When Days Turn to Hours Turn to Minutes

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Hello from Comforts of Home in Menomonie,

I am sitting at Lydia’s bedside and she continues to amaze us as she has slept, but continues to simultaneously fight and fade. I use those words in that order intentionally because up to this morning that was the order in which I would say things have occurred. This morning, however, there is a change. I think there is much more fading and significantly less fighting. In spite of my background as a former parish pastor and with my experience in hospital chaplaincy, the process of leaving this world for the next is such an individual experience, both for the person passing and for those watching. When I came back to Wisconsin this time, I did not expect that this would be a final visit to Lydia. She is sleeping almost constantly though from time to time she opens her eyes and looks around. This morning, her eyes were bright and she gave Carissa the biggest smile as Carissa came into to  greet her. It is now about 2:00 in the afternoon and she is resting comfortably. A bit ago she did open her eyes and looked at me. As I told her I loved her, she nodded her head yes and mouthed the words “I love you” in return. It reminded me of 17 years ago almost to the day that I told my father on the phone that I loved him and he responded that he loved me also. He passed away about 12 hours later.

During the past four days I have had a lot of time to reflect on what I believe a life well-lived might resemble. As I have noted at other times, Lydia (and George, her late husband) was/were quite the story. While I was never fortunate enough to meet him, I have heard some stories. Together they created a life that spanned countries and continents, languages and cultures. From his time in a concentration camp to her losing members of her family as a consequence of WWII, the war than encompassed a generation and most of the world. I am pretty sure that George and she had no idea what their coming to America and Chicago would have in store for them. I remember that she told me that they both worked two jobs when they first got to Chicago and worked hard to make this new country their home. At one point when she was a student at Northwestern University, she remembered working hard on her English to get rid of her Austrian accent. It never happened. That accent stayed with her for the rest of her life. I used to tease her when I would encourage her to say words with a “th” sound. Of course, I could get her laughing hysterically when I tried to say German words that contained an “umlaut o”. She, of course, could make that sound with no difficulty.

Today, the 23rd, has been another lesson in reality and fragility. While Lydia hangs on to her life, the son of her doctor, the person who has been so supportive of her, and the person I noted as brilliant texted me about 5:00 p.m. this evening to tell me that he had lost his son in an lake mishap on Lake Superior. His matter of fact statement that he would be distracted was heartbreaking. Here Lydia is hanging on, but she has lived her life and at 90 is ready to depart this world. I am not sure how old his son is, but the doctor and I must be contemporaries at least within a few years and I would imagine his son was probably in his late 30s. There is no reasonable time to lose a child, but to lose them unexpectedly, tragically and two days before Christmas is beyond what any person should have to bear. My heart goes out to him. We had the most wonderful talk this past Friday. It is ironic that I have the title for this blog I do because what I have learned is he went into the water and could not get out. Another person also died trying to rescue him. One of the lines in the song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, is “does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?” It was that very song I was thinking of when I reversed those words for the title. He lost his son on Lake Superior, which is where the Edmund Fitzgerald sunk in 1975. I remember the first time I ever saw my father cry was when my older brother passed away. Parents are not supposed to bury their children.

It is now about 8:00 p.m. and I am still sitting in the room with Lydia and merely keeping her company. She has opened her eyes a few times today and she has actually seemed more lucid than she has the last few days. I remember these sort of swings in patients when I was a hospital chaplain. The body is an amazing thing and each of us go about leaving this world in our own unique way. While this past day has helped me come to terms with her passing, it has also exhausted me. I do not feeling this completely tired for a very long time. I remember one person in particular who had gone through so much in the hospital before the doctors were willing to let her go. I am going to go home and try to get some sleep. . . .

It is now Christmas Eve day and about 9:30 in the morning. I had some breakfast before coming back to COH and when I got here, I found, I guess not surprisingly, that Lydia continues to defy odds. Her vital signs are actually better and yet, she is noticeably weaker this morning. She does not want water and has had no food since Saturday morning. I remember flying back to Sioux City over 25 years ago to watch as my mother passed away. Her situation was much more difficult because she had been put on life support and that had to be removed. In this case, there are no IVs, no tubes, and nothing to prolong Lydia’s life, which were her wishes. They are the same wishes I would have for myself. I think there is a time for the body to merely let go and be allowed to stop.

