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gold tried in the fire : part 6 / well I got some gold inside me too


This is my story of the last year, told in six parts. Paragraphs in italics are my dreams, and the dated snippets come directly from my daily journal. I trust my family to forgive me for all that I've shared, because I can't tell this story without including the heart parts … and some of them are raw, and hard to swallow.

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5 / Part 6

well I got some gold inside me too

Dad showed up the next morning, sans sleep, and put himself back to work on the deck. We all wobbled a good bit. Some of us limped along, some of us worked ourselves ragged, some of us didn't sleep much, some of us slept a lot.


Michael went back to LA and spent two more weeks on his installation job, while the boys and I did a few small things on the house, and spent a long weekend in PA helping surprise a friend for her 50th birthday. It was a lovely sort-of-head-clearing trip, with great conversations and some deep sleep.

Sol LeWitt Wall drawing #89 being installed at MOCA Geffen in LA. More than 1,500 6” squares with lines in four directions.

Sol LeWitt Wall drawing #89 being installed at MOCA Geffen in LA. More than 1,500 6” squares with lines in four directions.

Back in Chicago, I struggled with feeling flat, untethered, and invisible. Intimidated by the amount of work to do on the house, and very limited in my energy levels. Limping for sure.

Michael got back from LA very late one Friday night, and at 6:40 the next morning a dumpster was dropped off in the driveway, as we had deck and bathroom demolition debris to get rid of. I wake up to a loud backup BEEP-BEEP-BEEP right outside our bedroom window, realize that the 6:45am alarm I'd set for the 7am drop off I'd been promised was useless, throw a sweatshirt and slippers on over my garish leggings-as-PJs and run out the door, nearly bumping into the side of the delivery truck. I'd had a very short and “yup”-punctuated conversation with a U-Fill-It man to arrange the drop off, and as I walk up to the driver's window, which starts a good 18 inches above the top of my head, I hear a “Well I didn't expect you to come out of there!” delivered in an amused and measured Mr. Rogers-ish drawl. It turns out he is the one I'd spoken to on the phone, and the price is $30 cheaper than I thought I'd heard. After he drops the dumpster right where I want, and scrawls me a receipt on a piece of notebook paper torn out of the same kind of little spiral-bound thing Dad keeps in his pocket, he allows that “Since I got it dropped right on the first try, and you're happy with the price, my day is DONE and I should just go back home right now!” He then tells me to “just call when you want it gone” and pulls out of the driveway, dwarfing Matilda on the way by. As I head back into the camper in the hopes of more sleep, I see that not only is Michael now standing by the garage grinning from ear to ear, but the neighbor next door is also intrigued, though still pretending to take care of his dogs from the front porch. I think we were all equally amused, and was grateful for a humorous start to the day.


We started to find our groove again, though still tired. The deck was finished, the bathroom demolished and started over, and we fit in some lovely meals with friends that hadn't been possible before. Mom's birthday rolled around, and nibbled at our hearts. I filled some of the hole by making time to write letters, which helped me think about things and process some memories and feelings. I still love the exercise of writing long-hand, once I find a pen or pencil that feels just right. My thoughts seem to come out a bit differently that way too.


Dad took a big job off of the schedule by hiring a roofer who was pretty hungry for work, and I was delighted. We were still pretty loosely connected in our family of four, scattered mentally, and running on fumes. As my thoughts started to ramble a bit towards what might happen after we left Chicago … land and building and putting down our own roots … I felt the exhaustion nibble away at the hope that we'd have enough energy to get the whole dream going. “Feeling old. Scared-of-starting-from-scratch old.” We had to let it go, and just focus on finishing well.


In late May, the lists we'd made months ago and then buried were dug out and posted on doors all around the house, and it started to make finishing seem more possible. There were plenty of things to cross off, and it made the place feel more like a work zone and less like my old home. Appliances were serviced, and a few more big checks written. Rooms started to get finished and staged for sale, and more and more things dragged out to the curb for anyone to take, or dropped off at charity.


Dad came over as often as he could, and started arriving at 9am on Saturday mornings in his work clothes, carrying a pair of Venti Starbucks coffees. Bernie spent every free day he had working on painting outside and plumbing and drywall and flooring. He was updating and finishing what he'd started back in 1984, when he designed and helped build the addition that took our small 3 bedroom ranch and turned it into a 4-ish bedroom house with plenty of space for guests and entertaining. His attention to detail made Michael and I feel quite a bit better about how our approach to painting and refinishing had gotten a bit obsessive, while Dad noted our mutual approaches with humor, patience, and ultimately, real appreciation.

The kitchen was left for last, and the soft spot in the floor by the sink had to be addressed. Under a single sheet of vinyl flooring, it was tricky to fix without having to redo the entire floor, or replace more than just the rotted part of the subfloor. They came up with a system, removed a whole bank of cabinets and the sink and dishwasher, peeled back the vinyl and part of the wall … and discovered a deserted mouse condo, complete with a neat row of drained mini cream containers and the ID tag that belonged to Chico, Mom and Dad's last cat who had been dead for a good 10 years at least! It was kind of fun to remove all the previous layers of flooring in that spot, and match the various colors up to the layers of paint that Michael had sanded off of the old back door. I love piecing together old house clues into a story.


The final stretch, the loooong stretch, took up the last few weeks of June, and then slid into July. We'd hoped to leave by July 4th, but there was still a garage to clean out, driveway to refinish, trees to trim, stuff to dispose of, hardware to find and install, carpets to clean, things to label, freezers to empty, paperwork to sort and fill out, prices to set, birthdays to celebrate, last dinners with family, last chats with the neighbors, last trips to drop things off at Park Ave and reStore and BTP (Dad's work) and whatever thrift store happened to still be open.


Somewhere in those last two weeks we also had the camper worked on, the truck worked on, passport applications submitted (just in case), the mountains of stuff we'd put in the house brought back out and sorted, bins bought to store the excess that had been acquired since we last tried to pack it all in, flowers watered one more time, and finally all of our stuff crammed and jammed back into Matilda and the camper. A seemingly endless flurry of lasts and oh-well-that-won't-happens and feelings and memories and hopes and aches and did-you's. Then that long late afternoon wait for the boys, who sat on the porch in the sun while I finally went over every corner of that house and property, taking pictures and inhaling it all for one last time. It felt full of love, lit with memories, and ready for someone else. Another letting go, another good end.


I never expected all the gold. The things I did expect; working with Michael in our usual easy way on the house, helping Dad more than Mom, spending a month or two … none of them turned out anything like I imagined. I had no idea of the depths I'd have to go to to care for Mom, or the strength I'd find in utter dependence on God in order to do it for so long. The nearly crushing weight of the responsibilities I'd be given, and coming to the absolute end of myself in that arena, only to discover that the end result was the healing of a fear that I'd held onto for 40 years … disappointing my Dad. That the relationship I had with my sister-in-law Rene could grow so much deeper and wider, and more transparent and lovely than it ever was.


I never envisioned that Stephen and I would find a shared joy in more than puns and walks and photography battles, discovering a language of the eyebrows and eyes and heart that went well beyond our childhood button-pushing (though it's still alive and well!). That Martha and I would spend months together in the home we grew up in, holding each other up, and burrowing even deeper into the certainty that we are mutually loved, seen, adored, and needed. That the boys would get to spend so much time with their cousins, and get past the bumps of teenage-hood and competitiveness and into the easy enjoyment of each other's company.


Who knew that my Mom, in her completely helpless state, could be so big, loving, delightful, and heart-responsive that I'd fall in love with her so hard and so deep I'd wonder why I ever gave up on that kind of relationship with her years ago. That her shoes would sit next to Grambie's in the doorway of my heart.


That my father, who I've adored as long as I can remember, and canoed with, worked for, spelunked behind, renovated houses with, traveled alongside, learned fearlessness from, given birth in front of, and thought the world of … that he would open up his heart to me, letting me see the vulnerability I thought was in there but was always hidden. That we'd share the sweetest communion we've ever had while walking Mom to the door of heaven. That I would get to hold her right hand, and watch him, as she took her last breath.

