A Story in Numbers

by rundy on June 30, 2014

Numbers, numbers. Our culture today is about the precision of numbers. As a culture, we cling to the exactness of the story that numbers tell. There is no uncertainty or doubt. A number speaks true and clear.

The numbers of time and events tell their tale of Sunday, June 29th, 2014.

158/72/77 9:45AM. That is written out in my handwriting on the lined paper of a spiral notebook used to record Grandma’s blood pressure results. The first two numbers are the systolic and diastolic on Grandma’s blood pressure, the third number was her pulse.

97.2 Temp 10:00AM. How precisely the thermometer recorded that temperature.

90% O2 10:15AM. An O2 reading rarely stays precisely on the same number. A healthy person should be 98-99%. Like a pulse, it fluctuates a bit. But she hit 90% (which is low) with over 5 liters of oxygen being administered on a cannula.

115/49/37 10:30AM. This is the first place the numbers of the written record tell the story of how wrong things were going, how wrong they had become, and where the day was headed.

You cannot live long with a pulse beating in the low 30s. The body cannot live, the heart cannot function, on that slow sluggish rate.

Grandma was crashing. Her heart was shutting down. The pulse dropped from the 30s down into the 20s. It hovered there, swinging back and forth. With the pulse-ox on her finger I watched the number and it was like watching someone dance along the edge of death. Yes, it was watching that dance in numbers.

We switch to different numbers now.

10:50AM 2:03. That was the time I stepped out of Grandma’s room to call my Mom and let her know what was happening with Grandma. The call was two minutes and three seconds.

10:53AM 0:32. That was the second call I made to my Mom after I stepped back into Grandma’s room and saw she was dead. In the space of those few minutes when I was away, Grandma died. The beating heart and breathing breath stopped. The numbers mark it. But as I was on the phone that second time–even as I spoke the words pronouncing death–Grandma’s dead body shifted slightly. For a bizarre moment I thought the waxen bloodless body with mouth hanging open in lifeless lips was still alive. And I felt guilty for declaring dead what wasn’t (but it was) so I stammered and told my Mom I would call back in a bit when all was certain (it was already, but one gets uneasy declaring death).

10:56AM 1:43. This the final callback to confirm the death. The pulse-ox had come off Grandma’s finger when I was out of the room making the first call–I guess it came free when she clenched her first in the final death spasm. I put it back on in the time lapse between the second and third call. The blank reading of the pulse-ox, empty of all numbers, showed no oxygen or pulse in blood. It was enough to assure me of what lifeless body already said; that the death I saw with my eyes was death indeed.

10:59AM

11:03AM

11:05AM

11:10AM

Yes, I have a fascination with numbers. They do mark things. Numbers are like witness, sentinels that stand as bondsmen to the realty and unfolding of time and space. Things were here. They happened. My cell phone records in careful detail how I made the calls to the rest of the family and gave them the news. Words flew across air, carrying the end in the swoop of loss. Everyone knew it was coming. None of us knew the day. The fact that I was not giving a surprise call made it easier. But it is never an easy call to make.

These have not been easy days.

Eight years. It has been nearly eight full years since I left my old life to begin caring for my grandparents, from beginning to end. Nearly a decade.

Ninety-three months. Somehow that sounds like more time. Those months slipped by, one after the other. Half forgotten, half remembered. We forget far more quickly than we often realize. Those months gone now, and they won’t come back.

Two thousand eight hundred and thirty-five days. That sounds about right. Number the days, down to the last. From the moment I showed up that Sunday night on the 24th of September 2006 to the Sunday morning on June 29th 2014. A span of time, marked out.

Those are numbers, all of them precise. They put the events into a container. They mark out borders. But those numbers don’t tell the full story. They don’t tell of the sorrows and joys contained in those times, the success and the failures. The numbers don’t capture what was learned, or forgotten, gained and lost. They don’t give you the depth of the grace, or the edge of the fear.

Most of all, those numbers don’t tell you how brutal the last few months, the last weeks, have been. Those numbers don’t tell you all of what happened on this last day, of all that is contained in the poetic lyric that is living and dying.

But for right now, the numbers are all I have to share. They will be here, the markers of what has happened, until events and thoughts have stilled enough to allow more words.

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The Threads of Life Stories

by rundy on June 26, 2014

I am fascinated with stories. I like to tell stories–both real and those I invent. I also appreciate stories; those I see, hear, and experience. Stories make me think about life, and the deeper things behind events. We are all, each one of us, always living stories. But in what seems like the mundane of my life I slip into feeling like I’m not living stories–and by that I mean the events of living appear to lack meaning, purpose, intent, and direction (a story always has those things). I stop thinking about my life, and the lives of those around me, as things to ponder and puzzle and seek to understand. Instead, I fall into thinking of life as something to be endured. As a result, I spend a lot of time in the swamp of blindness and apathy. But sometimes an event or an occasion will throw me–for just a moment–out of my dull thinking and numb feeling. Then in that sudden movement from darkness to light my eyes and senses are be opened to the stories around me, and maybe even my own.

This past Saturday I attended a wedding, and for me it was a moment to notice the stories of life. Being a man of few social inclinations, and even fewer friends, this was the first wedding of my life to which I had been invited as an individual. I have an extensive extended family so I have been to my share of weddings as “one of the family” but this was the first wedding I attended because of who I was personally (friend of the bride) and not for my blood relation to the participants. It was unusual enough to break up my daily habits of thought, and living, to open my eyes to the stories of living–if only for just one day.

