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Ghostly Tricks

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Doris and Mary having a good laugh with Abbey – our best caregiver of all. (About 10 years ago)

Over the past 14 years, Mim and I have cared for more than twenty elderly people who have lived with us in our home, usually one or two residents at a time. Almost all of them have lived out their last days with us. Some of them lived with us for just a few days, some a few months, and some a few years. We have been honored to have cared for them as they journeyed from this life into the next life.

Today is All Saints Day, a day to remember each one of them, along with all the other people who have been close to us throughout our lives, and who are no longer with us on earth.

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Mim helping Doris get dressed up for Halloween.

One of our former residents, Doris, has actually been on my mind a lot lately. Doris lived with us almost four years, and she and her family became close members of our extended assisted living family.

Doris had a good sense of humor and liked to joke around with people. She often warned us that she was going to come back and haunt us after she died. Well, she’s come back. Really! I didn’t want to believe that she would follow through on her joking threat, but I can’t think of any other explanation for what has happened.

Several months ago I replaced my 5-year-old HP laptop with my first Apple product, a MacBook. The biggest challenge I had with my transition into the Mac world was getting my big fancy Konica Minolta laser printer/copier to work with the Mac. After hours of trial and error plus long phone calls to Apple Support, I finally was able to download a third-party printer driver that works pretty well – not perfectly, but at least I can print most documents.

A couple days after I finally got the printer working, I tried to boot it up one morning, and it was completely dead. I tried everything I could think of – with no success. I finally placed a service call with Konica Minolta to have them come out to fix it. The printer appeared to be completely dead. Not even the copier function would work.

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My Konica Minolta printer/copier is an excellent color laser printer, but it’s big and heavy.

This printer/copier is a large, heavy, floor model – something I don’t move around very often when I clean house. But I decided to do a little cleaning that day so my office would look better for the Konica Minolta repairman. I tugged the printer in one direction, then the other, to “walk” it away from the wall so that I could vacuum behind it. I couldn’t believe what I saw! The printer cord was plugged into a surge protector/power strip, and the power strip was not plugged into the wall outlet. It was plugged into itself! I called Mim over to take a look. She was as shocked as I was. I unplugged the power strip from itself, plugged it into the wall outlet, turned the printer/copier on, and it worked just fine. I immediately called Konica Minolta to cancel the service call.

img_1600Mim and I tried our hardest to figure out how that could have happened. Did one of us sleep-walk (which we’ve never done as far as we know), struggle to pull the printer/copier away from the wall, mess up the cords, and then shove the printer/copier back in place – all without waking up or making enough noise to wake up the other person or even our dog? Did someone break into the house the previous night while we were asleep and do it as a practical joke? The printer had worked the night before, but not that morning.

Hmmm. Practical joke… The only person we could think of who would do a practical joke like that was the ghost of Doris… In my mind, I’ve given Doris a high-five, and we’ve had a good laugh over it.

I’m sure Doris isn’t the only friendly ghost who has visited our home. The most usual time for ghosts and angels to visit us has been when one of our residents is near death, and a deceased parent, or spouse, or even a stranger comes into the room of the person who is near death. This visitor has come to comfort, or possibly escort the resident to the next life. Mim and I have never seen any of the special visitors ourselves, but several residents have told us about them.

All Saints Day is a time to remember all who have died in Christ, and who are now gathering in heaven to praise God. That includes Doris, even though she may sometimes sneak back down to earth to play a practical joke on us.

The image of a crowd of saints gathering together in heaven is suggested several places in the Bible. For example, Revelation 7:9-10 says:

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

In 1864 William Waltham How, an Anglican bishop, wrote a hymn using this image. Forty-two years later, Ralph Vaughan Williams composed a new tune for the hymn, creating one of the most moving and dramatic of all Christian hymns – “For All the Saints.” Here are the first and last verses. (You may want to google the title for the rest of the words.)

For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who They by faith before the world confessed,
Thy name, of Jesus, be forever blest.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia! Alleluia!

For me, the highlight of All Saints Sunday is playing this hymn on a pipe organ and hearing the congregation loudly singing the joyful words. It puts a lump in my throat every year.

On the other end of the musical spectrum is a spiritual that describes the same image – “When the Saints Go Marching In.” There are many different verses for this song, both sacred and secular, the usual first and last verses are:

O when the saints go marching in,
O when the saints go marching in,
O Lord, I want to be in that number
when the saints go marching in.

O when they crown Him Lord of all,
O when they crown Him Lord of all,
O Lord, I want to be in that number
when they crown Him Lord of all.

In Cambridge, my hometown, the “Fight Song” for the high school football and basketball teams is “When the Jays Go Marching In.” (The Cambridge mascot is the blue jay.)

Back to our assisted living residents that I’m remembering today. Helen had been my first grade teacher, and had always been an enthusiastic fan of our school sports teams. (Her husband had been the high school principal and the football coach.)

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It was a special privilege to care for my first grade teacher in her last months.

