Elder Parents Journey: Tender Moments

There are ten thousand things I would rather be doing than what I am doing right now. Looking through literally hundreds of personal files and photographs is both interesting and heart-rending. The most poignant from today was a birthday card my mom gave my dad in 2013.

It reads: “To my Husband. We’ve shared so much since we were married – our plans, our work, our fun, and every day I’ve found new reasons to love you… Even the challenges we’ve faced have made me realize how strong our relationship is, and how much happiness you’ve brought to my life. And I want you to know I’ll only love you more as the years go by.” She added, “Our love will be ‘eternally’.” Jo”

Then, in 2014 she added the note “I still love you.” And in a weakening hand in 2015, “Sweeter as the years go by!!!! Love u more.” In 2016 she added, “Nothing has changed except I love you even more! No other person in this world could have been as good to me as you have!!! We will be together FOREVER (Thank the Lord). Yours, Jo.”

I have no idea what to do with that card. Perhaps it would bring them joy; perhaps pain. So, like so many other things, I leave it in the envelope on his desk and wait for guidance.

Today my dad said that he had no idea how much my mom depended on him. She looks for him whenever she awakens from her frequent naps, and if he is not there she goes to find him. She is his constant companion, and he hers.

He does his best to keep her as strong and healthy as possible. He encourages her to eat when she is not particularly hungry, to drink more fluids, to walk even though he cannot yet walk with her. He keeps his eye on her to make sure she is safe and doesn’t fall, even though it is he in most danger of falling.

Dad isn’t supposed to stand without someone to support him. The stroke affected the stability of his left knee and he loses his balance if his weight shifts back to his heels. However, as I left them this evening, he stood up carefully from his wheelchair, wobbled just a bit, and took my hand with a firm grip to say, “Thank you for everything you are doing for us.”

I signed out and made it to my truck.

Follow the story from the beginning. Previous posts:
Elder Parents: The Journey Begins
Elder Parents Journey: Making Plans
Elder Parents Journey: Heart of the House
Elder Parents Journey: Meeting House
Elder Parents Journey: Spirit of the Land

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Elder Parents Journey: Spirit of the Land

My father always had a connection with his land and property that could be called shamanic, though he would never use or approve of that term. One of the key characteristics of shamanic practice is that it is rooted in the Earth and implies a relationship with the “spirits of the land.” For that reason and many others, shamanic practitioners can be called caretakers of the land.

HouseBackYardMy parents lived in many places in their years together. In each one, my father always enhanced the look and feel of the landscape and took good care of the buildings. He almost always constructed some structure–a shed, storage, or workshop sometimes complete with a couch and air conditioning.

He remained alert for needed repairs and took care of them right away. When they decided to sell (a choice that is always up to be changed), my father said that the only thing of importance he knew of that needed to be done was to repair a strip of joint paper that had come loose in a corner of the garage. It was about two feet long.

I spoke with the next door neighbor while visiting last weekend. Dan had previously expressed interest in possibly buying the house when my parents put it on the market. Because he had asked, I told him that they may be close to deciding to sell, though for reasons of the VA assistance application and possibly Medicaid funding it would be quite a while. He remarked about how well dad had taken care of the place.

One time a family that had walked the neighborhood for more than 20 years told Dan that the house did not seem to have changed since the first time they saw it. The only difference they noticed was the improvements my father made.

Such care and improvements were always couched in the language of value. It made no sense to my father to let his property fall apart and decrease its value over time. He sees a property in terms of its investment value… or so he says. I also see that he is proud of what he has done, and I believe that he loves the places that he has lived in, regardless of what he expresses about property value.

Perhaps “property value” is his best expression of caring for the Spirit of the land. Yet, I know that his feeling for it goes deeper than what he admits. He just doesn’t have acceptable words for it.

Of course, this is my view, a view of a shamanic practitioner in this contemporary social context. And from that worldview, I believe we — all humans — have a deep, thousands-of-years-old relationship to the Spirits of the land, whether we understand or even acknowledge it.

Humans have had a deep connection with the land and nature for well more than 100,000 years. Is it reasonable to believe that our current separation from them by concrete, asphalt, and steel can erase that animistic core? I think not. I cannot even imagine how our species can completely sever that most precious relationship.

