She fell on Tuesday – the ambulance came. She fell on Wednesday – the same crew returned and kindly got her to her feet. On Thursday, a visiting nurse tried to put on a pressure stocking over a dime sized wound on her lower leg. The stockings were better suited to an eight year old child than a heavy set woman at seventy. The wound grew to three by four inches in dimension.
After three consecutive days of trauma, my sister Jackie was completely worn out. I arrived with supper on Friday night, and she looked ashen and spent. She slumped in her Lazy-boy, had little to no appetite, and was clearly on edge. Her anxiety was ripe and full, and I knew her soul was in knots way too tight to undo. I came again on Saturday, and once again brought a meal to share. She seemed even weaker, and had an even harder time getting up to use the bathroom She was so unsteady on her feet, and I could tell another fall was imminent.
On Sunday I called her to see what she wanted me to bring to eat, and she said she was going to have a bowl of cereal and then sleep, as she could not keep her eyes open. I thought this odd, as she had been sleeping on and off for the past 72 hours. At 4:30 a.m. she called the ambulance as she could not stand. They came and helped her to the toilet. They came again at noon, but made it clear that she must go to the emergency room, as this was not an appropriate use of their time or skill – to which she reluctantly agreed.
I met her at the emergency room, and she was in bad shape. Her breathing was ragged, and she was on oxygen. She tried to communicate with me, but spoke either gibberish or thoughts which resembled a carnival bumper car ride. Her words just bumped and careened off of one another, and made no sense or progress to a point. She dozed off repeatedly, and they explained to me that her blood sugar and blood pressures were highly elevated and that she was retaining an extraordinary amount of fluid. After several hours of tests and pokes and prods of all kinds, a doctor declared that her kidneys had shut down, and that she might need dialysis by morning. My heart sank for her and for myself, as I quietly wondered if this was a foreshadowing of the flow of my own diabetes.
For ten days she was in the intensive care unit of a Kenosha hospital, and remained very sick and very unstable. It was clear she might not make it. She looked damn fragile as they wheeled her away for her first dialysis, but she did make better sense the next day. Jackie was an emotional wreck, and her worries were warts rooted in her worst fears. She was headed for a nursing home and dialysis several times a week. She slept a great deal, mainly as a defense, as well as having a body which had been squeezed dry of all energy and a heart of all hope. She looked like a carcass.
Jackie is presently in a nursing home, and she must be transported by ambulance three times a week to dialysis treatments. She remains frightened and anxious and bitter and beaten and bruised inside and out. She keeps asking me how this all happened, and yet I know we both know. Neither of us has taken good care of ourselves, and we come from a family which handled all crises with food – the proverbial stuffing of one’s face. As yet she will not allow me to decorate her room, or make it feel at all like a home of a kind. She insists on waiting, and I suspect she is looking for a miracle, one the equivalent of walking on water.
I recently spent three full years caring for my wife Patty, who died in October of 2013. I am nursing home phobic, and refuse to get caught back up in the vast maze of care giving. I've agreed to visit Jackie three times a week, on the days she does not have dialysis. I often dread those days, and feel an itch like resistance. I just don't want to go back there, as Jackie is ironically and spookily in the same room and nursing home as my late wife. I force myself to go. It is much like sticking your finger down your throat. I feel a little better when I've gone.
I think about Jackie a lot these days. Her sadness and stagnation swarm about her, and I can feel the agony of her lack of control or purpose. She has always loved being needed, and so longed for a chance to create a home and raise a family. I ache that she never got that chance, and so wish she had found someone who truly did love her. She deserves so much better than she has gotten, but then this is true for so many of us. By the world’s standards she has had a reasonably decent life. By American standards she has been poor and single and mostly alone – a mediocre existence at best.