I'm thankful from every nook and cranny of my still-tired body for every single bit of the last year, glad to now be looking at it in the rear-view mirror, and working on finding my stride and voice as the next phase comes into view.


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gold tried in the fire : part 3 / sifting the ashes


This is my story of the last year, told in six parts. Paragraphs in italics are my dreams, and the dated snippets come directly from my daily journal. I trust my family to forgive me for all that I've shared, because I can't tell this story without including the heart parts … and some of them are raw, and hard to swallow.

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5 / Part 6

sifting the ashes

We got the house tidied up from the whirlwind move that left things all over the place and drawers half emptied. We decided that yes we were taking the camper with us to the beach, so there was an epic sort and removal of the majority of the things and projects the boys (well, Fynn mostly) had flung all over the basement and any other surface that wasn't already covered. A daunting detangle in a space that had been in flux for weeks, and barely kept functional as it was. I also started to get glimpses of how much I'd buried that might start coming to the surface if I dared to relax, and worried a wee bit about that. To top it off, the weather was bitterly cold, and in attempts to empty our black tank before leaving we discovered the valve was frozen. Trying to thaw it with a space heater blew a fuse. I gave up. Our camper isn't built for winter use so the tanks are not heated, and we'd been doing everything we could to keep them from freezing and cracking. We finally pulled out from between the snowbanks on Thursday afternoon, staggering with tiredness, cold, and a dawning elation at being pointed towards the beach and Michael's family.


Two Days on the Road : one freezing night at a truck stop pointed into the 5° air blowing at 20mph and leaving the truck running all night to power the furnace, one frozen and cracked sewer hose, one night in a WV campground that was miraculously open, one warm bourbon at the empty campground's non-empty bar, one tire changed for a couple of ladies stranded with their trailer, one late night arrival, one backing up of a very long driveway with the camper, one cozy tuck in between two huge beach houses, many hugs of welcome.


Seven Days Together : one solo sit in the hot tub, one girls afternoon out, one CodeNames tournament, two family game shows, one beach photo session, two personal breakdowns, four ducks consumed, six fantastic meals that the women didn't have anything to do with, one forging demonstration, 14 life updates given, every day filled to the brim with intensity.


Seven Days Home : one caravan to Raleigh, one fantastic pizza joint, two lovely days with Uncle Dick and Aunt Judy, three days in a familiar state park, one set of taxes almost finished, one lovely Fynn Fort, one night in a free riverside campground on WV land George Washington used to own, one speed bump at 30 mph, one smashed litterbox, one epic camper mess, one long gearing up to return to work, one safe arrival back at 2nd Ave.


We dragged ourselves back to work; emptying the house one box at a time, visiting at Park Ave (the new abode), celebrating Paul's birthday, sitting with Mom on Sunday mornings, and starting to pick away at the overall renovations on the old house. The lists were daunting. Michael spent his days on working on the house, and his nights on communicating with family over some subjects kindled by the time together. I'd assumed for years that Michael and I would be the ones dealing with the cleanout and fixup of 2nd Ave, and Dad had confirmed that in the fall when the decision was made to move them into Stephen and Rene's place. I love working with Michael, and we'd both been looking forward to this for months. So why were we having trouble getting up to full steam ahead?


The cumulative weight of the first six months in Chicago wasn't entirely lifted in the two weeks we'd been gone. I'd barely scratched the surface of anything emotional to be honest, and had come back to more adjustments, endless decisions of how to get rid of things, a preoccupied husband, and a daunting list of things to accomplish. There were more social opportunities now, which were lovely, but we both struggled. Part of the difficulty was due to the transition from a tightly structured schedule as to my responsibilities to Mom and Dad (pre vacation) to a family life with a day job (post vacation), and the resulting re-negotiations of how decisions were made, balanced, and executed. The focus was no longer so narrow, and the emergence from tunnel vision a bit blinding.


We finally found a working groove, got going on spacking and sanding and painting, and Michael's brother Nathan showed up to join the fray, bringing his very welcome electrical and plumbing expertise to the stack of lists now living on the dining room table. The lists that were partly buried under a dish of keys, piles of things to go to Park Ave, envelopes of photos to sort, boxed up teacups to mail, and things to get Dad's input on the next time he stopped by. We sailed jerkily through the next month and I struggled with some resentment at sharing Michael as my work partner, and deep sadness at old issues rearing their heads.

March 1 / Stephen to Mom … “Mom, you raised three little pigs …” Mom “No, I certainly did no…!” … her most coherent response in months!

March 2 / Dreamed I was watching and caring for Grambie

The Sunday mornings I usually spent with Mom were delightful and quiet. Most often just the two of us, though sometimes Michael came along. I came to fully appreciate the changes in our relationship that had come about during her care, and really enjoy the closeness. She wasn't super responsive, but still reacted to things with her eyes and the very occasional word, picked up and ate small snacks with her increasingly gnarled fingers, and listened to stories and music. I'd tell her things, and assume that she knew exactly what I meant. The painful truth was that as fiercely as I'd loved my Grambie (Dad's Mom) during her life, I hadn't felt that same fierceness for my own Mom until the last six months. It made quiet time with her all the sweeter.


3 / Dreamed about an eight-ish year old girl, a “princess”, being driven down a road in a cart, surveying. She saw groups of women in funny handmade green suits walking across fields. The princess character sees them. Freezes for a second, then resumes the ride but is changed. The ladies see her and are a bit wary, but are not threatened.

Being back in Addison, working in the house I grew up in, and temporarily in a very similar social circle to the one in my teens and 20's, was a bit of a mind flip. I'm no longer the same person I was in those years, the one who believed that other people had a right to judge everything we had, did, and wore, because a good bit of our income was based on donations from folks wanting to help out Bible Truth Publishers, where my Dad worked (and still does). I felt I had to always be useful, helpful, and an example to others of a holy and modest Christian. I had to help my family be worthy of the charity that we accepted.


I built that self image on my “approval ratings”, and so never wanted to disappoint anyone, especially not my father. I wanted to be all the things I was supposed to, but the internal dichotomy grew between the image I tried to project, and the person I was covering up in the process. I grew roots of worthlessness and unworthiness, because I could never live up to the standards I set for myself, or felt were being set for me. I tried to be more liked, more loyal, more humble. I also got somewhat proud of how unworthy I was, though I labeled it as piety at the time.

I believe my identity now, at 48, is closer to the 7-year-old who moved to Chicago in 1978 than I've been for nearly 40 years. That girl was confident, rather outgoing, self-assured, happy, and a bit wary of change. She didn't have a self-image to live up to, but knew who she was, and didn't shy away from it. The shift really started to take hold last spring.


A few months before we came to Chicago, I had a dream. It was triggered by having a friend help me dig up the unworthy/worthless roots, which set off a cascading realization as to where so many of my defaults came from. My identity was not rooted in who I was born to be, it was based on what other people thought of me. A slippery slope for sure, and one that I'd scrabbled on for most of my life. I knew in my heart that my true freedom is being unafraid, confident in knowing that I'm loved and approved of by the God who made me (thanks to Jesus), and that love is a gift I was born to share. Divorcing myself from the deep need for my fellow humans' approval was daunting though, and I had to have a little help in getting the process started.

I dreamed that I was in a slowly moving and loosely knit group of people, no known destination or purpose or scenery. Only person I knew was Michael, and I didn't see him but knew he was there. I became aware of a slight warmth and fullness growing in my abdomen, and realized it was pooling blood ... and that I was internally bleeding and it was going to kill me. There was no distress or pain, just curiosity and a sense of very limited time left. I rather enjoyed the feeling, mostly out of curiosity, but also found the warm belly to be comfortable. I thought almost idly of heaven, and thought That Will be Nice, but didn't focus on it.

I started to feel like maybe there were some people I should talk to before I died, and had an itch to call my parents. I don't know if I did or not, nor do I remember any words being spoken at all, but the feeling passed. Possibly because I realized the end was coming soon. I had a more urgent desire to talk to my cousin, and Michael helped me find a room off to the side somewhere where there was a desk and access to a phone somehow. I just made it in the room and into a chair, but could feel my life ebbing away. I had to acknowledge that I didn't have the strength to call and talk, and felt very slightly agitated about that.