My father has what we all have: an innate shamanic connection to the land. It may show up for many in various disguises and descriptions over time. Still, I do not believe that we can survive without it any more than we can water and air.

I can easily envision an alternate future in which my father meets the many Spirits of all of the places that he has lived. And in that vision, I see him accept their gratitude.

Hotel_Ella_300Follow the story from the beginning. Previous posts:
Elder Parents: The Journey Begins
Elder Parents Journey: Making Plans
Elder Parents Journey: Heart of the House
Elder Parents Journey: Meeting House

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Elder Parents Journey: Meeting House

I returned to the house on Thursday, less than a week later. While there was plenty to attend to, the primary point of this visit was to complete the interaction with the house begun the week before. I was not looking forward to it. Delivering unpleasant news is never enjoyable.

That evening, I found a candle, placed it on a table in the living room, and brought in my drum, rattles, and the medicine bag that I always carry in my truck. I sat for a while, gathering my thoughts and focusing on my intention to open an ongoing dialog with House. When I was ready, I rattled the perimeter of the room, all of the windows, and the furniture. Then, I offered an invitation to House and all other inhabitants to join me. I had unpleasant news to share.

I stood in the middle of the room and waited silently. House did not take very long to join me. When it felt present—and perhaps some other ghosts, as well—I spoke my full name aloud and announced myself as the son of Curtis and Jo Starnes by their full names. I spoke my grandparents’ names as well, in order to establish my place in their lineages.

Then, I revealed the sad news aloud. My parents would not be returning. They have a new, safe home to live in now, though it was not by their choice. I felt my heart cringe to hear the words out loud. I sat and began to play my drum.

I reminded House about the last evening they had slept in their room. I reminded it that it had witnessed my father falling in the garage and against the wall earlier that evening. Then, later in the night, House had witnessed him falling and being unable to get up from the floor. I showed the images of flashing lights, and the ambulance as it arrived. I had not seen this, but I did my best to tap into the memory of House.

I replayed my own very clear visual memories of first seeing him in the hospital. I remembered the scramble for their next home when the decision was made to discharge him to skilled nursing days later. He would not be able to return home for recovery.

I then remembered them both in the skilled nursing facility, the quarantine from a virus that my mom carried unsuspected. It was a difficult time for them; they rarely left their hospital-like room for four weeks, since another infection broke out in their wing.

In 21 days, the Medicare payments ran out and dad was to be discharged from skilled nursing at the end of the week. We had 3 days to find new accommodations and 10 days to move them. We were lucky. A small two-bedroom apartment in a well-respected elder care home was available. They moved in on the 15th of February. I said to House that they would not be returning.

As I continued to drum, I told House that I would be coming there fairly often to begin to clear things up that were left undone. I needed a safe place to rest while doing so, and that I needed to clear out the office that I knew had become its heart. I expressed that I understood, but it was my parents’ desire that I do it rather than a stranger they might hire.

I then asked what House wanted from me in return. What could I do to make the transition easier? I received a very specific image of how to shift the spirit of House away from the office: an altar made of the photographs posted on dad’s computer desk. That seemed perfect, and I said aloud, “I can do that.”

After a while, I played the call-back and returned to ordinary reality. I blew out the candle, put away my tools, and went to sit outside for a brief while. All was done the best I could do it. The next day, I would build the altar.

It was a rough night. I did not sleep well at all. I could not tell whether it was allergies or a cold, but I hardly slept. When I would fall asleep, I would awaken unable to breathe through my nose at all, even when trying to sleep sitting upright. Sometime during the early morning, I wondered whether the house was angry and trying to drive me out. I certainly felt like leaving but didn’t have the energy. However, later, I wondered whether I had actually tapped into House’s shock and grief over the news.

I surrendered trying to sleep as gray dawn crept into the room. I had some coffee, a boiled egg, and dry toast, then made my way to the living room to rearrange the furniture for the altar. Once I removed the photos from dad’s desk, I arranged them similarly to how he had put them on the face of the doors of the armoire desk.

Although the furniture arrangement did not feel right, I was done with the altar for the day. Then, I turned my attention to the office itself. All day, I held a running dialog with House, sometimes aloud and other times with my inner voice and ears. I asked for its help to make some decisions about what to keep and what to discard when it seemed right. After all, at this time, House might know my father better than I. By the end of the morning, we had cleared several bags of trash and made many trips to the recycling bin.

