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The Challenges of Time

July 18, 2019

By Patty Crawford

When I walked into the Manor to visit my father, he looked years older than when I visited two weeks before. He was leaning to the left and his eyes were sleepy.  He recognized my voice and when I told him I had a surprise visitor, he remembered that I told him that Mark, his grandson, was coming to visit. Mark had his girlfriend with him, a woman who needed to meet this touchstone, this patriarch, before it was too late. He had advice for them, “get along.”  As we grew more comfortable I was able to touch his head and recite the poems he had taught me.  I used to hate to do that because I thought it was showing what Dad could “still” do.  Now I enjoy it because I need to hear the words again, from his lips.  He taught me a fisherman poem, so we recited it together.  I said, “When the wind is in the west.” He replied, “It is at its very best.” “When the wind is in the south” the reply came, “It blows the bait in the fish’s mouth.”  The words take me back in time. 

I was a little girl running downstairs from a cold winter bedroom. Mom was stirring the oatmeal in the kitchen and Dad was listening to WCCO.  I crawled in bed to keep warm and he taught me the poem. My father went through eighth grade at the same country school I was attending. I curled up in the warm bed and recited the poems with him.  Granted, they were a limited few, “September”, “To a Waterfowl” and this strange fisherman advice without an origin. My six year old self knew nothing of aging or that time would pass.

Years later, beyond the oatmeal, beyond the morning house, I try to navigate care giving and the challenges of time. I am so blessed to touch the skin of my father.  I am so blessed to hear his voice. When we left the Manor we were unable to hold back the tears. Mark asked, “How does my father do this?” “He blubbers just like us,” I replied.  This is what we do with the sacredness of aging.  This is what we do with the passage of time. It is something so profound we tremble and weep.

When I leave my father I do not know if this is the last time I will see him. I do not know if tomorrow I will be driving into Paynesville as an orphan or in three years I will visit on his 100th birthday. This is a painful place, not knowing and pre mourning, asking why, yet wanting to hear his still resonant voice one more time.  It feels like limbo, a mind numbing waiting room.  I search for meaning, a lesson about living my life.  An image of Vivian, a member of Open Circle, who has just moved into a memory care facility, comes to mind.

I received a call from her care partner last week. She had just facilitated the painful transition to memory care.

“We are going to South Dakota to pray.  Do you think that’s a good idea?” I could hear the wind blowing through the open car windows.

They had just left the doctor’s office with the suggestion that Viv’s physical discomforts were stress related.  In the past year at Open Circle her memory loss had carried her beyond language construction and into the world of yes and no. Sometimes yes meant no, but no always meant no. No is always a safe response when you don’t know what is being asked of you.  As a deeply spiritual and intellectual woman, Vivian had strong feeling about the people she was with and her environment. “I know she is aware of what is happening to her,” one of the staff commented during a meeting. It gave us all pause as we contemplated her career cut short, her house being sold, and her new relationship unable to grow as her memories swirled into a surrealistic cloud.  Her deep connection with the Native American community held her center.  They are a group of people who dare to think in a non-linear fashion.

“Go, that’s great idea!” I blurted out before my practical, linear brain even had time to vote. All the worrisome details about medication and adjustment to her new living arrangement went unsaid. They needed to go to her people, pray, be a part of the circle. This was sacred work.

So the lesson comes to me. The image of Vivian in a car with the windows open: her peaceful face feeling the breeze, her laughter at a pair of prairie dogs.  She is not remembering, she is feeling. She is on a linear highway heading for the circle of support. She is of the sky.  She is of the earth.  We all are, if we dare to think that way. My father is not lingering, he is remaining until the lessons are learned.  Today I learned there is no support in a straight line, the conveyor belt to the grave.  It is the circle and connection that bring meaning. Most lessons are not taught in the classroom. Sometimes the teacher is a woman with Alzheimer’s riding in a car, sometimes it is a man reciting poetry to his daughter and sometimes we see an eagle soar.