September 2010


In the last Hospice Grief Support Group meeting, the observation was made that for many, the time of Caregiving is a time of grieving that accomplishes some of that task before the Loved One dies.  As I review the Caregiving role, especially the last couple of years of full time Caregiving, it is clear that we lived in denial.  Mary Ann’s denial was palpable.  She simply put out of her mind any thoughts of end times.  It wasn’t that she didn’ t realize what was happening.  On rare occasions, she revealed that at some level she was fully aware of what was coming in the not too distant future. 

She simply chose to engage each day as a living person rather than a dying person.  I chose denial also.  For us it seemed to be the only way to live fully each day.  Living in denial freed us to squeeze the life out of every moment we had together.  My denial was intentional.  When it came to using every tool available to sustain quality of life (more so than quantity), we did that.  I advocated for the best available treatment for her.  Having done that, found the best tools available and used them, denial as a daily mode of operation worked. 

One negative side effect was that I did not do anything to prepare for what to do when the end came.  While it is possible that the intensity of what I have felt, especially in the first ten weeks, could have been lessened in some way by choosing not to live in denial, I do not regret that choice.  Had I not lived in denial, I could not have given Mary Ann the respect she was due as someone fully alive, a force to be reckoned with.  Had I treated her in a sweet and syrupy way, displaying sympathy, feelings of sorrow for her, it would have stolen from her some of her dignity.  While I could be accused of rationalizing my own unwillingness to face the truth, I am convinced that we needed to be 100% alive while we were both alive. 

As to the negative side effect, I consciously chose denial fully aware that just as we were immersed in life until very close to the end, I would have to immerse myself in the grief and deal with it when it was time.  That is what I have been doing.  I still contend that taking on the grief fullyis the best way to get the intense grief work done so that new life can emerge.  That new life will not be free from pain but will allow that life the freedom to include joy again. 

When I was standing at the most beautiful rest area along a highway I have ever seen, I realized that sometimes beautycan hurt.  The rest area was on the shore of Rend Lake in Southern Illinois.  The sky held cirro-cumulus clouds, puffy and whispy, shaped in ways that stimulated the imagination.  There was a breeze that was warm and cool at the same time.  I realize that makes no sense, but that is how it felt.  The weather was perfect, the view impressive.  There was a huge expanse of well-kept grass that held picnic tables on slabs, some covered with a roof.  Some folks I encountered had a picnic supper there.  They always stopped there on their way from Chicago.  I spent about half an hour there, reading for a while, watching birds with my binoculars, walking around enjoying the view.  The experience was also laced with the pain of not being able to share it with Mary Ann.  I have often noticed that for me there is a longing to share with others any experience of profound beauty.  I have appreciated beauty without the pain at times, as when I stood at the top of that mound in the Flint Hills (see former post). 

I would not suggest that the denial we experienced was the way Caregiving should be done.  I can only say that it worked for us.  Would it have been better in any way had we been more realistic and accepting?  There is no way to know.

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I had not felt well mid-morning today, so I ended up bailing on lessons and staying in.  Later after feeling a little better, I finally just needed to get out.  I headed over to church to Parish Nurse Margaret’s Wednesday Blood Pressure Clinic.  My BP was fine, but as I was driving there, I glanced over at the cemetary toward the spot where Mary Ann’s ashes are buried to see if there was any indication that the Marker had been placed.  It appeared it might be there. 

On the way back I debated about it but decided to go ahead and stop by to see if it actually was there.  It was.  The Granite Marker has a Cross and a vine on it (as in the Vine and the Branches in the Gospel of John).  Then our last name is in large letters in the center at the top.  Below it are both Mary Ann’s and my names with the year of birth next to them.  Mary Ann’s, of course, also has the year of her death. 

I am not really sure how it felt.  I realize that doesn’t make much sense, but my feelings were just not clear.  I was a little apprehensive about how my gut would react when I saw it.   There was a feeling of heaviness, maybe the weight of the loss.  There was not any particular sense of her presence there since we were all there at the moment she left the planet.  The stone is a solid, unmoving reminder that she has died.  My name is there on that stone, a clear declaration of my own mortality. 

I am writing this account on The Caregiver Calling site since a portion of the grieving is the loss of the role of Caregiver and the one about whom and for whom I cared much of my and her lives.   I said in the last post on this site that I would write some thoughts for Caregivers as they do their task.  Many of those thoughts have implications for most of us in our regular daily lives.  It is also true that at some time during our lives most of us will be in a Caregiving role.

