Saturday, December 30, 2017

Patron Saints of Forgiveness...

St. Philomena statue in process from Chris Hart Studio. 
My New Year's resolution for 2017 had been to learn how to forgive.  Actually, forgiving has made it onto my list for many years since I had never really understood what it meant no matter how hard I thought I was trying.  I've struggled with forgiveness for a long time, to understand it and to feel it both.  I have asked friends and family how it is they were able to forgive others and make it look so easy. At every mass, I have prayed to the Divine to open my heart, helping me to let go of the resentments, anger and fear I hold on to so tightly.  On my knees after communion, I ask "What is taking you so long, God?  Just kick my butt in the direction I most need, please."  At times, I have fooled myself into believing that forgetting is just as good as forgiving.  Other times, I've told myself I can't forgive because it feels like saying what the other person did was OK after all. There have been times that I didn't want to even explore the possibility of forgiveness because to do so meant I would have to acknowledge the part I played in being wronged, the part of wronging someone else. It's complex and something that has puzzled me much of my life.  Of course, I can ask for forgiveness and receive it through confession or other means but how do I find the path to forgive those I feel have hurt me unjustly?  The act of forgiveness seems to be a hallmark of martyrdom and sainthood, neither of which I aspire to at this stage of my life.  I didn't need a book called Forgiveness for Dummies.  Instead, I did it the hard way.   

Many years ago I had read a news story about a snake who mistakenly ate a heating pad thinking it was a rodent.  After all, it was soft and furry with an infrastructure resembling the feel of a skeleton.  It was warm with a nice long tail which provided the appropriate resistance because it was plugged into the wall.  Even if the snake had a momentary doubt about eating the prey, it's teeth curve backward toward it's body, making it nearly impossible to pull out. I had become that snake, choking on the heating pad.  For years I was absolutely certain that I was tightly holding onto a rat, with my teeth curved inwards, unable to let go.  I clung to my indignation like a sheriff's badge and righteously flashed it whenever the criminal got too close.  Every single word, every silence, look, turning, breath, sigh, sneeze or blink was filtered through my anger, fear and feelings of rejection all the while missing the truth.  I was so sure I was right that I couldn't even begin to think there could be any other way to be.  Then in a flash, my heart cracked open and I saw the infinitesimal possibility that my reality wasn't the reality.  The heating pad was just a heating pad and not a rat after all.  In that moment, like splitting the atom, I was turned inside out, unable to see things the same again.  That's when I understood forgiveness.

It didn't matter how many times I prayed to be able to forgive others or how many stories I read about how martyred saints had forgiven their persecutor even at the moment of death, I still couldn't apply it when it came to my own life. It amazed me that St. Maria Goretti could forgive her murderer as she lay dying from her stab wounds.  St. Philomena, Daughter of Light, could steadfastly stay true to her beliefs while being tortured and finally beheaded, miraculously able to forgive her persecutors.  What about St. Sebastian, martyred twice and still able to forgive.  I am grateful to have not been beheaded, stabbed or shot through with arrows in order to let go of my iron grip on being right about being wronged.          

Detail of the serpent on base Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Statue
I am humbled by the long circuitous route I took to learn about forgiveness. I'm not sure I will do any better the next time I believe I am wronged by someone but now I am open to the possibility that something I was so sure of in one moment can, in the blink of an eye, be seen in a totally different light. It didn't happen like I thought it would when I prayed at mass for God to open my heart.  It didn't happen like the example martyred saints set for us, embracing their abuser on their deathbed.  Nope, not for me.  It was as simple as the snake.  My reptilian brain was sure I had a rat when in fact I was choking on a heating pad.  I was so blinded by my need to be right that I couldn't see my heart. Let go of the rat. It's not what you think it is. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Stages of Alzheimer's Disease and How It Progressed With My Friend Over the Years

It has become more difficult these past months to visit my friend at the memory care center where she has been living.  As she declines, the good days are less frequent and the bad days expand to fill the empty space. Each time I go I hope for just one more bit of insight that can help me understand what is going on inside as her mind gradually loses it's foothold. Now...all of the things that have caused both of us angst in the past seem totally meaningless. For the most part, she has lost her ability to speak, remember past experiences or people, recognize food or care about where her dog is. Without a past, who are we?  I seek the answer at every visit.

          This morning's sunrise on the hike I always made my friend take with me when she visited. She would  humorously complain the entire time until we finished with a latte from Dutch Brothers.  
There is a certain look she always gave me that made my heart dance. She would tuck her chin down and raise her eyebrows, tilting her head then look into my eyes as a way to separate herself from the other residents, as if to tell me she was not one of them.  That was my cue to give her a conspiratorial smile and nod. It was something we did in college.  No words necessary.

