Change of Plans

In the dark ages, better known as my early twenties, I was a social worker at a nursing home. Fresh out of college, I took up this position as an assistant to the director. I had interned that spring and was hired when the previous employee decided to leave. Since high school, I had already been working there in housekeeping, laundry, and the kitchen, so it was an easy transition that didn’t require much of an interview. I walked across the stage with my diploma in hand, knowing I already had a job. 

It wasn’t an easy one, though. I had hardly any real life experience, yet I often found myself comforting those who had said goodbye to a loved one. Other times, I gave a listening ear to a spouse who was visiting and watching as their better half was fading away. 

I think the saddest man I ever met was the one whose wife had gotten early onset Alzheimer’s right after they had both retired. Bill and Lydia had worked very hard to get to this stage so they could travel. They saved every dime toward their future, and now it wasn’t to be. So many tears of grief and anger flowed while we would talk. He confided so much in me, and I often would wonder why? I couldn’t fully understand what he was experiencing, yet the right words always seemed to come out of my mouth to alleviate his pain momentarily. 

In the end, I gave him the permission he was looking for to branch out into the unknown. At first, he could not fathom the idea of leaving his wife to go on an adventure for himself. He felt he had to stand guard over her even though it got to the point where she no longer knew who he was. 

I watched as the months and eventually years dragged on, and he would come in the door with his shoulders slumping more and his eyes filled with an ever increasing depression. As much as she was leaving the earth, so was he. When I would greet him, he would acknowledge me with a quiet voice and eyes to the floor. His withdrawal was apparent to all of us. 

One day, he came into my office, shut the door, and pulled out a pamphlet from his jacket. His hand shook a little bit. 

“What do you think of this?”

It was an advertisement for a group that was going to take a trip to another country.

“I think this is an excellent idea if you think it’s something you want to do. You know your wife is in safe hands here.”

I saw the tears start to well up in his eyes again.

“I think I should try it. It’s not how it was supposed to be. We had it all planned out. We made a decision not to have kids but to work as much as possible. We missed out on so many things together to keep working. But, we thought we would have all our time together now. We chased after money thinking it would give us a safety net. Now, most of it is going for her care.”

“When are you going to do something for yourself? Would she want you to be this unhappy?”

That seemed to strike a chord. 

“No. She would want me to go on without her. I know she would.”

By the time he left, I had a feeling he was going to make a brave move forward.

On his next visit, he held his head high, and a long forgotten smile radiated his whole face. 

“I booked my trip!” 

He excitedly sat in my office in the same spot that was tear stained and told me all the details. There was still a nervousness to his demeanor, but making these plans for himself had given him purpose. He still had some guilt about going, but the joy he was feeling seemed to override it. 

“There’s a group of us, so I won’t feel alone, and that’s important for me right now. I made arrangements for an emergency contact in the family in case she needs something while I’m away.”

I leaned inside the doorframe of her room when he came to tell her goodbye before his excursion. Even though she sat staring at him with absolutely no indication that she knew him, he told her everything and promised he would return with many pictures to show her. 

I saw her take his hand and squeeze it. He looked over at me. 

“I guess that is your sign to go have a great time!”

He agreed. 

He returned with great stories and beautiful scenic photos of where he had been and who he had met. He left nothing out. 

By the time his wife passed on, Bill had an enormous circle of new acquaintances who shared common interests. He had listened to that inner push to put aside what he “thought” he should do and followed a path that seemed a bit less conventional. He was able to grieve the dreams that he and his wife had built by surrendering to another plan that was presented to him. 

Death, divorce, financial loss, retirement, illness, friends moving away…these are all possibilities that can present themselves. And how do we cope? What’s “our” plan then? Usually, we don’t have one. Most of us can hardly handle a slight detour while out driving. Like Bill, we are sidelined and many times try to cling to what’s familiar. 

I have found through my turbulence that God isn’t one to keep you in a comfort zone if there are other plans for you. The resistance to change is what brings unhappiness. I saw Bill blossom the minute he gave up his ideas and traded them in for God’s. He learned a great truth found in Isaiah 43:19:

Watch closely: I am preparing something new; it’s happening now even as I speak,

and you are about to see it. I am preparing a way through the desert;

Waters will flow where there had been none. (The Voice)

Once the initial shock of the event has transpired, and we let ourselves take a moment to sit quietly, consider that ‘our way’ may not be correct, we can be assured that God will always provide the best change of plans.

A Breath of Fresh Air

I pushed my overflowing cart into the room just as she gasped.

“Help!’ she gurgled. Slumping back onto her pillows that were piled up behind her head, she reached her hand out to me. I put down my squirt bottle and walked over to her side.

That is when the coughing started. Not the simple clearing of the throat, but a lung rattling never ending choke that made her grip my hand all the more.

