Don’t save it — spend it

My patient had a plastic bucket in front of her to collect vomit, and behind her head was one-half of a Little Caeser’s pizza box, wedged into the window, for insulation.

Her brother, who’d moved into the trailer to help, cried over his sick sister because of her pain, and his. He apologized for his tears as he ran out of the room, embarrassed.

Their mother had died, and they were the only ones left.

When our patient dies, the man will be left alone. He works the night shift at a nearby Walmart. He has a few friends, but they’re really just acquaintances.

He is in the habit of telling his sister he loves her. He dispenses her meds. He tries hard to understand everything that’s going on, but this is difficult due to a learning disability.

When you love someone, say it. Spend it. Don’t hoard it. Lavish your affection.

Some friends recently returned from a trip to Cuba. On the trip, they met a fellow traveler whom they described as fully engaged and engaging — in their conversations, through her sharp mind, and in the brightness of her eyes, the window to the soul.

Upon leaving Cuba, the woman made an unexpected trip to a Miami hospital. She died not long after.

My friends, who had made a new friend, were quite shocked and sad. Yet in their brief time together, my friends obviously had made a connection with an open-hearted woman who loved generously.

One of the gifts of working with the dying and their families is encountering the cliche that life is short and, knowing that, what people do with that small window. Gratefully, many do what my patient’s brother does: they show up and speak their love in myriad ways.

They love and live well amidst the reality of encroaching death.

That in turn becomes a challenge for me, as I aim to spend and not save. Share and not hoard. Speak, rather than be silent. Amen.

“Life is short and we have too little time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. So, be swift to love and make haste to be kind.”

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Ghosts

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And the ghosts that we knew
Will flicker from view
And we’ll live a long, long life
~ Mumford & Sons, “The Ghosts That We Knew” (2012)

 
A day in May, 1999.

The intake nurse asked, “Why are you here?”

“Because I’m not perfect,” I said.

Backing up. Nine months into a new job back in my hometown, I became inexplicably withdrawn, and my heart beat a mile a minute, or so it seemed. I dropped about 20 pounds in a month, without trying.

I ate and drank, but everything went through. The worst part was the complete inability to sleep. Nothing worked. I found myself at a local ER several times. One time, my dad drove me in the middle of the night, as I tried to sleep at my parents’ house but to no avail.

The physician gave me a very strong drug in my hip. He also made a call to a local psych hospital but they wouldn’t take me because they didn’t accept my insurance.

I’d have cussed if I’d not been catatonic.

The drug in my hip had a horrible effect. I developed what felt like lockjaw. I couldn’t contain food in my mouth; it spilled out and so did water. I drove the four miles from my parents’ house to my apartment with my head tilted to one side, another effect. I couldn’t walk straight.

My parents had out-of-town guests visiting, and I was terribly embarrassed. My mom eventually took me back to the ER. I remember holding a towel to my mouth in the waiting room because of dripping saliva. They gave me Benadryl and it straightened out my horrible symptoms but not my severe depression.

Fear became my clothing.

By this time, I was well-connected with a church and its clergy. Through them, I found a local family practice physician who tried a couple of medications.

His bedside manner was, and is, unparalleled. I don’t remember anything he said, only the compassionate look he gave me. The first two drugs drove me even more into orbit. As you may know, it takes time for such drugs to get into your system, and I felt like time was running out.

Also by this time, I found a therapist who one day said to me, “You will get better.”

I wanted to believe him so badly. I kept water with me at all times because my mouth stayed dry from my anxious, racing heart.

As thoughts of suicide took hold, I called my therapist from a private area at work. I drove to his office. He asked if I was thinking of harming myself. I said yes, that I had the desire to hurl myself off a downtown bridge.

I couldn’t say then, or now, that I sought death but rather a great escape from the pain. My therapist walked me across the street to the hospital.

I was six months into my 30th year. Now I’m about 20 years removed.

My emotional nosedive into a deep abyss has been, without question, my single-most hell, as well as a singular gift. Nothing before or since compares to its lessons and impact.

The upside: most other crises, disappointments and challenges seem smaller. The downside: I’m hypersensitive to the symptoms of depression. I’m sometimes afraid the abyss will re-open.

Woven through my event and my life, however, is something even deeper than this hard thing: Far down in pit of my soul is the place where God resides. That is my Center.

Love is there.

In the locked ward of the drab hospital, my room contained only a bed and a nightstand, inner symbols of a stripped-down life that was perilously close to the end.

And yet, how freeing in its barrenness — symbols of a simple grace.

It was in this same locked ward where I found sleep again, other patients who could identify, and the slow journey back to myself.
The sleep itself was bliss.

Upon release, I began to notice leaves on trees. Laughter and humor and a sense of normalcy returned.

I read everything I could get my hands on. The writers Kay Redfield Jamison and William Styron and Andrew Solomon became like friends.

To this day, I stay on top of my depressive tendencies, just like someone measures sugar for diabetes, or another goes to AA. I’m grateful to have a wide and deep support system.

Why do I tell all this? Because if I can survive, you can too.