I knew my friend had memory issues when she was in her 40's. She had always had a voracious appetite for words, spoken or written.  We both saved our books, trading bags of them several times a year when we visited each other. Then suddenly she didn't bring any more books and wasn't interested in taking any of mine. She was unable to keep the story line straight any longer, having to start at the beginning each time she picked up the book.

She began asking simple questions, repeatedly with no recollection of having ask the same thing just a few minutes earlier. Even hearing the answer over and over didn't trigger her memory.  At one visit, each time she ask me where I got my sweater, I asked if she recalled having ask me that earlier.  Even though her declining short term memory was frightening for us both, her sense of humor showed when from then on she began saying after every question, "I already asked you that, right?" followed by a gale of laughter.

We had many conversations about what her future looked like after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's.  At first she insisted it wasn't true but there was no denying the scan that showed her brain beginning to atrophy.  She was angry with many people. She was resentful and depressed at times. She was upset when the woman who coordinated the local Alzheimer's Association told her there would be a day when she would not be able to find her car in the parking lot of the grocery store.  She talked with me about what this would mean as she aged.  She obsessed about where she would live, what would happen to her dog and how she would spend her days, afraid of not knowing what was going on around her.  All I could say was "You are my friend. I will be there. I will hold your hand and make you laugh like we did in college".

Today I was there as her future became the present. I held her hand and tried my best to make her laugh but it wasn't what we had pictured years ago when she first learned of her disease. Tears ran down my face as I watched her struggling, drifting in and out of sleep.  It seemed best to tell her the story of her life as I knew it, about how we met in college and the crazy things we did and how hard we laughed, how our lives evolved with each other through
The sunset from the deck where my friend and I sat many times
relationships, job changes, moving closer to each other then farther away and then finally closer again. I spoke about how we ended up right here...right now.  I  told her about the journey she was on and that I would be waiting for her to let me know she arrived safely.  She squeezed my hand as she tucked her chin down, raised her eyebrows, tilted her head and looked into my eyes.  I gave her that conspiratorial smile and nodded just like we did in college.  Yes, you are my special friend.  No words necessary.     

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Alzheimers Disease......Sometimes Not being Able to Remember the Past or Worry about the Future is OK

I'm not sure how long I spent crying in the parking lot of a memory care center earlier this week. I just wasn't able to drive home after I visited my college friend of 45 years.  She lives there now in the highest level of memory care they can provide.  The change in her physically was shocking.  No longer remembering to eat or even to feel hunger, she has lost close to 80 pounds.  Nothing and no one can entice her to eat.  Food just isn't interesting to her any more. Six months before she was eating ice cream out of the carton for breakfast in her own home when I stopped to see her.  It made us laugh because we used to do that together in our dorm room. Two spoons and one carton. I was never a big breakfast eater but ice cream worked well for us both. I would give anything to get her to enjoy one bite of ice cream again.

She has her own language now, using a combination of sounds, hand gestures and her eyes to impart her feelings.  It takes some skill to decipher but you can figure out her message if you take the time.  She does not consider it rude if you finish a sentence for her.  Instead she is relieved.  She doesn't like questions because she has no answers.  She doesn't like names because she knows no people.  She doesn't care what was served for lunch, how her clothes fit or who visited her yesterday.  That information is simply not relevant to her any longer.  Instead she vigilantly watches the other residents for subtle signs of distress and is intuitively drawn to help them. All she can do is stand close by and worry her hands but that is how she shows her concern.  She is present with them.  She is in  the moment, no baggage from her past, no memories of being wronged, no resentment toward family or friends and no wishing she were somewhere else.  I was amazed as I watched her interact with simplicity and honesty.

The irony of it was not lost on me, having just come from a session with a counselor where I had dumped a boatload of unresolved feelings, being wronged and wronging others, feeling inadequate and small for not being able to rise above it, not being able to take the high road of forgiveness and open my heart. I have spent a lot of money and countless hours to learn what my friend showed me in 45 minutes. It is simply better when we forget past wrongs.

My friend at Stephens College in Equestrian Class
I met my friend the very first day at Stephens College because our dorm rooms were directly across the hall from one another.  Oddly, the private women's college we attended recruited a small number of women from each state and many foreign countries as a way to expose the students to a myriad of cultural differences.  We both were from small towns in Oregon, had received partial scholarships and student loans and needed to work part-time jobs in order to attend what was considered at the time a very expensive college.  We were accepted for different reasons. She had extremely high SAT scores.  My SAT scores were not as high but I was extremely creative on my college application. We were best friends for 45 years.

