Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Requiem Of Sorts


Hauling the boxes of her history out to the garage, I pause long enough to drop the heavy load on the concrete floor.  I listened to the resounding “whump” and then headed back in for the next load.  Every little nook and cranny of her life is now exposed in a trail of artifacts that produce an illustrated map of the entire history of her mind.  Piles of used postage stamps stuffed into the drawers of a hundred-year-old sewing machine along with notes and letters, piles of sewing fabric, photos of family, all nestle in one box like so many days of so many calendars all randomly jumbled into one box of life.  To me it’s a confused refection of a once orderly plan. 

Its difficult for my wife as it’s her history that is being parted out as well.  Something as simple as a dishtowel now has the power to evoke tears; a yellowed and once precious Kodachrome slide that somehow escaped the photo box now lies on the basement floor with its reversed image carrying neither meaning nor value.  It’s as lonely on the floor as my heart is for it. I continue to haul the bits and pieces with the best emotional detachment that I can muster, consoling myself with the thought that “its not about the stuff”.  To her it never was about the stuff anyway, for us now the painful fingerprint we see is in the remembrances of how she regarded that stuff; every item was a gift from a loving God. 

I always laughed when I saw college kids loading sofas into and onto cars that were far too small to hold the package.  “Dead people furniture” is what I called it.  Sofas with massive flower patterns, rocker-recliners that were finished in russet colored velour and pecan hued woods, end tables that had a scale and gloss level that proudly screamed the year 1974.  There were TV trays for a generation that gave up the radio for a new event, one that did not require your imagination like the radio did but still demanded your presence.  Now I was adding to that array for others to choose from, now I realized that my humor did disservice to the fingerprints that those items carried.  I resolved to show a little more respect as I packed the items into my truck, offering these now dead items one last moment of meaningful and beautiful glory before they passed quickly on in anonymity. 

Through the junk drawer of her life I found little tape measures that had rumbled around in her pockets, handy for measuring the length of a hem or the with of a curtain.  I found countless scissors that I’d never managed to sharpen for her.  Flashlights with dead batteries, huge hammers and little nails, note pads and pens that had long since lost their ability to either produce ink or carry legible message.  The scrap paper notes strewn through the cavity represented the better part of ten years time in which the mind’s ability to recall lessened and the hand’s ability to hide that fact increasingly failed.  It held notes that grew more visually distressed with increasingly desperate lines that underscored indecipherable codes. It was her memory’s last cry for help, only to be lost in a drawer that would be soon dropped with a “whump” on the garage floor.

We’ve nearly finished clearing this evidence of a lifetime.  Some of it has come home with us, granted a reprieve for a season until that time comes when I start penning desperate notes in my mind’s last lonely cry for help.  Then my children will come and see the fingerprint of my mind throughout this house, starting the cycle once again.  In the garage they’ll find odd bits of wood, tools, wrappings and moldings that carry no meaning to them.  In the house they’ll find countless things stuffed into odd corners, books and pictures kept that bear no relevance, they’ll hear sounds that frustrate them never realizing that they once gave comfort to me. They’ll find splatters of paint and other markings of time like the rust on a paint can from a color painted three colors ago, evidence of love once administered.  They’ll find an illustrated map of Sherry and my mind, never fully understanding that the beauty of what we’ve left for them to box and distribute is fact, our requiem.  The very act of clearing this debris is not just a task; it’s become a gentle way for them to let go of us as we are letting go of her, body and soul, one meaningful bit at a time.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Jerks


Three times now I’ve developed coping mechanisms to deal with all this, and three times I’ve allowed myself to be swallowed up in them.  The first one could have easily cost me my marriage, the second one; all self-respect.  The third one nearly cost me my job and with it my mind.

What starts out as a justifiable way to deal with things that can’t be made sense of, quickly turns into a world view that commands your reason and twists your perspective.  In each instance, I find myself in places and situations that in a moment of lucidity are shocking even to myself.  “How did it come to this”? I ask myself.  Each time I wander the Good Shepherd gently nudges me back into the fold.  Other times He lets me run into the fence, still other times, He waits till the wolves have their teeth in my flesh before he picks me up, saving me from certain destruction.  I guess it’s true; He wants us to live life abundantly, why else would I be, in each instance of failure – restored to a level that I could never have imagined?

Through all of this, my wife has patiently endured. 

Steinbeck described a man’s life in his novel The Grapes of Wrath as a series of “jerks”.  He said that:

“A baby’s born, a man dies, and that’s a jerk.  He gets a farm and looses his farm, and that’s a jerk. For a woman, its all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on.” 

For my wife, this appears to be a truth although it makes it no easier for her, just different.  Perhaps that’s why I can count three and to her, it’s all just one.  Those jerks are the little epiphanies that I experience each time my coping mechanism takes control of my life, silently and predictably turning me into a jerk.

As a man, my natural ability to be a jerk has many thousands of years underpinning it.  Adam had a sweet wife and the first time he felt the heat from a bad decision; his first action was to throw her under the bus.  “Jerk”.  King David had the world at his fingertips; even had God bragging about what a great guy he was yet he had this coping mechanism that he developed which eventually moved him not only into the category of voyeur, but adulterer and later that of murderer.  “Jerk”.  More recently a rather famous couple that seemed to be the very embodiment of balance and harmony in this life had their world rocked by the admission of an affair on his part.  This poor woman was not only a marvelous mother, she’d once been crowned “Miss America”!  Jerk. 

The redeeming thought in all this is that in each instance, forgiveness was offered.  The victim proved to be greater than the transgressor; my case is no less different.  But as a “jerk”, it’s not easy!  I can accept the forgiveness and correct the deluded thinking that clouded my judgment but the problem that I needed to cope with is still there.  The elephant is still in the room breathing heavily, swaying to and fro.  Occasionally it busts out a window; frequently it stays awake through the night with fits of screaming, maniacal laughter, punched faces, and dirty shredded diapers.  

Now if I can only defy myself and learn to cope with the elephant in the same manner as a river copes with rocks; my life of and as a series of jerks will be vastly improved.  

