Sunday, October 04, 2009

All That Remains

On Friday Grayson and I took a trek with my mother to Highland, Indiana. The home of our kin. The home of the Swedes and English who migrated to America so many years before and found hope in the steel mills of East Chicago. The home of Jim and Ila (my maternal grandparents) who found a home on 38th street where Grandpa worked as a milkman. Grandma shared the neighborhood with, at different times but often overlapping, four of her sisters.

Mi madre and I have cousins in Highland now. And so we spent our three-and-a-half hours in the car on U.S. 30. When Grayson asked whether we were going to Texas again, which is "far, far away" we reminded him that it was a long car-ride, we knew, but not too long. We tried to teach him how to say "Pat" (the cousin we were visiting), we listened to a LOT of Mitch Miller singing "Dinah Won't You Blow" (Grayson's favorite song), we told him stories of his great-grandparents, we made many pitstops at fast-food restaurants for potty-breaks (and saw a pseudo-nun, but that's another story for those who like their humor crass).

Before our lunch with our kin, though, we had an important sojourn to make. We made our way, like pilgrims of ancient Christianity, to the Soderstrom headstone in the Calumet Park Cemetery. We came armed with gardening tools, implements of weed destruction and went to work at clearing away the headstones of my grandparents. Grayson was confused, asking often about whether we were in Texas, and when we were going home. We told him that we were here to remember people we loved. People whose names began with an "S," which we pointed to on the headstone. People who loved him.

And as we donned our gardening gloves, and our trowels, Mom and I kneeled near these headstones of the two we found dearer that most others in this world. As we plunged our trowel and kitchen knife and utility scissors in the weeds around the stones for James L. and Lucille I. Soderstrom, Grayson danced. He danced and pranced and jumped atop their graves. And we told him stories--stories about the way Grandma made cookies and Grandpa wound clocks and how much they would have delighted in him, and how were it not for them he would not exist.

Grayson picked up the reddest leaves of the sunset maple which had shed near their graves. He placed one on each headstone with our prompting, and mom and I hugged one another in the bitter wind, and I remembered how cold it was on those days in both October of 1996 and January 0f 2005 when we left their bodies in the barren ground.

The infamous Church of the Brethren group Kindling, that group of proud Brethren rebels who speak truth and teach me still in their words, and specifically the lyricist Lee Krahenbuhl, speak of the power of legacy. Lee's words say, "All that remains is the love bravely expressed..."

My grandparents expressed their love in countless ways and I am humbled.

I will never stop missing them. I will never stop missing the joy that radiated from them when I awoke in the morning and made my clumsy way down the steps, the steps Grandpa constructed in their home by the railroad tracks. The way they said, "It's Christen! Good Morning! Come have some breakfast!" I wasn't sure I'd ever hear that kind of joy in a voice again, until I heard my son call, "Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!" when he saw my face fresh in the morning through the slats of his crib.

All that remains is the love. And I will express it as well as I am able. For how can there be more in this realm, but to bravely express what has been given, and what we are called to pass on. And if that is all there is, who's to say it isn't enough.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Because Her Therapist Told Her To

She posts.

But, it is awkward as all hell because she's dosed on Prednisone and while she is still sighing sighs too deep for words after learning that her elusive weirdo bizarre physical (hypochondriacal, as some have been known to say) symptoms are completely authentic but also benign and medication related, she is still a little unsure of how to start writing again.

Writing about feeling cosmically alone. And feeling as if death is just too present. And feeling as if life is just too damn short. And wondering if all this living in the midst of death doesn't mean she's becoming ineffective in the ways of life.

I don't doubt God's ways. I'm sure that if She is around she's a pretty smart cookie.

But, I doubt Her being around in general. I wonder, all too often, if this is all there is.

And yet, I see the faraway look in the eyes of patients as they reach their hands out to the loved ones who are calling them. I opened my eyes in awe-struck wonder as the 94-year-old woman last month who I sat next to in her hospital bed as she called pleadingly for her mommy. She grabbed my hand with urgency as she asked, "Don't you see her? She's right there? Shouldn't I go?" How could I say no?

"Yes, Cordelia, she's right there. She's waiting for you," I assured.

Believing. And doubting (was it Morphine?).

So, readers...are there readers here anymore when I've ignored you for so long? What do you believe? Where is God? What is heaven? Are we cosmically alone?

