Learning How To Live From The Dying: Part I


A few months ago I learned that my dog Billy has skin cancer.  To pay for the cost of his care I decided to go back to work.  Since I had long experience as a hospice volunteer in several states I decided take a job as an in-home hospice caregiver. 

My first assignment was to give care to and 89-year-old woman who I will call her Molly.  Her regular caregiver was on vacation for a couple of weeks so I was filling in.  She has  a rare form of  Parkinson’s disease that has attacked her  throat and her ability to speak.  Her husband Harry who is 82 is her primary caregiver.  He is a difficult man who is very critical but is attentive to his wife’s care.  Molly also has a daughter who lives in a distant state.  She is very angry at and suspicious of Harry and the two of them can’t get along. Neither the husband nor the daughter are able to express much affection to Molly.

Each day when I arrived Harry would have already given Molly her breakfast and I would try to get her up for the day.  She didn’t have much to look forward to since she would spend most of the day in front of the television watching reruns of Bonanza and Matlock.  So I looked for things that would make her the day more interesting.  First, after getting her dressed I would take her for a walk in the streets outside her home.  We would stop and look at flowers or an interesting bird or even a new car.  While I pushed her wheelchair I would recount tales of my life especially foreign travels and tell her about the people and funny or unusual experiences.  Sometimes she would try to talk with me but she could only manage a hissing sound.  At first I found it difficult to talk about myself but I realized that it was comforting for her to hear these stories and it built a connection between us.

One day I decided to take her out to a local restaurant that offers a free slice of pie on Wednesdays.  It was a difficult a project to get Molly into my car with her wheelchair but she was happy to get out of the house. Molly had a piece of strawberry rhubarb pie with ice cream and a cup of coffee.  It took over an hour for her to eat it and she ate every bite. When she had finished and I started to get her ready to go to the car she looked at me and smiled and said the only word she ever spoke to me, she said “good.” 

An unfortunate incident occurred  her husband put her in her wheelchair in the yard to get some sun.  Somehow she fell over into a cactus plant. She went to the emergency room for treatment as she had reacted to the poison in the plant.  A few days later I was filling in for her regular care giver and took her to a new doctor to look at her throat.  While we were in the waiting room I asked her how she was and if the cactus wounds were painful.  She shook her head and held out her arm to show me the large bumps that were a reaction to the cactus.  Impulsively I kissed the spot and told her that it would make it well.  She laughed!  Never before had I seen her laugh or have any instinct to mirth so we laughed together.

What I learned while caring for Molly is how important it is to find moments of joy in the life of those who have lost so much.  Neither her husband nor her daughter were capable of giving her much affection so I would lavish hugs and kisses on her, telling her she looked pretty after I had combed her hair and she had put on lipstick.  How much she needed the affirmation and how good it felt to give it to her.

The funny thing is that being able to help her helped my soul heal.  Being old and without family means that I rarely find moments in the normal course of my life when I am able to help someone.  What a joy it is to do so.

Because Molly and Harry aren’t believers the most important thing I could do was to pray for them and I still do.  I ask you to pray for them as well.

The Incessant Chatter


It’s funny, I go about my life taking care of myself and my dogs.  I go to church and bible study and work in the kitchen to help prepare the communal meal every Sunday.  I have even taken a job looking after a 91-year-old woman a few hours a week and like doing it. 

My house is clean.  I have food of sorts in my house. I don’t owe anyone a debt and I pay my bills on time.  Most mornings I hike in the foothills with my dogs for over an hour to give us exercise and help my mental state.  My guess is that I would be called a highly functioning adult.

Yet I have this fairly constant whisper in the back of mind that I am going to kill myself.  It is something I think about many times a day.  Sometimes I shut the voice up with the promise, “OK, I’ll kill myself this fall.”  

While I care deeply about others I can’t get close to anyone. I guess that isn’t too hard to figure out since my husband killed himself two years ago.  My final arrangements have already been made and paid for. There are no funeral arrangements since I have no family or close friends.

My dogs are what really deter me emotionally.   Would my plans for their care happen as I planned or would they wind up in the pound, frightened and eventually put down?

Not desecrating the life God has given me with suicide deters me spiritually and intellectually.  I pray as deeply as I can and I study the Bible.  While I pray I feel close to God but the whispers sometimes continue even then.

