My Sister Nancy

Nancy-Clark 2 adjToday, November 14, would have been my sister Nancy’s 82nd birthday. She died eleven years ago, just a few days after her 71st birthday. (My age now.) I was alone at our Christmas Mountain timeshare when she died unexpectedly. Mim called me with the shocking and sad news. I spent the rest of my retreat time at Christmas Mountain that week paging through a hymnal and playing all of Nancy’s favorite hymns on my portable keyboard.

I’m at Christmas Mountain again this year on November 14, finishing up the next book in my “Talking with God through Music” series, Hymns of Peace and Comfort. A lot of the hymns I’ve written about in this new book are the same hymns I played eleven years ago, as I was seeking comfort from God while I absorbed what it meant to lose a  sister. Music is truly a gift of God.

Nancy was almost like a second mom to me. She was eleven years older, so I saw her more as an adult than as a kid to play with. She was a big sister I was really proud of. She was smart (salutatorian of her high school class), musically talented (played piano, organ, and trombone), very Christian (she read her Bible and prayed every morning before getting out of bed), and she was always kind and loving to others. 

To say she had an influence on me is an understatement. I like to say that I was smarter than she was (I was valedictorian of my high school class), but she beat me in everything else. I learned to play piano and organ like her, but my arms were too short to play a trombone. When I learned to read, Nancy subscribed to a children’s daily devotional magazine for me to encourage me to read the Bible and pray every morning. I got in the habit, but I’m sure I missed more mornings than Nancy did. I have always tried to follow her example of being kind and loving to others. She was a really good role model for me.

Today is a good day to remember Nancy, and to thank God for all the wonderful people God has allowed me to spend time with in my life.

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Me and my siblings – Danny, Nancy, and me

A Vacation Filled with Kind Strangers

Last week Mim and I returned home from our third vacation of the year. We’re making up for the past 16 years of almost no vacations while we were doing assisted living in our home. This vacation had lessons for us to learn just as our earlier two vacations this year had.

  1. Our July vacation reminded us us that God is always watching out for us, even in the middle of a remote hay field in South Dakota, far from any cell towers, when we needed to call someone for help.

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  2. Our September vacation taught us that it’s time to pay attention to our bucket lists and begin to do some of the items on the list, like going to a conference to hear one of our favorite writers.

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  3. Our October vacation showed us that there are a lot of kind people in the world, and we need to notice them as well as to be kind to the strangers that cross our path.

Our plans for our October vacation were to take three days to drive to Cape Cod, one of our favorite vacation spots from our past; to spend four days on the Cape; and then to take another three days to drive home. We planned to pace our travel to spend one night in the Finger Lakes Region of New York so that we could have dinner and a nice long visit with Dorothy, an old friend from our Chicago years. We paced our drive home so that we could spend one night near Cleveland and have dinner and conversation with Claudia, a friend from my freshman year in college whom I hadn’t seen in more than fifty years. (We reconnected about ten years ago on Facebook.) 

Our purpose for this vacation was to simply relax and have a good time. That we certainly accomplished! We hit the fall colors at their peak. The scenery across Ohio, New York, and Massachusetts was beautiful. Most of our days were sunny and in the 60s – perfect  weather for a fall vacation.

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But the real theme for this vacation – the kindness of strangers – became apparent the first evening of the trip. We checked into our hotel in Maumee, Ohio, a suburb of Toledo, about 4:30. We settled into our room and went for a walk to get some exercise. We asked the hotel clerk where we could get good, thick, juicy bar burgers for dinner. She recommended the restaurant at the Holiday Inn across the street. We walked there, and enjoyed very juicy cheeseburgers, fries, and a bottle of wine.  As we were finishing up, our waitress came over to say that our bill (about $50) had been paid for us by a man sitting at the bar. When we protested to her that there must be some mistake because we don’t know anyone around here, the man came over to our booth to explain. 

He was a veteran who said he shouldn’t be alive. But he is, so he’s determined to do nice things for others whenever he can. He said he just wanted us to pay the tip. I said we would gladly do that, but then he changed his mind, pulled out a wad of bills, peeled off two twenties, handed them to the waitress and asked if that was enough. There were tears in her eyes. Then the man sat down in our booth and motioned his two brothers to come over. He’s from New Hampshire and was meeting his brothers from Minnesota. This hotel was a good midway point for them to meet. Their father had passed away this year, and his brothers were bringing him some of their father’s antiques. 