Monday, November 5, 2012

"Normal People Don't Kiss Frozen Tater-Tots"


“Normal people don’t kiss frozen tater-tots,” I said to her in an even, matter-of-fact tone.   Her only response was to purse her lips, bend over and kiss the tray of evenly spaced potatoes yet again. 

This sort of delightfully rational moment is always balanced by some sort of irrationally bizarre moment that proves to be equally extreme.  I thought of the concern I held for the impression of mental stability that kissing frozen potatoes offered as I attempted to tip her stiff, 135-pound frame and horizontally insert her into the cab of the truck.  The text message from our helper was simple enough; “B had a seizure and can’t walk the rest of the way home – she’s too heavy for me to carry, help!”  I got in my truck and headed down the street looking for them.  When I found them, they’d been standing there for at least 10 minutes looking for all the world like two lawn statues embraced as one in a hug, affixed to the middle of the sidewalk. 

I parked the truck in a nearby driveway and walked over to them unsure if I’d have to drag her the rest of the way or if my voice alone would get her to move.  I lamented the thought of not having a two-wheeled cart that I could simply load her onto like a large tank of welding gas.  Fortunately, she stiffly moved in my direction when I called her name and rather than let her hug me, I held her at arms length and sashayed the rest of the way to the truck.  She blindly stumbled along.

I hoisted her up and got her started, feet-first into the pick up truck.  From there I shoved till her rump cleared the bench seat and then like a rolled oriental carpet, I gave the remaining torso a good shove till she was upright in the middle of the cab.  For this she gave me a toothy grin. Her eyes, rolled deep into the back of her head gave no indication of moving – like a toy doll with the eyes that open when you turn them upright; this doll was clearly broken.

When this sort of event happens, whatever you thought you were going to do goes immediately on an indefinite hold.  For the next three hours you’ll find yourself on one side or the other, holding the left or the right fist in an attempt to keep her from punching herself in the eye.  When she connects with her nose and the blood flows, you find yourself thankful that she didn’t hit the eye.  When she hits her head, you’re glad she missed what she was aiming for.  When after an hour or so, she begins to lessen the swinging of fists and you start to watch for the “sneaky finger”.  This is where you think she’s rubbing her eye but in reality, she’s trying to run her index finger in beneath the eyeball. 

On this particular afternoon, Sherry and I thought we were going to go for a nice drive and run a few errands.  Instead, we found ourselves resigned to the world of “un-normal”.  As a primer for the unfamiliar: Un-normal people kiss frozen tater-tots.  Un-normal people try to poke out their eyes. 

Sherry and I have found that our only indicator of what “normal” is comes when something infuriates us.  Those are things like: “you two should go away for a weekend and relax” (clearly a normal activity), or “have you seen any good movies lately” (again, a normal and rational event).  My favorite was on the Christian radio station in which the expert outlined “the best way for your marriage to fail is to live separate lives in which you do little or nothing together” (makes good, normal sense).  I guess that sitting on the sofa with your spouse for hours on end, trying to keep your daughter from blinding herself constitutes a marriage keeper in the un-normal world because that’s about all we do together.

Its not that we don’t want to do those other “normal” things, its just that we can’t!  The text for help comes when you’re out for a drive to forget.  The "evening away" is hedged by the realization that you need to be home before 9pm and the horror of both is that if you do go away and manage to relax; you’ll pay hell for it when you get home!  The all-nighters, late nighters, evening seizures; were they to happen once-in-a-while, I think we could cope.  The problem is that they happen nearly every night.

All of this frustration causes us to find a bizarre humor in all the occurrences that Bethany presents. In our chiding her for kissing frozen foods, in the way we laugh when we tell the story about “loading her horizontally into the truck”, or even recounting the story about her blind right hook missing her eye and bloodying her nose.  I never know if our laughter is an emotional shield, a pathetic cry for help, or some gift that allows us to see a divine beauty in human tragedy.  I never know if the blind stare I offer people when they explain the rough night they had because the cat kept shifting on the bed, is a tell that I managed to hold back my suggestion for dumping the cat and getting a good night’s sleep? 

I can only assume that the things I’m failing at today as a result of all this, is fodder for tomorrow’s triumph.  I’m certain that in tomorrow’s triumph, kissing frozen tater-tots will have a perfectly logical explanation.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The "Off" Side of the Lightswitch


Watching the condensation slip down the side of the martini glass was enough to make me laugh.  Either I’d been staring too long it or had finally managed to clear enough of the vodka out of the fluted glass that I could find something as simple as sweat humorous.  “It must be latter rather than the former” I said out loud to myself in an empty room.  The tell was that I found the glass to not only be humorous but to be slightly erotic in shape as well.  Clearly, the vodka had hit the mark.

The helpers had decided to take Bethany out for a ride now that her tantrum was over.  Roll her while she’s happy”, is the motto around here.  Just minutes before she was a furious and confusing mass of anger.  Now she was laughing and carrying on in a delightful manner.  Delightful if you’re a prizefighter anyway.  They found her socks and shoes, stuffed them on her rather square, stubby feet and headed out the door.

I sat in the silence for a moment, soaking up the freedom that I find by something as simple as her leaving a room.  She can suffocate you with her presence at times, and this was one of those times.  As they left, her happy giggle reminded of the words the psychiatrist had left my wife with that afternoon; her laugh and nightly antics were indeed and officially “manic”.  Like, that was a big relief to me? 

Nearly every night for the last two months she’s been up till one, two, or three in the morning; crashing around her room like a rock star; screaming, laughing, punching out windows.  In her mind, nothing brings more delight that crapping in her diaper and then body slamming the door till someone comes for assistance.

There, on the floor with her 16-year-old feet on my head and her hind end way up in the air while my hands clean the unpleasantness, she laughs.  Flat on her back, the punch line to this joke comes to life:  “I crap, you clean, I keep my feet up by putting them on your head.”  Funny, right?

