Janie.

Eleven days ago Dad called to tell me Mom was declining.

Twelve years ago Mom began the descent into Dementia.

Nine days ago, Steve and I flew to Albuquerque to see Mom one more time.

Sixteen months ago had been the last time we had seen her without a window between us.

Somehow all of these numbers and moments seem vital right now. She has declined significantly just since we saw her last week. We chose to go immediately to have the chance to see her before she was completely unaware of our presence. We had to sit six feet away with masks on, but we were able to talk to her, and able to play her a couple videos of Sam playing piano…on her old piano. (Sam playing Liszt. )

She absolutely responded to that. She was aware the whole sixty minutes we were with her. But, while Sam’s piano was being played, she was looking around moving her hands. She knew.

There were things I wish I had said. I think there always will be. We thought we would see her the next day and that didn’t work out. That was hard…that we had seen her for the last time and had not known. There were things I wish I had said.

But she knew.

“I owe her an enormous debt of gratitude for all the good things she has taught me, for standards to live by, for criteria learned in childhood which are helping me to live through this summer, which is rushing by, no matter how much separate days may seem to drag.”

So says Madeleine L’Engle in the Summer of the Great Grandmother. She documents the final summer with her mother, and there is grace in that book for me right now. And I do owe Mom an enormous debt of gratitude. I would like to have told her that more clearly, but she knew. I have her set of the jaw when I am angry, as does my Maddie. I think I have a bit of her wit and incredibly quick mind…but not to her level. I don’t think I’ll ever command a room like she could.

Fifty-one years she has taught me, even when she did not know who I was or where she was, or even who she was. And now she is teaching us this final lesson. I’m watching from afar, which has been my role for the last quarter of a century. I’m learning from a distance, and there is an ache to be there…but I am glad we were able to be with her before she did not know.

My memory of Mother, which is the fullest memory of anybody living, is only fragmentary. I would like to believe that the creator I call God still remembers all of my mother, knows and cares for the ousia of her, and is still teaching her, and helping her to grow into the self he created her to be, her integrated, whole, redeemed self.

I love this thought. Mom has forgotten who she is…or at least from our viewpoint, and we know her only in our own limited ways. But God knows her, and he remembers all of her, and he will not forget. She is not lost, and she is not simply deteriorating or slipping away from us…she is being called home and she is being called to be whole. I sure wish I could see her in that moment of becoming again. The things she will have to say!

I think about the passage in Hebrews, about the great cloud of witnesses that are in heaven, and I think of them holding their breath and waiting for that moment…that final moment that God has ordained. That moment when he whispers to her…or shouts? She is almost there, she has almost endured to the end, and she will soon see that cloud of witnesses.

And we will be left here, another cloud of witnesses. Those who knew her. Knew her laugh and knew her wit, knew her keen thinking and knew her talent to make anyone feel welcome in her presence. Knew her thundering anger when we had not lived up to who she expected us to be. Knew her love of her family and her love of God. Those of us who ate at the table with her, a table filled with food she designed to nourish both our bodies and our souls. Those of us who lived in rooms she decorated with care and love. We, the cloud of witnesses left behind, will only know her in our memories and in our stories, and through the mark she has left on all of us.

For now, I sit and wait. I watch my phone for the updates. I cry some, but mostly those are quiet tears that just roll out. I’m not sure when I will completely grieve. I’m not sure the rules on this. This is all new territory, and so I sit and wait and feel the grief waiting with me.

I’m holding off on posting until this is complete. So this post sits open and I come back and reflect. That is a bit of the processing for me…writing and letting these things soak a bit. What a strange sensation to think of a world without my Mother. Even the skies seem to be waiting as heavy clouds roll in. There is no rush, Mother. Take your time. There will be a moment, and you will know it…when God says “Now” and all will be well. We will grieve, each of us in our own way…and then we will rejoice and will know you are whole.

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Twenty-Eight hours later and she continues to breathe steadily, even if shallow breaths. FaceTime is on constant now and provides this tenuous connection that eases the distance.Listening to the quiet conversations, listening to the prayers of the chaplain, and the consistent breathing of Mom in the background. Mom is still the center, she is still in control, even of this moment.

