The Good Pilot

Years ago, back in the mid-70s I think it was, my beloved Godmother had a heart attack and flat lined on the table.  She miraculously pulled through and lived many more years.  She had always been a fragile sort, not much of a fighter, and had many health issues.  Without ever saying, I always supposed that John, my robust Godfather, a Lithuanian who could hoist the world upon his shoulders, would long outlive her.

But if there is one thing I know for sure, and I for sure only know one thing, it is this:  God decides the number of our days.  We knoweth not the hour or the day.

Year’s later, after my Godfather had passed away from stomach cancer and my Godmother was in assisted living, we spent an afternoon on her sofa holding hands and just visiting as she drifted in and out of sleep.

In between naps, she told me the story of the day she was on the operating table and how she saw her mother standing in a bright light, calling to her in French, “Rose! Venez! Venez avec nous!” Come! Come be with us!

She said she longed to run to her mother.  But she couldn’t.  “I can’t go now Mom,” she called, “I’ve got to take care of John.”

As ridiculous and unlikely as that seemed at the time, that Rose would outlive John and would need to care for him, that is exactly how it played out.

My Godmother passed away a number of years ago but it is one of those conversations that I have replayed in my mind many times, particularly of late.

In the past several months, we have had to transition AD’s mother and stepfather into assisted living after George got really sick.  George has a long and complicated health history, so when he got sick it was not a complete surprise.  But then while he was recovering in rehab, Cleo got really sick, which was a surprise, and neither of them could get well enough to live on their own again.

While George was sick, we braced ourselves for the worst believing that what remained of his life could be measured in days.  But George has made a full recovery.  And as of this writing, it is Cleo whose days seem to be numbered.

When George was sick, I sat by his bed wondering if this would be our last visit.  Flat on his back, with his eyes closed, he lay in his bed in a pitiful unshaven and disheveled mess, the picture of a man waiting for that one last clear call.

In a raspy voice, he struggled to tell me how Jesus had come to him in the night and given him permission to let go.  He said he had never been so sick in his whole life and he longed for the discomfort to end.  “I told him, Lord, if you want me, I am ready,”  he whispered, “But I need to stay to take care of Cleo.”  Then a tear escaped and zigzagged through the stubble of whiskers into the pillow.

At that moment, the idea that he would recover to care for Cleo seemed to be a machination of delirium.  He was flat on his back and she was ambulatory.  But that is exactly how it is playing out.

Yesterday, I spent a good part of the day with George as we sat by Cleo’s bedside. She is mostly in a catatonic semi-sleep like state, mumbling and thrashing.  At times, she would reach out her hands, to whom?  Is God near? Is he giving her permission to let go? Does she feel His breath on her neck? Is her mother calling to her, “Come Cleo! Come be with us!”  Does she have a reason to stay?

Throughout the day she would occasionally pop her eyes open and have several minutes of clarity, recognizing Sean and AD.  She would chat as best she could with a lazy and thick tongue. In one awakening, she reported that a pilot flew her up to Tulsa, where she lived as a young mother when AD was three.   And then just as quickly as she comes into our world she is off again.

Who is this good pilot who takes my beloved mother-in-law joyriding through the days of her life and gently touches down so she can chat for a moment or two before whisking her off again?

And when will he take her off to be with those we too long to see some day?

We knoweth not the hour or the day.  But we know Him, the one who numbers our days.

And that’s all we need to know.

On Being Ruth

One of my favorite stories in the Bible is the account of Naomi and Ruth, as found in the short Book of Ruth in the Old Testament.

Naomi is Ruth’s Jewish mother-in-law.  Ruth is a Moabite .  This complicates matters because Israel and Moab were long-standing enemies.  Mother-in-law relationships can be challenging in the best of circumstances, but given the cultural and national differences, there could have been a lot of tension in their relationship but none is noted.

As the story goes, the two women, along with another daughter-in-law, Orpah, also a Moabite, find themselves widowed, which is really bad news at any time in history, but particularly bad in those days because without men folk, women were left to starve.