She laughs, and as I clean her up I find my anger softening.  Her laugh is so infectious that I can’t help but laugh at myself for thinking of the sight that this must offer.  With all that nightly challenge, the doctor’s official words, declaring her actions as “maniacal laughter” seems as unsatisfying as the words “The End” when movie is obviously done.  Her laugh makes her belly jiggle and makes it nearly impossible to affix evenly the tape straps that secure the new diaper.  Even after all these years, I still try to put the diaper on evenly with the straps positioned as if she were wearing a gravity suit.  It is in fact, the only semblance of dignity that remains in this whole process.

As I sit there alone, thinking about all this and laughing at a sweating and empty glass; I wonder if I’ve in fact lost it.  Has she succeeded in sucking me into her world of manic and then depressive behavior?  Both Sherry and I now follow the same emotional paths; we like Bethany go from joyful laughter to deep sorrow with the transitioning happening like the flicking of a switch.  On, off.  On, off…

While she’s gone, I amble off to mix another glass, this time making sure to add extra ice.  More ice means more sweat to laugh at, and since it’ll likely be another long night of the “off” side of the switch, I figure a bit of my own maniacal laughter supporting the "On" side of the light switch is just what the doctor would order.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Coffee With A Friend


“The problem”, He said as he leaned over the table and looked deep into my eyes, “is that you let your reasoning and your own ideas keep getting in the way of my plans”.  This was a bit of a shock to me as I fancied myself a pretty fair and reasonable man.
“Don’t spoil my plans by wanting to impose your ideas”.  With that, He leaned back in his seat and waited form me to respond.

For a while, I sat there and listened to the chatter of the coffee shop; smelled the deep aromas of cold coffee and burned toast.  I let myself turn his words over in my head and wondered if I’d end up smelling like burned crow as well as the burned toast that was at this very moment permeating my clothing.  I looked at Him and started to say something in my defense but I realized He was not only way ahead of me in the discussion, He was way right.

His stare remained fixed and without a movement of his body he continued with one last indictment; “I need my hands free to act David, don’t tie them with your worthless worries”.  With that, He stood to leave.  I noticed that He didn’t offer to pay for the coffee but I wasn’t about to throw that log into the discussion, I’d had enough.  What stared as a discussion over coffee about how rough I’d been on Bethany the night before turned into a backhand of “I told you so’s” that sucked the joy out of good coffee; good coffee that I now had to pay for as well. 

We’d been laughing about the fluky nature of my old car, how as soon as I fix the lights something else would break.  We laughed to the point of Him nearly wetting himself at the irony of the tag line that the brand of electrical componentry my seemingly possessed car used: “The Prince of Darkness”.  Half the time (usually at night) those lights didn’t work because of the wiring; Prince of Darkness carried such a rich double-entendre that I couldn’t help but share it with Him.  There’s nothing like a dear friend with a sense of humor.  That sense of humor that I’d hoped would support my case with Bethany now seemed to disappear into a cloud of His indignant self-righteousness.  I thought about dismissing the advice and the admonishment but I knew better.

In Bethany’s zeal to get a rise out of me, she’d managed to bust open the bedroom window again, this time making sure that she hauled as much soil from the flowerboxes into the house as possible before I got to the top of the stairs.  Once she heard me coming she squealed with delight and ripped faster into the potting soil.  By the time I got to the door, she’d shifted from ripping soil to ripping diaper and had also shifted from a squeal of delight to more of a deep cackle like I’m certain the Prince of Darkness uses every time my electrical fails.  With the window broken open the cold night air mixed quickly with scent of potting soil, gnarled leafy vines and the unmistakable and pungent odor of filthy, ripped diaper.  Her face told me that this was more of a taunt than an obsessive need; a tell which set me off more than had I been mugged in the park. 

The thing that got me wasn’t found in the explanation of all this, in fact we both laughed at the visual that it produced and I’ll be the first to admit, the look on her face, the mess I saw, the seer lunacy of it all made for a great story.  We both laughed at the telling of it and I must have had great power in the telling because He was so tied into the story, hanging on each turn of phrase, each conveyed emotion; we’d been so close for so long I think He knew exactly what was coming.  No, none of that fettered me; what really got me was the way He reacted at my tired dismay in the continuous predictability of her behavior.  I thought for sure He’d offer some sort of solace, a timeframe perhaps, an explanation or some sort of justification maybe?  Nothing.  I got nothing.  A blank stare across the table in a noisy coffee shop was all I was afforded, that and a bill for two black coffees.

“I’m the victim here” was the defense that I’d planned on tossing back in His face when He first leaned towards me with His advice.  Now that He was gone, I was glad I’d not tabled it; clearly He was in no mood to accommodate me and myself, bigger things were afoot and it was clear from His admonition that I was more of a problem standing in the way of His solution than anything else.

It took me the time of those two coffees to mull his words over in my head.  I had to relive each thing I’d said, each movement offered, each angry moment right there in the cafĂ©’ before it would make any sense to me.  He was gone but His words still hung in the thick, smoky air… accurate; his advice was just.  Not only did I offended Bethany with my impatience but I’d harmed my wife – the sharp edges of my words now carried the blood of two people; the collateral damage of my imposed ideas. 

I got up to leave having reluctantly paid for the two coffees that I got billed for, and as I put the single empty coffee cup into the dishpan on my way out the door I realized what His intent was with the issue of Bethany; It was clear that I needed to simply lose myself confidently in Him, to rest on what He knows and to leave in His thoughts, my future.

Monday, October 8, 2012

I Swim to Forget, She Swims to Remember


While swimming laps today, I could hear her murmuring from the other pool.  I have no idea who she is and I can’t understand a word she says; one thing for sure, she certainly says them.  I’d seen her many times before and I secretly admired her confidence.