She has done some really wonderful things for people. She offered the men she loved a home cooked meal, a spotlessly clean house, did their wash, made arrangements for their chores to be done, raised children, and offered each gigolo undeserved compassion and encouragement. Yes, she was used, but along the way her loving and mercy enabled many a soul, especially those of children, to have a better life. She was a frequent source of hope and inspiration.
Jackie was indeed a favorite aunt for many of my cousins. She was and is attentive to all of my aunts, and was deeply devoted to her now deceased uncles. When my mother became a victim of age and wet macular degeneration, Jackie provided her with seven years of trouble free living. They lived in adjoining apartments, and shared every evening meal. They talked at least a half dozen times a day.
Jackie served others. She made enormous sacrifices on behalf of my family and her cherished friends. She was such an amazingly giving woman. But now, well, there just is not much left to give. Her breathing is shallow and crackles, her voice a mere echo of itself, and her body has all but imploded. I can tell she wonders daily if the time is right to let go, and to surrender to a God she believes has mostly ignored her.
When I am around she does come to life a bit. She tells everyone who I am. “This is my brother Bill. He is a minister.” She retains an absurdly loyal devotion to me, as I remain a fixture of her memory and her belief in Life as a whole. I feel shame in knowing how often I want to run from any responsibility to and for her, and guilty that I have so little to say or do on her behalf. Many times when I drive along the lake after my visits, I simply weep. Life is difficult. Many folks, like Jackie, do not get a fair shake, and they slog their way through simply on the remembrance of better days and simpler saner times.
I will keep going. I do love her. I do recall how she made sure I got everything I wanted for Christmas as a kid, and how she would let me be “her butler” at the basement crepe paper strewn Halloween party. I think back to how she was always there in the midst of a crisis, and that her life often resembled an episode of “As the World Turns”. When I was in college, I frequently went out with Jackie and her friends to a bar, a dance hall, a drag show, or all of the above, and we would finish the night with a big breakfast at Denny’s.
Nobody has been a fiercer advocate for me. Nobody was and is more proud to see me become a minister. Nobody had a harder time seeing me married, or with a woman she did not choose. Nobody romanticized my father more, or tenderly nursed my mother in her final years. That is the bottom line, nobody.
Four of my beloved cousins came to Racine to help me clean out her apartment. It was so sweet of them to do, and such an enormous help to me. I recognized then just how much they loved Jackie, and how many stories they could tell of when Jackie was their babysitter, extended care Nanny, or simply an adult family friend. Jackie was and is beloved by many, both family and friends. She did make a difference. She made a mark. It was a caress, a giving without conditions, and raw in all of its hopes and dreams.
I will drive up there tomorrow, and I will talk myself into being there, and I will take the elevator to her floor and hobble to her room. I will kiss her on the cheek, and sit down in a chair, and then our ritual will begin…”Do you remember when we…”
I could not recall the last time I had heard the word. She spoke it with ownership. She said she was “just slogging through her life”, with such conviction, she literally became its definition.
She looked and sounded empty. Her voice down to a ragged whisper. She acted without animation. If there was a spirit present, I could not detect it. Her soul appeared to be shivering and cold. The heart was obviously badly bruised. She was fifty, and looked sixty plus. She was crotchety. She had dragged herself unwillingly to this appointment, only as a favor to her husband, “who was a worry wart if there ever was one.”
I asked her what she meant by slogging? She said she was very busy, but enjoyed nothing. She stated that she felt like she was marching in place in quicksand. She repeatedly claimed a loss of meaning and purpose. She called herself weary and wretched.
I asked her what it felt like to be seated in my office. She told me it felt pointless. Simply another silly obligation to fulfill. I told her I was glad she had come, and for what it was worth, I shared with her a most genuine empathy.
“You - no way. You scoot around like you have the world on a string. Your line of work must produce all kinds of purpose. I imagine you finishing each day with a sense of satisfaction.”
“Wrong. I don’t scoot these days. Too fat and my knees are crumbling. I don’t have the world on a string. I'm hanging by a thread. Most days in ministry are bewildering. I finish the day wondering if I accomplished anything at all. I go to bed wide awake and wake up exhausted.”
