Monday, December 29, 2008

Putting Things in Perspective

My former pastor and I are almost the exact same age, but his parents are a little older - nearing the 80-year mark, while my mother is not quite 70. Lately, John's parents have begun experiencing some serious health issues, and his mother underwent a colonoscopy shortly after Thanksgiving. This led to emergency surgery the same day to repair leaks in the colon - and ultimately remove a portion of the colon AND her gallbladder. From there, everything seemed to go wrong. Her kidneys didn't function well after the surgery, which led to fluid and infection around the heart and lungs. She was placed on dialysis to reduce the fluid and assist her kidneys in removing toxins from her system. THEN, the week before Christmas, she developed more pain - SEVERE pain - that resulted in another surgery - this time to remove MORE colon that was septic and full of colitis, and to do a colonostomy. A third surgery was done to give her a tracheotomy to aid in breathing and a feeding tube. This little human dynamo has become a frail host to more tubes than the kids can count at times, and her survival has been in question more than once in the last couple of weeks.

Through all of this, the children (son John and daughters Debi and Beka) have kept vigil along with their little daddy, a retired Methodist minister who is not altogether well himself, but obviously faring better than his dear bride at this point. One of my pastor's sisters is also a Methodist minister - and the mother of two little girls, ages 8 and 10. Beka and her husband, Len, uprooted the family from Ft. Worth, Texas, to come to Hot Springs, Arkansas, and celebrate Christmas there while making trips to the hospital for ICU visiting hours.

Beka has kept the family updates flowing via a CaringBridge site (, which has been tremendous for those who know the family and want frequent reports, along with a way to respond and share thoughts and encouragement in return. Beka has a tremendous wit, just like her brother John, and she has truly shone in her conveyance of how it is to cope with a mother who was at death's door, an elderly father, and two small children who wonder if Santa Claus will find them in another state. AND... she has found time and strength to minister to other families who were waiting in the ICU... proof that in the worst of situations, God can still use us if we are open to His will.

Here are a few of Beka's more poignant observations - and one truly hilarious incident... I am sure many of us can relate...

  • If I could only bi-locate it would be no problem. But I have yet to learn how to be in 2 places at once. Len and the girls are driving in tomorrow, and I don’t know how I’m going to spend time with the girls while also being at the hospital. I bought the girls their presents last week when I was home. We are going to put up a tree for the girls to decorate, and our aunt and uncle sent a turkey. So I think that is set. It’s just the bi-location thing that has me worried.

  • We are having a good Christmas day – much better than we thought we would given Mom’s condition a few days ago. We are pleased at her progress. Dad has a lot of us here at the moment and is enjoying it.

  • We were late to the ICU afternoon visiting hours because Dad is in the habit of helping people, and he can’t bear not helping. At the post office where we stopped to pick up Mom and Dad’s mail on the way to the hospital, there was a young woman who had locked herself out of her car and her lights were on. She didn’t have a cell phone to call anyone or money for a locksmith. At first I couldn’t believe that my frail, distressed, almost 80-year-old father was out in the rain trying to help this young woman while we were trying to get to the hospital.

    There were lots of other people – many of them young and energetic who did not appear to be on the way to the ICU - who might have helped. But of course, Dad couldn’t stand not helping, and the fact is, no one else was stopping to help her. So Dad asked her if we could call the police to unlock her car. (He actually said, “Ma’am, if you aren’t in trouble with the police, we’ll call them and they can help you unlock your car. Is that okay?”) We called them, and they were driving up as we left. His deep impulse to altruism can be inconvenient and, at least today, a little frustrating, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s who Dad is. Mom has always put enough money in Dad’s wallet each morning so that he would have a little money to give away, but not so much that it would mess up their finances. She planned for his altruism; suppose we have to the do the same.

