Saturday, October 30, 2010

Grace in Motion

Amy wasn't feeling well. She'd been sick off and on for weeks, the glands on one side of her neck were swollen, and she had almost daily severe headaches, not to mention that her inhaler (for asthma) was empty and she couldn't afford the appointment to see the doctor for a new prescription, let alone buy the inhaler afterwards.

Amy is our "almost daughter." Warren and I took her in for ten days three years ago when she fled her dad's house during an altercation, and then I tutored her several times a week for the remainder of the year - her senior year - to help her graduate on time (yes, she did). Amy, who will be 21 this spring, has been a part of our lives ever since and she will call me when life gets too overwhelming. So when she called me Monday night, half crying and worrying aloud about her medical problems, I told her she needed to get to Grace Medical Clinic at Andrews House on Wednesday evening.

A long silence ensued. "Are you going to be there?" Amy knows I work at the Andrews House Legal Clinic, so hoped I worked the medical clinic as well. When I told her no, she hemmed and hawed long enough that I said, gently, "come pick me up and I will go with you."

Grace Medical Clinic, which is held weekly, is in its third year of existence. It is entirely volunteer-driven and free to all. I have known about it since its inception, I have heard glowing descriptions of the work the volunteers do, but accompanying Amy was my first opportunity to see it in action.

What a gift.

Despite arriving some 20 minutes before the official check-in time, Amy and I walked into an already full waiting room. She was #13 on the sign-in list. The woman who held the number one slot had been waiting since 2:00.

Ages ranged from toddlers to seniors. Some were Latino; many were white. There was a family in chairs against one wall: father, mother, and three children, the oldest of whom might have been five. At another chair, a toddler played happily on the floor at his mother's feet, trying to stack nesting cups and making the bright loud sounds of a contented baby.

One patient, an older man, was explaining to another client that he was diabetic and experiencing neuropathy in his feet. "When it gets so far up the leg, they'll take my leg off," he added in a matter of fact tone. There was a couple, perhaps in their sixties, cuddled up on the couch. He had a heavily wrapped arm; she held her stomach.

The set-up crew arrived shortly after Amy and I found seats, and I watched the proceedings with fascination. It was what I always imagined watching a MASH unit set up would be. Within 20 minutes, the dining room was divided into a series of curtained examining rooms. Across the hall, others set up prayer rooms. (Grace Medical Clinic is sponsored by an area church, so offers prayer and counseling to any patients who may want it.) Although I could not see it, further down the hall, yet another team was creating an on-site pharmacy.

Amy was nervous. Amy was tense. Amy was anxious about how long it would take. Amy kept thanking me for being there with her. Amy kept talking.

The evening slowed down. Some volunteers brought in food for the patients, knowing that many of them came straight from work, or otherwise had not eaten. Apples, sloppy Joes, pretzels, bottled water - enough to take the edge off of someone's hunger. There was an announcement that the clinic was short one doctor and one nurse tonight, so they could would not see more than 15 patients that night. Little children - and there were lots of them - grew tired and cranky, then grew contented again. People talked in quiet voices. Children flowed from the waiting room to the makeshift play area (also staffed by volunteers) and then back again to their parents.

Amy got called for a weigh-in and triage. She came back with an indecipherable look on her face. When I asked about it, she replied, slowly, "She was really nice. I didn't know girls my age could treat another girl that nicely."

We waited longer. Patients were called into the examining rooms. Amy ate an apple; I ate some pretzels. We both giggled at the little girl who took a sloppy Joe, then returned it a few minutes later, all the edges nibbled off, and carefully placed it back on top of the pile of sandwiches.

Amy was finally called into the examining room. With the seat beside me empty, Peggy, one of the volunteers, sat down and we started chatting. Peggy has worked with the clinic since its inception. She lived in Columbus, and said she never thought of Delaware as needing a clinic, since the county appears to be so affluent, but how she had quickly changed her perception.

I nodded. "We hide our poverty well," I said, explaining about my involvement with our legal clinic. "And if you're from Columbus, the first thing you see coming this direction is south county, which is where most of the money and big houses are."