I don't remember dying, the dream just ended there, and shifted into a different one in which I ran into a couple more people that I thought I should contact. What came clear to me was that the blood of Christ was filling me up to the point that the false identity (worthless and unworthy) that I'd been building on had to die. I had to be reborn, in my heart and my actions, as nothing more than a child of God, no strings attached. It left me feeling light, strong, and peaceful. I was still drying the wings of this newfound freedom when we got to Chicago in August, and I dove back into the bosom of my birth family.


That's a lot of navel-gazing digression, but I had to lay it out to get to my point. Diving in and being very quickly handed the reins of responsibility, by my Dad, for something I'd never expected to have to do, and then not getting one single iota of judgment from him for any decision that I made, most of which directly affected the life and well-being of the most precious-to-him human on earth? It was my father, and my Father, saying to me that if you do this for me, and for her, and for love, that is all that matters. I do not condemn you, shun you, or judge you as unworthy for any decision that you make. I just love you. There will be gold too. Oh yes, there will be gold. It's not about earning approval at all. It's just about doing the good that's put in front of me, with everything I've got, and trusting the results to God. What immense relief I find in that, and stronger wings too.

As John Prine puts it …

Well I'm thinking I'm knowing that I gotta be going
You know I hate to say so long.
It gives me an ocean of mixed up emotion
I'll have to work it out in a song.
Well I'm leaving a lot for the little I got
But you know a lot a little will do
And if you give me your love
I'll let it shine up above
And light my way back home to you.

Cause you got gold
Gold inside of you
Cause you got gold
Gold inside of you
Well I got some
Gold inside me too

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gold tried in the fire : part 2 / turning up the heat


This is my story of the last year, told in six parts. Paragraphs in italics are my dreams, and the dated snippets come directly from my daily journal. I trust my family to forgive me for all that I've shared, because I can't tell this story without including the heart parts … and some of them are raw, and hard to swallow.

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5 / Part 6

Turning Up the Heat

Nov 29 / I dreamed that Cedar found my purse, which had been stolen, but wouldn't give it back. I had to poop in public.

The number of people who sent cards, prayed for us all, thought of us, brought meals, worried about my sanity, texted, called, stopped by, and just plain lifted us up, were legion. All of it was lovely. I didn't reach out at all though, rarely answered the phone, and pretty much kept my head down. I felt I had to in order to survive, and that reaching out and touching the world beyond my immediate one was dangerous. It made me lose focus … and yet I needed it too. My regular identity and role in life had all but disappeared in the circumstances, and Cedar, knowing me intimately, was holding on to it for me until I needed it again. Giving me an anchor, a touchstone, a place to find myself again. The tricky part was knowing that I would not come out the other end of this experience the same. The fire would refine me too, or at least get rid of some of the crap. My weaknesses would be exposed, even as I learned and grew.


Managing Mom's care, and the disbursement of all the household possessions, was not a one person job. In all the intricacies of those participating … family interactions, hired caregivers, meals together, and the ever-changing needs of both Mom and Dad … exposed weaknesses abounded, many of them mine. Poor or incomplete communication, blindness to the things our arrival had taken away from others, martyrdom, head-down plowing ahead woven together with control issues, pride, holding grudges, wrong assumptions … just a few of mine that surfaced. Those of us that were together the most often, Stephen and Rene and Paul, Martha and Alex, Michael and I and the boys, and of course Mom and Dad … we found a lot of rough edges, had a lot of hard conversations, and learned to understand each other immeasurably better. It wasn't easy though.


You can't go through intense emotional experiences without some fears and insecurities surfacing, and when we sloshed into the pools of loss that scattered behind Mom towards the end, it got rather slippery. We Rules are pretty adept at buttoning up our feelings, and at least appearing to be stoic in the face of great internal upheaval. We grieve behind closed doors. Hayhoes (Mom's family) seem to come with the wash Warm setting, and are pretty good at letting the tears out when they need to. Neither family, in my experience though, is likely to willingly name the elephants in the room, or address any rough subjects head on, at least not without a fair bit of prodding. We keep things pretty close, and soldier on. There's also a good dose of Wait and See, which means that you take fewer preventative measures than you do remedial ones. This can be hard to marry into. Thankfully though, those in the family who were not born with the last name Rule have introduced a healthy dose of plain speaking and It's Worth a Try! into the mix.


With these inherent biases, I'm guessing I managed to step on Rene's toes more than anyone elses, and my insensitivity and head-down blinders caused me to offend her multiple times. One interaction, which I hope she'll forgive me for talking about, involved a phone call in which I took ownership of some project that I thought would make things easier for her, not realizing that it was yet one more thing that used to be her purview. She felt slighted and upset, and I got equally emotional on my end. We retreated to our corners to reflect, and when we reconnected a few hours later, we both were able to see each other's hearts, and vulnerabilities, and realize that assumptions and fears had sabotaged the entire exchange. She helped me see that taking more responsibility isn't always appreciated, and that not explaining myself better was a big hindrance to understanding. I was beginning to see in all my interactions, with everyone … that if I could see the motive behind a statement, and address what was emotionally driving the comment more than the words themselves, potential conflict often evaporated.

(I find it extremely amusing that just as I finished typing that paragraph, a friend texted me to ask “Is it true that the way Stephen used to breathe would bother you when you guys were younger?” I think I still have some sensitivity issues myself!)


Without getting into any more nitty gritty, over the course of our time in Chicago God worked for good in every single relationship that I had, and could see. Some hugely, some quietly, some loudly. He smoothed edges, prompted realizations, healed breaches, poured on understanding, illuminated fears, fostered empathy, grew patience, taught frank communication, mended breaks, and removed blocks. He knit us together in ways that I didn't quite see coming. No one gave up, and everyone gave it their all. We all found more gold, and were Seen, and loved.

Dec 2 / House emptying progressing, and the reality that it won't be here the next time I come is hitting hard.


Dec 9 / Dad determined to get Mom in the car with the Hoyer lift. We do, and he takes her for a ride to Stephen and Rene's. She was very pleased.

Dec 14 / Dad at the dinner table shared his thought that buying gold tried in the fire … some of that gold is Mom, as she is now. I cried.

As the month rolled by, it started to hit home what an incredibly stable presence Mom was. Her character didn't really change despite the Alzheimers, other than a period years ago where she was still talking a lot while her filters were going, and did some uncharacteristically blunt speaking of her mind. She otherwise had no real shifts in her demeanor, in almost vivid contrast to the rest of us. No anger, fighting back, arguing, or complaining. She quietly and happily kept on … surrounded by our fussing, dancing, swallowing, worrying, rearranging, second-guessing, and stressing. She was the steady thread that we tangoed with, but never knotted. Her presence was unflappable.


By mid December, the fact that Mom was in a downward slide was pretty clear. She started having occasional seizures, and though short, each one took a very visible toll. She was out of it a lot more of the time, drooling frequently, and sleeping longer. Getting responses from her was growing more and more difficult too. As she declined, I struggled with the responsibility. Dad had clearly given me the job of decisions regarding her care for the time being, and he was always careful to not second guess whoever had the job. The worse she got, the fewer options I had to work with. By the end of the year, she was clearly sick, but would perk up for a day here or there, making us think she was on the rebound.

Dec 30 / Everyone off. Sick, tired, scared. Dad and Mom stared each other down for awhile, and she cried. Real pain.”

Jan 2, 2019 / Mom miserable. Could quiet her with “God loves you. Christ is in your heart, the Spirit in your belly.”

Jan 4 / Mom won't drink. Scared that I'm not able to help her. I told Dad that I'm out of options.


On January 5th, after a nudge from her sweet Saturday caregiver Annabelle, and discovering that her blood pressure was dropping, we all agreed she clearly wasn't in a position to be helped at a clinic, and needed immediate intervention. I called 911. They arrived within 5 minutes, and the paramedics got her out the door, down the ramp, onto a gurney, and into the ambulance in a sudden rush that left me almost shaking. Dad rode with her to the hospital, and as they pulled away I stood on the sidewalk with Michael's arm around my shoulders, rather stunned by the sudden and enormous feeling of relief. The responsibility was off of my shoulders.


