Photo Album Memories

This afternoon mom and I looked through her old photo albums.  She has about twenty large three ring binder style photo albums in her room.  When we decided what items to move with her to assisted living, my brother and I knew that the photo albums were a “must.”  She worked hard over the years to create the albums, and looking through them always gives her joy.

Today she turned the pages carefully as she always does.  She took her time and went picture by picture, commenting on the friends and family captured on film.  Only today… I noticed a change.  Several times, Mom got the names of those in the photo album wrong.  I am patient enough most days to know not to argue with her when she has forgotten something.  I may suggest a correction, but more often than not, I just roll with it.

First, she saw a photo of my aunt during the 1970s and she thought it was my cousin.  This made me sad but not too much.  It was sweet that she saw a family resemblance and made a connection even though she got the name wrong.  It happened several times, confusing generations but still realizing which branch of the family tree she was looking at.

Then there was a series of photos from a party my parents had attended when they lived in Augusta, Georgia in the early 1970s.  The people in the photo were friends of my dad’s from dental school (the series of photos comes just before his graduation photos.)  These people are strangers to me.  I’ve seen the photos many times, but I don’t think I ever even met these people (well, after age 3.)  Yet… mom insisted that one of the photos was my aunt.  For some reason, her inability to recognize that this was not a family member, that this was a stranger or someone she had known only briefly about 45 years ago, really bothered me.  I found myself pushing back, insisting, almost arguing.  I wonder why?

When I realized that I was upset, I paused, took a deep breath and talked to God.

“She doesn’t know a stranger from a close relative!” I cried out.

“So…?”  God answered.

“So, there’s a big difference!” I argued.

“Is there?”  God replied.

Sigh.  It’s true that mom had her facts wrong.  The woman in the photo is not my aunt.  But whoever she is, the woman in the photo is someone special.  She’s part of the human family tree, even if she’s not part of the Grimes or Walker family tree.  I see a stranger; mom sees family.

I thought of Jesus in a stressful situation, surrounded by a crowd, asking them, “Who is my mother?  Who is my brother?”  Family is such a gift, but Jesus reminds us that all our neighbors are gifted and valuable also.

So… pretty soon we put the photo album away.  I looked over at the staff person having a rough day with a challenging resident, and I tried to think of her as family.  It was easy!  I looked at mom’s neighbor sleeping in the recliner and thought of her as family.  No problem.  Then, later today, in the aisles of the grocery store… I saw strangers and prayed for them as though they were family.  Making small talk with the cashier, I recognized her as family.  Human family, brothers and sisters.  No barriers, nothing to separate us into categories where some are more important than others.

I guess mom was right.  The woman in that old 1970’s photo is family too.  Someday I’ll learn not to argue with mom!





Stand Up, UMC, and Walk!

There are only a couple of hours left in the 2019 Special Called Session of the General Conference of the UMC. I have live-streamed most of it. I am emotionally exhausted.

This morning I picked mom up from the assisted living home to drive her to the doctor’s office. I try to be present and attentive when we’re together. But this is General Conference. This is my Church. My Church is my family too. So I confess that I live-streamed the Conference on my phone as I made the 20 minute drive with mom to the doctor’s office.

As we went through the first major intersection in town, there was a very large tractor trailer making a turn. Mom always marvels at “big trucks” and worries about how they can safely make a turn, but today she was over the top. “I have never seen a truck that long! How in the world can it change direction? I’m so glad I’m not driving that truck!” I chuckled and said, “Mom, I’m glad you aren’t driving that truck!” Then immediately my mind went to General Conference. I’ve heard back stories about strategies that different groups had going into Conference. I wondered, “Who is driving General Conference?” I felt that bottomless twinge of hopelessness. Then I paused to realize what I actually believe. “No matter who is driving General Conference, I believe the Holy Spirit is driving the Church that nurtured me, that I made vows to serve and that I intend to continue serving.” I believe that. But I don’t know what’s about to happen when the “final vote” comes. Maybe there’s a giant turn ahead? Maybe the church I know becomes two (or ten) churches? Maybe “nothing” happens (which of course means all sorts of things are happening but they are complicated and don’t make good headlines or bumper stickers.) But surely, whatever happens, this isn’t the final word, the end of a journey.

