The morning started with me picking up my father’s ashes. By the evening I am miles away standing and watching a storm brew over the ocean. The rain slowly, relentlessly drums on the window. My friend, Sandy, is tucked into the couch with her nose in a book. I had been at the table with my laptop, tapping away at some journal-entry-turned-stream-of-consciousness when I realized that I was typing in rhythm with the rain. I return to the table and think about this first day of our getaway. Sandy’s plans for a solo day trip for a wedding at the beach morphed into long-weekend treat for me to escape the grief of these eleven days since Dad’s death.
As I prepare for bed I notice my cell phone is lit up, indicating an unseen message sent at least an hour earlier. The text is from my sister: MOTHER HAS HAD A STROKE. ON THE WAY TO HOSPITAL. WILL LET YOU KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON WHEN WE KNOW. My mind goes blank. I call her back and get the details and we try to determine whether I should leave immediately or wait to head out on the three-hour trip the next morning. There’s not enough information yet.
As I wait to hear back, I make a shallow attempt to pack some of my things. Sandy calls her husband and they decide I should take their car and worry about getting her back home later. Close to midnight the call comes. Mother will not make it. I am needed. Sandy hands me the keys to her car and says, “Please drive carefully.”
It’s a long drive, very late at night, and it turns violently stormy. Windshield wipers are on full force and seem to set the pace for the speed of both the car and the tumble of thoughts about losing both my parents almost back-to-back. My phone’s headset is my only connection to the real world that I am driving toward. I conference call in to my family and listen in on consultations with the medical personnel at the hospital. I chime in now and then with what I know first-hand of her end-of-life preferences.
“She specifically said she did not want any heroic measures.”
I take my foot off the accelerator and change lanes to pass by a serious road accident, red and blue lights flashing everywhere off the wet pavement. The irony of the moment is not lost on me.
It becomes more and more obvious that Mother is, in essence, gone. Only a breathing apparatus is keeping her alive.
“Don’t keep her going for me.” I try to be firm and unemotional. “It’s okay if you want to let her go right now. We had a really good visit last weekend. I don’t want her to have any suffering on my account.”
The doctor assures everyone that Mother feels no pain, is not in distress, and that it is no problem to wait.
“Don’t wait for me,” I repeat. I am outvoted.
A plan is developed where someone in the family will meet me at a Park and Ride lot about forty-five minutes from the hospital and they will drive me the rest of the way. I tumble out of the lonely little fishbowl of a car into the warmth of family to share this newest loss. At 3:00 a.m. we pull into a parking spot at the downtown hospital. It is cold and dark and damp. On my own I never would have been able to navigate these streets or find the off-hours entrance into the building, or the room where I needed to be. Her room.
When I step into the world of the Intensive Care Unit, it feels like I’ve dived into the deep end of a swimming pool. The loudness of the outside world halts abruptly. I am underwater, moving slowly. Sounds are muffled. The dim lights are almost like waves. The edges of the room are bathed in dark sepia tones. A soft light glows down between the Gothic machines on either side of the bed. The “ch-ch-ch” of the breathing machine catches my attention and my eyes follow along the labyrinth of tubes to the unwanted reveal of the face of the patient. Mother. But not Mother. She looks as if she is taking a nap, but uncomfortably. Her gray-brown bangs are pushed roughly back from her forehead. I reach out to put her hair in place properly, but it won’t stay. The thought crosses my mind that she must have been attached to other equipment for a while.
I take her hand in mine and say, “Mother, it’s Pam. I’m here… and I’m not wearing any socks.” There is soft laughter from those who know the running joke between us. I try to kiss her cheek but the side guards on the bed prevent me. Someone pulls them down. I stroke her face. I tell her I love her. I look at everyone. They have been waiting for me and, when I finish saying good-bye to her, it will be the end.
“This is so surreal.”
Everyone tears up and nods their heads. I know that Mother is not there. I know she left long ago. But I am not quite ready yet.
“We should sing grace.”
Mother’s tradition on holidays and at big family gatherings is for everyone to hold hands around the table and sing grace. My older brother always starts us off – “For health and strength and daily bread we praise Thy name, O Lord. Amen.” Simple and beautiful. We all gather around her bed. I take my mother’s left hand, my sister holds the right. My older brother looks at the unbroken circle of family and chokes on his grief. My younger brother looks at him, smiles and nods encouragement, “You can do it.” Soon the song softly fills the room. I look around the circle as well. They are my mother’s children, their spouses, their children, and their children’s children. We are all singing our good-bye. I hug each of their necks as they depart. It comes down to the four original kids and three spouses to close out the chapter.