I was shocked by my honesty. She seemed pleasantly amused.
“Well, aren’t we a pair, a couple of Christians slogging through our lives.”
We both laughed. It made no sense. It made perfect sense. It is the nature of all true faith. We talked on for about an hour. We just vented and rambled and wandered across the spiritual turf of our lives. We finished this chat with a rare sense of fulfillment. We had connected.
No great answers had been found or shared. No monumental moment of insight or inspiration. No swarming mood of calm swept over us. Just a simple recognition that neither of us was alone and it felt good, helpful, enough.
Even slogging is better when shared. Like everything in Life, we are better for being together. We live in a time and place and culture of broken connections. Empathy can feel so sweet and be such a balm.
When she left my office, I did not notice any skip to her step. She did not look like the reenactment of the resurrection. She did seem to hold her head a bit higher. Could be my imagination, but I felt the rise above my own shoulders as well. We both had gotten a lift. That is all, nothing more, but everything we need.
A church member by the name of Bill recently turned 84. I went with Henrietta, an elder of the church, to visit and wish him a happy birthday. When we arrived at the facility, Bill was sound asleep. We decided to wait. Twenty minutes later we heard his voice calling for a nurse.
I expected Bill to be frail and even fragile. I thought he would be quite disoriented, and that communication might be difficult. Bill had a fairly long history of coping with major and minor strokes, and all their inherent complications.
I knew Estella, his beloved wife, was hoping to have a medical emergency free summer, but alas, this was not to be. Bill had several strokes of different sizes and scope, and his condition wavered from critical to stable to pretty good. He had recently had a feeding tube removed, and was back to eating “normal food” -- a good sign, in the jargon of getting old.
Our chat with Bill was easy and casual, and we caught up on the basic details of his recent medical history. He was feeling quite a bit better, confident he would be allowed home within a few days, and hoping he would soon be able to devour some of Estella’s magnificent cooking.
Having once shared a meal with the Bill and Estella, I was keenly aware of Estella’s kitchen wizardry. I had heard tales of her culinary prowess from several of the church women, but especially her beloved best friend, Shirley. It was all true. Bill had every reason to drool in anticipation of an Estella prepared home cooked meal.
Henrietta mentioned what a hard worker Estella was, and I echoed her, speaking up about Estella’s extraordinary gifts as a caregiver. Bill, who was a stately and modest gentleman, and approached Life with a rare combination of dignity and integrity, began to quaver and wince, and it was then I noticed the tears streaming down his cheeks. Bill knew full well of his good fortune in having such a devoted and loving and loyal mate.
Bill tried for a few minutes to speak, to tell us of his deep appreciation for his adored wife. He simply could not extract the words. His tears were too strong, as was his own devotion and love and loyalty to her. He tried several times, and then his head would sag, and the tears would fall even harder. It was a most moving sight, transforming even -- being left speechless by the goodness of one’s own marriage.
I've been married twice, and lost both women to major illness. Each loss was initially profound and deep, and the absence seemed to scream daily in my ear, like severe tinnitus. However, over time, the ache grew even stronger and fuller and could yank any day out of my reach. What I missed then were such small things: holding a hand, stroking hair, a shared smell, like lilacs, laughing at a rerun you have seen a dozen times, driving in silence through gorgeous countryside, eating a delicious meal and savoring it, a nod, a knowing look, the experience of being understood or accepted or defended, the joy of witnessing your own family history being written before your eyes, the excitement of seasons and holidays, even if just for a moment.
I had driven to the nursing home with a deep sense of anguish for Bill and Estella. Thinking how sad it was to have lost another summer to medical emergencies and chronic care. I believe Henrietta and I left this rehab, envying the love made known there, a couple who continue to share Life, and mature and melt into one another, grateful for every day.
