Advent – Getting back to the garden

When our children were young, a friend gave me a pattern for a felt nativity. It functioned as an Advent calendar with instructions for a daily family devotion or activity . Each day I would read a short message and someone would hang a sheep, or a star, or an angel on the large dark blue felt square hanging on our refrigerator door. The small felt pieces naturally clung to the felt background. It was such a simple little thing, but the kids loved it. They used to clamor for a specific piece that they wanted to hang. We counted the days until Christmas this way.

As the children grew older and were no longer interested in felt nativities, I started a little Advent devotion of my own. I bought several books and every morning I turn on my iTunes playlist filled with Celtic Christmas music, mostly instrumental, and I sit in my comfortable though worn leather rocker-recliner and read daily meditations from my Advent books.

This year I’m reading Advent Christmas 2000 (Year C) by Mark Link, S.J., Trim Your Lamps Daily – Advent Meditations by Fr. M. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O, Let it Be – Advent and Christmas Meditations for Women edited by Therese Johnson Borchard, and Kneeling in Bethlehem by Ann Weems.

I used to sing in the choir. We raised our children with a Catholic education and as a family we attended Mass every Sunday. We were actively involved in church and the associated school’s activities. We enjoyed friends in this faith community and it filled a place in our lives.

A lot has happened over the years. Our children grew up and left along with their activities that drew us into a faith community. The church’s priest scandal came to light and I found it difficult to forgive the decisions made by the church hierarchy. The Catholic church continued, and even strengthened, its position about the role of women. I looked around and thought, Can I really be an active member of an organization that would never allow me to be in a leadership role merely because of my gender?

When we moved out of the community right after Christmas in 2009, to get closer to my parents’ house, Mark and I sought and found a church we felt comfortable in. But without the children to pull us into activities, and with my continued issues with the structure and doctrine, in some cases, of the Catholic church and of organized religion in general, we have not been participating in church activities.

But I have not lost my faith in a higher order, in a creator, in the way to live, in God.

When I sit in my chair with the Celtic music playing softly and I read these Advent books, I feel a soft warmth flow over me and a very large hole inside me beginning to fill. And I know I am finding my way back home.

“We are stardust, we are golden—and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”
Joni Mitchell quoted in Advent Christmas 2000 by Mark Link

Resolving a quandary – one communication success story with Alzheimer’s

One of Dad’s first symptoms of Alzheimer’s was his inability to keep track of the days of the week.

Over two years ago, in July of 2009, I was driving to Dayton to visit my parents and I called to let them know I was on my way. Dad answered the phone.

“Are you going to go exercise today?” I asked him. Since he had been under the care of a cardiologist, he regularly went over to the monitored exercise facility at a nearby hospital.

“I don’t go on Sundays,” he said.

“It’s Wednesday,” I told him.

“Well, I’m not going anyway.”

I don’t know why my dad always thought it was Sunday. Maybe it was because he was raised by an extremely religious mother, and was a devout Catholic himself. The faith, the sacraments, attending Mass on Sunday morning, all those things were important to him.

This past Saturday Mark and I took dinner up to Mom and Dad to share with them. We were sitting around the kitchen table eating when Dad started making a motion with his hand over the wheel of his chair. I knew he wanted something but I didn’t know what. Mom and I both tried to ask him specific questions, but were unable to get to the bottom of it.

“Say what you what,” Mom said. “Maybe we should get the whiteboard out for him.”

“Maybe he needs a hankie,” Mom said noticing that his nose had started to run. I got one for him and that seemed to solve the problem. I also got the whiteboard and placed it on the table beside him.

Our conversation drifted to my memoir about Annie. I try not to bring Annie’s name up too much around Dad because it always makes him cry. But I had talked about the book at a nearby college class earlier in the day and I wanted to tell Mom about it.

Dad reached for the whiteboard and marker and started to write. “I” he wrote clearly. And then he wrote what looked like an “a” followed by what might have been multiple “m’s.” He was writing in cursive with small letters and a thick pen that all ran together. He also was not spacing the letters well and they were on top of each other. I had to watch the movement of his hand and try to guess the letter he was making.

“I am?” I asked.

He nodded. Then he continued to write what I was eventually able to decipher, with some effort, “in a. . .”

I had absolutely no clue what he wrote next. I guessed. Mom guessed. “You are in a what?” Mom asked. I asked Dad to print the letters really big. He wouldn’t. I started getting a sick, panicky feeling in my gut. What if I can’t figure out what he is trying to say? I thought. He was trying to communicate and I wasn’t able to understand. I got more desperate and tried to tease it out of him.

“Why don’t you say the word,” I suggested, “and I will spell it for you.” I think he got the joke, by the way he darted a look at me. My dad was always a big tease, and he could take what he could dish out.

All of a sudden, out of Dad’s mouth the word “quandary” came, clear as day. Jaw-dropping amazing. How did he manage to enunciate that word when he rarely speaks at all?

Uh oh, I thought. This was not going to be a simple “Pass the lima beans,” request.

“What are you in a quandary about?” I asked. Now I was really worried. Dad was upset, confused, or concerned about something and I might not be able to figure it out. We were talking about Annie, so I thought that it had something to do with her. “Write it down, Dad.”

“My daughter,” he wrote. “Which daughter?” I asked. “Are you in a quandary about Annie?” He nodded. Then I started to sweat. We had been at this for what seemed like an hour, although I suspect it was only several minutes. I started making guesses. I was afraid he didn’t remember that Annie had died.

“Are you wondering where Annie is?” He shook his head. “You remember that she died, and she’s gone now?” He nodded and began to cry. “What is it that you’re worried about?” Then I added, “You don’t have to worry about her now. She’s happy. She’s in heaven.”

