Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Chair

Margaret's birthday fell on a Sunday, less than a week after she buried her husband.   There had been no warning, no preparation for the heart attack that had come, snatching him away so quickly.   Granted, he'd not been feeling very well lately, wasn't quite his usual energetic self,  but she never suspected that she would so suddenly be thrust into widowhood.  Her family had a cake for her that Sunday afternoon, and she brought the last of it to church that night to share with those of us who were there.  It was going to be a hard evening,  John's long, lanky frame conspicuously absent.  I had dreaded the thought of seeing that empty chair at the front of the room where he always sat.

To create an intimate, less formal setting, the chairs form a circle in that room.  John's sat right next to Larry as he taught.  He had been a preacher and there was hardly a night when he didn't have something to add.  He was always polite, waving his hand when he wanted to expound a bit,  and eventually Larry would motion to him, letting him have his say.  Usually he was brief, but there were those occasions when he became especially passionate,  turning our study for a time into a revival meeting.   No doubt, he would be terribly missed.  By all of us.

Both he and Margaret had taken a special interest in Richard, a man in his early thirties who is mentally slow, more child than adult. They had been especially kind where he was concerned, always taking time to visit with him, make him feel important and valued.  Not everyone knows how to relate to Richard.  His hygiene is less than exemplary and he tends to talk too loud.  But he's faithful, rarely missing Bible study, sitting  towards the back of the room near the coffee makers where he can mix his own hot chocolate.  As I walked through the door on that particular Sunday evening, bracing myself to face the empty chair, I saw that it was occupied after all.  There, sitting quietly next to Margaret, was Richard.

I don't remember Richard saying anything that night.  He was simply there,  bringing comfort to a grieving widow in the one way he knew how.  He sat in that place next to her,  in  her husband's chair.  And by doing so, he touched us all.    

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Christmas Road Trip

Joel and Autumn the last time we spent Christmas together in 2008

December 25, 2012
Early Christmas morning:
West Virginia is  covered in several inches of white.  It's early and there's little traffic on the road.  I imagine the seeming tranquility of the homes we are passing is deceptive.  If there are children in those houses,  I can only imagine what's going on behind their doors. 

Sometime later:
Northern Virginia is covered in snow as well though it's not nearly as deep as to the north of us.  Larry says that we'll be in this state forever.  I'm glad that we at least got as far as Maryland last night.  I don't ever remember a Christmas that we spent the entire day on the road.  There's still a part of me that can't believe we're even doing this.   I remember our first Christmas together when we drove all night Christmas eve to get from Kentucky to New York.  We were much younger then, naturally impulsive and with a lot more energy.  We listened to Christmas music the entire trip, pulling into my parents' driveway in the early morning hours.  We thought we'd be spending that Christmas alone as our car had died a few weeks earlier.  But one of the profs at the seminary had posted that he had a Buick Electra for sale and Larry approached him about letting us use it for the week with the possibility of buying it.  He agreed.  I still remember the anticipation and excitement I felt on that ride, singing one carol after another as the miles sped by.  It was one of our best Christmases ever.  And yes, we bought the car.

The trip is longer this time, these thirty-six years later.  And we're not going to see our folks. They're gone now and our siblings have their own families,  living in various places all over the country.  No, we're going to see two of our kids, the baby and the boy, the ones who need us the most this Christmas.  It's been four years since we've spent this day together, way too long. 

A couple hours later:
The grass is now peeking through the snow.  It won't be much farther til it's completely green again.   And warmer of course.  We've been warned that there's going to be some pretty severe storms in the Gulf States, especially in Alabama.  Our destination. But that won't be for awhile yet.

I brought my Andrea Bocceli Christmas CD along.  Why does that perfect tenor voice make me cry so easily?  I've also brought an old edition of Guidepost's Christmas classics from the church library.  The stories touch me and when I try to read them aloud to Larry I can hardly get through them.  I know that this trip to some might not seem sensible, traveling over 1100 miles to spend just three days with two of our kids.  But sometimes we do things that aren't exactly logical.   We do them because that's what our heart tells us to do. 

