Seeking

“You have to work from the end to the beginning,” he said. 

It wasn’t often that my dad got involved with my homework, but for some reason, he saw me struggling and jumped in to rescue me so I could learn a life-changing skill. 

He graduated with all F’s, so I am sure this shortcut he was about to show me came from his days of looking for an easy way out. And pure genius that they never would teach you in school.

When you are in first grade, the powers that be want to keep you interested in attending, so the workload is minimal. The love-hate relationship between me and having to sit for hours at a desk hadn’t kicked in at that age yet. I was still eager to show up and try to do the assignments that were sent home.

He saw me moving a pencil across a sheet of paper and erasing. So much erasing and sighing. He knew all the signs of overwhelm. 

“What are you doing, Chris?”

He sat down at the table next to me and took the paper so he could see it. 

“Are you having trouble with this?”

It was obvious. 

“Do you see where it says the word end?”

“Yes.”

“Start there. Whenever you do a maze on paper, start at the end and work your way back to the start.”

I looked at it again from a different perspective. 

I was following the crowd, and he was telling me not to. I had been so focused on getting to the conclusion and following the instructions that I didn’t realize I could do it any other way. I thought, on some level, it was cheating if I didn’t do it like everyone else was attempting to. 

I thought it was written in stone that I had only one way of solving the problem, so it was blocking me from figuring it out.  

Having the teacher say,

“I’m sending you home with a puzzle to solve,” was another mental obstacle. 

Even then, I was sensitive to words and their impression on me. One phrase or sentence can emotionally impact me subconsciously, and I have to discern whether it’s the truth or not. I didn’t realize I had this “gift” then. 

I automatically visualize when someone tells me something, and I can’t unsee it. It connects me to what is being said so I can understand and empathize with a situation as if I have experienced it. I can bypass it at other times because I have taught myself how to do that. But, at this age, I was still not aware of what my mind did with information. 

To say I was impressionable was an understatement. It was like a superpower that I had to learn how to harness to use for good.  

The word ‘puzzle’ set the idea it would be difficult. This wasn’t going to be a simple flashcard with an image on it like a cow, dog, or a pig that I had to identify and verbalize. It was a more challenging task to complete, and it wasn’t like she gave us a rallying speech that said she knew we could accomplish it. 

It was more daunting as if we were not going to graduate from life if we came back with the wrong answer. 

He handed it back to me, and with his finger, he showed me this clear-cut path that led to the start. There were no dead ends or starting completely over. There was no questioning of left or right, getting hung up in a far dark corner and then figuring out which way to go. It cut the confusion completely out and illuminated the only way. 

“Start at the opposite end of the paper and work your way to the top.”

I felt like I had been shown a way where there seemed to be no way. I was free from the dilemma that had been handed to me and given guidance from someone who had been in my situation before. 

Within seconds, I followed what he had told me to do, and I was no longer chained down to what the public school system thought would shape me into a better person.  

His advice was good, and when I taught my girls this method, they found it to be foolproof. They were saved from the same torment that I was.  

After proving that we could escape an enclosure on paper, we were sent home with a word search where we had to circle whatever terms were listed at the bottom. 

I was having trouble finding a particular word. It was one massive conglomeration of letters in rows that had no meaning but were hiding what I was determined to find. 

While I was sweating it out, my mom noticed I was stuck. 

“Chris, pick out one letter and just look for that one. It will eventually lead you to what you are trying to find.”

For example, if you are trying to find the word zebra, look for a z only. 

When I put her trick to the test, just like my dad’s instructions for making things less complicated, it saved me time. Instead of looking at the big picture, I focused my attention on a smaller scale.

“If you break something apart, it makes it easier to spot instead of looking at all of it at once.”

There were solid spiritual messages that I don’t think either party was aware of in both cases, but now I get it.  

Starting at the bottom and working your way to the top can happen after you have decided to give up what you thought was right, but God is calling you to a new way. It’s part of a rebuilding process where everything seems as if you are doing things from a backward standpoint to get to where you want to go. So much erasing. 

Nothing is familiar; you feel like you die a new death every day, and by night, you cry yourself to sleep, questioning your decision-making, being pulled by what you know is God because the signs keep on showing up. And somehow, you keep trying to walk in the way your spirit leads you. 

Sometimes you aren’t walking but dragging yourself down the path with the promise that things might get better. Most of that is just the fatigue from insomnia, but you cling to this from Psalm 119:1-8:

You’re blessed when you stay on course, walking steadily on the road revealed by God.

You’re blessed when you follow his directions,

doing your best to find him.

That’s right—you don’t go off on your own;

you walk straight along the road he set.

You, God, prescribed the right way to live;

now you expect us to live it.

Oh, that my steps might be steady,

keeping to the course you set;

Then I’d never have any regrets

in comparing my life with your counsel.

I thank you for speaking straight from your heart;

I learn the pattern of your righteous ways.

I’m going to do what you tell me to do;

don’t ever walk off and leave me. (Message)

My mom’s help reminds me of this from Matthew 6:34:

Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes. (Message)

If that doesn’t say to take the largeness of life and go piece by piece, one day at a time, I don’t know what does. 

Most of us want to do things in the order that makes sense, and we want it done yesterday. That usually isn’t how God makes things happen. 

“Seek,” she said to me.  

It was one of those moments when I didn’t want to take her advice, but there it was already in the air and aimed at me.   

“What?” I asked my youngest daughter.

“You need to seek.”

“No, I think you do.”

We were watching tennis, so it felt right to volley it back at her. 

“NO, you do.”  

She wasn’t the one questioning everything, so maybe she was right. 

I picked up a journal that I had written in several months prior, and it fell open to a page where I had written in the margin,

Seek Ye First

I forgot I had written it. I turned it around so she could see it—big mistake. Her piercing stare said it was now an assignment. 

In Matthew 6:30-33 it says:

If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. (Message)

You already know the ending when you see a movie or read a book more than once. Isaiah 46 follows along with that idea. 