(John, you reading? Or does that break the Hippocratic/Therapeutic oath?)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Accumulated Hurt

Occasionally it occurs to me that my job is a hard one.

Three times this week I've already had people comment on the work of Hospice professionals. "Your staff are all angels." "You have been my rock, how do you do it?" "I couldn't do your job." The man who changed the oil on my car after work last week saw my name badge and said, "Hospice? Yuck. That's a bummer. Better you than me." (True, that. I must concur in his case).

It seems that universally, people see those of us who care for the dying as those who are set apart. And perhaps in some ways, some of us are. Perhaps some of us felt called to work with the dying, felt comfortable with death, felt led to embrace their vocation. But I would venture a guess that while this may have called some of us into the work, those noble aspirations have also left some of us with mind-numbing apathy or burn-out, or with questions about suffering which remain unanswered and unanswerable. I would venture a guess that for many of us death is still a great gaping void which we will face with our own fears. I would venture a guess that sometimes we trust that we are immune to the life-threatening illnesses which plague our patients and that perhaps our work with the dying acts as an all-purpose vaccine or Cootie shot which keeps us away from the grim reaper's evil eye.

I want to tell you a little secret, gather in close, for I may only have the courage to say it once while my guard is down and my protective armor is wearing thin in places. We who work in end of life care think about death too much. We are, probably, no less comfortable with it, no less afraid of our own mortality, no less healthy than the general public. We just know its ways better. We know what chain stoke breathing sounds like. We recognize mottled skin. We know what it means when patients pick at the air with their thin fingers. We know when to whisper, and when to speak loudly. We don't hate death any less. We just know it more intimately. And we have to think about it all the time.

But because we think about death all the time, find it lurking in every corner, see it staring us down at every interval, we also may savor the sweetness of this life more. We might. Some of us.

St. Christopher's Hospice, the first Hospice created in England, had engraved over the doorway "The dying are our teachers." It is a phrase which has shaped me in this ministry, and in my own nearly inaudible call. It isn't Hospice professionals who are heroes, who are the angels, who are the steady rock. It is the dying themselves. The ones who can look death in the face and stare it down and allow themselves to breathe deeply of the strength of the life that is left. The ones who see their loved ones who have already passed, and hear their voices calling them and leave their bodies content that they will be embraced on another plane. The ones who writhe in pain and trust our medical team to dose them with mind-altering drugs. The ones who whisper their most intimate secrets and welcome we Hospice strangers into their lives at the end.

I am still learning from my teachers; and there are days when I don't listen well to their lessons. Which is, I realize, why I stay in this ministry. For I have miles to go.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Dreamer

I have slept with many people in my life.

(I'm just waiting for jaws to hit the floor on that one, as I'm not a very forthcoming person when it comes to certain intimate details).

But, before I start to get concerned emails, spam about Viagra, or propositions (am I too old to be propositioned?), I should note that I am referring to the act of literally sleeping with others. Whether that be crawling into bed between my parents when I was young and roused out of bed by a storm, or whether it was in sharing a bunkbed in a steamy Indiana night at church camp with fifteen other prepubescent girls. Whether it was sharing a dorm room and loft with my college roommate, or under the stars with my ex-husband after watching a meteor shower.
Whether I slept in the closest of embraces with the men I have loved, or slept curled on my side with an infant cradled near my breast and a cat tucked into the crook of my bended legs. I have shared my bed with many a soul.

But, sleeping with my sweet R. is a whole 'nother country (to coopt the words of his home state). R. sleeps soundly, for the most part, or appears to. Often, he lies serenely with both hands folded across his chest, his graying head resting perfectly centered on the down pillow. When we first began sharing a bed, I worried at times that he had actually stopped breathing, so quiet and serene was his pose (he was in fact teased in college, as he had a reading lamp poised over his bottom bunk and would fall asleep in the aformentioned position looking not unlike a prepared body in a coffin, causing roommates to pause). Having a first husband who was an avowed sleep-talker, sleep-walker, and occasional sleep-preacher, the quiet presence in bed next to me was a bit disconcerting.

But, what R. presents in his peaceful repose (his front-stage, if you Goffmanites prefer), is not congruent with what happens inside his mind. For in his dreaming life, he is an adventurer who hobnobs with the rich and powerful and who travels far and wide.

Consider the encounter we had a few mornings ago as R. walked out of the bathroom, his razor still in hand, to report his visions to his observant wife, still in bed.

