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(c) 2010 Christiana Lambert

She’s going on a journey, but she’s not coming back—not home to her closest loved ones nor to any of us who have known her along the longer journey of her life. We can only thank her for the gifts she gave to us, wave goodbye, and wish her peace.

She told me she had planned to cruise the Danube with her husband, but instead she gets to go home for good.

She’s in her last days, asking for her coat and bags so she can move on. I’m just praying she’ll understand that for once she can stop worrying about what to take with her—she can leave her baggage behind—finally.

She was our critique group friend—she told us her stories and we told her ours. When writing is mostly personal, it’s hard not to get to know well the people who gather to help you string together your words more effectively. She had the gift of encouragement, both as a teacher of children and as a critiquer of our words.

Once she and I both moved into electronic writing, she gave more kudos and comments to my postings than I ever passed back—and now I must remember to pay them forward to others as she always did for me.

She met me at her door last week, her skin and eyes a shocking shade of yellow. I swallowed my fears and went to greet her. The point of our visit was not my discomfort—instead it was one last chance to encourage her.

And so we sat on her patio—freshly cleared of Cottonwood cotton by her husband Dave, yet the cotton continued to drift onto us, snow-like in its abundance. She joked that she would turn white from all that cotton—and then she noticed her skin.

“Oh dear, I am yellow. Dave is going to be so upset,” she stated.

No doubt she knew what turning so yellow meant, but her first thought was to worry for those who would see her skin and know how soon her final journey would end.

She’s going on this journey too soon—yet we must let her go.

After great loss, silence often follows.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone . . . (W. H. Auden, “Funeral Blues”)

Ft. Lewis College, (c) 2010 Christiana Lambert

Our mother’s clock finally stopped around 7:45, the evening of January 20, 2011. Would that we could have cut off the telephone—plus taken back the last few years of losing our mother/grandmother/aunt/sister/in-law/friend/teacher to the long goodbye of Alzheimer’s.

Of course, the relentless ticking of Time has not stopped—almost two weeks have passed since I sat down by her bed on Tuesday, January 18, and realized this would be no ordinary week, even if I didn’t know the exact moment when the hands on the clock would finish their movements. Pastor Ruthann, who had said the place where my mother would go to meet her maker is a holy one, would likely say that that was also our family’s holy week.

Our loss, God’s gain, and Mom’s return to herself—only much, much better.

(c) 2010 Christiana Lambert

Life’s blessings often come in the small moments during such times. When my exercise friend and neighbor Diana asked me how I was doing, I shared where we had arrived on our journey. Turns out she used to work as a hospice volunteer coordinator. She knew what to say: yes, it was a blessing for her to go, as her mind and body had been abandoning her spirit, but it remained a big loss. So true—she was and is my only mother.

After talking with Mom’s caregivers and her doctor, I knew my brother Scott needed to join me in the vigil. Yet, January’s weather is capricious at best and dangerous at worst. Forecast: freezing rains across the prairie, any route he could take. He was stuck finding a last minute seat on a plane.

So I sat by her side alone again on that Wednesday, waiting for his early evening arrival. I told her often her son would be with her later in the night, silently praying he would make it in time.

My laptop played music she would have liked—the sounds helped me, whether or not they could reach her. Throughout the vigil we heard songs such as Aretha Franklin’s gospel greats, both contemporary music and Mozart’s “Requiem” sung by musicians from my church, and—though stuck in her own winter—Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” Above the music the oxygen concentrator hummed and the expansions and contractions of the mattress hissed. I listened for her breaths, now deep, now shallow, maintaining a pseudo-rhythm. I touched her wrists and felt the warmth.

Could she hear me? I did not know. But as I showed her caregivers the slideshow on my laptop screen, I told her stories—not just the facts, but the funny tales as well.

Our rush hour storm turned a trip to the airport into a three-hour odyssey for me—much longer than Scott spent in the air! The storm had mostly died down by the time Sherman and I brought Scott to Mom. Later that night, we left her sleeping peacefully.