The most fun I ever had playing the organ for a funeral was for Helen’s. For the postlude I played the majestic descending opening line of “For All the Saints” and then played its mirror image in the ascending opening line of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I kept weaving these two tunes together as the people processed out of the church. It was the most fun juxtaposition of very different melodies on the same subject I’ve ever played around with.

I don’t know if Helen thought I was playing a joke on her by making up that postlude, or not, but I’m pretty sure she was smiling along with me and her friends and relatives as they processed out of the church.

Thanks to Doris and Helen and many of our other residents, there’s no doubt in my mind that ghosts and saints still have a sense of humor.

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Our “All Saints Wall” where pictures are mounted of all the people we have cared for in our home.

God’s Garden – and Mine

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I think God laughed a little at my lazy approach to gardening on the deck this summer, but decided to bless it anyway. The lettuce did very well in its bed of Miracle-Gro® Potting Mix. We’ve had several salads, and the lettuce keeps coming back when I cut it. It’s not quite as sweet and tender as it was a month ago, but it still makes a good salad. We had a few little radishes, but I think I made the mistake of planting too many seeds too close together. I wanted to get as many radishes as possible out of my bag of Miracle-Gro® Potting Mix. A couple weeks ago I pulled out the remaining radish greens with their scrawny roots, and planted the rest of the radish seeds from the package. I spaced each seed more appropriately, and this crop is coming up nicely. We’ll see if July is too hot to grow radishes, or not. It’s all an experiment.

IMG_1268The three tomato plants are doing very well. I transplanted each plant from the Deerfield Greenhouse into a larger pot filled with Miracle-Gro® Potting Mix. We’ve been eating fresh-picked tomatoes almost every day for weeks. Wonderful! A few of the leaves on two plants are starting to turn yellow, so I don’t know how long our prolific tomato harvest will last, but we’re certainly enjoying it now.

Fortunately, God has blessed us most from the gardens of our friends who still live in the country and have really big gardens. They have brought us asparagus, beans, cucumbers, different varieties of tomatoes and radishes, and various kinds of summer squash. And black raspberries!

Can you believe that the same God who thought up the idea of asparagus, lettuce, radishes, cucumbers, and tomatoes, also created black raspberries! And just think about all the produce that is yet to come as gardens continue to mature this summer and fall!

God spoke: “Earth, green up! Grow all varieties of seed-bearing plants, every sort of fruit-bearing tree.” And there it was. Earth produced green seed-bearing plants, all varieties, and fruit-bearing trees of all sorts. God saw that it was good. It was evening, it was morning – Day Three. [Genesis 1:11-13 The Message]

I’m discovering that God thought about nourishment for all of creation, not just us. This morning I went for a short walk in our back yard, near the pond. Lots of wild milkweeds are in full bloom. I expect to see many happy butterflies fluttering around any day now.

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Five years ago I wrote about “An Abundance of Tomatoes and Thistles” in this blog. I just discovered (by trying to follow an inactive link) that my blog posts from 2011 are no longer available on the Internet. (I switched blogging applications in 2012.) Here’s a flashback to when Whispering Winds was an active retreat center, and I was learning to share “my” tomatoes with God’s chipmunks. (This blog post is also included in my first book, LISTENING FOR GOD: 52 Reflections on Everyday Life.)

August 22, 2011:
This is a good year for cherry tomatoes at Whispering Winds. In the spring I planted a couple plants of my favorite variety, “Sweet 100” and one new variety that was simply identified on the tag as “large red cherry tomato.” For the past few weeks Charlie Chipmunk and I have been sharing an early abundance of the “large red cherry tomatoes” and a few of the “Sweet 100’s.” Charlie has decided that every tomato he tastes is worth eating in its entirety – no more taking one bite out of the tomato and then moving on to the next one like he did last year. This way, there are plenty of tomatoes for both of us, and for our guests, too. Unfortunately, Charlie has figured out that the “Sweet 100 s” are the sweetest of all tomatoes, so he gets most of them. But the “large red cherry tomatoes” are good, too, so everyone is happy.

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Charlie Chipmunk keeping a close eye on the tomatoes in the raised bed at Whispering Winds.

This is also a good year for thistles. That might not seem like a good thing, unless you’re a goldfinch, or someone who loves to see goldfinches. They’re my favorite songbird. Seeing a goldfinch perched on top of a bright purple thistle blossom reminds me of taking walks with my mom and seeing goldfinches perched on thistles along the roadside. She called them “wild canaries.” I’ve seen more goldfinches this year than ever. Almost every time I take a walk I see one or two, and smile, remembering my walks with Mom.

Late summer is a time for enjoying the abundance in God’s creation – the abundance of cherry tomatoes if you’re a person or a chipmunk; the abundance of thistle seeds if you’re a goldfinch.

I love the sights, sounds, and tastes of summer. As I walked around the pond this morning snapping pictures of the milkweeds with my smartphone, I was startled by the splash of a frog leaping into the pond right next to me. I guess I startled him, too. Then I started listening more closely to all the birds singing.