We did not stay for the birthday celebration, orchestrated by, of course, Estella, and her dear friend, Shirley. I heard it was quite nice, and then Bill grew tired and needed to rest. They marked another milestone together, and did so with such a deep and abiding faith in one another, their children, family and friends, their God and Life as a whole. No matter how weary, Estella would never let Bill forget she appreciated each and every day.
Over the years, I have seen so many couples in marriage counseling. I have been told of the slimmest and slightest reasons for break up. I worry about the lack of trust in marriage, which I witness in so many youth today. I wish I could just video Estella and Bill for a day, and hand it out, and say, “There, do it and be it like that!”
I was ten. I was in heaven. It was the very first day of Christmas vacation, and I could sleep late, and overnight there had been a wild blizzard, so the day ahead was bloated with the endless possibility of drifting snow. My mother informed me I could not go outside until after noon, as then the sun would chill the frigid air; so I spent the eternity of this vacation morning watching cartoons. It was lovely.
That afternoon we built snow forts, and conducted snowball bombing raids all around the block. At one point there were actual sides, the Carter Street Boys versus the Charles Street boys, but by mid-afternoon it was simply the chaos of snowballs flying everywhere at anyone. I recall it all as filled with screams and shouts and endless laughter. At four, as the sun began to set, our mothers called us home to warmth and hot chocolate. We complained bitterly until the first sip of cocoa.
The phone rang right after dinner. It was our neighbor from Carter Street, the one who had a daughter with what I then called “celery paisley”. Klara told my Mom her daughter had watched us throw snowballs all afternoon from the front window of their upper flat. It was the girl or young woman’s birthday, and Klara was wondering if we boys could entertain her with a game of touch football in the street. My mother had mentioned it was ten below, but soon assured Klara we boys would be there soon.
To be honest, we were delighted. Football under the streetlights was a real treat, and on a bitterly cold Green Bay Packer night when you could pretend to be Bart Starr crawling the final yard into the end zone, well heaven had returned. Eight boys divided up and played their hearts out for the girl in the window – we could not see her in detail, but we waved at her and she returned an arc of an angled wave. We hooted and howled and pumped our fists. We leaped in the air to capture a pass, and ran like bulls for extra yardage. We were at our best, and most entertaining, an unbeatable combination.
After an hour, we were going numb, and so waved goodbye, and headed home. My mom had made hot buttered popcorn, and we had little green bottles of ice cold Coke, and watched TV – it had been decided I could have three of the boys over for a sleepover; which promised to be a real fart fest. It was. My mother thanked us for being such boys, but told us she needed to flee my bedroom before she could no longer breathe. We fell asleep from laughter fatigue.
A few years back, while serving on Shelter Island, a high school senior boy in my youth group informed the entire youth group he had never once been invited to a birthday party in all the time he had lived there. He said our youth group was supposedly a place to be honest, and he wanted to be assured that no other kid would endure such a sinful shunning. As I heard his quavering story, I wondered – Where were their mothers? Why hadn’t the mothers, or even the rare father, made sure this boy had been included? How was it possible that our mothers could get us out on a frigid winter night to entertain a disabled girl in a window, because it was her birthday – even if we did not know her name?
Morality is taught. It's enforced with expectation, a silent stare, a pointed finger. It was rewarded with buttered popcorn and a sleepover. Times are changing, and today’s parents cannot seem to muster up the courage to expect their kids to extend an invitation for a birthday party – let alone brace against the howling winds of December in Wisconsin, to delight a fan in a window after the streetlights went on, and eight boys got the chance to be Packers.
This is not good change, not good at all. This is a movement to lower ground --sinking sand.
My life has been real slow as of late, almost in reverse on some days. I may wake up with a rush of energy or enthusiasm, but the blahs seem to hover like that cloud of dirt and grime over Pigpen’s head in the PEANUTS cartoons. Now and then a goal or an idea might alight upon my brain, or I will once again conjure up the notion of winning a Pulitzer Prize or having a play on Broadway – ambition has never been a problem for me, nor has arrogance, which I keep as a matched set, like fine china, in my beloved memory chest.