She was stabilized in a few hours, successfully treated for sepsis stemming from a UTI in a few days, and tested for her ability to swallow with no success. I spent most of each day with with them in the room, reveling in the times that it was just the three of us, with no other visitors, though family came often, and others too. It was lovely, quiet, and peaceful, and she was awake and more alert than she had been in the previous few weeks. One afternoon, Dad coaxed her to say “I love you” back to him, and she clearly tried to respond. We all processed the thought that there was nothing anyone could do though, and that she was not likely to rebound in any real way even though her infection was gone. Letting her go. Hard, but at peace.

The staff started politely working to boot her out of the hospital to some form of home care or hospice, and Dad began working on his own to get her to swallow again. We'd been trying for days to get her regular Dr to return calls, with no success. On Friday afternoon, after murmurs of three or so days of waiting to get into a hospice facility, and researching home health options on our own, Dad's favorite doctor came in. When she heard that we hadn't yet gotten a call back from Mom's GP, she asked his name, said she'd go call him, and came back with the news that Mom had a bed at the nicest hospice in the area, and that she'd be moved there in an hour! It just so happened that Mom's GP was the new head of the facility … God in the details for sure.

She was picked up and moved into a huge beautiful room with a double hospital bed, and every amenity you could think of. Dad moved in with her. The next morning they took her off of all of her meds, and her doctor explained that there was nothing more to do but make her comfortable. Hearing it from the him made the remaining bits of hope fade, the situation clearer, and hearts heavier. There was acceptance, but it was painful.


It only took a day to understand the rave reviews I'd heard about hospice, and wonder at the spirit of nurses who worked there day in and day out, as they bore no resemblance to the ones at the hospital. The focus is on helping folks die with dignity, not fighting to keep them alive, and the peace that permeated the place was tangible. No rushing gurneys, loud noises, beeping monitors, or lights on all night. The only beep and scurry I ever witnessed was a 'bed alarm' when someone had managed to get up that wasn't expected to and they feared a fall. The staff truly take cares of everything, leaving you to just enjoy being together.

If you ask though, they'll tell stories … the lady who lived on chocolate pudding for four years, or the one who walked out to the nurse's station to say “I can't wait for my aunt …” “But she's coming tomorrow!” “No, I can't wait.” and walks back to his room with perfectly good vital signs, goes to bed, and never gets up. There were more, and I became fascinated at how the nurses maintained their empathy and kindness in the face of such constant death and loss.


Mom's brother Danny and his wife Chris arrived the day she got moved, and stayed for several more. Danny got her to smile. Dad got her to sip water with a straw. Then slid a few bites of baby food down her throat. Hope sprouted. The nurses got Dad to eat, despite his assertion that he wasn't hungry. Visitors came and went. Kleenex abounded. Family sings with Paul or Michael playing guitar, the nurses apologizing but shutting the door as we were a bit loud. Stories. Laughter. Mom kept eating. Now there was hope that she might be well enough to transition to home hospice, and the mood in the room clearly shifted. It also became clear that we were the anomaly at our end of the hall, the room next door had changed occupants almost daily, and it was hard to watch.


It was confirmed Mom could move by the weekend, and that “home” now meant Stephen and Rene's place, where the renovations to the in-law apartment were being frantically finished. The final plumbing was whipped together by Michael and our friend Bernie. A whirlwind move of furniture and basics was orchestrated by Rene, several others pitched in, and we managed to bring enough touches of home and pictures and things over that by the time they released Mom two days later, she had turned it into a most warm and welcoming space, with everything they needed already put away. I rode in the ambulance this time, and it started to hit me as they were unloading her and wheeling her into the house. This is it. They are never coming back to 2nd Avenue, that era is over. A lump lodged.

We all had dinner together that night, with Mom pulled up to the table in her wheelchair and even chewing a few bites of chili, and it was a gathering I'd never expected to see happen again. Delicious in every way. The hospice nurse came and went, and I helped tuck Mom in one last time before we left, forcibly swallowing my heart. Our bedtime routine had always been the sweetest part of the day. As we were walking out the front door to go home to the camper at 2nd Ave, Stephen smiled and said “Have you felt the transition yet?” In that moment the final piece hit home … I'm relieved of all responsibility for them both. A bigger lump, another swallow, a bittersweet relief. The baton was passed.


The transition was a hard one for everyone. New roles, new boundaries, changed routines and needs and “wait but whose job is that and how are they going to do it?” Everyone bent over backwards to make it as easy as possible, but there were a lot of changes for everyone, and it took weeks to get it all sorted out. For myself, looking back it reminds me a bit of my feelings when I moved out of my folk's house after college, and into my own place. I didn't go 'back home' for a meal for months, working to establish my independence and territory and way of doing things. My folks clearly felt it, but didn't push me in any way. This was a wee bit like that, from the other side of the fence. Knowing that I needed to keep my hands off and my mouth shut, it wasn't my puzzle to solve or responsibility at all, and I'd just muddy the waters if I tried. We didn't wait months to visit though, and fairly quickly got used to whose living room was used for what, when doors were to be open or closed, and how to navigate visiting in a home with two households in it, that overlapped in so many ways.

I had plenty to do anyway, there was more than enough work at 2nd Ave to keep me busy and out of trouble … and we had a trip to plan! One of the things that I'd had to mentally give up on was going to the Vedder family reunion, which had been scheduled to start on Jan 26th in NC. Somewhere in Mom's slide in December, I'd tearfully let go of the assumption that I'd make it there, and left it that if God could work miracles, and let me be free to go without leaving Mom at death's door or being in danger of missing a funeral, then that was great. I did not, however, see any way in which He could pull that off. It clearly looked impossible. She ended up in the hospital on January 5th, and I mentally and guiltily calculated the possibilities that she could die and a funeral be had before the 26th, and set it aside. She moved to hospice on the 11th. I went through the same drama in my head, still not seeing how it might work. I wasn't counting on it, no, but I certainly hadn't quite let it all go, had I? It wasn't until the doctor OK'd her move to home hospice that I allowed myself to believe the trip could, and probably would, happen. She was happily settled in their new home by January 19th! A miracle for sure.

Back to Part 1 / On to Part 3

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gold tried in the fire : part 1 / stepping into the furnace


This is my story of the last year, told in six parts. Paragraphs in italics are my dreams, and the dated snippets come directly from my daily journal. I trust my family to forgive me for all that I've shared, because I can't tell this story without including the heart parts … but some of them are raw and hard to swallow.

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5 / Part 6

I'm sitting in my little bedroom in the camper, on my scratchy but oh so delightfully yellow bedspread, with Sparrow grooming herself behind me. The AC is blasting, the Kentucky campground air outside is swampy and barely breathable, and I'm somewhat nervously munching apple slices and CheezIts that I've confiscated from Fynn's bed. Where do I start?

Dad had a heart incident on August 3rd of 2018 and ended up in the hospital for 18 days, getting a quadruple bypass and a new valve. Mom was already deep into her Alzheimers, and lost a lot of ground without her anchor. We arrived to help out on August 10th. After caring for Mom for almost five months in their home, she went to the hospital on January 5th of this year with a bad infection, and then hospice for a bit, before she and Dad moved into my brother Stephen's home with the home hospice program. Mom passed away on April 25th, at home surrounded by family. We stayed around to fix up their old house for a few months, and just left Chicago on Monday, July 8th.

I've spent several of the days since then re-reading my journals that cover the nearly 11 months we spent parked in my parents' driveway. We were there long enough that all Google streetview maps currently include our truck and camper, and Mom's wheelchair ramp up to the front door. I'm not sure how soon those images will be updated, but likely not before the house is sold, and I like to imagine it occupied by another family looking to raise their kids on a dead-end street chock full of other children and friendly neighbors. Walking out that door for the last time on Monday left me choked up, full up, and so stuffed with feelings that I had real trouble getting out the last word, as I turned around and whispered into the still air before I pulled the door shut … “Thanks!”

stepping into the furnace

The alarm rings in the camper at 6:30. I don't dare hit snooze. I ask God to help me get out of bed. I'm not sure I can, without help. I'm scraping bottom, and I've just woken up. I feel overwhelmed before I start the day. Blinders on, tunnel vision is the only way through. A laser focus on what is in front of me, and nothing else. Mom and Dad are in front of me, my boys are in the wings and I can see them with my peripheral vision. My husband is keeping me tethered to some kind of sanity, and God is keeping me alive. This is a completely emptied-of-myself kind of dependence that I've never experienced before.


