Saturday, June 1, 2024

What it’s like when my mother is dying

 Note: I wrote this on March 1, and my beautiful mother left this world on May 20 with a smile and glory on her face. I will write about that in days to come. 

My heart aches and my mouth is like sawdust. My mom is dying.

Will it be soon? Will she have another turnaround and give us more time? 

We have been living in this season for over two years now, the season of the shadow of the valley of death. She has given us scares before. I have stood in hospital corridors with doctors telling me she may only have hours left, she's in sepsis, and then... she comes back to us. Each time diminished, but there.

Day by day they tell us there are the signs of death coming near, and I am so uncertain. I do not know what each hour might bring. She is eating and drinking. She kisses my cheek. She greeted my sister this morning- but is mostly silent, except for the pain when they move her. She might be fighting a viral illness or she might have a "terminal fever." She might have "mottling on her feet," but I think that's the way her feet have looked for several years- just elderly splotchy red and purple-veined feet. I look for pictures in my photos- do I have pictures of my mom's feet? Yes, there they are, bare, by the lake, 3 years ago, looking about the same as they do today.

I struggle with anger at the words I hear from the hospice nurses. I think I have found my equilibrium again and then they pull the rug out from under me again with this sign, or that sign- emotional whiplash. The fast moving storm-clouds breaking and blowing in again with sudden violent gusts of wind.

Yesterday in the car I listened to Dr Tim Keller preaching on Ephesians 6:16- 

"...take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one." 

He said that in times of seige, the flaming arrows come when you are storming the walls, and your enemies are standing above raining down fire to not just kill, but instill terror and fear that they hope will cause you to lose heart and retreat, as you see your fellow soldiers around you on fire, consumed by flames. Terror and fear, the cold chills of weakness and horror that incapciate and make you nauseous. The feeling that you want to run from. The horror and unbelievability of the reality of death.

But I must put up my shield and refuse to run. Roman shields were enormous- 5 feet long and 2 feet wide. My shield of faith is bigger. It surrounds on all sides and "can extinguish ALL the flaming arrows of the evil one." 

It doesn't change the fact that I am sitting in a battlefield with flaming arrows falling directed at me and it feels horrific to be here.

My shield means trusting that-

"when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand." (Ephesians 6:13)

I am refusing to disbelieve the good words of my savior Jesus, spoken himself on the night before his death-

"My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am." (John 14:2)

My mom loves Jesus with all her heart and she has spent the last 50+ years walking in his paths:

"Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death." (Rom 8:1-2)

"...if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you." (Romans 8:10-11)

"Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:34-39)

It is an incredibly hard place, this. I go through my days sobbing in the car, pulling myself together, going grocery shopping, making phone calls, doing the things I have to do. It is like wearing a weighted coat that makes everything harder, heavier, more exhausting. I wake at 4 am with the feeling of dread washing over me. 

"Praise the Lord, O my soul;
While I live I will praise the LORD.
Indeed, as long as I have my being,
I will sing praises unto my God." (Psalm 146: 1-2)

I no longer think that praising requires some element of joy, singing exultantly. There are times of praise like that, but this season, those words hit very differently. Today the words of this Psalm are words of clinging to a rock in a raging sea after a shipwreck. Words of refusing to lose hope in the truths I believe in. Words that I shout at the darkness because I will NOT be taken by it even though the woman that brought me into this world is getting ready to leave it, and my father, the man who loves her the most, sits at her bedside with his head on her lap. "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life," said Peter to Jesus, when things were getting very very hard and Jesus asked his closest friends if they would leave him too, like the others who couldn't handle the message of hardship and suffering they were hearing. No. There is no where else to go. There is no other "god" out there that can handle this mess, or a place I could run to that would make me feel better or that this world isn't what it is: beautiful but deadly and full of horrors, in bondage to decay and death. As long as I have my being, I will sing praises to my God, because THERE IS NO OTHER FREAKING PLACE TO GO. He is it. He is the only one that can comfort my soul, he has shown it over and over and over again. He is the only one that can strengthen me to get through this day-

when my mom is suffering
and my dad is weeping
and we prepare for the severing of earthly bonds
that have wrapped and surrounded my sisters and I
binding us together in love, 
this precious family
this stable mother-rock
turning to shale