Last Saturday was the perfect day to enjoy summer with all our senses. I grilled really long hotdogs from Jones Dairy Farm in nearby Fort Atkinson, Mim cut up a fresh cucumber into a vinegar and sugar water mixture, and all of us – Carolyn, Anna, Martha (the three 95-year-olds), Floey, Mim, and me – had a picnic on the deck, with sweet, juicy watermelon for dessert (plus a few Oreos).

God certainly knows how to delight our senses!

Happy Summertime!

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Floey served as Anna’s foot rest, and enjoyed a soothing back massage throughout lunch.

Talking with Floey about Peace and Patience

Floey-Marian faces selfie 2Floey came running up to me as I opened the door into our condo from the garage. She was so excited I had to drop my suitcase to give her a big hug. “Oh, Floey. I’m so glad to see you. I missed you so much!”

“I missed you, too, Mom? Where did you go this time? Were you at Christmas Mountain again?” Floey asked.

“Yup. That’s where I was, Floey.”

“Why do you go there so often, Mom. I really miss you when you’re gone.”

“Oh, I wish I could take you with me, but like most timeshares, they don’t allow dogs. But anyway, if you did come with me, who would take care of our residents? They need you at home to do the pre-wash of their dishes before they go into the dishwasher. And the ladies like to have you snuggle up close to them to be petted. You’re needed at home.”

“I guess you’re right, Mom. But why do you go away so often?”

“Well, Floey, whenever I’m home, I’m always working, seven days a week. That’s the nature of our business – round-the-clock caregiving in our home. That’s why Mim and I need to get away, and why we almost always go away separately – so someone will always be home with you and our residents.”

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Christmas Mountain Village, Wisconsin Dells

I guess I understand. But what do you do at Christmas Mountain? I know it’s a ski resort in the winter and a golf resort during the rest of the year, and you don’t do either.”

“That’s a good question. You know what things I like to do, Floey. Don’t you?”

“Sure. You like to read and write and play the piano and go for walks.”

“Yup. And that’s exactly what I do at Christmas Mountain. I always get a nice, comfortable condo where I can sprawl out and enjoy my time there. Sometimes I even take my little five octave keyboard along so I can play the ‘piano.’ And, of course, I have my computer, iPad, iPhone, books, a puzzle, and I’ve even started bringing along a coloring book and colored pencils.”

“Wow. That’s why you always pack up so many bags when you leave!”

“That’s right. I want to have everything I might need to relax, in whatever way I feel like relaxing. This time I was away for almost a whole week, so I packed a lot of stuff.”

“Did you use all your stuff?”

“I guess not. I didn’t do the puzzle this time. I did more reading and writing than usual. And I walked quite a bit, too. And I spent some time just thinking.”

“What did you think about?”

images“One of the things I thought about was one of the books I read, THE GIFT OF PEACE by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, former Archbishop of Chicago. It was an incredibly inspiring book.”

“What was it about?”

“Here, let me show you, Floey.” I pulled my briefcase out of the car and pulled out the little book.

“Cardinal Bernardin wrote this book during the final months of his life. Thirteen days before he died, he finished the book, and hand-wrote a letter to serve as a preface to the book. The letter is actually published in the book in hand-written form. Let me read you an excerpt from the letter, Floey. That will give you a good impression of the tone and content of the book itself.”

“Okay, Mom. Read away.”

I have decided to write this very personal letter explaining why I have written this little book, The Gift of Peace. It is not an autobiography but simply a reflection on my life and ministry during the past three years, years that have been as joyful as they have been difficult. My reflections begin with the allegation of sexual misconduct brought against me November 1993 and continue to the present as I prepare for the last stage of my life which began in June 1995 with the diagnosis of an aggressive form of cancer.

To paraphrase Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, “it has been the best of times, it has been the worst of times.” The worst because of the humiliation, physical pain, anxiety and fear. The best because of the reconciliation, love, pastoral sensitivity and peace that have resulted from God’s grace and the support and prayers of so many people. While not denying the former, this reflection focuses on the latter, showing how, if we let him, God can write straight with crooked lines. To put it another way, this reflection is intended to help others understand how the good and the bad are always present in our human condition and, that if we “let go,” if we place ourselves totally in the hands of the Lord, the good will prevail.

“Wow. Did you say he died less than two weeks after writing the book?”

“That’s right, Floey. Pretty inspiring, isn’t it? I’m so glad I had the time and a quiet place to read his book and to think about it this past week. That’s why going to Christmas Mountain is so good for me. I have the time to be quiet, to read, and to think.”

“What else did you think about?” Floey asked.

“Well, I thought a lot about patience, especially on Tuesday.”

“Patience? That’s not your word for the year. I think that was Mim’s word a couple years ago. Why did you think about patience? And, why on Tuesday?”

“Think, Floey. You know. What do I always do on Tuesday mornings?”

“That’s easy, Mom. Every Tuesday morning you add a post to your blog. Right?”