As I mentioned in my last post (last October) there was an overwhelming feeling at the start that this was mine to do, and that God was pulling me through. While there were a few blips in the following months that made me sometimes question if I was doing more than I could or should, there was no shaking of the certainty that God had my back, and that His hand was in every single detail. It was up to me to get out of my own way and simply do the good that I could see in front of me … stomping on any tendrils of worry that tried to grab me, and addressing the roots of any fears that surfaced. Most of the extreme emotions were cut off at the knees by that last tactic, and any that weren't either erupted as frustration or anger, or were “stuffed back in” to be addressed later. There didn't seem to be any time for meltdowns, walks, headbanging, or writing. Many days, there wasn't even any time or energy to talk to Michael at the end of it.


Aug 11 / I have to keep things glued

Aug 13 / World shrinking to a pinprick of focus

Aug 21 / Dad's home!

Aug 25 / Felt frazzled, and like I was skidding down a hill, and getting more compressed as I slid.


Sept 25 / I dream I'm in NYC on the sidewalk, and my big black motorcycle is nearby. I wake up and it's covered with white fluff, out of which pop two sheep's heads, and a cat, who had all been nesting in the fluff. The cat hissed at the sheep, and they jumped down and ran off. I was upset with the cat, I'd wanted to pet the sheep!

Learning to let go was a continual battle. Over and over telling myself to let go of expectations, the freedom to choose, mobility, that bit of time to do anything more than what was directly in front of my nose. Any hopes or dreams or plans, or things I thought I deserved that I clung to … they inevitably made me restless, frustrated, and wishing to get back into a state of peaceful acceptance. I chased my own peace away.

Mom had every single one of those things taken away from her, slowly, relentlessly, and thoroughly. She never complained. She accepted the changes, without any visible protest. If Dad said she couldn't anymore, she didn't. Ok, there was one exception I saw a couple years back … the removal of a bag of candy bars, and her retrieval of them, putting them back by her chair with a mischievous and slightly defiant smile. But there was no fighting against the indignities, the changes, the losses, the turmoil, the steady and thorough destruction of any semblance of choice in her life. The removal of keys and shopping and what to wear and who to talk to and where to go, how long to stay up and what to read …every single thing that she ever had any control over. Gone. Her mind, continually playing tricks on her, stealing the connections that let her say what she wanted, express her feelings, put a name to a face, tell someone she loved them. It all slipped away.


Nov 4 / At the edge of sanity.

Nov 11 / Mom tried to say something as we were coming out of the bedroom. It came out garbled. She clearly knew it, and was horrified. Heartbreaking.


Once Dad got home from the hospital on August 21st, the weeks that followed were strange and beautiful and hard for everyone. He felt his limitations physically, but not as much as he was told he might. He chafed a bit under the restrictions. “Don't cross your legs, don't use your arms to push yourself up, do your lung exercises, take your daily walks.” His desires outstripped his energy at first, and I watched him wrestle a bit with what he could accomplish in a day. He spent many hours going through files and papers and bits of stashed-away-life that were being pulled from cabinets and drawers and boxes in the basement. I tried not to give him too many piles at once, but there were always more waiting in the wings.

After he went back to work full time, the sorting was relegated to after dinner, and we had our routine down by then. I spent the evenings on the couch across the living room from his chair, Mom parked in between us in her wheelchair. He'd share things that he uncovered, show pictures, and tell stories. Then fall silent as he got lost in something. Mom would be looking at cards or magazines, turning her head at every conversation (and clearly following all of it), and smiling often.


One Sunday afternoon a locked metal box surfaced that made him get a bit excited. He started scavenging around the house for the key, but came up empty. He was pretty sure it contained some correspondence he had deemed worth saving, most notably ALL the letters that Mom had written to him during their 16 months of long distance courtship and engagement. I remembered a desk tray with some small keys in it, came back with a pair, and sure enough they included the one he needed.

What followed was torturous and beautiful and incredibly painful. He pulled a letter out and started to read. Then another. And another. His face started to change. He got a bit choked up, and said “They are a bit like maraschino cherries, you can only eat a few at a time.” He then spent his afternoon “nap” reading too many, and getting up to take a sudden and epic walk in order to process things. To top it all off, a day or two later I remembered a box in the basement that I'd labeled “Dad's letters to Mom” when I came across it a few years before. I brought that up, and he began weaving together the story of those months of hope, love, and planning. They wrote each other almost daily.


Over the next week, he would pull out a letter or two every evening (and sometimes a few in the middle of the night when he couldn't sleep), look to see what he'd written to her that inspired her responses, stare at Mom for awhile, read a sentence or two out loud, and then get lost again in the memories. He was hearing her voice, the one that she no longer had. Seeing her as she was then, in her own words, and falling in love with her all over again, exactly as she was now. She felt it. The way he looked at her, spoke to her, loved on her. It tore him up, and gave him intense joy at the same time.


The slides and movies were uncovered a bit later, including the working-and-even-has-a-spare-drive-belt 1940's cast iron 8mm projector that had been his dad's, which was necessary to play those movies. The few that Dad really wanted to share were the ones he'd taken of us kids learning to crawl and walk.


He got the projector set up one night, and called us all to the living room to bear witness to me learning to get up and go, with my siblings behind me cheering me on, and even demonstrating what I was supposed to do. It was bizarre to watch, and left me feeling a bit strange. Seeing myself at an age that I have no memories of. Mom, young, holding me. That bit really threw me for a loop. I was sitting on the floor next to her chair, and when the lights came up, it appeared that it got to her too. She had tears in her eyes, and seemed sad for the rest of the evening. How could she not be, assuming she recognized herself, young and happy and holding her child? Any moment like that, where it appeared that the veil was lifted and she knew her current state … those were the worst. So incredibly painful to see her knowledge, however brief, that something was desperately wrong. The relief (but torture too) when she'd return to happy but unaware.


Nov 28 / I dreamed I was on a river boat and got separated from my family. The river ran into a building and petered out. I asked the clerk where I was … “Yesterday” was the answer. I go out into the courtyard to wait for my family to catch up, and while I'm there Maurice and Helen (friends from church) walk out, but they're both about 9 or 10 feet tall. Maurice is dead. I held their hands. I saw the boys arriving.

Trying to continue my roles as wife and mother, while being a daughter and caretaker, was never easy. The boys were told before we even arrived in Chicago that my focus would be on my parents, but the ramifications of that, coupled with an even more intense focus than I'd anticipated, made a huge shift in our family dynamics. It very quickly felt like I was on a track, moving at a fixed speed, while the Michael and the boys were drifting along somewhere just out of sight. During the first seven weeks, when he was working in Boston, it was even harder on the kids. They were fed at regular intervals (more regular than we've ever been, to be honest) but other than that, they (and my sister Martha's son Alex, who was there most of the time) were almost completely left to their own devices. They were shushed often, and frequently banished outside during Mom's nap. School work was done solo, they read books and plugged into media and fought with foam swords, made forts with Alex, played board games with Paul (my brother Stephen's son), and jumped to it whenever I hollered for help. Our family bedtime story, a staple since Douglas was a baby, didn't happen much at first, but was resumed once Michael came back.


Martha had moved in for most of the first 4 months, and she was a delight to have and a rock of sanity. She was able to take the boys all out once in awhile, which was a great break for them, and spent the rest of her time helping with Mom, doing laundry and breakfasts and errands and groceries, and filling in all the things I wasn't doing to keep the household running. My sister-in-law Rene often pitched in with bringing meals, having the boys over, cleaning, and sitting with Mom when she saw I desperately needed a break. She and Stephen and Paul had moved in and cared for Mom for the first couple of weeks Dad was in the hospital, and then for at least another month Stephen came every morning and evening to help get her in and out of bed.