At a wedding the story on display for all to see and rejoice in is the story of two people being brought together in love. In the public places it is the story about meeting, and falling in love. In the quiet places are the memories of answered prayers and life long hopes fulfilled. In the story written large we can all ponder about the path of life and what journeys the bride and groom have taken to reach this place of happy union. But I also think about how in the greater story of the lives of the bride and groom each of the guests knows only a part–and to each a different part. The family of the bride knows the history of her youth better than any other present, and the family of the groom the same. And I as a Christian friend of the bride knew more about the spiritual journey of her life than many other people present. Each of us present that wedding day saw a different part of the tapestry of a story on display, and each of us saw different shades of meaning in the events unfolding.

The big story of the day written in bold colors and bright smiles was about love found and a new life begun, but after the ceremony was over and the party moved to the dining hall my attention wandered to the small stories hidden in the corners. Those small unnoticed stories etched the contrast of life, the fullness and complexity of living–all things caught up in the moments of breathing and being–and they gave the big picture on display more context and depth. In the nuance is the heartache and true hope, and the place where the mysteries often dwell.

My small stories of the day came at my dining table. It is hard to capture the texture of their meaning for you, but I will try.

The bride–being both thoughtful and aware of my less that ebullient social nature–had kindly placed me at a corner table far away from most of the party bustle. There I shared the wedding meal with other outliers: The pastor’s son and the son’s wife, my sister Cadie, my cousin (who was helping with the wedding party), and a young single lady who was a friend of the bride. We were all the awkward ones who didn’t fit in with the rest of the party.

We started out an uncomfortable circle–all introverts of various measure. First there was no conversation, and then it began with strained effort. We struggled where others would have thrived, but I was okay with that. I was thinking about who we were around the table. Through the wash of time and events we were several disparate story threads thrown together for a moment; different, stark, real. And in few words over a meal we shared bits of our stories which hinted at the larger. And I thought about how our larger stories shadowed us each at the table.

The pastor’s son and his wife had just moved back up in the area, not much more than two weeks prior. He had just graduated from seminary, down in Mississippi. They had a little boy, and the wife pregnant with a second child. They were Presbyterian and he talked about how there were not many churches of their denomination in this area compared to down south. They were back in the area looking for a pastorate–but also because his father had been gravely ill and nearly died. Earlier in the year the pastor had needed surgery for an intestinal blockage, and the surgery resulted in complications. I had seen the elder man before the wedding ceremony, gingerly making his way to the front of the church looking drawn and haggard like one who had fought a battle for his life and still wasn’t certain if he had won or not. Shortly after the pastor had arrived he left as he had come and a substitute officiated the ceremony. After the ceremony, standing outside with the crowd, I heard two people talking off to the side about how there had been some kind of problem with the pastor’s colostomy bag. The things you hear if you listen, the story threads of pain and suffering woven through even the happiest of days.

The pastor’s son and his wife were back in the area because they were beginning a new journey of their lives, but also because they had wanted to be near a loved one who had nearly died. Fresh finished with college their future was uncertain, the path ahead unclear. The thread of their story hung suspended in the moment.

To my left was the young lady, a Ms. Stoltzfus, dressed in the garb of a Mennonite. I knew that she attended a church the bride had previously attended, and I also knew that–strictly speaking–the young lady was not a Mennonite because the church was not a Mennonite church though many of the members had previously been Amish or Mennonite and retained many habits of dress and life. In 2006 I had led a volunteer crew helping with flood cleanup, and a number of young ladies from that church had been a part of my crew. I tried to politely make conversation by asking if she had been part of flood cleanup. (She had not.) Awkward lapse in conversation.

Cadie attempted to make some small talk about a mutual friend that she and Ms. Stoltzfus knew. After that conversation wandered to its rather quick conclusion I attempted to make feeble conversation about how many people there were with the last name Stoltzfus’s, and whether she was closely related to many of them. I called it a common Mennonite last name, she said it was actually more from the Amish community. Ms. Stoltzfus said that she had been born down in Lancaster but that her family had moved up to this area when she was very young. I then remembered an old story I heard from the bride’s mother about friends who had been Amish and had become shunned when they left that community and ever since family reunions and visits back to Lancaster were painful. I thought I was probably sitting next to one from the family right now. A thread of her past and shaken family ties, woven up to the present symbolized in her last name.

Conversation around the table continued in the fits and starts of introverts not sure what to do with each other. Somehow the topic came up about how my sister and I came from a large family and so Cadie asked if Ms. Stoltzfus also came from a large family (a blatant soft-ball question since Cadie and I knew full well that most families who attended that church were large). Ms. Stoltzfus said, “Yes. There were eleven of us.” She said it quietly and matter-of-fact, but grief still echoed in that careful qualification. Were.

A few years ago one family in that church had lost a young daughter to drowning in the local river. Around the same time another family had lost a teenage daughter in a car accident. In that one word of past tense Ms. Stoltzfus named herself as from one of those families. She didn’t know that I knew the stories, and perhaps she thought her carefully honest qualification would go unnoticed, but the still fresh pain of loss–understated, but so present in the careful acknowledgment of what was no more (there were eleven)–almost made me blurt out ill considered words. I felt the urge to say it was okay, it was all right, and ask her to share the story of why now there were ten. Somehow, I wanted her to feel like the hurt of her family didn’t have to be a half concealed secret, hidden behind a single word of what had been. But I wisely caught myself. You don’t ask a stranger at a wedding to share the most painful episode of loss in their family. Still, that thread of her story was there, a realty of pain that had shaped her life and even now she carried and made her the person that she was.