“That’s right. When I know I’m going to be away from home I usually try to write the post before I leave home so that all I have to do when I’m away is my final editing and posting it on the Internet. Then I send an email to let subscribers know it has been posted, and I post a comment on Facebook to let a lot of my friends know it’s there. The Tuesday morning process usually takes less than an hour. Well, the Internet connection at Christmas Mountain is always slow, but at least Internet service is available. Last Tuesday the Internet connection was the slowest I have ever experienced. I wasn’t even sure I could post my blog. I pounded the table a few times, and I paced all around the condo many times trying to think of where I could find a public Wi-Fi network I could use to post my blog – like maybe at McDonald’s or Culver’s. I finally was able to post my reflection about favorite hymns, “An Odd Favorite,” at Christmas Mountain. However, I’m sure my blood pressure was well above the healthy normal range!”

“You really were frustrated!”

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These terminals were the workhorses of the Finance Department. A telephone handset plugged into the modem on the right to communicate at 30 cps.

“I sure was, Floey. Once the post was out there, I went for a walk. That helped me calm down. I thought about how dependent upon – and demanding of – technology we have become. I remembered my first job where I worked with computers – Northwest Industries in Chicago. That company was widely considered leading edge in using information technology for making business decisions. In the mid-1970s we used a dial-up connection to transmit data at the rate of 30 cps (characters per second), about six times faster than a good typist can type a letter. Pretty fast, don’t you think? Whenever I wanted to see a report, I sent it to the printer (initially we had no monitors to view) and then went to get a cup of coffee while I waited for the report to print. After a couple years, the top executives were equipped with monitors that could display data at the rate of 120 cps. That’s when we were collaborating with decision support specialists at MIT, in the glory days of using computers to enhance management decision making.

“I can’t even remember how I could be so patient in those days! Patience. Maybe that was a virtue I possessed in the 1970s, but I certainly didn’t have it last Tuesday. I just wanted to add a post to my blog. That’s all. And technology was crawling along, not zipping by.”

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“I bet you were really, really frustrated, Mom. I can see you getting stressed out just talking about it.”

“You’re right, Floey. But I thought about it for a while. You know, patience is listed as one of the gifts of the spirit, right after peace. The Bible says in Galatians 5:22-23:

But when the Holy Spirit controls our lives, he will produce this kind of fruit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. [New Living Translation]

“I don’t know, Floey. Maybe I need to spend more time pondering and praying for the gift of patience.”

“Hey, Mom. Maybe patience should be your special word next year.”

“Maybe… It’s a little early to think about next year’s special word. I still have seven months left to focus on kindness – my word for this year.”

“You’re right, Mom. That can wait. Did you think about anything else while you were at Christmas Mountain last week?”

“Well, yes, there was one more thing. But let’s talk about that later. I still have to empty the car and get settled in again at home.”

“Okay, Mom. But don’t forget we have to continue this conversation.”

 

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An Odd Favorite

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Doris giving her best friend Abbey a hug. (Abbey was our canine caregiver prior to Floey.)

I thought about Doris last week. Doris lived with us for almost four years. She came for assisted living in 2005, shortly after her husband Ernie died. Doris, a nurse, had been caring for Ernie for many years, and now it was time for someone to care for Doris. She was in her late eighties.

What brought Doris to mind was one of the hymns we sang in church last Sunday – Holy, Holy, Holy. It was Trinity Sunday, and Holy, Holy, Holy is the classic hymn to sing to celebrate our understanding of our three-in-one God – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Doris loved this hymn. During the years that she lived with us, Mim, Doris, and Mary (our other resident at the time) often joined me at the piano in the evening to sing. We sang golden oldies like Let Me Call You Sweetheart and lots of hymns. Almost every night Doris requested Holy, Holy, Holy. 

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Her request surprised me. I grew up in a Methodist church where we did lots of singing. On Sunday mornings, we sang about half a dozen hymns and responses from THE METHODIST HYMNAL, a thick black book that was kept in the racks on the back of the pews. The hymns in the hymnal were the classical hymns of faith, dating mostly from the 16th through the early 19th centuries. I learned to like many of these stately old hymns, and that is how I would describe them – as stately hymns that we sang to formally and respectfully worship God.

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Willerup United Methodist Church, Cambridge, Wisconsin – my family church for generations

On Sunday evenings we sang out of a different songbook, either SONGS OF THE SANCTUARY (the blue book), or MELODIES OF PRAISE (the white book). These hardcover songbooks were handed out to each person as we entered church. The first 15 minutes of the service were spent singing from these songbooks. The pastor usually announced the first song for us to sing, and then it was up to the congregation to call out their requests. The blue book was filled with gospel songs from the 19th and 20th centuries – songs like Just a Closer Walk with Thee, When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder, He Leadeth Me, and Just As I Am. The white book was newer and included songs like How Great Thou Art, Wonderful Words of Life, and Blessed Assurance.