Douglas really started stepping up his game as a helper too, making meals occasionally, and helping me with every transition and lift with Mom while Martha was gone for a week. He figured out the Hoyer lift once it arrived, and became an expert at operating it. The boys and I sometimes fit in grocery shopping together, late night WalMart trips, and a Starbucks treat every few weeks. I found enough oomph to just barely keep the household functioning, and it was an intense growing experience in my reliance on God, time management, and patience.


I wasn't good at asking for help though. I never have been, and this situation was playing on my guilt strings more than some. As Mom slid deeper into Alzheimers over the years, and was needing more care, the question of which of her kids were going to do what was bandied about. Weren't daughters supposed to be the ones taking care of their Mother? Weren't we living a free life, and able to move in and take care of things? I felt it keenly, but at the time didn't see how I could move to Chicago and become her caretaker without bringing my family life grinding to a halt, and we didn't see how that could be a good thing. However, I felt badly that to date I'd done so little towards supporting Mom and Dad. This was my chance to do as much as I possibly could, and I was assuming that it wasn't a 'permanent' job, but pitching in while the needs were great. God had brought us here for this, and Michael and I were clear that it was for as long as we were needed. Stephen and Rene would be taking over when things stabilized, bearing the brunt of the care.


The more time I spent with Mom, focusing on how to make her comfortable, happy, and occupied … the more the guilt strings faded. I wouldn't label it fun, but there was a deep and satisfying joy that flowed into the cracks. The pleasure of getting Mom to laugh, to smile, to connect, to light up. Holding her hands, lotioning her feet, washing her hair, bathing her body, singing her songs. Tempting her with food, reading her snippets of cards and stories, taking her on walks once the ramp was built, parking her on the back deck in the sun. Watching her light up when friends came to visit, sharing inside jokes that still tickled her funny bone, keeping her company in comfortable silence. Those things fed me, fed her, and brought my relationship with her to a point that I'd given up on reaching decades ago. I'd never tried hard enough, and maybe she wasn't ready either. Being reduced to having zero input in her own life though, she had to remain open to anyone and anything that came her way. God parked me in her driveway, even tossed me into bed with her the first few weeks, and then put me in the position of being, for awhile at least, completely responsible for her care. A total role reversal from that 8mm movie we'd watched together.


But the love? It grew. It filled the cracks, the little holes left by things I wished I'd told her, moments we'd never had, depths we'd never plumbed. Ways we'd never connected, or even tried to. Once the words weren't an option anymore, at least for her, I found myself looking for every other signal I could find as to what she was thinking or feeling. It worked better than words … made me dig even deeper to see her spirit, catch that twinkle, or see the stubborn silence when she was talked down to. I learned to see her. That gift alone was more than enough to make me almost horrified at what I would have missed out on, had God not given her Alzheimers, and me this job. Pure gold. Refined in a fire that left me raw, emptied, and shaken.

(And why were Maurice and Helen in that dream, in Yesterday? Maurice died of cancer many years ago, and I remember to this day, with regret, that the last time I saw him, walking slowly and clearly debilitated from his disease, I didn't run up to him and give him a hug, and try to See him. I missed my chance.)

On to Part 2

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Walking with Mom


She sits at the kitchen table, clasping a pile of colored pencils in her left hand. She puts them down on the table, rolls them out into a neat line, looks at them for a moment, and picks them all up again. She may do it twice, or 60 times. She may stop and pick out a red one, drawing on whatever is in front of her, be it a card or book or coloring book or scrap of paper. Sometimes words, sometimes decorations, often lines or checkmarks adding emphasis to some portion of it. The longer she spends, the more layered it gets. Boxed, crossed out, repeated, and eventually large chunks are colored in solidly. Pick it up, put it down, be occupied … sometimes precise, sometimes idle … repeat.



I've spent the last few days in a very deep funk. Depression perhaps, but a weird one that I've not experienced before. Nearly blank inside, unable to put any words or depth into what I'm feeling, just full and empty both. Stuffed-full-to-bursting heart, empty head.


I'm trying to tease threads out of the jumble, so I can start unraveling some of the feelings I didn't have time to process over the summer. The summer we just spent parked in my parents' driveway while I helped out with my Mom's care, and the household in general. I'm not sure yet what it's done to me internally, but I'm going to explore a wee bit. I know I've learned a tremendous amount, and some of it is things I never wanted to learn, but apparently needed to.


Caregiving is all-consuming, relentless, and requires infinite patience. It's cruel, beautiful, heartbreaking, rewarding, and ugly. It takes humor, honesty, and endless creativity. It takes hunting … endless looking and watching ... to find the clues that are hidden in demeanor and eyes and body language (and the very few words), to discern what's going on in Mom's head and heart. What's revealed for a moment, and hidden for the next week. What's felt, but not expressed. What's fought, feared, accepted, or enjoyed.

She's sitting in the car in the driveway, having just come back from a walk at the park. Caroline* took her out today, and I'm still in the camper working on cleaning up in the bedroom. I can tell from the sounds outside my window that it's not a hop-out-on-her-own day, and I keep one ear open while continuing my task. I don't want to interfere, and the more people involved the more confusing it gets. After several minutes it sounds like she hasn't budged yet though, so I go out and ask if I can help? I try some of the same things Caroline's likely already tried … repositioning feet, telling her where to put her hands, trying a variety of phrases for “please stand up”, before stooping a bit and looking her in the eyes … “Can you please stand up, Mom?” She looks up at me, defeatedly, “No, I can't”. A first. Tears lurking, we each take a side and gently help her out of the car.



I love that I can still make her laugh … laugh more than I ever remember her laughing, just by choosing the right combination of slightly unusual words or using a touch of wry humor. I hate that she can't respond in kind. I love that she can laugh till she cries, if the joke is good enough. I love the look of wide-eyed-almost-scandalized delight she has in some things, though it's painful too. Where was that delight hiding for most of her life?


Watching her be stripped, slowly, of all the skills and abilities that she's gained since she was born … it's gut wrenching. But also strangely gorgeous. Losing the things that have defined her; service, usefulness, caregiving, card-writing, hospitality, organizing … the ability to control her body, her words, her reactions … it has left very little visible, except her spirit. A spirit that's clearer, simpler, and lovelier than I've ever seen it. Unadorned with expectations, assumptions, guilt, or duty. It's just her. My Mom. In a body that's betraying her and a mind that continues to confound her.


She seems to have accepted what's happening to her, so long as Dad is at her side (or coming home soon). She rests in him, and trusts him implicitly. There are glimpses though, many little ones, that show she is not (and does not feel) defined by her Alzheimers. She often knows and sees far more than she can express, if you watch her eyes and her reactions to conversations. She clearly ignores comments that sound demeaning or patronizing, and laughs immediately and appropriately when something is funny. She looks for things to laugh at too … it's her default way of looking for connection when she wants words but doesn't have them. A shared laugh means shared hearts.


We're in the living room long after supper, Mom and Dad and Michael and I, and it's nearing bedtime for Mom. I'd had the radio on for her sake earlier, and the classical music had switched over to Folk Night or some such thing. Odd little bits of song floated into the conversation, were mused over a bit as to their appeal and meaning, and then dropped again. Mom watched and listened from the couch, tracking every word out of Dad in his chair across the room, sharing amused looks with Michael and I, and taking obvious pleasure in it all. Dad eventually made a comment about it being time to head off to bed, and then launched into a medley/riff on the songs that had been talked about, personalizing it towards Mom and bedtime. Mom's amusement turned to delight, echoed heartily by the rest of us. Out of character, and an entirely perfect way to end the day.



I spent the summer looking for the positives, to keep my heart from entirely breaking. Looking at how the dynamic between her and Dad has totally switched, and how I joy at seeing her at rest in a way she's never been. A more visible tenderness, a slowness, a sweetness of time spent together. It may be very very quiet in that living room when they're alone, but the love that's been put in for the last 53 years makes a mighty fine marinade in which to sit side-by-side. Also seeing, and marveling, at the acceptance that marks my Dad's approach to the entire journey. One day at a time. Planning but not fretting. Taking it from God, and keeping an eye on the big picture while still living moment to moment. Not lashing out at what he's lost and what's being taken away, but enjoying what can be enjoyed, and bearing what's been given him to bear. Knowing that it's costing him in terms of his own health, but not even considering that relevant.



