Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Life Changes

Retirement, like death, is one of those things that happen only to other people; but as of May 26th, it has happened to me.  I have taken a year of family leave in order to provide care to my mother, and probably won’t return to the teaching career I’ve loved.  As our family’s needs grow and change, home on the farm is where I need to be; however, I’m having a little bit of trouble adapting.  I had thought the role of “teacher” would define my identity, if not until the day I die, well then at least for another ten years or so. 

When I’m preparing meals I often slip a familiar movie into the disc drive of the computer that sits on my kitchen desk.  The day after my retirement party, my selection was one that many women who read this will find familiar, as will many men since they’ve probably seen it under duress.   It was “You’ve Got Mail” with Meg Ryan (yes, guys, it is a chick flick;  but hey, Tom Hanks co-stars...).  I was peeling potatoes when I heard Jean Stapleton's character say, "You are being very brave. You are daring to imagine that you could have some other life."

It really has taken a fair amount of bravery for me to walk away from the career that I’ve loved.  The passion to help little ones become successful readers gave my life shape and meaning; in short, I felt useful.  I’ve been a teacher since 1978.  It truly is a challenge to imagine that I could have some other life. 

A dear friend wrote these words to me in her own hand, “Your teaching days are not over, but perhaps in the capacity with which you have become accustomed, they are.  God dreams bigger than we can ever dream, and He has plans for you…I feel great peace as I think of the coming years for you.  There will be new endeavors and new opportunities to teach and to learn.” 

Life is full of transitions, and most of us don’t like this fact.  We would prefer to attain a place of comfort and safety and clutch it to our hearts to keep, but we are not allowed to do so; sometimes there has to be an ending before there can be a new beginning.  As another close friend said to me, “A chapter completed does not mean the story is ended.”   
Here’s to new beginnings!  

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Proposed Change of Focus

I waste a lot of time feeling angry with my mother because she asks me to do things for her.  Even though it has been seven years since Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, I don't think it will ever become automatic to me to respond to her as a caregiver rather than as the daughter I was to her for the first 40-some years of my life. 

"Would you close my drapes...get me a diet coke...adjust the temperature because I'm hot (or cold)...get me a box of kleenex...bring me some crackers to enjoy with my coke..."  Each one of those innocuous requests causes me to press my lips into a thin line and to act annoyed with my mother.  

When Mom is too warm, it doesn't occur to her to remove her sweater.When she is too cold, she doesn't consider covering her lap with the quilt that lies draped over the arm of her chair.  She is, however, able to discern that she is uncomfortable and to ask me to do something about it. 

Dementia patients tend to develop a pattern of responding that, in the general population, might be labeled "demanding," or even "lazy."   The problem is that the ability to ask for help outlasts the ability to perform the multiple steps required to complete a task independently.  Asking for help is a one step cognitive process, while performing a task independently requires the ability to carry out several steps in a process.  However, when a patient requests a caregiver to do something that the patient is physically capable of doing,  the natural caregiver response  is annoyance.

The problem is compounded when the patient is someone who once provided nurture and support  for the one who has become the caregiver.  Role reversals are a hallmark of the difficulties experienced when a daughter or son becomes the caregiver for a parent.

I know all of this.

But I still become annoyed when I'm treated like a servant rather than a daughter. 

This morning Mom called me into her room and asked me to adjust the volume on her music channel.  Before I made my escape she added,  "And I'd like my coffee warmed, please."  I complied with her requests somewhat ungraciously, and then headed to the kitchen to make cream cheese mints for my son's upcoming wedding reception.  I made this task into a mini-holiday in the midst of my busy day by watching a movie on my laptop computer as I worked.  Nipping an occasional taste of the minty-sweet dough as I formed lilies and leaf shapes, I enjoyed the respite.  

The movie I watched was The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  As I shed tears over the farewell scene at the end of the film--it is so evocative of the goodbyes we must say to loved ones at the end of life--the Caspian character uttered this line, "I've spent too long wanting what was taken from me, and not what I was given."  

I found myself frozen, staring at the computer screen, and replaying those words in my head.  I am very good at describing in wearisome detail the exact nature of what I've lost.  But what about the gifts I've been given?  There've been many these past few years, even in the midst of Mom's Alzheimer's. 