I am God, the only God you’ve had or ever will have—

    incomparable, irreplaceable—

From the very beginning telling you what the ending will be,

All along letting you in

on what is going to happen,

Assuring you, ‘I’m in this for the long haul,

I’ll do exactly what I set out to do’. (Message)

And in John 16:13, we are promised this:

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future. (NLT)

If you find yourself trying to figure something out, God promises to show you things that might not make sense now but will help during the struggle of the seeking. 

(Is it bad if I see the word BAD in the Love puzzle?)

Honorable Discharge

Before taking a single psychology class, I grew up in an environment that taught me more by observation than any professor ever could. No textbook could even come close to the education I received by being born into the household where I somehow landed.

“Your dad is using selective hearing again,” my mom announced as she stalked past me.

I had not heard of that term before. Why would I? I was in middle school and not married.

“What is that?”

“It’s when someone hears you, but they pretend that they don’t. But then you can ask another question, maybe something that interests them, and miraculously they respond to you. He does this to me all the time.”

I had seen it in action, but I didn’t know it had an official name.

There could be two reasons for this. Either he had trained himself to do it because it got overwhelming with so many kids in the house, or she just asked too many questions.

“I wonder why he does it?” She asked.

See? Like that.

“Did you ask him?”

“Yes. He didn’t hear me.”

He was a master.

A few weeks ago, all of these memories of him putting her on ignore came rushing back to me.

I was at his apartment while a physical therapist was working with him.

“Can you stand up?” She said in a highly elevated tone of voice.

It has been officially determined that he now has hearing loss in both ears due to his military training. He had no problem while I was growing up, but he has used hearing aids to help as he has aged.

I went to the audiologist with him for testing a few years ago at a veteran’s clinic.

The room we had to be in was soundproof and actually hurt my ears because it was so quiet. I didn’t realize that seclusion could be painful.

“He lip-reads almost ninety-nine percent of the time even with hearing aids in,” she said.

So when Covid hit, and all the mask-wearing began, it became impossible to communicate with that on.

When the physical therapist asked him to stand, I thought he hadn’t heard her because her mouth was covered.

“Did you hear her say to get up?”

“She did?”

“Yes. Can you stand up?”

At almost ninety, it’s a challenge, but he eventually will. After walking and running through strengthening exercises, I see he starts to fade out, and his attention span gets short.

She explained to me his limitations and what she could do to keep him strong without taking away his independence in other areas. While all of this discussion was going on, I looked over at him, wondering how this fully affected him. He won’t ever tell me anything unless I really probe for answers.

He puts on somewhat of a front, keeping his true feelings hidden.

He was wearing a new listening device that connects to a small battery-operated unit with earbuds to amplify sound.

When I had first put it on him and was going to adjust the volume, I asked,

“Can you hear me?”

He looked right at me and said,

“No, Chris. I can’t hear you.”

That was my sign it was functioning correctly.

With her going through a rundown of all that he can’t do, I was slightly concerned that this would bother him.

“Do you want some water?” I asked him, interrupting her. He didn’t answer me. I thought maybe he hadn’t heard me, so I repeated it. Nothing.

“Can you hear me?” I asked, wondering if the new device was malfunctioning. He still seemed not to hear me.

I repeated my question with no response.

This time I decided to upgrade.

“Can you hear me, or are you choosing not to?”

“Selective hearing,” he said, then smiled.

“Do you have that on your list for him to work on?” I asked her.

Unfortunately, it isn’t.

Later, I started to inquire about his time in the military, which had led to his hearing loss.

“I was in training to use a 40-millimeter anti-aircraft gun.”

“What was that for?”

“To shoot down airplanes.”

“And they didn’t know back then to have you wear ear protection?”

“Right. So that caused damage to my hearing.”

He went into the National Guard at seventeen and served once a month while in high school.

“I made $40 doing that. Then, the Korean War was cropping up, and they needed people, so I went into the army.”

I’m not sure how he gained the position, but he became a sergeant. He had been in a street gang as a leader, so that might have come into play when they looked for recruits who they needed to enforce discipline.

“Those were not the best of days,” he said. “I didn’t like the bayonet training.”

From as far back as I could remember, he didn’t speak much about this time of his life. Just a couple of things like how he would pour cold water on the same guy who took a shower.

My dad would be shaving at a sink, and this man would come in after everyone else had left.

“He liked to have the place to himself. And he would sing at the top of his lungs. He wasn’t that great of a singer.”

While he was in the stall, my dad would pour a cup of cold water on his head and quickly run back to the sink and go back to looking in the mirror.

“Who did that?” the man would yell, pulling back the shower curtain.

My dad, not giving any eye contact and keeping the blade to his face, would say,

“He went that way,” and would nod toward the door.

“He never caught on that it was me. I would let a few days go by in between to throw him off. He always asked me who it was but never thought it was me.”

Another event he went through was not as humorous.

“Was the worst part the guy who died? The one who wouldn’t listen to you?”

“Yes. I had to take his tags and send them to the family after he was killed.”

He put in all the work of getting young men ready for battle, and there was one who never followed his instructions.

“He was belligerent. Always talking back at me and would do what I said but always did something slightly to change it to what he thought was best.”

Just before being sent over to Korea, it was determined that my dad could not go. He had allergies that made his eyes water and burn, so it was decided to hold him back.

“I had trained them, and I didn’t get to go with them. That was not easy. I didn’t know who I would ever see again.”

The first to die was the man who thought he knew it all. A sniper hit him because he hadn’t followed instructions on entering a situation he found himself in, and he became an easy target.

“I tried to get him in line, but he just would not listen to me.”

My dad saw Proverbs 12:1 in action:

If you love learning, you love the discipline that goes with it—how shortsighted to refuse correction! (Message)

Whenever he reflects on this, I still see an incredible sadness overcome him. Like it was his fault in some way, and it haunts him.

I equate that to when we ignore God.

Some portray this as a fire and brimstone type of relationship where if we don’t follow orders, we are subjected to the hatred of God. But we aren’t.