It turns out the three brothers had grown up in Deer Creek, a very small town in central Minnesota, near where a very good friend of ours had grown up. We enjoyed visiting with the three of them until their dinners were ready. The one who paid for our dinner said that he likes to do something “to make someone’s day” every day that he can. We assured him that he had made our day, and that we would pass on the kindness to someone else.

What a start to our vacation! The real theme for this vacation had been defined: looking for strangers who were going out of their way to be kind to strangers, and watching for opportunities for us to be kind to the strangers who crossed our path.

The next day we drove to the Finger Lakes Region of New York and had a wonderful evening visiting with our friend Dorothy. She was a nurse who had served in the military in Viet Nam in the 1970s, and then settled in Chicago for several years before returning to her roots in New York. We met her through Nurses Christian Fellowship when we all lived in Chicago. 

On Dorothy’s recommendation, we started the next morning at the National Women’s Rights Historical Park in Seneca Falls, only about 20 miles from where we had stayed. This is where we experienced our second “random act of kindness” by a stranger.

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We had just finished exploring the first building of the park and were ready to leave when a bus tour of about 25 women (and a few men) started streaming through the door, which blocked our exit. One of the women on the tour introduced herself to us and invited us to join their tour for a special presentation by one of the Park Service Rangers about the history of the women’s movement. The speaker was excellent, and we learned a lot of history, enough to convince us we need to add a longer visit to this park to our bucket list.

The next stop on our trip was Sturbridge, Massachusetts. We had planned to spend most of the next day exploring Old Sturbridge Village, a living museum we had visited about 35 years ago, but we discovered after checking into our hotel that off-season hours had just gone into effect, and the museum would be closed that day. So we had to come up with Plan B.fullsizeoutput_2b82

We decided to drive to Plainfield, Connecticut, the small town where I had been a high school English teacher from 1970 – 1972, my first job out of college. We drove around Plainfield looking for the high school, and eventually found it, but the building I remembered wasn’t there. In its place was a  much larger school. As we were walking around the school taking pictures, a school bus driver came over to us and asked if we would like her to take a picture of us in front of one of the most beautiful trees. (Obviously, she was our next kind stranger!)

The second “kind stranger” to approach us that day was a security guard who came out of the school to be sure we were not there to shoot anyone or cause other mayhem. After I assured him that I was a former teacher of the school from almost 50 years ago, he explained why nothing looked familiar – that the site of the old school was now a field for track events, and that the new school had been built on the land behind it.

We hadn’t even made it to the Cape yet, and already four strangers had impressed us by their kindness. 

The pattern of running into kind strangers continued throughout the vacation – from the staff at the timeshare who went out of their way to be helpful, to the other guests at the timeshare who generously shared travel tips.

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Our timeshare was right on the ocean. We went for short morning and evening walks on the beach, but we spent the majority of our time exploring Cape Cod National Seashore.

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Then every evening we returned to our timeshare to watch the sunset over the ocean.

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On Cape Cod there’s so much to see…fLhxL7P+QliXyU283wi4Kw
And watch…iCn4lBMlRu2JyWZBRcnPtA

And hear…fullsizeoutput_2b85

And taste…fullsizeoutput_2af9

Thanks to the kindness of strangers, we knew just where to go to experience all these things at their best.

The theme of the trip continued throughout our drive home. On the ninth evening of the trip we had dinner in a Lebanese restaurant near Cleveland with my college friend Claudia and her husband Ron, whom I had never met before and was therefore a stranger to us. We had a wonderful time visiting and learning more about how we each had spent the last fifty years. And the stranger, Ron, paid for the dinner. Not quite the same situation as the first dinner paid for us by a kind stranger, but definitely a continuation of the theme of this vacation.

fullsizeoutput_2b45The last night of the trip we stayed in Chesterton, Indiana near the Indiana Dunes National Park. The owner of the hotel was the final kind stranger of our trip. After being sure he gave us the best room possible to meet our needs, he gave us detailed directions about what roads to take to get to the Park Welcome Center and where to go once we got there.

Thanks to him we were able to get a good overview of the Park in the very short length of time we had to explore it.