He wraps my soul in love and holds me tightly. I will not fall because under the sliding shale of this grieving path is THE rock that doesn't shift, that is strong and unmoveable. My mom led me to this everlasting rock. She knew. Her one heart's desire for me was to see me on a rock that would not fail and I am here. I will be okay because I will stand. He has got me, no matter what flaming arrows are launched at my heart and soul.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Drowning in the Woods


I almost broke the potato masher
On the bananas tonight
Making breakfast for tomorrow
Because I am angry
That there’s no easy way
To stop evil.
Not bombs or swords 
And the open mouth
Of more death

Do not be overcome by evil
He says
But overcome evil with good 

We don’t know
We don’t know
What that means, Jesus
We are lost 
In the woods until you come
Help, Lord,
We are drowning.

Friday, November 10, 2023

Old Enough to Build a Fire

When I was old enough to build a fire
I came home from school on a bleak March day, overcast, sodden.
Snowdrops huddled in clumps, heads together, silently enduring wet drops
Rolling off their white hats.
I put on the kettle as the radiators quietly rattled and steamed
Cat stretching and hopping off her chair to see about kibbles.
Taking the leather carrier I walked to the woodpile, 
Piled in too many logs as I do with logs generally
And the carrier clumped and bumped against my legs painfully
As I dragged it into the house, piled them into the woodbox,
returned to the cold to scavenge for kindling.
Twisting newspapers, laying sticks, striking matches-
Matches, plural, because it is hard
To master match-striking.
The fire curls up into the twigs with small swirling whisps of smoke
The kettle sings loudly in the kitchen
And then I sit and do my homework or read my book
With my own pot of tea
And my own English muffin 
Sharp aged cheddar brown and bubbling on top from the oven
Logs shifting in the fireplace and popping and crackling
And under the grate the embers are glowing brightly
By the time my mother comes home.

Monday, November 6, 2023

Not losing hope in the horror

Right now there is a powerful article from NPR that I highly suggest you go and read if you want to have a bit of hope in humanity in the midst of this terrible, brutal war between Israel and Hamas that is shattering life after life. This quote from the article is spoken by Oded Adomi Leshem:

"Think about a small flame of a candle," he suggests. "If the room is lit with daylight, then the light from this small candle doesn't really influence anything. But when the room is dark, then suddenly the light of the candle has some meaning." 

We need candles in these times. My brain needs candles. My anxiety levels have been creeping higher than they’ve been in a long time. Intrusive thoughts about shooters and bombings and threats to my children zing around leaving trails of adrenaline. I am blessed with, or suffer from, depending on the situation, extremely high levels of empathy for others in pain. This naturally orients me toward prayer: good. Being unable to function well from the pain of what I hear and see of Palestinian and Israeli “normal people” suffering: really hard. Images of what Israeli families suffered on Oct 7th and the images of suffering Palestinians now seer my heart. The normal people who love their families and kids and want to live in peace and work and eat and go to the beach. The majority, in other words, not the zealots and fundamentalists and terrorists who are the minority but hold all the weapons. 

Some people may disagree with me about anyone over there being “normal” and longing to live in peaceful coexistence with the “enemy.” You can go back and read that article and decide if you believe the polls. I’m going to believe my friends on the ground in these places who long for peace and friendship with their fellow normal people on the other side, though who knows how these events of this last month have affected them, will affect them, after all is said and done? It would be completely understandable for them to be feeling hostility and fury at this point. And yet, this article shows us that some are choosing differently. Refusing to be pulled into hatred, steadfastly holding to empathy by the teeth while every reasonable factor suggests they should be consumed by bitterness. 

I’m taking a break from my obsessive news consumption for a bit. I bought a book of Mary Oliver’s nature poems at the thrift store today and I read them this afternoon with the golden light streaming through the forest canopy and squirrels rustling in the fallen leaves. The air is still but directly above my head, high in the sky above the giant tulip poplar, a hawk circles on the thermals with utmost laziness. 