These Sunday evening songbooks were the source of everyone’s favorite gospel songs. THE METHODIST HYMNAL had all the nice stately hymns that were appropriate for the more formal Sunday morning service. The smaller songbooks had the more emotional songs that we would sing to express our feelings. These are the songs that became our favorites.

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When I was in high school I bought my own copy of Melodies of Praise to use at home. I chose a green cover rather than white.

Doris’ favorite hymn, Holy, Holy, Holy, was from the formal HYMNAL, not from the collection of gospel songs in the songbooks. That’s what surprised me. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had requested What a Friend We Have in Jesus or Jesus Loves Me (although she liked those songs, too). I was surprised at Holy, Holy, Holy being her choice almost every time we sang. 

Today I have very fond memories of the four of us singing “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Whenever we sing that hymn in church, I think about Doris and our evening sing-alongs in our living room at Country Comforts Assisted Living, our home.

When Doris died, her daughter asked me to play the piano in their Presbyterian church and to have a hymn sing for her funeral. I gave her daughter a list of every hymn I could remember that Doris had asked to sing in our sing-alongs, and I think we sang all of them at the funeral. In my mind I could still see Doris singing along, especially on Holy, Holy, Holy.

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Mary and Abbey were friends, too.

Mary had a favorite hymn for our evening sing-alongs, too. It was The Family of God. Her choice also surprised me. I’ve known Mary most of my life. She was my fifth and sixth grade teacher, and then my history teacher when I was in junior high. She was 84 when she came to us for assisted living. Like me, she had grown up Methodist, and then turned Lutheran as an adult. What surprised me by her choice of a favorite hymn was that she chose a more contemporary gospel song. I expected her to choose something that had roots in her childhood years, a more traditional gospel song from an earlier era.

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I’ve always been interested in what people choose as their favorite hymns. Over the years, I’ve found it very revealing to learn what someone’s favorite hymns are. When I know your favorite hymns, I feel I’m beginning to really know you.

When I was an organist at the Presbyterian church in Cambridge, we had bulletin inserts for almost every funeral because invariably the favorite hymn of the deceased person was not included in the current edition of the hymnal.

At the request of the pastor, I coordinated the compilation of a songbook of congregational favorites. We asked the congregation to submit a list of their favorite hymns, whether they were in the current hymnal, or not. For all the hymns that were no longer in the hymnal, I found the hymns in my collection of old hymnals from a wide variety of denominations, added some of my own favorites, and arranged them into a songbook.

(I think we adequately addressed copyright issues by obtaining a Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) license and acknowledging that most of the older hymns were currently in the public domain.)

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This “Favorites” songbook has become my go-to book for finding an old gospel song that I want to use in a prelude or as a meditative response, regardless of whether I’m playing in a Presbyterian Church, a Lutheran Church, or even at the women’s worship service of the county jail.

When I played the piano regularly for the women’s worship service in the Dane County Jail, we usually sang two hymns, selected by the chaplain. The inmates, whose ages ranged from 20s to 60s, seemed to enjoy singing, regardless of the hymns selected. After the service was over, I kept playing whatever hymns and spirituals popped into my mind while we waited for deputies to come to escort the women out of the chapel and back to their cell blocks. Sometimes, the inmates sang along as I played, and often they requested their favorites to sing. As I recall, the most frequent requests were Amazing Grace, Jesus Loves Me, and How Great Thou Art.

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Dane County Jail – on the upper floors of the City-County Building

It seems that favorite hymns are surprisingly universal. Regardless of our ages and circumstances, many of the same songs speak to our hearts.

So what’s my most favorite hymn of all? That’s too hard a question. Some days, I think my answer would be Great Is Thy Faithfulness. Other days, I’d probably say Just a Closer Walk with Thee, or To God Be the Glory, or We Gather Together, or How Great Thou Art, or Near to the Heart of God. Last Sunday, I think I would have claimed Holy, Holy, Holy as my favorite. Really!

Thanks, Doris! You taught me that even a stately old hymn that’s two and a half centuries old can become one of my favorites. And thanks to you, too, Mary. You have proven that even octogenarians can learn to love brand new hymns!

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Mary and Doris sharing good times.

(Extra picture… Mim asked me why I didn’t use the picture below instead of the picture above to end this post. Picking favorite pictures to illustrate a story is just as hard as choosing favorite hymns! Sometimes, it’s just too hard to choose. So today you get two ending pictures.)

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Doris, Mary, and Abbey talking and laughing while waiting for our sing-along to begin.

Caring for Parents

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My mom in June, 1986, about the time she was diagnosed with liver cancer.

Thirty years ago, in 1986, Mim and I were still living in Chicago. That’s when my mom was diagnosed with liver cancer. She was 78. Mom and Dad were living on the farm in Cambridge, Wisconsin where Mom had lived her whole life. When Mom told Mim and me about the diagnosis, we made weekly trips from Chicago to Cambridge to take her to the clinic in nearby Stoughton for chemotherapy. After a few weeks of chemo, Mom chose to discontinue the treatments because of how sick they made her feel. Her oncologist predicted she would live only two or three months without more treatments, maybe a year or two with treatments.