It is my suspicion that the people who know me best never dream that I am thinking about suicide most of the time.  In fact sometimes the thoughts are so insistent that I can’t really focus on conversation.  But I put on an interested expression and let the other party talk and no one suspects.

Medication doesn’t work.  It makes it worse.  I frustrate the doctors and psychologists and they quickly lose interest since they really can’t seem to help.  How many times have I been to a therapist or shrink in the last year and a half?  Often their solution it to have the police pick me up and take me to the hospital for a psych evaluation and then I am released with a referral to see a shrink.  So now I don’t go to the doctor or the shrink.  

This post has been all about me.  I know there is a greater world out there and I hate the fact that I am so self absorbed.  I do care about the future of our nation, about the persecuted Christians throughout the world, about hunger and children dying.  In fact the hopelessness of these issues when I think of them keeps me from reading and listening to the news since it increases the chatter.

I don’t know what to do.

Cleaning Up My Mess So Others Won’t Have To


Like so many people I have stacks of paper that I don’t know what to do with. In the last few days I have sorted through and thrown out unwanted paper work and miscellaneous stuff.    All this industry has had the effect of clearing out my head as well.  Getting my estate in order and not leaving a mess for others when I die seems quite important.

I am redoing my will and the Transfer on Death and Power of Attorney forms as well.  I did all this originally in the months following my husband’s death two years ago but my decisions were hasty and now need a thoughtful redoing.  Not having family means I am passing my assets to my church and a couple of friends

I don’t know if my death will be suicide or a natural one but in any event these preparations are just the usual course of events for any 72-year-old.  When my husband died two years ago he left nearly a thousand pages of writing much of which was personal to him.  But among those pages were a few important ones that made me glad I had sifted through it all and not just tossed it out.  I don’t want others to have to go through this when I am gone.

Since I have no family or old friends here in Albuquerque it has been especially difficult asking someone to assume my Power of Attorney in the event I can’t make my own decisions.  While I have tried to specify what interventions I would want taken if I am seriously ill or harmed in an accident, there are still situations where this person might have to make a life or death decision.  Since most of my friends in Albuquerque are older than I am and might not survive me, I decided to ask a young man (he’s 35) I have known for a couple of years to become the designee.  While our interactions have been casual they have also been honest and reached deep.  I shocked him when I worked up the courage to ask him but after he thought it over he agreed to do it. What a great gift to me.

As a hospice volunteer for several years I saw first hand the kind of messy paperwork so many leave behind.  So often people keep papers with the thought that they might need them someday.  In my case I have found solicitations for money from charities and political organizations that I thought I might be able to give to but are now months and even years out of date.  I found ads for concerts I would like to have gone to but happened months ago.  Also I found letters from former health insurance providers that were out of date or unacted upon.

So cleaning up, sorting out and updating is my gift to the living once I am gone.  Much as I wouldn’t invite someone to dinner at my home if it were a mess while I am alive so I also don’t want to leave a mess to those who must carry on after I go. I guess that this is a posthumous application of the Golden Rule.

Taking a Clue From Nehemiah


There have been so many responses to my blogs about depression and suicidal ideation from Christians whose symptoms like mine are not treatable by medication and therapy. I have had 7 years of therapy and I have tried almost all drugs for the treatment of depression.  Some worked for me in the beginning, even for years, but then the symptoms worsened.

This has made me wonder what God is telling me with this illness that seems untreatable by the methods of man.

While reading the first chapter of the book of Nehemiah, I noticed that his response to the news that in Jerusalem the walls had been struck down and gates had been burned was that of grief, he wept and he mourned.

But Nehemiah didn’t stay broken.  He turned to God.  Specifically he fasted and he prayed.  Well, first Nehemiah fasted then from fasting came prayer.  The nature of the Nehemiah’s prayer is interesting.  First he recognises God’s reality, his awesome power and might.  Next he confesses mankind’s sinfulness towards God.  He also recognizes how far short of the glory of God man has come.  Then he calls on the mercy and love of God to remember the promises He made to gather those who he had scattered.  Finally God told him what to do and made it possible for him to do it.

I have often fasted in obedience to church rules and I can’t say I have gotten a lot out of it.  I have also wondered why fasting and prayer are often linked in the Bible.  After reading Nehemiah and doing some praying and reading I think I have found an answer that makes me yearn to fast.

