What Not To Do When There’s Nothing Much You Can Do

I don’t like goodbyes.

For years, when my mother and I are about to say goodbye–when the visit is drawing to a close, say, or one of us (why is it always me?) is about to take off on a new adventure–we have picked inane fights with one another.

We are quite expert at inane arguments. My dad once happened upon us in the kitchen, debating passionately, even Talmudically about seltzer.

Yes. Sparkling water. Seltzer. Fighting about it. With religious fervor. I don’t recall the specifics, just that my dad walked in and surveyed the scene silently, and then pointed out, very calmly:

“You’re arguing. About seltzer.”

The truth is that we are the best of friends, and saying goodbye is hard, and for whatever neurotic reason, it’s feels easier to pretend that we are furious at each other and can’t wait to get rid of the other than it is just to CRY and say I’ll miss you.

Is it possible that something similar happens when we are faced with old age or incurable disease?

In response to Monday’s post, one of my friends commented on the “manufactured controversies” that whip evangelicals into frenzies online, noting (as I did) that we are often very selective in what we get outraged over:

Bikinis? YES!

Shackling laboring inmates? NO!

‘Biblical’ gender roles? YES!

Unjust wages? NO!

Something dumb that John Piper just said? YES YES YES!

The same commenter noted:

Another social injustice [that's] invisible to Facebook is our casual neglect of the elderly.


I was talking to a friend recently who was off to see visit someone who was very, very ill. The friend mentioned feeling a bit nervous–which I think is really normal. Hospitals and nursing homes and hospices are not, generally speaking, cheery places, and it is awful to see people we once knew in their strength and vigor laid waste by old age or disease.

It’s easier push them from our minds, be upset about other things, forget that they exist, or try to fix them than it is just to BE WITH the old and the dying.

One of my favorite cartoons from the Dad archives sums this up well:

echinaceaWhen there’s nothing more to be done, it feels easier to just to stay away, or to pick a fight within ourselves that justifies our staying away:

“It makes me feel sad to see her in that condition.”

“He probably doesn’t even know I’m there.”

I’m no expert at any of this. I will admit that I dragged myself to the nursing home sometimes to visit Mr. and Mrs. S.: it is all so depressing. Sometimes there were things to do: potted plants to be watered, eyeglasses to be found and cleaned, shoes to be tied and nail polish to be applied, not to mention meals to be eaten and coffee to be drunk.

At the end, though, there is very little to do except simply to be. You resist the urge to have little seltzer arguments within yourself and just sit there for a long goodbye.

But I think that something similar is true for many of us with our everyday little traumas. We would like to escape the pain of them by bickering over seltzer; to pretend that the natural remedy du jour is just waiting to fix what ails us; to find a way to avert our eyes even from what is happening right before them.

I’ve just finished writing several different pieces about David Rakoff’s posthumously published novel-in-verse, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, which is a remarkable book because it sugarcoats nothing and is much concerned with death and the various kinds of small torments we humans inflict on each other, and yet, at the same time, is one of the most hopeful and life-affirming books I’ve read in ages.

What to do when there’s nothing much you can do?

Don’t bicker. Don’t try to fix. Don’t bring echinacea.

Just bring a little beauty, and a little kindness.

I’ll Meet You In The Place Where the Stuffed Kitties Are Real

Mrs. S. died a few months ago. She was 92, although woe betide you should you have mentioned that fact to her; she maintained to the end that she was 91. And who are we to argue?

She also maintained that the stuffed cats in her room were real. This was not actually a point of contention, but a matter of settled fact, one that I, and, mercifully, most of her caregivers at the nursing home, entered into in all seriousness. She would hold the cats and stroke them with concentration, talking to them softly, much the same sort of encounter she had with all her cats the entire time I knew her, which is to say, most of my life, and, if reports are accurate, much the same as she had done her entire life.


(At night, she said, the windows and doors would sometimes fly open, and dozens of puppies and kitties would come running into the room. It was very funny, she said, chuckling a little.)

This is not to suggest that Mrs. S. had ‘lost it’ or was ‘suffering dementia’ or whatever other clinical or dismissive term we might put to it. To be sure, there were times when she was confused, speaking as if out of a dream, but much about her remained unchanged nearly to the end. She was patient in affliction, tolerant of people’s shortcomings, and deeply confident.

“There’s just not enough work for me to do here,” she’d complain. (She was almost entirely paralyzed, but her sense of her own limitation wavered.) “I don’t know how I’ll manage to put the house back together; I’m afraid it’s all been put out of sorts since I’ve been gone.”

“I’ll help you,” I offered, knowing, of course, that she would never go home.

“Oh, you have enough to do!” she told me. “You are very busy.”

“I’ll make the time,” I said. “You’re a good girl,” she said.

Once Mrs. S. could no longer take solid foods, and the Fannie Farmer project—wherein I’d made dishes of the creamed and breaded and glazed variety so beloved of the WASPier members of the Greatest Generation—was over, I turned to puddings, which I’d bring after the dinner hour, when we’d sit in her room and watch Jeopardy. This was not the idle turning-to-television instead of conversation brought on by the degradations of age; we’d gone to the S. house to watch television since I’d been tiny, since we only got one channel, and that frequently snowy and full of static. We came for the Super Bowl and other big events; on ordinary days, we watched the news and the game shows, and there was always a bowl of Hershey’s Kisses, or, even better, a box of Andes mints, or, best of all, a carton of After Eight chocolate mints.

