Epiphany in the Memory Unit

Image of a profile of a person's face with light illuminating the cheeks and forehead, the face is shrouded by a round blurry object in the foreground.The priest’s wife handed me her half full can of beer. It was Christmastime, and the beer she was offering was a Texas IPA, sweating seductively on the table between us. I brought the can to my lips and the slightly bitter taste of the half-warm beer filled me with relief.

I needed a drink. It was 7 p.m., and I’d arrived late. We would be heading out to sing carols at the Alzheimer’s unit of a local nursing home, a well-appointed facility near the neighborhood in Houston where I am a music minister and where the priest’s wife’s husband is rector.

The nursing home smelled faintly of Clorox and overcooked vegetables—as I suppose all nursing homes do—but I had been unprepared for the regret that hit me with that smell. [Read more…]

The Song of the Desert

dots-by-barbara-w-on-flickrThe Word of God which is his comfort is also his distress. The liturgy, which is his joy and which reveals to him the glory of God, cannot fill a heart that has not previously been humbled and emptied by dread. Alleluia is the song of the desert.

—Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer

When the hospice nurse and social worker come to my parent’s home the first time, they are not what my sisters and I expect. Perhaps I was expecting a cliché: calm and restful sorts, hired because of their ability to show quiet dignity to patients who are dying. Instead, they are chatty and gregarious. Though their demeanor is initially surprising, there is a certain charm and assurance to their lack of worry about being so close to death; surely they also need a way to cope with the heavy burden of their job.

They are kind and highly knowledgeable, but they rush my mom through the heavy information about signing Do Not Resuscitate at Home forms, the different kinds of pain management options, and noticing the stages before death.

The nurse enthusiastically declares that she used to be afraid of morphine but she loves it now because of the relief it offers to suffering patients. I suppose it could seem jarring to someone newly acquainted with hospice care, but I think it’s necessary for my mom to hear. She’s been afraid of giving my father too much pain medication, afraid that she’ll be the one to kill him, not the cancer. [Read more…]

Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea

The cast of Manchester by the Sea dressed up for the release of the movie, standing under a title of the movie. It’s impossible to speak of Kenneth Lonergan’s film Manchester by the Sea without alluding to its major premise: Some events in life simply can’t be overcome. However, stating that conclusion does not betray the work’s plot, because from the outset the story depicts a man upon whom a terrible blow has been dealt.

There is no hiding the reality of Lee Chandler’s all but palpable melancholy. Casey Affleck (the much more talented actor of the two Affleck brothers) shows the quiet range of his skills in the glassy-countenanced depiction of a suburban-Boston janitor whose sorrow is wrought into every movement of his mundane life. One doubts that he even feels the cold of the snowy New England winter as he loads a dumpster with trash and brushes off the advances of bored tenants.

So when news comes that Chandler’s older brother has passed away back in his hometown, the loss, though felt, has the effect of another stripe added to the back of a whiplashed mule; the animal winces, but is far too calloused from old, deep injuries to cry out in any audible way. Still, what he finds when he arrives for the funeral is a complication that adds new dimensions to his burdens. [Read more…]

Hea i ka Haku

david-salafia-office-still-life-on-flickrOn day two we fired the harpist.

“The music is really very lovely,” the nurse had explained, as if we’d never heard a harp before. My sister and I sat facing each other in plastic chairs on either side of a hospital bed. We watched the nurse smear Vaseline on our mother’s lips. Our mother’s eyes were closed, and she continued the loud, gurgled breathing that began after she lost consciousness from her second stroke one floor below us in the emergency room.

“She’s played for several patients and the families are always so grateful. I’ll give her a call and let you know when she’s available.”

We thanked the nurse. We watched her peel off her purple latex gloves, flip open the garbage pail with one foot, and drop the gloves in the can. “No problem,” she said, and left, pulling the door closed behind her.

I turned to my sister, “No harpist.”

“No harpist,” she agreed.

The first stroke hit my mom at home. My sister had stopped by to say hello to her and noticed the right side of her face drooping. And her language was strange, although not in the usual way, not funny, but garbled. [Read more…]

I Miss Gwen Ifill

20161219-gwen-ifill-on-wikimedia-creative-commonsFor Kate Keplinger

It is the blight man was born for
It is Margaret that you mourn for…
–“Spring and Fall,” Gerard Manley Hopkins

“I’m sorry for your loss,” my friend Dionne posted in response to a note I posted on Facebook.

I’d just come back on the redeye from the West Coast that morning, and stayed home from work to catch up on some sleep. I was puttering around in the kitchen in my nightgown, my mind in a fog, when I heard on the three o’clock newscast that journalist and news anchor Gwen Ifill had died.

I immediately called my husband, who was picking up the children from school, with the news.

Suddenly I felt even more at loose ends than I had on the morning after Election Day, stunned by yet another instance of how, overnight, the landscape around me had shifted. Except in this instance, the feeling of being unsettled hit me more forcefully.

Here’s what I posted on Facebook: “Memory eternal, Gwen Ifill. Our whole family will miss our Friday pizza nights with you.”

It didn’t occur to me until I saw Dionne’s response that it might appear that said Friday pizza nights might be with Ifill in person—as opposed to a picnic on Mommy and Daddy’s bed watching Washington Week. [Read more…]