Monday, January 20, 2014

Weekend Trip Reviewed

To say my trip has been emotional would be an understatement. The experience has been more like riding the Mr. Freeze roller coaster at Six Flags over Texas; you start backwards with some vague expectations, but you don't really know what's going to happen, you accelerate and fly through turns and loops and then ascend the end of the track upside down, only to do the same going forward to return to the start. The outbound experience is unpredictable and the inbound predictable yet different. My weekend has felt like that. Each experience has been predictable yet so different in the end. Much of what I've experienced has left me yearning for more and others ready to discard and move on. The loops and turns have left my soul clamoring for stability yet the ride has been exhilarating. And through it all, I've found gratitude for basic principles that have helped me through.

After flying in on Thurs and having the longest 3 hour conversation with a caffeine amp'd flyer (truly over the top), I was grateful for a more down to earth connection with my brother, Darin, who is 8 years my senior. The ride to my parents, through evergreen covered hills and valleys blanketed in London style fog, was a nice way of catching up and also a good prep for what I would witness in the morning. I spent the evening talking with Mom, who was more than exuberant to have her baby boy home, and with my older sis Gina. Gina is ever timeless. Some of her stories are the same as new experiences in managing an apartment complex in SLC afford her some life changes but virtually everything else is a constant. After a long day, I retired, exhausted and yet, strangely, a little invigorated by being back in my home town.

Fri greeted me with a continuance of fog, cooler weather and morning full of remotely finishing up the work week. Through all of the hustle and bustle of the morning, I greeted my Dad for the first time since he visited Texas for Austin's Eagle Court of Honor three years prior. To say I was shocked would be a lie as my brother and his wife Cheri have sent me recent pictures and I had an inkling of what to expect. But reality hit my preconceived notion at full force and I was still overcome.

My father, a once robust and slightly rotund man is now skeletal, frail, sickly and my first glance at him reminded me of death. What I saw of him, laying in his hospital bed with a sheet draped haphazardly over his failing body, tucked away in his personal room of their house, reminded me of an interned prisoner at Auschwitz. There is little more than skin and bones left on the man that taught me soccer, coached me in several sports and was the master gardener of our home. How odd it was to look upon his form and not feel anything but sadness for his current condition.

Mom hadn't told him I was coming so she presented me as a surprise to which he had a difficult time guessing who had come to pay him a visit. He spent a few minutes trying to open his heavy laden eyes, at one point lifting his bony finger and failing to lift his lids. He could finally hear my voice with his eyes closed and I believe curiosity got the better of him and he finally opened his eyes. Gratitude registered in what was left of his skull sunken windows to his soul after he finally recognized, or rather was told, it was me. Where I had seen sparks of energy, recognition, love and compassion for years he had raised me, mentored me, provided an anchor in so many ways, was no a sea of blank indifference for his surroundings, a fogged over window obscuring the wonderment that is hidden and tucked away in such a brilliant soul. I couldn't help but cry at his sight and Mom knew my heart was aching. 

Normally I try to suppress my tears when around others but there are times when I allow myself moments of vulnerability. My family has seen me shed enough tears. My home ward watched as I sobbed through a solo of Silent Night during a Christmas service (was quite a train wreck from my perspective). At funerals I generally try to hold it back but invariably lose it. At Mom and Dad's home, I couldn't help myself this weekend. The feelings have been so raw and on the surface that more than a few tissues have been tossed after emotional battles have been fought and lost.

Eventually sorrow for his state of being turned to annoyance which made my personal guilt bubble and boil and my inner turmoil for seeking peace was cut short. In Dad's struggle to maintain a semblance of control, but being wracked with the plague of dementia, a few OCD like mannerisms have set in. When he is uncomfortable or feels agitated he yells out "Help! Help!" ever few seconds. He could go on for 30 minutes or more if left unanswered. I watched Mom and played off her queues to see how long the behavior would go on before she would answer. At times I wondered whether she was waiting for me to jump in and whether that just prolonged the experience. When I would acknowledge his rants, it was often met with a non-response. Gina tried to calm him once, asking how she could help, and was met with a gruff, "You can go get your mother, that's what," answer. He also yells her name, "Toni! Toni!" just as relentlessly as he does for help and I'm sure Mom is about ready to legally have her name changed. 