Before my train of thought went much further, mom spoke again, “Have you heard from anyone at Pittman Park?” That was the church I grew up in. Mom asks me this several times a week. She thinks it would be neat if we could go back and visit and I could preach there. It warms my heart, but we did that very thing two years ago for her birthday, she just doesn’t remember. Before I can answer her, she says, “Going back to your home church is like going to a high school reunion… at least for me, because my high school friends were so special to me and our church is like that too.” I nodded because I was crying and didn’t want her to know. My Church is special to me like that: Pittman Park UMC, Trinity UMC, Monroe First UMC, Buchanan UMC, and Philadelphia UMC in Georgia… also, Duncan Memorial UMC, St. Paul’s UMC, Mt. Vernon UMC, Front Royal UMC, and Mt. Hope UMC in Virginia. My Church is special to me and I feel a huge burden right now… a burden that we have so much further to go to be faithful in embodying Christ with Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors.

Just as I’m finishing (in my thoughts) the list of churches I’ve served or called home, mom spoke again. “Look at that beautiful Crepe Myrtle,” she exclaimed. We had one of those in Cairo, right next to the house. It was so beautiful, but we had to keep it pruned. It was a lot of work to keep it pruned.” Deep sigh. Pruning… the Church… General Conference…

Then she asked, “Tell me again where we are going?” I answered, for probably the fifth time in 10 minutes, “We’re going to the doctor.” Oh how I wish I could ask God, “Where are we going?” and receive a clear, direct, precise answer about the UMC. But this is a journey not a transaction. My friend Lauren shared a reflection this morning on Numbers 21 when Israel had left Egypt but wasn’t yet in the Promised Land. It helped to hear her words. This is a journey. And it ain’t fun. And it ain’t easy. And it ain’t pretty. But I am determined to stay on this journey, to love my neighbor, to love my enemy, and to be whom God calls me to be.

“To the doctor?” mom asked. “Tell me more about him? How old is he? Is he single?” And I laughed out loud, through huge tears. I wasn’t sure if the tears were from my sadness and pain from the past three days of Conferencing or from the joyful, honest abandon that Mom now lives in. Oh, it felt good to laugh. Mom laughed too. “You’ve met him before, Mom. I don’t know if he’s single, but he’s a lot younger than me, just so you know!” Then she laughed too. And we laughed and laughed. And I cried as I laughed, but then we laughed some more.

I’m posting this before the final “vote” comes in. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next few hours. I am deeply concerned for my Church. But once again, mom helped me today. She reminded me that no matter what happens, I’m not driving the big, long, truck called the UMC. Neither is General Conference. Yeah, General Conference might affect the journey, might take us down a very wrong path, but ultimately, I trust that Someone greater is driving and will take us to our destination, even if we forget where we are going. She reminded me that we all need pruning. She reminded me that it’s ok to ask questions when we aren’t sure. And… she reminded me that it’s ok just to speak what’s on my mind and my heart.

By the way, the doctor’s appointment went really well. For the first time in two months, mom is allowed to put weight on her right foot. The physical therapist came today and spent extra time with her. She sent an incredibly positive text predicting good days ahead for mom. My prayer is that soon my Church will be up and walking again too. There is so much to do. Stand up, UMC, and walk!

Wonderful Words of Life

With mom in the wheelchair and still in a temporary “boot,” she isn’t supposed to put any weight on her foot.  That makes it hard to go out and about, transferring her from wheelchair to car and back, especially in the cold and rain.  So once again tonight, I grabbed the United Methodist hymnal and went to visit her in her space.

While others talked or watched TV, mom and I went over to the piano.  “What song would you like to hear?”  Her first request was Wonderful Words of Life. 

Sing them over again to me, wonderful words of life
Let me more of their beauty see, wonderful words of life
Words of life and beauty teach me faith and duty.

Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life
Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life.

Always in the first hymn I play, she starts to cry and miss my dad.  I’m prepared for that and comfort her.  Then we keep singing  Amazing Grace, Take Time to be Holy, Let us Break Bread Together.  Then she asks for it again:

Sing them over again to me, wonderful words of life
Let me more of their beauty see, wonderful words of life
Words of life and beauty teach me faith and duty.

Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life
Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life.

We’re in the middle of the hymn when Fran walks over.  Fran is another resident at the assisted living.  I work with her son, so I feel a special connection to Mrs. Fran and always enjoy visiting with her.  She talks a lot, but it’s worth noting that her many phonetic sounds rarely come together to create words you can follow.  You might even say that she’s talkative, but Fran is very hard to understand.

Because I’m playing piano, I don’t pause to speak to Fran in this moment.  But mom stops singing and they exchange words.  Fran hugs mom then walks away.  But mom, I notice, still isn’t singing.  Why?  Because she’s crying!

“Mom!  What’s wrong?!”

“I want to help that lady.  She’s so sweet, but I don’t know how to help her.  She needs something, I can tell.  We should take her out to a nice dinner or something.  I just want to help her…”

Fran has a loving family and to the best of my knowledge, her needs are well attended to.  But Fran’s confusion and muddled speech leave the impression with mom that something is really wrong.  I’m moved at mom’s tenderness and compassion.  “I just want to help her…”

Sing them over again to me, wonderful words of life
Let me more of their beauty see, wonderful words of life
Words of life and beauty teach me faith and duty.

Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life
Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life.

Beautiful words…

the lyrics of the hymn, written in 1874 by Philip Bliss…

the muddled jargon from Fran to mom…

the tearful generosity expressed by mom…

Beautiful words, all of them.

I pause to reflect at the end of a long day.  How many words did I speak today that were unkind, snarky, frustrated, egotistical, limited to my own perspective, hopeless…?  There were words I wouldn’t be proud to record here, no doubt.  Tomorrow, I’m going to try to be more like Mr. Bliss of 1874, more like Mrs. Fran, more like mom.

I found my inspiration at the assisted living home tonight.  Yeah, I found my inspiration in the kind of place that many people avoid, from the people that many others pity.  Perhaps you think that one’s days of creativity and possibility are over once dementia sets in and your independence is gone.  Not at all.  The more time I spend there, the more I learn and grow.  Tonight I found wonderful words of life.

May your day be filled with wonderful words of life also.


“I’m here!”

I’ve been spending more time at the Assisted Living home rather than taking mom out while her ankle heals.  Though I miss our adventures, I’m getting to know the other residents and the staff much better.  And that’s a good thing.  Each resident is unique, and it’s a gift to begin to recognize their gifts and graces.

This morning I was playing checkers with mom.  A lady I’ll call Maggie was sleeping in her wheelchair not far from us.  She woke up and looked at a staff person nearby.  Her tone was calm and inquisitive as she spoke, “Who am I?”

The staff person answered patiently, “You’re Maggie.”


“Well… OK… I’m here,” she replied sweetly with a smile.


We all grinned at the seemingly odd statement, and yet I felt tears fill my eyes.  I have felt ignored before.  I’ve felt taken for granted in the past.  But I’ve never felt so invisible that I forgot who I was.  I cannot imagine what that is like.

And yet… Maggie wasn’t upset.  Once she heard the affirming words (her name), she was empowered.  Like a school child answering the roll call, she announced, “I’m here!”  Maggie went from being lost and uncertain to being available and purposeful.  She has a name.  She has a place.  She IS.

Dear God, so many of us have forgotten who we are.  Remind of us of what you see in us, of who you created us to be.  Name us.  Call to us.  Remind us.  In the name of the One Who created us, Who saves us, and Who sustains us, Amen.


“What do people do…?”

