The Stories of Our Lives

The following story is a piece that I wrote over twenty years ago,  published in the  Canadian magazine, Long Term Care . As I re-read it, it occurred to me that after all the time that has passed,  neither my opinion, nor my passion for caring for seniors has changed.  As I too have gotten older and as they say, “a little long in the tooth”,  I have been building on my own arsenal of stories; some good, not-so-good,  some hilarious and some downright heart-breaking.  Revisiting this piece has reinforced the importance of story-telling, of getting to know what really makes a person tick and allowing ones past to shape, or at the very least, influence their future. It has catapulted me into a new–or rather an old vision for how I see caring for an ageing population.

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I think,” Laurence begins, “That the trick to keeping your reader interested is to begin with something that catches the attention immediately.”

Laurence is talking about the book he wants to write–his autobiography.  He has lived one hundred and two-year and believes his life has been interesting enough that someone might like to read about it.  I sit perched on his window sill, listening to his stories; sometimes the same ones over and over again.  His stories never fail to intrigue me; I think he has a best-seller, and I tell him so.  We discuss the particulars of the book; what to include, what to omit, what might be of interest, and which demographic to target as potential readers.  I am not Laurence’s editor,  but rather his friend and therapy assistant in the long-term care facility where he lives.

Perhaps if my boss should happen by, I might be reprimanded for “just sitting there” and “not being productive.”  It’s funny how you can feel guilty for spending time with a resident that doesn’t involve some purpose readily apparent to an onlooker.  In these days of classification for provincial funding, it seems that everything you do has to translate into a dollar value; it has to be a recognized aspect of the resident’s care plan –something to be marked “completed” on their chart.

Not much wonder that there is no time for story-telling.  If it meant that I didn’t have the time to stop and listen to the remembrances of my residents, I really don’t know if I would want to continue doing this job.  I love a good story and for me, the best ones don’t end when you close the book, but rather when you release the hand or give the hug.

I have been transported to times and places that only my imagination would have allowed me, save for my resident’s memories. Gladys took me to the backyard of her newlywed home where she frantically buried the rice pudding that didn’t quite turn out.  She didn’t want her husband to find out that she wasn’t the cook his mother was.  I was enthralled as Katie triumphed over her wicked step-mother.  She met her Prince Charming and went on to become “Aunt Katie”, a radio personality to hundreds of faithful child listeners.  I wept with Laurence as he returned to Vimy Ridge , eighty years after the Great War to say a final farewell to his slain brother.  And finally, I witnessed the courage of Kay, who kept death at arm’s length so she could experience the joy of becoming a first-time grandmother. 

These are more that amazing stories.  They are the teaching tools that these people use to show me what really matters to them.  When I listen, I am healing wounds–perhaps not the kind that require bandages, but the kind that need to be left open to air.

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We manage behaviours when we validate a person’s past.  We promote independence when we acknowledge a person’s previous accomplishments and skills, helping them to set goals reflective of their desire to restore dignity. Through mindful and intentional listening we learn what our charges really want and need–and in doing so, perhaps learn what really matters .  I know my life will never be the same having travelled through the memories of these insightful teachers.  

I am busy living out my own life stories.  One day I may know Laurence’s happiness when someone comes to perch on my window sill and listens to my stories–maybe even more than once.

 

So here I am some twenty years later.  Dancing to Despacito with Violeta, a fiery four- foot- eight doll from Uruguay because her husband of sixty-nine years can’t/won’t get up and dance with her anymore. James is showing up for my exercise class despite his painful joints because he’s determined to break out of the nursing home to live independently.  And while Earl’s favourite line is “I don’t like it!”  repeated no less than three times with every mouthful of food I try to give him, we’ve still discovered that we were born in the same city, he had a dog named Pat, and he loves chocolate ice cream.

 

Yes and amen.

 

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Finishing Well

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On my second to last day on the job, I came upon Ms. Ruby* who was anxiously trying to get out of her wheelchair.  In the twelve years I had worked in this place, I can honestly say I had never had a conversation with her.   She was going to be 104 on her next birthday and I assumed her secret to longevity was simply staying away from people-she was not a talker and with her no-nonsense look, she an ability to send people from her room faster than a bullet leaving a gun.

“What is it Ms. Ruby; what do you need?” I asked.

“My bed.  I’m tired.”

I gently placed her tiny frame on her bed and helped her to lay down yet she remained anxious, again trying to get up.

“I need to read a chapter.  Get me my book, I gotta read a chapter.”

I reached for the only book on her table, her Bible.  Milky white cataracts had replaced Ms. Ruby’s once sharp eyes, and I knew she couldn’t read it herself. Surprisingly she accepted my offer to read to her and settled back onto the bed.  Holding her hand in mine until she relaxed, I marvelled that her dark skin was soft like that of a newborn.  Strange that after twelve years, I was just now seeing the “softer” side to this centenarian, I thought.

