A “Right” of Passage

My mother leaned into me as we sat together, for what would be the last time, on the edge of her bed.
“How long will this take? She asked.
“Just give over to it” I responded.

Three days earlier we had been to the periodontist for a follow-up treatment for severe, persistent, and painful, gum disease. At the age of 96, my mother was in reasonable health and working on her third heart pacemaker. Only in the last month had she used a walker for support outside her condo. The periodontist took one look in her mouth and sent her across the hall to the dental surgeon, whom she had seen before. I was beside him when he looked in her mouth. Surprised and unthinking I asked:
“Is that a tumour?”
“Yes” he responded. “You need go directly to Sunnybrook Hospital. She needs immediate surgery.”
Stunned, we left his office. Back in the car, as we headed in the direction of both Sunnybrook and home, my mother said:
“I’m not having surgery. We are going home.”
Once there, we called her family doctor. She agreed palliative home care was in order. Mother was in pain and in her words “ready to go.”

Over the course of the next few days, family members took turns coming to say good-bye. She happily learned of a new great-grandchild she would never see. She died peacefully her own bed five days after the visit to the periodontist.

While I was not present at the moment of either of my parents’ deaths, I realize now what a gift it was to help care for them in their final years, months, and days. My father had died thirteen years earlier after a long decline with dementia.

My father had his first ‘mini’ stoke at age 81. It would take several years and further deterioration until he needed significant assistance and supervision. When my mother started to show signs of exhaustion from looking after him on her own, I determined to spend more time with my father. As he became more vulnerable, our roles reversed. I was offering care as he became more dependent and child-like.

The ‘head’ knowledge, that tells us that we are all part of the life-cycle that includes birth, growth, decline and death, became ‘heart’ knowledge. Numerous times as a nurse, chaplain, or congregational minister, I had offered pastoral care to individuals and families in similar circumstances; this was different. There is a time when we need to care for others, and a time when we need to graciously allow others to care for us. Will I be accepting of help when my turn comes?

My relationship with my father began to heal. I began to say “I love you.” He responded in kind. This was a new precious exchange from our hearts. I have read that as one looses their cognitive function, the feeling function becomes more acute. My father had been of the “stiff upper lip,” “spare the rod, spoil the child,” British heritage. In a tender moment, early in his decline, he acknowledged his regret at not showing his children more of the love he felt for us when we were young.

Some of my most significant moments with my dad happened in his final year. He was very limited mentally. All memory was almost gone. He often did not know his children, and confused me with my mother. He did not know where he was and needed full assistance with daily living. I took him weekly to a worship service at a local nursing home. Even when it appeared he had no idea where he was and had his eyes closed, he would sing the hymns from memory. This part of his life, which had been so meaningful and important, seemed to still nourish him and just watching him sing, nurtured me.

Four days before my father died, I preached on the lectionary text (Genesis 32:22-32) where Jacob is alone at night when a seeming adversary comes and wrestles with him in the darkness. That it occurs “in the darkness” is of great significance. It must have taken great strength and courage for Jacob to wrestle with this unknown nightmarish adversary throughout that long night – this was no ordinary mortal. At daybreak when his adversary wanted to break off the struggle, Jacob, not wanting to have gone through this agony for nothing, refused to let go until he found out what it meant – “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Jacob’s adversary, who seems to have been God, tells Jacob that he has a new name: Israel, which means, “a wrestler with God.”

My father’s growing dementia over the last years had been like an adversary in the dark. This Biblical story suggests to me that we can wrestle with the most disturbing things in life until they become a blessing. For me, it was important, like Jacob, to wrestle this difficult situation to a blessing. This is not to glamorize the struggle, but to engage it and to accept that in some way his dementia and declining health, were in some way for me an invitation to glimpse the divine presence.

A few days before he died, my dad who was barely responsive reached out both arms for my mother and said: “I Love you, I have always loved you.” Not only could I hear those words from my father as if spoken to me, I believe they are the words that our Creator speaks to each of us when we have ears to hear. They are the words that with grace, time, and humility, we hear after the long dark night.

