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.

Do Over

“We had a common-law marriage so that we could get a tax deduction,” she said in a monotone voice.

That was a new one, I thought, as I wrote it down in the margin. It didn’t exactly fit into any of my categories, and I would have to work my magic and present it less shockingly.

“I thought he would someday commit, but he wanted his freedom. Signing a paper made him feel trapped, and I held on waiting, thinking he would change his mind.”

Her voice was lifeless, like she was tired of answering this question.

She wasn’t my usual interview for a social history. As part of the intake information I had to gather, I met with those who were newly admitted to the nursing home to get their stories. Most of them were similar with staunch religious upbringing, early entry into matrimony, 19 kids and counting, traditional roles of running a household, and then the death of a spouse.

I usually could write it with my eyes shut, and I hadn’t had this type of answer given to me before.

She was a bit younger than most of our residents, with long, wild grey hair and clothes that were somewhat more modern. This was back when assisted living, and home health care was not yet prominent like it is today, which she would have been a prime candidate for now.

While physically she was in good shape, she had developed mental issues that caused unsafe living conditions.

She had done a lot of drugs that had contributed to the problem as she aged. Her life experiences were the exact opposite of what I usually had people tell me.

“We didn’t have any children, but I thought I was happy.”

“You weren’t? This wasn’t what you wanted?”

I was under the false assumption that everyone from the free love movement was blissfully content, living contrary to what everyone else was doing. That’s how it had been advertised.

“No. Toward the end, I tried to say that I wanted more, and he walked away. By then, we couldn’t have kids, but I wanted the paper signed. We ended up getting into a huge fight over it, and he left. He came back later to get all of his things, and that was it. He immediately moved in with someone else. I knew his behavior wasn’t right for a long time, but I just put up with it. I kept thinking he would change his mind.”

“That’s too bad,” I said.

I recall being at a loss for words. She had bought into a non-traditional way of thinking that hadn’t worked how she thought it would.

“I most regret not having kids. I feel like that was taken away from me. I thought I would be okay without that, but now I feel I have made a mistake.”

She had chosen to isolate herself as a way to cope and was struggling now to reside where she wasn’t alone.

These were the times during my social worker days where I had to help people grieve a loss. Sometimes, like in this case, I just listened and held her hand.

“None of this will be public knowledge,” I told her. “But you can talk to me anytime you want about it. You did the best you could, right?”

Somehow God would come in and calm the situation down when I had no idea how to. This was before I even had a prayer life; that is how good God is. I was rescued from many situations when I didn’t know what to say.

“Yes. I did what I thought was right at the time. I have not ever gotten over it, though.”

“You can’t go back and change it, but you can make a new life.”

She did have extended family, nieces, and nephews that visited. Slowly, she adapted to her surroundings, where I often saw her talking to other people, and she looked more relaxed. When we had kids come into volunteer and do activities, I made sure to pair her up with one because I knew she had missed out on raising her own.

Little by little, she let go of her past and let God fill in the empty places with new experiences. She quickly found herself surrounded by a supportive group of women that had gone through loss differently, but she could relate to.

Years later, I actually met a woman who had come through a worse situation.

I started with the usual questions of birthplace, parents’ names, and sibling count.

“I got married at sixteen. My family knew his, and they had a bakery in a town next to ours.”

While she became pregnant multiple times and ran the house, her husband’s responsibility at the bakery grew. He assumed the role as sole owner, and he was gone for long hours at a time, but she accepted it because they had a family to raise.

She spent many evenings alone as he would decide to stay overnight instead of making the commute home. He had to be up at the crack of dawn to bake, so it made sense not to trek back to her.

“We had eight children, so I was never without something to do. I sewed their clothes, helped them with school, made all the meals. It wasn’t an easy life, but I did what I had to do.”

I jotted down her words, and I was going to move on to the next subject.

“I thought he was at work day and night, but that’s before I knew he had a whole other family.”

I remember looking up at her trying to conceal my true emotions. Did she say that he had another family? I thought people only did shady things like this in the 1970s. This man was way before his time, and I had a lot to learn back in my early twenties.

“I don’t understand,” that is all I could come up with.

“I found out from someone in town that he was married to another woman in the town where the bakery was, and they had children. He wasn’t working all those hours as he told me.”

I had to write this angle into her biography, but I didn’t want it to be like the National Enquirer!

This was supposed to be a way for the staff and other residents to get to know her. We used this as an ice breaker technique so a new person was introduced to the community. Her picture and what I wrote would be posted in the main lobby.

This was to tell others about her interests and strengths. I was going to have to do a lot of cutting and pasting.

“It was hidden from me for years. I’m not afraid to talk about it.”

“So what happened? You found this out, and then what?”

“I went looking for the truth. He had set up a whole life with this other woman, and they had as many kids as we did. He spent holidays with them and everything, but his lies were so good, he had me fooled. I was young and naive. I remember the worst thing was that I found out he spent Christmas with his other family. He was so good at making sure he covered his tracks that he got gifts for the children and me. That really hurt me. All of it was hurtful.”

Explaining it to the kids wasn’t the easiest either. They couldn’t figure out why their dad was gone and not coming back.

After her husband’s unfaithfulness surfaced, her parents stepped in and helped her get past the rough time. An older man came into the picture, and she got remarried.

“Was it hard for you to trust him?”

“Sometimes. But he went out of his way to prove to me that he wouldn’t do what my first husband did. He took on eight kids, and most men wouldn’t do that, so that helped. We had a great life. I had to put all of that behind me.”

Both of these women had given their best efforts and had been left holding an empty bag. They recovered from a betrayal in their own way. One chose to live a closed off existence while the other decided to take a chance and trust again.

God leaves that up to each of us.

What do you do when life presents you with a person described in Psalm 41:9?

Even my best friend, the one I always told everything
—he ate meals at my house all the time!—
has bitten my hand. (Message)

No one is immune to having this happen, and in my own experience, it takes time. A lot of people say…just forgive and move on. What if it doesn’t come that easy? For some, it might, and for others, it may take longer. The key is not to get stuck in it.

God wants us to see it for what it is and heal. But if we stubbornly refuse to get past it, we cripple ourselves, and we will miss out on this from Jeremiah 29:11:

I know what I’m doing. I have it all planned out—plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for. (Message)

Some relationships aren’t going to make it to the ‘until death do us part’. For one reason or another, it happens. Having been through a divorce, nothing is certain except the promise that we always have the opportunity to brush ourselves off, figure out how not to repeat a mistake, and let God lead us in a new direction of a do over.

(They took the Until Death Do We Part..a little too literal…)
(This had the song I Got You Babe playing…shudder…)