With no men to provide for them, Naomi plans to return to her family in Israel and urges both of her daughters-in-law to return to their people in Moab.  After much weeping and garment rending, Orpah yields to Naomi.  She returns home and eventually starts a talk show and we all know how well that works out for her.  Ruth on the other hand would not go.  Would. Not.

Do not press me to leave you or turn back from following you!  Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge.  Your people shall be my people and your God my God.

~Ruth 1:16

At this point, I wonder if Naomi just sighed and said something like, “Ruth. Don’t be a martyr. Just go. Please.”  Or was she flooded with relief?  Did her heart swell with love for Ruth’s loyalty as mine does when I read that passage?

Instead, Ruth hitches her wagon to Naomi’s rapidly falling star and together they make the journey back to Israel where she will have to figure out a way to provide for the both of them.

As one who loves security and certainty and comfort and eating regularly, this would have been a really difficult choice for me.  Go home to my family who will take care of me – or?  – embark on a long and treacherous journey with an elderly woman into an unknown land where the people hate me.  I mean, I want to do the right thing and all, but all that potential for discomfort makes me flinch.

But for Ruth the choice didn’t seem difficult at all. That she would stay with Naomi was unquestionable, not even a choice really.

In spite of whatever fears she had, and there must have been many, in spite of her own grief, in spite of Naomi’s insistence, in spite of the legal out she has to ditch Naomi and go back to her own family, she does not abandon her.

Like a stray dog that won’t be beaten off with a stick, she stays.

Ruth sets the bar high for the rest of us daughters-in-laws.

She works. She serves. She provides. She has dirt under her fingernails.

And I think that speaks tremendously of Ruth’s character and her heart — that she would not only remain loyal to her mother-in-law, but that she serves her and loves her so deeply and sacrificially.  And more so, the Bible records no instances where she huffs or sighs or calls her girlfriends for sympathy or sits down for a  pity party.  Unlike me, she does not seem to have a flee response when life gets unpleasant.

Ruth is on my mind a lot lately.

My in-laws have both suffered a number of serious health issues on separate occasions in recent months.  Ironically, it is the one who is not hospitalized who ends up getting hospitalized from the stress of trying to care for the one who is hospitalized. So they take turns, when one gets out the other goes in. And now they are both in rehab together and I am doing my best to take care of the things which they cannot – their house and their bills and laundry and whatever else comes up.

And I’m trying to be like Ruth.

But they don’t see the dirt under my nails.  My efforts go unnoticed and unappreciated or are even sometimes met with resentment.  I understand that they are not fully aware, no longer quite themselves, but these things sting the heart just the same.

Caring for aging parents is an emotional mine field and caring for in-laws makes it even more complicated.  Some days I am spent from all the tip-toeing through the land mines and it invokes my flee response.  I want to go back to my own people and be cared for.

But I won’t.

I will be her Ruth.  Not without question or without tears or the occasional pity party.  But I will stay and glean or clean or do whatever needs to be done, and scrub my nails at the end of the day.

I will stay.

I will be her Ruth.

The Lightning Blue Remote Control Speed Boat

Sometimes when I catch Sean being good, I reward him by letting him pick out something at the grocery store.  The only limitation I put on him is that it must be something that can fit in the palm of his hand.  And it is for this reason that I haven’t told him where Wal-Mart keeps the iPods.

And so it was one day early in the summer.  When we got to the store, we headed straight back to the toy department in search of a reward. We went up the aisles and down the aisles and down the aisles and up the aisles trying to make a decision, trying to choose the exact right perfect reward that would fit in the palm of his grubby little hand.

Finally he stopped dead in his tracks in front of a display of little boy heaven.  He pulled from the shelf a box that was about the size of a small television.  Wearing a hopeful expression, he held out his hands to show me.  Behind the cellophane window on the front of the box was a lightning blue remote control speedboat. The sticker on the front of the box read $25.

“Sean,” I asked, “Does this fit in the palm of your hand?”

“No. But I really want it.”

“Well I can see why.  It is very cool.  But this is a big thing.  This is more the kind of thing you would get for a birthday present.”