The first night of this vacation set the tone for the whole trip – the kindness of strangers.

As I’ve been thinking a lot about kindness the last couple weeks, I remembered a book I read a few years ago, The Kindness of Strangers: Penniless across America by Mike McIntyre. The book was written by a journalist who hitch-hiked across America without a penny in his pocket. He wanted to see whether or not he would find kindness in strangers who might help him on his journey. The book consists of forty short chapters. Each one tells the story of an encounter with a stranger who showed him kindness in some way. It was a fascinating book.

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I wrote a blog post about this book and a couple other books on the theme of kindness in December 2016. Here’s the link.

The best thing that veteran in Maumee, Ohio did for us the first night of our vacation wasn’t paying for our dinner. It was reminding us to be kind to one another, especially to strangers.

But the best part of this vacation was coming home again, as always. Floey was so glad to see us that she crossed her paws and listened to us tell her all about our adventures. She couldn’t take her eyes off us.

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Getting Serious about a Bucket List

The term “bucket list” came into widespread use after the 2007 movie Bucket List was released, starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. The movie was about two old men who each had a terminal cancer diagnosis. Together they decided to do everything they could on their lists of “things to do before I kick the bucket.” 

Although I’ve never seen the movie, I’ve picked up the term myself, and occasionally refer to something I really want to do sometime before I die as being on “my bucket list.” I don’t have a formalized “bucket list” yet, although I hope to create one before the end of this year. Now that Mim and I are sort of retired, we better get busy doing all the things we really want to do before it’s too late. As you may know, I’m a planner, and I need to have a list before I can plan and schedule all the details. I’m ready to get started. 

We already accomplished the first item on our bucket list! We saw an opportunity and jumped at it – even though our list isn’t formalized yet. Accomplishing our first bucket list item was an amazing experience, which motivates me to do the planning that will help us accomplish all the other things on our yet-to-be-defined bucket list.

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Joan Chittister

One thing that Mim and I have wanted to do for several years is to hear Joan Chittister speak in person. She is one of our favorite authors. She’s a Benedictine sister who has written over 60 books, and who speaks all over the world. She’s in her 80s. I receive her email newsletter every Monday morning. Three weeks ago, on August 19, her email provided a link to her upcoming speaking engagements. On Tuesday, September 2, she would be speaking at the National Association of Older Adults Conference (NOAC) at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. That was in two weeks. I asked Mim if we should be spontaneous and try to go to the conference. She agreed we should try to see if we could do it.

I googled NOAC to find out about the conference. The Church of the Brethren puts on a week-long national conference every other year for their older adult members at Lake Junaluska Conference Center in western North Carolina. For every conference they schedule three keynote speakers, one each for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday mornings. (This year’s speakers would be Joan Chittister, Drew Hart, and Ted Swartz with Ken Medema assisting him with background music.) NOAC also provides worship services every evening led by five of their own Brethren preachers. (Three of the five “Brethren” preachers were women this year.) In the afternoons they offer a variety of activities including bus trips to nearby attractions, Q&A sessions with keynote speakers, arts and crafts, service projects, golf, boating, etc. It looked like we would be going to an old-fashioned Bible camp for old people, right next to the Smoky Mountains!

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I called the NOAC coordinator at the Church of the Brethren national office to see if registration was still open, if conference center housing was still available, and if non-members (e.g. Lutherans) could come. The answers were all yes, so we figured it was meant to be that our first bucket list item would be accomplished.

Although we were acting spontaneously by going to this conference to hear Joan Chittister speak, my planning instinct kicked into gear, and I spent most of the next two weeks planning the details: figuring out the best driving route, booking hotels for the night down and the night back, finding replacements for my church organist duties, finding someone to take care of our dog Floey, preparing packing lists for Floey as well as for Mim and me, etc. This trip was really going to happen.

Hearing Joan Chittister speak in person was certainly a major highlight of the week. She talked about “the common good” – what it is, and how we can strive for it. She’s as dynamic a speaker as she is a dynamic writer. Of course, we bought a few more of her books, and had her sign them. 

