Unexpected Mercies

The house felt cold when we walked in.

I can’t even remember what night it was. Friday? Was it the Friday after my mother died?

I hadn’t been home in I don’t know how long. Two weeks? Three? One?

Time stood still. Or it had flowed past like a river at flood stage. I couldn’t tell you that either.

But the house was definitely cold.

Upstate New York, you know. Near winter. Frugal husband. Since I wasn’t home, he barely turned the heat on.

My kitchen door

My kitchen door

We came in the side door, the one that leads directly to the kitchen, the door with the windows that face the sunrise.

The girls fussed over the dog. Bud carried stuff into the coat room. But I just stood there, trying to remember this place. This was my home, but suddenly it all felt unfamiliar.

Yet familiar.

The cluttered table.

The minimal counter space.

The cold.

A mountain of mail had fallen over, an avalanche of Direct TV advertisements and credit card offers. I started picking through the pile, finding the mail that really mattered, when a small cream-colored envelope slipped out from under some of the non-essentials.

It was handwritten in beautiful script that I didn’t recognize. I didn’t recognize the return address either.

Come to think of it — it must have been just a day or two after my mother’s death, because I remember wondering that anyone could possibly have sent a condolence card so quickly.

I turned it over and over in my hands, admiring the way she wrote a cursive capital “Z” and the way her “L” gracefully curved under the rest of the word “locust” – my street name.

My mother had beautiful cursive handwriting, too. Her “E”s were most elegant.

“What’s that?” Bud asked, coming back in the room.

“I don’t know,” I replied honestly.

My hands were trembling as I slid my finger under the deckle edge of the envelope flap. They were downright shaking as I pulled the little card out.

It said simply, “Blessings in the midst of it all.” No signature.SCN_0009

A folded paper fell onto the table. Trembling hands struggled to unfold it. My eyes could barely focus to read it.

“Dear Sally,” the typewritten letter began. “With apologies for intruding at a time that I understand is awfully full with family responsibilities and is not easy for you, I’m writing to tell you that I’m praying for you…”

I went back and read that line over and over and over. Someone I didn’t know was praying for me.

I glanced up at the date on the letter — October 22. It was written before my mother had even gone into the hospital.

The rest of the words jumbled around on the page. She had known Stewart. She had been reading my blog. She was praying for my family. She signed it, but I didn’t recognize the name.

It wasn’t until I read and reread it in the following days that I began to understand. God had known what I would need long before I needed it.

On that cold night, in my cold kitchen, though, I was suddenly warmed.

He had strangers praying for me.


I probably shouldn’t have gone back to swim practice as soon as I did, but I knew that Mondays were light on staff and heavy on kids. Besides, I thought it would do me good.

But one little swimmer kept telling me that I was doing it wrong and it bothered me.

“No, no, no,” he said, looking up at me, cheeks glinting with water, forehead squished down by his swim cap. It gave him a grouchy old man scowl.

“You doing it all wrong,” he said. “You don’t know how to do it.” And he pressed his lips into a pout.

“Julian, I’m giving other kids a turn to go first,” I tried to explain.

I go first,” he insisted. “You’re doing it wrong.”

It would serve no purpose to argue with a 6-year-old, so I kept going with the set, but I had lost my smile.

Maybe I never had it that day.

I felt adrift, unmoored, with no sense of time or joy. I was moving in a heavy fog since my mother’s death.

As I reflected on that swim practice, on the frustration I had felt toward Julian, and later on the irritation I felt toward my passel of 8- and 9-year-old boys, I thought, this is how old people get a reputation for being grumpy.

Those kids didn’t know that I had just lost my mother.

Nor should they have to make allowances for me.

They were just kids being kids.

Jacob -- It's hard to believe he could get on anybody's nerves.

Jacob — back in the nerve-jangling days

When my mother first started showing signs of Alzheimer’s, she had times of grumpiness. Things rattled her nerves — like the time that Jacob jangled the car keys on a glass tabletop. She blew up at him, and I watched him cower away, hands trembling, eyes wide. He was simply behaving like a little boy, fiddling around with whatever was at hand. But she was lost in a fog and couldn’t find her way out; that racket only added to her confusion..

I pulled Jacob aside later and told him that he hadn’t done anything wrong.

Another time he noticed the start of a Fucillo commercial and jumped up to turn off the television. Billy Fucillo has transformed “huge” into a two-syllable word: “huuuuuu-jah.” Our family finds it annoying. We turn him off. But this time, the commercial was right before Final Jeopardy. My mother was watching and she exploded. At Jacob.

“He’s a bad one,” she used to tell me when we played the guess-who-this-is game with photographs.

My mother’s Alzheimer brain had marked Jacob with a black spot.

I saw the way Julian looked at me at the swim meet yesterday. Big eyed. Wondering about this coach who didn’t clearly know what she was doing and wouldn’t listen to reason.