In Ephesians 4:30, we find that we can cause a different reaction when we don’t follow the voice of God:

Don’t grieve God. Don’t break his heart. His Holy Spirit, moving and breathing in you, is the most intimate part of your life, making you fit for himself. Don’t take such a gift for granted. (Message)

Being proactive is always better by asking for help and applying this instruction from Jeremiah 33:3:

“Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.” (ESV)

What landmines and trouble could you avoid by asking for answers from the One who can see what you can’t? God doesn’t want a spiritual sniper to take you out prematurely from fulfilling what you were put on earth for.

I place before you Life and Death, Blessing and Curse. Choose life so that you and your children will live. And love God, your God, listening obediently to him, firmly embracing him. (Deuteronomy 3:19-20)

Above all else, our goal should be to follow God, do what we are told, and we will be granted from this life into heaven an honorable discharge.

Combination

She opened the refrigerator, and a plastic container flew out and hit the floor with a loud smack. The force of the impact made the lid disengage. The contents then were free to splash upward toward the poor unfortunate soul who was standing nearby with clean clothes on.

His pants were immediately covered in some sort of leftover that I am sure he would have instead had presented to him on a plate. We all stood in shock as he had both of his hands outstretched, looking down in horror at the red meat sauce that was rapidly seeping inward past the outer layer into deeper regions.

She sprang into action to attend to the spill, totally focused on that, not really coming to his aid. He had just been involved in an unwanted food fight and now stood immobile, not wanting to traipse the problem through the living room carpet to get a change of clothes.

While she was absorbed in trying to reign in the mess that had splattered the walls, cupboards, and doors, his annoyance was on the rise at her lack of attention toward him.

“Wipe me! Wipe me!” He suddenly yelled.

My brother, ever the quick-witted comedian, passed by and said,

“I would never want to do that!” Clearly with a different scenario in his mind. He dropped that comment and darted away.

This made my mom burst out laughing to the point of not being able to get up off the kitchen floor.

“Jean! Get up right now!” He ordered.

She laughed louder. She loved physical comedy, and once something struck her as humorous, it would be a while.

As she became more caught up in laughing, he kept on hollering, trying to snap her back to reality. While he swore through the entire process, she could not control what had overtaken her. Finally, she just threw the wet rag in her hand at him and let him start on disengaging himself from the problem.

It must have been contagious because suddenly, he started laughing with her. It was one of many odd things I saw happen between the two of them. I stood there, not knowing if I was witnessing anger or joy.

On another occasion, she came out of the laundry room hysterically laughing, trying to tell me something.

“Your dad…he..he…” she tried so hard to say what was going on, and she couldn’t. Taking a deep breath, she said,

“He was outside staining wood.”

“Okay.”

She had to pause between each sentence to get it out.

“He took this big lid off and set it aside.”

Another round of bent over laughing.

“He sat on the lid!”

“What?”

After many minutes of questions, I pieced together the facts that he had forgotten he had set a lid on a chair and then sat down for a second. When he felt wetness soaking in, he jumped up and raced for the house for her help.

“He has a huge brown target on his butt! You have to come to see this!”

I only got up to help her in case she was not capable. It was almost identical to the sauce incident with him standing there helpless and her not functioning.

“Is it bad?” He asked me with his back to me.

“I think those are going to have to go in the garbage,” I said while she hung on to my shoulder, doubled over in a silent giggle.

“Jean! You have to help me get these off!”

The minute I heard that I was out. Like, bye.

From the other room, I heard her say,

“You actually have stained your skin! Like a big tattoo!”

She never understood the art of telling someone terrible news slowly. She just blurted it out like that, which caused him to go into orbit.

“I have to go in for my physical exam! What will the doctor think?”

“Maybe if I scrub it with cold water. That might help!”

This is when I cut off my visualization skills. There are just some things you don’t even want to see in your mind’s eye. In moments such as this, I didn’t want to possess the ability to have insight. I hit the pause button mentally.

“That is freezing cold!” I heard him screech.

“It’s not coming off!” She said, delivering more bad news.

Cue the cuss words. And more laughing. The blending of these two individuals never ceased to amaze me.

It wasn’t always him having bad luck either. Sometimes it was caused by his own doing.

“I hit him right between the eyes with a spoon one time.”

“Why?”

“I was eating cereal, and he said something that I didn’t like. I was pregnant.”

That would do it, simple as that.

Other times, he did fall prey to unexpected circumstances inflicted upon him by her hand.

One time, he had just sat down to eat this massive plate of food. This man would take his time doing this. Seasoning things. Moving slowly like he was getting it ready for a magazine shoot.

She tripped on her way past him with a bottle of wine in her hand. She fell directly on him, pouring the entire contents on his plate. He was so taken by surprise that he still had his fork in his hand above her head while my brother quickly whisked his plate away, saying,

“You’re done!”

He had not taken one bite.

“What. The. Hell,” was all he said as she laid there laughing, crumpled upon him.

This went on for years.

“John, do you want a cookie?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Yes, you don’t want one, or yes, you want one?”

By now, she had lost him as he was in the middle of watching something.

“John!”

“What?”

“Is that yes or no?”

“For what?”

“A cookie! Do you want one?”

“I already said no.”

“I thought you changed your mind.”

He was gone again.

“Are you sure?”

“About what?”

Feeling that she wasn’t getting through to him, she placed herself and the container of cookies in front of him.

“I can’t see around you!”

“Are you sure you don’t want a cookie?”

Right as he was about to answer again, the entire thing fell out of her hands, and every single cookie landed on his lap.

“Leave me be, woman!” He shouted like he was casting a demonic entity out of his presence.

As she scrambled to pick them up, the laughter and the swearing again.

The other day I was talking to him about heaven. I have seen it and was giving him details.

“Mom is there, right?”

“Yes.”

And you would think with their history, he might not want to spend eternity with her. Life on earth just might have been enough.

“That’s good. I miss her.”

For all the times they were in conflict or nearly at their wit’s end with one another, there always was and still is this invisible chord that kept them together. Not once since her transition has he wanted anyone else in his life. Some would say that he finally has peace and quiet.