I did go visit later in the afternoon, though I missed the facility’s executive director that I wanted to have a chat with. I was exhausted and it showed. I left after just a short while to run errands and go to the house, ate some soup, and called it a day.

I awoke the following morning, Saturday, clear-headed. The allergy medications recommended by my sister to manage symptoms seemed to have worked. I woke early, determined to get back to work. I again rearranged the furniture into a new configuration that I thought of when I woke up. The new arrangement was perfect; I thanked House for the inspiration. The altar was placed against an empty wall in the living room at the end of the hall to the office, and could clearly be seen from there.

In the office, I uncovered years of letters, cards, and memorabilia that House and I determined my father would have thought to be “of no current value.” My energy was waning, though, as I was still struggling against the effects of the allergies or cold. By late afternoon, it was clear that I would not return to the apartment that day. I called my dad at 4:00 pm to let him know. He was asleep and thought it was 4:00 am. It was an understandable mistake. The sky was darkened by the heavy clouds of an impending storm. I reminded him that supper was at 5:00 and that he and mom needed to hurry to get ready.

That night I found a way to plug my laptop into the oversized monitor in the living room. House and its ghosts and I watched a World War II documentary (dad is a veteran) and another more contemporary movie from my saved movies list. It was a great break.

I awoke on Sunday to the sounds of distant thunder and rain. I finally felt more myself again. House felt much more peaceful, as well. I made it a leisurely morning and even sat for a while on the covered back patio to watch the gentle rainfall.

I packed up in the early afternoon and went to the apartment. I found the executive director in her office, so we got a chance to chat. I picked up some papers for the VA application and headed to the apartment where I found my parents in their wheelchairs, putting away laundry, so I helped. That done, I settled into the small couch for a chat.

My sister joined us after a while and the four of us had a fairly rare opportunity to visit with little of importance to discuss and decide. And then, my father brought up that he thought that with a little more physical therapy and practice they could go back home. The topic always comes up, and it always hurts my heart. That, my sister and I and everyone else knows, is impossible.

And then my mother joined the conversation, more lucid and clear-eyed than I have seen her be in a while. “I like it here,” she said emphatically. “We should sell the house.” There was not much discussion after that. My mother has always run the home from behind the scenes. So, in that instant, everything changed. After a brief struggle, my father came on board and was soon dictating when to sell and how much needed to be done to make the house ready. In the end, he announced, “I believe we are all on the same page.”

I realized on the drive home that the steadfast, almost possessive bond between House and my parents had clearly shifted. Not only did I feel more welcome, but the loving longtime relationship that bound House to them had been significantly altered. I could almost see both House and my father release their grips. House understood in a way that I don’t believe he ever will.

There is much more to the relationships we have to our homes than is obvious or recognized in our culture. Much more.

Winebelly_071317_200Follow the story from the beginning. Previous posts:
Elder Parents: The Journey Begins
Elder Parents Journey: Making Plans
Elder Parents Journey: Heart of the House

Posted in End of Life, General, Learnings | 4 Comments

Elder Parents Journey: Heart of the House

Houses are built to be containers of joy, safety, and security. That is what they are designed for, what architects intend, and builders infuse in their walls. Houses thrive when their purpose is fulfilled and suffer when it is not.

Every home has a heart. For many, it is the kitchen where food is prepared and the joy of preparation abounds. For others, it is the dining room where the blessings of food are eaten and prayers are offered in gratitude. For others, it might be where the family gathered or the room in which entertainment ruled. Every home has a heart somewhere, and you can feel where that might be.

This house is very empty now, even though most of the furniture still rests exactly where it was when the stroke happened and lives changed. There is no joy anymore, no welcoming presence, no real holding for me. It’s simply a place I go to rest while I am in town to do the business of tying loose ends.

I don’t want to, but I return to my father’s office again to scrutinize his files. Many are yellowed with age, and there are a few onion-skin thin copies dotted with ancient letters from a Navy typewriter probably discarded decades ago. Some of these are important, though fading. I scan them and store them in the Cloud, reflecting on the astonishing reality shift this simple act represents.

A couple of dozen photos adorn the doors of the cabinets above his desk. About half of them are family, the rest I do not recognize. They must be friends. I assume they know about mom’s and dad’s new life.

Again, I feel observed by many ghosts. Those photos have to go.

