Friday, May 13, 2011

Not these clothes, not this soon

My mother-in-law, Dorothy Lillian Gandell, died on April 9, 2011. She had celebrated her 96th birthday at the end of March and had told people that she was ready to go be with the Lord. She had a massive stroke on the evening of March 30. On March 31, my sister-in-law Ruthie (pic of me and Ruthie here) began to reschedule her patients (she’s a psychiatrist) and went from her home in Evanston to Eureka, IL to be with her mother.

Now technically, Dorothy was Ruthie’s stepmother. Her mother, Clara Gandell, had died shortly after giving birth to my husband, David. Ruth was six and a half when her birth mother died and was put into foster care for almost two years until her father married Dorothy. But Dorothy was Mom to both Ruthie and David. And she was Grandma to Ruthie’s two sons, David’s two children by a previous marriage, and the two daughters that David and I have.

Dorothy had had an advance directive on her health care. She was clear that she wanted no intervention other than palliative care. Her wishes were respected. But I couldn’t stand the idea of Ruthie keeping vigil by her mother’s death bed by herself and wanted to go be with her and provide whatever support I could. As I was packing my suitcase and trying to figure out about what I should pack and what clothes I would probably be wearing to my mother in law’s funeral, I was awash with memories about packing to go home when my own mother was dying. It was tough.

I ended up going to Eureka on Tuesday, April 3. Ruthie told me that she was glad I came and it was good for me to be there. I was touched at how gentle Ruthie was with Dorothy. She would stroke her hair, kiss her cheeks, rub lotion on her arms and legs and feet. She and I would sing to Dorothy and I would read passages from the Bible. Dorothy was Apostolic Christian, I’m an Episcopal priest, and Ruthie is a Reconstructionist Jew. We made for quite the ecumenical gathering.

Dorothy lived for eight days with no food or water. It was incredibly difficult. But during that time, Ruthie and I had some precious conversations. I don’t remember all the content but I remember feeling very close to her because we were sharing a sacred experience. In the end, Dorothy lived until David arrived with our daughters. They flew in on Saturday, April 9 at 12:30 p.m. and Dorothy died at 2:06. She died peacefully, with David and Ruthie on either side of her and her favorite nephew and his wife singing in the background. It was exactly as it should have been.

Ruthie was scheduled for an aortic valve replacement soon after Dorothy died and decided to postpone her surgery for a couple of days so that she could make sure her patients were covered during her recovery. That was the plan. Ruthie would have her surgery, she would recover, and she would go back to work.

But that’s not what happened. Ruthie had her surgery on May 3. She was transferred to a regular patient room on May 5. Early in the morning of May 6, 2011, Ruthie went into cardiac rest. And even though the medical team was able to restart her heart, there was a period of time when her brain was without oxygen.

I was at a meeting in Cleveland when this happened and got the information via a text message from my husband. He was devastated. The idea that he could lose his mother and his sister in a month was unfathomable. So we prayed for a miracle. My meeting was going to finish early Sunday, so we decided that he’d stay with our kids until he got a call from either my brother in law or our nephews asking him to come to Evanston.

That call came on Sunday morning. David booked his flight and left Sunday afternoon. I arrived back home late Sunday night. David called me a little after noon on Monday and told me he needed me. The decision was going to have to be made to take Ruthie off of life support and he couldn’t do it without me being there with him. I got out the same suitcase I had unpacked earlier that morning and went into my closet. Since I’m a priest, I’m used to wearing clerics. I don’t often attend funerals as a family member and I have one appropriate black outfit to wear. All I could think of as I packed was “Not these clothes. Not this soon. God help us.” I arrived Monday afternoon. On Tuesday morning, the neurology team did a repeat EEG to see if there were any changes from the EEG they did Friday morning. There weren't. On Wednesday morning they did a repeat CT scan. No changes. Cardiac surgeon, neurologist, intensivist and palliative care doctors were unanimous in their prognosis. The Ruthie that we had known was not going to come back because the part of the brain that made her Ruthie was dead.

On Wednesday afternoon, Leo, Ruthie’s husband, Myles and Michael, her sons, David, Rabbi Rosen and the Cantor gathered with me around Ruthie’s bed. I said the prayers at the time of death and anointed Ruthie. We recited the twenty third Psalm. Her wonderful Rabbi and the Cantor from the Synagogue said their prayers and sang in Hebrew. And then the nurse removed her breathing tube. We stood around her bed and told her we loved her and cried and stroked her head and hands and feet. But Ruthie’s body continued to breathe. Part of her wasn't ready to die.