But he was very adamant with me when she first went on to heaven.

“I will not ever be married to anyone ever again. She was it.”

So all I can do is make him remember the funny moments that maybe weren’t so humorous to him then. But now, he sees it for what it really was.

One of the morning routines that they adhered to was that she would get up early, ahead of him, but she didn’t let him rely on his alarm to wake him up.

She would always say,

“John, it’s time.” And raise the shade to blind him with light first thing.

“I hated that so much!” He told me once. But she did it every day.

I have a feeling that when God calls him up, he will hear that familiar voice saying,

“John. It’s time.”

Some things you look at and think, who decided that this would be good? Like waffles and syrup. Who conjured that up? I think a lot of people are glad it exists.

And while I didn’t always understand them, and I still really don’t, I am grateful that God decided to put them together into a weird, sometimes ugly, but purposeful combination.

Irritant

I had finally escaped the pain that was zipping through my face by falling asleep. Once it started, it would sometimes last for three days before subsiding. When you do everything you can to stop it, and nothing seems to be working, you start to wonder if it will go back to normal.

Acupuncture and chiropractor visits had offset it, but stress was the culprit that had promoted it. Mentally, it was wearing, taunting me to forget everything I knew was true about healing. Even when it subsided, there was this low level fear that it would return without warning.

I had used a TENS unit to send electrical pulses to the area as a way to activate the central nervous system, which can create a temporary respite.

The one thing I learned not to do was increase the intensity quickly. With the pads adhered to the side of my face and down my neck, I had to turn the dial slowly. At the lowest level, nothing could be felt, so I had to move it up until it was tolerable.

There would be this slight pinching feeling that would begin and spread out into a wave. I always felt a tingling on the inside of my cheek.

I found out the hard way that if the dial were accidentally bumped up to the highest level, you would have an impromptu shock therapy session.

Like in a movie where someone is being tortured to cough up the truth, this self-inflicted move will have you become vocal so that every person around you knows that you would be indebted for life if there were a swear jar. The current that shoots into your body could light up a small town.

I felt like someone was watching me as I blinked my eyes. It seemed like my jaw, where it had started, felt better. Maybe I was on the mend, and it followed a pattern, it seemed. Once at this point, from past flare ups, I knew I was probably past the worst of it.

Just as I was about to say this, she appeared above me with something in her hand. Like she had been waiting for me to wake up. I wasn’t quite fully conscious.

“What are you…”

I felt a coldness on my temple as she went to work rolling on some liquid in a glass bottle. I don’t know how this had happened, but somewhere along the way, my daughter had become a holistic medicine person, researching, buying, and applying it to me. Just to see how it went.

I had flashbacks from my childhood when remedies would be forced upon me with no explanation. Ointments, sprays, or yucky tasting liquids, all slathered, spritzed, or presented on a spoon, were given without warning. It was futile to refuse.

“I read that peppermint oil is supposed to help this type of pain.”

She put it across my forehead and on my other temple. I had to close my eyes as the scent was strong like one gigantic after-dinner mint.

“It feels better since I slept,” as she continued to put more on.

I was starting to detect the coolness turning to warmth on my face. Similar to going near a source of heat when you are chilled. At first, it was soothing until the burning started.

I stopped her mid-application.

“Something isn’t okay,” I said.

“What?”

It was going up from mild to scorching rapidly. When I felt drips of it reach both corners of my eyes, I knew that I was going to have to wash some of it off.

“How much of this are you supposed to put on?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I should do it differently next time. This is supposed to be good for this type of thing.”

At that moment, I recalled that sometimes less is better. I had to remove the pads and run blindly for a sink without opening my eyes. That was impressive. If I ever had to leave my home in an emergency, I had just proven to myself I could do it without having sight.

The nerve pain in my face was long forgotten as I tried to remember what I had learned in chemistry when hydrochloric acid had spilled and splashed at me. This felt worse.

When you are a part of an experiment not conducted by any scientific means, you run the risk of coming to your own rescue.

Hanging over the sink, I said in between handfuls of water that I was drowning myself in,

“What happened to me waking up in a blissful state? You pounced on me the minute that you saw I was awake!”

She came into the bathroom to check on me. As usual, when she is standing there looking at me, it makes me laugh. I don’t want to, but it’s something about how she looks so bewildered as to why her carefully laid plans have gone astray.

I grabbed a towel to dry off, but I had to plunge back in and continue to try and remove it.

“What is this supposed to do? How was this supposed to help? What did you find online that said this was a good idea?”

I said all this as I choked on all the water in the world I could get.

“It is supposed to relax the nerve.”

“I am not relaxed right now. None of my nerves are at peace right now.”

The next time I used it, I put it on my wrists, as far from my face as I could get it. You can do that, and it will still bring results without incinerating your skin.

Worse than an adverse reaction to a substance is to be forced to deal with a person that has become a nuisance, gotten under your skin, and possibly on your last nerve.

There was an Aunt Sophie vs. my Dad period during my childhood, which was tumultuous. When I was seven, I recall seeing him struggle with dealing with his mom. My grandma had gone through a series of strokes and health issues, so she was considered a vulnerable adult, but back then, it was not viewed as it is today. She lived with her sister, Sophie, who was not the best at taking care of herself, let alone another human being.

People were left to their own devices and the help we have today to deal with these types of situations was not there back then.

He would always get this impatient tone when he had to field a call from Sophie. I noticed that he held the handset far from his ear when she spoke like he was putting as much distance between her lips and his ear as possible.

I could visualize her in my mind. She always had on the brightest shade of red, usually smeared across her front teeth.

His only response strategically placed was,

“Uh, huh.”

She could talk his face off, and he was not one for being on the phone when he wanted to be outside doing a task he considered enjoyable, like building something out of wood. He didn’t want to listen to a woman talk at him. It was never a pleasant exchange.

There always was some upset that he was expected to deal with. I was too young to understand what the pressure exerted on him was, but I saw his blood pressure go up the minute he had to speak to her.