There are times when he's feeling completely overwhelmed, in pain, uncomfortable, restless, or just plain out of sorts and his method of communication is to have someone close, someone that can dote over him and hold his hand through the harrowing experience. Mom is that someone and no one else will do for him. It's kind of sweet really. He relies so heavily upon her, trusts her completely, has exposed his whole body and soul to the one that matters the most in his life and no one else will satisfy his need for relief. 

After a full day's work and having listened to Dad's incessant "Help! Help!" chanting for no help required or asking for Mom's attention when he doesn't need anything but acknowledgement, my nerves were beginning to mount an attack against sanity and I needed to escape. Mom is an incredible being and her patience knows no end as she listens to the cacophony without resolution and will likely do so until he passes. I do not possess such a gift of patience and elected to comfort the strain of my mind and heart with a run. 

I was scheduled to run 8 miles per the marathon training program and had what I thought would be a near ideal route to follow. As my parents moved from my childhood home about 9 years ago only a short distance, a run through the old neighborhood and a circumnavigation of my childhood town was just what I needed. Before leaving my mother quipped, "Do you need to look at a map first so you won't get lost?" I informed her that I was comfortable with the area since I grew up here and should I get lost I would just pull up my location on my iPhone. Not thinking the temperatures were low enough to cause it to reboot like I've recently struggled with back home, I set out on my run. I was incorrect as it did shutdown and did so in an area that turned me around and I soon became lost.

It's not that I was really lost. I knew mostly where I was. But something about the large Douglas Fir trees that prevent a Texan from seeing the horizon caused me to feel more than a little unsettled. I ran on a back dirt road under some power lines, scurried under a barbed wire fence where a sign stated "No Trespassing," out of a barbed wire fence compound for a Christian school (they don't like Christians much here in the NW :)  ), down a private road until I made my way to a familiar boat launch of a local lake and back to what I thought was my parent's neighborhood. I was wrong. It wasn't there's. Long story short, the 8 miles turned into 12 miles and my legs were shot. But I made it back home.

Upon returning home, Mom asked me to give Dad a blessing and to invite a family friend over to help. I had fully expected this. Had been praying for guidance. Anticipated the experience. I was so glad our friend came over to help.  He was my YM's leader growing up, has been my parent's bishop and has been the truest of friends to them for more than half of my life. He has kept me abreast of their health, their struggles and their joys and I love him dearly. The experience was sacred, supernal, guided and revelatory. I'll leave it at that for the published word and those closest to me are welcome to reach out and discuss it privately but I'll say that there was much comfort and relief that were a result.

I was spent, both physically and spiritually and retired to bed early that night, missing the late arrival of my oldest sister, Cyndi. After a restful night, I found myself face to face with a woman I've only met one other time but, as anticipated, enjoyed my visit with her immensely. It was so nice to visit with both of my sisters, with Mom ,and sit with Dad and feed him, care for him, lift him. It was also difficult, emotional, to understand that he's not all there, that he's frail, that we likely won't have him long with us in this life.

After some time, I needed to break away again and the rare blue skies were calling me. On an exceptional Seattle, WA January day,  I enjoyed the cool air kissing my exposed and slightly scruffy face after I excused myself and departed to what became a guided run to a place that calmed my heart, cleared my head and blessed me with peace.

The best part of the trip had to have been having Darin's family come over Sat night. We had a large family dinner of lasagna, salad, bread and pound cake with strawberry puree and whipped cream for dessert. Yum! We played a game called Lightning Reaction which pits up to 4 players against each other in a battle of response times. Hit your button too soon and you get a shock and save everyone else. Be the first after the sound stops and the light turns green and you're safe while everyone else gets shocked. I lost 3 times and the shock administered intensified each time. 

We finished the night with another game that left us laughing pretty hard. I'll forgo the real reason we were laughing hysterically but it felt so good to laugh as hard as we did and for the reason we did.