The conversation went on to mundanities, but now I couldn’t escape the feeling of different stories hung in balance around the table, weighted with the complexity and meaning of life. Ms. Stoltzfus to my right had her story of family loss, but little did she know that just to her right my cousin had also lost her mother in a car accident a few years ago. The threads of sickness and death swirled round our table, stories of lives in the balance: the pastor’s son and his wife, worried about his father sick but hopefully recovering, and looking to their own future with a growing family. My cousin, struggling to make her own path in life without a mother. Ms. Stoltzfus with her family loss and quiet loneliness with unspoken wishes for a better future. Me, living out the last days of caring for my sick dying grandmother as she struggled through her final miserable days and nights. And my sister, feeling out with tentative steps where she would go in her own adult life with so many questions and so few answers.

I felt in that moment how each of our story threads hung in suspension, the future to be woven, our pasts more complex than we could share, and in that moment of a wedding day we had all swirled together. For one meal we sat at the same table our stories so real in the pain and loss and hopes and fears. Then it would be over, the moment would pass, and our story threads would weave away. All the complex hidden parts of our stories with the visible tension of different lives brought close would recede again. We would go back to our normal paths, the depths of the lives of the people around us unnoticed.

The meal ended. My cousin left because she was tired and her job in the wedding was party finished. Then the pastor’s son and his wife left because their little boy was tired. Out in the center of the room the dancing started. The bride and groom had the first dance, and how they smiled. Ms. Stoltzfus watched the first dance, but after that she left. With my table emptying I stayed a little longer, watched a little more of the dancing, spoke briefly with the bride and groom when they came by for polite conversation. Then I, too, left.

Still the threads of stories swirled and swirled. They spool out in every moment; stories I cannot see, do not understand, and have not valued as I should. If I stopped and recognized the moments better perhaps I would understand them better for what they are–parts of a much bigger story which echoes profound down to the smallest hurt and quietest smile. That is something to ponder.

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A Blog of Unusual Words

by rundy on June 11, 2014

I like unusual words, so I thought I would share this blog I came across: http://other-wordly.tumblr.com/

One thing I was reminded of in looking over the words on that blog is the fact that unusual words can help us say things concisely. Some people think unusual words are just a way for wordy people to make something hard to understand. In reality, well chosen and well used unusual words can be a beautiful way to express difficult ideas in a concise manner. Yes, that might require some readers to learn something new, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

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Hiraeth

by rundy on June 5, 2014

Today someone passed along the word Hiraeth to me, thinking I might appreciate the word and its meaning. What they passed along was a Pinterest photo with the following text as being the definition of the word:

A homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.

Being one to question the precise accuracy of information on Pinterest, I looked the word up myself, and found the following at wikipedia:

Hiraeth is a Welsh word that has no direct English translation. The University of Wales, Lampeter attempts to define it as homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed. It is a mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness, or an earnest desire [...]

Another website gives this attempt:

The Welsh word hiraeth has no equivalent in English. It often translates as “homesickness,” but the actual concept is far more complex. It incorporates an aspect of impossibility: the pining for a home, a person, a figure, even a national history that may never have actually existed. To feel hiraeth is to experience a deep sense of incompleteness tinged with longing. The only living language with an exact equivalent is Portuguese, through the term saudade, which refers to an impossible longing for the unattainable. [bold emphasis mine]

What immediately came to my mind was, “That is a word which describes exactly what Abraham felt.” In the Bible we are told,

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. [...]

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11::8-10, 13-16, NIV)

For those who walk in Abraham’s footsteps, the longing we have in our hearts is the longing of hiraeth. It is an impossible place in this present creation, and it has not existed–yet. But still we long for it.

And in the strange connections of the internet, I found a poem1 that captures it:

Hiraeth beckons with wordless call,
Hear, my soul, with heart enthrall’d.
Hiraeth whispers while earth I roam;
Here I wait the call “come home.”

Like seagull cry, like sea borne wind,
That speak with words beyond my ken,
A longing deep with words unsaid,
Calls a wanderer home instead.

I heed your call, Hiraeth, I come
On westward path to hearth and home.
My path leads on to western shore,
My heart tells me there is yet more.

Within my ears the sea air sighs;
The sunset glow, it fills my eyes.
I stand at edge of sea and earth,
My bare feet washed in gentle surf.

Hiraeth’s longing to call me on,
Here, on shore, in setting sun.
Hiraeth calls past sunset fire,
“Look beyond, come far higher!”