The first thought about caregiving is some thing that friend Charlie emailed to me when I first announced that I would be retiring to take care of Mary Ann full time.  He cares for his wife Marlene who has had a form of ALS for very many years.  Some time earlier, he had retired to very part time work to be with her.   He referred to doing that kind of caregiving as a privilege. 

To be a Caregiver truly is a privilege.  Saying that is not just a way to frame the opportunity so that it sounds more palatable.  It is an honor to have the chance to make a significant difference in someone’s life.  So much of what we do is about bartering, I’ll do this for you and you can do that for me.  Lots of couples live independent lives, each taking care of him/herself, sharing space and maybe kids.  Even when the relationship is close and the marriage healthy, there is only so much we can do to show that love to one another.   

When a debilitating illness or something similar arises so does the opportunity to give what is truly needed.  Mary Ann needed my help.  In yesterday’s Hospice Grief Support Group,  the Leader asked me what would have happened to Mary Ann if I had not been there and cared for her.  In answering I remembered something that Daughter Lisa said to me very many years ago, when we were talking about how to get some help.  Lisa had been an Administrator at a CCRC (multi-layered facility for Independent Living, Assisted Living, Health Center, Dementia Building).   She said, “Dad, Mom would not qualify for Assisted Living.”  She said that to help me understand just how much care I had been providing and how much was needed.  Volunteers from church were filling in while I was away from the house doing my job as Pastor.  Without my care she would have spent many years in a Nursing Home setting.

I had the privilege of providing personal one on one care for her until the day she died here at home.  When I was serving as a Pastor, I could make a tiny difference in the lives of many people.  As a full time Caregiver, I could make a huge difference in the life of one person.  By giving me that privilege, Mary Ann made a profound difference in my life — in addition to giving me so many years of her life as my wife, Mother of our children. 

We kept our marriage vows to one another, “in sickness and in health.”  To have had the chance to fulfill that promise would not have been our choice, but having that chance filled our lives with meaning.   We experienced the worst and the best of times.  Sometimes the best was to be found right in the midst of the worst.  It really was an honor and a privilege to care for Mary Ann.  It was a gift to me that she allowed me to do so.

It has been a tiring day.  Instead of writing tonight, I have started a list of things to say to those who are in the role of caring for someone.  So far many of the things on the list are meaningful in almost any relationship or context.  I intend to share those thoughts on this site. 

If there are any subjects relative to Caregiving or Mary Ann’s and my life together, I will be glad to address them on this site.  Just put the question in the comments box on this blog or on Facebook.

“If not for me, the world would have missed….”   The Hospice Chaplain began his message with that question during the Memorial Service last Thursday evening led by Midland Hospice, the organization that sponsors the Grief Support Groups I attend.   

It is not unusual for people to be so self-deprecating that they find it hard to presume to suggest they have made a difference in the world.  It seems arrogant to talk as if we are God’s gift to the world.  If we happen to be in the mode of feeling sorry for ourselves, we will claim we have done nothing anyone will miss.  If we have had a critical parent or spouse or close friend, we may have concluded that just as they have said about us, we do not measure up. 

Sometimes it is actually our inflated ego that sabotages our ability to finish that sentence with anything of substance.  What I mean by that is we sometimes demand that for something to qualify as an achievement that would be missed, it has to be something so much better than what the ordinary folks can do that we received accolades for it. 

What ordinary things have you done?  They are likely to be the things that the world would have missed most.  That you have survived what you have been through is a remarkable accomplishment — no matter how it compares to anyone else’s accomplishments.

The Chaplain was very insightful when he followed that question with some clarification.  He pointed out rightly that most of us struggle with memories of things we did not do well, times we were impatient, harsh, unsympathetic, times we did not do what we should have done, had we been better caregivers.  He urged us to set those thoughts aside for the moment, and focus on what we did do for our Loved Ones.

I have admitted here more than once that the most painful memories are memories of just how debilitated Mary Ann was getting and how little I allowed that to enter my awareness.  I was not always as sympathic and understanding of her limitations as I should have been.  This morning, a simple question some neighbors asked when we crossed paths at the Farmer’s Market planted a seed that sprouted twenty or thirty minutes later.  The question was about cooking, did I do the cooking for Mary Ann.  I admitted my limitations in that area, but answered yes.   Later, as I was leaving, my mind wandered back to that conversation.  A silly claim that I had made came to mind, that I made the best peanut butter and jelly toast around.  I remembered toasting the bread to exactly the color that she liked, cutting it into four squares and feeding it to Mary Ann, making sure each bite had some jelly and peanut butter in it.  I often added two slices of crisp bacon, each cut in half so that every quarter of the toast had a half slice of bacon on it.  I had a certain order of squares so that she would not have too much dry toast in any one bite.  I anticipated when she would need a drink.  Thinking about that brought back the painful feelings to a level I had not felt in the last three weeks or so.  It was not that impossibly intense level that that could hit like a brick during the first weeks, but it was painful. 