Together, the next day Scott and I passed the time at her bedside. In the morning, while she was wakeful, we offered our own voices—gifted by her teaching— as we shared the songs of our youth and those she played in church. Scott—he of the perfect memory—didn’t even say anything when I inserted “la, la, la’s” or made up lyrics! After all, she was a church organist. Although the notes were hard-wired in her brain, the words were not. Music itself was her first language. In those moments of song, Mom connected with us in a way she could not otherwise.

She was stable and sleeping comfortably throughout the afternoon. Hospice had offered a volunteer to sit by her through the night—we accepted as her condition had not changed much for several hours. We expected Dee, the volunteer, to arrive sometime around 10:00 so we could go home to sleep.

When she arrived three hours earlier, we were surprised. She suggested we could get something to eat and then come back.

Scott and I returned home, where Sherman made us all dinner. With our plates almost emptied, the phone rang. Mom’s clock had stopped on the worst of her times while the best of her times had begun—she was whole once more—and home with her Father.

(c) 2010 Christiana Lambert

Yes, she was our North, South, East, and West—but how we continue to live our own lives is how we best honor her.

Consider my silence broken.

In Honor of Elda Mae (Ritter) Lange: June 25, 1930 – January 20, 2011

(c) 2010 Sherman Lambert

Apparently it’s not too late to get more support. All I’ve heard from other people is how hospice care for their loved ones has helped them, too. And, yet, I mostly feel that the hospice service has fulfilled its promise only to Mom—and that’s really a maybe since I haven’t gotten much information from them.

Still, as I further digested being left out of the equation about Mom’s dietary need changes, I realized that’s not how it’s supposed to happen. I have a cell phone and voice mail—I’m not inaccessible. At my Alzheimer’s support meeting on Wednesday, my explanation for what had happened rang a little hollow. It’s one thing to be upset about a change, but it’s another thing not to know about it. A conversation with my therapist the next day also helped me clarify my thoughts on the matter.

The more I looked back, the less I saw that I liked. Mom’s been under hospice care for two months now. I was told I’d receive calls from the nurse after she visited, plus she would write in a notebook put inside the nightstand. The notebook’s last entry is December 7. I believe I’ve received about two calls, both back in November or early December. Yes, when I call, I do get responses, but I have to initiate the contact.

One of those contacts wasn’t really that satisfactory if I think harder about it. Turns out Mom’s regular nurse had two weeks off at Christmas and time off at Thanksgiving. I am sure she deserves the time as caring for dying people must be so incredibly draining. But my mom doesn’t get a holiday from hospice needs—although I know she received care during those times, we didn’t really know how that went.

Because I was seeing mixed signs in her health, I called for an update. Her regular nurse was back on the job, but first had to review notes and then visit her before she could give me that update.

I think that’s a systemic failure. The organization should not only have nursing care covered for its patients, but also should have communications systems set in place to allow smooth transitions whenever its regular employees take well-deserved vacation days. If anything, most of us need more support not less during the holidays.

Part of my problem is that I don’t appear needy and it takes me awhile to notice when promises are not met. Nonetheless, that’s really not an excuse for not having the system set up to offer me help whether or not I ask for it.

The few times I met the nurse, she was running way behind due to emergencies. Surely the nature of hospice is often emergencies—does the company schedule its staff to allow for that? Or do the nurses have to pay the piper if they feel it’s important to give one patient more time—by giving the next patient less time? Or does the scheduler just keep them caring for patients all day, leaving little energy for reaching out to family?

So last night I steeled myself to go try to feed my mom again. I came straight from yoga—which often leaves me calmer—but when I had finished class, I was a bit upset. During relaxation our words for focus were “Let Be.” Surprisingly similar to “Let it Be,” no?