Mom has a friend at the assisted living home.  I’ll call her Delores.  Like mom, Delores may have advanced dementia but she still speaks in sentences and can carry on a fairly long conversation.  Both are able to read social clues and sometimes joke or roll their eyes together about the zany things that happen around them.  The two of them are good friends, sharing a genuine warmth and friendship.  Delores worries about mom and her broken ankle.  Mom is wheelchair bound (temporarily we think) and sleeping a lot more (even during the day.)  It’s not just the injury, but something is different for mom right now.  Delores notices the change and talks about it each time I visit.

Tonight I brought my United Methodist Hymnal with me and invited mom and Delores over to the piano.  Oh, how the old hymns perked them up.  Delores was able to request several that she wanted to hear.  Mom couldn’t come up with hymn names but could sing along with at least the first verse if not more of every hymn I played.  Both smiled and swayed and clapped at the end of each song.

Mom got tearful wishing my dad were there to sing with us.  Delores got sentimental and thanked me for bringing back old memories.

I asked Delores if she grew up going to church.  “My mother was Methodist, so you better believe we never missed church,” she smiled and shook her head as she remembered.  I felt a twinge of sadness.  I’m not sure that’s what it means to be Methodist for most families today.

But then I felt my heart warmed (yes, this is part of being Methodist still today) when I said to them both, “I hope you enjoy these old hymns.”

“I’m enjoying them because you are here with me,” Mom smiled and said to Delores.

Delores was touched and speechless so I chimed in, “And I couldn’t play them for you both if you (I looked at mom) hadn’t paid for all those piano lessons I took.”

Mom look confused, “I did that?”

“Yeah, Mom.  Thanks for making this possible.”

Then we sang, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear.  What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer…”

Delores chimed in, “I don’t know what people do if they don’t know God.  How would you get through things?”

It’s hard sometimes knowing how to best support mom on this journey through her later years with dementia.  We second guess ourselves a lot.  We overthink even small decisions.  But tonight I am not second guessing anything.  I am filled with gratitude…. Grateful to know God (…even though I know I only am just beginning to know God and there’s much more to be discovered in this life and beyond.)  I’m grateful for Delores, who, like mom, is a transplant to this area and finds herself living among strangers who have become friends.  I’m grateful for the staff of Alpha House and all the other residents.  Who knew that even here, at this point in the journey, we’d be making new friends and growing closer to others and closer to God?

“Delores, I don’t know what people do if they don’t know God.  Let’s do all we can to be sure others meet God in us.  Ok?”  Yeah, Ok.

What makes a good pastor?

I was having a conversation recently about what makes a “good” pastor.  Is it good preaching?  Good administration?  Is it about pastoral care?  Is it knowledge of the Bible?  Is it about engaging young adults?  You know how these conversations go.  Too often, at least one party is looking for an angle to criticize a church leader.  But I realized something anew… there are a variety of gifts, of strengths important to “successful” pastoral leadership, but some “great” pastors have some gifts and not others.  Nevertheless, there is one quality that I think is essential:  a pastor must love her or his congregation.  No, it’s not a sappy or silly thing to say.  I’m talking not about a sweet emotion but about a commitment and a depth.  I’m talking about a passion that is as strong on rough days as on easy days, in Ordinary Time as much as on Easter morning.  I’m talking about the language of 1 Corinthians 13 (yes, that passage is about relationships within the body of Christ, not about romantic love.)   I believe a pastor must truly love her or his congregation in order to lead effectively.

This may seem like a tangent, but please bear with me:

Mom broke her ankle and has had two surgeries in the past month.  She spent most of that month either in the hospital or in a rehab center, not in the small, personal assisted living facility that she now calls home.  At the time, I recognized that things weren’t quite the same, but honestly I had no complaints about her care.  I expected when she lived in a much larger facility that there would be many more needs that the staff had to manage, and thus mom’s needs might not be addressed as urgently.  I expected that when someone is new in a large facility, their needs might not seem as urgent as the needs of a long-time resident with whom the staff has a stronger, deeper relationship.  But the staff in the rehab center were friendly and they seemed to care.  So honestly, it seemed like a pretty good situation even though it wasn’t perfect.