______

1 The author of the poem, Tim Davis, is a Christian so while the poem on one level is speaking about a desire for Wales, it seems pretty explicit to me that the author recognized the additional meaning in the word that I also saw. Unrelated interesting tidbit about the man–the guy is a math professor and he says, “My research is in sparse matrix algorithms, computational science, numerical methods, and applied mathematics. [...] My codes are widely used in industry, government labs, and academia. For example, MATLAB uses my sparse solvers in x=A\b, and Google relies on them to create Google Street View and PhotoTours.” See: http://www.cise.ufl.edu/~davis/background.html

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Shades of The Past, Shadow of The Future

by rundy on May 16, 2014

In January we moved my mom’s parents into the local village so that we could better care for them. In particular, so we could better help care for Grandpa. I say “we” because I speak of my collective family–I, myself, do not have much to do with the situation on a day-to-day basis because I am caring for Grandma Purdy. But from my place I hear the gathering stories of Grandpa O’Keefe. And, like a gathering storm with its rumbling thunder, the stories have a too familiar ring to them.

You see, Grandpa O’Keefe has Alzheimer’s, just like Grandpa Purdy did. For me, it’s like watching the same story all over again–except different in the details. When I step back from the details it’s still the same tune, the same theme threaded through–poignant, sad, and tinged with fear. And I watch and I listen and all the while I know how this song will finally end, and what happens before the curtain falls.

There are broad patterns you can typically see in the progression of Alzheimer’s, but the disease affects every individual uniquely. Not only is the details of the progression unique in each case, but so also how the personality reacts, and adapts. In personality, Grandpa Purdy and Grandpa O’Keefe faced the disease from opposite ends of the spectrum. Grandpa Purdy had a chronic problem with poor self-esteem all his life and so in Alzheimer’s he was apt to accept his incompetence more readily because he had always thought poorly of himself. Grandpa O’Keefe has a chronic problem with self-importance, and cannot tolerate the idea that he might be wrong or incapable so he has an intransigent mulishness against correction or any suggestion of need for help. Neither extreme is a healthy way to live life, but an over-valuing of one’s only capabilities is particularly harrowing when combined with the degrading acid of Alzheimer’s. Grandpa O’Keefe may have always measured his own skills a bit more highly then reality, but at this point his self-perception has become completely separated from reality. As a man who has been forever accustomed to considering himself unquestionably right, the task of managing him, and his delusions, is both delicate and difficult.

Grandpa Purdy was in general good health when Alzheimer’s started to take him. Grandpa O’Keefe is not. He is diabetic, with a raft of complications–eye problems, skin problems, and (most severely) peripheral neuropathy, which at this point means he has lost practically all feeling in his hands and feet. His sense of balance, and tactile awareness, are very poor. When Grandma and Grandpa O’Keefe first moved into their new house there were several episodes where Grandpa “locked” himself out. He swore that the door had somehow managed to lock itself. But the door was not truly locked–he simply was not able to open it.

In my judgment the Alzheimer’s came later in Grandpa O’Keefe’s life and has progressed more slowly. But, at the same time, Grandpa O’Keefe does not have the same level of physical good health to battle the disease. Grandpa Purdy had a physical vitality that allowed him to happily crawl all over the house long after his ability to walk had left him. Grandpa O’Keefe won’t be able to do that, and so though his brain has held on to the ability to walk longer when he final loses it the decline will be more precipitous. Grandpa Purdy had dexterity in his hands so he could continue to clumsily feed himself long into the process of losing the ability to use dinner utensils. Grandpa O’Keefe has nearly no feeling in his hands already so when he begins to forget how to feed himself the decline will be precipitous. Grandpa Purdy was lean and light and agile and took many falls without serious injury. Grandpa O’Keefe is overweight and stiff and his first fall–when it comes–may well be his last.

Alzheimer’s takes each of its victims in different ways, and though Grandpa O’Keefe has held the tide longer I think his decline will be swift when it reaches the tipping point.

Until then, Grandpa O’Keefe fights on, trying to be the big man he once was. Grandpa Purdy gave up driving when the car became too difficult for him to use. It was an ability Grandpa Purdy didn’t want to give up, but when it deserted him life went on without any appreciable change. For Grandpa O’Keefe his ability to drive is an integral party of his identity as a self-made man, a conquerer of the world, and to lose that is like death itself in his eyes. He should not have been driving years ago, but he has fought tooth and nail against the process of losing his license. About a year ago Grandma O’Keefe took away his keys, but Grandpa waited for the chance to prove he was still the man he once was. This spring, he found his chance.

Grandma O’Keefe needed a vacation and now that she and Grandpa lived right nearby my family set up a schedule of people keeping an eye on Grandpa which allowed her to fly out to Hawaii to spend ten days with my uncle. In the meantime Grandpa thought to prove to the world that he was still a capable and independent man. The crisis came when my brother Lachlan was baby-sitting and Grandpa found some car keys and declared that he was going to drive himself to Syracuse. Lachlan tried to dissuade Grandpa with reason (to no avail) but declined to use physical force. He did call 911, but the operator said that if Grandpa still had his license (and he did, because it wasn’t legally taken from it) then there was nothing that could be legally done to stop him since legally he was still considered competent to drive. And so Lachlan watched as Grandpa boldly drove out of sight.

The journey to Syracuse is about one and a half hours. Seven hours later, after dark, the police called. Grandpa had finally had an accident. It was only minor damage to the car, and had involved no other vehicle. In those seven hours he had never made it to Syracuse, and was no where near Syracuse when he had his accident. In retrospect, it was the best ending we could have asked for. Nobody was hurt, and the police started the process of formally revoking Grandpa’s license.