We compared notes on clinic operations. I admired the hot food and told Peggy how we did baked goods at our legal clinic. She said this was the first night they had hot sandwiches. Peggy talked about the setup and teardown crews and how they rotate volunteers. I talked about our bank of attorney volunteers.

The evening wore on and more patients left. Members of the teardown crew started trickling in; many of the setup and prayer volunteers, including Peggy and her husband, started leaving.

Close to 9:00, Amy finally appeared. She sat down and said, shyly, that she was going to the prayer counseling area and asked me to go with her. Once there, Amy started crying as she talked about the stress in her life, including the loss of her beloved dog. The prayers were Amy-specific: for strength as her father faces foreclosure and the roof over her head becomes uncertain, for guidance as she looks for work, for direction, for healing her grief. Amy continued to wipe away tears.

Our last stop was at the pharmacy, where she was handed a new inhaler, medication for her infection, and replacement prescriptions. Amy just glowed.

"Thank you," she said. "Thank you."

Four hours after we walked in the door, we walked out. On the way to her car, Amy reflected on what she had experienced that night. "I thought they would be rude or make me feel bad for being poor. But they were all so wonderful and caring."

She was quiet for a moment. "I cried in the examining room too," she said. "I never cry. But the nurse who saw me first was so nice and saw me as a person."

For many, a trip to Grace Medical Clinic is a life saving experience. For Amy, it might be a life changing experience. When you grow up in what can at best be called "hard circumstances," and where you are now living life at an even lower level because of the Great Recession, you learn early and quickly that life is hard and people often look right through you because of your poverty. Amy is losing the roof over her head. Her future is so uncertain right now. So she came to Grace Medical Clinic with all her defenses and walls in place, expecting to be treated poorly at worst and brusquely at best. Amy walked out saying "they were so nice, they really cared." She was stunned that the Grace Clinic volunteers treated someone "like her" - someone in need of a helping hand - with dignity and kindness.

The Grace Medical Clinic is a gift in the midst of our community. The volunteers, medical and lay people alike, are passionate about this mission. Their faith shines through in their actions, their smiles, and their gentleness. They are the embodiment of Kahlil Gibran's saying that "work is love made visible."

Our communities are full of patients, clients, customers, and others who gather the courage to step through a door and ask for help. They are the Amys of the world, not sure what reception they will receive when they ask. I am always in awe of the volunteers who open those doors and serve - those who dispense prayers or medications, those who give legal advice, those who cook and serve meals, those who put their beliefs into action - and count myself blessed beyond words to have the chance to work alongside them. They are ordinary people who have stepped forward in extraordinary ways. They are ordinary people who have looked around, said "this (lack of medical care, lack of legal help, hunger, homelessness) is wrong," and then taken action.

Wednesday night I got to witness a miracle firsthand. I saw Grace in motion.

*Photo courtesy of Andrews House, Delaware, Ohio.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Reset

There is a small yellow note on my desk. A one word note.

Reset.

I had written that note several weeks ago and stuck it on the face of Warren's alarm clock after it unexpectedly went off at 6:00 one morning instead of the usual 6:45.

Reset.

After Warren reset his alarm clock, the sticky note drifted downstairs to my desk as part of the household flotsam and jetsam.

Reset.

In recent weeks, I have looked back through my year and a half of blogging, rereading posts here and there. It has been enlightening.

I have characterized this year as being a hectic one, grumbling often about the general pace and press of the days. It has become my litany. When friends and colleagues ask how things are going, I automatically say "busy." When Warren and I grab a few minutes together, I say, usually with a note of resignation, "things are so hectic right now." I am a faithful attendee of the Church of the Perpetually Tired.

So the "surprise" revelation in looking back over the last nineteen months of posts is that the pace of my life has been a constant theme. I have been singing a one word aria - hectic - much of the time.

Reset.