“Oh. I thought that was what you’d say,” he said with dramatic dejection.  Dramatic flair does not work on me.  I’ve had my little-boy-manipulation shot. I am immune.

He hung his head, heaved an exaggerated sigh, and as though wearing lead boots, he walked the box back to its place on the shelf.  He patted it and then stood there looking longingly at it.  If I were a member of the Academy, I would have given him an Oscar right there in Wal-Mart.

As we continued on, I took a second look at the boat and made a mental note in case of the unlikely event that it was something that he still wanted when he had a birthday later this fall.

About a week later we went to a birthday party.

And sure enough the birthday boy got the lightning blue remote control speed boat.

I watched Sean watching the boy open the box, watching the boy’s face light up.

I watched him try to pretend to be happy for the birthday boy as he has been instructed to do.  I noticed his bottom lip start to tremble.

He popped his head above the crowd of kids sitting criss-cross-applesauce in front of the birthday boy.  He searched for my face.  He gestured towards the boat with open palms.  He shrugged his shoulders in a statement of disbelief.  I noticed that his ears were red.

He got up, stepped over a few kids and schlumped over to me with the lead boots, head hung low, both arms swinging from side to side like an ape.

He put his head in my lap and whispered through tears, “That was the very thing I wanted and HE got it.”

Part of me wanted to give him a stern lecture about how silly he looked, about how grateful he should be for all that he has, about how he should focus outward and not on himself, about how it wasn’t about him today, about how he will have his own birthday this fall, about how he was embarrassing me, about a million other things.

Yet, my heart broke for him because it was exactly how I felt for years at baby showers.  I would pretend to be delighted for the mother-to-be when really I wanted to lay my head in my mother’s lap and cry bitter tears about the unfairness that some other gal was getting the very thing I wanted.

In that moment, I didn’t really know what to do. I wanted to comfort and scold him all at the same time.  And no course of action seemed right.

So I told him it’s not his party and he can’t cry if he wants to — and I sent him back to the party.  We would have to talk about it later but in the mean time the civilized thing to do was to play the part of a good party guest.

The birthday party might have provided a wonderful life lesson about waiting and wanting and not getting everything you want.  But shortly after the birthday party, Sean came home from Memaw’s with a lightning blue remote control speed boat.

Memaw had three little boys of her own at one time but apparently she needs a little-boy-manipulation booster shot.

The Tupperware Lady

I sat at my mother-in-law’s dining room table and looked through a box of her old photographs.

Each picture, a tiny serving of frozen time.  Smiling faces peer out of a black and white world,  telling stories of the past and explaining something of the present.

At the bottom of the box I find a large brown envelope. Inside is a photograph of my mother-in-law. She is young, tall and thin, pretty. She is standing on a stage with her husband and two other official looking people in some sort of ceremony. In a manner slightly exaggerated for the camera, she is reaching for a set of keys.  Everyone is smiling and looking into the camera.

It is the late 60s in southern California.  She is a housewife in her mid-30s.  Her children are in middle school, high school and off to college.  When her husband encouraged her to sell Tupperware to make a little mad money, she discovered that she liked it.  And she was good at it — so good that she won a car and quickly rose through the ranks to become a sales director.

It wasn’t long after the picture was taken that her husband was thrown from a horse and suffered a serious head injury. He lingered between life and death for two days before he died.  And then the world that she knew spun completely off  its axis and crashed into a million pieces.

When all was said and done, she packed up the Tupperware car with two of her boys and what was left of her life and drove back home to Texas to find healing among her family and to try to figure out how to be a single mom.

It wasn’t easy, but she carried on.  She supported herself and her three boys selling Tupperware.

I’ve always admired that about her.

Spitting Mad

One afternoon last week, my mother-in-law Cleo was at work in her cosmetic studio/clothing boutique in downtown Tuna, just as she has been six out of the seven days of a week for the past 25 or more years. Memaw is 81-year-old and puts in six days a week.