Mom didn’t seem herself, though.  She was quiet much of the time, disinterested in things around her.  But the day mom was discharged and I drove her back to the small facility she now calls home, I remembered.  These people know mom.  And though they aren’t family or longtime friends, there is something about deep familiarly, about knowing someone, that is very close to love.  They know mom so well, it’s like they love her.

I pushed the wheelchair (a temporary situation while her ankle heals) into the room and all the staff jumped up and came to great her.  Everyone was full of hugs and kind words.  Mom, who had been fairly quiet and withdrawn for weeks, sat up straighter, she smiled.  The next day when I arrived, mom looked different:  she looked fresh.  A staff person remarked, “Her hair clearly hadn’t been washed in weeks.  Someone just used that bottled stuff you don’t have to rinse out, but your mom loves to have her hair done.  So it took several of us, but we made sure she got her hair all clean and styled.”  It was that simple:  mom looked like mom because this group of people knew how she liked her hair done.  And honoring mom’s preferences led to mom’s contentment in ways that mom cannot even put words to.  She has only been back for four days, but in that short time, it’s been a huge transformation.  She is cheerful and chatty again, she wants to be a part of group activities.  To know someone and to care about their needs is to love them.

Pastor friends, love your congregation.  No, you don’t have to do their hair.  But talk to them, listen to them.  Discern what is most important to them.  Contemplate what is missing in their lives.  Name their priorities and see how they respond and then together look at those priorities and how they correlate with the Gospel.  Get to know them better and better, because only by knowing them you can better love them.  It’s not a job, it’s a calling.  Thank you to the CNA’s and other staff who helped me remember this truth during the past few days.



Finding the Church

Where I live there was an icy mix of snow overnight and throughout the day yesterday.  Churches all across our area cancelled Sunday worship for safety concerns.  In the middle of the day, the safest time I supposed for travel, I went to visit mom at the rehab center.  Since she broke her ankle a few weeks ago, she has been unable to stay in the home-like small assisted living community near my house.  Instead, she’s almost half an hour away in a much larger nursing home/rehab center.  The staff and environment there are nice, but it doesn’t compare to the place she now calls home.  So although things are going fairly well, mom is not as comfortable, not as relaxed, not as able to navigate her surroundings and her own schedule/needs nearly as well.  So I’ve been trying to be with her more, although the distance is farther and our calendar has been full throughout the holiday season.

When I arrived yesterday, there were fewer visitors than usual due to icy roads and sidewalks.  I learned that the early morning church service on site had been cancelled because the volunteers who lead it had been unable to come.  Mom had already had PT and OT and it was only 1:00 p.m.  There was only one other thing on the schedule for the afternoon:  another church service led by visitors/volunteers.  Of course they wouldn’t be coming out in the snow for this, I assumed.  When you cancel your “own” church service, would you go out for a church service in a facility where only a small fraction of the residents had any idea what was actually going on?  That’s not practical.

So, how would we fill the afternoon?  I pushed mom’s wheelchair around and around the hallways.  I tried playing dominoes with her.  We tried watching TV.  We tried reading the newspaper.  Nothing interested her or held her attention more than a couple of minutes.  So we went to the front lobby where I could get a cup of coffee.  Three people came in and sat down.  They were nicely dressed, so I assumed it was a family member’s birthday or a similar special occasion.  Then I heard them talking.  They were waiting in the lobby for others:  for the one who would preach and for the others who would sing and for others too who were coming just to worship together with them.  Mom overheard them:  “Is there going to be a church service?” she asked them.  Yes, yes there was going to be. “Oh good, I’ll look forward to that,” mom lifted her arms like a cheerleader might do.

At this point, not only was I emotionally fatigued, but I needed to get home and check on my children.  I had work- and home-related chores to complete.  I was ready to leave but was feeling like I should stay.  The promise of the church service… the community, the hope, the Word, the presence… it changed everything.