I want to make poems while thinking of

the bread of heaven and the 

   cup of astonishment; let them be

 songs in which nothing is neglected, 

   not a hope, not a promise. (Mary Oliver)

Yesterday I took the bread of heaven and the cup of astonishment into my own soul at the altar, given by the blessed stand-ins for the Lord himself, women of our church dressed in white robes, speaking eternal truths to my heart of Who I belong to forever, bound in unbreakable chains of love to his side. Week after week these men and women dressed in white give me this spiritual food and tell me not to lose hope. Stand fast, take courage, remember, remember, whose body and blood this is, given for me. The storming waves crash on the sharp rocks in the night but I am held fast. It is written on my heart and your heart that love and goodness and joy will win. 

Maoz Inon, Oded Adomi Leshem, Dr. Lina Qasem Hassan, Robi Damelin, Yousef Bashir and his parents- thank you. Thank you for being candle-lights of shalom for us in these dark days. May the light and peace of God surround and uphold you through every day to come.

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Poem for us all in a time of conflict

If you are like me, you’ve spent almost a month now in a haze of astonished horror at the level of evil we humans are unleashing on one another in the lands on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. It’s frankly scary to say anything or give any opinion for fear of being misunderstood or drowned in a chorus of but-what-abouts, and yet silence feels wrong, too.

I wrote a poem tonight that does not even begin to encompass the grief I feel for scared and grieving Jewish friends, the mothers and fathers holding dead children in the ruins of Gaza, for peacemakers witnessing years of trust-building shattered, and for hearts so scarred by the indoctrination of evil that they think bringing about terror and death is actually approved of by their Creator. My prayers are with them all. 

About us All

We all seem so certain, don’t we-
We know what is right
We know what side to be on
We proclaim it loudly in the streets and on the screen
While others die and bleed and fight.

But some of us-
the only thing I know 
is that I cannot stand with those
Who sneer at a life because it isn’t “one of us.”
Who say it’s okay to kill the children on the other side
Because they are all animals and they deserve it- 
And they will only grow up to be monsters like their parents-
God- are we really doing this?
Tearing up posters of abducted Israeli children
And stomping on them, rejoicing in the murder of surprised and unsuspecting children and mothers and fathers and grandmas and grandpas because now the longed-for liberation is beginning?
Are we doing this?
Cutting off food and water to Palestinian children
And bombing civilians until the streets are stacked high
With bloody bodies wrapped in white sheets while doctors amputate limbs with no anesthesia?
What kind of beasts are we, humans?

We should marvel that God has grace on any of us at all
And does not sweep all humans away with one hand
And refuse to hear our cries of misery as we butcher each other, crying “I’m right! I’m right!”

I know nothing except that I have no hope
Except to trust in the God I have come to love
Who loves us so unreasonably and wholeheartedly that He even 
Prayed for our forgiveness as we nailed him to wooden bars and killed him and mocked him while we did it.
He is the only one with the power to make 
Terrorists and murderers
Into neighbors and friends 
Dictators into servants
Abusers into lovers
Sworn enemies and haters into brothers and sisters.
I’ll buy into that kind of power, I’ll gladly 
Lay down my life to follow it
The only power that breathes life instead of death into the world.

All praise to you, Lord of heaven and earth!
Who bides with us
And loves us
And transforms all who are willing into creatures of light.
Only one way to leave the stench of death behind us!
To shed the disgusting garments of atrocity and bloodshed
For clean hands and souls that build peace and sing for joy.

He is the only one I could march for, waving a flag 
But He is a king with no flag but one-

-Kirstie MacLeod, November 2, 2023

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Memory and Smell- What I Never Want to Lose

In case you were wondering what a 
"millrace" is and how one would sit
in one.
How many of you have an active, potent, smell memory? My smelling abilities are closely linked to my ability to recall memories and emotions. Mostly positive ones, though there are a few smells that can trigger bad feelings. Smell is a gateway to re-living the pleasures of the past all over again. I wonder whether I would be able to viscerally enjoy my surroundings half as much without my sense of smell?