I consider myself to be at a transition point on the timeline of my life.  Because my position as Reading Recovery teacher has been phased out due to budget cuts, I've chosen to quit my job after twenty-two years as a teacher.  My son is getting married this summer, and I find myself with a rather unacceptable amount of angst over giving my youngest child in marriage.  My mother fades day by day due to Alzheimer's.  

I've done an awful lot of talking and writing about the things I've lost.  

What if I focused on what I've been given, instead? 

I'm trying, Lord, I'm trying.  I'm working hard today to see the gifts I've been given in the midst of the final scenes of so many chapters of my life.  

Scripture:  "You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy" (Psalm 30:11).  

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Keep Running!

So often it seems that when I begin to follow more closely to the Lord, something happens to stop me. I’ve grown almost superstitious about this, and dangerously close to playing into the devil’s hand through a mindset that would say, “Why try to be more Godly; it just paints a big target on my head for the devil.”

For example, I’ve just completed a 60 day program that emphasizes Christian discipline. About ten days into this endeavor, I ran a thorn into my hand which instantly became infected, requiring antibiotics. A few days after this I got a toothache and had to get a root canal! My efforts at walking according to the Spirit and not the flesh were effectively derailed, although I did struggle to my feet again and finally completed the program—taking about 70 days to complete the 60 day plan! Ignoring the fact that the antibiotics may have protected me from a terrible toothache and subsequent infection during the root canal procedure (hmm, maybe God really was in control?!), I felt frustrated with the Lord.

I was writing all of the above in my prayer journal when I heard the Lord say,

“He can’t keep it up.”

I understood this to mean that the devil can’t keep up an effort to derail us from following hard after the Lord, and so we shouldn’t quit at the first sign of opposition. Picture a runner pounding along a clearly marked path. A vindictive opponent picks up a rock and throws it at the runner, whacking him hard on the shin. The runner stops, hops around saying, “OUCH” for a few seconds, but almost instantly begins running again because he is so intent upon winning the prize. He is quickly out of reach of the disgruntled rock thrower. But what if the runner, fearing more pain, had just sat down on the path? The first thing that would have happened is that he would have remained within easy range of his opponent, who almost certainly could find another rock to toss at a stationary target.

Furthermore, opposition makes us stronger. A muscle doesn’t grow unless there is resistance; we must lift weights in order to become strong physically. In our spiritual journeys the Lord allows some obstacles along the path in order to strengthen our faith.

We have to keep our eyes on the finish line, where our Savior awaits. But remember, He also is with us on the path.

Scripture: “...let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God...” (Hebrews 12:1-2).

The Lord sat down, but not until He had reached His goal. Lord, grant me grace to follow your example and not to be too easily discouraged from running hard after You!

The 60 day program I followed was The Lord's Table, a Christian weight loss program that is a part of the Setting Captives Free Ministry. Founder Mike Cleveland has a program for about anything that ails you (or sin that besets you) from alcoholism to pornography addiction to overweight. These are Spirit filled, Christ-centered programs that rely on peer volunteers to shepherd fellow sojourners to freedom from habitual sin. Check out this ministry at settingcaptivesfree.com.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Blind Spots

There are certain points on the timelines of our lives at which we are blind to the possibility of future blessing.  I'm at one of those points in my life now.  This morning during prayer time I began to grieve and weep before the Lord over sorrows past.  When the future seems unclear, our human tendency is to attempt to project the future based on past experience. When the past has included grief (and who of us has not suffered grief or loss), we may find ourselves trapped in a space between grief over sorrows past and fear of future loss. 

And an odd thing about a new grief is that it tends to tap the well of past sorrows.  Have you experienced this?  As I grieve over the loss of my teaching ministry to children, I find myself remembering details surrounding my father's death from cancer with more clarity than I've experienced in the thirteen years since his death.  Unpleasant!  Grievous!!  It's as though experiencing the emotion of grief over leaving my twenty-two year teaching career has resurrected the memory of all the major sorrows of my life.  Just this morning I re-experienced the moment I understood a dual blow of loss: my mother would no longer nurture me, and at the same time new caregiving responsibilities were about to crash upon my shoulders.  I was now going to have to take care of her!  I hadn't thought about that moment in eight years.

I'd come in the back door of my mother's house.  I had been stopping by every morning in an attempt to help her to regain some of her former independence; her Alzheimer's had not yet been diagnosed.  As I came in the door she said, in a sing-song, little girl voice, "There's a monster on my ceiling and I hate him." 