  • I promised that I would tell about a man who was on the same floor as Mom in the hospital that first week when she was in a regular room. This is a true story. He is a good natured, if challenging, little guy whose voice reminded me of a combination of Festus (from Gunsmoke days) and Grandpa McCoy (from the real McCoy’s). It was impossible not to notice him because when he was in a regular hospital room he would always (and frequently) yell for the nurses instead of pressing the call button. And when he wasn’t watching CNN, dance shows, or the children’s program Dora the Explorer, he often stood in the door wearing only a diaper – except for those few times when he forgot the diaper and displayed himself in all his . . . not so glorious form.

    He sometimes could not find his own bathroom, so would knock on Mom’s door and ask to use hers. My sister -- always polite – would show him back to his room with its own little bathroom. One afternoon my brother, other family members, and I were standing in the hall when this gentleman came to the door in his diaper and asked if any of us were nurses. My brother explained that we were not nurses and said to the man, “You need to find your button.” The man turned around, bent over, put his finger to his backside and yelled, “Buddy, I know where my butt is!”

    As the nurses were escorting him back into his room, he yelled, “That boy wanted to know where by butt is. I know where my butt is.” He turned back to John, “Why do you want to know where my butt is? Bud, go find your own butt.” My brother, who like most United Methodist pastors has had lots of training in sexual misconduct and knows not to comment on people’s butts, stood in the hall saying over and over in a calm voice. “Sir, I am not at all interested in your butt.” The little old man is no longer my mother’s neighbor and the hospital seems dull, if more peaceful, without him. Let's hear it for peace and quiet.

  • Our sweet father continues to be a challenge. When there are men around (his brother, son or son-in-law), he will let them park his car. But he doesn’t want his daughter dropping him off and picking him up in front of the hospital and parking his car. When I ask him to let me do that he always says, “I am the papa” (which translates “no.”) Yesterday when we were walking in the rain to his car as he was stepping over tree roots, sunken places in the grass, and two curbs, I tried to convince him to park in the handicap parking spaces from here on out. They are a lot closer, and the path is handicap accessible from those parking spaces to the hospital door. Because of the lupus and arthritis and whatever else, he has a handicap sticker and can rightly use those parking places. But he has so far refused to park there, because, as he explained to me, “What if some old people came and needed those handicap spaces?“ (!!???!!!)

    I may have now convinced him on the grounds that if he falls and breaks his leg (as he did last year), it will be a hardship on the rest of the family and he won’t be able to care for Mom. Basically, he will only agree to park there if we can convince him that it is selfish not to! Before the emergency surgery Friday before last, we had a good way to convince Dad to do whatever it was he needed to do (take his medicines, take his nap, eat regular meals, etc). We would say, “We are going to tell Mom on you.” It worked every time. With Mom out of it, we don’t have anything over Dad. We need her fully conscious again so we can have greater leverage.

    He does on occasion get tired of being bossed around by his children. Several weeks ago, I asked Mom and Dad to take a moment each day to find several things for which they could give thanks to God. The first day, Dad said that he was thankful, among other things, for his children. The next day, fed up with us, he thanked God that he and Mom stopped at only three kids. He couldn’t have survived any more than that. (Although when you count the original 3 and spouses, they now have 6 and we've all been a part of the healing process) Our daughters Anna [10] and Katherine [8] have told me, “You better be careful, Mom, or Mammaw and Pawpaw are going to put you in time out.”

  • Dad just took the girls, Len and I out to eat at Dixie CafĂ©, and we are all sitting in the living room at the moment reading or working on computer. (Len is reading the New York Times on his phone, Katherine and Anna the funny pages, and Dad his science fiction paperback book.) It is uncharacteristically quiet. Dad will head to bed soon. The girls have had had their baths and have put on their pajamas. I’ll read bedtime stories to them shortly, and Len will head to the hospital in a little while for the 8:30 to 10 visiting hours.

    One of the gifts of the visiting hours in ICU has been that we’ve had large blocks of time for prayer and reading scripture. It’s a powerful thing to sit with a sibling or my father or husband and lay our hands on Mom and pray together for her. And it has been a joy to read scripture – especially when Dad joins in on the ones he knows by heart.

    I’ve read to Mom from the Psalms a lot lately, including these verses from Psalm 27: “13 I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.14 Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”