She carefully walked down the stairs into the adjoining therapy pool as I sat there adjusting my goggles and futzing around with my earplugs; this the first time I’d seen her on land, was a sight to behold.  She was in fact quite tall and had a girth about her that reminded me of the old syrup bottles of Aunt Jemima; a woman with a presence and confidence that said more visually than she’d ever have to say verbally.  She was wearing a full-length swimsuit that vaguely reminded me of the survival suits that that are commonly used on commercial fishing vessels; vibrant orange from neck to toe.  Over that suit she was festooned with noodle-like flotation antennae.  A bristling band around her waist and a complementing set around each arm let you know that even though she likely couldn’t swim, there was no way she was going to drown.  On her head she wore a white cloth swim cap that seemed more piled on than pulled on and her tall forehead made a marvelous contrast against that white with the beautiful dark color of her skin.

She dropped down into the water like a Baptist into a water trough and almost immediately began talking to herself as she waded out into the swim lane.  I was glad I’d seen this, It gave me something to think about as I swam, flip-turned at the end, swam and flip-turned at the other end only to be repeated 71 more times.  One, two, three, breathe.  One, two, three, breathe….flip.

It took me 40 minutes to finish my flips and my "one, two, threes"; happily water-logged and tired at the end, I allow myself to stand at the end of the lane and enjoy the cool water; that’s when I heard her murmuring.  At first I only heard the word “Lord”.  I’d heard her many times before and had assumed that as she waddle-bobbed, back and forth across the 25 meter length, she was simply talking herself along not unlike my “one, two, three, breathe…”  I turned towards her and rested my arms on the pool ledge and listened more closely as she passed by on her way to the other end.  “Lord, I wanna’ praise you.  Lord, I wanna’ thank you.  Lord, I wanna’ exalt you. Lord, I wanna’ lift you up…”  On every other upward bob, she stressed the verb with which she celebrated her Lord.

Suddenly it dawned on me that what I was hearing was the most beautiful example of praise I’d seen in quite some time.  Here was this woman, bobbing her way across the pool festooned in a bizarre assortment of white noodles, getting exercise for both her body and her soul.  I waited till she came by again and I watched with every fiber of my Dutch Reformed underpinning screaming in glorious confusion.  Her face was upward, her voice clear and strong and her workout was clearly more restorative than exhaustive.  I was immediately aware of how wrong I’d been. 

I crawled up onto the deck and headed to where my towel waited.  As I passed her I was looking at her while trying to give an approving smile; she looked up at me and not missing a praise beat, gave me a smile and kept on going.  In my mind we connected on a common spiritual thread but in reality, she likely was thinking how tall I was and the girth I carried; how odd I appeared all white, wet, and clad in a Speedo.  She probably thought how strange I looked, festooned in swim flippers and goggles.  The real tragedy is that I gave her no testament in my words or actions of how much I wish to please my Savior. 

The only difference between us on this day was found in the realization that while I swim to forget, she swims to remember.  I go home pleasantly exhausted; she goes home rejuvenated from within.  I swim for me; she swims for Him.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

An Apprentice and His Master


“A box, inside of a box which is inside yet another box”, he explained to me with a dispassionate stare.  He made no broad gestures with his arms, no sweeping movement of his head, not even a raised eyebrow came with his discussion.  He wasn’t about to whip himself into a Pentecostal fury nor was he going to deliver his case with the conviction of a Southern Baptist preacher.  He simply stated the undeniable truth about his organization’s place within the overall structure.  He was both powerless and unwilling to change “the natural order of things”, and while he knew he was important he also knew he not essential.

These last few months have had me thinking about his cold commentary, his “box-in-a box” metaphor and his admission of importance minus the component of essentiality.  Sherry and I have no doubt of our importance in Bethany’s life nor do we question the importance of hers in ours.  What we wonder about is the “essential” part of the equation; Her life seems to far outpace ours in essential impact.  Bethany is the small spark that seems to generate huge fires in the world around her.  Sometimes, she proves a lightning bolt, other times she’s more a result of instantaneous combustion and in both cases the downstream fire is both catastrophic and essential.  She manages to burn out all of the “dead wood” in the lives of those she comes into contact with.

She no doubt had an impact on the old lady that she’d slammed up against the glass wall in the mall.  She surely had an affect on the cop who thought I was kidnapping her during a meltdown on a public sidewalk one day (he even got out of the car to see what was going on)!  She’s had an amazing impact on the hospital staff where we do our all too routine “exams under anesthesia”.  They keep her picture hanging on the wall in the nurse’s station and I assume its because they somehow love her beyond casual explanation?  It could be because we’ve impacted the way they administer anesthesia to combative patients or it could be simply because her particular cluster of ailments have allowed us the distinction of being “silver patrons” for the finance arm of the hospital.  Whatever the reason, they’ve felt the warmth of her little glow.

She’s the essential component in all these interactions; we simply play a supporting, yet important role.  She carries no pride in that lead role, doesn’t ask for special treatment, requires nothing from us beyond simply finding, feeding, and fixing things that have gone awry in her world.  Her particular “box” is one that defies logical placement within the other stacks of boxes.  She’s the Matryoshka doll that happens to have so much decorative fuzz that it defies being “nested” like the balance of nesting dolls do.  She’s the box that doesn’t easily fit within all the other boxes.  This is her gift to us, her testament to a far more grand design in which wisdom is foolishness and foolishness is wisdom.

Her positive through negative influence was felt when she pushed a small child backwards and down onto his rump.  The parent stood screaming at me on a city street about God only knows what.  All I recall is his face in mine, the color of red, a good deal of screaming and much frantic arm waving as if I’d intentionally had Bethany strike out at his child.  It came so fast that it was done before I realized it was happening; the star in the drama was acting “in the moment” and I was left to deal with the consequences.  I’ve learned it best to simply look away, gather up Bethany and move on – I’ve tried explanation; I’ve tried “sorry’s”, I’ve even tried simply smiling and moving on only to find that none of these approaches assuage the anger of the parent.  The kids are usually fine given that they’re clad in 12 layers of clothing and diapers; my only interest was to get Bethany away from his screams.  No one deserves to hear those words, even if as words they carry no understandable meaning. 

