This summer my friend Ellie celebrated her last birthday. She turned 55. Eleven years ago she was diagnosed with cancer and the grim prognosis was six months to live. And oh, how she lived with both pain and delight. She lived in the midst of traveling hundreds of miles for chemo treatments across the state, unpleasant side effects like losing her hair several times, with her comedian husband turning much of their experience into chuckles, and the challenges of laundry and dishes and cleaning. Family and friends pitched in doing everything they could possibly do. Most of all, in these 11 years (six month prognosis…I think not!) she celebrated two daughters’ high school and college graduations and a master’s degree. She attended her daughter's wedding, glowing as the mother of the bride. Ellie was graced to have met, held in her lap and swung in her arms two unbearably precious grandchildren. I cried when I saw the 55th birthday pictures. It was bittersweet to see her kids and her large family of siblings. Ellie smiled through the whole thing. She looked so beautiful. And the day before I posted this, she woke in the arms of Jesus.
Karen walked into my office recently and I barely recognized her. She lives across the state and I had not seen her since bariatric surgery or her chemo treatments. Standing in my doorway sporting a jaunty hat and the widest smile I’ve ever seen, she was the picture of hope. She won’t be declared officially cancer free for a few months but doctors are thrilled with her progress. She is surrounded by the Mountain Posse, a group of friends with whom she hikes, people who hold her up and help her keep her footing. She is excitedly easing back into work. Karen looks forward to many birthdays and numerous occasions for celebration.
I have been a woman of faith my whole life, a minister nearly half that time. Sometimes people wish I could explain these two women’s stories, why one would live and one would die. I’m a minister, without a crystal ball. I read the Bible and other words of wisdom but cannot unravel what is only Mystery. What I do see and believe is that both Ellie and Karen are surrounded by love and hope so strong it can never be broken, by the light of peace and joy that can never be dimmed, by the courage to live and die in the sacred presence of Mystery.
I remember when I began losing my grip. It
was a sweltering week in August, eleven years
ago, when I began having trouble with my
Suddenly they weren’t very adept at things like
fastening my bra behind my back and
securing the strap on my bike helmet. I was
fatigued a lot of the time and my moods were
all over the place. I was very irritable, surely a
sign of perimenopause, but was it something
more? When my doctor heard about issues
with fine motor skills he said it sounded like it
could be neurological and gave me a mini neurological exam. I thought I did really well touching finger to nose. It was a bit of a strain but I counted backward from 100 by 7’s a few times while wondering whoever does this anyway. My doctor got me an immediate appointment to see a neurologist who sent me across the street for an MRI. Then we met with a nice neurosurgeon that looked at the pictures of my brain and said the most likely explanations for the white shadow on my brain were multiple sclerosis or cancer. While the doctor was out of the office my husband Phil and I held hands while I said that as much as I loved the two dear residents at my nursing home that had MS, I didn’t want to live their lives. I didn’t want cancer either. The neurosurgeon gave us the option of surgery to take a biopsy to rule out cancer. We took our four-year-old daughter to her grandparents that evening so she would be in good hands. The next morning a friend came to the hospital to see me before surgery. She saw me and Phil walking up to the front entrance. One of my hands held his and I carried my hymnal in the other hand. If my brain couldn’t remember all the words to my favorite songs I would have them on paper. My friend said that’s a good woman facing crisis, her husband in one hand and her hymnal in the other.
Songs are important to me. In worship they give me words to offer to God and through them I hear words from God. My spirit rests when I listen to gentle soothing notes as I fall asleep. Music can be the best part of a ceremony or celebration. It goes beyond words alone. It sinks deep into memory and sometimes rises to the surface in people with severe memory loss.
My hymns were with me in the hospital. When I crashed down from steroid treatment Phil made me a CD of songs that soothed my spirit. I listened lying in bed with tears running into my ears and Sara bringing me her best stuffed animal. I relied on my hymns when we got the MS diagnosis. It is a journey that continues. My hymns hold me up. My husband and daughter give me a hand up every day. I join my congregation in song and when I can’t sing the church sings for me. Music accompanies us from life’s beginning to its end. It grounds us and gives us something to stand on. “My life flows on in endless song above earth’s lamentation. I hear the sweet though far off hymn that hails a new creation”
(Robert Wadsworth Lowry).
With these hands you touch many lives
With these hands you communicate care
With these hands you meet needs
in body, mind and spirit
You do all this and more with these hands
In every task, in every touch, may these hands bring comfort today and every day
It was really very simple. But it meant so much. I work in a retirement community of 700 residents and 350 staff, more or less on any given day. Our reputation is built on the hard work and caring compassion of our staff. It doesn’t matter the job description, scrubbing floors or dishes, leading Bingo or chapel, offering food or encouragement, changing light bulbs or laying carpet. Every job description includes walking with residents and their families, hearing their stories and holding their hands. Especially in the nursing home and memory care many of our residents have lost so much. Impaired mobility or eyesight or hearing. We are there to live in the moment with them and have a positive experience without regard for how long the memory will last. Many residents are fortunate to have family, church family, friends who visit regularly. Others have family who live at a distance. Some have no one. Our staff and volunteers are their entire community. In my 19 years every staff person I have ever met sees their work as a valuable contribution to the lives of our dear residents. It’s not a job; it’s a ministry of hope and caring presence. That’s why my co-chaplain suggested we offer something he had practiced at a hospital, a blessing of hands. On a Thursday in July we met staff at times like shift change and lunch times. We told them we would be stationed in a spot nearby for a while and they came as they wished. It was really simple. We rubbed a dab of oil in the palm of each hand as we spoke words of blessing. It was a sign of appreciation for and encouragement in their work. Some staff members had tears in their eyes. Some were wary or politely declined. Some I barely knew launched themselves at me for a hug. At the employee picnic the next day two people brought a family member. And I blessed the paws of one lucky dog who provides therapeutic touch every day. Our blessing of hands is a small rite of affirmation for the amazing staff we have. They know the chaplains are available anytime they want a blessing they may have missed that day or want a booster. Rites and rituals are special times to celebrate who we are, what we do and where we’re going, like a wedding or graduation. Even something simple like a little oil on the palm or the paw.