Four hours later. Mom has endured to the end. With the grace and dignity, with the class that she lived her life she left us. I cannot imagine her passing being any more peaceful.

What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love Him…

Mental Health Days, Weakness, Leaves…and Remembering

Someone posted on my son’s college FB parents’ page a picture from another college. An announcement of a mental health day called by the president of that college. Something along the lines of “y’all (yes it was in the South) are under a lot of stress, catch up on work and decompress.”

They posted this with the suggestion of how nice it would be at our college. This was met with many comments of appreciation, and a few that said we need to teach our children to adult. They have the weekends to decompress and they need to learn to navigate these difficult times.


There is surely truth in that response. College is the time to learn to adult. We cannot just pamper them and coddle them.

But, that’s not the whole picture, is it?

We have a new dog in our lives (my last post was about burying our former dog.) He is rambunctious, nearing 80 pounds and still all puppy. And he forces me to take him outside multiple times a day. At least two or three times we go up in the woods and throw sticks.

Well, I throw sticks and he sometimes brings them back.

He gets me outside every day, though. Even in the mud and the rain we have had the last several days.


So I started sweeping the woods.

I have a little rake that is actually my daughters, and we started cutting more trails back there. I rake the trails while Bear sniffs and runs around. And sometimes attacks the rake.

Right now, every day the trails are covered in leaves when I come outside. So I have to start all over and sweep the woods.

It’s fairly pointless, really. The leaves come back even between the visits during the day. But…raking those leaves gets me outside and slows me down and gives me space to breathe and pray and think.

And I love how the trails look after I sweep them. Well, rake them.

This has become a rhythm of the day for me.

Throw sticks.

Rake leaves.

Breathe.

And sometimes leave a few of the best leaves in the middle of the trail.

Because, part of the process is also paying attention to the leaves and the colors and how everything changes.

So what does that have to do with mental health?

Well. I think sometimes we need the excuse to create some space for health and some space to recognize that things are not easy right now. I have to walk the dog. There were a few weeks when I just walked him…but then I began to make it a rhythm to my day and something that spoke life for me. Breathing. Colors. Sunshine.

I don’t think it is coddling or weakness to tell our college kids to take a day and decompress and breathe.

Or our adult kids, or our teens, or our children. Or ourselves.


I think we need the space to remind ourselves of hope and of joy and life.


I have dropped off social media for the most part lately because I have friends who are passionate about different candidates. I have friends with a wide range of beliefs. And sometimes, while I love having those differences, the passion can become noise and the conversations can become exhausting.

I can’t imagine how that feels for the college kids. Especially those voting for the first time and choosing between Trump and Biden…and well, Kanye. And trying to see their future and be excited.

We do have a hope though. And we do have grace. We need to think deeply about our politics, and we need to be challenged by those who think differently. And we need to find a way to do that with compassion and not anger, with patience.

But hope.

I read this from Frederick Buechner and I so needed to hear it. Maybe you do as well…

Then at last we see what hope is and where it comes from, hope as the driving power and outermost edge of faith. Hope stands up to its knees in the past and keeps its eyes on the future. There has never been a time past when God wasn’t with us as the strength beyond our strength, the wisdom beyond our wisdom, as whatever it is in our hearts–whether we believe in God or not–that keeps us human enough at least to get by despite everything in our lives that tends to wither the heart and make us less than human. To remember the past is to see that we are here today by grace, that we have survived as a gift.

Sometimes we need the testimony of the saints…and sometimes we need to remember we are the saints with the testimonies. Buechner continues:

And what does that mean about the future? What do we have to hope for, you and I? Humanly speaking, we have only the human best to hope for: that we will live out our days in something like peace and the ones we love with us; that if our best dreams are never to come true, neither at least will our worst fears; that something we find to do with our lives will make some little difference for good somewhere; and that when our lives end we will be remembered a little while for the little good we did. That is our human hope. But in the room called Remember we find something beyond it.