On Thursday we moved to the palliative care unit. We have discontinued everything except medicine for pain control. The palliative care unit is good. There are “family lounges” where small groups of us can hang out while others are visiting in Ruthie’s room. The staff is trained well. And we’re learning, too. When they ask us if they can close the door “to respect another patient’s privacy” we know that someone else has died and they need to wheel out the body.

We have already met with the funeral director and we picked out the coolest casket! When Ruthie and I were at her mom’s deathbed, we were discussing funerals and one of her mom’s nieces told us about “green funerals” where the caskets are made of sustainable materials and the vaults are bottomless so that the body can truly return to the earth. Ruthie said that she was going to request that some day. I never imagined that day would come so soon. We picked out a wicker casket but it really looks more like a basket. Ruthie is only 4 ft 6 inches tall. Once they dress her in the muslin shroud and put her in that basket, she’s going to look like Baby Moses. Or so we joked.

It’s now Friday evening. Shabbat Shalom. Many family friends have come to visit and bring us food. Other family members are flying in tonight and tomorrow morning. We take turns at her bedside. We tell funny stories. We cry. We laugh. We make jokes about zombies and vegetables. We play music we know she loved. We play music we know we love. Sometimes we dance a little. It’s hard to believe that Ruthie is in a place we can’t reach. So we tell ourselves that maybe there is part of her that does hear. Maybe there’s part of her that is well aware of the love that surrounds her. Maybe there’s part of her that can still roll her eyes at our inappropriate jokes, even if we can’t see it.

I know that God is here because that’s what I believe. But this is hard. I grieve for my husband. I grieve for my nephews. I grieve for my brother in law. I grieve for the rest of our children who will shortly say goodbye to their wonderful Aunt Ruthie. I don’t understand but I trust that all things work together for good.

So we wait.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Back from Tanzania

Wow. I've got to start blogging again to find words to describe the experience. I met amazing people, saw hope in the midst of despair, saw dignity in (what I'd consider) poverty, and met a living saint.
Much, much more later.

Friday, March 12, 2010

almost there

Travel delays to Palau.
We had a bear of a time even getting to Houston.
When we arrived at the airport in Rochester to head to Houston, we were told that the flights from Cleveland were delayed and that we wouldn't be able to make the connection to Houston.
Then we were told to go to Newark. And they began to reticket our luggage and reissue boarding passes. Then we were told that maybe the Newark flight wouldn't depart either...
We ended up staying on the Cleveland flight, making our connection, and arriving in Houston late and tired on Tuesday night but at least we were there.
Then, the next morning, we got to the Houston airport and were told that there was a mechanical problem with the Honolulu flight and that we wouldn't make our connection from Guam to Palau. We could either stay in Houston and try the next day or go on to Honolulu and either overnight there or in Guam.
We ended up going to Honolulu, making the Guam connection, and then arriving in Guam to what amounted to chaos.
The Continental gate agents at the Guam International Airport (bless their hearts) don't communicate very well with one another. We were told to go from the gate to the ticket counter. We did. No one there. We went back to the gate and were told to go back to the ticket counter because someone would be there. We did. No one was there. By now, a pack of people had gathered because there were folks heading for both Palau and Manilla who were going to overnight in Guam and needed vouchers for the hotels.
The crowd was getting restless.
And an almost mob mentality was developing.
Wonderful hubby and I kept our cool. I found a Continental flight attendant away from the other people and asked if she could possibly help me. She found a supervisor. The bottom line was we finally got our vouchers, were taken by van to the Marriott hotel in Guam (arrived around midnight,) slept for 7 hours, had a nice breakfast, got bathing suits from the giftshop (don't even ask...mine could fit in the coinpurse of my wallet,) spent 2 hours poolside, took a short walk on the beach, cleaned up, had a nice lunch, and are now biding our time in the President's Lounge at the Guam International Airport. We walked through the incredible Galleria Duty Free Shopping Area but kept on going since we didn't really need anything, especially with our new bathing suits ;)
The week before departure went really well. I made my lists each morning and dealt with what needed attention. I managed to fit in a yoga practice almost every day which helped immensely. And my mat is in my suitcase so I will be continuing my yoga in Palau. The lunch with Bishop Mhogolo was a wonderful success and my commitment to the Carpenter's Kids program is cemented. I look forward to my visit to Tanzania in July and am hoping to develop friendships that will span continents and decades--much like the relationships I have developed in Palau.
A couple of months ago, I was at a meeting where someone was challenging me on how to do the mission work that I did in the area where they lived.
I responded that I couldn't--their area wasn't my stretch of beach.
I was referring to the story that you all have probably heard of the little boy who is walking down the beach throwing the washed up starfish back into the water. When challenged by an adult who said he couldn't possibly make a difference because of the vast number of starfish, the boy responded, "yes, but for this starfish I made a difference."
We all have a limited amount of beach.
What we do with it is up to us.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Getting ready for Palau