Although I know a big part of my job now is to let things happen as they must, that doesn’t mean we have to go through this transition without the support we are supposed to have available. Thank you to the staff at Mom’s facility for pointing out that not only weren’t we getting what was normally offered, but that we could still change providers to get our needs met, even at this late stage.

Yesterday Mom showed more signs of decline. The hospice chaplain had visited her earlier in the day and called me saying the facility staff told him she was slowing down in the last few days. Apparently, someone from hospice had also visited to bathe her. Despite the visits and noted changes, I had heard nothing from hospice from a medical perspective.

Look, this is pretty much my first experience dealing with hospice care on my own. Mom was really the one who handled this transition with Dad, even though we visited and tried to understand the process. All I know is that over the last two months I personally have gained very little from an experience so many cannot say enough good about: hospice. And Mom can’t tell me how well hospice has served her.

As soon as the facility director told me it wasn’t too late to get some better help for these final days, I agreed to their help with the changeover.

Part of me feels bad that I didn’t first voice my opinions to the first group, but the other part of me thinks, “Hey, it’s my mom who is dying.” Today I had to hang up my operations hat and put on my daughter hat.

That means I have more important things on my agenda than helping them improve how they handle patients. Of course, when I filled out the final paperwork, I did give the organization my reasons for the change, but I wasn’t interested in “fixing” our situation with them. At this point, my mom needs care from another source. End of conversation.

As I left her care residence today, a whole new team was busy conferring over what both Mom and our family needs. So glad to find people to hold all our hands on this journey . . .

(c) 2010 Sherman Lambert

Consider this blog post my way of raising a cyber-glass to 2011.

Yes, I know we’re already 1/3 of the way into January by now, but I’m very much behind. Now that the kids go to college, it seems harder to get started with my typical beginning of the new year activities. Turns out I’m used to being left alone not long after New Year’s Day, doing dull things such as filing away the previous year and setting out a folder for incoming taxes. Those activities then lead to thoughts on what lies ahead.

But last weekend I was just thinking about how the kids were going to get everything packed into their car and whether the snow would make their return trip dangerous. My mind was focused on the very short-term. In fact, it hadn’t occurred to me that maybe I was going to miss them when they left.

Not until their car pulled out of the driveway with its brand new tires (and a spare) did I “get” that. I was just checking off tasks on a list.

When they first started college, we left them. On that Saturday in late August, we took our car and headed home via a short trip to Taos, New Mexico.

This time there’s no Taos, no big house-painting project, no overwhelming need to sleep off years of exhaustion to distract us from their absence.

Instead we have the openness of rooms emptied of extra clothes, shoes, and whatever else the kids took back with them. In fact, when I slow down enough to notice, I really can feel the fresh beginning that comes once we’ve taken down the Christmas tree and prepare to move into whatever comes next.

However, this year I do not welcome some of what comes next.

After all, my mom is still in hospice care—just because she made it into 2011 doesn’t mean she isn’t on her final journey. Yet, over the last few weeks whenever I came back from visiting her, I could return home to the noise and chaos of a household of people to distract me from that fact. I could see forward movement in my kids in this time when their lives are expanding.

Although Mom’s decline contrasted with their growth, she appeared to have regained some strength. So after the initial shock of her improved health, I think I was expecting to settle into a bit of a holding pattern this month—even if I knew the end result of what the year would bring.

What I now know is that part of me was hoping not to face that quite so alone—somehow it seemed it might be easier with my kids around to enjoy—and to support me.

Imagine my surprise last night when I arrived to feed her only to discover she has begun a pureed diet. If you know me, though, I initially roll with the punches. I just sat down to try what I’d been doing for her—helping her to eat—in a different way.

That eating has been going well for her has been a sign that she wasn’t done here yet. But part of the end process—whether for her Alzheimer’s or kidney disease—is that her body will stop accepting food. This eating method change means she is arriving at another stage—and that I may be losing one of the few constructive things I can do for her.