Yesterday I had a handful of meetings, then joined a friend for coffee late in the afternoon. Afterwards I met up with Warren at his office and we came home together. Before leaving the Symphony office, he put his hands on my shoulders, looked at me closely, and said "you look tired" (meaning "more tired than usual"). So after we got home (and got the timpani being rented to the college out the door with all the attendant tasks) and finally moved towards sitting down for supper, Warren scoured up two candles, placed them on the table, lit them, and doused the overhead light.

Reset.

Candles immediately introduce a note of quiet even when things are moving fast. They soften the light and the mood and the pace. I found myself chewing less rapidly, talking more thoughtfully, taking the time to listen and reflect rather than just rushing to the next observation. Warren and I both lingered at the table before moving on to the dishes.

From there, we carried the mood into the evening. Warren read and listened to Debussy to prepare for an upcoming performance. I read and felt the mood peel off my layers of tiredness, leaving me ready for sleep. We looked together at the Crate and Barrel holiday catalog that just arrived, with me shaking my head (and shivering slightly) at the frosty themes (gold, silver, white) that dominate this year. (I feel about Crate and Barrel like I do about Ikea - glossy, chic, and who lives like that?)

This morning, Warren left early for an all-morning Symphony meeting. I've spent some of the morning reading, daydreaming, and watching the sun rise in a magnificent spill of liquid gold. The first load of laundry is on the rinse cycle, breakfast dishes are waiting in the sink.

As I move into and through today, I want to hold onto the quiet of the candles, the rhythm of the household, the power of the sunrise. I want to - no, need to - stop every now and then to take the pulse of the day. I need to change my internal message from "busy" to "take a moment." I need to share thoughts with Warren other than "things are so hectic right now." I need to skip the services at the Church of the Perpetually Tired.

The reminder is on my desk. It's just a little note. Just a one word note.

Reset.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

View from the Ground: October Oncology







Monday afternoon

Playwright Tennessee Williams, asked what he wanted for his birthday, supposedly said he wanted "what every writer wants: a day when the muse is with you and you're hot."

That quote came back to me as I walked home from the library today, because what came to me was not that the muse was with me but that very occasionally I write a great sentence, sometimes I write okay, ordinary sentences, and the rest of the time I just write pure drek. I hope the okay, ordinary sentences outweigh the drek, but given that I delete almost as many sentences as I type (except on those exceedingly rare days when the muse is with me), I'd say I'm probably about par for the course.

I am starting this post on Monday afternoon, knowing it won't go up until I finish my oncology appointment Tuesday afternoon. Although my visible markers (energy level, activity level, stamina, weight) are all excellent, myeloma lives not on the surface but inside my bones. The outward measures start changing only after the cancer has had a healthy head start deep in my marrow. My oncologist and I agreed last June that October would be a good time to repeat the major labs, including the kappa free light chain assay, to give us both the best look-see into my marrow and my true state of health.

So tomorrow is weighing on me. I love my oncologist, I feel good physically, I am expecting (hoping for) neutral results, and I am walking around with the appointment pressing down hard upon my shoulders.

No wonder my muse isn't here. She is out dancing through the blaze of leaves carpeting the sidewalks while I am sitting here kicking at the floor.

Tuesday morning

October is the most beautiful month in Ohio, but it is also the month where winter starts blowing kisses to us, promising more to come. This morning, there was a light ice on the windshield (our car had been parked on the street all night). Close behind the house, my garden was chilly but not icy. I'm glad: there are still some tomatoes ripening and I am not quite ready to give them up until next summer.

Today's oncology visit is weighing even more heavily on me than yesterday. Despite all the good signs I keep ticking off, I am edgy and anxious to see the numbers. I had trouble falling asleep last night, my mind running through various "what if" scenarios, and when I finally slept, I dreamt of my boys. They were not in harm's way, but I had a long, tangled, and complex dream about Sam switching schools and Ben restarting his undergraduate education, both at colleges and in programs I had never heard of before.

All this morning (it is midmorning) I have been restless. I start something, then set it aside. My only real accomplishment is finishing baking for tonight's legal clinic.

