Monday, February 21, 2005

Memorial Service for Irene

Hospice work is about love and service. When I visit patients and their families, like most all hospice workers, I visit them all out of a sense of the love of God. But there are always patients that we go a little beyond that general sense of loving care. All of us in Hospice find people that we fall in love with and the team that visited Irene fell in love with her. I can’t speak for them but as I reflected on losing her, I’m aware that she was special to me for many reasons.

There’s always something about a person that hooks us into love whether it’s physical beauty, or the way a person carries themselves or perhaps it’s a sharp mind but there’s always something. Irene hooked me with her fish. I’m not sure if it was Irv’s demonstration of his love for her by digging pond after pond after pond or if it was the closed circuit TV over which she could watch them when the weather was bad, or the way she named the frogs that were drawn to the pools of water. On thinking about it, I think I fell in love with the way she delighted in them as she fed them. There was a look of the natural mother in her when she scattered the feed from the deck and like the rest of us in this world, I always need that kind of inviting motherhood.

As I sat with the family yesterday and heard about her love for children that were not born from her physically, I knew that I was right about her. She had a way of being the mother that flowed from her to everybody in the family and anybody else for whom she cared. The evidence was in the way she made sure that people were remembered with cards on their special days, dressing Elmo up in playful ways and even in over disciplining Bonnie a little because she was the first child.

But when we fall in love with others we get to move beyond that first attraction and I did so with Irene as well. It wasn’t long before I saw other qualities in her that attracted me. One was that very bright mind that was so well educated with travel and life in other countries. It was obvious to me that she was a wise woman whose wisdom came from the ability to learn quickly and turn learning into both creativity and practicality. When we love others as did Irene and the hospice team who served her, our love is fed by the things we learn about them and Irene was always surprising us with new dimensions of herself.

My first encounter with one facet of Irene was her naming two of the frogs after George Bush and Dick Cheney. It delighted me to laughter and Irene laughed with me as she enjoyed her own joke all over again. She could also laugh at herself as demonstrated when she always seemed to go the wrong way and find that the air tube was too short to get out on the deck. The fussing and clucking she did over that stupid tube was something that tickled me every time. Her family has better stories about her sense of humor but her battle with the tube and the frog’s names are the two that she gave me in our short friendship.

Another facet that I saw of Irene was her deep spirituality. The word, “spirituality” has become a popular one that’s used to differentiate between the systems of religion of which so many people have grown tired and a sense of the presence of God in our lives. While Irene saw to it that her kids got some training in religion, it’s obvious by the stories they tell that she wasn’t all that impressed with church religion. She was, however, a woman of God. I know that because as one who works in the spirit world all the time, I’m aware of those things and the Bible says, “our spirits bear witness.” In other words our spirits know each other beyond the physical appearance of our bodies. The presence of Irene’s soul was one of genuine love and I knew when I was with her that her relationship with God was good and healthy. There were things about spiritual health that she knew instinctively and while our conversations were pastoral and confidential, I can assure you that Irene’s soul was quite alive and mature. She liked to talk about soul matters and she demonstrated her wisdom to me often in the questions she asked and the things she caught on to as we talked. Irene was not as well trained as I in spiritual matters but her soul was far more mature.

Irene and I never talked about heaven or what she believed about that. It didn’t seem to be on her mind. I don’t think she was ignorant about the after life but she had a comfortable lack of concern about it. Another way of saying that is that in my opinion, Irene’s eternal destiny was settled in her mind and there was no need to belabor the topic. If the term “saved” is important to you, I can say with all honesty that I believe Irene was “saved.” Her eternal soul is safe in the arms of the Savior.