A couple weeks after Mom stopped receiving chemo, Mim and I went to Door County in northeastern Wisconsin for a week-long vacation. We stopped to see my parents on our way, mostly to see how Mom was doing. Already she was much weaker.

Mim and I had a wonderful week relaxing in Door County. Little did we know that God was providing a week of rest for us before what would become an intense six-week period of caregiving.

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Relaxing in Door County

On our way back to Chicago we stopped to see my parents again. Mom’s health had deteriorated further and she was quite weak. We offered to get Hospice and some local caregivers lined up to help Dad care for her at home. As an alternative, we invited Mom and Dad to come to Chicago to live with us, and we (mostly Mim) would take care of her.

We stayed overnight at the farm with my parents. The next morning, Mom got up and said she’d made up her mind. She wanted to go home with us to Chicago. We spent the next few hours helping Mom and Dad pack up their things – a few clothes, Mom’s crocheting, and their Bibles. We told my brother and sister about the new plan, and they came over to the farm to say goodbye and help pack up for the move.

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Mom and Dad with their grandchildren celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, about a month before Mom and Dad came to live with us.

Dad rode to Chicago with Mim and me in my car. My nephew Dave drove Mom in his parents’ van so that Mom could be lying down for the two-hour ride. Then Dave carried her up the stairs to our second-floor apartment.

We called Hospice the next day to help us get a hospital bed and a local hospice physician to prescribe pain medication. We also enlisted one of the physicians Mim had previous worked with at Circle Christian Health Center on the west side of Chicago. He was willing to become her primary care physician and to make house calls for us.

Mim was teaching nursing at North Park College at the time, and she had a flexible work schedule. She also had very kind and highly skilled colleagues who volunteered to help care for my mom to give Mim and me a little time off from round-the-clock care giving. I had just left my corporate job and was in the process of starting up my own small business consulting practice, which meant that I also had a flexible work schedule.

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Mom and Dad reading the Sunday paper together in the sun room nook of our living room.

We turned our living room into Mom’s room. For the first couple weeks Mom was able to walk around the apartment and eat with Dad, Mim and me in the dining room. As she got weaker, she spent almost all of her time in the living room. I played her favorite hymns on the piano, over and over again. I read to her. She really liked “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” by Barbara Robinson, a good story that made her smile and laugh. She also enjoyed having me read to her from the Psalms. My brother and sister and their families came down to visit Mom and Dad weekly.

While Mom was living with us, Mim periodically asked her, “Do you know where you are?” as a means of monitoring her mental well-being and cognitive decline. One day Mom answered, “I know you want me to say I’m in Chicago, but I’m not. I’m at home.” That said to us we were providing the kind of care she needed.

Mom lived with us for six weeks. She was the first of more than twenty people who have lived with us during their final weeks on earth. There can be many precious moments as the end of a person’s earthly life approaches. We’re thankful for the opportunity to share these special times.

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My sister Nancy visiting with Mom

Caring for Mom throughout the last weeks of her life happened thirty years ago. Why am I thinking about it today? A very close friend of mine is living through a similar experience in her life right now, and she is under an incredible amount of stress. Her parents, both in their 90s, have been in relatively good health and have been living in their own home in northern Illinois. That all started to change a couple weeks ago.

First, her father, who has been the healthier of the two, got quite sick and had to be hospitalized for a few days. My friend took a few days off from work (she’s a teacher) to go to Illinois to care for her mother, and also to be an advocate for her father as he was being shuffled through the impersonal and complex medical system that has replaced family doctors and community hospitals.

Then my friend’s mother became very weak, and she had to be temporarily moved into a caregiving facility, just as my friend’s father was being sent home from the hospital. Her mother’s doctor said she is no longer capable of living at home and must move into an assisted living facility. Her father’s doctor said he can’t drive, although he can live at home if he wants. However, if he can’t drive, going to see his wife – wherever she ends up – may be very difficult.

My friend is trying to help her parents figure out their options and move ahead into the next phase of their lives, which may be moving into an assisted living facility together – although at this point her father is unwilling to consider any option that involves him leaving his home. Meanwhile, my friend is driving back and forth to Illinois (a couple hours each way) almost every day, or every other day, as her already busy life in Cambridge goes on.

So what can I do to help my friend? Good question. I can listen. I can pray. And occasionally maybe I can even do a few practical things like checking in on her home while she’s gone.

About a year ago, a good friend of mine in Chicago went through a similar crisis with her parents. Again, about all I could do was listen and pray.

“Honor your father and your mother” is one of the Ten Commandments that almost everyone remembers. As we get older, honoring them means more than obeying them. In my case, honoring my mother in her last days meant having her live with Mim and me in our home in Chicago – and making her feel so at home there that she really knew that she was at home. In our friend’s case, the best way of honoring her mother and her father is still a mystery. That’s partly why she is feeling so much stress these days. I guess that’s why Jesus told us in his simplified list of only two commandments, that the second most important commandment, after loving God, is to love our neighbor as ourself. (Matthew 22: 39) That’s why I’ll be praying every day for my friend while she is caring for her mother and her father in whatever way she can.