R: You know what I dreamed last night?
C: About apologizing to Richard Nixon again for how mean you were in bad-mouthing him?
R: No, not last night.
C: About eating barbeque with Michelle Obama?
R: No, that was a few nights back, she was really nice, by the way.
C: Was it Bono again? Did he remind you, once again, to "Be the beat?"
R: No, that was last summer.
C: I don't know, sweets. What did you dream?
R: Barbara Bush and I were singing, harmonizing actually, in a stairwell. Sort of like the stairwell in the Ad. Building at Manchester. We sang "Climb Every Mountain."
C: Barbara the elder? Or Barbara the younger?
R: Barbara the elder, of course. And it was really beautiful, there were phenomenal accoustics. It was quite inspirational actually.

Reader, what can I do? I have married him.

I've heard stories about porta-potty workers who, after R. complimented them on their clean facilities, gathered around him and sang their theme song in four-part harmony. I've heard stories about the gang members who taught R. their gang signs (gang signs which meant, obviously, "Two biscuits, and three pieces of chicken").

My hermit of a husband, the man who has never been able to afford out of country travel, the man who would prefer to watch rather than to act, this consummate dreamer provides me with constant entertainment. And each day, every single morning I marvel at the interior world he inhabits.

And delight that he sleeps with me.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Conversation with a Two-Year Old

The hypothetical situation involves a parent who comes in from a long day of work where she or he spends long hours holding the hands of dying people (completely hypothetical, of course as the Mommy, oops, I mean parent, may have been dancing on their stripper pole or filling tacos at Taco Bell or auditing IRS returns). The toddler in question, whose name is um, for the story, um...Mayson, yeah, Mayson. Runs to greet his mother in the colonial blue kitchen with the most adorable off-white wainscoting and crown molding, I mean, in the, um, neutral beige generic kitchen of some anonymous home somewhere in the United States.

This is the conversation that ensues.

Mother: Hey, Boy-Boy, how was your day?
Mayson: Hi Mommy. Garage door up, garage door down.
Mother: Did you have a good day today?
Mayson: (Wide eyed, nodding). Big garage door. Go up and down.
Mother: Did the garage door come up when Mommy got home?
Mayson: Yeah, Mom. Garage door. (Nods enthusiastically)
Mother: Did you have a yummy lunch today?
Mayson: Garage door. Garage door down. (Whispers conspiratorially) Garage door down, Mom.
Mother: And did you watch Mickey's Clubhouse today?
Mayson: Garage door go up!
Mother: What about global warming? Did you figure that out? Call Al Gore and discuss the situation?
Mayson: Ummm Hmmm. Garage door up down.
Mother: And Bin Laden? Figure out where he's hiding?
Mayson: Garage door goes up.
Mother: Think Neil Patrick Harris did a nice job with the Tonys last night?
Mayson: Down. Up. Garage door, MMMMM....(making garage door noise)
Mother: Should I continue to color my hair?
Mayson: Garage door. Big garage door go down.
Mother: Paper or plastic?
Mayson: OOooooh, Mom, garage door.
Mother: Wanna call Grandpa?
Mayson: Babaw, garage door too. Garage door go up.
Mother: What about Noni? Wanna call and see what she did today?
Mayson: Noni has big garage door, little garage door.
Mother: Do you know that I love you?
Mayson: Um hmm. I love doo, Mommy.
Mother: Garage door up down, Babe. Right back at ya.

If I were this child's mother, hypothetically of course, I might consider signing him up for some sort of early-intervention OCD program, or looking for the best ivy league garage door repair schools in the country, 'cause he's obviously gifted.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

"Well, Dang!" She says with Slack-Jawed Amazement

Where'd that baby go? He was just here a minute ago.

I turned around he became a little boy.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Heart to Heart

Interaction between Grayson and R. tonight.

G: Daddum...Daddum...Daddum...
R: (Laughing aloud [a rarity as R. isn't a big laugher]) Wow, look at you! I didn't know you could pull your pants down!

Apparently Grayson has the Miller sense of humor.

And finds mooning great fun.

Ah, that's my boy. Great-grandpa Herman would be proud.

Friday, February 06, 2009

The Post I Haven't Known How to Write

I'd hate to draw attention to it, in case you hadn't noticed...but, it's been, oh, a little over a month since my last post (which was a picture), and then a bit longer since my last real writing...

A few people have was my husband, of course...but one was also a very nice stranger who I never knew before who found my blog through the wonders of Google.