So, where does the positive come from then?  It came through the old couple standing 20’ behind all this, quietly watching the whole scene unfold.  It came with her gentle admonition, offered as I scurried to get away from the upset parent.  “I can see what happened”, she said as she looked at Bethany with a deep and immediate understanding.  “That little boy was fine and that man had no right to say what he did”.  Then she went on to look me in the eye and say “God bless you and this child”.  Five seconds of conversation.  In less than 15 total seconds, Bethany had somehow managed to both change and affirm three lifetimes worth of experience. 185 years of combined learning, all touched and rekindled by the spark of Bethany.

Her touch in the lives of people is essential and the beauty of it is, you’ll never know why – you just know it is. Technically, she’s a “burden on society”.  She produces no tangible goods, produces no economic impetus (other than for the hospital), hence she’s what’s known Biblically as “the least of these” in our society.  She’s a challenge for those who work with her, an anomaly for those who medically define her, and a royal pain-in-the-ass for school administrators.  She defies a clear categorization and is a career-wrecker for those who feel gifted and directed to move into areas of social work, education, and therapy.  She destroys their hopes because she defies all the expectations we’ve devised to sort out “right and wrong, up and down, fair and unfair”.  She burns our best developed plans with induction-furnace force, leaving a clean split of molten matter on the bottom and the slag of confused dreams and plans floating in a useless mass on the top.  She refines us, and we hate her for it.   Yet she still smiles, taps her teeth with a plastic toy in her right hand while reaching over for a good, hard pinch of someone’s boobs with her left.  Bethany was essential in life – we, merely the enablers. 

As enablers though, we have the experience of being important not unlike renaissance art apprentices, working under the master.  The apprentices were given the opportunity to see the intricacies of how the master worked.  The master didn’t explain anything, they just “did”.  The apprentices learned by watching, by trying, by failing.  As apprentices, Sherry and I fail frequently.  We’ve been watching for the better part of 15 years, as did apprentices.  They watched the master, how [he] lived, how he thought, how he dealt with anger, confusion, joy.  They watched how he landed new business; they saw how he was regarded, whom he loved and whom he despised.  They watched and learned a language that has a value greater than gold.  We too keep watching and keep trying and in some ways, I think we’re on the verge of becoming masters, like Bethany is.  We’re tired, nearly broken but now have the eyes of a master and if we can hang on a bit longer I believe that the master will release us – move us from important to essential in the lives of those around us.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Suffocating Weight of a Starry Night


Stepping out onto the side porch, I can’t help but notice the billions of clearly defined stars in the midnight sky; so rich and vast they are that the visual weight of it nearly suffocates me.  The clouds cleared out and it looks like it may frost after all, this causes my heart to sink a little as I didn’t take time to cover the flowers.  An early season frost will clip my hopes of a beautiful fall array and while I’ll miss that glorious requiem, I find that deep in my heart, I little care.  I have no time to feel sorry for flowers; I’ve bigger things at hand and all those stars served to do was to remind me of how little in control I really am. Perhaps that’s what really was suffocating me.

It wasn’t until I noticed the breath vapor beginning to fog my view that I decided not to walk out into the yard for a broader view; between the cold of the night and the sudden realization that I’m in only my underwear - I simply dump the diapers into the pail and head back indoors.  I no longer care about the flowers, the frost, nor the magnitude of the view I just witnessed; I’m more troubled by another night of inexplicable manic behavior. 

It has the makings of yet another all-nighter and again we’re both at the breaking point.  This time our anger is more unguarded more focused and dangerously aimed at each other.  What started at 10 pm as a typical hollering up the stairs to “be quiet” has become a fearful melee of cuss words, threats and moments where I fear a dark deed of aggression is happening.  The taunts from Bethany are a little to direct, our responses are a little too violent for comfort, the fear of “crossing some bizarre line” flashes into my conscience.  Listening to it all on the downstairs monitor makes me feel a little like a radio listener to the original 1930’s, H.G. Wells’ presentation of “War of the Worlds”.  It’s too real, too convincing and for a moment, I forget that it’s not a radio show; it’s really happening.

She laughed the fist time I yelled up the stairs at her; you’d think it a long-standing joke between us.  The words of my grandmother floated through my head just then, Frances, being the mother of 10 farm-raised kids knew trouble and had the ability to call it out with accurate terms.  Bethany was being in her vernacular, a “little shit-ass”.  Now, a few hours later, the warm humor of that phrase has evaporated like the frosty breath before me did outdoors.  The radio show on the monitor has me numb with fear, “is it real”?

I barely recognize my wife’s voice on the monitor and its clear to me that she’s suffering from a type of deep-tiredness; the type that comes from a decade and a half of unimaginably small and unendingly constant, bombardment of things that have no answer, no logic and no end.  Like the stars I looked at in the frosty sky, no one dot is the specific problem – together they all make one suffocatingly oppressive weight.  In her tired and broken state, I don’t even recognize her; I simply listen and grow increasingly numb with disbelief.  I don’t know what to do; don’t know how to do it – so instead, I sit there numb and dumbfounded like a deer in the headlights.  I’ve gone up there in the past, did the “husband in control” thing, hoping to give her some sense of security an in the process cause myself to believe that I could make it all better and show her my love by doing so.  That too ends up an epic failure; I don’t know what to do and end up showing that I’m not in control.

She comes back down the stairs and crawls into a dark bed in a dark room, I can feel it shake as she silently cries in a hopeless, downward spiral.  I can feel her falling and can do little more than offer her my hand.  I can’t stop the fall; and while I can dry the tears I have little power to hold her together.  I lay there as she cries that deep-tired cry, listen to Bethany as she screams upstairs, I think about the number of stars in the sky and the number of tears we’ve shed in this effort.  The weight of it all is suffocating the both of us and no one on this earth seems able to stop our downward spiral.

The “evening wolves” of doubt and fear are circling Sherry, Bethany and myself again.  They glare at us with hungry eyes and taunt us with the soft, logical question of “where is your God now”?  They long to devour us, and we like sheep feel powerless in defense.  As a man, I must openly admit that I am powerless.  I can’t fix Bethany, I can’t reach Sherry, and I certainly can’t help myself.  I need appeal to a greater father, a more caring husband, and a more perfect physician to cure those ills, mend those hearts and display that love.  My prayer is that the rest we so desperately need will also come from that source, that His plan will include mercy and compassion for my wife and I as we struggle to hold together what we can.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Stranger than Chicken Salad


He smiled and looked around the room, clearly he wasn't one of the locals.  He was related to no one, had only seen one of us before today, had no roots in this area and yet he was one of us just like the rest of us. 