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A Day to Think

Floe-Marian faces 2015Last Friday morning, bright and early, Floey and I had quite a discussion. This is how it went.

“Where were you, Mom? You were gone all day yesterday – from before breakfast till after dinner, almost bedtime. Our friend Kathy was here to take care of Carolyn and Ann and me. She even took me for a couple walks. But I missed you and Mim. Where in the world did you go?”

“Oh, I thought we’d told you, Floey. Mim and I went to the Olympia Resort and Conference Center in Oconomowoc.”

“You went on a mini-vacation, and you didn’t take me along????”

“Not exactly, Floey. Rainbow Hospice Care held its 12th annual End-of-Life Conference there. The theme of the conference this year was Respecting Differences at the End of Life. And they had some wonderful speakers. The speakers were so good I didn’t even get sleepy, even though I had to sit still and listen all day long.”

“How about Mim? Did she stay awake all day, too?”

“Just about. I think I saw her eyes closed once, but just for a few minutes.”

“Well, who were the speakers and what did they talk about?”

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The Rev. Dr. John Touhey

“The opening keynote speaker was the Rev. Dr. John Tuohey. He’s a Catholic priest with a PhD in Ethics, and is the founder and director of the Providence Center for Health Care Ethics in Portland, Oregon. He introduced a four-part model to help in analyzing ethical dilemmas in end-of-life care. He used case studies to help us understand how the model worked and how valuable it could be. He was a great keynote speaker, but he was even better in the breakout session we went to next. We worked through a couple case studies together. One was about a young couple from Saudi Arabia who were in Portland, Oregon for a few weeks to learn English. While in Portland, the woman had a severe asthma attack and could not be resuscitated. In the hospital, she was declared dead neurologically, but her heart didn’t stop beating immediately, and her husband insisted that she be kept alive on the ventilator until he could bring her home to Saudi Arabia. To keep her on the ventilator would mean that a legally dead person would be tying up a critical ventilator and other scarce medical equipment for at least five days, during flu season in Portland. Other people could die because this equipment would already be in use.”

“Wow. That’s a tough call, Mom. How was it resolved?”

“The family was quite wealthy and politically connected. The embassy got involved, and the issue was transferred to a judge in a federal court, who ruled that the hospital must keep the dead wife hooked up to the equipment for the five days until she could be transported home. We had quite a discussion about what was the best action to take ethically. What it boiled down to was balancing the interests of the husband, who in his culture didn’t recognize dead neurologically as being truly dead and the interests of the greater good – i.e., the person(s) who may need access to the scarce medical equipment that was being used to sustain a person who was already dead according to the American cultural and legal definition of dead.

Kindness was a word that came into the conversation a lot. Which course of action would demonstrate the most kindness – to the patient and the patient’s family vs. to the other people who would be affected by the decision.”

“It sounds pretty complicated, Mom. Were all the conference sessions that complicated?”

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The Rev. Ridley Usherwood

“Well, the second breakout session wasn’t complicated in the same way. It was fascinating. The speaker was the Rev. Ridley Usherwood, and the title of his session was Recognizing and Honoring Cultural and Spiritual Beliefs around Aging, Illness, Death and Grief. His ethnic background was Jamaican, his upbringing was British, and his life experiences have been all over the world, being a pastor, missionary, chaplain in the USAF, and now teaching at the University of Wisconsin. This session was really an overview of differences in how people of different cultures view end-of-life issues – African American, Asian and Pacific Islander, Latino/Latina, and Native American. I wished his session would have been twice as long, he had so much to tell us. But a key theme he kept coming back to was kindness, just like in the first session. Given cultural differences, we need to understand how to treat patients and family members with the most kindness.”

“Mom, was this a religious conference? The two speakers you’ve told me about were both religious – one a Catholic priest and the other a Protestant chaplain and missionary.”

“Not really, Floey. It was a professional conference for people who work for hospice organizations or are in some way involved with end-of-life care, like us. These two speakers just happened to be religious. The speaker for our third breakout session was Dr. Ann Catlett. She’s a medical doctor and is currently on faculty at the Medical College of Wisconsin and at UW. She’s the speaker who really made me think the most.”

“Really, even more than the one who talked about the Saudi Arabian couple?”

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Dr. Ann Catlett

“Yes. Even more than that. The topic of her session was End-of-Life Care for the Homeless and Other Marginalized Populations. She’s trying to get a small home set up in downtown Madison where homeless people can live and be cared for during their last few days, weeks, or possibly months of life. Think about it, Floey. Think about what it must be like to be homeless and sick and dying. You don’t have a bed to sleep in at night unless you can get to a shelter early enough to stand in line and hope to get in. You may or may not have a place to spend the day. You don’t have regular meals. You may not be able to see a doctor, but if you can, and you get medicine to help you get better – or at least feel better, you don’t have any place to keep it. And if you carry pain pills with you, you’re very vulnerable to having them stolen from you. I’d never really thought about what it’s like to be homeless and dying before yesterday.”