Those are the pretty threads. The gold in the pile of Other Stuff. Things like the grief I can't access right now that says I want to TALK to my Mom. Have her reach out with words, tell me what's in her heart, and how she feels. Tell me things I never asked when I could ask … didn't take the time or the care to ask, and now I can't. Ask her why she made the choices she did, and see if my guesses are right. Ask her what she regrets, misses, feels, wants. Aching regrets for things she never got to do, and never will now. Things she accepted, but never wanted. Seeing the beauty of her without guilt and duty and burdened about with much serving … and wishing it didn't have to be at the cost of everything else. Wishing she could have tasted it long ago. The refreshingness of being cared for, of being free of burdens and expectations sometimes. I see what she's reduced to, and I DO see the beauty of it, but it makes my heart ache abominably. I want more barefoot and bare-headed days for her, and I guess in a way she's getting them now. Hardly a care in the world, but oh … at what a cost!


There were great weeks, and scary weeks. Days she could walk a mile and not be winded or tired, and days she forgot how to walk at all. Or couldn't remember how to tell her muscles to behave so she could stand up. Days she laughed like crazy, days she slept much of it away. Days she came out to the kitchen to help when she heard dishes rattling and chopped veggies like she used to (always snitching a few!), and the day she went catatonic at the dinner table. The May days she could almost play Boggle though she mostly copied my words, and then the June she felt intimidated by the concept of it. By August I finally acknowledged it wasn't going to happen again, and put it away.


It's a winding down, a slow shaving, a hah-it's-back! but no-that-was-just-a-momentary-blip kind of slide into fewer and fewer things that she can do. Watching the skills fade into that part of her brain that she can't access, and knowing that it might reappear for a bit, but isn't likely to last for long. A reduction, an essence, a distillation … a stilling.


I miss her cards (and I know I'm not the only one). Her desk just off the kitchen still has her monthly-card-holder notebook that she used for years on it, fat with all the cards-to-be-sent tucked into its pockets. The calendar that hangs behind it still has mountains of birthdays and anniversaries listed on it, and the roll of stamps is still plump. She hasn't touched it in years I don't think. She does still enjoy getting cards though, and hasn't quite lost her ability to read cursive, so if you're at all inclined to reach out, now would be the time. She has baskets of them in the living room, and pores over them often. Photos too. She still knows some faces, and can dredge up some surprising names too if you happen to catch the right moment to ask.


I don't regret one moment of this summer, despite feeling it to be incredibly difficult. The hardness was balanced with a richness that I can't measure. To sit of an evening while listening to stories and family history from Dad, taking walks together, playing eye-games with Mom, tending to her needs, coloring together. Sitting side-by-side. Appreciating, soaking up perspectives and wisdom and a sense of how it feels to look at life from closer to the other end of the spectrum. A sharpening in my heart of what really matters, and what doesn't. An example of acceptance on such a profound level that I'm still grasping it. Peace that truly passes understanding.

How could I not find it all beautiful, while bursting into tears with an ache that comes from my very bones?



I've finally finished running around gathering the detritus scattered around the house and the camper, and everything is stowed. Michael and the boys have hitched. It's time to go. Very clearly time to go, despite the wrenchingness of it all. It just is. Mom is sitting on the front porch in her chair, watching the hubbub and scurrying as it eddies into a slow swirl of goodbyes and hugs. I go up and crouch next to her chair, resting my head on her knee. I've done this hundreds of times before, but it's been 35 years since I last took the opportunity. It was Grambie's lap in my teens and twenties and thirties. I look up at her and tell her how much I'm going to miss her, and she repeats it back to me, twice. I rest my head again, pain mingled with peace making it hard to breathe. This is exactly how it should be. She is my Mom.




* Her regular caregiver

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You're Invited


It's 5 o'clock*, and the door of the bath house slams behind Fynn as he emerges with wet hair and a towel slung over his shoulder. He was out working on his treehouse all afternoon, and had sap and dirt and sawdust in his hair to contend with. It's nearly time for dinner, and there are still chores to do. Eggs to gather, salad fixings to pick, and a bit of cello harmony to work out if he has a few minutes left before dinner is called.

It's the last Friday of the month, which means we're expecting a bigger crowd than usual. It's music night, and we never know how many locals will show up on foot or by car, or who will hike up the lane from the trail when they hear some picking and plucking and singing starting to waft over the mountain. I'm in the outdoor kitchen with Martha, Cedar, and a couple other folks (including a few mostly-willing teens), chopping veggies, making dressing, hard-boiling eggs, and frying up the leftover ham from yesterday. It's a salad-bar tonight, and I can pretty much count on a few regulars bringing some fresh herbs, homemade cheese, a can of beans, leftover chicken, or anything else they like to dump on a bed of greens. I'm craving lemons for my salad, but haven't had time to drive into town to get them, so it's bottled lemon juice tonight.

We've had a decent crowd this week, but it's still been quiet. Maggie's here for the week, with her young daughter, and they're staying up in the original cob cabin with Jane, who's been here since her husband died 6 months ago. She's been feeling ready to socialize again lately, and is happy to share the space now. It's only two rooms with a wee porch, but not far from the bath house and outdoor kitchen. It was our first cob structure, and has a few cracks around the window and some shrinkage along the eaves, but it's still cozy and cool in the summer.

It's June, and we're well into our latest building project, Michael's studio. He's been working out of the old barn for the last three years … when he has moment to paint or carve something other than a building detail … but we've finally knocked out the bath house/kitchen combo, the main part of our own stone/cob home (we moved out of the trailer last summer!), and three basically habitable treehouses. There are several more in various stages of construction, but the main push this summer is the studio.

There have been drawings scattered on shelves and tables and napkins for over a year now, and the pile of field stones got big enough to start laying the studio's foundation last month. The pile is large enough mostly because John stopped by on his Kubota It! tour of the U.S. a few weeks ago, and moved a bunch of the larger ones down the hill for us. It's to be a combo of stone, wood, and cob, and is set back a ways back from the main house, about a half mile up into the woods. We hope to get electric run up there soon, and plan to get a pump going from the stream to a slop sink as soon as that happens.

It's really more of a getaway than a full studio, but it will be a place to paint, sing at the top of his lungs, and do the alone-in-the-woods thing. The wood shop and slowly-evolving metal shop are going to stay in the barn. Todd introduced us to a lot of metal working tools when they came for a month last summer to check things out, and Bobby scavenged quite a bit of stuff from estate sales when he was still living in Knoxville, so the place is reasonably functional by now. We lost a fair number of tools in the first couple of years thanks to rust and forgetfulness and the occasional over-eager neophyte skil-saw user, but have slowly gotten them organized, and now that Nathan sleeps in the barn-loft and keeps track of things at days end, they're kept oiled and sharp and tuned up.

It's Douglas' turn to do the dinner call, and he's chosen yodeling as Ash is visiting and willing to help, so the two of them make enough noise to alert anyone within 200 yards that food's ready. It's 6:00 and the shadows aren't too long yet though it's beginning to cool down. Edmund and Sparrow take up their positions under the table, and Benny and Sam (the current dogs in residence) chase each other around the benches, tripping up a couple of the folks who are finding a perch, but Calvin gets them settled down in short order. It looks like about 20 are going to sit up to table, and Dave says a quick prayer before everyone digs in.

Newbies get a guest bowl and mug from the end of the serving counter, while the regulars bring their own, or pull the ones they keep here off of the shelves under the counter. Jars of forks and chopsticks sit in the middle of the 20' long table under the kitchen's big shelter/roof, as do jugs of water and a few bottles of wine. My favorite chopsticks are the ones with Kanji love notes on them that Sue makes, and brings us from Japan every fall. Some daring ones park themselves along the eating counter that takes up one long side of the space … Evan and Byron are already perched on it, and others are on a motley collection of stools that mostly came from one of Keren's game competitions earlier this summer, I don't remember the rules but most of the results are actually sitable. Douglas's entry was a folding ladder stool that's way too tall for the table, but gets used to access his tree-gym down the hill.