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Seeing Joan Chittister speak in person at NOAC was the perfect bucket list item for us to start with. Not only did we see Sister Joan speak, we also saw other keynote speakers and Brethren preachers speak, who were also excellent, including:  

  • fullsizeoutput_2a2eKen Medema, the composer of “Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying,” invited conference attendees to tell him a story of a recent challenge they have encountered, and he would create a song about it on the spot and sing it back to us. He composed about half a dozen new songs during his hour-long session. Wow! How inspiring!
  • Ted Swartz, an actor and comedian, retold Bible stories in ways that helped us gain new insights into the stories. Ken Medema provided background music to amplify some of these new ideas.
  • Drew Hart, a college professor, activist, and writer, talked about his personal experience of racial injustice as a young black man and how he deals with it now.

Prior to this conference I knew nothing about the Church of the Brethren. I learned that they are one of the denominations that emphasizes peace and service; and much like the Mennonite Church, they are pacifists. They are very action oriented in terms of encouraging members to work to help others, just as Christ did. Some of the afternoon activities available at the conference were service opportunities, including: reading to students at the local elementary school, and assembling hygiene kits for the Southern Ohio/Kentucky District Disaster Services Team.

Meal times provided opportunities to meet other conference attendees and learn about their lives, churches, reasons for coming to the conference, and so on. Even though I’m an introvert, I enjoyed these conversations immensely.  John David, a retired pastor, and his wife Sharyn invited us to seek them out if we ever needed a hug because of feeling unwelcome for being non-Brethren or for being a married lesbian couple. (We never felt unwelcome; in contrast we were very warmly welcomed.) Glen, a retired physicist, and Carolyn, a church organist, talked about helping women who have been abused. Glen also rebuilds old computers to give away. A 50-year-old newly retired physician talked about searching for service opportunities to get involved with, now that he finally has time to do good things for others. Over the week, we made about a dozen new friends, that we may hope to see at a future NOAC conference. On our way home Mim said this was the best conference she’d ever attended. I think I agree.

If every bucket list item provides us with as many side benefits as going to this conference to hear Joan Chittister did, then we’ll be experiencing heaven on earth with each new adventure – a perfect prelude to the next life!

I need to get busy formalizing and planning the details of our bucket list! We’re already off to an amazing start. I want to do my part to be sure it continues.

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Vacation Needed!

fullsizeoutput_200d“Hey, Mom, we need to talk. These last few weeks have been very different. You and Mim went away on vacation and you didn’t take me along. Instead you sent me away to stay with a couple different friends. Why did you do that? I don’t understand. Why did you go on vacation?” Floey looked up at me with a very puzzled expression on her face.

“I guess it’s time for a long talk about vacations. But first, tell me about your time staying with your friends. You had a good time with your friends, didn’t you?”

“Of course I did. Denise is one of my favorite people. And her husband Steve, and their grandkids are fun people to spend time with. They fed me really well and they let me chase rabbits in their yard. I had a great time living with them for a few days, although I missed you and Mim. And then after a few days they took me over to Peggy’s place. I really like Peggy and her two dogs Buddy and Quincy. And Peggy’s sister Bridie was there too. I had a really good time playing with all four of them for several days. But it would have been better if you had come with me, and we all could have had a good time together. Why did you go away? That’s what I don’t understand.”

“Floey, you have lived with us for almost five years, and you have never had the opportunity to learn about vacations. We used to take a one- or two-week-long vacation every year. But when we started doing assisted living in our home, about 20 years ago, we had to stop taking vacations. That was too bad, but necessary.”

“But why do you have to go away on vacation?” Floey asked.

“Vacations are important to our mental and spiritual health as well as to our physical health. Vacations allow us to escape completely from our daily routines. We learn to approach activities and challenges from a totally different perspective. On the third day of our vacation, on Saturday, we faced a significant challenge.”

“Oh, no. Tell me about it, Mom. Were you OK?” Floey looked quite concerned.

“Well, Floey, do you know why we took a road trip to North and South Dakota for this vacation?”

“I think you were going to a wedding out there, right?”

Mim baby pic adj“You’re right. Mim spent the first six years of her life in the Dakotas. Her dad was a Lutheran pastor and served four small country churches on the far northwestern edge of South Dakota. On Christmas and Easter he went to all four churches to lead worship services, a circuit of over a hundred miles on dirt roads. On normal Sundays, he alternated churches, leading worship at two churches each Sunday. Mim’s family has maintained close friendships with some of these church families over the decades since they left in 1953. Several months ago Mim received an invitation to the wedding of the grandson of one of their closest friends, the Howe family. We decided to plan our first vacation “in retirement” around this wedding. The wedding venue was to be the Howe Hereford Ranch, which spans the North and South Dakota border on the western edge of the two states. We took two days to drive the 950 miles out there, and stayed at the Tip Top Motel in Hettinger, ND, the town closest to the ranch, about 30 miles away by mostly gravel roads.”