Mom didn’t know the people leading the service.  She didn’t know their denomination or their style of worship.  It didn’t matter.  It was the Body of Christ.  These members of the Body who came to lead were not trying to “grow their business” or even grow their church.  Those leading the service were also not coming to be “on stage,” to grow in popularity or to boost the likes on their ministry social media.  So what were they coming to do?  They were coming to meet with people:  many of whom can’t speak in sentences, some of whom have a faint odor of urine, most moving slowly with aid from a walker, wheelchair, or cane; They were coming to meet with people:  all beautiful, valuable children of God.  These members of the Body of Christ drove on snowy roads and walked on icy sidewalks in order to do one thing:  to be present together in worship of God.  They won’t collect an offering.  They won’t gain new members.  They aren’t from my denomination so they don’t even get to enter their “numbers” in that online system we use.  But their presence was sacramental today to me… to my mother… and to many of the residents and staff at the nursing home/rehab center.  This is what it means to be the Body of Christ.  Those worship leaders love and value the people they came to lead in worship.

I read an article yesterday by a person who has given up on the Church.  Her words were honest and accurate about her experience and her pain.  I read it in the morning, and I thought about it all day long.  I can’t in good conscience tell the author that she must return to the Church in order to be connected to God.  And yet, I can’t in good conscience believe we can be fully Christian in isolation.  We are part of the Body of Christ.  And when we come together to celebrate and to worship, to serve and to study, we not only remember (a thought process) Jesus, but we re-member (a creative reality) Jesus.  If the church were merely a social club, a networking group, etc., then it’s true:  we wouldn’t need it.  But… if what I have been taught and what I have experienced is true, then we do need the Church.  And we, the Church, need to wake up and wake up fast.  We must address and change our injustices.  We must live as though we are the Body of Christ and not just a place to “plug in” for service or fellowship opportunities.  We need to be more like the group that visits the nursing home weekly and less like the culturally defined “successful” Christians out there.  We need to be more like Jesus.

I wish the author of the article (a stranger to me, someone from another city and state most likely) could have been there yesterday.  I think she could be at home in the Church as we experienced it.  I’m praying for her, that she find the Church somewhere, somehow.  And I’m praying for the Church, that we find anew what it means to truly be the Church, to be the Body of Christ.






The Nativity at the Dead End

I don’t often drive down that road.  It’s a dead end, and everyone in our small town knows it’s a dead end.  Just a few small houses line the streets.  But this week my daughter had a pet sitting job on this quiet dead end street.  So twice a day for several days, I’ve driven her there.

I noticed a very elaborate, beautiful, illuminated Nativity scene in the front yard of the last house on the dead end street.  Ignorantly, I said aloud to my daughter, “Who would go to so much trouble to set that up if you lived at the end of a dead end street?!  Who is going to see it?  That’s a lot of work.”

I heard the callous, consumer-mentality in my tone, and I paused.

  • How many things do I do for mom knowing she won’t remember in five minutes?  And yet, I continue to do those things.
  • How many times have I done something for a student or a church member knowing there wouldn’t be any “credit” given, any “points” won.  And yet, I feel called to say or do those things and draw deep meaning from those experiences.
  • How many times has someone done a kind thing for me without any public fanfare or “credit” (I can name seven or eight this week alone!)

Measuring the value of something by the number of people in attendance or the number of “likes” or “clicks” it gets is how we are conditioned to think.  But that’s not how God works.  Consider the original Christmas morning:  Mary and Joseph alone in a stable, the smell and sound of animals around them, the uncertainty of being away from home during such a tender time.   God could have orchestrated the birth of the Christ child with much more fanfare, but that’s not how it happened.  The entire life and death and resurrection of Jesus could have been a lot more glamorous, but that would have only distracted us from the truth of the Gospel.

The person or people who live in the house at the end of the dead end street set out a beautiful, elaborate Nativity.  Even though it’s a small street, there are more people coming and going from the homes there than would have witnessed the original Christmas morning.  But even if not a lot of people see it, maybe there’s a child on that street who has never heard the Christmas story.  She or he will see it and ask someone what it means.  Maybe there’s a widow or widower on the street who is feeling sad or lonely during this festive season, and they will be comforted by it.  Maybe someone will be lost and take a wrong turn and end up at the dead end all frustrated… and they will see the Nativity and be reminded of One whose love and patience and grace and hope is greater than ours.  Maybe even a tired, middle-aged preacher will see it and will hear herself say something ignorant, and then pause… and think… and listen… and find Jesus anew.