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Homeless Jesus Statue

Floey’s eyes filled with tears and she sniffed a little. “Mom, that makes me feel so sad for those people. Is there anything we can do to help them?”

“I don’t know, Floey. That’s why I said the last speaker made me think the most. We’ll need to keep informed about the progress she’s making toward getting an Adult Family Home for homeless hospice patients set up in Madison. Dr. Catlett told us about Joseph’s House, a home like that in Washington, D.C. She spent some time there last year learning all that she could that might help her do something similar here.

“Floey, can you guess what key word Dr. Catlett kept coming back to in her presentation?”

“Well, Mom, by the way you asked the question, I bet the word was kindness.”

“You’re right, Floey. Dr. Catlett said that when her own dad was dying, she asked him what was the most important thing he ever learned from his dad. Kindness was his one-word response.”

“Hey, Mom. Kindness is your word for this year, remember?”

“I sure do. I couldn’t believe that every speaker yesterday came back to that word as being central to their topic.”

Floey responded, “Kindness is a good word for all of us to think about. While you were gone yesterday, all of us at home were kind to each other, even if we didn’t spend the day talking about it. I guess that’s what’s most important. I’m glad you had a good day, even if I missed you. I guess it’s important to spend time thinking about the need for kindness in our world, and what we can do to help meet that need.”

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Thinking again about a very old conversation

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My college graduation picture – 1970

I still think about something we discussed in one of my college classes that really disturbed me at the time. Almost 50 years later, I still think about it when something triggers the thought. It happened again last week. On January 15, the hymn for the day in the daily devotional book, Near to the Heart of God: Meditations on 366 Best-Loved Hymns, was “Search Me, O God.”

Search me, O God, and know my heart today;
Try me, O Savior, know my thoughts, I pray.
See if there be some wicked way in me:
Cleanse me from ev’ry sin, and set me free.

That hymn, written by evangelist, army chaplain, and college professor Dr. James Edwin Orr, is based on Psalm 139:23-24:

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. [New Revised Standard Version]

The tune is called “Maori.” In 1936 when Dr. Orr was leading some evangelistic services in New Zealand, he heard four young Aborigine women singing a beautiful song entitled “The Song of Farewell.” The first words of the song were, “Now is the hour when we must say good-bye.” He couldn’t get the tune out of his mind. He began singing the words from Psalm 139 to the tune. He wrote the words as he fit them to the melody on the back of an envelope while he stood in line at a post office in New Zealand. Later that year he published the song in his book, All You Need. Over the years the hymn has been identified by two titles, “Cleanse Me” and “Search Me, O God.”

When I was a kid, we sang that hymn frequently at the end of Sunday night services at Willerup Methodist Church in Cambridge. I always liked the hymn. I thought the tune was beautiful, and it set the tone well for the quiet, meditative words. It was one of my favorites of that style of hymn.

What disturbed me in my Music Appreciation class at Wheaton College was that Dr. Cronk cited that hymn as one of the most atrocious examples of pairing overly emotional introspective words with a syrupy sweet secular tune. That was an insult I took personally. It was a direct challenge to the validity of my musical tastes. I liked that hymn. Obviously, I’ve thought about it a lot, even now almost 50 years later.

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Hazel petting our cat Penny

Another association I have with this hymn, or rather, the tune, is with one of our assisted living residents. Although 95-year-old Hazel was very hard of hearing and nearly blind, she loved to listen to me play the piano. We were still living at the farmhouse when Hazel lived with us, and whenever I sat down at the piano, Hazel would come into the living room to sit down and listen. One day she asked me if I knew “Now is the Hour.” She said it was the most beautiful song she had ever heard. I didn’t recognize the song by the title, so I went to one of my favorite websites, www.MusicNotes.com, searched for the title, and downloaded and printed a piano arrangement of the song. Hazel just loved listening to me play it. I played it often throughout the year that Hazel lived with us. I even played it as part of the pre-service music for her funeral. Whether I’m playing it as a secular song or a meditative hymn, the words that play in my mind are “Search me, O God…”

Reluctantly, I’ll admit that I’m glad Dr. Cronk said what he did about this hymn, even though it both hurt and troubled me at the time. His words have prompted me to think a lot about the meaning of the words of any hymn I play or sing. I also think a lot about the contribution of the music to the mood of the hymn.

There is often a story behind the pairing of text and music for a hymn. Many of the classic old hymns in our hymnals, including many written by Martin Luther and Charles Wesley, are paired with secular tunes of their eras. A hymnal is chock-full of things to think about. (Feel free to browse the hymnal the next time you’re sitting through a sermon that’s a little too long.)

Over the years I’ve learned that the more I understand a hymn, the more I appreciate it. I guess that’s why Music Appreciation was one of the best courses I ever took in college. Besides, the homework was always fun – simply listening to music.

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