On my way into the store for dog food and sour cream I stopped and took in the last call of the sun. You know, when the magnifying glass of the horizon burnishes the great circle before it drops below the surface. A man was trying to capture the image with his phone a few spaces over. Futile. I thought of Elton John.
“Don’t let the sun go down on me.”
Isn’t it funny how the greatest metaphors are so easily dismissed, or just missed? Lately, when the sun is a bit weary and heads under the covers, I think of my sister Ellen (The oldest hippie I know.). She sundowns every evening. Jack, her husband, texts me updates a few times a day. More like downdates after supper. Sundowning is a term attached to people with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Sundowning turns my sister from forgetful half sentences (Of which no two fragmental sentences cohere.) to an obstinate curmudgeon. Curmudgeoness?
When dementia began defacing Ellen’s brain at a more rapid pace earlier this year, it was time to get more help.
“Help! I need somebody! Help! Not just anybody!”
Her kids, my siblings, gave Jack some respite. Needless to say it’s a lotta work to manage a person who can no longer manage. Applause and thanks go out to all!
So, I found myself in the same living room that held my mother sitting in a lazy boy wondering who I was. It’s been almost ten years ago. The other day I stopped by to visit Ellen and sat across from her on the same couch. She says I’m still her boy. I’ll put that in my pocket!
Don’t cry Mare, this was your idea!
The crazy thing about this dementia is the teeter-totter aspect of it. Like my other sister (Mare) said it’s like Ellen doesn’t just become like a little child. In fact, as I’ve observed, a stutter step of doing life took over. Stubborn and snarky. Frustrated and fun. Up, then down. Jack texts me often…”She’s back!” As we come and go, she doesn’t know if she’s coming or going.
“I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello.”
Ellen, the hippie of the long gray hair. Those who love her pluck the petals of she lovesme, she loves me not. Mostly, Jack wonders what petal is it today, this hour, this moment?
“Love, love me do. You know I love you.”
For now, we who know Ellen hold on to her memory for her. I’ll remember for her the time I jumped on her like a flying squirrel after a long absence. I was just a kid, but the memory is as fresh as dew. Like I said somewhere else, round and round her memory goes, but this time it spins out of control. The centrifugal force peels her fingers off the stories which once were milestones of her identity. We do what we can but still feel…
“helpless, helpless, helpless, helpless.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m still calling her Ellen, we all are, for good reason. Her spirit, soul, and body are still spouting her humanity. It’s her mind that has wandered off because her brain keeps misfiring. C.S. Lewis once stated “We don’t have a soul. We are a soul. We happen to have a body.” I wonder if God sent most of her mind on ahead to scope out heaven and left little half thoughts with us to try to decipher. Easy there Jer.
“It’s a long and winding road to your heart.”
The other day I walked in, grabbed the reaching tool thingy, you know, the one with the trigger you pull, and on the other end it clasps things you can’t get at. Anyway, Ellen was wearing her winter hat with the ball on top. She kinda looked like a cone-head. I grabbed the ball with the tool and lifted up the hat to check under the hood as it were. She smiled. I smiled back. Such a simple thing. Showing teeth. Curling the mouth. Revealing dimples. I’m sure Jack would tell you it’s the little things that hot-wire hope in the midst of hopelessness. Small gifts.
“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, life goes on, Bra.”
I don’t know what a bra has to do with it, but life is going on, even in the small significant world of Ellen and Jack and attendants. I believe a Big God sees what’s going on there. Ever present, maybe a bit more present when worship music fills their little living room. God isn’t watching from a distance.
Back to the sundown metaphor and how it reminds me of Ellen. How about this? The sun can’t set without getting up there first. Up. Down. Just like the hippie of the long gray hair. Life.
“Yesterday, all my troubles seem so far away.”
“Here comes the sun, do and do do.”
This has become a song that reminds me of Jack and Ellen
“I feel so selfish.” I said it to two of my sisters outside of the assisted living home where my mother is spending her last few days of life. I was so glad to hear my oldest sister say, “Me too.”
I remembered back to when my younger brother Peter was saying a very long goodbye to his first wife. He had spent 20 years of his marriage going out on dates and such with a third wheel; cancer. They were never alone. She carried in her body an alien which reminded them constantly of the gift of life. Near the final days he said to me, “It seems like the world should be stopping.” Now I understand just a bit better what he meant. I want to pick up a New York accent and yell at all the busy people, “Hey! Stop! Can’t you see my motha is dyin’ over heeah?”
My older brother John lost his first wife years back and I remember his words at a family reunion. “Jerry, I am just so lonely.” The Bible says that because of the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ death has lost its sting (1Corinthians chapter 15). I get that, and yet that doesn’t mean it won’t hurt like a bugger. Those who hold faith in these verses and the work of Jesus will mourn, but not without hope.
So I say again, “I feel so selfish.”
There is a tree on my delivery route whose wound is slowly healing up. In the first few days of being a senior in high school, her car veered off the road and struck a tree not a quarter mile from her house. That was several years ago. The ribbons and teddy bears and flowers are long gone. Soon the bark will seal up with only a linear scar left. I see her father once in a great while with a package in hand. He looks all healed up too and yet…
“I feel so selfish.”
Within a year I watched two mothers care for their medically fragile boys. One was seven, the other younger still. The devotion of a mother is like no other on earth. Near the end of each of these short lives the mother’s exhaustion was evident. Their love was not exhausted though. Hearts were broken open and spilling all over the boys they loved.
Sixty two years ago, Marilee Barrett, daughter, sister, and wife added on another essence of womanhood…mother. She never looked back. Mothers usually don’t. Ten children later she hung her heart out on the line like cloth diapers. Again and again her love ruffled in the wind of time like white linen under cobalt skies. Then, yesterday all of her children, whether there in spirit or in time and space, gathered. We all stood, kneeled, and sat around her basinet beholding her as she beheld us. My older sister wrote an e-mail that describes it so well.
“About 3 p.m., Carol (my mother’s youngest child) was with Mom, and asked to hold Mom’s hand. Mom smiled and said yes, and they both agreed that it was comforting. Carol then told her that she would be going home (to S. Carolina) tomorrow, and Carol started crying. Mom then said to her “Then we should probably get this show on the road” – which led to more tears, and then Mom started praying. “Lord, take me” – several times. At that point, several of the sibs came into the room, and we gathered around her. It was a “God-blessed” awesome moment. Here are Barb, Rob, Pat, Mary, Margaret, Jerry, and Carol (seven of my mother’s ten children) all surrounding her with love, and tears, and she says “I’m just ready for it to be done. But I don’t know how!” And she was crying. Jerry read from John 14, and then prayed with everything in his heart to God to give her mercy, to give her comfort, to give us comfort, and to help her through this transition. John, Ellen, and Pete, (my mother’s other 3 children, who were unable to be there) we know that your hearts were there with us, but oh, how I wish you could have seen the power of love happening in that moment. Not just our love for her, and her love for us, but God’s love working all the way through that room. We shared memories then, and just little tidbits of our relationship with her, and there was some levity in our conversation. But most of all, I think God worked His peace into all our hearts – which we all hope that you feel as well.”
Just before that blessed time I had finished a poem. It was for my siblings that had been gestating in my heart over the past few weeks. I was going to read it to them at a family meeting last night (which I ended up doing). The words I had written were underlined around that bed before I uttered one of them. God hovered over all of us. Every kind of tear was shed. Bitter-sweet ones, joy filled ones, sad ones, happy ones, silly ones, and pear shaped ones of love were falling like rain. Even Jesus wept. I couldn’t help but think we were in a birthing room.