When the staff come in to remove her breathing tube, I step out into the hallway. I watch as one of my tears splashes in slow motion on the tiled floor. Back in the room it is oh so quiet as the seven of us wait. And, just as we did just eleven days earlier with my dad, we watch as life ebbs away and leaves the mortal shell of my mother behind. 3:30 a.m.
I choose to return to the beach and finish the long weekend. I walk what feels like miles in the damp, cool sand. I stand ankle-deep in the waves. The wet breeze circles around me and I sway with the motion of it, the ebb and flow of life.
33, 34, 35, 36…
It is my thirty-third day walking through these doors at the nursing home. The weather is quite warm and I’m desperate for cool, but there is little relief inside. My elderly father is napping when I reach his room. With his pallid complexion he is almost completely lost against the thin white sheet that covers him. He shivers in his sleep. I pull the heavier blanket over him and tuck it around his shoulders. Then I go straight into my afternoon routine of setting his half-eaten lunch tray aside for pick up; sorting through the papers that litter his bedside table, tossing notices of extracurricular activities and keeping the trivia questions for later; finding the cart in the hallway for a pitcher of fresh water and ice; and checking his closet to make sure the three shirts I bought him for his stay here have made it back from the laundry this time. Then I sit down in the wheelchair beside his bed – I learned weeks ago that it’s ten times more comfortable than the stiff visitor chairs – and I pull out my book and begin to read.
A few minutes later a nurse comes in for her routine and tries to remove his blanket and wants to open the windows to create a breeze. I reply firmly: “No, he is cold,” and wipe beads of sweat off my own forehead. She leaves in a huff of impatience. I don’t care. I have fought with someone on the staff – nurses, CNAs, physical therapists, social service reps – every. single. day over issues ranging from missing laundry to wrong medications to unattended catheters. We have come to an uneasy respect for each other.
I reach over to Dad and push back the snowy lock of hair that falls across his forehead. I remember when his hair was jet black; when his frame was lean, tall, strong, not almost skeletal and huddled in a hospital bed. I remember how he would come home from work in the evening and before he even took off his jacket, he would swoop me up to piggyback and we would gallop out to the backyard toward his beloved pigeon coop. As we neared it, he would let loose his unique five-note whistle, and the birds would dive and glide back to their home from housetops, trees, and telephone wires. Dad would release me to the ground and turn his attention to the scruffling of gray-blue feathers that followed him into the coop for the feed he would scoop into the trough on the floor. I would stand at the doorway watching but unwilling to enter. As they nibbled, he would close and lock the pen doors so the birds could rest for the night safe from the reach of predators. Then he and I would walk side by side back to the house.
I am shaken back to the present by Dad’s weak voice, “Hi there.”
“Hello,” I respond, “Do you know who I am?”
It completely shook me the first time he didn’t recognize me. But now I am used to it and have come to expect anything from “No” to a reprimanding “Of course I do, why wouldn’t I know my own daughter?”
Tonight it is a quiet, sort of insecure, “Yes.”
“Do you know where you are?”
“The hospital I think.”
“Yes, you’re in a convalescent and rehabilitation center.”
“Yes, you are recovering from breaking your hip.”
“How long have I been here?”
“33 days. You do physical therapy every day and you’re doing very well. Nothing to be worried about, you’ll remember everything tomorrow.”
He asks me if I am going to stay overnight with him. I explain I am going to have dinner with him and then stay until he falls asleep. He begs me to stay until morning. I decline, but assure him that I’ve been here every day and I promise I’ll be back again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, until he is out of here.
He looks out the window and comments on how pretty it is, and that he feels a little cold. I grab another thin blanket, unfold it, and with a huge flourish throw the ends up in the air and guide it as it floats down over him. He watches in fascination. I smooth it down all around him and ask, “How’s that?” Instead of answering, he brings his hand out and grabs hold of mine and smiles at me. I sit down beside him and smile into his crinkly blue eyes.
When dinner is delivered, it’s time for the evening routine. He sits up on the edge of the mattress. I pull up a chair to share the over-the-bed table with him. We eat and chat. He tells me what he can remember about his morning and I tell him the latest world news. A nursing assistant comes in to help him into the wheelchair for a spin down the halls. (“It’s warm in here,” she says. “He has no fat on his body,” I reply.) When we return it’s time for pajamas, settling in for the night, and solving the saved trivia questions. Finally he reclines back and falls asleep. I tuck him in, kiss his head, close the curtains, tape a note to the temperature controls – “DON’T TURN DOWN. HE IS COLD,” gather my things, and leave.
As I walk to my car, I think about tomorrow, day 34, and day 35, and day 36… and wonder how much longer the chain will grow before things start to improve. A trace of guilt about wanting change for my own sake tries to wedge into me along with the impatience and frustration towards the circumstances that are already there.