In this morning's paper was an obituary for a friend who had been struggling with lung and bone cancer for the last three years. Sheryl's obituary was deftly penned, I am sure, by her husband Jesse; his love for her was laced through the words. My first reaction, after the hurt of the news, was "I want Jesse to write my obituary." My second reaction was "I can write my own obituary." I shared that thought with Warren; I did not look at his face when I said it because I did not think I could bear to see his expression.

Warren knows today's appointment is hanging over me; he also knows that losing a friend to cancer is an uncomfortably close experience for me. Warren is lovingly patient on oncology days. Over the years, he has learned (at my insistence) to stand back just a little bit. This is a river I wade in alone each time while he watches from the shore. I need and want his hand when I come back up on the bank, but I have to struggle through the current alone.

Tuesday afternoon

My labs were the best they have been in months, even years. Yes, the myeloma is there, it will always be there. I will never be cured. But my kappa free light chain assay results were even better than they were back in December.

Tim grinned. Warren beamed. I about fell over as a million pounds rolled off my shoulders and sank right out of sight through the floor. I don't have to see Tim again until April.

April! Six months from now!

I was all but skipping as Warren and I left the oncology clinic. I squeezed his hand, bounced up and down in the elevator, gave him a huge kiss when he dropped me off. I am now typing these words quickly so I can get to Legal Clinic.

I'm out of the river, back on the shore, embracing the world.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The View From My Soapbox: Homelessness

Posts sometime kick around in my head (and my heart) for a long time before they see the light of day. This one has been percolating for several weeks and finally rose to the surface courtesy of my friend WP, who blogs at iamtheworkingpoor.

WP recently wrote about homelessness hitting her in the face at her job at a grocery store. She wrote: A young girl approached the counter and asked if she could borrow my phone to call her daddy. As soon as she got that first sentence out she burst into tears. She said she was fourteen years old and her mother had just kicked her out and she was scared. WP went on to remind us to keep our compassion "well exercised."

I commented to WP that often we don't see homelessness for what it is - the breaking of the safety net, or, as I am coming to believe more fervently every day, the breaking of the social contract between We the People and I the Individual.

We think homelessness doesn't happen "here" - "here" being where we happen to live. We think (and hope) that homelessness only happens in big cities, and then mostly to folks who are alcoholics or drug addicts or just plain irresponsible.

But it does happen here. Homelessness means bunking on your sister's couch because you have nowhere else to go, and then praying that she and her husband don't start arguing about "how long is your brother going to be here?" It is swallowing your pride and moving into your old bedroom back home, even if you are in your 40s or 50s, and being treated like a kid again by your folks. It is that young girl calling her dad, telling him "mom kicked me out" and desperately hoping that dad doesn't say "tough luck."

Homeless is all around us. Many of us are not even a few paychecks away, but one paycheck, or one last chance with the spouse, or one more reduction of hours at work, or one more night hoping your friends don't get tired of you couch surfing at their apartment.

Eight years ago this month, when I lived in our downtown, I had a brief encounter with local homelessness when my landlords discovered some food, clothes, and a lightweight sleeping bag tucked into a corner of a low parapet on the roof of the building next door. I connected the dots and realized the squatter was probably the young man - a kid really, maybe 19, maybe 20 - who I started seeing around the area constantly. He would say "hi" in a shy voice if we passed one another, but mostly he would give me these wide-eyed stares that I couldn't quite fathom.

My landlords notified the police, not to arrest the kid, but to talk to him and to find a different solution. If I remember, the kid moved on before that happened, obviously aware that his "home" had been discovered.

I kept thinking about the kid. He was very young, very thin, and somewhat haunted looking, but not desperate looking, not dangerous looking. Maybe he was just a kid without many options, or without any options at all, so he was living on cold stew and pop and hoping something broke his way.

I talked about what happened with a number of friends. We dissected the situation with great concern. One friend said the squatter should have been "more responsible" and planned his life better.(Silly me. Here I was worried about the kid sleeping out on the rooftop as winter approached.) Most were appalled and concerned. All of us did nothing more than talk.

