Even at our age and in a wheel chair, Mary Ann is pretty.  Looking at those pictures of Mary Ann from the time before we started dating and pictures of her in our dating years and early marriage, I was reminded just how pretty she has been all her life.  No wonder I fell in love with her.  I am not so shallow as to have only looked at the surface.  Her personality has always been intriguing, exciting, unpredictable, entertaining and complex.  There has never been any pretense about who she is.

One of the things that jumped out in the pictures from earlier years was her bright smile.  That is one of the things that Parkinson’s steals from those whose lives it impacts.  Facial expressiveness diminishes.  Those pictures were poignant reminders of just how expressive and beautiful that face has been.  They also confirm and reinforce the image that still comes through when I see her.  It is a good thing when people grow old together.  These old bodies still contain young people.  When we grow old together, we can see past the old bodies to the young people living inside.

Mary Ann revealed that she was excited to have the chance to reconnect with her family.  It meant so much to her.  She has felt very disconnected after losing her Dad two weeks after we were married and two brothers, both when they reached the age of 51.  Her Mother has also been gone for many years.

The old pictures and conversation gave our two children a chance to discover more fully the family with which they have had little contact.  Their Cousin Diana and her Daughter Rachel provided through their presence and their stories about family a window into the other half of the gene pool from which our Children have emerged.

Mary Ann soaked it all in and responded as she could.  The night before last had been a tough one with multiple times up.  She crashed during lunch.  She could not hold her head up any longer as I tried to help her eat.  Finally, she gave in and decided to lie down.  After a long nap, she was able to interact and enjoy Diana, Rachel and our Children as they talked about and asked questions about the past.

Last night, Mary Ann went to bed and was asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow.  This morning, she was in exactly the position she was in when she fell asleep last night.  She had not moved a muscle, nor had she gotten up during the night to use the commode.

Our Daughter, Lisa, along with Husband, Denis, and the girls, Abigail and Ashlyn left for home early this morning.  Diana and Rachel were able to spend the day with us.  It was a good day, a little less intense and more relaxing.  We just spent the day getting to know each other better.

I had thought about giving them a quick tour of the area.  Mary Ann reminded me of the Tulip Festival at some spectacularly beautiful gardens at the edge of a lake on the other side of town.  The flowers provided clusters of vibrant colors, one after another, some more formal and symmetrical, others very natural with an asymmetry that was pleasing to the eye.  The weather was perfect, sunny, cool and clear.  The lake was sparkling and serene at the same time,  The gardens are filled with ponds and streams and waterfalls.

We moved on to travel west into the Flint Hills.  It would have been a crime to come this far and not see those rolling hills, prairie as it was hundreds of years ago.  Some areas were green with fresh grass growing.  During April comes the burn.  All the random seeds brought in by wind and wildlife germinate during the growing season and threaten to overpower the natural prairie grasses. In past centuries, buffalo fed on the grass until there was nothing left above ground. Roots extending fifteen to eighteen feet would assure that the native grasses returned the next spring.

On account of the decimated buffalo population, burning the foreign growth returns the hills to their pristine past.  Through the ashes soon burst the Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem and Indian Grass.  There is nothing like the contrast of that bright green emerging through the black ash cover.

The tour of the Flint Hills was a treat for me, and seemed to be so for Diana and Rachel.  We found our way to a little town called Paxico.  There is no grocery or gas station there, at least that I have found.  The buildings contain lots of old things for sale, ranging from flea market fare to expensive antiques. It is not a contrived and artificial imitation of an old town just for tourist consumption.  It is the real deal.  There is an outlet there for the pottery made by the Potter who turned the dishes and bowl that Mary Ann uses.  We have other pieces, bowls and cups and pitchers.  The name is Jepson Pottery.  His studio is in Harveyville, Kansas.

Mary Ann was ready for ice cream when we left Paxico.  We had leftover Grasshopper and Mud pies from Baskin and Robbins for supper.  Mary Ann is in bed and, after a snack and some Tums, she seems to be sleeping.  Tomorrow is likely to be a recoup day.  Hopefully, she will have another restful night tonight.