Three nights after the funeral, I dreamt I was back in hospital with my dad, only the funeral was over. I put my face close to his and it was the face of my vibrant healthy father. He then got up and walked tall and healthy. It ended with him lying down and resting. I woke feeling an immense peace. I will always treasure the gifts and blessings that my father offered me in his decline and dying. I think now that the deaths of our parents serve as a passage into full adulthood.

Former CBC journalist Roy Bonnisteel of said this: “I have elderly people say they don’t want to be a burden to their family. I say: Be a burden to your family; we were put on this earth to be a burden to one another.” Maybe this is our final ‘rite of passage,’ to graciously accept the care we need, and to allow our adult children, if we are lucky enough to have them, the “right” to their learning through our passing.


Movements of the heart through Music

It’s 1967. I’m in first year university and have attended my first live concert at Alumni Hall at the University of Western Ontario, to hear a solo musician, Gordon Lightfoot,just Gord and his guitar. In the months that follow, every evening after dinner, with my now life-long friends Johanne and Carol, I sit on my bed and listen to Lightfoot. These words penned by Ewan McCall and made famous by Gordie are still in me:

The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes

And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave

To the dark and the empty skies my love

To the dark and the empty skies

My friends and I felt the longing. It reinforced the notion that to feel complete, we just needed to find “Mr. Right.”  At age 19, this was absolute truth.

My understanding — and I hope this is true for you — of a primary love relationship, has changed through experience over the years. I now understand that feeling of ‘longing-to-be-completed-by-another’ in a very different way.  Victor Hugo wrote, “what love begins can only be finished by God.”  At its best a loving relationship teaches us that there is a part of us that no other person can satisfy – a part that can only be satisfied by what we contemplate as the Divine.  Divine love transcends human limitations and ultimately is the only love that satisfies our deepest longing.  Music, it seems, is able to get right to the heart of this.

Twenty years ago as my uncle was dying, his family stood around his bed singing hymns. They sang him to what they all believed was his heavenly home. That experience left my cousin realizing that there is a need for music in health-care, to help people through challenging times. It led her to form “Music Care”, an idea that has developed into an education and support programme for caregivers, on how to use music with dying patients, as well as those living with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Music can touch our deepest longing for both human and divine connection.

Is this why some of us sing hymns in church?  It is possible the apostle Paul knew this when he wrote to the Church at Ephesus urging one of the earliest communities specifically identified as a ‘church’, to “sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts.” I don’t know about you, but music has a direct link to my heart in both joy and sorrow.  In the protestant tradition, hymns articulate theology – what we understand about God (which remains Divine Mystery) and the Christian story. As a spiritual practice hymns encourage an experience of God, the Divine Mystery.  Music as prayer, helps us move from our head to our heart, closer to a place of inner stillness.

One of my personal spiritual practices includes, for lack of a better word, a personal prayer playlist.  The list includes hymns that soaked into me in my childhood, such as The Day Thou Gavest Lord is Ended, along with several bits from the Fauré requiem. Also on this list is I’ll Be There written by Norman Nurmi:

When you can’t find your circle of light
And there’s nothing but darkness beside you
Turn away from the night
And look to the sunrise
Think of me and I’ll be there.

For me, those words are prayer, and I hear these words as if from the Divine.

I had a retreat director say to me once, “Say the word ‘God and God is here!”  Carl Jung, the eminent psychologist took it further when he wrote: “Bidden or not bidden, God is present.”

My father loved to sing hymns. He suffered from vascular dementia for the last eight years of his life. During that time, I discovered that a nursing home not far from his home had a Sunday afternoon worship service for the residents. I took him there often during his last years. Even when he could barely speak, didn’t know where he was, or remember anything, when the hymns were sung, he knew every word and would sing along. As he declined, sometimes he would sit through the entire service with his eyes closed and head back, as if he was asleep. One Sunday the minister referred to Fanny J. Crosby, an American hymn writer, who wrote the hymn All the Way my Saviour Leads Me, and many others. Even though my father showed no outward signs of awareness, I noticed a tear form in the corner of his eye and start to fall gently down his cheek. In his days as a lay-preacher, my father had often told the story of Crosby and her life of blindness.  Maybe it was her name or hearing again these words that touched a deep place in my father and brought tears to his eyes – I don’t know.  But seeing his tears definitely brought tears to mine.