If I came in the kitchen when this was going on, my mom would whisper,

“It’s Sophie. You might want to leave.” She didn’t want me to be subjected to more of his language than I had to be. She knew that he would go off at some point when he had reached his limit.

Her calls were the worst timing when he would finally be free from work, and it was a Saturday where he had no schedule.

“Sophie, stop crying. I can’t understand what you are saying.”

This was usually the opening statement, and it was stated mechanically.

I often stood there looking up at him to see if he would notice me. He rarely did because something had to happen to bring him back once he went into this far-off state. His eyes would glaze over like he wanted to leave his body.

I could hear her shrill voice on the other end. When he took me with him to see her, I asked him later why she chewed gum every time I saw her.

“That’s not gum, Chris. That’s her nerves. She can’t sit still. She is crazy.” And this was the person in charge of his mother.

On one particular day, he was at his wit’s end. My mom had yelled out the front door that he was wanted on the phone.

“Who is it?”

“Sophie. I think something is wrong.”

It was always the same thing to guilt him into coming in.

I could tell the minute he stepped in the house that this wouldn’t go well. I heard a deep sigh as he said,

“Hello?”

For a few brief seconds, it was silent. Then after months, and maybe years of this, the explosion happened. He had been stuffing down his frustration for so long he could not hold it back anymore.

The whole thing ended with him yelling super loud, and he smashed the phone back into the cradle. He stormed back outside. My mom looked at me. I looked at her. It was like someone had pushed his final button.

It was a warm spring day, so all the windows were open. From the garage, we heard him yelp. Like one of those Fred Flintstone shriek’s that seem fake, but this was not.

“What was that?” she asked me. I shrugged. We both looked out the kitchen window to see him coming back, holding onto his hand.

“John, what did you do to yourself?”

Always the nurse ready to get out her bandages and splints.

He held out his thumb, which was quickly becoming double its size.

“I was going to hammer in a nail, and Sophie made me so mad that I hit myself instead. I cannot stand that woman!”

An ice bag was applied to his injury, and the coldness in his heart toward his aunt didn’t improve, especially once he found out that she was stealing funds from my grandma.

He had to learn to tolerate her even though he looked like he was being scraped with sandpaper every time they had to be in the same room together.

He tried his absolute best to follow Proverbs 15:1:

A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. (NIV)

Sometimes that is all you can do. Did he roll his eyes when he would have to see her? Yes, every time. He made sure to look at me and do that. But, he kept his mouth shut and his temper under control. He found out it wasn’t worth getting all bent out of shape or almost breaking his thumb.

He had to learn to limit his time with her to keep his peace. Just like I had to learn how to use the oil sparingly to help my physical pain, we have to do that with people sometimes. And believe it or not, you might be the object of someone’s angst. We all can be.

I have a list of the eight most common emotions hanging on my refrigerator. Each one gives examples of what is felt, such as frustration or resentment associated with anger. But, with each one, another column tells what gift is earned as you work with each one.

So that friend or neighbor who drives you up the wall is building your inner strength, helping you put up boundaries, and allowing you to develop some assertiveness skills.

God can do that, even with the worst irritant.

Peaceful

My dad has been residing in an assisted living for over two years, and it’s been an adjustment for both of us. For the first few months he was there, he was given a temporary unit for rent on the third floor while he waited for his permanent apartment to be repainted and freshly carpeted.

During that time, it was chaotic. I never knew what I was going to walk into when I went to visit. The place isn’t that big, but he never stayed stationary and traveled from floor to floor, making it difficult to locate him. One day, I needed his signature on a document. I am his power of attorney, so I go over everything with him and involve him as long as he can comprehend. This is a way for him not to feel that he has lost his independence entirely.

I was in a hurry, and it was approaching his evening meal. I asked the staff where he was, and I was told he was on the second floor, so I went there. No luck.

At that time of day, the line for the elevator is long, and I am able-bodied, so I always take the back stairwells for speed.

“I think I saw him on the third floor,” said another helper.

“Ok.”

Up a flight, I walked the halls that were like a ghost town.

How can one man who is slow as a snail be so elusive?

Another staff person said she saw him on second floor. Even though I had just been there, I tried it again. And got the same result.

Back to the stairs, I came down to first where I had started. I searched the lobby, both community rooms, and looked around the back of the building where he would sit to get fresh air.

Where’s Waldo had nothing on this guy.

I walked back to the elevator, where the crowd was thick with those waiting for assistance. It was wall to wall wheelchairs and walkers. I thought I would go back up to his apartment for one last glance, but in the meantime, I stood in the corner out of the way.

I also figured if I stopped looking, my moving target might eventually run into me.

The doors opened, and one of the aides pushed him out and right past me like I was invisible! He nodded and smiled at me on his way by like he was a king greeting one of the underlings.

He had a cookie in one hand and a styrofoam cup of milk in the other. He couldn’t hear me, and she didn’t speak English very well, so they kept on moving as I tried to fight my way past the throng.

I was on my tiptoes trying to get to him while dodging the masses. He was happily enjoying his ride. This person had just been driving a car on a revoked license two months prior, gripping on to his keys and driving privileges like a mad man and now was too busy with both hands full, slurping down snacks with an escort into the dining room.

My only advantage in apprehending him was that they got stuck in the hallway.

I put my hand on his shoulder.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

He looked up at me.

“When did you get here?”

“A while ago. Where have you been? I went to every floor.”

“Oh, she took me floor to floor. I have been riding on the elevator.”

“Why are you letting someone else push your wheelchair? Why are you not using your walker?”

He took this moment to chomp a bite off of his cookie and said,

“I don’t know.”

“You need to walk, and you need to use your leg muscles every day.”

“I know. I know,” he said like a rebellious teen, sucking down milk. Role reversal had happened somewhere along the way.

“I realize I am interrupting your busy schedule and your worldwide tour, but I need you to sign something.”

Right as I said that, she started pushing him forward away from me like a programmed machine. I stopped her and said,

“He’s coming with me. I will get him in there in a minute.”

It wasn’t like he would starve as I saw him take another cookie out of his shirt pocket.

