Preparing for the Journey

I drove home to Wisconsin last weekend to celebrate Easter with my family. It’s a bit of hike for just a weekend, about an eight or nine hour drive each way. But, it was important. I needed both to get away to relax and to go see family especially my dad.

Dad turned 91 last month. He’s had a good journey through this life, seen a lot of both sorrow and joys, but largely I think joys have won out, six kids, twelve grandkids, and seven great-grandchildren all surrounded in love.

Things are changing with him now. They have been for several years at least, but now it’s moving faster. Dad is walking away, heading toward the next journey. Dad has dementia. No big surprise these days at 91, still it’s strange to watch, to see him go, and to feel the feelings that go with it.

I went home last weekend knowing it might be the last visit when Dad would know me. What a strange thing to wonder if one’s own father will recognize them. This time he did, though I think for a moment he may have confused me and one of my sisters. She and I look a lot alike so that made sense. Others, with healthy, functioning brains, confuse us as well.

There are a lot of sad stories out there about elderly people left alone in nursing homes with no one to visit them. I never understood that. How could someone leave an elder to die alone? I think I have some perspective now. It’s not necessarily a lack of love, but too much. It takes a lot of strength to be with the person you love when they are no longer there.

This became clear to me when my sister JoAnn, who is the primary caretaker for Dad, got a message from his care facility letting her know that he was having a rough day. We decided to stop by and check things out in person rather than just calling back.

We got there to find Dad confused and frustrated and as is becoming typical, not wearing his hearing aids. He thought some of his belongings were missing and he’d gone into other people’s rooms to find them. He’d come out with other people’s belongings and still believing his things were gone. He argued with us and the staff person, telling us if we didn’t find his missing clothing he’d just go find it himself.

It’s hard for me to imagine what it would be like to feel that unsafe in my home even more bizarre to think that without his hearing aids Dad just saw mouths moving, but couldn’t hear enough to understand the words being said. What would that be like to be in this place where nothing makes sense anymore?

I don’t know, but I can tell you that seeing Dad in that place tore my heart out. I can see why people stop visiting their aging parents when each visit acknowledges the pain and confusion and the reality that there is nothing we can do to make it better other than maybe just being there.

JoAnn was able to put his hearing aids in and work with staff to put away the belongings he’d taken while I just sat with him for a bit to help him calm. Then JoAnn and the staff reassured him by taking a look through his closet and assuring him that everything was there. Dad was calm and maybe a little reassured by the time we left. I came back later in the day to find him still confused and concerned about his belongings, but in a better mood and able to carry on conversation, albeit a strange conversation. At least he trusted me as I assured him that both he and his belongings were safe and cared for.

On Easter we had a family party. Dad was able to join us and proudly shared his little paper bunny basket full of candies with everyone. Most of the afternoon he just smiled at everyone. He did, at one point, introduce a granddaughter to her own father, but at least he knew who both of them were on some level. He just didn’t know they knew each other.

We were all glad that he could join us, but I think we all recognized with sadness that this was probably his last family party. He may live for more years, but he is, at the same time, leaving us. I don’t think any of us know quite what to do with that. I know that each moment of recognition, every hug and kiss means more to me than ever before.

Minnesota now feels a million miles away from home in Wisconsin. Dad can’t hold conversations on the phone anymore. He needs to see faces to be able to connect the sounds and have it make sense. I told him when we parted that I’d write to him. He thanked me and let me know that he wouldn’t write back. Dementia does sometimes encourage honesty, I guess.

I don’t know if I will ever get to really talk with him again. Even if we are someday in the same place together, will he be there?

I don’t know what all this means other than hold your elders close, honor them, love them, comfort them. The journey in this world is hard. Hopefully the spirit world gives comfort someday.

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The Changing Mind

When my mother died in 1984, Dad saw the light. He’d been asleep in the chair next to Mom’s hospital bed when she passed on. My sister Jo Ann was sitting with her as she left this place for the next. When Jo Ann woke Dad it took just a moment. In that moment he saw that bright light that some speak of. I’ve always believed that he watched Mom walk on. It was earlier that day that he’d gone to the chapel and changed his prayer. Before that he’d always prayed that Mom’s cancer be healed. That day he accepted that her time was done and prayed that she be at peace.

I’ve often wondered about the connections between the physical and the spiritual worlds. How are we called? How does the connection speak?

Now, my Dad is 91 and his mind is changing. The way he speaks of the world is different. Dad has always seen himself as less intelligent because he didn’t finish school. In today’s educational system, I wonder if he’d been taught to read differently and had a different outcome. Dad grew up, in his early years, speaking Luxembourgish at home and didn’t speak English as his primary language until he was at school. It had to be tough to step in to a learning system and try to learn in a whole new language as a little boy who just wanted to be out on the farm running around and helping his dad. Then his dad left. Grandpa died in August of 1935. It had to be traumatic for Dad. I remember the story. They were out in the field. Grandpa was back on the hay wagon and Dad was driving the horses. Grandpa called out to him “Slow those horses down! You’re killing me back here!” Later that day Grandpa had what seems to have been an unrelated appendices attack. He was taken to the hospital and never returned. Grandpa was Dad’s hero. I wonder how that experience continued to impact who Dad became.