Grandpa’s reaction to the incident was telling. Publicly, he was filled with equal parts bluster and delusion. He argued that the mistakes were ones anyone would make, the problems were not really problems, and everything would have been fine if the painted better lines on the road. Next time he would take a GPS and have no difficulty. But later, privately, he admitted to one of my sisters how miserable and scared he had been.

That one event is a picture for Grandpa fighting his Alzheimer’s. He still wants to be the big man, and lord of his own domain. So he talks bluster and delusions to the people around him, and he is trying very hard to talk bluster and delusion to the whispering fears in his own mind. He asks to be told what Alzheimer’s feels like because he says doesn’t feel like he has anything. He feels perfectly fine, he says. And he gets a book out of the library on Alzheimer’s and says he is going to stop it (even though he will never read the book). He says he will ride a bike around town to make himself stronger–but he can barely get around with a walker. You never forget how to ride a bicycle he says. Is he telling us, or trying to convince himself?

Both, really. There is a part of him, deep down, which whispers the truth about what he is losing. Some days it is louder than others, but they are words he doesn’t want to hear, so he tells himself a story about how he will win this battle, and how it is not so bad as it seems. And some days he believes his own stories more than others. He is trying with all his might to hold onto the life he once hand, but it is slipping through his numb fingers, one piece at a time.

Back home from her vactaion, Grandma watched through the window as he tried to figure out how to get on the bike he would ride around the village. He walked round the bike, trying to determine some way of mounting it when he didn’t have the ability to lift his foot more than a few inches off the ground. Finally he tried sliding the back wheel between his legs, but of course that didn’t work. So, days later, he asked me to build him a stool so he could climb on the bike. He told me a story about how he would have a carrying basket on the bike and he would use the stool to get on the bike and then put the stool in the carrying basket and ride all over town. Then he will get healthy and strong and be independent. He didn’t say all those things, but that is the story he is telling himself. Never mind that it is nonsensical and meaningless. If you don’t have the ability to lift your feet more than a few inches off the ground how are you going to climb onto a stool–much less stay on the stool when you need a walker to keep your balance. And how is this stool going to help you get your leg over the seat of the bike? And how are you going to put the stool in your bike basket when you can’t bend over? And how are you going to balance the bike when you can bearly balance yourself?

I don’t ask him those things. It’s pointless and cruel. He will never ride a bike again, and I think some voice deep, deep, inside him has told him the same thing. But he told himself, “You never forget how to ride a bike.”

And he wants to believe that.

He wants to believe many things. He told Grandma that he cooked his own suppers while she was gone. He wants to believe that, but he didn’t do it. He mistook a bottle of soap for cooking oil, and thought an outlet with a plug looked like a lady with her arms stretched out.

He still thinks he is a computer genius, but he doesn’t even remember how to turn the computer on. He imagines he is still an ace at playing cards, but often enough he plays the wrong suit, and now he is starting to play cards from previous hands. It is no real game now. His grandchildren just play along.

He tells endless repetitive (sometimes incoherent) stories about his past glory days to any willing listeners (or not).

He liked to pretend that he was a free man when Grandma was away on vacation, but really he couldn’t wait for her to be back, and admitted to my sister that he worried about the possibility of life without Grandma.

The floor of the house got “soft” and in great alarm he insisted on my father coming down and evaluating the situation. He was very afraid that when Grandma came home she would fall through the floor. How do you tell a man that the floor is just fine–the problem is in his own body, his own mind?

That is a story Grandpa doesn’t want to hear. He will tell you one instead. This story is about how he needs someone to give him a map of his property dimensions because he is going to mow his own lawn this summer. He doesn’t want people doing so much for him. Mowing your own lawn is a sure sign that you are still a real man and lord of your own domain.

Oh, and he’ll do your taxes for you, because he is an expert at doing taxes.

Everyone with Alzheimer’s unravels in their own way, and Grandpa is surely unraveling. He can’t stop it no matter how hard he tries. The end is coming, and much sooner than he thinks. I am not very near to this drama, and I do not have the carefully built rapport with Grandpa which might allow me to speak to him (in deeds as much as words) about what I have seen, and what I know, about what is coming upon him. He has asked what Alzheimer’s feels like–and I could tell him. It feels like fear. It feels like confusion. It feels like helplessness. In the end, most of all, it feels like being alone. And I would try to tell him (more in the deeds of caring and helping than in words) that the bravest thing he can do is face the reality of what, deep down, he knows he is losing. What does Alzheimer’s feel like? It feels like failure. And you can either hide from it, and pretend it isn’t there, or you can face it. That is your choice.

But I can’t say that to him. Not in such simple words, because it can’t be understood that way. And I’m not there to show him, or guide him, in deeds of facing the scary battle of losing everything.

All I can do is watch, and see the shades of my past and the shadow of his future.

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Of Aging, Fixing, Breaking, and Hope

by rundy on May 5, 2014

I saw in the news that the oldest man in the world, Alexander Imich, is one hundred and eleven years. How time flies, they say. Think of him saying it.

I wondered then at the age of the current oldest living person. That would be Misao Okawa, currently one hundred and sixteen years. Well, she is officially the oldest living person. Taipe Mendoza might be older, but it hasn’t been officially verified by the official agency which officially verifies such official matters. But when you’ve reached that age what is a few months, a few years?

In these few narrow years of today we balance on a knife edge where a few hardy souls live among us who have seen three centuries. A few more years–such a very few–and the span will shift forward and only two centuries will be covered by those who have lived past a hundred years. It struck me how in that same thought there is contained the great length of time, and shortness.