I love that paragraph. There are good things purely humanly speaking. There are stories of hope, and there are stories of kindness and goodness. But…they are limited. Continuing with Buechner…

“Remember the wonderful works that he has done,”” goes David’s song–remember what he has done in the lives of each of us; and beyond that remember what he has done in the life of the world; remember above all what he has done in Christ-remember those moments in our own lives when with only the dullest understanding but with the sharpest longing we have glimpsed that Christ’s kind of life is the only life that matters and that all other kinds of life are riddled with death; remember those moments in our lives when Christ came to us in countless disguises through people who one way or another strengthened us, comforted us, healed us, judged us, by the power of Christ alive within them. All that is the past. All that is what there is to remember. And because that is the past, because we remember, we have this high and holy hope: that what he has done, he will continue to do, that what he has begun in us and our world, he will in unimaginable ways bring to fullness and fruition.

“Let the sea roar, and all that fills it, let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall the trees of the wood sing for joy,”” says David (1 Chron.16:32-33). And shall is the verb of hope. Then death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning or crying. Then shall my eyes behold him and not as a stranger. Then his Kingdom shall come at last and his will shall be done in us and through us and for us. Then the trees of the wood shall sing for joy as already they sing a little even now sometimes when the wind is in them and as underneath their singing our own hearts too already sing a little sometimes at this holy hope we have.

The trees of the woods shall sing for joy…and drop their leaves to make us pause and listen.

Finally, from Buechner:

“The past and the future. Memory and expectation. Remember and hope. Remember and wait. Wait for him whose face we all of us know because somewhere in the past we have faintly seen it, whose life we all of us thirst for because somewhere in the past we have seen it lived, have maybe even had moments of living it ourselves. Remember him who himself remembers us as he promised to remember the thief who died beside him. To have faith is to remember and wait, and to wait in hope is to have what we hope for already begin to come true in us through our hoping. Praise him.”

God is here. We have hope…and He has shown us that throughout our lives. We need to pause and remember sometimes.

We need, sometimes, someone to remind us to take a day and decompress and pause and catch our breath.

This is going to be a stressful week coming up. No matter what happens, it is going to be stressful. But, no matter what happens, we have hope. And we have kindness. And we have patience. And we have grace.

Find your version of sweeping the woods. Catch your breath. Speak hope to someone. And if someone offers a mental health day to your college kid, and you think it is just weakness to do that, well, maybe keep that to yourself.

Pause.

It has been about 24 days since I last left the house. Same for the kids. That’s a long time. You would think in that time I would have paused and thought deep thoughts, or come up with some rhythm and plan for these days. You would think I would have things to say. Deep truths that have come clear in this time.

 

Not so much.

 

Here’s a bit of what 24 days in stay-at-home has looked like.

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There are no appointments. No performances. No gatherings or parties or driving the kids to and from friends’ houses. I have to say it breaks my heart not to see Sam play soccer.

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No communal worship.

 

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This is a completely unique time for us. This forced stopping. Forced pause. Forced waiting.

 

I have to admit, I am not good at being still.  But it is beginning to seep in a little.

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I have been on silent retreats before, and usually just before it is time to leave is when my mind and my soul begin to quiet. There is just so much noise. And now, that noise is spurred on by news that updates us by the moment about the spread of this virus. We hear and see not only the fear and the stress, but the resilience of people singing to each other from balconies or parading through neighborhoods to celebrate birthdays. Or just to acknowledge each other.

We have the chance, though…we have a moment to pause and to pull back and to rest.

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It has taken me 24 ish days to settle in to this, to press toward whatever this is and what God has to teach me in this season. My mind is starting to quiet.

 

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This safer-at-home business is messy. We are all stuck together and trying to finish school well, and trying to stay connected to friends and be aware of what is happening in the world. This is a totally unique time. There are so many wonderful stories coming to the surface, balancing the fear and the anxiety. There are so many good moments…and yet there are so many struggling and that will increase.