And I confess that there is a reason I haven't blogged, and the reason is that before I do any other writing there is a piece that needs to be written. Before I address any of the minutiae of life, or comment on some random bit of trivia, or even post a picture of the boy, there is something I need to write about and I haven't known how.

And so I'll try tonight. And it won't be polished, and it won't be perfect. But it is an entry I need to write, and perhaps you will understand.

Phil and Louise Baldwin Rieman were killed in a car accident on December 26, 2008.

There was ice on the road. Their old jalopy of a VW Rabbit, painted a festive yellow, collided with a truck and in an instant two lives were snuffed out.

I am still processing this news. I am still wondering how to respond to this news. It is more than five weeks later and I still find myself in tears in the car as I think of them.

Phil and Louise Baldwin Rieman were parents of a sort; and then they weren't my parents when I divorced their son. My grief is miniscule in the larger picture. It is tiny compared to the pain of their children, and siblings, and mother, and those who knew them for so many years. In some ways, I feel I have no right to grieve. There is a name for this. Disenfranchised grief.

And so I hold in one hand the very real pain of their loss. And I hold in the other hand the truth that this grief is a grief of which I should not speak. How dare I? The woman who divorced their beloved son. The woman who crept out of their lives softly, so as not to be noticed. How dare I?

And how dare I not? When the love they gave me was so pure, and the grace they bestowed was so, well, graceful? And the forgiveness they extended was so undeserved? How dare I not tell the stories of two of the most profound influences on my life.

I hold in my mind's eye so many images. The first time I met them, even before I met their children, at Manchester College's student orientation where Phil showed me his handmade "pacifist switchblade," and where Louie encouraged my work in Amnesty International and praised my efforts in becoming socially active in the conservative wasteland of Fort Wayne. Perhaps I fell in love with Ken's parents before I even fell in love with him...

More images. Phil refusing to wear a tuxedo at the wedding, and instead walking Ken down the aisle wearing a blue suit and his signature leather tie. Louie serving the most sublime chocolate pie to the masses at our rehearsal dinner. Phil wrestling on the floor with Ken, Tina and Cheri, burying them in affection. Louie measuring me for a dress with tender hands and that simple silver wedding ring which she preferred after losing her formal bands. Phil lying prone on the floor with a bowl of popcorn within arms-reach as he wrote a sermon, John Michael Talbott playing on the stereo. Louie cursing, "Blast!" when she remembered that she'd left the clothes in the dryer too long.

And more. Phil and Louie, calling me to ministry. Encouraging me to seminary. Praising my first sermons. Buying me books on spirituality that they wanted me to know. Murmuring sympathetically at my frustration with the institutional church. Standing with their arms around me as we sang "Great is Thy Faithfulness," in the Manchester Church. Laying hands on me when I was ordained. Believing that the Spirit called me to ministry, even if I couldn't hear the voice of God. Being the voice of God, and the hands of God, and manifesting the love of God when I struggled with who that God was.

And then more. Standing in the kitchen with Louie as she packed some of Ken's belongings the day he moved out of the home we shared on Sycamore Street with tears streaming down her face and her moving toward me to embrace me, and cry with me, even though what I was doing was hurting one she loved. And Phil resting those bear paws of hands on my shoulder as he turned one last time to walk out the creaky back door with the last load of Ken's things in a box and giving me an empathetic smile.

And finally. The week before Robert and I married, seeing Phil and Louie at a wedding of mutual friends and avoiding them, ashamed. But Phil, chasing Robert and I out the door of the hotel, running quickly down the stairs to catch up before we got in the car and shaking Robert's hand and hugging me closely and saying, "Hey, congratulations. We want the best for you." And Louie, three years later, sitting with me at a women in ministry conference on tiny folding chairs in a dorm room, cupping hot styrofoam tea cups in our hands as I apologized to her for my inability to say goodbye, for my hurting her family, and having her say, "All I ever wanted was for you to follow your heart. All I need to know is that you're happy."

Grace upon grace. Love of which I did not deserve. Love I still cannot fully fathom. Love I cannot quite articulate.

I weep for them. But more, I weep for the world that doesn't have them now. I weep for orphaned children who want their Mama and Daddy in the flesh. I weep for the mother who said, "Their work here wasn't done."

This is the blog entry I've needed to write, and this is the grief which accompanies some of my days. And these were the people who showed me the face of God. And I will never be the same.