About Allison

I am a former full-time journalist who's making a change to hospital chaplaincy in January 2012. Join me in the journey, will you?

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.

 

 

 

Love makes people do funny things

I want to tell you about “Nick.” He’s one of my patients. He’s younger than 25 and he has a progressively debilitating neurological disorder that killed his mother when he was very young, and also his aunt.

Nick lives with his father, “Bruce,” in a neighborhood most of us wouldn’t want to visit after dark. Bruce has a very elaborate system of locks and bolts and cages on the door. He wears a gun on his right hip.

If you took away the tragedy of Nick’s impending death, you’d still have horrible poverty and Bruce’s own chronic health problems–and, yes, some of his own bad habits–and his fear that tonight may in fact be the night when someone breaks into the house and steals Nick’s main escape from his personal hell: a flat screen TV.

He loves sci-fi.

From time to time, Bruce tells me about various shootings nearby as if he were talking about the weather.

Nick cannot speak. Diagnosed as a teen, his speech eventually left him. But he communicates very well. His eyes tell you everything. They’re wide open, windows to the soul. He hears and understands perfectly.

If his eyes don’t tell you what you need to know, he answers with a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. The other day, the social worker told me that Nick communicated he’s afraid to “go to sleep.” So I went to see him. It was rich. We talked about fear and hope, and how God mysteriously is in both, helping us through. I tried to normalize his fears. I told him I get afraid, too.

Bruce told his son that he would one day get to see his mother and get to know her because he didn’t know her hardly at all, way back when.

At some point, Bruce said his son gets on his nerves. I laughed and said to Nick, “I bet he gets on your nerves too.” The thumb went up and he smiled.

Bruce loses a lot of sleep because he’s up in the night helping his son. Every time I visit, I think, “How much does this man have left?” It’s a life on the edge whose edge remains unknown.

Bruce gives so much, and struggles in ways I cannot imagine. He recently pawned the title to his vehicle so he can pay for his son’s funeral. We all tried to persuade him otherwise, but he did it.

Love makes people do funny things.

Bruce can’t imagine getting serious help for his own self, at least not now, because after all there’s Nick, three feet away from his twin bed, wasting away and communicating only with his thumbs and his eyes and his face.

Hobbies, other than stealing?

Last week, my friend Terri and I had our wallets stolen at work. Some guy (and we know it’s a guy) walked into each of our offices and helped himself to our wallets. Our offices are next to each other and are possibly more vulnerable than others because we’re closest to the entrance hall.

Now we have locks.

Within a week, the same man (the photos match) walked into a women’s clothing store a few miles from us and took a wallet of one of its employees.
My interest in this is beyond “interest.” My emotions have run the gamut.

Sadness. Anger. Gratitude that he didn’t enact even more damage. Terri and I have shared the security photo on Facebook, and we were tagged by people associated with the dress shop.

Terri and I also admit to driving around a nearby shopping area, scoping out “our thief.” It’s weird to think someone is walking around with parts of our identity. (Though more than likely the sentimental parts, the photographs, are already in the landfill.)

In the surveillance photos we’ve seen, the man is wearing a navy ball cap.

We remain in semi-regular touch with law enforcement, although we realize that wallet theft is low priority most days–as it should be.

After more than a week of reflection, I have come up with several thoughts, in no particular order:

1) I envision a conversation with him that would basically go like this: “You have done a really (terrible) thing to me, and to others; and I forgive you, or at least I’m working on it.”

2) Though I am not a thief like this man, in the obvious sense, I have been a thief in that I have stolen joy and happiness from other people. I have hurt and harmed. He and I are more similar than I care to admit. So I have a modicum of compassion for him.

3) As a Christian, I am called to forgive this person.

4) As a Christian, I believe in loving confrontation and truth-telling. Truth and reconciliation go hand-in-glove. Even though I can be clumsy in confrontation, I believe healthy confrontation allows me to go forward and find healing in relationships.

5) To clarify: I do not plan to become friends with this man, should we ever communicate.

6) Vengeance is not mine.

7) What kind of life does this man have? Does he have a family? A pet? Hobbies other than stealing?

8) I am grateful for social media that, in addition to the more traditional variety, connects us in ways I never imagined.

9) My place of work is very open and should remain so.

10) I believe Mr. Ball Cap will be caught. I should not be the one meting out the punishment.