Whether you suffer similarly or if your life is so stable you are blinded by its light, I want you to know that pain and health come in all shapes and sizes and ages. And that even people who are bright and funny and highly educated may be undergoing things invisible to the eye.

We all don’t live under a bridge.

I want you to know that hope is a very stubborn and wonderful thing.
“You will get better.”

I don’t believe in suffering for suffering’s sake, but I do believe in its redemptive qualities. My experience helps connect me to others in ways that don’t have to be spoken. That is the gift of it. I have no patience for lines in grocery stores, oddly enough, but I have an abundance of forbearance with suffering.

I don’t know why I survived and others do not. It’s a great mystery. I don’t know that I was stronger, whatever that means. I have close friends with a parent who completed suicide. A young woman in our church took her life several years ago.

Thing is, we all have baggage. The question is, how do we make good use of it? How do we carry it?

 

In 2016, there were 44,965 recorded suicides in the U.S., up from 42,773 in 2014, according to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). On average, adjusted for age, the annual U.S. suicide rate increased 24% between 1999 and 2014, from 10.5 to 13.0 suicides per 100,000 people, the highest rate recorded in 28 years.

The national suicide prevention hotline: 1-800-273-8255

My grieving friend

I went to see my friend today, all 100 lbs of her, hunched over, hair white (“‘my hair’s gotten all white,” she said, apologetically, but that’s been true since I’ve known her.)
My friend’s son died over the weekend.
My friend became a friend through my mother. They’re two peas in a pod: independent, free-spirited, unconventional, smart.
She showed me around her apartment. Paintings and drawings her son had done through the years. Old photographs. Vintage furniture on display, such as her dad’s baby chair.
Her walker is slow, which is to say she is slow. She had a hardback book of poetry resting on one of the bars like a rag doll. She recited lines from it. Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was one.
My friend’s life centered around her son. She’s unsure how to go on, but she believes she has to try.
Her residence has had a recent touch-up, with fresh wallpaper and art prints. Nature scenes.
When it comes time to say goodbye, we hug.
Her bones stick out from her back.

Miss Ruby Came Home!

Columbus is the country’s biggest small town.
You might say that about your town too. (Even large cities have pockets that feel small, where “everybody knows your name,” to cite the “Cheers” song.)
This big small town helped me out once more.
For nine days, my bicycle was missing. Her name is Miss Ruby. I bought her in 2013 for about $1,500, after having a bike stolen in 2011 and another in 2013. Yes, it’s an expensive habit.
Miss Ruby either fell off my bike rack on the evening March 2, or she was taken from it. I’ll never know. That night I cried to my husband, “She’s cold and she’s in a crack house!”
I don’t know that, of course. I do know that someone got her and by the next day tried to sell her at Arnold’s Bike Shop on Hilton Avenue, and at the original location on Warm Springs Road. With no luck, the man took her to a pawn shop on Manchester Expressway. No sale.
That same morning, I filed a police report. I also alerted Ride On Bikes, from which I bought Miss Ruby in 2013. The manager Jason McKenzie began spreading the word. He also loaned me a bike to use.
Word spread to the other bike shops. While I was out seeing patients, I got a call from Jason that Miss Ruby had been sighted around Hilton Avenue and Manchester Expressway. I went on a little chase. I visited several other pawn shops. A woman told me they get reports every Monday about stolen bikes, so I thought I’d know something in a few days.
Meanwhile, Jeff Gordy at Arnold’s had the man’s number from his caller ID. He shared it with the police.
An officer assigned to the case called me several times through the week with updates. I’m grateful for him.
But little did I know that the man who took Miss Ruby posted her on a website the morning of March 3. Another local man bought her for $450. On March 9, the second person put her up for sale on Craigslist for $650. I’d checked Craigslist a few times since March 2 but gave up after awhile. However, through the beauty of social media, a college friend out in Washington spotted the Craigslist posting. (Thanks, Amanda!) I immediately sent an email to the seller and he wrote right back. By March 10, we arranged a time to meet on March 11. I called the police.It should be noted here that Jeff Gordy from Arnold’s has a background in law enforcement. In addition to being passionate about cycling, he is passionate about fighting crime. I talked to him the morning of March 11, as he had contacted the Columbus Police Department. I also talked to a CPD sergeant who explained how it would unfold. Instead of having to face the man alone, followed by the police, some undercover law enforcement met with the man. One woman pretended to be me. My husband Michael and I watched the scene from the parking lot in a shopping center. It was surreal to see Miss Ruby being checked over. At one point, the women got back in their car and drove away. I went a little ballistic. But the seller stayed in his car. We later figured they went to get some cash. Soon after, a police car pulled up. Lights flashed and the whole bit. There were about three officers, plus the sergeant I’d been talking to. The guy who bought Miss Ruby didn’t fit the description of the first guy so that was a little confusing. The sergeant called me. He told me that this man’s story seemed to line up– that he often buys things online and turns around to make a profit on another website. They were letting him go. That was fine with me. My main focus was always getting my bike back.