He started his story with a laugh and a tear.  The tear came before the laugh I’m sure, but I didn’t know that till after he’d spoken.  He was at the age where you typically give more advice on living than you get yet somehow his life had to go through a dark night before that privilege was truly his.  In those later years of his life, he explained, there was a failed marriage still to come.  There was confusion and estrangement still to come.

When they came he dealt with them like any of us might.  The pain and depression of all this collapse gets coped with though anti-depressants, rightfully administered.  Then more, still rightfully administered, then the ones from friends that were thoughtfully administered.  Later still came the personally administered combination of those drugs followed by the blending of those personally administered medications with the professionally served alcohol.  By this time the pain in his life was strong enough that a mild ignoring of the warning labels on both of those thoughtfully, professionally and rightfully administered inhibitors was by choice, by accident and in some ways by design.

He spoke of the point where the numbing combinations no longer proved of any value and how as that value diminished, so diminished his hope for reconciliation.  He’d always been in control, in fact both of his parents were dead by the time he was 10 years old so taking matters into your own hands was (I believe) his life long legacy.  By this time however, his own hands had failed him.  There was nothing left.

He said that in his despair, he decided to head off to the mountains; to take a walk that would allow him to either sort things out or resolve the entire issue once and for all – a walk that in some ways was probably more like the ancient Inuit ritual of heading off to the ice flow.  It wasn’t a conscious decision to end his life, more of a convenient result of his decision.  Were he to conveniently fall off the mountain, die of exposure, or in some way be victim to a force greater than he; so be it.  He explained that he was gifted in playing the role of the victim, so much so that he had even convinced himself so were he to perish that too would make him a victim.

He threw some of his hiking gear into his truck, tossed in a can of beef stew and can of Spam (both items that emotionally pulled him back to his childhood) and headed to the trailhead.  He said it would take him a few days to get from there to a town, should he make it that far.  It’s interesting to note that the reason he said, “if he made it that far” was based on his decision to give everything up.  He gave up the pills, gave up the booze, gave up water, gave up eating, gave up everything not the least of which was hope.  So, he walked. 

When he finally decided to eat he came to the quick realization that a can of anything requires a can opener.  He had given up everything and was now hungry emotionally, physically, socially.  He was at that point where some strange line is crossed, a line that defies explanation.  Medical science will tell you it’s the combined effect of dehydration; a time at which at the level of the cell, the moisture has been reduced to the point where the body can no longer sustain normal function and all energy goes back to preserving the “core”.  Brain function, vital organs, the real essential portion of our bodies – the portion that gets things done; those were all failing.  Some of the medications he gave up were specially designed to support exactly those functions.  Blood pressure medications, heart medications, even something as elemental as sun block were all gone – all abandoned and in their places were two cans of food which he was helpless to open.  His body was clinically in danger of catastrophic failure.

The other science though, the one that’s not really a science at all but carries even more influence was being affected, but in far more positive way.  The science surrounding his spirit was in the process of re-engagement, of actually being rekindled.  That science relies on catastrophic failure of the physical body as the fundamental building block of success.  That science is the science of God.  Power is displayed through weakness and success is identified through failure, the poor are rich and the rich are poor.  My new friend was now learning that fundamental “God” science thing that says, “its not until you’re completely broken and useless, that I will do great things through you”.

After some time of wandering in a rapidly disintegrating state, he stumbled upon a campground parking lot.  30 years ago while walking the Appalachian Trail I learned all about campground parking lots and what I called the “hungry hiker” look.  You learn how to slide up next to a tourist and play the role of the victim.  How you talk, how you strike up a conversation about anything that interests them.  Their cute little dog (that for all intensive purposes looks more tasty than cute), their awesome choice of campgrounds, the marvelous smell of coffee, even their shoes.  Anything that gets them talking about themselves while highlighting your great taste in their great taste.  Pretty soon they trust you, then they like you, THEN they feed you.  Its not uncommon to do this 5 or 6 times a day, till in a gorged state with fried chicken grease running down to your elbows, you slink off into the woods to continue the journey northwards.  My new friend was no different.  He met a man, who would not only feed him but also feed him with food he’d seen but never tasted.

The one man in this room full of strangers that was not a stranger to my new friend was the man who had offered him a chicken sandwich.  He was the camper with the cute dog, the choice campsite, and the marvelous taste in campgrounds.  And through the process of building trust, aimed at feeding the stomach – he told his story.  He spoke of his misfortunes, he spoke of his substance abuse, he spoke in a watershed moment that was a combination of catharsis and confession.  It was an odd blending of victim and victor, of ending and beginning.  His time in the wilderness both physically and spiritually were being directed towards a compassionate ear, which having heard the story of the can-with-no-can-opener, knew that this man needed more than a chicken sandwich.  He needed the Lord.

Its always funny to me when I hear of these intricate stories of how the Holy Spirit moves lives in criss-crossing patterns that we tend to call “fate”, or “luck”, or “serendipity”.  That criss-crossing was no accident and it literally saved that man’s life in multiple dimensions.  He went on to check himself into the hospital rather than die a victim in the mountains.  He chose to accept the Bible that the man with the chicken sandwich felt so moved to go and leave in the hiker’s truck.  He chose to accept the food that the camper offered his spirit: “have you thought about asking the Lord into your heart”? A bold and crazy question that was asked in perfect sincerity.  A question that in today's world only a fool would ask.  A question that was perfectly timed, perfectly appropriate and perfectly balanced to change what was a death-spiral into a thing of beauty.