Before the hammer fell and we began to settle the score in shorter numbers, in the far ancient times one hundred and sixteen years would have been considered the death of a youth. Even a millennia shrinks to non-existence in eternity. I walked out to check the mail today and it was a beautiful day, sunny. Along the walk the daffodils were flowering but already they are becoming weary, and lean forward to kiss the walkway. We are called flowers of the field and I can think of no more apt metaphor for the beauty, the exquisiteness of the life God has clothed in human flesh with all of its terrible shortness. He gave us flowers, and He gave us tragedy, beauty, and mystery.

On Saturday I fixed a broken lawnmower. Sort of. My brother had mentioned that he would have to buy a new push mower because the handle on the current one was broken. I thought it a shame to buy an entirely new mower for want of a handle, so I went out and fixed it. I fixed the handle using an old broken drill spade bit, an old bent nail I found, a spare bolt that way lying around, and some electricians tape. My guess is the handle is good for another year.

I can’t explain how I did it–you’d have to see it. It wasn’t the right way to fix the problem. If I had a welding machine I could have done it right, but I used what I had and made something that would work another year. But it will wear out eventually. I had a strange mixture of pride and embarrassment about what I had done. It was an exemplary demonstration of the frugal cobble job–the foolish and the ingenious wrapped up in one so that I don’t know whether to feel stupid or proud.

Maybe you can’t see it, but that is those old people. They’ve been cobbling and fixing for more years than any of us–they’ve done better at holding their dusty frames together whether because of what they’ve been given, or what they’ve done. And that broken lawnmower is life, too. Everything is broken, and us, and we don’t have the ability to put it all back together right. All we have are those few broken pieces in our hands.

I fixed that mower in my own way and I thought to myself, “Yep, that’s me and that’s how I’m going through life.” But really that’s how we’re all going through life. Some of us are just better at hiding it under a cover of fresh paint. We’re all broken things in a broken world with broken pieces in our hands. And we can either throw away the pieces in despair, curse as we try to fix what we know we cannot rightly fix–or else maybe, just maybe, whistle a tune and take a small pleasure in fixing what we have as best we can with what we have been given.

We can either howl in frustration at the brokenness of what is, or bind up what can be bound with that which we have been given and see the beauty in that which has been given fresh strength to carry on. But more than that. For if we fix with our feebleness in the certainty that all will in the end break with no final repair then there is no hope, only futility, and beauty becomes despair. The beauty of a feeble repair can only be seen in its sufficiency to last until the new comes. Only then is it beautiful, apt, and hopeful.

In the end, that is all we have been given in this life. Nothing we do will last unbroken. We tend gardens of life where flowers pass quickly, and repair machines feebly with the knowing that one day we won’t be able to repair any more. But we can do what we do in the hope of knowing one day the flower will not stop blooming, and the broken machine made new.

The confidence of that is much the same as my confidence that the old mower will be replaced with new at the proper time. My brother will do it, in due time. Because that is who he is. He is faithful and conscientious. That is his character, and I know that.

Which brings me to the strange contradiction in my life. I can happily fix a broken mower knowing my ludicrous repair is the sufficiency for the moment and beautiful in that. I can gladly tend a garden even knowing that the plants therein will die, and die again. Yet somehow I feel unable to carry that to where the true meaning lives. I wish I could see so clearly, and feel so cleanly, when the brokenness is flesh and heart and soul. Instead I feel a heavy heart when I should feel a greater hope and joy in what will come. The things we bind in this life are of infinite more value than flowers or machines.

I wish I had an answer to that fault in me. I wish I could fix my own brokenness where every day my thoughts and feelings are at disjoint from the truth of what I know is, and what will be. But then if I could fix myself I wouldn’t be broken and wouldn’t be in hope waiting for the fixing which removes all sorrow. It’s a contradiction, and in the end I guess I know that’s right where I need to be.

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Walking for Creative Thinking

by rundy on April 26, 2014

I already did one post today, and I usually try to avoid one line posts, but I just thought this was so true I had to share: http://www.ctvnews.ca/health/walking-can-help-creative-thinking-study-suggests-1.1793785 Boy o boy do I pace when I am trying to work through some writing. It is to such a degree sometimes I feel driven a bit crazy by myself because I wish I could just sit down and finish typing it out!

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I Will be an Emu Farmer

by rundy on April 26, 2014

You know Spring is in full force when you start dreaming of all the projects you want to do–reasonable or otherwise. At present I am not in a place in my life where I can do any of my dreams, which means my imagination has all the more free range. Today I decided I want to be an Emu farmer. I jest, a bit. More accurately, I decided it would be cool to take a try at raising a few emus. In the imagination such an idea easily grows into a farm.

It all started when I wondered this morning how much it would cost to purchase a decent egg incubator. Emus were not on my mind. First step was to get over my brain seizure where I sat in front of the computer and tried to find the right word; “I want that thing which warms up eggs. It’s about this big, and is used for hatching. We owned one before. Good Lord, I’m losing my mind already I can’t remember the word.” Face in hand for a few seconds. “Ah! Incubator! I remember now.”