I remembered how good it felt to be able to feed her in a way that brought her some pleasant moments.  I longed to be able to do that again.   As that pain settled in (it stayed for a while), I realized that feeding her that peanut butter and jelly toast with bacon was something that she might have missed, had I not been caring for her.  Obviously, I can’t know what would have happened if I had not existed — whether someone else would have done it.  That is not the point.  I did do it.  I made a difference in her world, just as she did in mine. 

There are, of course, some obvious ways of finishing a sentence like that.  I suspect our Children and Grandchildren would have missed mine and/or Mary Ann’s presence in the world.  Those are easy answers.  It is a healthy exercise to think about the impact we have had, the ordinary impact, just being a part of people’s lives.  Simply having answered the Call to Live by continuing through each day.  I have spent time in conversation with many suffering from depression over the years.  When someone is depressed, just trying to finish a sentence like this one is more depressing.  The Chaplain made the point that each of us in that room had survived our grief until that moment.  We had survived the death of someone we loved.  Just to have survived what we have been through, whether the loss of a Loved One or the loss of our confidence and sense of self-worth that comes whith depression — just to have survived is an achievement worth adding where the dots are in that incomplete sentence.   

There are so many things that I did not do for Mary Ann or did not do well.  She deserved better.  At the same time, I did make a difference in her life, as she did in mine.  The greatest gift we gave each other was ourselves.  We stayed in relationship with each other.  In doing so we did make a difference.  Each of us would have missed a lifetime of the other’s presence, had we not been there for one another.  As painful as it is sometimes to remember, it is comforting to remember what each of us brought to the other.  That remains.  We both get to keep those memories.

Whatever else I did or didn’t do, I knew enough never to say that!  I never said it for one thing, because it would be silly to claim I was doing the Lord’s work if I was not fulfilling my Call as Husband and Father.  Being a Husband and a Father is doing the Lord’s work.  Working for the church is just the way I chose to live out my Vocation, no more or less important than anyone else’s Vocation.  Every Christian is Called to live his/her Christianity in every dimension of their life and work. 

Another reason for not saying those words, “But Mary Ann, I’m Doing the Lord’s Work,” is that, assuming they were spoken to suggest my stuff was more important than her stuff, the Mizel wit would cut me down to size with a sharp blade. There was no room for pretense with Mary Ann.  I was her husband, she was my wife.  My job happened to be to serve as a Pastor of a congregation.  She kept me from becoming self-important.  The result was that I was more genuine in the way I did Ministry.  My relationship with people was more real on account of pretense being an unacceptable option. 

That is a gift Mary Ann gave me that impacted my work.  The battle with Parkinson’s had a powerful impact on the way I did ministry and how that ministry was received.   Certainly, there was an impact on my time and energy.  I had to delegate, accept help, find efficient ways to accomplish the ministry so that the Congregation got from me the job they had Called me to do.  Being up multiple times during the night, pretty much every night, for the last eight or so years in the Ministry, had an impact.  The Leadership of the Congregation insisted on my taking care of myself to keep functioning effectively.  The Staff helped in every way possible.  

One gift was that we had to function as a team, each helping the other be as effective as possible.  Members seemed more willing to take on tasks, realizing that the help was very much needed.  As time went by, the challenge of the Parkinson’s resulted in a structure at work that could remain functional and healthy even when Mary Ann was in the hospital and I needed to be there full time day and night.  That actually turned out to be a strength as we dealt with vacant Staff positions at various times during those years. 

I am inferring from observations mostly and occasional comments, another gift our situation gave to my ministry.  There was an authenticity when I was preaching and doing Pastoral Care that seemed to come from the awareness that we were living through very difficult times.  Whether or not others perceived it, I felt freer to talk more boldly about people dealing with challenges since what I said (at least in my mind) could not be easily dismissed as shallow platitudes.  Even if no one else was aware of it, I felt more deeply than in years past the weight of what message of the day had to say to real life situations. 

The place it seemed to me to make the most difference was in hospital visitations and counseling situations.  Those who were suffering from medical problems seemed to talk with me and listen to me as someone having a common experience with which we were both struggling, both finding strength from our faith.  Again, there was an authenticity in our communication that was rooted in the fact that we were all in the same sort of circumstances.  The words I came to say spoke to me as well as to them.  Those who were struggling with painful relationship issues or bouts of depression, could not easily dismiss my counsel, since it came from personal experience in dealing with issues that could be depressing and destroy a relationship.  It was not easy for people to just feel sorry for themselves in front of me and tell me that I didn’t understand what they were going through. 

