Tuesday, December 18, 2007

His own soft hand shall wipe the tears. . . .

On Oct. 17, Lovely Wife's mother, Barbara, died in her bed, here in our home, shortly before sunrise. She was a few days past her 86 1/2 birthday.

Her death was not unexpected, but we didn't expect it that Wednesday morning. This once vibrant, energetic, astute, intelligent woman had been in a steady state of physical and mental decline for perhaps 15 years, being confined to a wheelchair and bed for more than half that time. Although early on it looked as if she had Alzheimer's disease, her doctor eventually diagnosed her with Lewy's Body Disease, which has similar symptoms. The main difference, in her case, was that she never got the zombie-like, nobody's-at-home consciousness that most Alzheimer's patients develop. Right up to the end she was able to communicate fluently with her eyes, expressing delight, distress, humor, and other emotions, which made living with her and her disability much less burdensome than it might have otherwise been.

She had lived with us since Christmas 1999, meaning for most of our children's lives. They each had a special and loving relationship with here that was a blessing to everyone.

While Lovely Wife took on the main caregiving responsibilities, her sister visited several times a year to let us go to Yearly Meeting or FGC Gathering, professional conferences, and occasional weekends away. Her two brothers were also generous in their help. This, plus a thousand small favors from friends and neighbors over the years helped us feel connected and supported.

While Barbara's health had been in long slow decline for years, she was remarkably durable. She must have had a sturdy constitution, but we also think that her steady diet of applesauce and Spirutein (at least five bowls a day) had a lot to do with it. So did the social engagement she had to endure as we schlepped her to meeting, card games, concerts and plays, school events, and other parts of our busy social lives. Whatever it was, she just kept on kicking, though always in a long, slow slide.

Earlier this year, she did develop a pressure sore that was life-threatening, and in July began to get help from a hospice program. Having this extra help in our home was very welcome, but as these things go her supposedly un-healable and fatal sore began to get better, resulting in her being removed from hospice a week or so before her death.

I need to say that, for all of my sometimes petulant criticism of modern-day Quakers, our Meeting sure came through with what we needed, and we feel deeply grateful. One dear Friend, Elizabeth, happened by our home the morning Barbara died to pick up a book, and she stayed a while and was wonderfully helpful in practical ways. Always a steady presence, Elizabeth reminded us we needn't hurry to notify the police of the death and encouraged us to just sit for a while. So we did. And we sang a little, watching the sun shine on her face through the window and reflect off the blue blanket that covered her body. (Blue was always Barbara's color.) As we did, we noticed that Barbara's wrinkles seemed to smooth out and she became more beautiful and at peace. Elizabeth also helped me do a little electrical task in the basement before leaving. After she left, a neighbor brought over meat-and-cheese sandwiches and apple pie. Never underestimate the power of simple, practical help.

Once we set a date for the memorial meeting (a month out due to one brother being in Australia and needing time to make travel arrangements) a representative of Ministry and Counsel came over and helped us with planning details. It is amazing how many small decisions and things need to be done even for a very simple and straightforward Quaker memorial meeting, and it was helpful to be guided through them efficiently and without pressure.

The memorial meeting was held on a Saturday morning, and it couldn't have been more powerful. We were so grateful that such a large number of Friends from the meeting came to it -- about 70 -- considering that except for one Friend who knew here from the 1980s in Ann Arbor, my parents, and her immediate family, no one in the Meeting knew Barbara as a fully functioning person, but only as a disabled, non-verbal old woman. But the presence of so many Friends confirmed for us visibly the feeling we had had over the years that Barbara had, indeed, connected with others, that her beauty and light and grace shone through her diminishment and touched others in a deep place. We also understood and felt the love of those who recognized and honored Lovely Wife's extraordinary caregiving. The vocal ministry, which included messages from each of her four children and one grandchild, was rooted and strong.

It was also exciting to have a house full of relatives for a long weekend -- fourteen of us in all, in a house not built for that many. But it was cozy and informal and lively and exactly like Barbara would have wanted it to be. It seemed very quiet after everyone left.

Although Barbara usually loved music, and especially when Lovely Wife and I would sing to her, she was never very fond of Sacred Harp music. I could tell. Nevertheless, we invited 14 Quaker Sacred Harp singers over two nights after her death to sing, and it was wonderfully healing, to me at least. One of my favorite songs is Northfield (155), which is a simple but powerful fuging tune. The Cooper revision of the Sacred Harp has a verse (from Revelation 21:4) that I always like to sing to Northfield which is not in the Denson revision:

His own soft hand shall wipe the tears from every weeping eye,
And pains and groans and griefs and fears,
And Death itself shall die; and Death itself shall die.

I was also reminded of the wisdom of the line from Odem 340:

Give me the roses while I live,
Something to cheer me on,
Useless the flowers you may give,
After the soul is gone.


Peggy Senger Parsons said...

Dear Paul and Family,

A very special peace to you during this season. The Christmas story is one of surprise comings and goings, and I pray that you feel the mystery and joy of that amid the grief.

Peggy Senger Parsons
and the extnded Senger clan

Robin M. said...

Holding you in the light, with tears and gratitude for this post.

Robin Mohr

Liz Opp said...

Y'know, I had a meet-up with Elizabeth the same day that she had stopped by. She had been a little late and when she arrived, she told me of her visit with you all. It did indeed seem as if God had sent Elizabeth as an angel at such a tender time...

I am so glad you were heartened--if that's the right word--by the memorial meeting for worship and by the sacred harp singing. Caregivers need some measure of care and nurture, of course, whether it is a few days after the passing of a loved one, a few weeks, or even a year or more... as Elizabeth can attest to.

You, Mary Beth, and Barbara are in my thoughts.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up