“How about a Psalm, Ms. Ruby; Psalm twenty-seven?”

“Ah, yes,” she smiled at the ceiling.

I began to read and was instant moved as Ms. Ruby began reciting the psalm along with me practically word for word.  When we got to the forth verse I was in tears.   I struggled to continue, but with a strong voice she continued from memory.

MsRuby“One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life , to behold the beauty of the Lord and to enquire in his temple.   Oh yes, Lawd!”   A wide grin spread across her face as her unseeing eyes gazed towards the heavens.

I was finally able to rejoin the recitation and I couldn’t help but think that God had planned this grand finale Himself.  One of my favorite psalms, steeped in promises of God’s goodness and faithfulness,  recited by a woman who like the author, was someone after God’s own heart and who would no doubt finish well as the author had.

Peace, Be Still

Three words.  Peace. Be. Still.

Enough to calm a storm and put a few frightened disciples at ease,  these are the words that I breathe.   In….peace…..And out…..be still…..

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I don’t know what you, the reader, are going through right now, but for me and others near and dear to me, it’s been a season of white-knuckling it to stay in the boat.

In my first week in a new job, my manager announced to the entire staff in a group email, “Monica will be filling in for me while I’m away on vacation and will be happy to help in any way she can.”  Huh?   Monica would simply have been happy to know beforehand.  But instead of going into panic mode, I decided to meet the challenge head-on and use it as an opportunity to prove my competence and integrity as a leader.

The first days had been anything but promising.  Rumors of how long this one would last had already been whispered around the department and I was asking myself the same question in light of the hopeless atmosphere in which I found myself.  Still,  I was determined to be like Caleb; one of the ten spies who chose to be strong and courageous and see hope and victory while the others saw defeat.  Like the ancient Israelites, I was viewing the giants blocking entrance to the supposed promised land.

As if this transition wasn’t enough to throw me off course, the winds changed direction; this time coming from the west.  My children who had left Ontario for the promise of new beginnings and adventure in British Columbia, were being hit by the gale-force winds of deception, betrayal, and loneliness.  More bad reports from the remaining eight spies.  Pftt.

Add to this a random shooting in a part of our city that left two dead and thirteen injured, a friend in California who was forced to evacuate her home because of the devastating fires, and another acquaintance whose son is on life support following what should have been a routine surgery, I was left feeling like the disciples in the boat, shaking Jesus awake, demanding,  Don’t you care if we die?!

Turns out, He does.

The first life-preserver was tossed into the female staff locker room of all places.  I was just about to walk out when one of the staff members of whom I was “in charge”  stopped me to announce that she needed the following day off.

“I need to be off Thursday–possibly Friday,” she began, tears rimming her eyes.

“Okay….?”

“My husband and I are going for IVF.  I’m scheduled to have my eggs harvested,”  her lips trembled and tears began to flow in earnest along with the stress that each tear contained.

“I’m a praying mama,” I heard myself say, much to my own surprise.  “Would it be okay if I pray for you?”   Not answering in words, she put her arms around me and tears fell upon my shoulder as I spoke life over her barrenness and asked God to open her womb to receive a baby.  At the writing of this post, it’s too early to say what the result will be in terms of a little one entering the world, although thus far, things seem to be going in a positive direction.  Regardless of the outcome, I do know a seed of another kind was planted.  New rumors are being spread about me, and as spoken of in a previous blog,  Reputation vs. Character I’m totally okay with that.

From the west, the winds of reconciliation have been blowing.  Once determined that she didn’t need a mother–specifically me– my daughter called me in tears.

“I’m so sorry mum,” she sobbed.  “I got a taste of how badly I have treated you and when I realized how much I must have hurt you, I felt awful!”

“I’ve already forgiven you,” I assured her.

“Yeah, I know you’re all over this forgiveness stuff, but I just needed to say it.”

Sweet.

While I haven’t stepped into the fullness of my Promised Land, this is a good start.  Like the disciples of Mark 4:39 this season has been about trusting God in the storms, and there have been many, it would seem.  In all of it I’m realizing that there is nothing I can do in my own strength.  There are no variables that can be manipulated in any of the situations that I, or those I care about find ourselves in; there is no “Plan B”.  I either place my trust in God or I don’t.   Over and over again, I’m discovering that the best strategy it to take shelter in the secret place.  Sometimes it’s a time of quiet reflection, meditating on His promises with hope and renewed faith.  Other times it’s more of a battle; contending through declaration and decrees of what He has already promised. In the midst of it all, I choose to remember the story of some new believers in the middle of the sea with a storm blowing around them while their only Help slept, seemingly oblivious.  When He awakens to their cries, He simply raises His hand to the wind and commands, “Peace–be still!” and the winds stop immediately and peace is restored.  He asked them then, as He asks us now, “Where is your faith?”  If we truly believe that He is in us and we are in Him, we  can raise our hands to the storms around us and make the same command, believing as Hebrews 13:8 says:

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. 