I lift my eyes up to the clear sky and say aloud, “God, please, let things change.”
A cool breeze stirs and a flurry of pigeons bursts into flight across the parking lot.
It’s been six months since my parents both died, eleven days apart. Sometimes it feels like six years, sometimes it feels like six days. Several friends have contacted me this week to see how I am doing. Maybe they made on a note on their calendar about it, but I doubt it because their check-ins didn’t even have to do with them knowing it was an anniversary (and I didn’t even mention it to most of them). I think God just tapped them on the shoulder and said, “Why don’t you check on Pam?” They are all the kind of people who listen and respond to God – even when they don’t know it’s Him – and so they did. Someone suggested I write about my experience. When I hesitated they said, “You never know who you might help.” Since I also try to be the kind of person who listens and responds to God, and to help people, I am going to write about it. I think God just tapped them on the shoulder and said, “Why don’t you check on Pam?” They are all the kind of people who listen and respond to God – even when they don’t know it’s Him – and so they did. Someone suggested I write about my experience. When I hesitated they said, “You never know who you might help.” Since I also try to be the kind of person who listens and responds to God, and to help people, I am going to write about it.
On September 11, 2018, my dad’s life came to its conclusion. He was 87 years old and his health had been deteriorating for a few years. But while we knew it was coming sooner rather than later, his death felt abrupt. On September 22, 2018, just eleven days later my mother, at age 83, suddenly and unexpectedly slipped away as well.
There. That’s the story in its barest essentials. The details leading up to their deaths, the emotions and experiences during that difficult time and its aftermath have been a labyrinth for me. Since my heart still can’t handle the story as a whole, I will share it in pieces. Since I am an inspirational writer and speaker, I’ll share what I have learned through the process in a way that emphasizes God’s faithfulness.
You may ask how this fits in with the theme of this website and blog — discovering, equipping, and pursuing your purpose. Just wait. You’ll see.
Come check out the series when it begins next week.
This is an article I wrote which originally appeared in April 2018 on The Restore Movement website (http://www.therestoremovement.com/)
I press the accelerator and pull away from the shallow water, leaving the shore and all that is on it behind me. The cool, salty air rushes against my face and pulls at my hair. I take in deep relaxing breaths. I see other jet skis in the distance doing giant circles and spraying high pillars of water, but all I want to do is glide over the undulating water and head straight towards the horizon. Escape.
If I go slow, I slide smoothly through the swells. With some speed, I bounce over them – the rate of speed determining how out of control the feeling is. I choose fast. There is an island not too far off in the distance. I’ve never ridden all the way out to it before and decide that today is the day. Usually the open water brings a slight, underlying sense of fear in me, but I easily shake off the thought of the deepness and darkness of the sea beneath me and break away into adventure, leaving the worries of the day behind me.
As I go, a prayer wells up inside me unbidden, “Oh God…” but I stop it abruptly because I am afraid of what His response might reveal. Life is in a rough patch at the moment and I don’t want to think about it. I want to hide in the great openness of my surroundings. But it still comes to me. Against my wishes I begin to think about what I do not have: a place to live, a job to pay the bills, someone to understand the complexities of my fears, and how I have lost the passion to follow my dreams. I also think about what I do have and can be thankful for: a car, a friend’s couch, a small amount of savings that covers my minimum needs. As for my dreams, there is a very small, very slim, very vague sense of hope. But it’s nothing that I want to disturb. I’m afraid that if I try to even touch it, it will disappear in a puff of smoke. My need weighs too heavily, I can’t think of losing more.
Prayer wells up inside me again, “Oh God…” comes to my lips. The great aloneness that surrounds me causes the great aloneness inside me to open up. “Oh God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water…” Psalm 63 burns up and out of me. I’m saying it out loud, fairly shouting it over the sound of the engine and the spray of the water and the rushing wind. I finish with a personal postscript, yelling “Oh God, my hope is almost gone and I am about to perish!”
At that moment, less than fifty yards away and running parallel with me, I see a large, dark mass rise out of the water. Someone had mentioned earlier that there were some humpback whales that had been seen in the vicinity. The massive creature breaches silently, smoothly, glowing in the wet. I freeze for a moment staring at her majestic beauty. I think, “How absolutely amazing. Oh, please please please, don’t come any closer.” She does three more dips and then disappears, leaving no evidence of her presence behind.