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Maybe this will be our new Thanksgiving tradition, barbequed ribs, pork and brisket with stuffing on the side.  The meal was tasty, lots of food, great desserts, both pumpkin pie and Baskin & Robbins Grasshopper Pie for Granddaughter Chloe’s birthday treat.

Mary Ann seemed pretty tired today, especially in the morning before the kids came.  She did not talk much during the day, but Son, Micah, got her to laugh a few times. He has a way of connecting with her that is fun to watch.

Chloe is, of course, a breath of fresh air.  She is warm and engaging always making clear to both her Grandma and her Grandpa that we are loved.  She is such a sweety.

Becky brings a brightness and positive energy with her that lifts us up.  She treats us with love and respect, always thoughtful of our unique circumstances.  She always provides relief from the cleanup task by insisting on doing it for us.  That gift does not come from some automatic domestic role expectation, it is an intentional and thoughtful act of generosity, offering me some respite from the task.

Chloe and I did a little bird-feeding together.  Micah helped with a clean up of some of the Cypress needles that had fallen into the lower area of the pondless waterfall installed last summer.  I described to them plans for a possible remodel to the back of the house that would provide additional indoor space with lots of glass so that we could enjoy the waterfall and the birds more than we can now, since there is no easily accessible view of the water fall from inside the house.  No decision is made on the project, but the decision-making process is in motion.

Later in the afternoon, Micah shared something he had been thinking about.  He has plenty of access to information on my side of the family in terms of health history.  My siblings are all living, and over the years he has had a fair amount of contact given the geography with cousins.

Micah noted that he has very little knowledge of his Mom’s side of the family.  Only Mary Ann’s Mother was still living when Lisa and Micah were born.  Two of her three brothers died, one of Lung Cancer and the other of Acute Leukemia, when Micah was almost too young to remember.  The third brother chose to alienate himself completely from the family at the death of their Mother.  It is pretty much too painful for Mary Ann even to talk about.

As a result, Micah did not have a chance to get to know her family other than her Mother.  The same is so for Lisa, although, since she is three and a half years older than Micah, she probably has a few more memories of her Mom’s brothers.

What developed from the conversation was the idea of our traveling back to Northern Illinois to visit with Mary Ann’s two deceased brothers’ families to hear stories about them that will help fill in that void of knowledge.  The email has gone out to see if there is a possibility of having a family gathering to reminisce and share stories.

After a nice time on the phone with our Daughter Lisa, who shares her brother’s interest in connecting with their Mom’s family, Mary Ann has settled into bed, and I have been thinking about Mary Ann’s family connections.  She loves and is loved by her family.  The death of her Father, a few weeks after we were married, the deaths of her two brothers (each one at the age of 51), being hurt so deeply by her other brother as that relationship was severed, and finally the death of her Mother, left Mary Ann feeling very much alone.

Her Sisters-in-Law and her Nieces and Nephews seem to love and respect Aunt Mary very much.  She is not only separated from them by geography (a ten or twelve hour drive demanding two days of travel for us to get there).  She cannot talk audibly on the phone, or react quickly enough to maintain a conversation on the phone.  Sometimes she can’t get any words at all to come out.  She hasn’t been able to write legibly for the last few years.  She cannot negotiate a computer keyboard or control a computer mouse.  It is frustrating to her and to those who long to interact with her.

I hope something materializes that will allow our children a window into Mary Ann’s family, and a chance for Mary Ann to feel part of a family of her very own.

Tomorrow afternoon is the first meeting with our Cardiologist after the trip to the hospital for Congestive Heart Failure three weeks ago.  He was out of town at the time of the hospital stay.  I delivered to his office a letter and attachment requesting consideration of a change in meds that might help with the fainting while not raising her blood pressure when lying down.  I intend to report on that visit in tomorrow evening’s post.

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This one is a veritable Life Boat, not just a Life Preserver.  Thursday morning (day after tomorrow) I will get in the car and drive a little over five hours on the Interstate through the Flint Hills and on into Oklahoma to St. Francis of the Woods Spiritual Renewal Center.  I will stay over two nights and return Saturday afternoon.