What I am realizing in the last day is the tenuousness of our existence. I have found out that her doctor’s son was 40 years old and his brother (and I think wife) had to witness this tragedy. I cannot imagine the trauma of having to watch someone struggle to live and lose their life in such an unexpected way. The cliches that are possible do nothing to explain the unexplainable. As I watch Lydia fade into a new life, we are in her room alone and it is actually peaceful. I am listening to Pandora and I have it playing classical holiday music. I have been told that our hearing is the last sense of the body to quit working at the time death arrives. If this music can help her be more peaceful, I am more grateful for the time we have had these past 5 days. Yesterday she was quite lucid and actually was able to answer questions at least minimally. When I showed her a picture of George, which is on her headboard bookcase, from his younger days, she got the largest smile on her face that I had seen in a while.  When we consider carefully what we are offered daily, it seems that too often we do not see it as an offering or a gift. I do understand that external circumstances can make the gift of a day seem to be a burden rather than a something to be cherished. I understand that the extenuating events that impinge on that block of time can overwhelm us and cause us to lose sight of the opportunities that might be presented in that time. Yet, how many times do we, in the normal course of events, lament when a period of time is coming to a close, wishing that somehow we might have managed that time better. I am not sure if it is because I have approached the ending of another decade of my life that I have found myself reflecting on what time means and feeling perhaps a sense of urgency for those things I have not yet completed. On the other hand, I find myself with a sense of calmness that I have not often felt. I am actually pretty content. I have been pushed to consider mortality in more than one way this year, but I believe our mortality is always something we must, or at least should, appreciate and ponder. What does our humanness offer that no other creature, at least to our knowledge, possesses? I think it is both the ability to remember as well as the ability to imagine. Remembering, of course, offers us a glimpse into our past; imagining offers us the possibility to wonder about the future. In both of these we begin to understand who we are, but also why we are. This returns me to the phrase with which I began the post: a life well-lived. Whether we have an opportunity to grace this world for 90 years and leave it compassionately or we have 40 years and our life is ended tragically, each person has the possibility of having a life well-lived.

I think as we continue our lives and our days become hours and our hours become minutes, we always have the opportunity to love and care for those around us. Too often we fail to recognize those possibilities and chances. Too often we concentrate on ourselves, worried about the morrow. This past year I have been given many opportunities to share with others. Sometimes I have succeeded in those moments and other times I have failed miserably. Nevertheless, yet today, tonight, or tomorrow, I will be afforded yet another chance. How do I know this? I know it because I see it in the smile of someone who is leaving this world, but still recognizes my voice and the words “I love you.” I see it in the amazing caregivers who tend to her needs and care for her gently and lovingly. I received it in a video tonight telling me I was missed. As I have been reminded of again and again, love is the most unparalleled gift we can offer another person. In the past 10 years I have been graced with the presence of one of the greatest personalities in the smallest of frames. I have been confounded by her stubbornness and blessed with her boundless love all at the same time. As she rests quietly in her bed this Christmas Eve, she still recognizes me and smiles knowingly at my presence. She has told me on more than one occasion today that there is someone in the room coming for her and she points to their presence. Perhaps what she sees is the coming that all Christian believers celebrate this Christmas Eve, the incarnation of the Christ child. Perhaps it is appropriate that as we move into this most holy of nights in the Christian calendar, Lydia points to something much like the shepherds must have pointed or the Wise men must have pointed. Perhaps she knows better than any of us when her time to leave this world is and she will, as she has always done, decide just how this will be managed. When I once told her that I was not sure that God would be ready for her and that he might have to clean some things up, she responded knowingly, “I will take my broom.” Those of you who really know her, know just how true that statement is. She managed her life and she was always in charge. To allow God to be in charge will be something difficult, but then it is difficult for most of us. As I leave her for the moment to attend Christmas Eve services, I hope should she leave before I return that she knows how much I love her and how grateful I am for her presence in my life.

To all of you reading, I wish you a very blessed Christmas.

Michael

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