Eventually Michael and I got out and talked to the sergeant. As it turns out, he, too, is a bike rider. Really nice guy. He helped us load up to get Miss Ruby home. We thanked him profusely. Of course, I immediately took her out for a spin. It’s raining today. But yesterday’s weather was glorious. Everything is starting to bloom.

Y’all. Clearly our town is big enough to have murderers and rapists. It’s not Mayberry. I know that a stolen bicycle is low on the police priority list. I know that. The police know that. But several things worked in my favor: law enforcement who clearly care; family and friends who were looking out for me; and good old-fashioned communication. Small towns are underrated.

Ride on

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“Stay healthy,” she said.
Stay healthy.
The Rev. Sherron Hughes-Tremper, one of the supervisors in my chaplaincy training program, said this as our semester came to a close. It stuck with me. In other words, in this hard work you do, learn how to take care of yourself in the midst of it.
Sadly, Sherron died a few years later of cancer. But I do know she took care of herself, was gentle with herself, even as cancer ravaged her body.
I cycle. I do other things to take care of myself, but cycling ranks in the top five. Fortunately I can ride outdoors about nine months of the year here, so the gym has to suffice for the other three.
Here’s what riding helps me do: give thanks; clarify troubling situations; discern what to keep and what to let go of; gives me time to mediate and pray about the day and the people I encountered in it; release endorphins. And the scenery always offers something new: a deer in the distant woods, the change of seasons; horses on a farm; and always the two places on the trail where the trees on either side bend toward each other in an arc, as in a kiss.
Plus, the meditative turn of the pedals and chain offers a rhythm that soothes, like a good poem or a song.
Every day, I encounter patients who cannot enjoy this gift. Many have lost even more-basic functions like speaking or walking or talking. And hardly a day goes by when I don’t think of the time in my own life when I was closer to death than life, when the light had gone out and I groped my way through the dark. When health returned, by God’s grace, I got back on my bike, and made other adjustments. My rhythm changed. Things that were once important fell away. Relationships came into focus. As my hospice patients and families know all too well, facing one’s own mortality offers great clarity.
“Stay healthy,” she said.
Stay healthy.
Yes.

Grieving a change in seasons

It started simply enough. Nearly a decade ago, I called up a friend who lives in the north Georgia mountains. “Want to take a hike?” I love to hike, she loves to hike, and off we went.

From them on, once or twice a year, Dora got a phone call. “It’s time.” Michael and I called it “running away from home.”

Here are the routes I remember, all along the famed Appalachian Trail: the Approach Trail to Springer Mountain, the AT’s southern terminus; Neel’s Gap up and over Blood Mountain, and back; Cooper Gap to Woody Gap; Woody to Neel’s; and Neel’s to Tesnatee Gap.

Our “season” is coming to an end, as she’s taking a new job and moving. Of course I’m happy for her, but sad that our hiking reunions will change. (Or maybe we’ll explore new territory.)

Our hikes took us the better part of a day. We’d each bring a day pack with water, sandwich and crackers or chips, and usually Dora brought homemade cookies. Lunch was around the halfway point. On the walk, we talked about everything, and nothing.

We huffed and puffed on the inclines and relished in the down. In our eight or so years, we saw horses along trail roads; turkeys; hawks; wildflowers; and in the spring, evidence of snow.

Thankfully we never had an injury. But one year, after shuttling one car to our ending point, and hiking most of the day, I discovered I’d left my keys back in her car. Oops. After awhile, I remembered that some friends of my parents lived in the area. The husband of the couple came to our rescue.

On our most recent hiking attempt, we didn’t hike, due to inclement weather. Instead, we ate a meal and laughed that we got to face each other rather than talking to one or the other’s back. Then we watched some cyclists loop the wet streets, on their way to the hills that we had to miss.

Another time, my friend.

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Of chicken scratch on paper sacks

It was just a glance. A snapshot of two men talking, across from each other in the booth in the store whose right door frame could use a little grease. The newspaper was in front of them. Last night’s debate was the headline, and also led their conversation.

I just happened to breeze through, grabbing a drink.

But then, I thought of the snapshot all day, and of the ways we gather. Right now we’re gathering around words and pictures on a screen. More than 40 years ago, I watched my grandfather and his friends gather around an old stove in the back of his country store about 45 minutes from here. Being young and female, I must have noticed two things because I never ventured into the sacred circle: They were old, and they were men. They had the wisdom.

As one man talked, Granddaddy held a small brown paper grocery sack, tallying up sales. Or what people would owe him come payday. Chicken scratch, we call it. He sharpened his pencils with a knife. He kept records and receipts in his own way. He and my grandmother and their children never went hungry because he had the store; and I know he kept many a neighbor fed, too.

If only history and walls could talk. Their gathering was a regular occurrence. What did those men talk about? As important as the land was to them, it likely included talk of weather. Did the men in the store today come to any profound conclusions? My guess is no; and the subject of the conversation doesn’t really matter. (I asked my husband what he thought the old men talked about, and he said, “Old women.”)

What matters, I think, is that we gather. And keep gathering. And inviting others in, even if one of us has to take time out to write chicken scratch on a paper sack.