Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Beautiful Send-off

Lots has transpired since last writing. The flow of winter to spring, with an unusually warm period, has the flowers blooming way ahead of time.

During this time, my grandmother began her final passage. She began refusing food and drink - if you count droppers of water as drinking over the past few months - in earnest about two weeks ago. Her children met with the hospice social worker to discuss the changes taking place and to prepare for the next stage. My sister, a home health aide, would be taking care of my grandmother in her final days.

It has been over ten years since Grandma's stroke that rendered her with the need for almost total care since then. Once she used up her rehab period through Medicare, she was sent home, where she wanted to be.

Pap and her uncle built the stone house they called home for the past 60 years by themselves back in the 1950's on a plot of land that she had lived on as a toddler. My grandmother furnished and decorated that home - inside and out. She loved flowers and had several flower beds that she tended over the decades. Her colors were pale pinks, mauves and fern green.

Grandma died around noon on Sunday March 18, 2012, peacefully, as she slept her way through the last week. Winter was just ending.

It's amazing that she died when there was so much warmth and color on the day of her passing. The temperature outside was in the upper 60's and the flowers were radiating their colorful faces towards the sun. What a resplendent send-off.

She was buried on March 21, the day after spring officially started in the Northern hemisphere. This was one funeral with lots of flowers. In this day and age, most people want their legacy to continue through donations to a church, non-profit or cause. In this case, because of her love for flowers, flowers were everywhere in the funeral home.

She would have loved every one of them.

Grandma, wherever you are, I see your spirit in every flower that blooms and sends its scent on the air. You were my last grandparent to pass over to the other side. I am relieved that you are no longer suffering, and are free to sing and laugh surrounded by beauty.

Monday, March 12, 2012


It's a good thing to have a teacher.

In this case, I am very lucky to have a skilled teacher (she asked not to be named) serve as my meditation guide. She started the meditation group (sangha) that I sit with. When she moved out of the area, she maintained her deep roots to this group.

We talk by phone, when we can, as she listens to me describe the quality of my meditation practice and how it is being lived in my daily life. Yesterday was such a day.

Talking with her, I described how I wasn't sitting (as in sitting meditation) regularly since getting Finn-the-dog. Life has been busy since Father-in-law's illness. I explained how walking Finn was my meditation practice. I even talked about how other meditation teachers talked about walking meditation and doggy dharma as part of their practice.

She asked how my walk with Finn was experienced as meditation. I talked about how I'm his set of eyes outside since he has low vision and that I need to watch for sticker bushes since he could damage his eyes further if he walks into them. I tell her that I feel the tug on the leash which snaps me into awareness. Having Finn MacCool gets me outside and out of my bubble of going from house to car to store or work and back. I feel invigorated when a cool breeze blows across my skin or hear the birds singing and soak in the sun's rays.

She sounded encouraging and said this offered a mindful approach. And ever so tenderly, she reminded me how important the practice of sitting on that meditation cushion really is.

I would like to share what my teacher sweetly said. Watch how she gently shifts the focus while remaining positive.

1. It all counts, mindfulness is a 24/7 practice.

2. Awareness slowly shifts over time, so keep at it.

3. It isn't necessary to make meditation "count" by walking the dog. It is what it is. You can bring mindfulness to it.

4. She would not call taking Finn for a walk as walking meditation; walking meditation is a formal practice, is very focused, and is concentrated on the practice with the body.

5. An intentional meditation practice cultivates the conditions for off the cushion (the other 23 1/2 hours in a day) mindfulness and lovingkindness, including time with Finn.

6. She's been reading Sylvia Boorstein's book called, Pay Attention for Goodness' Sake with her meditation group. Perhaps that would be useful as a way of learning the paramita's or virtues for the path to enlightenment or joy.

Near the end of our conversation, my teacher said she often thinks of me and sends metta (lovingkindness) my way. Thank you.

In the great spiritual tradition, I send metta to her. May she live a long and happy life. And, may you be happy, healthy and whole, too.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

He's coming home!