I walked to her side and looked up to see a large spider perched in the corner of her ceiling.  I drug a chair over, prayed, and killed the spider. 

The history behind this incident is that the mother I'd had all my life knew that I am terrified of spiders, and would have tried to protect me from the horrors of that eight legged creature on the ceiling.  She would have killed the spider for me, warning me away from the area until the deed was done.  This was the first moment that I knew  that I had irretrievably lost my mother as I'd known her.  Grievous!  Painful!!!

This morning as I cried out to the Lord with the discomfort of the cumulative weight of my life's sorrows, several truths came to mind. 

  1.  I've not borne these sorrows alone.  Through each time of grief, the Lord has strengthened and provided for me (Psalm 29:11).  
  2. God has promised me a future and a hope (Jeremiah 29:11).  
  3. The Lord is sovereign over our sorrows and our joys.  In each one we should give Him praise. Regardless of the current circumstances of our lives, He is worthy of our adoration (Romans 8:28). 
  4. From every great sorrow I've experienced, great blessing has come.  He brings gold from ashes (Isaiah 61:3)! 
If you have some weeping and praising to do today I recommend Don Moen's "I Will Sing."  That song expresses perfectly the fact that even when we can't see a shred of hope, the Lord is worthy of our praise.   Remember today and rejoice: whether or not we are able to see it just now, there is hope for the future when we place our trust in the Lord. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Starting Over

Life is full of transitions.  My sentiment about this fact can be summed up in a single word:


That was one of Frog and Toad's favorite expressions in the Frog and Toad stories by Arnold Lobel.  It perfectly describes my emotions today, as after twenty-two years of teaching, I clean out my desk and pack my personal possessions.  I am preparing to walk away from my beloved classroom for the very last time.


And of course there is the ever present, long goodbye of my mother's Alzheimer's disease; a major life transition that has stretched into a seven-year-and-counting journey.   Most of us who become caregivers for a loved one experience a major life transition that has to do with changing relationship roles.  It is heartbreaking to give up the support a loved one provided in the past while simultaneously dealing with an increased workload.  And then there is a shock when we realize that not only have our loved ones stopped providing us with love and support, they now need US to support THEM.

All together now...BLEH!!

However, I think the Lord has been trying to get a message through to my addled, bleh-focused brain today.  Two unmistakable Holy Spirit nudges have led me to a tentative little thread of hope that even if all I've known is going to change, the future might hold something even better.

The first nudge came this morning when I read an article stating that people tend to underestimate their net worth, because they forget to include their own potential earning power.   They look only at what they have saved, and forget to take into account what they might be able to accomplish in the future.   In other words, they look at where they've been and not at where they might be able to go.  The thought occurs that maybe I've undervalued myself.  I know that for some incomprehensible reason the Lord values me...


Then, as I was packing a stack of personally owned children's books into a storage container, I came across the book The Ox Cart Man, by Donald Hall.  This is the story of a New Hampshire farmer who lived in the eighteenth century.  The oxcart man packs the fruit of his year's labors, including crops he has raised, wool from his sheep, a shawl his wife made, birch brooms carved by his son, and feathers from his geese.  He  travels to a nearby town and sells his possessions one by one, finally selling even his cart and his ox.  The reader is made to understand that all this is not an easy task.  The farmer even appears to feel a bit of a wrench at leaving his beloved ox;  he kisses the ox on the nose by way of saying goodbye! He then returns home with coins in his pocket and with his only potential for future gain lying in his own strength and wits, he begins another year of fruitful labor.

Well, I don't have much strength and my wits are pretty much addled, but the Lord loves me and has promised me a future and a hope.  Right now I am allowing this promise to kindle a small spark of anticipation for what the future may hold.  Perhaps my "bleh" will transition into a resounding "Yippee!" at some point in the future.

My future doesn't depend on me, but upon the Lord, and therein lies my hope.

Scripture:  "Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father." (Galatians 4:6).

"Thus we have been set free to experience our rightful heritage. You can tell for sure that you are now fully adopted as his own children because God sent the Spirit of his Son into our lives crying out, "Papa! Father!" Doesn't that privilege of intimate conversation with God make it plain that you are not a slave, but a child? And if you are a child, you're also an heir, with complete access to the inheritance" (Galatians 4:6, The Message).