I continue on my circuit around the island thinking about the huge creature now hidden beneath the water. My body flexes in remembrance. A thought bursts into my mind: she is like my big, overarching dream that God has given me. It runs down deep beneath the surface – living, moving, growing out of sight and not revealed except for rare moments that spark awe and wonder. I think about all that God has for my life and the moments I am allowed to see the big picture, so overwhelming it almost makes me want to run. My spirit flexes in remembrance. I also realize that my humpback is most certainly not alone. Others of her pod are near. They too are below the surface, unseen and unknown, along with a great quantity of smaller sea life like the seals, dolphins, and fish. They all lurk there too – like smaller, more easily understood and handled dreams and goals. I am gliding along heading for the island, a clear destination I can see. They are gliding below me in deep, smooth currents as well as in rough waters. They are always there, just not always seen. Then a phrase I have often used to encourage others comes to me: “God is always hard at work behind the scenes on our behalf, even when we can’t see it or sense it.”
I don’t know when I will see a whale emerge from the depths again, but the seals and fish I do see remind me she is out there. I don’t know when I’ll see my big dream again, but I see small things that remind me of it. And just like that island in the distance I’ll keep heading in the direction God has me going and trust that He is always at work behind the scenes – and beneath the surface. His purpose will rise in my life.
For three long years I have been performing a balancing act on the ledge of indecision. Up for grabs was whether the passion that had provided the momentum for my life’s purpose would be be allowed to die a slow and uneventful death, or whether I would fight to stir it back into being.
November 2014 was my last blog entry and all my other writing (except for a random journal page now and then) ceased shortly after that. I’m not able to chalk this development up to the hardships of life, since Burn Bright Coaching and Consulting was originally birthed from the complications of displacement, discouragement and distress. This time was different. It went past the intellect and the emotions. This time it went to the dividing point of joint and marrow. If that sounds familiar you may be acquainted with Hebrews 4:12, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow… (NIV)” Yes, this time it was spiritual.
While I never despaired about the status of my relationship with God (although the quality of it was in question at times), it was never a given that there would be a come back for my passion or this blog. But there came a particular moment on a particular day in this rather long journey that I made the choice to bring life back to the Burn Bright blog. Not because friends encouraged me to do so, not because I have any urgency of “God told me to,” or even that my passion has completely returned. I have come back here and am writing because I have a God story to share, and God stories are always too good to keep to yourself. Each time one is shared it stirs something up in both the narrator and the listener, the writer and the reader. So I hope that in the days and weeks ahead, as I share the details of my return journey, it will stir up not just a passion in you but also your God story.
For 25 years I have been part of a singing ensemble. Different members have come and gone but the group has continued on in one form or another and I have remained a part of it, until this year. This year the group finally came to an end. It’s quite odd not to have regular Tuesday night practice, not to be in the holiday mood early because of working on Christmas songs in September, and not to have a reason for a new holiday outfit this year.
To keep from missing it too much, I chose to begin lessons with a vocal coach – not only to continue to have music in my life but also to keep me in front of an audience on a regular basis (if I have too long between public appearances, whether speaking or singing, I tend to develop a touch of stage fright). Right now I am preparing a piece for a recital. While it’s strange to be working on only one song instead of fifteen, it’s fun to be laser focused on making that one song completely mine – crafting it to take advantage of my abilities.
It’s an interesting process. First I found a song I liked. Then I searched the internet and listened to 38 different artists to find a version that suited me. I found two I liked equally well and couldn’t decide between them. My vocal coach and I decided to combine them — take the best pieces from each and splice them together. In order to do that I needed to learn to sing the parts of the songs EXACTLY as the original singers do: their notes, their timing, their inflections. Once I mastered that, only then was it time to work on folding them together. And after that, I was finally able to put my own spin on it and make it MY version.
That’s pretty much a basic formula for anything one wants to do well in life:
- find something you enjoy and for which you have a natural aptitude
- find someone to mentor/coach you
- find someone to model who does something similar with excellence and study them – duplicate their movements toward success until you know what you are doing very well; then step away and put your own spin on it.
It’s similar to learning to write in cursive in grade school. At first it’s all about holding the pencil exactly right, then following the patterns of each letter perfectly, row after row after row. Then in the end you’re free to write any way you choose, with your own personal flair.
Remember the Von Trapp children from The Sound of Music? Once they knew the notes to sing, they could sing most anything!
It’s true professionally. There are hundreds of financial experts. All of them have the purpose of increasing their clients’ financial portfolio. But each one has their own variation on it. Suze Orman, the Motley Fools, Clark Howard, and Dave Ramsey are all people who are in tune with the same basic principles and do what they do very well, but very differently.
It’s also true personally. Whatever your purpose is, take advantage of the people out there who are doing it well now. Don’t be too proud to ask for assistance – ask questions and try out their methods. Read books, visit websites, go to seminars, or plays, or concerts, or sporting events and watch and learn.
Why start from scratch when you don’t have to? Get the basics down, establish a foundation, and then move out and find your own style and make your own kind of music.
You can read about networking on one of my previous posts: Stirring the Embers