Four years after my brush with the rooftop dweller, I had a second and closer encounter with homelessness. Sam's then high school girlfriend showed up at our back door one evening, soaked to the skin, having ran over a mile to our house in a driving icy rain from her dad's house, which she fled at the height of an argument that got physical. I never hesitated when she asked if she could come in and get warm. Within 30 minutes, she had a hot shower, dry clothes, and a warm meal. Amy ended up staying with us for the next ten days, and has stayed in our hearts and lives ever since.

By the time Amy showed up on my doorstep, I was not the same person who intellectualized but did not act when I encountered the rooftop dweller. Echoing Wilma Mankiller, I am the woman who lived before and the woman who lives afterwards. If the young man were camped out today on a nearby roof, I'd like to think I would take action and at least try to help and link him to services rather than speculate in a vacuum why he is in dire straits.

As I sit inside today typing, I reflect that I am blessed to have a roof over my head, sharing Warren's home with him. My boys, far flung though they be, also have shelter. At low points, though, when I am stressing over tighter dollars and the Great Recession, I lie awake and rearrange the rooms in this house as I puzzle over scenarios of "what if this or that child of his/mine moved back?" (During my illness, I did much the same thing with regard to my own housing, which at that time included a teenage Sam. I was grateful then (and still am) I had alternative housing resources, and grateful then (and still am) I never had to use them.)

I recently ranted to a colleague, in response to his query about a minor point: There are people homeless (or almost) and hungry (definitely, not almost) and without hope in Delaware. We see them monthly at our legal clinic and Delaware's food pantry; we see them weekly at our community free store and free medical clinic. At a national level, we have millions (millions!) who live below the poverty level (1 in 5 children, by the way, lives in poverty), are without health care, are without work, are losing their homes to foreclosure (well, until Bank of America took the generous step of suspending foreclosures upon the disclosure that the paperwork was WRONG). And we have to worry about [this minor point]? (I admit it: my colleague had caught me at the end of a long, discouraging day.)

My rant to my colleague aside, these are hard times and more and more of us are doing without. To borrow from WP, keep your compassion well exercised because you will need it. Sometimes you have to act. Time is precious and all the discussions in the world will not help the rooftop dweller or the crying teenager. To quote my favorite minister, it's very simple. Share. If you have, give.

Friday, October 15, 2010

October Notes and Scraps

It's Concert Week, which means Time, speedy little bugger that it already is, flies faster than ever. Here it is early afternoon Friday, dress rehearsal is tonight, Season 32 launches tomorrow night, post-concert reception after that, and this household is at sixes and sevens.

In short, life as usual for when you are married to the Symphony.

In all my running around today (the post office, two grocery stores, dropping off library books, getting the car back to Warren so he can use it), I managed all the same to call a time out and scrawl some notes for October on the back of the grocery list. Two hours later, as I sit here typing, I look at my notes. They read like this:

dress tonight
walking - running into Don and talking
Large inflated cat - 10 feet? makes me smile
ghosts of Halloweens past
drumming rain in early morning move closer to W
impossibly blue
Deciphered, they mean this:

dress tonight   There is dress rehearsal tonight. I will be at Gray Chapel much of the evening, helping set up the ticket and lobby areas. It will be a late night (no surprise). So will tomorrow (no surprise).

walking - running into Don and talking   Although I was driving this morning, our one-car status continues and I have been spending a lot of time on foot. I like walking, a lot, although when you have to walk, you are far more aware of the extra time it takes to walk. Have to be at the courthouse by 12:30? Build in that extra 15 minutes to get there. Walking home from the courthouse yesterday afternoon, I was deep in thought (Legal Clinic, Concert Week, bills, supper, chores) when someone called my name. It was my good friend Don, who is the director of our amazing community resource, Andrews House. He darted across the street and we talked for about 10 minutes. As I walked on home, I found myself thinking that if I had been in the car, I never would have run into Don and we never would have had that conversation. That's but one of the many upsides of walking: the constant opportunity for community and friend interaction.