What about Mary Ann???  Mary Ann will have a great time while I am gone.  She will have our Daughter, Lisa, all to herself for that entire time.  Hopefully. our Son, Micah, and family will be able to join the party at some point.  Lisa is flying in from Kentucky as a gift to both Mary Ann and me, so that we can have a break from one another.  Admittedly, 24/7 does wear on both of us. Our Son-in-Law, Denis, will be serving as both Dad and Mom to the girls for the time Lisa is gone.

I have described St. Francis of the Woods in earlier posts.  Lisa provided the opportunity to go some months ago.  While I am at St. Francis, I will walk for hours, read, meditate, all among beautiful wooded paths and open fields.  The Renewal Center includes a 500 acre working farm.  There are only three cottages in the part of the property on which I will be staying.  The cottages are not in sight of one another, so it is not unusual to see no one for hours.

Maybe my love of solitude is the result of being the youngest of five children by so many years that I was raised almost as an only child.  I spent much of my childhood outdoors by myself.  I loved it.  I don’t really remember ever feeling lonely when I was outdoors in a natural setting.

I will take with me a very small three-legged stool strapped to my backpack so that I can stop to sit and read.  I will read some Scripture, a book on Spiritual Formation, and a book titled Quantum Physics and Theology, written by a Theoretical Physicist who later in life became an Anglican Priest.  I will carry my binoculars and look for birds and other wildlife.  I will watch the sunset from a wonderful spot on a hill that provides a panorama to the west stretching for miles.

I will probably sleep for many hours.  At this point, it is quite an unusual experience to have uninterrupted sleep.  I have checked the weather forecast for Coyle, Oklahoma (the nearest town — very small).  The weather is predicted to be partly cloudy, in the low to mid 70’s during the day and the upper 50’s at night.  That would be hard to beat.

One treat that may or may not materialize is a visit with a very good friend who was a member of the congregation I served in the Oklahama City area.  As a physician attached to a University Hospital, his schedule might not allow us time to talk.  I ministered to him and his family as his wife battled terminal Cancer.  Actually, we ministered to one another as we dealt with the Parkinson’s at the same time.  We spent hours at Ingrid’s Deli early in the morning a couple of times a week processing our experiences.  We haven’t seen each other in over thirteen years.

Since there will be no computer access at St. Francis, there will be a few days break in the postings here.  The only electronics at the cottage will be the portable CD player I am taking along.  By the way, there is a fully equipped kitchen including a microwave and, gratefully, a coffee pot.  I will bring some of those frozen leftovers from the freezer.  Cereal, fruit and granola bars will fill out the meals.

As I have continued this series on a Caregiver’s Life Preservers, I am wondering what Mary Ann would consider to be her Life Preservers.  I am not sure our current capacity for communication will provide the answer to that wondering, but I may just ask anyway.

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Nine and a half hours each way, took me to the family reunion in Northern Illinois and back — one day driving, one day there, one day driving back.  There have been consequences to so much time driving.  I went by myself.  As the Reunion approached, Mary Ann’s increase in frequency and intensity of fainting spells made it seem pretty foolish to try to make a trip to Northern Illinois for the Reunion, then to Kentucky to spend time with the kids there, then back home to Kansas. 

Recognizing how much I wanted to see the family, Daughter Lisa and her family offered to come here and stay with Mary Ann while I drove to the Reunion.  They had a good time.  Son Micah and family came over to join them all at our house.  They had a mini-reunion of their own.  I missed out on it, but Mary Ann was the center of attention for the weekend — a wonderful treat for her.   

Actually she did very well.  Lisa reported that the nights went well.  The night I returned did not go so well.  When I said something about her behaving better at night for Lisa than for me, she simply observed that she knew me longer than Lisa.  She hasn’t lost her dry sense of humor. 