“That was a long drive for just a wedding, Mom.”

“But it was a really special wedding, Floey. Mim got to see family friends she hadn’t seen in almost thirty years. When we still lived in Chicago, Mim and I took some summer vacation road trips to Hettinger, bringing Mim’s mom along with us, so she could visit with her many friends. But we haven’t been back to the Dakotas since Mim’s mom had her stroke in 1993.”

“Well, I guess the wedding was a good chance to see a lot of those old family friends. But tell me more about your vacation, and more specifically your challenges,” Floey urged.

fullsizeoutput_29d3“On Saturday morning we drove from the Tip Top Motel to the ranch to be sure we remembered how to find it. We got there about 11:30 and found the ranch buzzing with activity. Dozens of family and friends were hard at work getting everything ready for the 5:00 wedding – putting centerpieces on the tables in the barn for the reception, setting planks on top of bales of hay in the closest pasture for seating a couple hundred guests for the wedding ceremony, preparing salads in the ranch house kitchen, ironing the groomsmen’s vests in the living room, etc. We found Avis, the groom’s aunt in the kitchen, and we asked her for directions to Golden Valley Church – the country church where Mim had been baptized almost 72 years ago. We had packed a picnic lunch for ourselves before we left the motel in Hettinger. Our plan was to try to find the Golden Valley Church and have a picnic there. We had most of the day for exploring, with the wedding not being until 5:00.

fullsizeoutput_29d1“Avis gave us directions and warned us to be careful. They had received a lot of rain earlier in the week. She thought we could get through, but she wasn’t sure. We drove several miles over gravel roads when we saw the little white church on top of a hill. We turned off onto the dirt road. About a mile up that road we saw some muddy ruts ahead of us, but it looked like another car had driven around the dip in the road and continued up the road. We decided to try the same thing. Bad decision! We were promptly stuck in the mud, and we couldn’t drive out. We were good and stuck!”

“Oh no, Mom. What did you do?” Floey looked worried.

“Mim was driving and she felt awful. The only people we knew we could call for help were the groom’s family, people who were already as busy as they could be with wedding preparations. I pulled my iPhone out of my pocket to see if I had Avis’ phone number. I read it to Mim, who used her trusty old flip phone to call. Charlene, the groom’s mother, answered the landline phone in the ranch house. She said not to worry. She’d find someone to come tow us out. Meanwhile, Avis heard about our predicament and called Barb at a neighboring ranch, closer to Golden Valley Church. Avis called us back to tell us that Barb and her son, Brandon, were on their way to tow us out.”

“Wow. They sure seem friendly out there. Then what happened?” Floey wanted to hear the rest of the story.

“We decided to eat our picnic lunch in the car while we waited for out rescuers. As soon as we finished eating, a pick-up truck pulled up behind us. Barb and Brandon hopped out of the truck and I got out of the car.”

“What about Mim?” Floey asked.

Version 2“She stayed behind the wheel. She was wearing sandals and was afraid she’d get stuck in the muddy ruts just outside her car door. Then Brandon got a rope and a hook from his truck and hooked the back of our car to the front of his truck. Mim put the car in reverse and Brandon pulled the Prius backwards out of the mud. When on the hard and dry dirt road, Mim stepped out of the car, and the four of us stood and talked for about 15 minutes. Then Brandon directed Mim how to turn the car around safely on the dirt road (between a corn field and a hay field), and stayed till we were headed in the right direction to get back to the ranch. Then Barb and Brandon left. They also had to get home to get ready for the wedding.”

“They really were helpful strangers, Mom.”

fullsizeoutput_29d9“Yes, they were. We ended up sitting with Barb and Avis at the reception, and really enjoyed getting to know Barb better. But that’s getting ahead in the story. Mim still wanted to see Golden Valley Church, so we walked almost a mile up the hill to the church. It wasn’t locked, so we could go inside to fully explore the sanctuary, the basement kitchen, and the cemetery out back. Mim recognized several of the names on the gravestones. The church no longer has an active congregation, but the building is on the National Historic Registry. Former members of the congregation, including Avis and Barb, try to keep the building in quite good shape, and it’s still occasionally used for weddings and family gatherings.”