Of course, I also learned to be far more understanding when folks were going through tough times struggling to survive.  Having seen the boundaries of my capacity to cope with our situation, I could empathize with those living on the edge.  I knew what it felt like.  I knew what it was like to need help and be forced to accept that I could not make it without reaching out to others, accepting their help. 

Now that the Parkinson’s and its allies have done their worst and taken Mary Ann from life here, from those who knew her and loved her, from our Children and Grandchildren, from me, there is another gift that has come.  It is a tough one to accept, but I have no choice.  I now understand just how hard it is to lose a Spouse after decades of marriage.  I understand what it feels like to have a heart broken by losing the one who filled life with meaning and purpose, the one the Lord called me to love and care for these many years.

I also know more clearly than ever that there is healing and new life for her that is now more than she has ever known before.  I  know, not just intellectually, but experientially that because she has new life, I am free to live again, to start a new life.  I am free to incorporate into my life the impact she has had on me in the 48 years I have loved her, along with the unconditional love of a Lord who refuses to give up on me, plus the impact of so many who have touched my life in the years in the Ministry — I am free to say yes to the Call to Live.   Only a Lord who brought Resurrection out of suffering and death could bring out of twenty-three and a half years of battling a disease, so many good gifts.

The package was pretty ugly — Parkinson’s Disease, but the gift was beautiful.  Actually, God gave the gift.  Actually the gift was already there, Mary Ann’s Parkinson’s provided a tool for opening the package, pulling out the gift and letting people see it. 

Sometimes harsh judgments are made about churches and church folks.  There are the caricatures of people who attend church regularly as hypocrites and self-righteous, harsh, judgmental and unloving people.  Of course all those things are true to a certain extent, just as they are true of the general population, whether they happen to go to church or not. 

What actually has been so in my experience with congregations, ones I have served in forty years of ministry and many I have heard about from fellow clergy is exactly the opposite.  I have seen true community in action in my years in the ministry.  By true community, I mean people who are connected in a way that frees them to express that connection in action — people who help one another. 

Community was expressed in a former congregation by surrounding a handicapped member with support in every way, functioning as family for her.  When the bombing in Oklahoma City took one of the members of that congregation, her husband was surrounded with loving and caring actions.  When the bombing happened, I saw first hand an entire city express community, as crime ceased for a time, people came together to support one another, doing anything and everything they could to help those suffering, to support the ones who were doing the hands on rescue work.

The congregation I served the last twelve and a half years in my role as Pastor of a congregation had always expressed community in one way or another.  People visited and cared for those who were going through difficult times, especially due to health or aging.  The gift that came with Mary Ann’s Parkinson’s was an opportunity, an opportunity to go public with those expressions of community. 

Mary Ann’s circumstances provided some very clearly identifiable needs.  The needs were concrete.  I could not continue to serve as Pastor of the congregation without those needs being filled.  The response was a natural one for people who understood and lived in community with one another, quietly going about the business of supporting one another in times of need.  My vantage point may have skewed my view of reality, but it seemed to me that Mary Ann’s and my needs, so public, and the response to them, helped crystallize the self-image of the congregation.  What had always been so gained a higher profile and became visible.   That visibility became a witness to the poeple in the congregation and others who learned about it. 

I think the truth of the matter is that people in community with one another find much satisfaction in helping each other if they can figure out what to do that will actually help.  People surrounded our household with the basic needs of companionship for Mary Ann with all that demanded in terms of help with personal needs and whatever came up.  There was sometimes food brought over, grocery shopping done when we were homebound or Mary Ann was hospitalized.  There were sometimes basic household needs covered, chores done, ironing done.  Margaret, Carol (single-handedly for over six years), Mary, Edie, Daughter Lisa, all who coordinated  clusters of Volunteers, gave them instructions on what to do, answered their questions.  A free online scheduler just for that purpose helped organize times and tasks.  It is available at no charge to any individual who needs it: www.lotsahelpinghands.com

The specific gift Mary Ann gave the congregation was opening herself to allowing people into her life to help her.  Community can’t be experienced fully without people’s willingness to allow themselves to become vulnerable to others.  There is a risk when allowing people to help.  Will you become indebted to them?  How will you pay them back?  If you don’t pay them back, will they somehow own a little piece of you?  We simply had no choice.  There was so much help that there was no way we could ever repay all the people.  We occasionally made small symbolic efforts and saying thank you.  Mary Ann enjoyed doing an open house every once in a while, Volunteers helping with it.  She sometimes made or designed token gifts intended to say thank you.  There was just no way to do enough.  We simply had to allow the help with no possibility of ever repaying or saying enough thank you’s. 