Then I searched, and found this website: http://www.chickenspoultryeggsincubatorsreviews.com/

Two decent models appear to be this http://amzn.com/B002ILJBL8 and this http://amzn.com/B004XNVD7E

Then the wandering effect of the internet took hold. I saw a link on the menu titled “Hatching Eggs For Sale” and I clicked on it. I am reading down the page and thinking something like, “Blah, blah, blah–wait, I can buy and hatch Ostrich eggs and Emu eggs? No way! You’ve gotta be kidding me! Isn’t that illegal or something?” (As anyone knows, all of the most fun things are always made illegal.) Turns out it is not illegal, and so sprang to mind the vision of a bunch of Ostriches and Emus running around in my back yard. What could be more awesome than that.

In my dream world I would have lots of ostriches and emus because that is just plain cool, but I try to pretend that I am slightly more grounded in the imaginings I actually consider. So I saw that ostrich eggs were quite a bit more expensive than emu eggs, and it seemed the emus were probably the more interesting bird, so I conclude I should just pretend that in the future I will raise emus.

If you want ostrich or emu eggs: http://www.californiahatchery.com/Ostrich-and-Emu-Hatching-Eggs_c_35.html

Next question: Can emus survive in the climate around here? Answer: Yes, and there are farms in the area which raise them. I found two on this list: http://www.ccfbny.org/commodity/cfarmlst.htm

Some pictures and information on Emus: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emu

Article on raising them: http://www.hobbyfarms.com/livestock-and-pets/emus-on-farm-14787.aspx

Some more notes: http://www.clarkshoovesnfeathers.com/chicksinfo.htm

Interestingly, both Emu and Ostrich meat is said to have an red appearance like lean cow meat. I am curious how it would taste, and then I ask myself, “How would one go about killing an Emu or Ostrich? Chickens are easy with some form of decapitation, but I imagine a dead flailing emu or ostrich would be pretty dangerous, so I’m guessing homestead butchering is with a bullet in the head. I haven’t researched that yet.

Also interesting, leather products are made from both the emu and ostrich hide. That made me curious. And according to wikipedia ostrich hide makes the strongest commercial leather. That was even more interesting.

When I was a kid I thought ostriches were so cool–which may account for why I have an ostrich like creature in one of my novels. So raising emus or ostrich has a very strong element childhood fantasy fulfillment. But then, why stop there? Why not go on to pea fowl and every other sort of rare bird and just start a farm called, “Purdy Rare Birds.”

Yeah, okay, that’s one of my springtime dreams. What’s yours?

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Paul, Socrates, and Keith Green

by rundy on April 17, 2014

This week I happened to engage in a cursory refresher on Socrates. It is recorded that the oracle of Delphi said that there was no one wiser than Socrates, and Socrates considered this a paradox because he did not consider himself wise. He realized the oracle was correct when he understood that knowing that he knew nothing made him wiser than all those who thought they knew something when in fact they did not.

I guess this percolated in my mind for a day or two until I connected it with Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 8:1-2, “we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.” Socrates lived and died hundreds of years before the time of the apostle Paul, but the teaching of Socrates was still known and impacting Greek culture and schools of thought (and thus certainly in Corinth to which Paul was writing). It thus appears very compelling that Paul, aware of Socrates teaching, was turning the words of the Greeks’ own philosopher back to rebuke them. This is not particularly surprising since in two other occasions in Paul’s writing he explicitly references cultural writings of the day.

I am sure many people have made this connection between Paul and Socrates before. (After it occurred to me I have the faint thought that maybe I had already read it before–there is the tendency to read things and then have it shuffle back to the subconscious until it later bubbles to the surface again and you think it is a “new” thought.) Still, I think it is interesting, and gives a little more context and nuance to the rebuke Paul gives to his readers in Corinth. But what I think is most interesting is the final comment Paul appends:

“But if anyone loves God, he is known by God” (v. 3). This is going beyond Socrates. The Greeks were obsessed with knowing things. Paul tells them that being puffed up with knowledge is not the way to go, but takes it even further. Loving God, Paul says, indicates that such a person is known by God. Present tense. It is not “Love God and then you will come to know God” which would fit the Greek idea of “Do something and gain something.” This is a profound reversal. The Greeks were all about reaching up to grasp–whether it be the god(s), wisdom, philosophy, virtue, or whatever. Paul has turned it around and gently reminds his Christian audience that unlike the pagan grasping Greek philosophers who were ever trying to reach up and grasp the god(s) that in fact God had reached down and grasped (known) them. The term “known” is what is used of God’s special relationship, and choosing, of Abraham.

So Paul is re-orienting his Greek Christian audience away from being puffed up in knowledge (and a sense of one’s own accomplishment) and toward a right attitude: That it was not them who grasped God, but God who grasped them and made Himself known in their lives by giving them a love for Him–and such (Paul goes on to say in the rest of the chapter) should lead them on to have a love for their brothers. From the prideful Greek thinking Paul turns his Christian readers around to loving humble service to their brothers.

I delight in seeing how deftly Paul works his rebuke, teaching, and admonishment.

Now, Keith Green.

Somehow, I got onto his music today. Keith, I know you’re dead man, God rest you, but you really weren’t the greatest singer. Tried to go a little high in some of those songs, and some of the tunes are a bit flat. But man, you had some really, really, good lyrics. I don’t know why someone hasn’t come along and sung those words in a little better key, and with power.

Grace By Which I Stand Lyrics – Keith Green

Lord, the feelings are not the same,

I guess I’m older, I guess I’ve changed.