“After all that, did you get back in time for the wedding?”

“After exploring the church, we walked back to the car, and then drove as fast as we dared on dirt and gravel roads to get back to the motel in Hettinger to get cleaned up and dressed for the wedding. We arrived back at the ranch by 5:05, almost in time for the 5:00 wedding. Fortunately, the wedding started closer to 5:30 than 5:00.”

“Were you ever lucky the wedding started a little late!”

fullsizeoutput_29d7“Yes, we were, Floey. Mim actually drove the 55 mph speed limit on those gravel roads to the ranch – something I was sure she’d never do! It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day for the wedding. The ushers handed us each a bottle of water as they ushered us to the hay bale seating. It was a big, beautiful wedding with six bridesmaids and six groomsmen, plus a flower girl and a ring bearer. After the ceremony, we strolled leisurely back to the barn for the reception. As we talked with other guests, we quickly learned that our reputation had preceded us. We were the two women from Wisconsin who had gotten stuck in the mud up by Golden Valley Church earlier in the afternoon. What everyone was talking about was that we actually got cell service out in the fields. That was unheard of for that area. It had never occurred to us that our cell phones might not work out in the middle of nowhere. Everyone we talked with agreed that God was watching out for us. Somehow God must have kept some angels very busy boosting the signals to and from the cell towers.”

fullsizeoutput_29d8“Really? Do you believe that, Mom?” asked Floey.

“Sure. That’s the only explanation that makes any sense, Floey. That’s what I meant when I said vacations enable us to think about different things, and to see things from different perspectives. Without all the daily distractions and constant interruptions that we try to block out at home so that we can keep focused on our usual routines, on vacation we don’t have to protect our routines. We can more easily see and think about how God is taking care of us, both through the actions of strangers and possibly even through some occasional divine intervention. That’s why vacations are important.”

“I think I see,” Floey responded.

“We have more examples of God watching out for us on this vacation – like when we were approached by a wild buffalo as we picnicked in Teddy Roosevelt National Park – but I think you get the idea…”

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Moving on to the Next Phase of Our Lives

ddKDiBP7QtqhQpiYFYQsPgMonday of this week seemed really strange. It was the first day of the next phase in our lives. The day before, Anna, our last long-term assisted living resident, moved on to her next life. She had lived with us for eight years, and had just celebrated her 98th birthday a couple weeks ago. She died peacefully last Sunday with Mim holding her hand.

Now Mim and I are beginning the next phase in our lives. We’re planning to be “retired” for several months while we recuperate and clean house. (We’re both in our early 70s.) But then we plan to work a little more. We have talked informally with Rainbow Hospice Care about the possibility of Rainbow referring families to us who feel they can no longer care at home for their loved one who is receiving hospice care. We would care for their loved one in our home for their last few days, weeks, or possibly months. But we aren’t ready to start doing that yet. We need a break first. That’s our plan.

In the immediate past phase of our lives we have provided assisted living in our home. We have done this for over 16 years.

Whispering Winds Retreat Haven

The previous phase of our lives had been turning our remodeled farmhouse into a bed and breakfast. We welcomed a couple thousand people into our home over a five-year period. We began the B&B in 1998. We loved it, and we experienced steady growth in the business. By late 1999 we decided to put an addition onto our house to be able to accommodate people in wheelchairs and with other mobility issues. We named the addition our Nightingale Suite. We became one of a handful of B&Bs in Wisconsin that were wheelchair accessible. But in order to do that, Mim and I had to become politically active to change the Wisconsin B&B law to permit additions to be built onto B&Bs. Getting the law changed was the most frustrating experience of our lives. But with lots of help from other B&B owners and a few savvy state legislators, the law was changed, and we were able to complete our addition.