What I learned is that when we fast our weakness are turned into strength by the Lord.  When we fast we are demonstrating our complete dependence on God.  The purpose of fasting is to take our eyes off the things of this world to focus only on God.  Fasting helps us gain a new perspective and a renewed understanding of our reliance upon God.  It makes me think of Paul who said “For when I am weak then I am strong.”

With this new perspective in mind I think that fasting must include a withdrawal from the things of the world.  Not just in praying but in not occupying oneself with distractions.

So I will fast and pray for everyone who has written to me about having depression and/or suicidal ideation.  I am not fasting and praying necessarily that this affliction be removed but that if it is not God’s will to remove it then we can better accept and live with it and be of more service to others.

How to Melt a Heart of Stone


The use of the Jesus Prayer began with the Desert Fathers in about the 5th Century.  Since then it has spread throughout the world. In Russia both monastics and lay people have prayed the Jesus Prayer for many centuries.  Some of them wandered the roads and forests while saying the Jesus prayer as a way to grow closer to God.  They lived in the countryside and people would give them a bit of food as a kindness and a blessing.  This has been a way of sanctification for many.

Eventually as a person persists in this prayer while living a holy life it is said that the heart prays the prayer at each breath even while asleep.

For me hiking has been a way to fight depression and suicidal thoughts and restore my connection with God.  I especially like praying the Jesus Prayer while I hike or walk.  It controls my wandering mind and brings it back to God.  It focuses the entire body and heart on God in one unified action.

Because when I am hike I get short of breath I simplify the prayer to:

Lord Jesus  (breathe in)

Have mercy (breathe out)

This provides a profound way to make hiking or walking a meditation on the key point of Christian life.  That we need God’s mercy  and that mercy was already given us through Jesus Our Lord.

The entire prayer which I pray when at home and I am not breathing hard is:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God  (breathe in)

Have mercy on me, a sinner (breathe out)

God promised in Ezekiel 36:26  that “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”  This Sunday at Liturgy our pastor, Father Nicolay Miletkov, talked of the effect of the Jesus prayer.  He said that each time we say the Jesus prayer it is like a drop of water dripping on our stony hearts.  And just as the constant drip drip of water on stone eventually wears down the rock, so our stony hearts begin to erode and to reveal the flesh and blood hearts that God created.  It takes many years of praying this deceptively simple prayer to wear away the stone that surrounds our hearts.

Having tried this prayer when I was a new Christian I wasn’t able to appreciate its power or its beauty.  Now that I am old and understand that I can do nothing of myself I am so grateful for this ancient tradition which transforms the simple act of breathing into prayer.

On The Death of A Spouse


Wendell Berry is a force for good in this tired country of ours.  He decries mans inhumanity to man and the desecration of the earth.

He is 75 years old and lost his wife a while back.

He wrote a poem that I keep going back to because it images the longing for a lost spouse in a way no other poem ever has for me.

   THE REJECTED HUBAND

After the storm and the new
stillness of the snow, he returns
to the graveyard, as though
he might lift the white coverlet,
slip in beside her as he used to do,
and again feel, beneath his hand,
her flesh quicken and turn warm.
But he is not her husband now.
To participate in resurrection, one
first must be dead.  And he goes
back into the whitened world, alive.

Maybe It’s Not A Trial But It’s Sin


I haven’t been blogging for a couple of months because of an intense indifference to life.

Wanting to care I can’t:

Keep busy they say

Pray more

You aren’t trying hard enough

So-and-so’s  life is much worse than yours

Why can’t you be more like other people?

If you loved God you wouldn’t feel this way.

They are so right.  So I keep busy; I hike, I drive a friend to and fro, I take a child to the zoo.

And I pray.  I ask God to take this terrible indifference from me.

Only then do strange tears come.

I cry so hard I can’t see the Bible to read.

I wish I knew why I cried.  If I did then maybe I could do something different.

As evening draws close and I swelter in the 82 degree house I find myself plotting how to kill myself.

No.  I say.  No.  I will not do it.

I wonder now is this a trial?

Somehow I don’t think so.  It must be the consequence of sin.

So I renew my cry to God.  Tell me my sin and I will repent.

I will shout it from the mountaintop so the world will know.

But he doesn’t answer me.

But I feel his presence.  What does he want?

The only thing I want is to give him that.