She loved to intimidate others with her extensive vocabulary, making it very difficult for me to win a debate or even a game of Scrabble. Her witticism could cut right to the naked truth, painfully accurate and revealing at times but never cruel.  Her cleverly crafted expressions between ideas and unique observations were endlessly entertaining whether we were in class, at a college mixer or flying home to Oregon together for the holidays.  I smiled as I wondered what she would have to say now, living in the highest level of memory care available with others who were no longer able to live on their own.  It would have raised  her sense of humor to a new level, I'm sure. To her the world was a canvas for intellectual amusement and verbal banter was her medium.  Asking a rhetorical question and answering herself with a creative oxymoron was her calling card. Believe me when I say there is a plethora of raw material where she is now.   
My friend in the studio we shared at Stephens college
Crying in the parking lot wasn't because I felt so sorry for my best friend.  Yes, I miss her terribly and I can't imagine what her acerbic wit would say if she could for one second see the craziness going on  around her. The tears were for the beauty and simplicity of the value she was able to find for herself.  Seeing her concern for those she lived with now and her inability to get bogged down with past grievances, I realized that remembering is not always best. She showed me it's better to just be present and not waste one second being regretful of the past or frightened by the future.

Thank you, my friend, for the 45 years of crazy fun we had and thank you, my friend, for the 45 minutes it took you last Wednesday to show me what really matters.  I will see you at breakfast.  Two spoons and one carton.       


Friday, February 24, 2017

Patron Saint of Purse Makers, St. Brieuc of Brittany

It is standing room only again at the Saturday 4pm mass led by the charismatic Father Lincoln at Sacred Heart Church in Palm Desert.  In spite of the crowded seating, I noted that many women brought their handbags to mass.  There are 4 large purses taking up seating space in the row of seats in front of me.  I am simultaneously obsessing over the people forced to stand and the huge purses that couldn't be locked in the car parked in a church parking lot guarded by security for one hour.

After communion, I kneel, give thanks and pray my usual prayers. I pray for determination in keeping an open heart for those I try to love unconditionally, including myself. I pray for the strength to be supportive and kind to those who cross my path daily no matter how busy I am. I pray for help to be selfless in my grace while serving others even in the smallest ways.  I pray to forgive and to be forgiven.  The Divine certainly knows this to be quite a challenge given my personality but I'm hopeful my prayers will be answered over time.  As I kneel, I am sucked into the gaping maw of an open purse on the seat in front of me.  It appears to have a voracious appetite given it's size.  I tried to focus on prayer, love and centering my soul but I  found I couldn't look away.  It presented an excellent opportunity to see what was so important they couldn't free up a another seat.

Looking into the voracious maw of a designer handbag
Just like my mother, Kleenex seems to be the primary ingredient, even in an expensive designer bag. Next is a cell phone, water bottle, lip gloss, Tylenol and  wallet, a variety of coupons, paper, envelopes and pens, followed by a general mess that looks akin to an unmade bed.  Even my ADD brain knew not one of those items was necessary to attend mass. What is this addiction to our purses and why are we so insecure without them?  There must be a saint or two that can help out.  

As my mother aged and became more forgetful, she frequently became concerned with where her purse was....believe me when I say we spent many hours looking for it.  With caregivers in the house, she was convinced it was necessary to hide it even though by then it didn't hold anything of much value.  We prayed to St. Anthony so many times for help  I thought we wore him out.  "St. Anthony! St. Anthony! Please come 'round.  Something's been lost and cannot be found."   He answered our prayers more times than I can count.

St. Breiuc Patron Saint of Purse Makers
After some research, I found the Patron Saint of Purse Makers, St. Brieuc....educated where else?....France? Oui! Mistakenly, I thought Givenchy, Louis Vuitton or Yves Saint Laurent might be the Patron Saints of Purse Makers from what I saw leaning over the pew at Sacred Heart.  St. Brieuc was born in Wales around 420 AD, moved to France and is known as one of the seven founding saints of Brittany.  An official medallion found in Seine shows him to have a purse in hand, slaying a dragon. Most often he is shown holding a staff with a column of fire above him which was said to appear when he was ordained. It's an interesting and somewhat unsettling combination. 

So between purse-maker, St. Breiuc and purse-finder, St. Anthony, I can only hope that those of us who can't be separated from our purses for an hour long mass may find solace in praying to at least one of these two saints.  I'm certain either would be delighted to intervene on our behalf, bringing us enough security and peace to leave a purse at home, downsize or lock it in the car, instead of giving it a seat in the pew at a standing room only mass.  Think of it this way...the saints can help us lighten our burden and feel confident enough to take only what is really necessary to attend mass, our souls. Plus, I'm sure there are many who will give thanks when they are offered a chance to sit down. Mercie! Oui? 






