Canes and Pacifiers
I am sitting beside Mary’s bed. Her breathing is shallow. Her face has lost flesh and appears old and wrinkled. Her eyes are no longer sparkling and twinkling. They have lost their light, as described by Kristin. Her brow is furrowed and I wonder if she is suffering. Earlier, the hospice nurse gently rubbed her fingers across the lines on her forehead, leaned in close and whispered in her ear…something only Mary heard. I know it was words of love and comfort. But the worried expression still remains.
It is 1 am and her breathing is at times shallow and then changes to a more rapid, noisy sound. She is not leaving this world gently. She loved life and always has had a fierce determination to live. And this journey of dying is taking some time. The family gathers and eats together every day. Comfort food like mac & cheese is the menu. Sharing memories and laughter is all a part of the grieving process. Grandchildren gather around her bed, hold her hand, whisper, “I love you”, and try to calm her when she is agitated. We volunteer to hold a vigil, 24/7. Today, this hour, is my time.
My mind wanders and I begin reflecting on the past year and a half. I recall a Sunday school class where we talked about God’s call on our lives. One of the scriptures was from first Samuel chapter 3. This is the familiar story of Samuel hearing someone gently calling him in the middle of the night and his surprise realization that it was not the old man, Eli, but God. The story of Eli and Samuel is prefaced by this sentence…”Now in those days messages from the Lord were very rare, and visions were quite uncommon.” If messages were uncommon in those days, boy, are they ever nonexistent today! But, Samuel heard an audible voice. Our discussion that Sunday morning was focused around the question of how we discern God’s call on our lives and his purpose for us. I pondered this quote that was also shared. “The place God calls you to, is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” – Frederick Buechner.
What was my passion or deep gladness and who was the world? I was recently retired and felt adrift without knowing what I was to do next. It was pretty obvious what my purpose and call was up to that point. I was a mother to my children and also involved in a full-time job in the healthcare field. I always felt I was where God had placed me. Now, it seemed my life revolved around cleaning my house, cooking, reading books and basically self-centered activities. Why couldn’t I have an obvious call in the middle of the night, visual or audible? Do I just take a step of faith as I had done at times in the past? Do I wait until God opens/closes a door (whatever that means) and that is my answer?
Shortly after that, I found myself taking Mary, my mother-in-law to some doctor appointments. Her health was gradually failing. She was experiencing more issues with mobility. The arthritis in her knees had all but destroyed the cartilage but because of her heart condition, surgery was not an option. She also was experiencing some swelling in her legs, increasingly becoming short of breath on exertion, and then she developed a bad arrhythmia.
One day, we were at the cardiologist and I told her to wait and I would bring the car up under the portico so she did not have to walk as far. I got out of the car and assisted her into the passenger seat. As I walked around the back of the car to get in to the driver’s seat, I reached into my pocket searching for the keys. I pulled out Bekah’s binky. I looked down and on my other arm was Mary’s cane. The irony of it gave me pause. Cane on one arm, pacifier in the opposite hand. I was truly an example of the sandwich generation.
One day I was watching my grandchildren, feeding them, changing their clothes and diapers, rocking them to sleep, reading bedtime stories, bathing them, and all the time trying to give their parents a break. And, then the next day, I was chauffeuring Mary to doctor appointments, picking up prescriptions, driving her to the hairdresser, taking her to church, doing her grocery shopping and some meal prep, filling her med box, calling for updates on her Coumadin dosage, admitting and discharging her from the hospital four times in eight months, assisting her in navigating the medical system, and generally, being a healthcare advocate for her. Hmmm! Was this God’s calling on my life? Had I found a purpose in my retirement years?
I hadn’t heard the quiet, “Marlene” in the middle of the night and I never responded by saying, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” I was just there doing and being in a place where I suppose God wanted me. It was not spectacular service. I would not be the subject of a biography. Nor would I win a Nobel Prize. My service was only what anyone else would do, given the same situation. But I knew I was in God’s will, being the hands and feet of Jesus. I was given strength, patience and a deep sense of God’s presence and peace. It was never a heavy but rather a joy that I could be there…when and where I was needed. Mother Teresa once said and I quote, “Do not think that love, in order to be genuine, has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired.” That is my prayer today and always. God’s will is always perfect!
-Written by Marlene Kilheffer