I have had calls from him at 1 am, asking me what I’m doing, so we talk like it’s the middle of the afternoon.

“Do you know it’s almost 2 in the morning?” I will ask.

“It is?”

“Yes.”

“Why are you up, Chris?”

“Because you called me?”

“Oh,” and then the laugh.

He has no idea some of the stress and poor communication that I have faced on his behalf. But I don’t want him to know. He has given up everything he knew as familiar to be in a safer place like he should be. I have had to straighten up wrong billing, confront staff who haven’t always been attentive, and run errands when I would rather not.

“Chris, I have no Kleenex left, and they just gave me my last Tylenol. I’m going to need more in the morning.”

This was at 9:30 pm, with all stores closing at 10 pm during the shutdown and limited hours. And it was pouring rain.

“I hate to bother you with this.”

I had just finally sat down for a second.

“I will get it. Don’t worry.”

I can never leave him stranded, no matter what.

For weeks he had been telling me that he wanted a new bed. The one he was using had formed a crater in the middle so deep that he would get stuck if he rolled into it.

I ordered a new mattress for him. It showed up unexpectedly on Christmas Eve, and I set it all up. With his apartment at a scorching 100 degrees, I was an absolute sweaty mess, ripping apart the old one. He was thrilled to get it so his back wouldn’t hurt anymore. As soon as it was put together with the new sheets and the comforter I had gotten, he laid on it and immediately drifted off while I continued to battle the old one.

Once the activities started back up again after the lockdown, he made an effort to go. Reading over the schedule, he said,

“I will not go to Bingo.”

“Why? You don’t like it?”

“The lady who does it runs a tight ship. She scares me, and one of her arms is bigger than my legs, so you don’t mess with her.”

This was the man who was in a street gang at the age of 12 with a lead filled baseball bat on a chain and served in the military as a sergeant, but one woman calling numbers put the fear of God in him.

“She is scary, Chris. I stay clear of her.”

When the activity director asked him one day if he wanted to attend a different event, he inquired,

“Does this include beer and women?”

I shook my head.

“Do you see me standing right here? Do you see your daughter? Do you see me?”

“I see you,” he said, looking at me. “What about it?”

“And you realize my hearing is the best ever, right?” I asked.

He looked back at the activity lady.

“So, is there going to be beer and women?”

I went with him to chaperone, and I got looked up and down like he had found me off of Eharmony. I announced that I was his child so they all could relax, and I wasn’t in the competition. After half of a can of beer, he said,

“Where do I live again?”

I had to help him back to his apartment.

“I shouldn’t drink during the day,” he said.

“Maybe you shouldn’t ever if you can’t get yourself down one hallway.”

I don’t know if he heard me because he was dozing off.

When I saw that it was on the schedule to decorate pumpkins, I told him he needed to go.

“What? No, I’m not going to that!”

“I think you are.”

“Why would I go do that?” He put his finger by the side of his head and swirled it in a circle. This is his universal sign that going there was for those who had lost their minds.

I’m not above using the tricks my mom used to employ to get him to comply.

“You need to go do this, and I will take it home with me. I want you to do it for me.”

I saw the switch go off. The old ways still worked.

“Will they give me a knife?”

“Do you really think they are going to give you a sharp object?” I pretended to stab myself in the side of the neck.

His eyes always get big behind his glasses when he is processing.

“I suppose not,” he said, laughing. “That might be a bad idea around this place.”

Not giving him a choice, I took him, and a pumpkin was set in front of him with a paintbrush and paint.

“I gave up a good nap for this?”

“Yes. You did. Get to work on it.”

For someone who didn’t want to be there, he put in all his effort. He used to draw all the time, but his hands shake now, so it was more difficult. He was concentrating.

The person next to him tried to ask him a question at one point, and he said,

“Don’t bother me. I am busy.”

When he was done with it, he commented,

“I think the teeth make the whole thing.”

“I am assuming this isn’t a self-portrait, right?” I asked with a smile.

He laughed.

“What am I going to do with that?”

“I’m taking it with me.”

“Good riddance. Get it out of here! But thank you for coming to see me.”

“Even if you missed a nap?”

“I don’t nap.”

From moment to moment, I don’t know what he will remember or try to comprehend, so I’m very patient and protective over him. At one point, I didn’t know if I would ever speak to him again, but now it’s as if it never happened. I realized that I have been living this from Exodus 20:12:

“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”

Without God, it wouldn’t have come back together in the way that it has. People who knew me a few years ago while I was on my anger induced year and a half sabbatical from my parents are astonished at the turnaround of where he and I are now.

It speaks to the mysterious ways we don’t always understand, working for the best on our behalf if we allow it. When you think everything is beyond hope, God can prove to you this from Matthew 19:26:

“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”(NIV)

Adding to that is Psalm 23:2 that says:

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside quiet waters. (NIV)

Something that was once ripped to shreds and full of strife can be made peaceful.

Shortcuts

When I visit my dad at his apartment, I never know what I will stumble upon. I was completely shut out from seeing him from March to September of 2020 due to Covid restrictions. I had to drop off items he had requested at the front door and wave to him through the window. Soon, I noticed he wasn’t in the lobby anymore, and when I tried to call him, he wouldn’t answer his phone. At times, my only communication was with the staff, who told me he was sleeping a lot and staying secluded. All activities had been stopped, and all meals were delivered to him.

I wondered how many hours a day he was sleeping. It wasn’t easy because when he went to live there in 2019, the help was a bit touch and go. I was astonished at the lack of accountability since I had a background in long-term care. We had to document every incident and follow up with one meeting after another.

Not so much with this place. It was like the Wild West of senior living with no rules and a somewhat fend for yourself environment.

So the lockdown wasn’t the most ideal. Once I jumped through multiple miscommunications, I was allowed to return as one of his essential caregivers. My suspicions of him sleeping all day and up all night were accurate. Every time I arrived in the mid-morning, he was still in bed with breakfast sitting on his table. He had lost all track of time. When I would say,

“Why are you still sleeping?” He would tell me there was no reason to get up.