The time in Northern Illinios was well spent.  I arrived just in time for the Friday evening dinner celebrating two siblings and spouses’ fiftieth wedding anniversaries.  We noted that at this point the five siblings have logged 246 years of marriage between them (56, 50, 50, 4 7 and 43).  Add the years our parents were married (59) and the total grows to 305 years for six couples.  As one of the Sons-in-Law noted, that is a pretty good model for those who follow. 

In an album one sibling’s Daughter put together was a picture from our parent’s fiftieth wedding anniversary many years ago.  They were married in 1926.  I remember when looking at that picture of the whole family the first time I saw it in 1976.  Even though by then I was thirty-three years old (married with two children), it was the first time I realized that I was part of an extended family.  I am the youngest sibling by almost seven years.  I felt like an only child.  When I saw that picture, my whole perspective changed.  I became part of a family. 

We enjoyed our time together exchanging the same old family stories, laughing as if it was the first time we had heard them.   Saturday included another, less formal gathering and meal.  There was lots to be discovered about nieces and nephews, great nieces and nephews, great-grand nieces and nephews. 

Saturday also included time with one of Mary Ann’s Sisters-in-Law, renewing the connection with her family.   I would assess Mary Ann to be favorite Aunt Mary in that clan.  Two of her brothers are deceased and the third is estranged.  She has always felt close to her nieces and nephews. 

Later in the day, I got to spend time with one of Mary Ann’s lifelong friends and her husband.  Mary Ann is part of a foursome who became friends around the time they were in the Fifth Grade.  They have been fast friends since.  I, too, consider them (and spouses) to be friends.  However, when the four of them get-together, I head for the hills.  They immediately become four teen-aged girls, laughing uproariously. 

Everyone missed seeing Mary Ann, and I was disappointed for Mary Ann that she didn’t get to be there.  

When I returned Sunday evening, I was very tired, but basically fine.  As the day wore on yesterday (Monday), the consequence of all that driving emerged.  Apparently, some inflammation in my back was pushed over the edge by my return to the routine of assisting Mary Ann getting up and down. 

The pain is located right at the point that seems to serve as the fulcrum for my leveraging her up and down from a sitting position.  I do that many dozens of times in a day.  The level of pain reached a seven or eight on the ten point scale usually used by those assessing pain. 

The pain is problem enough.  What is more troublesome is the prospect of its not getting better, but rather getting worse, since Mary Ann’s need for my help does not diminish as my ability to help lessens. 

At the moment we are walking the line between being able to manage here and not being able to manage here.  Yesterday afternoon, without an appointment, I finally just stopped by the Chiropractor I go to when bone and joint pains come.  I prefer manipulation that targets the pain, to medications that impact the whole body systemically.  I am not averse to pain medications.  I just recognize their limitations and their side effects. 

Ice packs, Ibuprofen, and a second trip to the Chiropractor has brought the level of the pain down from its peak yesterday and this morning.   I have moved more slowly and carefully when helping Mary Ann  up and down, asking her to do more of the work in the process.  I have toyed with the idea of trying to call the church to see if I could get an older female teen or young adult who has pretty good upper body strength to work here at the house for a few hours each of the next couple of days at maybe $10 per hour, just to do the lifting part of the Caregiving task. 

My goal is to move away from the line we are now walking.  The other side of the that line appears to be far less workable than this side of the line.  In fact, it looks pretty frightening.   At the moment, we are in a precarious position, right on the line between doable and not doable.   

My impression is that the pain is lessening and healing is on its way.  Whether that impression will become a reality remains to be seen.  As always, we take one step at a time. 

I certainly celebrate a very comforting and positive relationship with my Brothers and Sisters and their Progeny.  The relationship with Mary Ann’s Sisters-in-Law and their families is also very meaningful.  The connection with Mary Ann’s “girlfriends” is one that is filled with love and laughter.  It is hard to feel down with so many good people who care and about whom we care.

If you want to write a comment about this or any of the posts on this blog, look to the column on the right side of this page, titled “Recent Posts,”  click on the name of a post and you will find a box at the end of that article in which you can write a comment.  Clicking on the title of the post you are reading will accomplish the same thing.  Comments are appreciated.