Sunday, February 12, 2017

Patron Saint of Communication. Pray to St. Gabriel for Help in Caring for Those with Dementia

Somewhere in the deepest crevices of my brain I have stored the love I still feel for my late mother. I put it somewhere near my enchantment with tulips and close to my infatuation with creativity, in the special place where my heart still dances. While I am not a brain scientist I do know I have one and like my car, I've learned more about it the longer I use it. Once in a while you hear the sound of a different engine.  You look to see a Maserati humming past. Sometimes my brain runs like the Maserati and other times it runs like a clunker in need of a tune up. I like the Maserati best.

There is the executive function part of my brain where I have stored the memories of the challenges taking care of my mother presented.  This is the part of my brain that deals with lists and procedures, figuring out how best to care for her, the area where it seemed black or white, right or wrong, healthy or sick, either/or.  Unfortunately, it is not that simple when the one you care for is gradually losing their mind. Blending the bittersweet love I felt for her with the intellectual process of providing her with care was hard on both of us.

St. Gabriel, Delivering a Message from Heaven
The Archangel, St. Gabriel is the Patron Saint of Communication and has a long history of delivering important messages from heaven to earth. I like to think of him as a sort of Press Secretary for the Divine. Unlike most saints, St. Gabriel was never a human being living on earth but instead he was an angel in heaven who was declared a saint for helping people on earth.  His most preferred method of communicating was through dreams so as not to frighten the recipient. He is known to intercede on behalf of those who pray for his help to communicate with others and is known to assist anyone who's work involves communication like postal workers, journalists and telecommunications workers, diplomats, ambassadors and clergy, to name a few.  I figure he has become extremely busy in modern times given the internet, email, cell phones and texting.

On occasion, mother would want to go home to her parents, even though she was already home and her parents had passed away years before. Stopping her with logic only made her want to leave more, focusing her anger on the one keeping her from "going home".  Questioning her was confusing and added to her insecurity. Lengthy explanations created bad feelings, not solutions. It seemed all I did was make her more agitated and angry. Everything I knew about communication skills was worthless.

At night I would lie in bed, ruminating over and over in my brain how to keep my mother safe and happy since the two seemed mutually exclusive. I was confused by how my best intentions only served to make her feel more frightened and anxious, the opposite of what I wanted. I prayed I could find a way to communicate with her that made her feel comfortable. It was St. Gabriel who showed me the way.  It occurred to me that I used words with limited feelings and she used feelings with limited words. I realized it wasn't her inability to make sense of my words.  It was my inability to communicate in a way that made sense to her feelings.

As a teacher I knew that you had to reach every student at their individual point of readiness in order to have success. There were no disadvantaged students, only those who were "differently advantaged". Once I saw my mother as "differently advantaged" St. Gabriel gave me the answer.  If the scrapbook of her mind had pages torn out I couldn't fix that but I could work with it.  There were particular events that simply didn't exist anymore for her. I had to accept where she was, not remind her of where I thought she should be.  
I knew the concepts my mother still understood and it occurred to me I could use those to help her make order out of chaos.  She always valued eating meals together so telling her we would do something after dinner could often delay her concerns. If she wanted to call her mother, I would say her mother was using the bathroom and would call when she was done. Using the bathroom was another concept my mother understood. If she was looking for my father, dead 25 years, I would explain he was feeding the cattle.  She knew how important it was to feed them because for many years they had owned a cattle ranch together. 
St. Gabriel, Patron Saint of Communication

Delaying and distracting her worked better than trying to get her to accept my reality. "I'll take you home after we eat lunch" even though we were already home  "We have to wait until the bus comes at 2:00, then we will go" even though there was no bus line where she lived now.  "Your mother and father are still at work.  We'll go when they are home" though her parents had been dead for 30+ years.  If she ask to call her parents, I found reminding her they were dead would cause her to react as if she was hearing it for the first time because for her she was.  It could cause hours of crying. It was a nightmare for us both. My truth was no longer the best choice because her brain simply couldn't hold onto that truth.  Instead it caused agonizing emotional pain and I couldn't bear to be the cause of it.

It's like this...our memories are a long sequence of events that run in chronological order and they give us a reference for making sense out of the present.  In my mother's case she had blank areas in her brain that had once held memories. It seemed I was always the one to remind her of what she had forgotten.  Once I stopped forcing my reality on her, our happiness quotient immediately improved and our collective anxiety disappeared.

I thank St. Gabriel for showing me a way to communicate with my mother that made her feel safe and happy.  I thank St. Gabriel for making our lives easier and less painful as my mother declined.  It is believed that St. Gabriel will blow the sacred trumpet at the Last Judgment and it is then that I will be judged for how I cared for my mother. I look forward to it.