On September 11, 2001, the B&B phase of our lives began an abrupt change. After 911, tourism dropped drastically all over the country, all around the world actually. Our steady growth in “room nights” for our Country Comforts Bed & Breakfast came to an end. After  several months of having many more empty rooms than full rooms, we decided we needed to re-think how we would earn a living. That’s when we decided to re-christen Country Comforts Bed & Breakfast to Country Comforts Assisted Living, capitalizing on Mim’s experience as a registered nurse. In November, 2002 we welcomed our first two assisted living residents.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe’ve been in the assisted living phase of our lives for 16 years and 5 months. During that time we’ve had a total of only 10 days without having a resident to care for in our home, and those days were all in the first few months of the business, 16 years ago. Fortunately, we have always had two or three excellent caregivers to give us a few hours off each week, and even an occasional night or two away. But even during our time away, Mim has always been on call as the nursing expert. 

In our 16+ years, we have cared for 20 people in our home, all but three of them through their last moment on earth. (Two recovered enough to go home, and one had to move on to a facility equipped to handle patients with advanced dementia.) In addition, we have cared for four other individuals outside of our home through their last days. We’re truly thankful for all the people, both residents and their families, God has brought into our lives throughout this phase of our lives.

Selma and baby Pun croppedkWe had good preparation for the assisted living phase of our lives by caring for our parents. In 1987, we cared for my mom for the last six weeks of her life. She and my dad came to Chicago to live with us while we cared for her. A few years later, in 1991, Mim and I took some time off from our work in Chicago to come to Cambridge to care for my dad throughout the last couple weeks of his life. And finally, in 1993, a few month’s after we moved to Wisconsin, Mim’s mother had a stroke that left her paralyzed on her left side. We cared for her in our home for almost five years.

Although both Mim and I have loved being in the assisted living phase of our lives, we’re ready for a little break. And on Monday of this week, that break began. It feels really strange to be able to come and go as we please, and not have to be sure our residents are cared for while we’re gone.

“Christ in Our Home” is a quarterly devotional booklet published by Augsburg Fortress in Minneapolis. Yesterday the scripture reading was from the end of the first chapter of Matthew, where an angel of the Lord told Joseph in a dream to marry his pregnant fiancee, Mary – that God had a plan for their lives. The comments in the devotional booklet really caught my attention as I was reflecting on the changes happening in my own life.

I have a hunch that most of us can relate to Joseph, because most of us have had something happen in our lives that took us off our planned route… Joseph later found out that God had a plan for him the whole time. It wasn’t Joseph’s original plan, but it was much better…

When life diverts us onto a detour, it is comforting to remember that God is with us, that God is still in control. And when we trust and believe in this, there is no detour too great to cause us to lose our way. When our lives seem out of control, we can trust that God is still in control and has a plan for us… [p. 82]

Mim and I have exciting plans for the next phase of our lives. Whether things happen exactly according to our plans, or not, we learned from the B&B and assisted living phases of our lives that God’s plans may be even greater than ours. We’re eager to see what’s next!M-M Close-up - cropped

The Love of a Dog

fullsizeoutput_281cOn February 23 we celebrated Anna’s 98th birthday. Anna has been living with us as an assisted living resident for eight years now. Some of her family members came for a little party, and everyone, especially Anna, had a really good time.

One week later, Anna had a stroke. It was about noon on Friday. She had walked with her walker over to the kitchen counter for lunch. After she had been sitting there a few minutes, she started to look a little sleepy and unsteady. Both Mim and I got up to check on her, helped her into a wheelchair, wheeled her into her bedroom, and then helped her into bed. As Mim checked her blood pressure and had her squeeze her hands and did other diagnostics, our dog Floey jumped into bed with Anna, and refused to leave her side. Anna giggled at Floey’s devotion and she reached down to pet her. Floey is a good friend of Anna’s, but she’s never hopped into bed with her before. Floey knew something was wrong, and she sprang into action to help Anna every bit as much as Mim and I had. 

Floey showed Anna just how much she loved her, and how important she was to her. I foolishly tried to coax Floey out of the bed with a treat to be sure she wouldn’t be in our way. She wouldn’t budge. Her place was with Anna. She loves Anna, and she knew Anna needed her to comfort her.

That’s kind of like God’s love, I think. At least, I think I begin to understand a little more what God’s love is like when I see Floey’s love for Anna.

We don’t know the final outcome of Anna’s stroke. She might be with us another couple years to make it ten years with us at Country Comforts Assisted Living, and a hundred years on this earth. Or she might not. What we do know is that she’s in the care of a loving God. And Floey is helping us understand what that means. 