8 days from now, God willing, darling hubby and I will be on a plane bound for Houston, Texas. We overnight in Texas and then begin our long treck westward on Wednesday morning, March 10. We fly from Houston to Honolulu, Honolulu to Guam, Guam to Yap, and Yap to Koror. We leave at 9 a.m. Wednesday and arrive at 10:20 p.m. local time in Palau on Thursday. I still can't wrap my mind around the whole international date-line thing--I'm just glad we'll be getting there!
And my schedule is pretty nuts in the next 8 days. I'm making sure to get in my yoga practices because it keeps me focused and more calm. Which is a good thing. Next Monday, I am honored to be welcoming the Anglican Bishop of The Diocese of Central Tanganika to our home for a luncheon for him to tell some local folks about the Carpenter's Kids program. I'll write more about that later.
In the meantime, It's off to dinner with the wonderful couple who will be tending to our home and the little reds while we're in Palau. God bless folks who are willing to help us so that we can take time off together and be adventurous. I promise to repay this favor when people need me to...
And, of course, this Sunday night is THE OSCARS!!!
I'll post my pics later this week.
In the meantime, if you haven't seen the documentary "The Cove," see it. Heartbreaking but also powerful. People who want to change the world for the good change my world. And make it better. And make me want to work harder.
Love, love, love,

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Well, actually I'm heading out with the little reds to a retreat.
Although I hope we all advance.
I'm leading the retreat for a church in Virginia. I'm not used to working for churches that have lots of financial resources. This one obviously does since they're paying for all three of our plane tickets, accomodations, meals, and also giving me a hefty honorarium. Suweet!
The theme of the retreat is "Landscapes, Languages, and Love." I will definitely give them their money's worth. I'm really excited. Lots of cool activities planned for them.
I'll let y'all know how it goes.
Interesting to lead a retreat at a Hilton Hotel in the Outer Banks...
Yes, we will be advancing while we retreat.

p.s. I got up and went to yoga at 6 a.m. When the alarm went off I thought "Oh no. Not happening. God, if you want me to go, get me out of this bed." And then I got up. I'm still astonished. And grateful.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

from 40 days to 40 days

I finished my 40 days to personal revolution on Saturday.
Today the 40 days of Lent begins.
I believe that my Lenten discipline will be to continue the yoga practices cause they seem to be working for me. Stronger, more flexible, more open.
21 days til I leave for Palau. I am praying that the trip gives my precious hubby time to totally heal.
In the meantime, life goes on.

Friday, February 12, 2010

My how things change

I wrote my last blog entry on Tuesday.
Wednesday night, my precious hubby was admitted, via the emergency department, to the hospital with a perforated diverticulum. I spent Thursday morning in the hospital with him and then he insisted that I go to my Lifestyle session. As I was driving to the yoga studio, I was thinking about everything that was happening and how I really had revolved...Normally, I would have gone into overdrive and started making lists of what to do if...if hubby needed major surgery, if we couldn't go to Palau, if I couldn't find child care, if I couldn't make it to church on Sunday cause I needed to be at the hospital...
But I didn't do any of that.
I thought about it but thought that it would be wasted energy. I will know what I know when I know it. I will make the decisions I need to make when they need to be made. Acceptance. Breath. Find space. Breathe.
And making my vision board was a cool experience. I'm not finished with it (poetic) but I will keep working on it.
Hubby has made miraculous recovery. Seriously miraculous.
So thank God for antibiotics, good physicians, and answered prayer.
I go to my celebration Master Class at 6 p.m. then I'll come get hubby from hospital and take him home. We will curl up in our bed and watch the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics.
At least that's my plan. But we all know how plans can change.
Shanti, gentle readers.