 A funny thing about the physical diminishing of cellular structure in the human body; it induces activity from other systems; one is the nervous system the other is known as the limbic system.  Within those systems of action-reaction type physiological activity, those drying and damaged cells send a message to the thalamus, which then lets you know that you hurt.  Your legs feel pain, your hips hurt, you knee swells, and your stomach and head are on fire.  All of these signals mean something; physiologically they mean you’re on the road to dying. Spiritually, they mean you may be on the road to healing.  My new friend was on the road to healing and that obscene question was the starting point.  He accepted Jesus in a way that made Him not only tangible but also essential, he learned that not until you’re broken are you healed.   

He spoke of standing up after the prayer of acceptance, he spoke of standing and feeling no pain – it simply no longer “was”.  The demons were vexed but not gone, they were now to be challenged by hope.  His story on this morning gave me hope; it gave me the realization that meeting him was no accident, no convenient fate, no serendipitous and lucky collision.  His being there at that point, sitting next to me was fully intentional and it scared me to death.

His discussion of his victim’s walk “into the wild” resonated in my soul with an alarming clarity.  How many times this week had I hoped for a personal, convenient victimization?  A quick snap-of-the-neck in a tragic accident?  Perhaps a speedy death from some bizarre aneurism while swimming and I’d be free of the pain and grind of watching Bethany as she seems to decline, from watching Sherry slowly die from the stress-with-little-relief of her life?  I had even gone so far as to wear my ID bracelet on my wrist as I got into the pool so that they could identify the body quicker (not much space for a driver’s license in a Speedo!).  His story was my story; the alcohol, the pills, the pain, add with it the stress we feel as a couple and his story is indeed, all ours.

At the end of our time together, we all had the chance to pray over this newfound friend.  We prayed just as the guys had done for me only weeks earlier and the blessing that came from that then, carried the power to sustain me through my trials.  The blessing now was being extended to another and now I was laying hands on him, praying on his behalf, praying that “evening wolves” of doubt, fear, temptation and confusion, (all hungry after an unproductive day and desperately hunting before nightfall), be sent off in the name of a loving God thus enabling this man to continue growing. 

He healed my new friend and made rich, productive use of his completely broken life.  Through that brokenness, his story reminded me of the celebration of brokenness that I live within.   That I being broken, living with broken, and having a compassionate ear for broken - have a special hope that great things will be done (through all that brokenness), to His glory! 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Why Don't You Listen to Me!


Why don’t you listen to me!  I have such a small vocabulary; the least you could do is listen closely!  I don’t know your words, and you pour them out so fast that they sound like running water in my brain.  They carry no meaning, they offer me little hope and they don’t help me get what I need.  All I want is my backpack.

I’ve said it so many times, but can’t count and I don’t understand time, but I do know that I can’t sleep unless I’m complete and you’re not listening; all I want is my backpack!  I said it going up the stairs, I said it over the bedroom door, I yelled it but you got mad and then you got angry with me.  I don’t know why I thought it was funny, but it was; and it was sad because in your anger, you refused to listen to me; all I want is my backpack.

I changed my clothes because that’s what 16-year-old girls do.  I do it because it’s the only choice I have in this life of mine.  You seem to question me on everything and I can’t even understand what you’ve asked before you’re on to the next question.  It frustrates me so I just ignore you – it doesn’t mean I’m stupid; it just means we’re not speaking the same language.  I still need my backpack.  I gave up in the pants choice, I found ones I liked and I thought I could switch them on my own while you went up the stairs (talking as usual) but I don’t understand how they work.  I like these ones, the smell, the feel, and the weight.  How was I to know it was a vest?  Why did you scream at me about it anyway?

I lay down in the bed because I was confused and I feared I wouldn’t be complete.  The nights are bad enough for me, hazed in the drugs you give me and in my dreams, I have no voice, no ability to run, no one to comfort me.  I don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong and even worse, the language is all wrong!  The stress I feel is unimaginable for in your world, you control everything.  In my world, everything controls me so the best I can do is stand up and smash against the wall, kick down on the floor, or at the very least hit myself till I feel no pain; only the coolness of the cut or the numbness of the bruise.  That’s all I control and it makes me sad.  I just want my backpack.

When you came back up the stairs and turned the bedroom light on, I was on the floor, flat on my back and you laughed at me.  I don’t know what you said but it was in that tone of voice that makes me feel like a baby.  I’m sixteen and I’m angry and you’re not listening.  The light was so sudden but it was sparkly in my eye and I like that so I laughed.  Then you opened the door and said something and left - and honestly that made me mad too, not because you opened the door but because it was your idea, on your terms and because it probably was done to make you feel good. Yes, I hurt your thumb and had I known that twisting it like that would get your attention I’d have twisted harder.  Next time I’ll break it cuz’ I’m that mad.

I wanted food when I came down. I’m sixteen for Pete’s sake! I need food and you have all the cabinets and the refrigerator locked and the medicines you give me make me so hungry.  I’m happy when I eat, why would you deny me that single joy?  I want mom, she listens most of the time.  She cries a lot and I don’t’ like it but she listens to me when I try to wipe the tears away.  I have a hard time finding her eyes but I can feel the wetness on her cheeks and it confuses me.  When I came down the stairs you were sitting on the sofa and all I wanted was mom, I was so mad that I ran out the door.  I was sure mom would be there but as the door slammed shut behind me I saw no light.  I forgot about mom and I felt the wetness on my face and head.  My feet were cold and wet and I didn’t know what to do or why I’d do it so I stood there is the dark silence.  Why did you grab me like that?  Then you laughed and changed my socks.  You put dry ones on my feet but I hate them; I hate the ones that fit below my ankles – they don’t make me complete so I peeled them off as quickly as possible and tried to say my words but you weren’t listening.  You chose different ones for me and I’ve grown tired of the struggle.  I let you put them on me.

When mom comes home, she’ll understand what I need, she and Miss Kim are pretty good with that but you don’t get it.  I like riding in the red car and you keep trying to put me in the green one.  I like the rumble of the red one.  I like the seats but again, you don’t listen.