I’m glad the person or people in the house at the dead end set out their Nativity.  It may be the most inspirational thing I’ve experienced this Christmas season.  Perhaps we can all reflect what we “put out” when we are living at a dead end.  Maybe dead ends are perfect places to share inspiration.

We made a scene at church today…

We made a scene at church today.  It was such a festive, light-hearted day.  Both kids were in the Christmas pageant.  A friend played trumpet, making our wonderful music even more inspirational.  We sang beloved Advent/Christmas carols.  There was a dessert social prior to the service.  Days like today aren’t when I expect or predict “a scene.”

Two-thirds of the way through the service we have “The Passing of the Peace.”  In our congregation this means about half of those in attendance are appropriately liturgical and turn to those sitting nearby saying, “The peace of Christ be with you” then wait for their neighbor to respond, “And also with you.”  The other half of the congregation scurries around and offers fist-bumps asking, “How’s it going?”  Despite the diversity of how each person “passes the peace,” it’s a part of the service I enjoy.

Today, mom and I stood up to pass the peace to our neighbors.  I hadn’t gone far from her, but I was turned facing the opposite direction, greeting folks I hadn’t seen in a while.  Then I turned back toward mom to notice she was bawling.  She wasn’t merely tearful, she was falling apart.  “Mom, what happened?  What’s wrong?!”  Gasping for air through her sobs, she muttered, “I just wish your dad were here to see this, to see you and all this.”  By “all this” I think she meant the grandchildren, the Christmas pageant, the church, the community we are a part of.

Realizing that she wasn’t crying due to a hallucination or false idea but rather because she genuinely, powerfully was grieving my father’s absence and wishing he were with us, tears began to fill my eyes too.  Mom leaned over into the open embrace of a kind gentleman who put his arms around her and accepted her just as she was.  I tried to gather myself, but realized that the more mom cried, the more I was going to cry.  So as the congregation returned to their seats, she and I made our way out the back doors of the sanctuary.

My dad died young, he was only 44 years old and his death rocked our family and our community.  But that was 26 and a half years ago.  Do I miss him?  Yes!  Do I think about him and how he shaped who I am?  Yes!  But I confess at this point (more than half my life), I rarely shed a tear when I remember Dad.

It breaks my heart that of all the things that could fill mom’s thoughts, dad’s death is the thing she dwells upon.  Perhaps trauma marks the brain in a way that beautiful surprises don’t, and thus the traumatic memories remain even when the happy recollections begin to fade.  Part of me wants to dwell on the downside of things right here as I reflect on today’s meltdown.  I want to curse the way our brains work.  I want to change how mom thinks and what she focuses upon.  I want to erase the pain… hers and mine… and never re-live it again.

But I don’t have dementia yet.  I’m not stuck where my brain takes me.  I can look at more than one side of a situation.  I can step back and reflect.  I can seek peace and meaning beyond the obvious.  And so while I still can, I must.

Here goes:  Mom’s breakdown today could also be seen as a gift.  She recognized that we were in the midst of something (a powerful worship experience) surrounded by a strong and supportive community (where it’s safe to be yourself and to let your full emotions flow.)  She wasn’t just missing dad because she was missing dad… she was missing dad because she was present with people and in a place/experience that moved her.  It was the kind of thing she wanted to have shared with him.  Do we dwell on his absence or on the richness of a moment so special that it called to mind the person she loved most?  I will dwell on my gratitude that mom experienced a very special Sunday worship service.  My heart is filled with thanksgiving for the people, for the Spirit, for the Divine and human community we enjoy.