I thought about the way I would try to explain things to my children after unpleasant episodes with my mother. I wanted them to know that she wasn’t always like they saw her.

But Julian — will someone offer him explanation? Will his mother snuggle with him and say, “Maybe Coach has something hard going on in her life right now.”

And maybe that’s just it — maybe we all need Someone to settle our hackles after rude or disagreeable encounters.

Somehow we need to learn to hear God’s compassionate whisper in our ears — Maybe this person is going through something hard right now. Maybe tenderness and leniency are more in order. Peace, dear one. Be still.



SCN_0004 (1)At my mother’s memorial service, my sister used Ecclesiastes 3 to go through the highlights of my mother’s 87 years.

My sister said,

There was a time to be born…
and a time to die…
A time to grow up on Magnolia Street…
A time to pursue her chosen career of nursing…
A time to capture the heart of a certain young medical student.

Then, there was this —

There was a time for weeping…
perhaps with her first cancer diagnosis.
And the second one.
And the third.
And the fourth.
But Cancer lost every battle against my mother – big time – for those difficult times for her blossomed into a time of significant personal ministry. Mom used her experiences as an opportunity to reach out to other cancer patients with a message of hope.

PICT1363In the 1950s, when she was pregnant with one of my older siblings, my mother had a malignant melanoma. The cancer was removed from her calf. The surgeon then took a skin graft from her thigh to cover her calf muscle. I found an old picture of my sister and my mother wearing dresses made from flour sacks; my mother’s scar from that first cancer is quite visible in it.

As a little girl, I can remember tracing the divot on my mother’s leg and asking her about it. “I had a bad spot,” she told me. “The doctor cut it out.”

The bad spot story made sense. I had watched her many times cut bad spots from fruits and vegetables.

Her scars were never hidden. I explained the “bad spot” to my friends when they asked. The skin graft only came up when she was in a swim suit, and, truly, nobody seemed to care, least of all my mother.

In December 1982, I got a letter from my mother. In it she told me that she had found a lump in her breast and would be going in for surgery. I showed the letter to my husband.

“You need to go home,” he said, so I did.

But my mother poo-pooed the whole thing. “I’ll be fine,” she told me.

And she was.

Just minus one breast after a full radical mastectomy, and radiation, and chemotherapy.

But I can remember coming home for visits in the next few years, and she would get a call from the hospital when another woman had a mastectomy. My mother would go sit with the newly de-breasted woman and offer words of encouragement.

“Some women don’t feel like as much of a woman without both their breasts,” she explained to me. “I tell them they are still whole.”

In fact, in a sermon she gave called “Quest for Health and Healing,” she said,

I felt that it was important to talk openly about cancer and be willing to talk with others who either need someone to talk with who understands, or to answer questions that might be bothering someone.

… In closing, I just want to say that cancer does not mean you’re going to die; that we all need people who care about us to help us deal with the living of our lives. … The greatest need of our time is for Koinonia, the call simply to be the church, to love one another, and to offer our lives for the sake of the world.

It was in that spirit that I began writing about my mother’s Alzheimer’s. The physical scars on her body which she never sought to hide showed me how she would have wanted us to address the brain plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s. I think she would have said that we need to talk openly about dementia and be willing to talk with others who either need someone to talk with who understands, or to answer questions that might be bothering someone.

My mother faced life unafraid and unashamed.

I’d like to follow in her steps.



The little group of ladies always sit at the same table. Their hair is in varying shades of white and gray. They nearly always wear cardigan sweaters of pink or blue, baby colors, soft and sweet. They lean their heads in when they speak, a picture of intimate friends sharing their fears and hopes.

Night after night I hear the same conversation.

“I don’t have any money for a tip,” Esther #1 will whisper to Esther #2. Two ladies of the same age bearing the same name. Fifty years from now, their names will be Emily or Kayleigh or Megan.

Usually the server will hear and intervene. “Don’t worry,” she says. “Your bill has been paid.”

Both Esthers always look surprised.

“Who paid it?” one will ask.

“It’s all covered in your stay here,” replies the girl as she finishes wiping the table.

“I don’t think I can afford to stay here long,” one of the Esthers will whisper.

The other Esther will nod in agreement. “But what can we do?” she asks.

Last night, their conversation took a new turn.

“Did you notice that he knew my name?” Esther #1 asked, referring to food service fellow who was clearing the tables.

“Mine, too,” said Esther #2. “And he seated us at the exact same table.”

“I think they know all our names, “Esther #1 said.

“This is nice, because we can get to know each other,” replied Esther #2.

They sipped their coffee and ate their ice cream.

“I hope they have a room for me tonight,” Esther #1 said.

Patty, the most physically incapacitated but the most mentally with it, spoke up. “They have a room for you.”

Patty sits in a high supportive wheelchair that looks like a throne on wheels. I rarely hear Patty speak. When she does, it is wise.