One day, I’ll be the one talking and you’ll have to listen to me.  I’ll explain to you in my language what this all means and you’ll be subject to my terms, my wants, and my needs.  When that day comes, you’ll be the one running out in the rain looking for mom to translate your needs to me because maybe, just maybe, I’m smarter than you, you know why?

Because I’m listening!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Obsessive Compulsion and the Notion of Sleep


It starts with a nearly inaudible whimper that sounds faintly like “nu-nih”.  “Are you ready for night-night B?” I ask her.  She may repeat the plea “nu-nih” or she may just burst out in laughter and go back to tapping the plastic toy against her upper lip.  Sometimes she just stands there with a blank stare and an emotionless expression on her face, and other times she simply makes a high pitched squeal which forces you to ask the question again; "are you ready for night-night"?

Here begins the nightly dance that could take 10 minutes but more likely will take the entirety of the evening, even into the early morning hours.  We get her ready for the night; upgrade her brief to include multiple layers of absorbency; prepare the proper layers that comfort her obsessive-compulsive tendencies, brush her teeth and pray things go smoothly.

In preparation for bedtime, she layers herself like the flaky crust of a baklava starting with a camisole.  Not just any camisole, one that smells just right.  It may come from the folded laundry in the basket, it may come from the dresser drawer, it frequently comes from dirty clothes hamper and is always given clear approval by a toothy smile that makes her eyes disappear.  Once the camisole is in place, the same process is followed for the pink tee shirt.  Not blue, not green, pink.  Occasionally she shakes it up a bit by requiring two tee shirts, no reason that we can see  - she just requires “deep pink” and the only way you can get deep pink is by adding layers. 

Next comes the denim vest with the cut-off sleeves. Originally she had a special therapy vest that was designed with 20 lbs of weight, velcroed into the lining of the vest.  The intent is that the weight gives a sense of gravity to the child, calming them is some mysterious way.  I always thought it just made her stronger, like carrying 30lb barbells around all day long so that after a year or so you end up with a set of biceps that even a pro wrestler would covet.  We ditched the weights, in part because is was summer and the weights just made it hotter for her, in part because her voracious appetite has caused that vest to grow tight.  The same issue surrounding the camisole and tee shirt follows the vest even though we wisely accumulated three nearly identical vests, she can sniff out the preferred one.  Vest secured with all buttons engaged, we can move on to the harness.

I’m not sure at point she decided that she needed to wear her four-point, webbed bus harness but once it was deemed essential, no amount of logic could sway that.  I’ve had nights where at 10:30pm I’ve loaded her in the car and drove to Sherry’s work to retrieve the vest that was accidentally left in her car.  The harness, secured over the denim vest, over the deep pink tee shirt collection, which is over the camisole…is followed by the backwards-applied backpack. 

The backpack is not just a backpack; it’s a backpack with a lunch bag, a notebook with a specific weight of paper in it and freezer pack from the refrigerator.  The notebook has to be arranged so that the hinge is situated to her left, the opening to her right.  It must be settled upright in the base of the bag.  If it’s not perfect you’ll spend the next hour zipping and unzipping the array of zippers.  Nothing will change but she’ll sense that it is… You’re captive and you can't "pull a fast one" on her as the backpack is worn backwards, on her chest.  She watches your every move.

If these items are correct in her mind and if you were fortunate enough to have the selected the correct pair of shorts on her now “double-bagged” bottom, you may proceed to the bed-socks.  Ankle height – only.

You find the array of hand held artifacts that she needs, things like the thick waxed paper that is tied in a knot in the middle, the crocheted dishrag (which she insisted one night that I cut in half).  The remaining torn quarter of a Nerf ball, ripped with her teeth during a fit of rage is the final obsessive accessory that gets positioned.  With all these particular and peculiar items in place – it’s not uncommon for her to now change her mind about the whole affair.  False alarm.

Like an old dog, searching around the kitchen before turning a specific number of circles on the bed before finally plopping down with a disgusted groan, so Bethany follows her routine.  I don’t know why she does it, how she gains comfort from it, or if she does it only to dive us insane with her never-ending combinations of obsessive priority.  Even should you be lucky enough to get her all aligned and in bed – it’s not uncommon to have her crash around screaming and laughing.  The screaming usually indicates that she’s mad.  The laughing usually indicates that she’s now naked, her room peppered with wet synthetic pellicles of impossible to pick up matter that was once known as a diaper.  We typically double up the diaper at night; this means you now have two diapers worth of matter to reclaim.

The clothes, so carefully chosen an applied - now lay in the hallway and down the stairs.  She throws them over the half-height “Dutch door” with the zeal of a discus thrower and the laugh coming from the dark is both devious and delightful.  Reaching over to turn the light on and seeing the full fury of the mess I need to clean, I can’t help but love her more.  Honestly, I want to strangle her with the bus harness that is still half-draped over her bare stomach with the camisole somehow twisted around it in a knot.  That devilish, 16 year-old Korean smile that causes her big, round cheeks to momentarily displace her eyes is the second thing I see on a disheveled girl standing there naked in a room full of exploded diaper. 

One day I’ll cry when this is all but a memory.  One day, I’ll hear the Lord tell me “I did well” in spite of myself and he’ll tell me how He kept me from strangling her one night with a bus harness after she’d made a mess (the zipper was jammed).  One day, the upstairs will be silent, the house, empty and proper.  One day, my special purpose will be fulfilled and I’ll be released from this responsibility and all these tears of frustrated exhaustion will be replaced with tears of lonely memory.  Hearing her snore deeply up stairs, I’m relaxed and a bit numb, thinking of what I should be doing while she sleeps, yet I do nothing.  I’m as deep tired as she is clad in deep pink.  I relax a bit knowing that for for the moment I’m safe. The 6 - 10 trips up and down the stairs with her to confirm that lights are off, certain doors are shut and others are open, and everything in-between is "just so", finally yielded a level of content that would allow her to sleep.  I pause and listen to the ticking of the old mantle clock, praying that she stays sleeping through the night.  As I pray for a deep sleep for her, I hardly notice the state I'm in and while I form the words of intercession in my mind, slowly, gently, peacefully, I fall asleep.