He went back to the whiteboard and wrote something that looked like “Did a prt” and I eventually deciphered as “Did a priest,”

“Are you worried that she didn’t receive her Last Rites?” I asked. He nodded. The weight of the world dropped off my shoulders.

“She did, Dad. I was there. Mom and I both were there. Father Meyer came to the hospital early one morning and celebrated the Anointing of the Sick with us for Annie.”

“I told you about it, Jerry,” Mom said. “I hope you remember this time.”

Pulling threads of intelligible communication out of the Alzheimer’s plaques and tangles of Dad’s once-sharp brain was like wringing a drop of water out of a stone-dry sponge. But we got there. Thankfully, we did.

In the Mirror: A memoir of shattered secrets — author Ann Best’s story of faith, resilience, and inner strength

I don’t remember how Ann Best’s name first came across my computer screen. Perhaps it was while I was searching for memoir writers on Twitter. Or maybe she found me first and commented on my blog. In this digital world, names representing individuals pass across my screen. Some float across, never to return and others stick.

Ann Best’s writing sticks.

I visited Ann’s blog and read through her page Brain Injury: A Journey. With my experience having a sister with severe developmental disability, I suppose you could say I immediately connected with Ann’s writing and my heart went out to her.

I bought her memoir In the Mirror: A Memoir of Shattered Secrets, which is largely about her relationship with her first husband Larry who, after four children with her and eleven years of marriage, announced that he had been having relationships with other men. Ann responds to her husband’s infidelity the way she responds to the rest of the challenges she faces in her life, with faith, resilience, and inner strength. Ann and her husband try to hold the marriage together for eight years, but ultimately are not successful. In the memoir Ann also writes about the fateful accident that left one of her daughters with a severe pelvic injury and the other with a devastating brain injury.

In the Mirror is an honest and frank story about the additional challenges Ann faced in life: romantic temptation, financial hardships, alcoholism of a second husband, and difficulties with raising four children. In fact, Ann faces so many challenges in her life, through no fault of her own, that if  In the Mirror were fictional, it might not be believable. Oftentimes truth is stranger than fiction.

Through it all Ann maintains a strong focus on her faith. Good friends, her religious community, and at times, minor miracles see her through.

Ann writes courageously with a clean, clear style that keeps the reader engaged with it’s simple honesty and moving dialog. In addition to her captivating life story, Ann surprised and educated me about the strength of the Mormon community and the tenets of the faith which include the powerful role of the Bishops in individuals’ lives.

In the Mirror deserves a place on the shelves of women’s literature. It is the story of a woman in the 1960s and 1970s, long before the world embraced the empowerment of women in new roles, who got knocked down, picked herself back up, followed her dream, and scraped her way through to peace and contentment.

I read it in two days.

I am grateful that Ann Best’s name floated across my computer screen. I feel now like I not only know her, but am so very proud of her.

Ann Carbine Best was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. She now lives in the Shenandoah Valley, her favorite place, where she is full-time caregiver of her disabled daughter. Ann lives not far from her and Larry’s other three children and seven grandchildren. Over the years, she has published and won awards for stories, essays, and poetry, and is currently plotting two other memoirs. “I’ve lived long enough,” she says, “to write memoir.” (

The path with the light

I used to sing in the choir. Every Wednesday night at practice, every Sunday at Mass, and twice on Christmas Eve. My kids all attended the parochial school and we had a nice supportive community there at Our Lady of Lourdes parish.

It was during these years that I met Father Chris who was assigned to our parish early in his priesthood.

Two of my friends, and mothers of my son’s classmates, were fighting cancer at the time. I decided to start a Rosary prayer group for them with mothers who had kids in school. We met a half hour before school let out on a Tuesday or Wednesday, or maybe it was Friday. The group quickly evolved into a meditative prayer group when one of the participants asked Father Chris to join us. He taught us meditative prayer. It is one of the best things I ever learned.

I only tell you this because after my A Matter of Faith post, some of you may question my faith and convictions.

I remember these years at Our Lady of Lourdes as being among my most contented. My family was intact and at home. Nobody was seriously ill. Everyone was still alive. In some ways, I suppose, it was easy to be filled with peace and grace.

Eventually the prayer group dissolved as the kids moved on to high school and individuals went their own way. Father Chris was assigned to a new parish, (and eventually landed at the parish my in-laws belonged to while my father-in-law was still alive, and where my mother-in-law still belongs.)  I became disenchanted and largely disillusioned with the Catholic Church after the priest scandal and the church’s continued hard-line position about women’s roles.

I stopped singing in the choir. I eventually stopped going to the church except for rare occasions.

Yesterday my husband Mark wanted to go to church with his mother. I fully supported this and went along. Coincidentally, Father Chris was the celebrant. And because I equate him with a faith-filled, satisfying time of my life, and because I consider him a dear friend for the many things that we shared while he was at Our Lady of Lourdes, my heart immediately softened.

I feel like I am in a semi-permanent state of mourning with my Dad. I try to put my feelings about him aside and keep my emotions in check. I can’t live my life walking around carrying a bucket to catch all the tears. But seeing Father Chris softened my heart, and I sat down in church and proceeded to cry non-stop for the first five minutes, and then again at every song. Fortunately for me, and for everyone sitting within close proximity, there were only four songs.

I think I had an epiphany.

A thought came into my mind. When you are in the dark, find the light.

And very clearly I heard instructions coming from inside my mind, or outside of me in the church, or maybe from the universe at large.

“Get yourself on the path where there’s light.”

Sometimes it’s almost scary.