I'm beat, and really wanting to just find a corner and curl up with a book and my salad, but I get myself a bowl full and find a seat by Dan at the far end of the Kibitchen, as it's becoming known. It's the place where it pretty much all happens for a good eight months of the year. The cooking, the talking, the planning, the listening, the discussing, the singing, the fire-pit-chilling, the coffee swilling, the scheduling, the bible-chewing, the hey-guess-what-i-learned!-ing, the asking, the giving, the venting, the crying, the recovering, the supporting; the stuff that all takes more than one person. That takes a group, a diversity, a desire to connect, to see, to build, to learn … and to love. A community. One where you can dip a toe or a leg or your whole self, and see how much of it works for you.

Tonight, it's a whirlwind of eating and cleanup and dish-swilling in the wash and rinse buckets at the end of the counter, and then the fire pit lighting. As the last of the leftovers are put away, someone starts plucking a guitar and there's a bit of haphazard tuning. There's usually a mashup of hymns and folk and a bit of almost everything, most of it from memory though there are a few guitar chord books floating around. If someone comes who really knows their stuff (like Mike and George both did last winter), it helps keep things together. Fynn's learned to do some harmony to a few of the common songs, so Michael makes sure a couple of those get worked in somewhere.

Folks wander in and out of the firelight and the music, horseshoes clank, frisbees fly, and some disappear for walks in the woods. Hammocks, tents, and treehouses are retired to when space is needed or hearts are full. Keren and Bobby's B&B is due to open just down the road next spring, and that will give even fancier accommodations for those who want indoor plumbing and a little more TLC! There's plenty of room here though to be broken, to heal, to be alone, to be not-alone, and heart-food to nibble.

It's Friday night, it's home, and it's rich with all the things that matter.

You're invited.


* 5 o'clock somewhere, on a Friday night about three years from now

want the long personal backstory that led to this? I just posted it (in three parts) over on my old blog InMyMiddle

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Hello, America


I woke up yesterday with a bunch of thoughts gelled in my brain, and while I went about my morning routine I was writing furiously in my head. Words, at last! Then, the road called … the six-mile dirt road that follows the turns of the San Francisco River flowing past our campsite, and off we went.

We wandered past a few homes down next to the river bed, marveled at canyons and cliffs to our right, explored a couple long-abandoned stone huts and walls, tried to figure out the pattern of smashed parts and glass from a nearly-pancaked blue Beretta at the base of a stony track, and hunted for big-horn sheep. Got a glimpse of the top of the mine beyond the far side of the river too. Delightful, hot, bizarre in places, and very remote feeling.

The river flooded badly in '83, demolishing much of the town of Clifton below us, and actually is the reason there's a cheap town-run RV park at the north end of the valley (our current resting spot). The USAC of Engineers won't allow homes at the north end anymore, due to flood fears. The rest of the town is protected with giant floodgates.

Our next stop was to go see the mine a bit better … the Morenci Copper/Molybdenum Mine that's run by Freeport McMoRan and is the largest copper mine in the U.S., and one of the largest in the world. When we headed to this RV park, by the way, we knew NOTHING about Clifton/Morenci. A look at the map showing a nearby Plant City made us assume there might be industry in the vicinity.

The terraced cliffs of the mine were apparent when we pulled in last week, and we'd gotten some amazing stories the day before from an old mine-employed chemist about the history of the place, but hadn't really seen it for ourselves. We headed up Hwy 191, aiming for the spot on the little cartoonized local map that said Mine Overlook.

The map didn't indicate how far the overlook was, or that we'd have to drive underneath the giant conveyor belt system that takes the mined chunks and gradually crushes them down into pieces that can be suspended in a concentrate solution. From there they use electrowinning to make big sheets of 99.9% pure copper. This particular mine produced 902 million pounds of copper in 2015. It's big. Mind-bogglingly huge.

Hard to comprehend, even while driving past enormous sheds, pits that make huge mine trucks look like tiny Tonka toys, and terraced literal mountains of crushed stone that we realized have been built one truck-load at a time. We watched the trucks inch their way up the zig-zagged grade, back up and dump over the side to the terrace below, and then zip their way back down the road for another load. It was like watching something out of Star Wars … a planet being terraformed.

That little black blip on the top of the white ridge is a mine cart with 12' tires, about to dump its load over the edge.

That little black blip on the top of the white ridge is a mine cart with 12' tires, about to dump its load over the edge.

It's come a very long way from the first wagon-loads of copper being pulled to Kansas City for shipping east, back in 1865 when the mine started. Hillsides of black slag speak to the old ways of smelting and refining, and the barely visible corner of the old concrete-block high school that's peeking out of the side of a growing terraced mountain helps give some idea of how much change they've done to the landscape since 1985, when the school was abandoned and they moved into a new building in town.

We've seen the Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon, and the Morenci Mine all in the last 3 months. Three things that make you feel tiny, take your breath away, and are hard to wrap your mind around.

They have a way of putting things in perspective. Long-term perspective. Life and cycles and death and time and the smidgen bit of it we get to spend on earth, and what really matters to me.


Almost all the traveling I did as a child was either driving in a car to visit people we knew, tenting for a week near a lake somewhere, or flying to South or Central America and visiting people dad knew or had corresponded with. Poor people for the most part, living in small towns or remote villages only reachable by perching in the back of an open truck. Some were in cities, like San Salvador or Lima Peru, but we still usually stayed with friends in apartments or in a cheap local hotel.

Lima Peru in about 1976. I'm in Mom's arms.

Lima Peru in about 1976. I'm in Mom's arms.

I grew up thinking that Disney and Resorts and fancy hotels and big museums were for the folks who weren't lucky enough to go to a “real” destination where everything was upside down and backwards and dirty and sometimes scary … except the people. Ahh, the people. The warm, lovely, generous, curious, kind, simply-living folks who opened their homes and hearts and scarce pantries to us. I knew my friends didn't take vacations like that, but I didn't know anything else. I was a little spoiled.

This trip is no different, other than the fact that it's within the boundaries of my home country, the USA. It's a bit of all of it actually … camping by remote streams, visiting people we know, and some we don't. Seeking out the human interaction, the stories, the history, the wants and needs and desires and perspectives of a huge variety of people. Finding the similarities, musing on the differences. Looking for reasons for the differences, when they're hard to understand. Reveling in the connections, the humanity, the deliciousness and terror of what it means to get another day and choose how to use it.

The number of ways of living that we've seen in the last two years is astounding. Chemists who spent their life analyzing every 10th foot of a 1000' core sample and dodging the union strikers, pragmatic Navajo boiler-makers who still teach their daughters to kill and skin wild animals for food, Old Orabai Hopi mesa-dwellers whose homes perch on the remains of the previous thousand years of homes on that tiny little mesa, and trailer park dwellers who cling to that El Dorado that “rides like a living room” as their last ticket to freedom because if they get their night-seizures checked out they might lose their license.

Blake hitchhiked with us from Tuba City, Navajo Nation to Flagstaff.

Blake hitchhiked with us from Tuba City, Navajo Nation to Flagstaff.

House painters with unimaginable personal losses, kayak-tour snook fishermen with lime green trucks and big hats and dreams to match, struggling marriages with new babies in arms, broken families that still smile and march forward, crazy-in-love spry senior citizens, private pilots, commercial pilots, broken down bus-dwellers, friendly Harley sightseers, retired museum docents that still have the joie-de-vivre of a 6-year-old perfectly intact, and countless people who just want to help.

They'll give you food, give you a new lift jack for your trailer, give you a diamond knife sharpener for your knife-obsessed child, give you bags of groceries, give you work, give you meals, give you love, give you opportunities to love, give you their deepest heartache, give you stories, give you trust, give you keys, give you respect, give you a chance, give you a fat envelope, give you an ear, give you a set of tires, give you their heart.

These humans have been rich, poor, left-leaning, right-leaning, lying down, marching, black, brown, white, hispanic, church-goers, sun-worshippers, Christ-followers, full-hearted, bodies failing, full of optimism, full of fear, satisfied and steady, seeking and restless, building their walls, sharpening their swords. These people have been my fellow Americans, my brethren, my tribe, my loves. My chances to grow. My opportunities to understand. My shoulders to lean on. My voices to learn. My lives to touch. My people.

Hello, America

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