I don’t know how you’re going to go on without her but I know that you will. I know that she gave each of you a little of herself along with wonderful memories of an incredible mother and wife. Thank you for sharing her with us and allowing us to be apart of your family for a short time. Amanda, Leslie and I will never forget her and you as you all will never forget her. Use her memory to strengthen yourselves and to care for others. Use her memory to heal from the loss of her and most of all, use her memory to draw closer to God in whatever way is best for you and yours.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

2nd James

James’ neighborhood is an enclave of African Americans in a county that introduces itself with a confederate flag easily seen from the West bound lane of an interstate near here. The homes are a modern brick ranch style with basements (I think) and was, at one time, a very pretty neighborhood. It still is pretty if you squint your eyes to filter out the creeping shabbiness. It’s not the sort of shabbiness from neglect just from hard use and thin checkbooks. I like it because it’s occupied by working class folk who remind me of my own kind. Not that my family would put up with the level of wear found in this community much but that they certainly wouldn’t feel out of place here; nor do I.

My maternal grandmother never could see that the rolled felt siding ordered 50 years before from a Sears & Roebuck Catalog was threadbare and worn out. “Shabby” would be a fitting word for it as perched there near the top of a mountain in the Pennsylvania Appalachians. Her vision of that house was about the man that unrolled that stuff and tacked it up to make her home warm and beautiful a third of the way through the last century. After my grandfather died, the house became a memorial to him until she died some time later. I like to believe that the homes I see in James’ neighborhood have the same loving patina.

When I drove up Friday, there was a school bus pulling away and kids were scattering across yards toward various homes dragging book bags with their coats in odd positions – over their heads, hanging off backs, fronts and all the other odd ways kids drape fabric these days. I started to offer James’ grandkids a ride but realized that they didn’t know me well enough yet and I drove on to the house. I also knew that the house would be rumbling with their energy in a very short time and I wanted to get situated with James before it did.

I couldn’t wait to get back there with him because I’d already made three visits within a week so that I could get used to his toothless, stroked-out speech. I understood much more Monday and I was right cocky about how well trained my ear was by today. “G’on back,” Marcy said and when I pushed the door to his bedroom open, I saw James propped up in the hospital bed. I pulled the kitchen chair from its parking spot in front of the closet door, spun it around on one leg and straddled it so I could rest my chin on the back to listen to James. He had a space heater cranked up to blast furnace temps and I eyeballed the thing knowing it’d cook me before this visit was up. God, I hate the stuffy heat of old people’s sick rooms. I actually passed out visiting with one elderly man in a nursing home one time. I was with a chaplain on a ride-along right after I started with hospice during orientation. She’s a Holiness Pentecostal by denomination and I accused her of praying the Spirit into me but we both knew I’d passed out from the heat in the room. We still laugh about it.

I leaned forward with my arms folded across the back of the chair and said a sentence or two to prime James’ stream of talk smugly thinking that I now had his speech down and was really going to hear some good stuff this time. James started talking, “Ah waa goa from taaa mma muu-m ann.” He pointed to one of the pictures on the wall. “My wife died,” I interpreted from a few sounds I recognized. “Ma nabooo gana sic annn nied abouu yara anooo.” I leaned forward and turned my concentration up until I was practically split from all reality but James’s moving lips and his one clear eye. James went on – and on and on and my eyes got heavier and heavier and I caught my mind wandering like a drifting phonograph arm with a worn needle.
Soon, I noticed that my eyes kept trying to roll up as the lids slid down. I pulled them down with sheer determination, raising my eyebrows to lift the lids. I was hot and could feel the cuffs on my shirt beginning to irritate my wrists, the blood right under the skin was slowing to a consistency of roofing tar and I realized that I did not understand anything of James story. I rubbed my eyes, refocused myself and shifted in the chair casting a hateful glance at the fiery little space heater. Dammit! I thought I understood this man. I was getting frustrated and losing focus on James and thinking too much about myself. I had to refocus over and over but it didn’t help. His speech was so slurred that I just couldn’t catch much of anything. Finally I noticed beads of sweat on his forehead and I interrupted with, “Are you hot? I noticed you’re sweating a little (Thank you Jesus)”. Yeah, ah goa a ann oou feer yuss lugg e euu. I found the fan, Unplugged the damm heater and just knew that things could only get better But they only got cooler. I never could understand what James was saying. I left the room sad and pretty well discouraged. Marcy said that his speech does get worse with exhaustion. He’d had quite a few visitors before me that day.