It was nice having all 4 kids together at the same time. This has never happened before. To have all of Dad's children together to celebrate his life and be around to comfort him was a blessing to me and to him. He expressed how grateful he was. At times he was drawn to tears over such an outpouring of love and it was truly some tender experiences.

Darin's wife Cheri has been fantastic through this whole downslide with Dad and she continued to shine as she served the family. From photos to dinner prep and cleanup, she always wore a smile, never had a negative thing to say and just glowed in her charitable ways. She continues to endear me to her and I'm so grateful she loves the way she does.

There were some memories that I had while visiting with Dad that I found interesting. My mind flashed back on days when I was little, played at Dad's feet or along side his sprawled out body on the floor of my childhood home. I remember taking either action figures and having wars on his body, pretending it was a mountain of some sort or wheeling Hot Wheels along his off-roading-like frame. I remember the times he coached me and would roll his then fragile ankles and would never complain about it. I remembered the countless rainy practices and games he spent on the side lines cheering me on. There were so many things he did for me that make me smile.

I remember the dark days when he would hide in his bedroom and I wondered why he didn't want to see me. He told me he would tell me why one day. I don't think I ever asked him again, exactly why, and I'm not sure I really want to fully comprehend his reasoning. But I have come to some resolutions around his actions and I'm settled and resolved.

Through it all Mom has been such a champion. Cyndi, in a quiet moment, told me something that will forever change my attitude towards my mother about how she captured his heart. She told me that after Dad divorced Cyndi's mom, Mom saved him. She became the angel that moved him from a very dark and dreary existence back into the light and she saved him. I know very little about those days in my dad's life and through this trip understand a little more but to know that Mom was a savior of men and specifically to my dad is such a great game and attitude changer for me.

I'm at the airport now, heart still feeling pretty heavy, shoulders slumped a little more than before I made the journey, but I feel good about what I experienced and feel like things are moving along on the right path. Life is always a choice of paths and sometimes we need some course corrections. They come in the form of experiences, reflection, at times repentance and for me the dependency upon a loving God that wills me forward. Knowing that I have a loving family, both the one I was born into and the one I've help to form, gives me a tremendous amount of peace and I'm so grateful to them. 

Thinking about Dad's last leg of his journey and paralleling it with my own two leg journey for the day I can see some similarities. I'm at the mercy of pilots I've never met but in whom I've put my trust for life and faith to deliver me to my final destination. I don't have to understand the route exactly but I do have a broad overview of where it will take me. I don't need to know how to fly the plane, which seat I'll be in, whether I'm asked to change seats, who will be my various traveling companions, whether I'll have WiFi connection in flight (I won't spring for the extra $14.99 for 6 hrs cause I'm cheap like that), what will nourish me, whether the journey will be free of bumps and jolts. An even bigger question of whether I'll arrive at all used to worry me when I was younger but I've learned to put that aside and allow my faith in those in control to do their job on my behalf and come what may everything will work out fine. 

Dad is traveling the same course at the moment but in such a compressed time frame. Ultimately he's returning home to a loving God that is in full control and helms his personal plane to heaven. He no longer has control of whether he's even going to check in or get on the plane. It's already departed. The question is how much trouble he'll give to the flight attendant that is laboring on his behalf to fluff his pillow, bring him the free in-flight food, give him his favorite drinks and milkshakes and lovingly care for his every need (thanks Mom!). His final traveling companions will remind him of loved experiences of their youth, times they've shared, will listen as he utters a few words, and most likely will fade in and out of the seats around him, helping him to enjoy the final flight. The pilot calls out to him and lets him know that the no so distant destination is now in sight and life's final flight is descending to warm, sunny skies, free of care and turmoil, and brilliant light sourced from love enveloping those that arrive. When the gates open on the other end for him, what a glorious scene will unfold as he's greeted by a whole host of family with signs that read, "Good to See You Friend," "Welcome Home Son," or "We've Missed You Grandson!" I'm sure the hugs will be long, the tears will be unsparing, and the reunion monumental.

But until then, the flight continues and we'll cheer him on, both during the flight, from the ground, connecting where we can and ever loving Dad for his life and example he set.
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