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Floey and Anna watching TV together

A Glimpse of God’s Love

Last Saturday, Mim and I tried to drive to Chicago, normally about a two and a half hour drive, for a memorial service. Unfortunately, we got only as far as the distant northwest suburbs before we decided to turn around and go home. Although the weather forecast for Chicago was to get only 1 to 3 inches of snow, visibility had diminished to just a few car lengths, and the roads were getting pretty slippery. We thought it would be wiser to write a letter to our friend’s adult children to explain how much we admired their dad and how much we learned about God’s love from him.

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Jon presented me with a chocolate cake when I retired from the CCHC board.

Jon Beran was one of three founding doctors of Circle Christian Health Center (CCHC), a not-for-profit clinic on the far west side of Chicago – a very poor and violent, mostly African American neighborhood, and a medically under-served part of Chicago. Mim worked at the clinic in the early 1980s after she completed her advanced practice degree as a nurse practitioner. I served on the board of CCHC when I completed my MBA. We both chose Jon to be our personal physician. He was a good doctor, a good listener, and perhaps the kindest, most gentle, and most humble person I’ve ever met. 

When Jon was in medical school in the early 1970s, he attended Circle Church, an Evangelical Free congregation that met in rented space – the Teamster’s Union Hall on the near west side of Chicago, close to Circle Campus of the University of Illinois. The mostly college-aged and young professional members of the congregation enthusiastically committed their lives to serving Christ in their chosen professions wherever the needs were greatest. 

At that time, one of the most socially and economically distressed neighborhoods in Chicago was Austin, on the far west side of the city. A group of people within the Circle Church congregation decided to move into Austin to serve the people of that community. Circle Urban Ministries was founded as the network that would link a medical clinic, a counseling center, a legal aid practice, a youth center, and eventually a church. 

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Staff of CCHF in the late 1970s. Jon and Nita on left.

Jon and his wife Nita (a nurse) bought a house in Austin. They had two children and raised them in that neighborhood. (Their son has become an architect and their daughter has become a family practice physician, like her dad.) Both Jon and Nita spent their entire careers serving the people of Austin through CCHC. Nita passed away two years ago. Mim and I made it to her visitation. It was obvious by all the people from the neighborhood at the funeral home that Nita and Jon were very much loved by their community.

Mom crocheting

Mom kept crocheting afghans for babies of teenage mothers in Chicago until just a few weeks before she died.

One of my favorite memories of Jon relates to my mom. When she was in the last stages of liver cancer, Mom and Dad came to live with Mim and me in Chicago for her last six weeks. Although we got Mom signed up to receive hospice care while she lived with us, she needed to have a local doctor see her and prescribe medications. We asked Jon if he would be her doctor. Of course, he said yes. Mom was too weak to ride to the clinic, so Jon made house calls to see her. We lived pretty far from Austin, about a 30-minute drive or 45-minute trip on the “L” each way, but Jon came over to see her as often as she needed him, usually coming by “L.” He carried his stethoscope and other doctoring tools in a Jewel Food Store plastic bag. He didn’t carry a doctor’s bag because he didn’t want to look like a doctor who might be carrying drugs.

Besides caring for Mom’s physical needs, Jon also took time to listen to Mom talk about how she was trusting God to heal her. I didn’t eavesdrop on the whole conversation, but I know Jon somehow related her trust in God to the trust his children needed to have in him when he was teaching them how to swim. They needed to trust that he would take care of them even though they didn’t totally understand how everything was going to work. Then Jon prayed with Mom.

As I mentioned in this blog last week, my special word for 2019 is LOVE, as in the LOVE OF GOD. One of the books I’m reading to kick off my year-long reflection on LOVE is BUMPING INTO GOD: 35 stories of finding grace in unexpected places by Dominic Grassi, a Catholic priest who lives in Chicago. From the back cover of the book,

fullsizeoutput_2785A natural storyteller, Dominic Grassi invites readers to share his warm memories of life in Chicago over the past five decades. He shows how God is reflected in the people we meet every day: a butcher, a bookstore owner, a short-order cook. 

And, I would add, a special doctor named Jon. I’m sure thousands of people have caught a glimpse of God’s love by bumping into Jon sometime in their lives. I know my mom did. And so did I.