The smell of a river- is the smell of my childhood living across the street from one. It is the smell of languid summer days canoeing- oh how lucky I am that I got to spend so much of my childhood in a canoe with a friend gliding through dappled green glades with a wood thrush singing! My memory of having chicken pox is not so bad- because I was lying in the bottom of a boat on cushions while my mother paddled us quietly under willows and tall sycamores. There were days spent on an innertube put in below the millrace and watching startled turtles plop into the water and herons take flight and baking on top of the tube in the sun and cooling off in the deep spots by hanging on to the back and floating in the current. Or getting right IN to the millrace and letting the water flow over my head while sitting on the water-moss covered flat surface below it. 

There is honeysuckle blooming right near our backdoor right now. I pull out this invasive foreigner constantly- it likes to take over and strangle anything native that might want to try to grow- but I think I will always have to leave a little to make our springtime that much more glorious. This smell is the smell of nighttime of my childhood and teen years. Leaning out my window in the moonlight taking huge gulps of that sweetness and imagining I am Juliet and thinking about romance. The soundtrack for this memory is Mozart Concerto for Flute Harp and Orchestra in C major, K 299, Andante, which I listened to ten million times at night with the honeysuckle blooming and I still consider one of the most glorious pieces of music in existence. 

Even the faintest hint of woodsmoke in the air will summon the delights of family camping trips- especially that one in the Finger Lakes on our way to Ontario where it was freezing and and we ate borscht that my mom had prepared and frozen to be camp food. Eating hot steaming borscht when you are freezing next to a campfire is top notch. Woodsmoke is also the smell of walks in the cold air and going inside with cold noses and having tea by the fire and maybe even fresh scones and jam and clotted cream that your fabulous friend's mom made and cats coming to get in your lap. 

The hot sun warming up the plants in an Appalachian mountain clearing where there are ripe blueberries- that is the smell of family weekend hikes in our favorite northwestern NJ spots. Grass and wild onions and dirt- that's my mom digging a new vegetable garden on a windy day in early spring. Hot attic air smell- the hours I spent playing in the long huge attic that covered the length of our big old colonial house- creating huge barbie doll living spaces with a combination of 60's and 70s's hand-me-down barbie furniture and accessories from my older sisters and all kinds of other stuff found in corners of the attic. Musty earthy smell- the root cellar below the kitchen where not much was stored because it was too damp but still an interesting place to play occasionally.  There are other smells that I can't exactly identify but the memory is attached- the smell that says "Jurgen's house in Germany when I was six." Or a smell that is the smell of a loved person long gone. And smells that don't have a specific attachment but have all the good feelings- like apple pie baking in the oven makes the whole world a wonderful place. 

Bad smells? Oh yes, they exist. Formaldehyde- instant reminder of intense headaches after high school biology class dissection labs and the awfulness of death. But most bad smells aren't attached to an evocative memory, thankfully. I just hate them. Strong perfumes and air fresheners and new cars and carpets. Chemical smells. No thank you! They can be so powerful and headache-inducing that I'll do anything to get away from them. Even the most offensive natural smells are far preferable to those. Yep, a dog fart over a new carpet- I'll take it. Even though dog farts might send me fleeing the room just as much as the next person they won't give me a headache and the sensation that evil incarnate is trying to poison the world. There's a few chemical exceptions- like the smell of faint perfume and cigarette smoke clinging to clothing because that is the smell of my mother coming in to check on me after a date night out with my dad (when it was legal to smoke in restaurants so even if you weren't smoking, you still came out smelling like it), and now I could go to sleep because my mom was home. 

I like to keep my coffee beans in the fridge because when I take them out to gring them I love to inhale the cold coffee air that instantly transports me to the blizzard years of high school of endless snow-days off from school and going down to the little coffeeshop that was the hangout of local teens and opening the door and coffee smell flooding out and playing chess with my dear friend and then walking down to the river to look at the magical ice formations hanging from the cliffs  and sparkling in the below-zero sunny weather.

If I could imagine a perfect museum it would be a museum of smell. Different species of pine trees in the hot sun. Smell samples of grandparents houses. Restaurants of the world. Schools on the last day of the school year when it's hot and humid and summer freedom is about to ensue. The wooly-hay-manure smell of a sheep barn. Arizona desert after a rain when mesquite smell fills the air. Coyote bush on a hot California hillside by the ocean. 