He's getting ready to go back home - my father-in-law, that is. After almost two months of hospitalization and rehabilitation, he's ready to step foot in his own home.

My father-in-law is something of a miracle man in my book. After all that he'd been through, I was ready to say goodbye to him in January. I told my partner that I wouldn't have put a two-cent bet on his life. So many things were working against him.

After abdominal surgery to remove a cancerous tumor, and a whole host of problems afterwards including hiccups that delayed recovery, septic shock, and then shingles, I'm surprised he's living at all.

Then there is this business of his attitude towards the surgery and likely cancerous tumor. He consistently said that he didn't want the surgery - before and after the surgery. In my counseling training, I learned that our thoughts can be critical to recovery.

These were just the problems that took place during the first month when he was hospitalized.

Then he was moved to a nursing home that had available space. This was not his first choice by any means.

Welcome to our patchwork-of-services healthcare system where you really don't get a choice unless you are uber wealthy and have access to the ritzy long-term care communities. In that case, they will hold a bed for you. No, he pretty much has the standard Medicare insurance (as much as he bitches about the government and watches Fox News) and possibly a supplemental policy to help pay his co-pays and deductibles.

Once he was moved to the local nursing home for rehab, things didn't really settle down. After the move late in the day on a Monday, the family returned the next morning. His wife found him moaning in pain.

Now this is a farmer who could suffer pain silently and did so in the hospital, so something was up. He thought he'd been dropped on his bed when moved with a hoyer lift (a sling with a hydraulic lift used to move people who can't transfer from a bed to stand or sit on their own). His shoulder was killing him.

My mother-in-law was beside herself with anguish. Something was wrong. This wasn't like him.

After much ado, it became clear to me that whatever had happened, his thinking wasn't very clear. That didn't mean that he wasn't in pain or hadn't had a hard landing, though. My first thought was that he had a urinary tract infection (UTI).

The problem was that staff assumed that this was his normal behavior (weak, confused, no appetite) and didn't get that this was something to pay attention to. (Read: this is why it is important for families to be involved - only you know your loved-one well enough to know what seems in line with their normal behavior.)

UTI's are fairly common in older adults and particularly those with urinary catheters. His was still in at the time. Yes, he was still on antibiotics. But after testing, the results came back the next day that he had a UTI. So he got another antibiotic to address this strain of infection.

He complained that the night shift sounded like they were partying all night in the facility. Rest was tough to come by.

A long-term care ombudsman was involved in working with the family to find another place. A few days later, one was found that met with the family's approval.

After several weeks of watching this tough and, yet, ever so fragile man struggle with one thing after another, he was moved to the other nursing home for rehabilitation.

Everyone was holding their breath. Would this nursing home be okay or would we be in for more in a series of aftershocks that kept rolling since his cancer shook our world?

It was a good sign when everyone reconvened in father-in-law's room the next day and talked about getting their first good night of sleep in over a month. A collective exhale was felt across the family tree.

Even better has been his progress in doing the repetitious exercises that are strengthening him in targeted ways. After worrying about how his Parkinson's might be made worse from weeks in bed and the infections he kept having to fight, his family now believes that he is stronger and steadier than he has been since before the surgery.

On a physical level, this has been quite a ride. Yet there is something more to add.

The rest of this story is about a mysterious bond called love. His wife and sons participated in daily vigils watching over and attending to their beloved husband and father.

The sons talked about how he had never had the time to really be present to them emotionally while growing up on the farm. If he hadn't been present to them throughout much of their lives emotionally, they were certainly present to him.

His wife of 10 years has her own daughter with whom she is close. The sons and she never really had to deepen their relationships. Not that they weren't cordial. This crisis created an opportunity to knit this family together with him at the center and in ways that seems to be moving them along.

Finally, there was the circle of love in the form of various prayer groups praying for his healing. I've always heard the saying about "God works in mysterious ways." With so many people praying for him and the family, I'm in awe of the outcome in this situation. In fact, I am humbled.

Who would have thought he would have lived through all of this and that he would have come through this stronger? Amazing.