I know that some years later Dad was working on a farm. He skipped work one day. On that day the farmer’s child was playing where they shouldn’t have been and was hit by a truck and killed. Dad spoke about that event with sorrow and guilt. He told us how had he gone to work he would have been in that truck. He always believed that he would have seen the child and they wouldn’t have been struck and killed. There’s nothing to prove that one way or another. It’s just something he carries with him.

I’m thinking about this all as Dad’s mind changes because of some of the things he’s saying. He mentioned several times that he needs to go back to work, that he’s been gone too long. He gets worried about not getting to his job or sometimes he talks about getting back to school.

I find myself wondering if he’s unconsciously planning for his own journey. Is this how he’s preparing to go back to be with those he used to know? It’s a land of confusion. He doesn’t know this world fully anymore, nor does he belong to the next yet.

He’s not the same as he once was, but having this long process of goodbye tells me how gifted we are. Right now his dementia is a largely a gentle confusion. He gets lost and sometimes frightened, but not angry much yet and he generally knows family and friends or if he doesn’t he at least knows that they’re good people and probably someone he did know.

I don’t get to see him much, living a state away. But, he still recognizes me on the phone and other family see him almost every day. Sometimes I am near tears after talking with him when he’s confused or having a hard time with his phone and struggling to hear me. But, I feel so grateful, so proud to be his daughter. He is, to me, the symbol of strength and so wise.

As his mind changes, it seems more words of Luxembourgish may be slipping in again too. He always said he couldn’t speak it, but he could. He’d slip into it with friends. Now, sometimes a word slips in here or there to describe another’s behaviors. I don’t know the language at all, but can get the idea when he speaks of someone who talks too much or something like that.

The mind is interesting place. It is both sad and a great and joyous gift watching Dad’s mind taking him back to his younger days. I’m not sure that this story has gone anywhere, but it needed to be written to help me think things through. Thank you for reading.

Honoring the Dead– A Dream

I thought I’d start with dreaming the night before last because of my brainspotting appointment, but apparently I was even more worn than I thought. The dreams didn’t begin until last night. I am strong believer in looking at dreams to learn. For myself, I find that in dreaming is where I put things together that I don’t let myself think in my waking hours. I can learn a lot if I listen to my sleeping self.

I was awoken by a dream last night where a student of mine had committed suicide. In waking life, I don’t know the person, but in the dream world I knew them well. I spoke at their ceremony to a crowd of many, a lot of young people there. I told them, “I am honored to be here, but I don’t want to be a giver of eulogies. I don’t want to see any of you here in this same place as our friend. I want you to remember that the best way to honor those who have passed is to live.”

I was thinking on this dream this morning and pondering how we treat death. I grew up Catholic. The first funeral I remember was of my Uncle Clarence. I must have been six or seven when he died maybe. He was a WWII veteran and his casket was draped with a flag. I remember a solemness and honoring. I knew he was an important man from how he was being honored. I don’t remember any more from there.

A few years later was when I really started seeing dying– my mom, my grandma, my Aunt Florence, my cousin Mary Sue, a classmate Steve, and other older relatives. I also sang in the church choir for our small rural congregation so I sang at funerals. I once counted it out, I’d been to 13 funerals in just a few short years. It’s funny now that I remember it was 13 funerals, but I don’t remember for certain how many years.

In my tradition people are expected a time of mourning, but honestly I don’t know how long it is. I know that shortly after the passing of the person there’s a funeral, a wake, and a burial. All this happens really quickly, just a day or two. All sorts of people shake your hand, maybe share a hug, and say “my sympathies”, a phrase they’d never use in any other part of life. Then everyone moves on and the dead person is gone forever. They’ve moved on to a perfect world called heaven, but how can it be perfect if the love you knew together isn’t there and they can’t reach you and you can’t reach them?

My adult spirituality has been influenced by many forces; Quakers, Hinduism, Buddhism, the Anishanaabe and other Native peoples, a variety of Christian faiths, and of course Atheists.

I learned quite a few years ago that the traditional folks among the Anishanaabe light a fire for four days and nights upon the passing of someone. This a time to honor their lives and the light helps guide their way into the spirit world. I learned more recently that the journey isn’t over at the end of those four days. For a full year people don’t speak of the person. This isn’t a hiding away. This is in respect. As the person travels to the spirit world, when they hear their name they’re called back. We honor them and let them move forward to let their spirits head home. At least that’s the way I understand it. I am a white girl just saying what I think I understand. I welcome those who know to tell me better or to tell me it’s time for me to hush.

I appreciate this. The beings who pass on aren’t whisked away to some pseudo perfect place and they’ve not lost contact with us. Even after that year, maybe even more so after that year, they are still there just on the other side of the river. That year, it isn’t a silencing. It’s a time to gather ourselves. I grew up in a world in which you grieved for some unknown period of time and then you were supposed to accept that the person was gone and move on. There was no more reason to grieve. You could remember on special occasions, but then let it go. Life isn’t that way. Those who’ve impacted us, impact us forever. Even when their bodies are gone their spirits remain and that’s o.k. that’s good. Carry those beings in a good way and honor them by being alive.

Those are my thoughts for the day.