After reading the paper, which is invariably a downer, I do the crossword puzzle, in order to keep Alzheimer’s at bay. Alzheimer’s caught up with my Dad when he was 76, and he rode that bucking bronco until he was 90. For the last ten years, he had his leg trapped in the stirrup, and the disease just dragged him flopping around the arena. It wasn’t pretty. My mother could barely watch anymore, and would just whistle, iron, and mop floors.
I then read some Wendell Berry, who always brings me a lift of insight and simple wisdom. He has a remarkable way of calling America to task, while letting you know just how much he cherishes the sweet earth and goodness of its people. Wendell just hates big and fast and modern, and longs for days filled with the lovely light of the sun or snowfall, and a time when getting a haircut was a worthy accomplishment for the day. Wendell yearns to know and trust his neighbors, and to get back to the business of building God’s Kingdom on this earth, and fleeing fast from the inanity of erecting a testament to a good life without any goodness in it.
Next I read some Garrison Keillor. The hard part of reading Keillor is that he is so damn good, he almost makes me want to never write again. His stories are so soft and subtle and woven of saga and myth and story, and the tapestry created is knitted together with the thread of Truth, a truth which could be called the Gospel Truth. He never preaches. He just tells. He tells us a good story about good people and good lives and the goodness God intends for each of us. His words create an aroma of Grace, like fresh baked bread or cinnamon sticky buns.
I drive out to Brown’s Lake and take a nice clean cool dip in this delicious little lake. There are only a few post summer mothers here with their kids. It is September, and the day is yet another mixed bag. This morning it was steamy Africa hot. It rained over lunch. This afternoon, just when the kids were let out of what they claimed was prison, the temperatures dropped into the high 60’s. The water was a good deal warmer than the air. I swam and walked, and tried to create the illusion of being mobile.
As I dried off, I watched the kids trying to build sand castles and forts, or skip a rock or two. An old woman with a flowered bath cap, yelled at the kids for almost hitting her with a stone. They had missed her by a good fifty yards, but I was thinking about helping them with their aim – the old bat. The sky grew cobalt blue, and the clouds so pure and puffy and white, they looked like the wispy cotton snow my Grandmother used to decorate everything at Christmas.
As I drove home, I began to notice the gilding of the earth that is the hallmark of September. Everything is cast in a holy light, especially at sunset. I was dazzled and dumbstruck by the beauty of this time of early evening. I opened the window and let the cool clean air wash over me. I started to hatch a plan to win The Nobel Prize. You see, the problem with humility, is that it threatens to extinguish the longing to create a legacy which will last. I am always being tied up in knots with my yearning to be a “somebody”, and my awareness of the Grace of not being anyone all that special.
I made myself a crappy supper of over frozen shrimp and mealy grapes. After doing up a few dishes and throwing in a load of laundry, grounding myself in the normalcy of my alone days, I went to the computer to try and write. This time, the writing came swiftly and easily, and the words fell into place like they do after getting a long word filled in on a crossword puzzle. I liked what I wrote. It was about everyone’s increasing need for compassion as we age. Aging and dying are erosion which removes any semblance of being in control.
These swift slow days pass us by like white puffy clouds, and we find ourselves waving a white flag at some point of every day. Surrender is no longer repugnant, but required. We fall into God’s waiting arms, and we wonder if we did enough today. Then God whispers into our ears, once again, “Just be … you are already a “somebody”, my special child!” And for a moment or two I believe it. Though, I will struggle with this knowing the next day and the next day, and every day. Still, those moments of collapsed surrender are delightful, no longer scary, and help prepare for me the final leap of faith to come.
Reverend William R. Grimbol has spent the past 30+ years helping people create and develop strong spiritual connections with loved ones and God. He is also a published author, with over a dozen books to his credit.