As I’m learning daily to put my trust in Him, He has shown infinite patience with me in the process, reminding me that I am His kid and He loves me Today I went to the post office to pick up a prize I had won in a group on social media:  20180728_182506.jpg

Coincidence?  I think not.

I’d like to think that I am the shell nestled in the centre of this art work.  A little ragged from being tossed about in the sand of affliction, but smoothed by the waves of His mercy washing over me again and again.

 

 

Yes and amen….

Finishing Well

On my second to last day on the job, I came upon Ms. Ruby* who was anxiously trying to climb out of her wheelchair.  In the twelve years I had worked in this place, I can honestly say I had never had a conversation with her.   She was going to be 104 on her next birthday and I assumed her secret to longevity was simply staying away from people-she was not a talker and had an ability to send people from her room faster than a bullet leaving a gun.

“What is it Ms. Ruby; what do you need?” I asked. “My bed.  I’m tired.”  I gently placed her tiny frame onto her bed and helped her to lay down, yet she remained anxious, again trying to get up.  “I need to read a chapter.  Get me my book, I gotta read a chapter.” I reached for the only book on her table, her Bible.  Milky white cataracts had replaced Ms. Ruby’s once sharp eyes, and I knew she couldn’t read it herself.  I offered to read for her and to my surprise, she agreed, settling back onto the bed.  I held her hand in mine until she relaxed.  Her dark skin was soft like that of a newborn and she relaxed into the mattress as softly, I caressed the back of her hands. “How about a Psalm, Ms. Ruby?” “Ah, yes,” she smiled at the ceiling.  MsRuby I began reading and then Ms. Ruby began reciting the psalm along with me almost word for word.  When we got to the forth verse I was in tears.  Moved by witnessing this side of Ms. Ruby and her love and passion for the Word, I struggled to continue.   But with a strong voice Ms. Ruby continued from memory:

  “One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life , to behold the beauty of the Lord and to enquire in his temple.”

 ” Oh yes, Lawd!”  With a toothless grin, she smiled towards the heavens. I was finally able to rejoin in the recitation and I couldn’t help but think that God had planned this grand finale Himself; sweet words from King David spoken by a woman who would no doubt finish well as the author had.

Yes and Amen.

*Ms Ruby’s name was changed to protect her privacy.

Whether to the Left or to the Right

RightLeftI’m in a season right now where I have no flippin’ clue where I’m headed.   It’s like hopping in the car with a full tank of gas, no GPS, armed only with instinct and faith.

Let me explain how I got there:

A number of years ago, a resident in the nursing home where I worked sensed a dissatisfaction and sadness within me.  She knew it had nothing to do with her or any of her fellow residents, but saw it for the workplace frustration that it was.   She would comfort me with one of her bear hugs, but would still implore me not to leave her.  To put her at ease, I assured her that I wouldn’t leave until she did.  We joked that hers would be a more permanent move, even laughing about it.  But this past December, she made her move surrounded by her family and my own words came rushing back to me in an instant.  I had inadvertently created a self-fulfilling prophecy with my promise and a restlessness settled in almost immediately.  I had to prepare to live up to my end of the bargain.

I had been told that seeing the number “1” in multiples signified transition and transformation and all of a sudden, I was seeing this number everywhere.  When I looked at the clock and it would be 11:11.  A glance at the microwave while heating something up would show there was 1 minute and 11 seconds remaining.  Even my health tracker would announce that I had walked 11,111 steps and had been active 111 minutes.  Coincidence?  I think not.  The past year has been all about transition.  But with transition comes trust, and with trust, tests.

We can easily say we trust God when there’s nothing we’re contending for, but when the smooth sailing is replaced by choppy waves and dark clouds, we discover where we’ve truly placed our trust.   While journalling one morning, God showed me a picture of a sapling when it’s first planted. tree-stake-400x600 On either side are guiding wires and stakes to ensure it grows straight, leaning neither to the left or the right.  When the tree becomes strong enough and its roots are firmly attached to its foundation in the earth, the stakes and guiding wires are removed.  I didn’t even need to ask God was He was getting at with this image.  I already knew that He was warning me that my “supports” were about to be pulled.