Large inflated cat - 10 feet? makes me smile  Driving to the grocery today, I went past a house on a corner which has heavily indulged in the inflatables market for Halloween. There are pumpkins and bats and ghosts and a huge (truly) black cat with an arched back and upright tail. The cat is easily eight feet high at its back, and the tail makes it even larger and taller. Warren and I are not inflatable folks, but the displays of others never fail to make me smile. Especially when it is an enormous inflated cat on a quiet residential street.

ghosts of Halloweens past   I can't look at Halloween decorations without thinking of my own boys. When Sam and Ben were young, we had a series of Halloween windsocks - pumpkins, skeletons, vampires, Frankenstein - that hung on the front porch. Th annual hanging of the windsocks was a big deal to two little boys once upon a time. (And I'm glad my two guys predated the inflatables trend.)

drumming rain in early morning move closer to W   It rained early this morning and I woke up just enough to hear it drumming on the roof. I moved closer to Warren, sound asleep, and let the rhythms lull me back to sleep.

impossibly blue   A few hours later, the sun was out and the sky was the color I call "October blue." October blue is impossibly blue, especially when a flaming golden maple is stuck up against it. It is so blue my throat aches just looking at it. The sky is that color right now.

The day calls and I need to turn back to the tasks at hand, which are multiplying rapidly. There are other posts still out there, tugging at my sleeve, tripping my thoughts up as I walk, but Time is tapping its foot. For today, these notes and scraps will have to mark my place, tossed into the wind, tossed into that impossibly blue October sky.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Interlude

The Saturday morning sunlight is hitting the hammered copper timpani bowls and throwing fractured patterns all over the floor.

I have things to do and places to be today, including my friend Joni's commitment ceremony in the late afternoon. There is laundry churning in the basement as I type. It's been another week of working alongside my dad on the apartment project that never ends. Next week is Concert Week (the Season 32 debut concert), which means our home life will be turned on its head no matter how much Warren and I plan.

I have notes for future blog posts: community, social justice, money, the incredible fellowship of women in my life. We will be gone all day tomorrow for a rehearsal and concert in the Cincinnati area.

There's a lot going on and I need to turn my hands and attention to the day.

But I got sidetracked this morning by the light show the timpani and the sun decided to put on in the percussion room. And then I read this Facebook post from Magpie Yarns, a custom yarn shop and the heart of a large spinning and knitting community in Lexington, Kentucky that is owned by my friend Jane:

Monster Socks at Sock Club today. Bring any leftover bits of sock yarn to share, wind off puddles of color, and cast on. Let it be random (if you can), or build harmonized patterns. Knit twins or just distant relatives. Every pair of monsters is unique.

I love that phrase: wind off puddles of color. I know winding off is the act of turning a skein into a ball of yarn, but I imagine these puddles of color - turquoise, fuchsia, copper - pooling on the floor of the shop and then miraculously turning into socks.

Jane's phrase reminded me of a quote attributed to Paul C├ęzanne: "we live in a rainbow of chaos."

A rainbows of chaos arcing high over puddles of color. Puddles of sheet music. Puddles of laundry and dreams and unwritten blog posts.

I don't know what my day will look like by the time it is over: maybe random, maybe harmonized patterns. Like those monster socks that will be knit at Magpie Yarns later today, each day is unique. All I know is that it will be a good one, one that started with a puddle of copper light illuminating my heart.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Different Post

Part I: Sunday Morning

I am sitting at Maple Grove, a Columbus area church about which I have written before. Twice, in fact. Warren is playing timpani in the service today. Today's job came up very suddenly; usually, the music director at Maple Grove contacts Warren several weeks out.

While Warren set up and tuned, I started writing about time - my time - and about the pace of life - my life.

It's the little picture: my little picture.

Warren just came over to retrieve his tie before rehearsal started. As he did so, he said "this is the minister's last service. Apparently he is leaving for medical reasons."

I stopped writing my other post and began this one.

Back at Easter, when Warren last played here, Bill Croy, the church's minister, was unexpectedly out for medical testing. I remember my thoughts at the time flicking to what it does whenever I hear the phrase "medical testing" - cancer.

After all, that is my little picture.

At this point, I don't know what it is. I find that I am bracing myself for the service and Bill's last sermon. I hear choir members asking one another if they brought enough tissues.