And how I wish it had been explained, that as you’re growing you must remember,

That nothing lasts, except the grace of God, by which I stand, in Jesus.

I know that I would surely fall away, except for grace, by which I’m saved.

Lord, I remember that special way,

I vowed to serve you, when it was brand new.

But like Peter, I can’t even watch and pray, one hour with you,

And I bet, I could deny you too.

But nothing lasts, except the grace of God, by which I stand, in Jesus.

I’m sure that my whole life would waste away, except for grace, by which I’m saved.

But nothing lasts, except the grace of God, by which I stand, in Jesus.

I know that I would surely fall away, except for grace, by which I’m saved.

****

That is raw. True.

And maybe it doesn’t have anything to do with Socrates, but what Keith Green sings in that song sure has something to do with Paul’s words, “But if anyone loves God, he is known by God”

Such is my random flitting thoughts today. Sorry if I didn’t make all of the connections well for the rest of you. I’m just thinking aloud, not writing a thesis.

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The Years of Things

by rundy on March 31, 2014

floccinaucinihilipilificate: (colloquial) To describe or regard something as worthless.

*****

My younger brother Owen likes odd words. If he was not the family inventor of the word “bibbage” he was at least an enthusiastic user of the term. “Bibbage” and “bibbageful” were words coined by younger siblings in the family, derived from a playful combination of “broken” and “garbage” to describe something worthless or trifling and yet perhaps amusing. When he grew older Owen took up the term “trundle” with approval. He likes to go on long trundles, not walks. Somehow, I imagine J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis would approve. It seems like a word for the British view on a method for appreciating nature.

We celebrated Owen’s birthday on Saturday, though his actual birthday wasn’t until Sunday. On the year he was born, the 30th of March was Easter. It snowed that night and the roads weren’t good the next morning when Dad went to visit Mom and the new baby in the hospital. He hadn’t even left our street when his car slid off the road and into a snowbank. This March has felt unreasonably cold, and slow to admit Spring is coming. Such memories remind me that this year is not the only year of late snow.

Owen asked for home made ice cream for dessert so I spent part of my afternoon outside running the ice cream machine to freeze a batch of chocolate ice cream, and a batch of peanut butter. I’ve been freezing ice cream for years and I think these batches ended up as the two best batches I have frozen, as measured by the consistency of the final product. Both batches came out very smooth, with even and fine crystallization. Not the flavors I would have picked, but that doesn’t change my judgment on how well they turned out. Making ice cream is more art than science and a good batch churned to perfection is inordinately pleasing. It makes me feel like a good form of employment would be to simply make artisanal batches of ice cream all day.

It would quickly get boring, really. But the sentiment is there.

For supper Owen requested Philly cheese steak sandwiches. I don’t know that anyone in our immediate family has actually eaten a cheese steak sandwich from Philadelphia PA, but we have our own version. It is a make-your-own-sandwich affair where strips of meat, cheese, sautéed onions, peppers, and mushrooms are heaped in desired amounts. All very tasty.

The cooking was not without its excitement. While Mom was sautéing the mushrooms on the stove the electric burner shorted out on the bottom of the large frying pan. Everyone agrees there should have been no way for the burner to do what it did. But it did what it did, and in dramatic fashion. I was across the house in the gym emptying the first batch of ice cream out of the mixing canister and what I heard from that distance was something which sounded like a cross between someone welding very loudly and someone running dried beans in a food processor. If you have never heard the distinctive Kaaak-Kaaak-Kaaak! of a welding rod, then you probably can’t imagine the sound very well. But it was indeed something like that, only many times louder.

Grandma O’Keefe saw what happened and she said it looked like an explosion. Dad saw the end of it, and said that what looked like a baseball sized spark shot toward the ceiling. Perhaps that was a blast of metal plasma. Mom fell over backward onto a bench. Then the circuit breaker tripped. But not before part of the electric burner on the stove vaporized, and in the process melted a hole through the bottom of the pan. It all happened very quickly, and was as impressive as it was unsettling.

Fortunately we have a propane stove in the basement so meal preparation went on.

Nobody cares to think about what would have happened if Mom had been touching the pan with a metal spoon at the moment the burner shorted out. It is also discomforting that the burner in question was only a little over a month old, having been a recent replacement. Needless to say Mom doesn’t really want to use the electric stove ever again.

It was dark and raining when Grandma and Grandpa O’Keefe left. When Grandma pulled out of the driveway she drove into the ditch across the street. The car is a tiny little thing and lurched to one side with one front wheel hanging over the ditch and a rear wheel dangling up in the air over the road it looked like a pathetic machine lost and out of place on a back country road. Several of us boys grabbed the front of the car and lifted it out of the ditch.

The temperature was still above freezing when I left late Saturday night, and remained moderate Sunday morning. Then a severe local snow squall moved through late Sunday. On the way home from church Arlan helped push a pickup truck and a van out of the snow. March is not leaving quietly, as it did not those years ago.

When you are nearly the oldest of twelve siblings you have the privilege of feeling old before your time as one by one the little children grow up. The memories leave their odd feeling when they slip through heart and mind. Is it fondness and sadness mixed up together and confused? Perhaps the word is bittersweet.

*****

lacrimae rerum: The “tears of things”; the inherent tragedy of existence.

*****

Owen

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