My touch, voice, and presence are the gifts that remain in these days ahead.

Last night as I left her there, I was so rattled I could hardly turn the car home. I was in need of a gift—which I got. Sometimes all any of us has is to remain open to hearing unbidden words. As I heard the beginning strains of “Let it Be” coming from the radio speakers, I relaxed enough to carry on with my travels for a few more minutes.

Let it be, indeed. Once home, I opened my door to our now uncluttered front room and felt the suggestion of possibility in this year, even as I prepared to face a loss such as this. There is still a light that shines on me . . .

To 2011.

(c) 2010 Trina Lambert

Shh—keep the noise levels down, OK? At least in our house we’re celebrating Advent—Christmas can wait—and it will.

According to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s website, “The season of Advent marks the beginning of the church year and comprises the four weeks before Christmas.” As New Year’s celebrations go, Advent is pretty low key—except for the lessons telling about John the Baptist and his apocalyptic warnings.

I am an Advent person, too. Unlike John, though, I don’t dress myself in camel-hair cloaks or eat locusts dipped in wild honey. But I do believe that by skipping the waiting and longing, the depth of Christmas is diluted.

Thus, I am that curmudgeon who snarls involuntarily when I hear Christmas music in stores long before Thanksgiving. No wonder most people want to stop celebrating Christmas right when it’s just beginning. Me, I’m only breaking out the Christmas tunes and decorations in the days before December 25.

The way we in the U.S. celebrate Christmas, you’d think Jesus was born in the Ritz Carlton, not in something less substantial than a barn. And, you’d think the story began and ended with his birth.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m OK with reasonable gift-giving, celebrations, decorations, etc., but I believe it’s easier to understand the true gift if you slow down enough to walk beside the very pregnant Mary as she rides that donkey toward her destiny. All the frantic activity of our current celebratory practices has developed as a way to distract ourselves from the darkness that comes with the long nights of December.

Some years my life really is in such a place of light that maybe I forget how much I need the true light that arrives with the babe in Bethlehem. But even in those joyful years, I try to delay some of the excitement so I’m not overly distracted from what matters during the season.

Other years, it’s easy to understand the concept of waiting for a light to shine hope into my own darkness. And while those are the times when I am tempted to call off the whole celebration, that’s when I need to remember this principle the most: the light comes for all, whether or not our burdens are heavy or light. It’s up to us to understand that the gift is bigger than the immediate fixes we want for ourselves or those we love whose journeys have turned hard.

(c) 2010 Trina Lambert

Good times or bad, I try to pull back from the machine and find ways to quiet myself. My techniques to nurture hopeful waiting are both physical—in the form of regular exercise—and spiritual.

I love that Advent’s color in our church tradition is a cool blue, signifying that hope. Blue is a color that doesn’t hurry—you can rest in blue. Blue understands that sometimes hearts get heavy. Blue is also Mary’s color.

Yet the craziness of our own household’s Thanksgiving weekends—so far—has frustrated my vow to start the first Sunday in Advent by lighting the first blue candle in our own home Advent candle-holder. One thing I can rely on, however, is receiving Pastor Ron Glusenkamp’s daily H20 Devos to align my sense of time with the calendar’s date (his post for today, December 6, is appropriately “blue” in tone.)

Eventually I set out the blue candles for these early December days, even if I don’t light them as I wish.

Yesterday in church I realized that the irony of having my mother in hospice means that what I wait for most this season in this year is for my mom to experience the light coming into this world by her leaving this world.

Thoughts like that also make me aware of needing just a little more light in my personal world in the days ahead.

So for now our tree stands simply lighted and “skirted” with a swath of blue fabric—before we pull out the rest of the Christmas trappings. I deliberately darken the room, then sit to watch the lights twinkle—while I wait.

And in that moment, once again I am an Advent person and all is calm. Come, Lord Jesus . . .

(c) 2010 Christiana Lambert

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