Then, when the moment had passed, the sound of fluid in her lungs began again as she struggled for oxygen. Her eyes wide with fear she said,

“Help me.”

“You are okay,” I said softly. On the outside I put on the best comforting face I could and placed my other hand over hers, but on the inside, I was horrified by what I was witnessing.

With those words I saw her relax a little just before a second round of a choking fit overtook her.

“Please,” she cried in between the paralyzing coughs and gasps. “I can’t breathe! Help!” The more she panicked, the worse her symptoms raged.

I pushed the call button to summon the nursing staff. I had seen this type of situation before but not this severe. I had begun working at the nursing home at age sixteen, and I was about a year into seeing people at the end stage of life. Contrast this with going to high school, and I was living in two worlds. While the elderly were clinging to life and some wished they had more time, many of my so called peers were on their way to destroying their existence with drugs and alcohol and thought they were going to live forever.

The nurse arrived quickly.

“How are we doing?” she asked.

Always a bright light in most situations, I was glad she was the one working this particular shift. No matter how dire the circumstance, she seemed to bring peace when she spoke to the patients.

“I can’t breathe,” the woman replied with all her strength.

“You can breathe. Just slow down a little and it will help. The harder you struggle, and the more worried you get, the more it feels like you can’t breathe.”

She adjusted the tube under the nose, turned up the oxygen a notch and administered something to relieve the situation. I walked out into the hallway to grab cleaning supplies from my cart.

As she walked past me, I said,

“I feel bad for her. That seems so miserable.”

“She has a lot of fluid in her lungs. She has emphysema from all her years of smoking. When she can’t take a deep breath it makes her panic because she feels like she is drowning.  I gave her the medication the doctor ordered to help her relax a little.”

I returned to the room to find her quiet and only coughing occasionally. I silently went about my work so I wouldn’t disturb her. As I wiped down her dresser, I could see her reflection in the mirror. She was so vulnerable and frail looking with her eyes closed and her labored breathing interrupted by a torrent of rumbling in her chest.  I carefully moved all of her items, dusted and put everything back in its place.  I watered her flowers that the family had brought in, straightened up clothing on a chair, and emptied the waste basket.  Any little movement or sound from her made me look in her direction to be sure she was okay.

I noticed her window was dirty, so I began to spray it with cleaner.  Her view overlooked the parking lot, so as I scrubbed, I could see various staff coming and going.  The back door to the building opened, and the nurse who had just given such good care to the ailing lady exited.  Much to my shock, I watched as she pulled out a pack of cigarettes, lit one and smoked away as if she hadn’t just cared for someone who was on her deathbed.  I stood there with my paper towel roll in mid-air as a coughing fit seized the woman in bed and the nurse happily puffed away in the parking lot smiling and talking to a fellow co-worker smoker.

I could not make sense of it, and to this day the vivid memory haunts me.  I realize addiction exists but what does it take to wake us up to the reality that the decisions we make determine the quality and direction of our path? I am sure the woman confined to her bed would have loved to rewind the clock at that moment and go back to make different choices. She would have given anything to take one, long, deep, satisfying intake of air.  But, would she?  If given another shot, would she soon get swept up in the habit again which would only lead to the same result?

We engage in activities knowing full well that they lead to our own destruction.   I’m not just talking about smoking or over eating. What about worrying? Uncontrolled anger? Jealousy? Judgment? Resentment? Unforgiveness? Fear? Our emotions can be just as detrimental to our physical well being as ingesting a poisonous substance. And, if we feed on the negative thoughts long enough, it can ultimately lead to early death.

In addition, even if the end doesn’t come, living with dark thoughts and attitudes is just as miserable as the woman who couldn’t breathe.  Life becomes confined to a small space where depression and mental torment become the normal.  If this condition is left to go on you become just like the woman who could not escape her own failing lungs.

The good news is this: we have choices.  It may not seem like we do. We want to make excuses for ourselves and say we can’t help the decisions we make.  But we will always have the ultimate say about the direction we are heading.   We can put down the fork. We can extinguish the cigarette.  We can chose to forgive even if the other person is a real piece of work.  There is an important passage that says: Death and life are in the power of your tongue. Choose life!

Speak blessings instead of complaining.  Give someone a compliment instead of a put down.  Start with one little thing and build on it day by day until the light penetrates the dark.  It may take effort.  It doesn’t happen necessarily overnight to rewire ourselves.

“But, I can’t do it on my own. I am not strong enough.”

To this, there is another answer and it isn’t a pill, potion or a puff of something.  Look to the One who created you.  Yes, it is as easy as that.  There doesn’t have to be a long list of rules to follow. There just has to be a simple asking for help and a willing heart that seeks better.  Heaven will respond because you are loved that much.

Similar to opening up a window to let in a gentle breeze that blows away the staleness, inhale the goodness that has been there for you all along. Now, isn’t that a breath of fresh air?

window