The whole idea of actually leaving a job of twelve years where I had become comfortable in a dysfunctional sort of way left me second guessing.  Should I?  Is it really that bad?  I have friends here.  I have Christian friends.  I love my residents and they love me.  Then one day while flipping through my old journals, I read an entry where I had quoted from the movie, Queen of Katwe:  

Just because a place is familiar doesn’t mean you still belong there .”   

A day later. The leader of my cell group was speaking to us on being authentic Christians and the challenges of showing love in the workplace.  He said, “Sometimes the most loving thing we can say is goodbye…”  With this confirmation, I had made my decision.

Here I am a couple of months later in my new job.  I like to say, same church, different pew  because the work is essentially the same, but the culture of this new community is so different.  I know that I made the right decision, but admittedly, there are times when I long for the familiarity of the previous twelve years.  Like an abused woman who struggles to leave her abuser;   I’m strangely drawn to the predictability regardless of the pain involved.  In those times I just stop. Even in a stairwell, I’ll stop and get in God’s face:  Show me something.  Throw me a bone.  I need to know why I’m here.  What’s Your plan for me in this place? I trust You, but I can’t see anything yet…    Isaiah 30:21:

“Your own ears will hear him. Right behind you, a voice will say, ‘This is the way you should go’ whether to the left or to the right….”

This is a season when I’m really learning to trust in many areas of my life. When I look with natural eyes at change, lack of change or any period of waiting, it’s easy to become impatient or discouraged.   I’ve discovered that my view of having my supports–environment , friends and culture removed, couldn’t have been farther from the truth.  In this place of vulnerability, He is revealing Himself as the only support I truly ever had.  In the meantime, I’m leaning in, trusting Him to show me which way to go and grow.

Yes and amen.

Reputation vs. Character

In the last while, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the difference between these two concepts- reputation and character.  During a season of transition that seems to have stretched on forever, I’m slowly coming to the same conclusion as John Wooden, who penned the following adage:

“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.  The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching”

It’s very easy to fall for the desire to be a people pleaser, especially in the workplace.  Eight hours out of five out of seven days are spent with co-workers and employers; more time is spent with them than family in some cases.  In a sense, they can become like a second family, albeit a dysfunctional one in many cases.  We fight and we make up.  We laugh and we cry.  We gossip and sometimes we’re fodder for the gossip mill.  Some relationships are strengthened by overcoming differences while others remain strained, never to be repaired by human efforts.  As emotional beings, we find ourselves striving to be liked and seeking the approval of others.  But when going with the flow and adopting workplace norms begin to chip away at your true identity, it’s time to take a step back. This is what has led me into the season I now find myself.

Choosing to please people more than God was eroding my foundation, making me cynical and sapping me of my joy.   I was forfeiting my character in favor of my reputation. These things ought not be so.  Blogger Donald Miller says,

“God rewards character, not reputation.  To care about your reputation means you care more about public opinion than the opinion of God”

I don’t want to desire man’s approval more than Gods.   I am acutely aware that in some circles I don’t have a good reputation.  I’ve been accused of being too outspoken, too abrupt, and quite frankly, too Monica.  But as Wooden says, your character is who you are when no one is watching.  God is always watching, and He’s assured me that He has seen my true character when no one else has and He is pleased.   If God is for me, who indeed can be against me? Instead of allowing my reputation and the opinions of others to define me, I’ve allowed God to use it all as the sandpaper to smooth out my rough edges. That’s how God builds our character–He truly is a master Carpenter.

As I write this, God is reminding me of a time in my childhood when I was running through the neighbour’s barn and I tripped.  My outstretched palm landed on the sharp edge of a molasses tin lid, splitting my hand open. Bleeding and crying, I ran to the house.  The farmer took me into the bathroom and sat me on the toilet seat.  Grasping  my little hand in his much larger weather -beaten one, while holding a bottle of iodine in the other, he warned,  “This is gonna hurt, hon.”

Howling and squirming, I tried to break free of his grasp as he poured the orange liquid onto my wound.  And then it was over.  The bleeding had stopped, the wound was cleaned and patched with a fresh a bandage.  It had still stung, but I had survived the ordeal.

Screenshot_20180623-204908_Google.jpgEven as big kids we squirm and cry  when God wants to heal our wounds. ‘No, it’s gonna hurt!!’ We insist.   But He loves us too much to leave us with gaping wounds.   We condemn ourselves for our perceived flaws but God convicts and corrects our character so we can better reflect His glory.

So in this season of change and transition, I have allowed the Father to tend to some open and tender wounds.  Some of it has hurt–a lot in fact, but I’ve learned to trust Him.  He knows me better than I do, and in the season of leaning and learning, I have discovered that I am much more confident in who I am, and more importantly Whose I am.

Yes and amen.