The first time I ever visited Greenport—the place in this world that I think of as ‘home,’ though I’ve traveled and lived far from there most of my adult life and, if I’m counting years, much of my childhood too—I ate at her table, slept at her house. I can remember nothing specific about that first visit, except a sense of deep and satisfying comfort. There was nothing unctuous about her hospitality; nothing pretentious or flashy, just a dignified ease to her welcome. I could play with the Barbies that were older than my mother, dress them in the clothes that, even as an eight year old, I recognized as incredibly superior in quality to those available in the 1980s. I could have a cold drink or a hot one; I could tag along behind Mr. S. as he made things out of wood and ask a thousand questions; I could feed the cats and try to catch the skittish ones in my scrawny arms for an entirely one-sided hug.

I was not just playing along with an old lady’s dementia the day I carefully took her kitten—the one pictured above and below—home to wash him and return him the next day.

(She stroked him and asked him to behave himself. Which he did, naturally.)

And there was nothing imaginative or fanciful in my promise to help Mrs. S. put her house to rights when she returned home. I was, rather, meeting her in the place she was, a place as real and true as her home in Greenport with its sensible furniture, beef stew, vintage Barbies and percale sheets. A place where her hands were not enfeebled by age and paralysis but were still the strong confident hands of an Army nurse, a woman who assisted surgeries and calmed the soldiers who shrieked in the night in the psychiatric ward where she worked during the war. A place where she daily and for decades bound up the still-weeping Purple Heart wounds of her husband; a place where she cooked meals and ironed shirts and petted cats and treasured her beautiful, carefully-kept china.

Place, Robert Farrar Capon writes, does not merely mean ‘location.’ Place is about encounter between beings. The kingdom of God cannot be plotted out by longitude and latitude; it is instead the place where God meets us, and we meet God and one another, with all the justice and love and goodness of heaven.

“What really matters [in the question of ‘place’] is not where we are, but who—what real beings—are with us. In that sense, heaven, where we see God face to face through the risen flesh of Jesus, may well be the placiest of all places, as it is the most gloriously material of all meetings. Here, perhaps, we do indeed see only through a glass darkly; we mistake one of the earthly husks of place for the heart of its mattering.” (The Supper of the Lamb)

My mom brought the kitten with her to Malawi; one of Mrs. S.’s last ‘things,’ a thing that she encountered with all the love and tenderness she ever had for every animal—and everything, really—that she ever touched. A bit of the placiness of Greenport—of Mrs. S.—is there when I look into his plastic button eyes.

I’ll take care of him for her, for now.

Photo on 2013-04-12 at 09.16

Jesus in the Nursing Home

It’s been hard for me to get back into the rhythm of the Saturday-night nursing home dinners. I love Mrs. S. {who was always the heartier eater since I began the palliative feeding project} but I hate how Mr. S. isn’t ever there any more when I go to the nursing home. That’s what it feels like: he isn’t ever there any more.

Yes, that’s very stupid, because Mrs. S. is still very much there, and she still appreciates a good meal and a good cup of coffee, not to mention a little company. I’ve been back a few times, and then several times I’ve cooked and my mom has brought the meal to her. Once I accidentally set her steak on fire and we had to cancel, not to mention that my dad got to play volunteer fireman for real (again).

This past Saturday my mom brought her some peanut butter cookies I made and a burger from her and Mr. S’s favorite local joint–

This was 'their' table.

I hate not going to eat with Mrs. S. And I know that I have to put my sadness at Mr. S’s absence from the nursing home aside and just do the thing I know is right. I’ve stopped in with donuts and coffee on a weekday, but the Saturday night rhythm is off. I feel sad when I go there and get on the elevator for the 2nd floor, instead of turning left on the first floor for Mr. S’s room.

Here’s the thing, though: when I finally do get ‘it’ under control (‘it’ being my nerves, or sadness, or whatever it is that makes me feel like staying away) I feel gloriously happy at the end of it all. Nursing homes are ugly and they have weird smells and depressing sights and sounds, but Jesus is right there, too. And hanging out with him, my mom, and Mrs. S. makes for a great Saturday night, even if there’s a gaping Mr. S-shaped hole there, too.

My dad and the boys, imitating a picture of Mr. S., who was my dad's sponsor in joining the volunteer fire department. You can see the black band my dad (and the other Star Hose members) wore on their badges for the months following Mr. S's death.

In Memory of Sam Hsu

Yesterday, our dear friend and teacher Samuel Hsu died as a result of injuries he sustained as the victim of a car crash in Center City Philadelphia. He will be mourned by so very, very many people, because he was so very, very special–a brilliant pianist and musicologist, yes, but also a beautiful human being full of kindness, gentleness, wisdom, grace, and great, great love. He is at peace; he is with God, but we mourn him so.

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

John Donne, Divine Sonnet X