The first time I went back in, I was thankful I had a mask in my possession. I don’t think his bedding had been washed that entire time, and housekeeping looked like they abandoned ship. I spent my time cleaning, scrubbing, and getting him to wake up.

His appearance had changed to resemble Rip Van Winkle with a beard flowing. It took a lot of effort to reverse the psychological effects this isolation had done to him.

His meals were still being dropped off to him during that time, so one day while I was there, two of the workers from the kitchen came in and asked him what his preferences were. He is highly deaf in both ears and reads lips, so their masks made it challenging for him to comprehend what was said.

“What?” He asked, leaning forward.

“What do you want for lunch?” one of them asked.

“What?”

I pulled my face covering off so he could see my mouth.

“They want to know what you want for lunch.”

“Oh! What do you have?”

The one who had tried to ask the first time said,

“Do you want fish?”

“What?”

“Fish!”

She proceeded to take both of her hands in front of her to create a fin-like visual, and she moved her hips in a side-to-side motion. She was doing the best charade game of her life to try to get her point across.

He frowned deeply and leaned forward more, trying to comprehend her movements. I did not attempt to interrupt his interpretation as she continued to demonstrate while he pondered. I saw a lightbulb go off.

“Snake? We are having snake for lunch?”

His eyes were huge at the thought. He had just been telling me how much the place was going downhill.

She dropped her hands, exasperated.

“Fish!” I said, stepping in to help.

“Fish? That fish looked just like a snake!”

Recently, there was another Covid scare, so I was not permitted to see him for a couple of weeks. I worried he would slip back to his old habits because he was once again under total quarantine.

It didn’t take long for the facial hair to grow again and the sleeping in to start. When I went in the other day to surveillance his place, I found a pair of summer shorts cut in half. I just stood there holding them up, trying to figure out what in the world had happened.

I brought them before his eyes.

“What happened to these?”

“I had to cut myself out of them.”

I took a second to take that in. He cut himself out of his pants.

“I know I should move on, but I have to know..why? I just bought you these. Why did you do this?”

“I was stuck in them.”

I’m a very visual person, so I tried my hardest to develop a good image of why this had occurred. Nothing was coming.

“I was honest to God stuck in them, and I had to get out of a bad situation, Chris.”

I thought maybe a third try at it would clear the muddy waters, but it didn’t.

“So, instead of pushing your pendant for assistance, you grabbed a pair of scissors and cut off your pants?”

“Yes.” He said it like this was an everyday thing to do.

We both just stared at each other. I was at a loss for words. Of all the circumstances I have been in with this man, this by far had hit the top of the list.

I always treat him with respect, even if what he is telling me is so off the wall or not even close to the truth.

“I’m just trying to understand. Were you throwing a wild party and just decided to live freely? I don’t get this.”

He started laughing.

“No, I didn’t have a party. Are you crazy? I’m an old man! I was trapped in those and had to get out of them!”

Oh, my gosh! He could talk in circles for days on end! And he called ME crazy? I was not the one with a pair of shorts with a slit up the side like an evening gown.

“I think you wanted to show your leg off more on that side.” He laughed again. “Or were you needing an apron for the kitchen?” I turned them around and bunched up the material across my waist. The two pockets on each side were perfect.

“I still don’t get it. Why did you not ask for help?”

“Because they are busy here, and I didn’t want to bother anyone. I was struggling, and I figured I could do it myself.”

“Well,” I said, fanning them out, “you did.”

“You have gotten me a lot of those. I have at least seven pairs. Well, now maybe six.”

“Where were you when this all took place?”

His memory is getting worse, so he attempted to piece it all together.

“Were you in your bathroom?”

“I think so. They got caught on the side of the wheelchair, and I was stuck like that for a while.”

Now the story was all coming back to him.

“I tried to get myself free by pulling on them, but it wasn’t working. I saw the scissors on the sink, so I got myself out of prison.”

While it made me feel bad for him, I couldn’t help laughing. Which he then did too.

It reminded me of that part from Planes, Trains, and Automobiles where John Candy gets his arms stuck in his seatbelt while driving.

And the more I thought about it, the more I laughed.

“I don’t know what goes on around here. I will buy you another pair.”

“I won’t be having an encore performance. That’s it for this lifetime.”

No matter how much I have tried to tell him to call for help, he stubbornly refuses and decides he is the master of his fate.

And it makes me wonder, where am I not getting help? I don’t want to be a burden, so I often do it myself and keep quiet. But are we supposed to do that all the time? Don’t we have help available to us?

My dad must have forgotten all about Psalm 91:15 that says,

He will call on me, and I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble,
I will deliver him and honor him.

We wear an invisible call button that when we request assistance, it has been promised that help will come. Far too often, we do it alone and exhaust all options before we ask. We might end up fashioning our solution, which will never match the help of heaven. The more we don’t ask, the easier it gets until we forget that we can.

His tattered and torn pair of pants destined for the trash is a great reminder that we aren’t supposed to take any shortcuts.

(My witty daughter saw the brand name and said, “He’s just living up to what the tag says..No Boundaries.” Where does she get it? Hmm..)

Driving You Crazy


Teaching your child to drive isn’t mentally easy.  Images from days gone by have a tendency to flash across the mind while she clutches the steering wheel for the first time and you sit like a slug in the passenger seat.  For instance, you  quickly recall when she could barely stumble across the room while hanging onto the edge of the couch or used an end table to support her wobbly legs.  Other mental scenes emerge of her unable to use a spoon or suck liquid through a straw. How was I supposed to let her drive my vehicle up and down streets where potential hazards awaited us at every turn? I would have rather put myself on a roller coaster to be flipped upside down non-stop for an hour. Yet, I had to maintain my composure because all good parents want to see their children succeed and mature into independence.  I wanted to remain calm, I really did.  I didn’t want to repeat the experience I had with my dad when I was learning how to drive.

It would begin before we left the garage.  His discomfort was evident as I turned the key and a battery of instructions and inquiry would follow before we even budged.

“Did you check the mirror?”

“Yes.”

