom occasionally dabbed beneath her dark glasses, casually at first, then eventually pulling out a hanky with no pretense of composure as the prayer flowed out over the crowd.

Turning loose is seldom easy—whether it’s letting go of your daughter’s first bicycle, knowing she may fall . . . leaving your son in that kindergarten classroom in the care of educators, hoping the teachers will give him the foundational tools he needs . . . watching him back out of the driveway on his first solo trip with a new driver’s license . . . or the ultimate letting go as you drive away from that college campus, your son or daughter truly on their own for the first time.

Sometimes we have to turn loose of things besides our children. We may have to let go of a parent or grandparent who is dying. Perhaps we have to make peace with the ending of a job that has been our entire life. Maybe a marriage or friendship has ended, and we are left to grieve the loss and try to sort out how we let go of significant people. Releasing our grip on such things is beyond difficult.
Despite the pain of turning loose, however, there are almost always other good things that come when we do. God doesn’t leave us stuck forever with the crippling pain of loss unless we choose to stay there and refuse to move on.

When it comes time to turn loose of one thing, it leaves us with a free hand to grasp and embrace something else. If you are in a season of having to “turn loose”, may the Lord invite you into a new season and show you instead what things He wants you to grasp.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Tell Me a Story . . .

Annalon Gilbreath as "Sally Scull"
Storytelling has become almost a lost art in our culture, but thanks to a number of committed people who know the value of a good tale, it has made a revival in recent years.

Even in Jesus’ time, stories were an important method of communication. When people asked him questions, he often answered with a story. It was how he got his point across, sometimes with a cryptic story that was lost on those who were not seriously seeking answers.

Through the centuries, numerous cultures in the world have preserved their sense of history by telling stories. Whether you call it folklore, ancient legends, or tall tales, everyone seems to love a good story.

I was born and raised into a family that knew about stories. There was no chance I would grow up not loving to hear family tales because both of my parents came from families that appreciated a good yarn.

My mother’s sister was their family historian, and her memory served her well as she recounted the family stories that had been passed down from her dad. She could really get into a good fairy tale too, complete with facial expressions and voice changes. When I was very small, I often stayed with her and would beg for stories. Being a former elementary teacher, she loved entertaining my young mind with fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Two of my favorites were “the Three Billy Goats Gruff” and “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Whether she was the quaking voice of the goats, fearful of the troll under the bridge, or made the booming voice of the Giant who chased Jack down the beanstalk, she made my little heart beat faster and I would shiver in fear . . . but would ask for those same stories again and again. She loved to tell in later years how she would promise me a story before my nap, and my eyelids would be drooping in sleep as the story ended. She would start to tiptoe out of the room and my eyes would pop open and I would say, “Tell me another ‘tory!”

My father came from a family of eight children and whenever they came together, we always heard the accounts of their escapades as children. Daddy and each of his siblings loved to tell their stories, and as children we all knew most of them by heart. They told many of the same ones over and over when they were together: setting the stage, building up the suspense, leaning forward on their knees as they neared the punch line or climax of the tale (eyes glistening with humor), and we all sat breathless, waiting. We knew the way the story ended; no surprises there. Yet we listened to it each time with fresh ears, allowing our minds to be led down the familiar trail as they set the story up yet one more time. I remember knowing the punch line and waiting expectantly to hear it once again, and all of us falling out laughing as if we had never heard it before. So valuable, to grow up in the home of a storyteller! Perhaps it is why I write; I love a good story, and can’t wait to make up more of my own and share them with other people. It is my way of giving something I think is valuable for others to enjoy.

Just last week, I was privileged to hear a professional storyteller give a first-person historical account of the life of Sally Scull. Annalon Gilbreath of Lubbock, Texas came to our gathering in period costume, with the Texas accent of her character flowing from her mouth, and her gestures and posture making the character believable. I found myself so caught up in the story that I actually believed she WAS Sally Scull.

Annalon, herself a former Midland school teacher, portrayed Sally’s years in Texas as a hard-headed, pistol-packing woman on the Texas frontier. Born in 1817 in Illinois, Sally moved with her family to Texas in 1823 and fearlessly faced all the trials and agonies of living a frontier life. History books would probably not paint such a charming picture of Sally, who married and divorced several Texas men, and killed (or at least threatened) anyone who got in her way. She was hard-wired to manage and control her own affairs with dogged determination, which was probably one reason why all her marriages failed so miserably. Yet Annalon brought to light not only the hardened tough woman Sally had become, but gave us a glimpse into her life that made me unable to feel anything but compassion and even amusement at her character.

I am grateful for people like Annalon, who know how to tell a good story. I loved her depiction of Sally Scull, and her ability to teach, amuse, and give us perspective on what life might have been like in another period of our history.

What is your story? We all have a story telling where we have been, what we have done, what we remember, and the people and events that have influenced us. I encourage you not to keep that inside yourself, hidden away. When the opportunity arises, tell your story to a child or grandchild. Recount things you remember that might be of value to someone else. Our stories help define us, and they are also part of our legacy. What we leave behind to future generations is bound up in our stories. Tell yours.