Music can touch our deepest longing for both human and Divine connection.

According to John’s Gospel, near the end of his life Jesus prays for himself and for those he is leaving behind.  Will the prayers of music be on our lips or in our hearts as we each near our end?  How do you pray for others?  Perhaps in the music that remains with us when the singer is no more.

In Lightfoot’s own words from “Rich Man’s Spiritual”:

I’m gonna get me a smilin’ angel
Yes Lord to lead me home

And when he takes me by the hand

I know the Lord will understand

To paraphrase the famous words of Shakespeare:
“Good night sweet singer, may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest”

My prayer for each of us is that we will know deep in our being that we are loved by this Divine Love that will never let us go – and that individually, as did Gordon Lightfoot, and together, we will flourish offering our unique gifts to the world.

Prayer for Tree and Me

I’m having a bad day. While eating breakfast we hear voices coming from our back deck, which no-one can access except through the house. On investigating, we find a gentleman at the top of a ladder against our back wall. He is talking to someone about what large branches he is going to cut from a tree that gives us a generous amount of shade on our back patio.

“What! You can’t cut that tree. It’s a city tree.” My blood pressure has already gone up. I love trees; know we need more, not fewer, to help us save our planet. We definitely need them in the centre of a hot city, especially for shade on this deck.

The neighbour who lives behind is quickly on the spot. Because I’m already upset, my affect is confrontational. To his credit, (maybe), he tries to tone it down while telling us the city does not own the tree. He has permission to cut as much as he wants for more sunlight on his small back garden.

Not only did I loose the “fight,” but I add to the day’s upset by being upset at how quickly I got upset in the first place. Watching the first large branch come down doesn’t help.

When I finally get to my ‘prayer journal and meditation time’, there is much to record and reflect upon. Not the least of it is that I have lost valuable working time I had set aside to consider material for a conversation I will be having soon with someone making a podcast on the topic of prayer.

My journal gets my side of the story; what has and is still happening. I hear the saw as I write. I’m trying to calm down. I ask/pray for “help.” The situation “pushed my buttons” – those labelled “not being taken seriously” by some (self-appointed, male) authority; my concerns not being heard or considered — we need more trees, not less, especially in downtown Toronto; we need shade on our deck. I continue, “How am I an expert on prayer when I so easily fly off the handle. It just shows how much help I need to be my best self. Maybe a simple definition of prayer is a practice that helps me be my best self in the world.”

I recall the text: My grace is sufficient for you; for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) Does this mean that my “weaknesses” – over-reaction when my childhood wounds have been poked or someone challenges something I feel passionate about — is a way in which I am reminded that maybe I’m not in control, and when I turn for “help” to the one I sometimes call God; the Grace I receive is the gift. Almost 50 years ago I was involved with a charismatic Christian group who believed “speaking in tongues” was the ultimate God-given gift. Being “filled with the spirit”, I believed my life would finally be perfect, happy, whatever! The group prayed over me; nothing happened; At home, on my knees, I prayed for the “gift of tongues” through the night; nothing happened. I abandoned the group. I wanted a quick fix for the normal struggles of life.

Now I know there is no short-cut to a “spirit-filled” life – whatever that is! In our culture we seem to want easy answers. We want God, or someone, to fix what hurts or is broken. It didn’t happen for Jesus and it doesn’t happen for us. We have to descend into whatever is our personal hell (self-generated or otherwise) for re-birth or resurrection. Even this little tree incident which took me “down” had to be processed before I returned to an even keel. “Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6:34). I guess this is why we need “daily” prayer practice – and it is just that, a practice. But that it worked for me today, has before, and will again — that is Grace.

Facilitator, Educator, Counsellor, Artist