Warren said, when he told me, "maybe that explains why this service came up so quickly." Then he added, "maybe that's why one of the pieces is The Church's One Foundation."

There is an usually high amount of hugging going on as choir members stream in for practice. One walks by carrying a box of tissues. I only brought three with me, for the cold weather and the occasional bloody nose I get. I hope they are enough.

Church members are arriving early and getting seats up close.

My friend and colleague Doug, who earlier this year went through surgery and treatment for stomach cancer with the best possible results, is still building up his strength and energy. He recently posted on Facebook that he had just completed riding 50 miles on his bike, then added "God is great!"

Another friend, hearing of Doug's comment, said "I bet he wouldn't be saying that if he were dying of cancer."

I disagreed at the time. Doug's affirmation of his beliefs had nothing to do with whether he recovered from his cancer, and while I may be somewhat at sea on my own spiritual beliefs, I do not question those of others.

As I watch the preparation for this service, that conversation comes back to me and I disagree all over again. I anticipate that today's service, whatever Bill's diagnosis and prognosis, will likewise be an affirmation of faith and of the spiritual joy and unity that binds this congregation together. Indeed, I note in the church bulletin that there are two celebrations scheduled for this afternoon: a retirement celebration for Bill and his wife, followed by a ministry celebration of his career.

Note the word choice, which was used in the bulletin: "celebration."

I have noted before that my spiritual beliefs, whatever they may be, are changing. I have my own journey to make. But for this day, this milestone at Maple Grove, I am glad I am with this body, part of their small picture and part of the bigger picture of life and faith.

Part II: Sunday Afternoon

It isn't cancer, it's ALS. Bill Croy was diagnosed in August and, per the parishioner sitting next to me, stepped down today because of his waning strength.

ALS is terminal. But as Bill reminded us all today, so is life. In fact, he predicted, some of his parishioners would likely die before he did. Then he added, slyly, "I'm not saying any names."

Today's service was wonderful. Today's service was magnificent. At times there were tears streaming down many faces, including mine. At times we were all laughing. It was an emotional mix of joy, sorrow, love, and faith.

In his final sermon as minister of Maple Grove, in his final sermon as a Methodist minister of some 40 years experience, Bill shared his unfinished dreams for the congregation and his beliefs as to what is ahead. He made it clear that he was not looking forward to dying.

"I love life," he said, "I love living!"

In the half beat of silence that followed, we all heard a little girl, possibly his granddaughter in the front row, pipe up, "I do too!"

Bittersweet laughter swept across the pews.

I'm not going to attempt to sum up Bill's sermon; you can read it here yourself. But I will tell you what I saw today, which was an affirmation of faith and belief. I saw and heard someone who could say, and in fact did, that God is good, despite the realities of the disease he is now facing.

Today I had the privilege of watching a beloved minister and a beloved congregation say goodbye to one another as minister and congregation. They did it with love and with dignity, with laughter and with tears. There was sorrow. There was joy. And there was belief - in the goodness of God, in the goodness of life, and in the goodness of one another.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

One More Harvest

Dad and I have been going up together a couple of days a week to work on the apartment in my brother's rental unit. It's just the two of us, as the work has now moved far beyond the physical capacities of my mother.

It's about an hour drive each way, so combined with the actual workday (anywhere from three to six hours, depending on our respective schedules back here), it makes for a lot of time together.

Valuable time.

Dad and I still haven't made it down to Kentucky to walk the family cemeteries. October would be a wonderful month just for the sheer beauty of rural Kentucky, but my brother's broken leg and the need to get this apartment back together have trumped any day trips.

So all this time with dad is time to talk, time to share, time to store up moments for the days when one of us won't be there anymore.

Some of my friends are politely baffled that I am spending so much time on this project. You can see it in their faces and hear it in their voices. Their "That's really nice of you…" sentences trail off to the unspoken "but…" and hang unfinished in the air. I can finish the sentences. "Isn't that a lot of work for you?" "Can't someone else help your dad?" "Can't your dad do this on his own?"

No, he can't do it on his own.