Mom and I slipped out of the service and didn’t go back into the sanctuary.  We found a box of tissues, found the leftover desserts and punch from the morning reception, found members volunteering in several capacities who stopped and spoke with us.  A few treats and “hellos” and before you know it, the tears were all gone.  We were back to enjoying the special Advent season and the special people we call our church.

I know her tears didn’t feel like “a gift” to mom this morning.  Fortunately, no doubt, she has long forgotten the tears since she has forgotten what day it is and where we were and what happened while we were there.  But I can stand back, I can feel the pain, but I can also be thankful.  I’m thankful that I was born to a father so amazing that his absence still stirs tears, stories, smiles, and laughter.  I’m thankful that although mom has forgotten many, many things, she hasn’t forgotten the love of her life.  I’m thankful that I have found a community so loving and accepting that mom and I can spill our tears in the midst of a celebration and still be embraced and accepted.  I am thankful…

I hope it’s a long time before we make a scene at church again.  But, at least in this moment, I’m grateful… Grateful for a safe place to be ourselves, for such a place is one where we can truly find hope for this challenging journey we are on.


“You Are What You Eat” ??



“You Are What You Eat.” 

I don’t know where I first heard this saying, but it’s deeply ingrained in my thinking.  I grew up on a farm where we grew our own corn, green beans, butter beans, squash, tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, peaches, apples, blueberries, blackberries, plums, figs, pecans and more.  We made our own sauces, fruit preserves, and even got honey from the beehives and beef from the cattle.  “You are what you eat” began as a call to eat healthful, homegrown foods.

After Grandma Grimes passed away, I realized there were foods she prepared that I would never taste again.  Her homemade Brunswick stew and cornbread (aka Johnycakes) were unlike any I’ve enjoyed since her passing.  What she served was unique to her kitchen.  I was her grandchild, I am what I ate, and it’s unique to our family.

There were certain foods mom has always loved.  When Chick-fil-a was a new enterprise, mostly only in malls in the deep south, I feel sure that we drove to Savannah sometimes (almost an hour away) not only to shop but mainly so that mom could get a Chick-fil-a sandwich.  Then she discovered their carrot slaw and brownie ala mode (both now discontinued.)  These were not favorite foods for a season, but this was what mom always wanted.  A few years ago, I remember hearing from my brother that during visits to the mall in Atlanta, she was choosing a fast food hamburger over Chick-fil-a.  It was hard to believe, but it was consistent and it continues.

Mom also has a real sweet tooth and introduces herself to people as a “choco-holic.”  It’s true, she loves chocolate.  And through the first ten years or so of mom’s journey with dementia, she was always up for a Dairy Queen drive-thru.  Recently that has changed.  Almost every time I take her out, I ask… “How about we swing through the Arby’s drive-thru for a milkshake?” or “How about we run by the house and grab a brownie?”  Invariably she responds, “Only if you want one, I’m really not hungry.”  Who is this and what did she do with my mother? 

Mom has always been so consistent regarding her food choices that it’s hard to adapt to her new preferences.  “You are what you eat.”  But now she doesn’t want what she was always wanted.  Her signature foods are untouched.  It’s like she’s a different person.  I find myself getting frustrated and wanting to tell her what she should want.  I go through a drive thru and buy her a hot fudge Sundae and she doesn’t finish it.

This is one of the greatest challenges when a loved one has dementia:  Certain traits remain, even if they only occasionally show themselves, but other traits (like mom’s food preferences) seem to be gone for good.  And yet our loved one is still here, still present… just so… very… different.

For now, I’m putting away the wise old sayings.  Human wisdom fails where dementia is concerned.  I’m going to shorten the proverb “You are what you eat” to simply “you are.”  It’s a hard adjustment, but mom is still here.  She still laughs, she still tells stories, she even still enjoys food (even if I can’t predict what foods she will enjoy!)  I can’t make sense of it and I’m certainly not going to argue with her about what she should like or dislike.  I’m just thankful that the “You are…” part of “You are what you eat” is still true for us.  It’s a challenge some days.  It’s painful some days.  But there’s still a lot of beauty and joy.

“’You are…’ is enough, Mom.  I’m glad you’re still with us.