We just passed a man driving a jeep with a wrapped Christmas tree attached to the roof of his vehicle.  He has North Carolina plates and he's heading in the same direction we are.  I caught a glimpse of his face as we passed.  He was alone but there was a smile on his face.  I wish I knew a little of his story, it's got to be a good one.

Autumn has called, wanting to know where we are.  How much further she asks.  Makes me think of when the kids were younger, especially when we were traveling from Alabama to New York.  Autumn was always wanting to know how much further it was.  Some things just never change, no matter the years.

Birmingham, Alabama:
We started getting bad rain just north of here.  We had some in Tennessee but then it tapered off.  I thought, or perhaps hoped, that we'd been through the worst of it.  I couldn't have been more wrong.  Poor Larry, the yellow lines are impossible to see it's coming down so hard.  Autumn keeps texting wondering where we're at.  There are tornado warnings to the south of us.

Verbena,  Alabama:
"Mom, you're only a half an hour away!" Autumn texts.  I remember as kids we would anxiously await the arrival of my southern cousins each summer,  our hearts beating at the sound of every car that came down Mill Street, hoping it was the one with Carolina plates.  There's nothing quite like the anticipation that comes with waiting on someone who's traveled hundreds of miles to be with you. 

Prattville, Alabama:
"Get in here quick," Joel hollers as we pull into the drive.  "The sirens just went off."   Why did I not think to throw my umbrella in the car before we left New York?  I hold one of the bags I brought from home over my head and make a dash through the rain.  Autumn grabs me as I rush through the door.  "Mom, you're here!"    

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Manor

I hardly recognized him.  He sat in a wheelchair, hunched over, expressionless.  I had seen him only a few weeks ago, just before Christmas when we'd taken gift baskets from the church to both him and his wife at the facility where they lived.  I remember that we had just barely arrived when the program director popped her head in the wife's room and announced that an hour of storytelling was about to begin in the auditorium. "You're welcome to bring your friends," she insisted.  It was then that I noticed the husband was without his walker. I knew he wouldn't be allowed to pass through the secured door and walk the hall without it.  "He's lost it again," his wife confided.  "He can't remember where he left it." At that moment we heard the voice of one of the aides in the hall as we stood.  Not to worry, the lost had been found.  It had been in his room all along.  Where it belonged. 

I knew that the dementia had progressed,  but the shock of seeing him in the wheel chair took my breath away.  It hadn't even been five months since they were moved from their little apartment on the first floor to the more secure second floor.  That's because he had wandered off the grounds and could no longer be trusted to be on his own.  It had been a hard adjustment, being separated like that.  They had been married for sixty-two years, always together.  The separate rooms, even though just across the hall from one another, didn't feel natural.  So the few times we visited, we always found them together.
Until today.  They had been moved again.  This time we would find him in The Manor they said.  I'm not really all that sure why they call it that, it is after all a nursing home.  Perhaps by giving it a fancy name it's supposed to take away some of the sting.  Actually, it's not all that bad for a nursing home.  It's clean, fairly bright, even smells okay.  If it weren't full of old people, you'd hardly know.

And then we saw her, his wife, sitting behind a table not too many feet behind her husband, his back to her.  She lifted her hand and waved, a slight smile on her lips.  She knew us.  I went and sat beside her.  She seemed pleased to see me.  "It's nice here," she said.  "And I like to sit out here where there's more going on."  Perhaps this place would suit her better than the Second Floor facility that had felt so confining.  We chatted a bit more, then she continued wistfully.  "He doesn't talk to me anymore, doesn't act like he wants to be with me."   I touched her arm and spoke as tenderly as I could.  "That has to be hard for you."  She turned and looked at me.  "We've been together since 1949."

Larry pushed her wheel chair beside that of her husband's for a few minutes before we left.  "We're about to leave," he told him.  "Then we've been told they're going to take your wife to rehab."  "Yes, I'm going down to rehab," she repeated.  And at that moment he took his hand and reached over and touched her.

I cried for several minutes after we pulled out of the parking lot.