 

Easter is coming and with it the declaration that God has overcome. The declaration that all will be well. We may not be able to sing it out together in community, but we have the opportunity to speak it out in hope. The opportunity to speak life in social media and in conversation. We have the moment to turn our attention to the reality of God.

 

I have not been turning my face toward Easter. I’ve not done well with Lenten discipline. I’ve been distracted and unsettled. The other day it was 1pm and I realized none of my children were awake. There was no rhythm or intention.

 

We still have a week, though. We have time to quiet some more. We have time to be intentional and to lean in to the reality of God risen from the dead.

 

Quieting. Listening. Knowing that this is a different season and the Easter message will resonate in a whole new way. Praying for mercy for our world, for grace in this strange time, and for healing. And waiting. Waiting with a new longing for that Easter morning and the rejoicing there will be….

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The things we carry with us…

Over the last three weeks I have had at least five discussions with friends who are watching family members slip into that strange world of here and not here. They are watching their loved ones begin to forget. They are watching the agitation and the fear that begins to settle in as this person realizes they are losing their identity. Their memories. Their story. And finally their ability to communicate.

 

I have been jotting notes on this blog for over eight years now. I began it as a place to think aloud a bit about our journey with my mom’s Dementia. We were well into that journey even eight years ago. Now, as Mom is farther and farther from her ability to communicate, there is not much to update. Things do not change as much day to day anymore.

 

I began this blog partly because of a quotation from Frederick Buechner that kept nagging at me:

 

“My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours…it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us more powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.”

 

We need to share our stories. We need these touch points with one another, to know that we are not alone and to glean wisdom from those who are a little farther down the track than us. We need to hear that God has been present in others’ stories; it encourages us to watch for Him in our own.

 

I’ve encouraged those I know who are in the midst of this now to be patient. To remember that they do not have to use logic, and they do not have to win arguments. And we do have to repeat the answer a hundred times some days. My brothers and my Dad would be better at writing the advice. They have cared for Mom diligently, daily, these last years.

 

I am 1200 miles away, and as life has become busier here my travels home have become fewer. There is an acute awareness, however, of this missing element of my life. This void. There is a silliness to asking how Mom is when I call…she is the same as she was yesterday. As she was last month. As she was last year. But I still want to know. I still ask.

 

There were times when she changed weekly. There were times when she would call, and she would know who I was. She knew things were slipping, and there was fear in her voice, but she knew me. I found an old answering machine today, and knew that I had at least one recording of Mom still there. Her voice brought back so many memories…and that deep desire to have one more conversation.

 

 

So to those who are just starting out on this journey…it is a long one, so take a deep breath and give yourself some space. Recognize that there are so many going through the same journey.

 

Your loved one just might be mean in this season. They might lash out. They might be aggressive. Not always. But my guess is that there is a season in this where they know what is happening, and yet they don’t know where they are any more. Where there is a sense that things are familiar, but they can’t figure it out. And that has to be terrifying. So give them grace. But also have wisdom.

 

Now Mom doesn’t communicate. She doesn’t form sentences or ask questions. Sometimes she rambles a bit and you can tell there is something she is trying to say.

 

She still smiles though. And her eyes still twinkle.

 

So now, for me, 1200 miles away and keenly aware of the conversations I wish I could have with her, I have taken to something specific to keep her memory close.

 

I don’t leave the house without wearing something of hers.  (And I also can never take a normal “selfie” because I feel ridiculous…but wanted to show the necklace!)

 

 

I’m reading from her childhood Bible some. And I drink from a coffee cup that came from her.

 

Necklaces, flannel shirts, coffee cups…they remind me of this strong woman I carry with me. I carry her wisdom and her wit (although hers was quicker than mine). I carry her love of books and pens. I carry her laughter.

My daughter carries her name.

 

Buechner:

If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.

 

Keep telling yourself the stories your loved ones can’t tell anymore. Write them down. Remember. Stretch that memory, and find something that helps you hold that person close…even if they are 1200 miles away.  Stretch your own memory and think about your own story. Write it down.

 

If you live miles from home, keep asking how they are. Even if it doesn’t change.

 

Keep remembering.