“All of them?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have your permit?”

“Yes.”

“Is there gas in the car?”

“Yes.”

After satisfying all of his questions, I would barely move into reverse when he would say,

“Keep your foot on the brake! I don’t want to go flying down the driveway.”

I would go at snail speed and it was still too fast for him.

One day, before I got the key into the ignition, I couldn’t take it anymore.

“I am not driving with you!” I said defiantly.

My mom and I had gone out that afternoon to practice, and I noticed a remarkable difference.  She let me start the car, back out, and barely said one word except,

“Oh, look at that beautiful bird in that tree!”

As we drove through the familiar streets of our town, she would say occasionally,

“I wonder what they are building over there.”

For her it was a chance to get out of the house away from cooking, cleaning and laundry.  Once in awhile she would say,

“Why don’t we turn left up at the stoplight?  I haven’t been down that road in a long time.”

It became a sightseeing tour for her, and I just drove the car without worrying over every maneuver I made.

If I took a right when she said to go left her response was,

“Oh, well, you will get it next time.”

My experience with him was a sharp contrast, and his nerves were getting on my nerves, so my outburst was to make the negativity stop.  He said quietly,

“Let’s go.  Just start the car.”

It wasn’t said in an angry tone but one of realization that he was not helping the situation with his worry.

I began our nightly trek to a place where we could practice parallel parking and how to park on a hill.  We tried to get it all in before the sun set on that pre-summer night.  There wasn’t much traffic as I made my way back toward our home.

“Turn left up here,” he instructed.

I was feeling so much better about our time together now that I was sensing he wasn’t so anxious.  I had relaxed and he seemed much more at ease as well.  Unless he was faking it, and I couldn’t tell the difference.

As usual, I turned right instead of turning left.

“This is right, Chris.  I said left.”

“Oh, well,” I said parroting what I had heard my mom say.  “I will figure out a way to turn around.”

It wasn’t as easy as that.  I had turned on a road that was leading us forward with no option of a U-turn. We found ourselves slowly creeping along what appeared to be a private road not meant for the usual drive through.  There were beautiful manicured lawns surrounding us on both sides.  I took notice of this and other details because the speed limit sign had clearly stated we could only go 10 miles per hour.   It became quite evident where we had landed when we both saw a large green sign with white lettering.

STATE HOSPITAL

“What?  We are at the state hospital?”  Now a whole new type of fear descended upon him.

“We are?”

“Yes.  You have driven us right into the looney bin!”

I had a hard time not controlling my laughter at his reaction.  He has a tendency to lose all decorum and ability to be politically correct when terror strikes.

The road slowly wound around to the front of the facility where a few people milled about the grounds while orderlies stood by in white outfits.

“Lock the doors!  Roll up the windows!” he ordered.

This was back during the time before our cars mechanically did all of these things for us.

I glanced over to see his eyes wide as he kept them trained on all the residents roaming.

As if on cue, a tall male began walking alongside the passenger side of the car which brought my dad’s mood to a full tilt panic. The car door seemed like a paper thin barrier between him and this stranger.

“Hurry up and get us out of here!!” he yelled.  “This guy is racing us!”

“I am driving what the speed limit says, ” I retorted.  After all, I didn’t want to break the law by speeding, for heaven’s sake. And, I wasn’t the least bit afraid.  I was not going to allow my speedometer to go one inch over the 10 mile per hour mark.

We came to a crosswalk where there was a stop sign.  All of my new training was kicking in. There was no way I was running through it, and a complete stop was what I was taught to abide by.

The guy walking near the car stopped with us and peered in the window at my dad.

“Get us out of here!” he said again.

“I am!”

“It is getting dark!  We need to get out of here!”

There was another man standing by the curb who appeared to want to cross in front of us.   I sat waiting for him to make a move.  But he remained frozen.  Just staring straight at us.  His eyes looked glassy and fatigued.

“Is he going to cross the road?” I asked more to myself than to my passenger.

“He looks like he wants to kill us!  JUST go!”

“What if he steps in front of me?  I might hit him!”

A few seconds went by with all four of us glancing at each other.  Through gritted teeth, my dad made his final plea,

“Go!  Right now!  Just go!”

I slowly edged forward as the two residents watched us glide by.  Neither moved a muscle.

“Keep going to the left!”

I did what he said and soon we found ourselves driving out the exit and back into his comfort zone.  He stayed quiet the entire ride home as I tried not to giggle.

When we walked in the door, my mom asked,

“So, how did she do?”

He opened the palm of his hand and said,

“She did just fine but I lost a tooth.”  He had been clutching on to it the whole way home.

“What?!”

“I bit down so hard while she was driving that I broke my tooth.”

My mother and I looked at each other and started to laugh uncontrollably.

“She drove me to the state hospital!” he said coming to his own defense.

“She should have left you there!” my mom said.  “Why do you worry so much?”

Now that I have had my time sitting in the seat of the car to be the instructor, I do understand his fear so much more.  Isn’t this true when we go through situations in life?  We become more understanding and compassionate when we have the experience for ourselves.  My dad had been taught how to worry somewhere along the way.  We aren’t born in that state, but it is a learned response. The bad news is that it is highly contagious.  The last thing I want is for my daughters to live life from a weakened mental place instead of a bold and courageous stance, so I am aware of it and try to correct myself immediately.

I decided recently to take a drive to where this event occurred. Most of the buildings stand empty with windows boarded up. Long gone are the men and women who walked the halls with whatever was afflicting them.  It struck me how something that once seemed so ominous had now become obsolete. A place that brought my dad such a nightmare moment no longer would illicit such a reaction.

So what bothers you today that may not even exist tomorrow?  What are you fretting over that may not even be a threat at all?  A famous passage tells us that the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, can guard our hearts and minds if we allow it.  It’s really up to you whether you want to live a life of calm or one of torment.  Heaven isn’t withholding it from you.

In this day and age,with stress running at an all time high, it is imperative to know that God loves you and is always ready to help when life is driving you crazy.

 

 

(One of the original empty cottages at the state hospital)

anoka