If dad were in his 50s, he'd probably be doing it on his own, after he finished working his own job. Probably he could do it if he were in his 60s. But dad just turned 77 this summer and his age is starting to show on him. Always a tall man, he has been slowly, quietly shrinking down closer to my height. Always a strong man - a man who was a blue collar worker all of his adult life - he is slower to heft a full bucket than he would have been a decade ago. Dad does not complain, but he does admit to being tired now or to some task being physically difficult. Add to his age that he has had diabetes for almost 25 years now. Dad has been scrupulous about maintaining his health, and so has held this disease to a slow, but inexorable progression. It takes its share of his energy and capacity too.

So no, he can't do it all on his own.

Because of the physical limitations I live with from my myeloma, we make a good team. We both have about the same amount of time in which to work hard before our energy goes for the day. Dad will notice the fatigue on my face and say something; I will notice it on his and ask him if he's okay.

And throughout the day we talk.

On the job, we talk about job-related topics as we work our way through the problems of the apartment. Over lunch or on our drives to and from, I get to listen to my dad's stories and thoughts. I've heard stories about my grandfather - his dad - as a young man that I have never heard before. We talk about the repair jobs dad handled during the decades he was a machinist at a GE big machinery repair shop. We talk about his triumphs of "field engineering" - working on the guts and heart of a power plant and bringing it back online by going with 40 years of machining know-how rather than the suggestion of the plant engineer "who'd never seen one of those turbines taken apart, who had no clue what he was talking about!" (Dad has had a lot of such triumphs in his life.)

We talk about politics and the nation a lot - my dad being a senior convert to a more encompassing and surprisingly liberal and social minded point of view. (When it comes to personal and political growth, I am proudest of my father. The man who supported and probably voted for George Wallace in 1968 when he ran as a white supremacist third-party candidate, wholeheartedly supported and voted for Barack Obama 40 years later.) My dad despairs of the rising tide of poverty that is ravaging this country, of the destruction of the blue collar middle class, of the polarization of this country into the increasingly small group of "haves" and the vast pool of "have nots." It's interesting talk.

And we talk about farming.

It is harvest time in Ohio and we drive past miles of fields each day. Yesterday, with the bright sun and the cool air, the combines were out in full force. Fields that had been full on our way up were now cut clean. My dad always slows up a bit when we pass someone in the fields, commenting on the crop, on the equipment, on grain prices. He will reminisce about his own days farming as a youth and a young man, about the equipment they used a half century or more ago, about the yields they got back then. (For those of you familiar only with the large equipment today, we are talking about a three row self-propelled combine with an open cab, versus the behemoths of today.) He has not farmed in over 40 years, but the love of it still runs deep in his blood.

In my storehouse of childhood memories is one of seeing farmers combining at night throughout the county. My dad farmed with his dad and would work the fields in the evening and on the weekends after coming home from work. This time of year, he might go straight to the farm, grab supper with his parents, and start combining. Sometimes he would help his friend Denny, who also farmed after a day job.

When dad was helping Denny and they were combining late into the night, mom would load us all in the car and head out to spend the evening with Marlene, Denny's wife and a friend of hers from childhood. Driving to their house, past the fields dad and Denny were working in, we'd see a lone beam of light, glowing from all the chaff in the air, methodically crawling over the fields in the pitch dark. All the way home, we'd see similar points of light stabbing the darkness as farmers raced the calendar to get the crop in before the first snow of the year.

I loved seeing those lone beams, sometimes just little dots in the distance, little points of light in the blackness.

I tell Warren that working alongside dad these recent weeks has really driven home to me just how old he is and how finite our remaining time together. With the myeloma always nestling in my bone marrow, I am well aware that my own hourglass runs a little faster than those of most of my peers. My dad's is running even faster and our working together has written that message on my heart.

Dad and I are racing to get the harvest in before the snow and the dead of winter. We are each on a small combine, the small beams stabbing the growing dark, combing the fields and wanting so much for one more season together.


"Night Combine" photo taken by Jennifer Dukes Lee and is from her blog, "Getting Down With Jesus."