Then, I realize that this is the heart of the house now. This is where my father spent most of his time while my mother napped. Not the kitchen my mother “divorced” years ago or the dining room they have not used in possibly a year, and certainly not the immense family room with its gigantic, rarely used television. My father’s office has become the heart of this house.

The ghosts all live here now. That is why I work from the dining room and at least partially why I find it difficult to be in that space. There is no room for me.

Suddenly, in a flash, I understand. No one has explained to the house what has happened. It is still waiting for my parents to come home. Very likely, it thinks of me more as an intruder, since I had not visited very often.

In our culture, we tend to think of houses as “things” — something separate, inanimate, and “out there.” However, that is not the case. Houses have their own spirit, their own essence, their own awareness infused in them not only by the builders but also by those who live within them.

The relationships that grow between a house as a home and those whom they protect is important. Some relationships are not good, as when the owners do not take care of the property or building. Yet my parents took very good care of their home for a very long time.

Simply put, this house misses my parents.

I know what I need to do, yet it is not the right time. So, I rise from the desk and cross the room to the doorway, turn off the light. The room turns gray in semi-dusk light. I close the door, rest my hand on it from the hallway for a moment, and say, “Be at peace.”

Winebelly_071317_200Follow the story from the beginning. Previous posts:
Elder Parents: The Journey Begins
Elder Parents Journey: Making Plans

Posted in End of Life, General, Relationship | 5 Comments

Elder Parents Journey: Making Plans

My first job was at a funeral home in the days when ambulances were part of funeral home services before EMS. I know what it was like to respond to heart attacks and strokes and more in the middle of the night.

I know what it was like behind the scenes when the mortician calls for assistance with a body after an autopsy of suicide at 3:00 am. I know what embalming is like, what it entails, the color of it first hand. I’ve stood as an usher outside of viewing rooms and watched over the families as they navigated both the known and foreign waters of final loss, so I know that world of service, as well.

And frankly, I would not change those memories. They are part of who I have become.

So, as I sat with all of those memories in the conference room of another funeral home. Angel, appropriately named, was my guide into another phase of my parents’ passing: the prearrangement they discussed but never got around to. There we were, she and I, delving into what my parents might want as their everlasting statement to a world they will never see.

It’s not about them, of course, but about those left behind. It’s about family and expectations when they could really care less except for whatever their decisions might bring to their children’s children’s children.

Funeral homes are consciously designed, and every aspect of them, from marketing to services provided, are focused on making the important choices easy and comfortable. I have no problem with that. I need that support, that assurance… the affirmation that they have this. It’s one less thing I have to deal with. And so my experience as an employee at the funeral home makes sense. I know that world. My anxious discomfort can joke with Angel, and she gets it.

It surprised me that my parents opted for cremation since their fundamentalist religion espouses that they will need their physical bodies when the Messiah returns. It surprised me less when they specified that they did not want a memorial. In my father’s words, “There’s no one left to attend. Everyone is gone.” At 92 years, that’s mostly true.

Still, having no memorial at all leaves out a lot of relationships: children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren at the least, plus people in the church they attended for decades, and others who might want to pay their respects. Thinking in this way reflects more of their feeling of growing isolation with age than true clarity.

Personally, I think that the decision rests with my sister and me. Funerals and memorials are not for the deceased; they are for the living. They are a part of the healing process of grief. Angel spoke about that. Even though I was way ahead of her on the topic, I let her give me her thoughts uninterrupted. There was something in her words that suggested she was working on some of her own sadness.

Working in a funeral home carries its own special weight. Dealing with the emotional expression of shock, pain, and grief are difficult when confronted on a daily basis. Even when not working with families suffering a loss, every aspect of the workplace and work is about death.

When Angel and I finished our discussion, we rose and shook hands. She walked me to the entrance door, and we each returned to our routines and plans.

It was a beautiful day outside. I paused for several minutes to gaze at a jetliner cruising high overhead against a thinly clouded, bright blue sky. And for some reason, I remembered myself as a boy, lying on the grass at the seventh tee of Leon Valley Golf Course as my father teed off. The warmth of the sun on my face was exquisite.

Winebelly_071317_200Follow the story from the beginning. Previous posts:
Elder Parents: The Journey Begins


Posted in End of Life, General | 5 Comments