Two gals game in together and looked around. Cleo had not seen them before and welcomed them into the store and showed them around. One of the gals requested a makeover and Cleo gladly obliged. She sat her down at the makeover counter and began showing her all the latest colors, lotions and potions while her friend waited for her in the “husband’s chair” near the fitting rooms.

Cleo said the gal at the makeover counter seemed a bit distracted and kept turning the mirror in an odd direction, complaining about the light, but Cleo didn’t think too much of it because in fact, the lighting in the store leaves something to be desired. Then suddenly and without warning, the gal and her friend decided they had to go. And they took off.

Oh well, Cleo thought, no sale, but that’s how it goes.

About an hour later the credit card company called Cleo saying there was suspicious activity on her credit card and they wondered if maybe it had been stolen. She said, no, her purse was right here under her desk in the store and she went to get it. And it was there but her wallet was gone.

In less than an hour, the two gals had gone shopping at Wal-Mart to the tune of several thousand dollars.

Cleo said she just felt sick to her stomach. Everything including her social security card was in her wallet. She couldn’t even think of what to do first or whom to call, so she ran right out of the store and two doors down to the 1st National Bank of Tuna for help.

Together, Cleo and the bank manager called all of her credit card companies and reported the cards stolen. The manager also knew to put a fraud alert on her credit record. They took care of her, they went beyond the minimum. AD called and thanked them for looking out for his mama.

The police on the other hand. Two of the bank tellers in the drive through had seen the gals drive a way in a white car with Missouri plates. The police were called with this information right away but they couldn’t check it out right now because they were in the middle of a shift change. Feel free to go back and re-read that last sentence in case you think you read it wrong. In the middle of a shift change. Apparently Barney had to pull the bullet out of his pocket and hand it over to his other brother Barney and this takes some time.

The Wal-Mart manager was even less helpful than the police. Not his problem. Did not not care. Could not be bothered. So much for pro-active loss prevention.

Cleo said that for two nights she couldn’t sleep. She felt so violated and kept replaying the events over in her mind. She kept wondering what else was in her wallet that she had forgotten about. She wondered how this could have happened. She wondered what she could have done differently. She is alternately angry and scared but mostly exhausted. She wasn’t physically hurt in any way and for that we are grateful, but mentally she is bruised and battered and that makes me spitting mad.

In the past year or so my father was assaulted and robbed at gun point, my mother had her identity stolen and now my mother-in-law was robbed in her store.

There’s got to be a special level of hell for people who violate and take advantage of old people and children.

There’s just got to be.

Beware Of Boys Bearing Dandelions

We were in Tuna this weekend and went to church on Sunday morning with my mother-in-law Cleo.

After services, Sean and I went outside to wait for everyone to make their way out to the car.

Sean spied a dandelion growing in the church yard and bent over to pick it.

He brought it to me and said, “Here Mom, hold out your hand.”

He very carefully laid his golden gift in the palm of my hand.

“Why thank you Sean!” I said, my heart all aglow.

“Don’t moosh it,” he called over his shoulder as he ran off, “It’s for Memaw.”

Oh.  Okay, sure.  I knew that.

Beware.  The suspect shown above is armed and dangerous, using dimples and dandelions to target the elderly and unsuspecting.  Was last seen in a church parking lot running off with the heart of a woman who appeared to be of advanced maternal age.

The Pinwheel

Last week, we drove to Illinois to visit my parents and let Sean OD on popsicles and Wivian.

Knowing that in the coming week, that Wivian would be indulging Sean’s every whim and thereby be promoted to most favored grandmother status, Cleo, my mother-in-law, made a pre-emptive strike in the Grandma Wars and loaded Sean up with seven or eight presents to open along the way.

When we were about a mile away from MeMaw’s house, Sean demanded to open his first present and being the spineless jelly fish of a parent bent on instant gratification that I am, I let him.

From a beautiful gift bag laden with festive ribbon and colorful tissue paper he pulled a twenty-five cent pinwheel.

“Oh my!” he exlaimed. “I can’t believe my eyes! I’ve never seen such a thing!”

And then he spent the next 50 miles holding the pinwheel up to the air conditioning vent and cackling with joy.

If only his thrills would always be so cheap.