The good news is that people helped because they chose to do so.  They helped because they have been wired by their Creator to do so.  They helped because there was meaning and satisfaction and fulfillment in doing so.  By helping, they actually had a part in the Pastoral ministry to the congregation.   Because they were doing what they were doing I could do what I was Called to do as my part in the community. 

Mary Ann’s Parkinson’s freed the true community that already existed to float to the surface and become more visible, defining the congregation in its own eyes and the eyes of those who heard about it.   

By making these observations about the gifts that came into our lives and the lives of many others on account of the Parkinson’s, I am in no way lessening the horror of what Mary Ann went through.  We would not wish that struggle on anyone.  It was not a good thing.  It was a very ugly disease that stole from Mary Ann everything she had enjoyed doing with her hands and her sharp, creative mind.  In spite of that, God brought some good gifts to her, to me, to a congregation and to our family.  More about that in later posts.

When the Parkinson’s was first diagnosed, Mary Ann insisted on complete secrecy.  No family (even parents and siblings) could know, no friends, certainly no parishioners — only the Kids and I were to privy to the diagnosis.  That insistence continued for five years.  She allowed a couple of exceptions for me so that I would have somewhere to go to process what we were going through.  Actually, I don’t remember if their Mom gave Lisa and Micah permission to share with anyone.  They may comment on that. 

Mary Ann had always been an extremely private person.  She didn’t think her personal life was anyone else’s business.  After she was diagnosed, she did not want people to be looking at her as if there was something wrong with her.  She certainly did not want people feeling sorry for her and treating her as a sick person.  I have shared before how hard that five years was on all of us. 

Finally, the secret could no longer be kept since there were too many outward signs of the disease.  When we moved here in 1996 Mary Ann’s Parkinson’s was public information among the Leadership of the congregation.  The secret was out from the first conversation by phone with the Call Committee.  In fact, by that time, Mary Ann’s Parkinson’s was in the form that I filled out for the file in the District office, the form that was sent to the congregation as soon as my name was put on their list of Candidates. 

It is here that the story of one gift that came on account of the Parkinson’s begins.  Mary Ann received some special attention from a group of ladies in the congregation.  She was welcomed in a way that made her feel accepted and included immediately.  I did not see all the dynamics of that inclusion, but I was thrilled at its effect on Mary Ann.  She quickly developed a group of friends in the congregation.  While my being the Pastor brought us to the place and provided the setting, that group became her very own friends, not acquaintances of the Pastor’s Wife. 

Before going any further, I have to say that Mary Ann had developed connections when we were in the early years in Kansas City.  She often claimed (falsely) that people were friends with her because I was the Pastor.  The truth is, I was the more boring one and she was always the more interesting personality of the two of us.  I am not particularly thrilled with that assessment, but it is just the way it was. 

In the parish here, the Parkinson’s created a need.  The need was for help.  When Margaret began and Carol took over the task of scheduling, the Volunteers began coming.  At first it was an adjustment, especially for Mary Ann, to have people coming into the house and staying with her.  First of all, her combination of strength of will and denial, caused her to resist any admission of the need for people to be there.  She seemed to manage to fall in a way that did not do damage to her, so she was not convinced of the need.  While watching the knives waving this way and that from the dyskinesias when she was preparing food, terror entered the heart of the watcher.  She was convinced that she would not slice herself. 

Since many of the first Volunteers were already friends, she tolerated the lack of privacy surprisingly well.  In fact it shocked me that she did not fight harder against the idea.  As the number of Volunteers expanded, new friendships were added.  Since often there was some need being met in another room when the next Volunteer arrived, the custom was to announce her arrival and just walk in. 

The result was that our house had an open door policy.  It was almost comical some Wednesdays when Bath Aide Zandra was here, Kristie had come to clean, it was crossover time when two Volunteers were here, one arriving and the other getting ready to leave, and the Spiritual Formation Group (four of us) were lingering for a moment of conversation before leaving after our meeting.  Rather than feeling as if folks were intruding into our lives, it was a pleasant gathering of friendly people. 

One gift that came was that Mary Ann opened herself to all sorts of relationships.  She had a wealth of friends and knew that they were her friends, not simply members of the congregation of which I was Pastor.  I cannot know what would have happened without the Parkinson’s, but it is clear that from its presence in our lives, the gift of openness to relationships grew.   

As always, we certainly would not have chosen the mechanism, but there were some consequences of its presence that brought blessing to our lives.

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