Do you have smell memories to share? Please, do! Also welcome: ideas for the Smell Museum.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

A brilliant imagination: not really a DIY guide for parents

My dad and his brother and the family cats.
We are entering an era where people many are concerned about ability of children to develop proper imaginations because they don't get bored enough. Is boredom the necessary prerequisite for growing a good imagination? The idea goes that if kids are constantly handed a device to keep them quiet or to stave off boredom, they won't have the chance to figure out how to entertain themselves by playing.

I don't know whether this is true or not. I think the theory makes a lot of sense. We've certainly believed in using screentime limits for our kids. I'm always trying to figure out how to spend less time on my phone and constantly backsliding. There's lots of other things I want to do with my time and the phone gets a hold on me and my brain and I don't want to transition into "up and at 'em" mode. I'm like that with pretty much anything that engages me, whether I'm in the midst of an art project, playing music, reading, zoning out in the nice warm shower, or weeding my garden. Don't take me away! I see another weed! I just have to finish this chapter... and read a little in the next so I'm not left on a cliffhanger! 

However, the point about imagination not developing because of screens? Maybe? But I do have friends with kids who really don't put any restrictions on time with devices and those are some of those most freaking imaginitive kids I know. They spend a lot of time on their screens but also seem to be playing dress-up and inventing things and getting incredibly dirty outside.

So, I guess my opinion on this is fairly wobbly. My youngest gets a lot more time on his devices (still with limits) than my oldest did, who is always ready to point out this proof of parental fallibility. He had to make do with 5 thirty-minute screen-time tickets per week when he was a certain age, and decide how he was going to budget his time. Poor kid. He was so deprived. 

But I can tell you ONE way to develop a brilliant imagination and it DOES have to do with high levels of boredom. Here it is:

Be born in the 1940s, have a case of strep throat that doesn't get treated with antibiotics and turns into rhematic fever which damages your aortic heart valve which causes you to spend much of your childhood in bed. 

Yeah, that's the idea you were looking for, right? That was my dad as a kid. A man with an incredibly brilliant imagination. A great storyteller, master of silliness, fabulous writer of the best silly cat songs. And I have a strong suspicion his childhood of being made to stay in bed had a lot do do with it. Of course he made do with the electronic entertainment available to him at the time: radio shows, for example. But there certainly wasn't an infinte selection of shows for kids all day long. They only came on at certain times on certain stations. He read a lot books. His favorites were books with talking animals: the Thornton W. Burgess Books (The Tale of _________. Insert appropriate animal- Grandfather Frog, Jerry Muskrat, Billy Possum, Reddy Fox), all the Freddy the Pig books. Cowboy adventures, Tarzan adventures- those were good too. His father gave him a big world atlas and he spend untold hours poring over all the lands of the world, marking out routes for adventures he wanted to go on. And he loved his stuffed animals! One of the favorite games he played with his stuffed animals was to use them as cat-teasers. He would tie a long string to them and dangle them out his bedroom window as one of the family cats came strolling by. 

When I was sick as a child, he taught me a game he used to play in bed: Bedcovers Zoo. First, get out your collection of plastic miniature animals. Then put your top blanket over your head to create your own personal tent. You'll note that the next blanket or sheet underneath is all wrinkled around your legs. If you want to sit cross-legged, that's fine, but make sure there's lots of wrinkles all around you. Use these wrinkles as the walls of the enclosures for a zoo for all your minature animals! There's plenty of room for everyone to have their own area, and they can visit back and forth and talk to each other- it's really good for a full day of play. Then you have to convince your mother to let you have your chicken soup and saltine crackers in your personal tent on your bed. That's a little harder. 

Really, I have no moral or wise parenting advice to offer about the use of screens in childhood. But I think that maybe kids figure out how be kids in nearly any circumstances.Sometimes they need help with moderation in all things, if that's your motto (thanks, Hesiod). Maybe my grandma used to come in and say "now Christopher, I think you've spent enough time reading Freddy the Pig today, it's time to dangle your stuffed animals out the window" but I kind of doubt it. 

To be perfectly honest, the whole point of today's post was not to have an Impotant Talk About Screentime but to tell you how cool my dad is. Because he is.