“Are you staying here tonight too?” Esther #1 asked Esther #2.

Esther #2 looked puzzled. “You know, I’m not sure. What’s the name of this place?”

Esther #1 paused. She looked over at me with pleading eyes, but the fourth at the table spoke before I could answer.

“We’re in Cooperstown,” said Trina.

“But what is this building?” asked Esther #2.

Nobody answered.

Maybe nobody wanted to utter the dread words — nursing home.

“I hope they have a room for me,” Esther #1 said again. “It’s getting late, and I don’t think I can make it home.”

“You have a room,” Patty reassured.

“But how will I find it?” Esther #1 asked. Her lostness was wrapping itself around her, squeezing at her heart.

“It’s right over there,” Patty gestured with her head. “It has your name on the door.”

Esther #1 looked at the door and smiled. She turned to Esther #2. “It was nice meeting you. I hope you find a place to stay.”

“Me, too,” said Esther #2.

Me, too, I thought. We all need a place with our name on the door.

Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name.

(from “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” — theme song from “Cheers”)

Pressure Cooker

IMG_7729Warning — I’m venting. My pressure cooker weight is jiggling and I’m letting off some steam.

Mostly I’m mad.

No, mostly I’m sad.

Or maybe mostly I’m tired.

A lady down at the nursing home cries “HELP me!” all the time.

“HELP me!” pause… pause… pause… Until I think she’s not going to say it again, so I relax a little. Then, “HELP me!”

I’ve heard the nurses and aides talk with her to try to soothe her. “What do you need?” they ask.

“I don’t know,” she always replies.

Joan Jackson and Jay Richmond are like help-me lady. They wait just long enough for my guard to be down before they launch another attack. Most of the time I just shrug it off because, like help-me lady, I don’t think they know what they want either.

Sometimes, though, I get mad and I want to lash out at them.

“You want fat ugly pictures?” I want to say. “I’ll show you fat ugly pictures!” And then I want to look through for my fattest ugliest pictures to post.

But it would serve no purpose.

The pressure cooker weight jiggles with the pressure in the pot.

Anyway — mostly I’m sad.

Really. I’m sitting here weeping.

Two weeks ago, while I was in Nashville, my father fell, and, unbeknownst to the people who checked on him, suffered a subdural hematoma. I got home on a Monday, slept one night in my bed, came to Cooperstown, and have been here ever since.

On that Tuesday, he said, “I think that fall did something to my head.”

On Wednesday, he said, “I think I need to go to the hospital.” Of course, he was immediately admitted.

On Friday, he was discharged from the hospital to home, because I didn’t want him to go to the nursing home. I thought I could take care of him.

My brother stays with him while I go out occasionally, but mostly I’m here.

He moves slowly, which I can bear. What’s hardest is the confusion.

He wanted to go to the office yesterday, to check on the people. At 4:15 this morning, he was wondering what was happening at church. While he still solves the daily jumble in the newspaper, the daily crossword – something he has done for decades – now has become a new daily jumble.

It makes me so sad.

I am so so very tired.

I visit my mother at least once a day to help her with her meals and to tell her that Dad misses her and loves her.

I go to bed late because it takes some time to get my father to bed.

I sleep with a baby monitor on the night stand so I can hear him when he wakes up.

I do daily loads of laundry again.

Homeschooling is at a bare-bones level.

Raising eight children should have prepared me for this, but I’m out of practice for this type of mothering.

Last night I went for a walk to clear my head. While I was busy muttering at God about the too-much in my life, He gave me the reminder of the pressure cooker.

Patience, dear one.

My mother cooked often with the pressure cooker and that jiggling weight was accompanied by delicious smells. Something wonderful was going to emerge the pot.

What are You cooking up, Lord?



Michael Card began his session saying,”Always lead with brokenness.” Then, he led us in a song.  I scribbled the chorus into my notebook as quickly as I could. I needed to remember the words.

Come lift up your sorrows
And offer your pain
Come make a sacrifice
Of all your shame
There in your wilderness
He’s waiting for you
To worship Him with your wounds
’cause He’s wounded, too.

I had left the house for Hutchmoot, a hard-to-describe homecoming/conference that I attend, at 5 AM last Wednesday morning. Just before I left, I had checked my email and found that Joan Jackson (see “I Prefer Substantive Discussion“), now going by the name Jay L. Richmond, had left another comment on my blog.

It was a rambling diatribe full of personal attack. Here’s a snippet:

… Never let people see the real you. They would never believe the evil, delusional, egotistic, sociopathic person that hides behind [the mask]. … She has been a misfit all her life. Also, enough of the fat ,ugly, old looking pictures of yourself. You still don’t get who you really are.

I quickly copy-pasted the note to a group of trusted friends and asked them to pray for me while I drive. I didn’t want those words echoing in my mind when I needed to be concentrating on the road to Nashville.

And I didn’t. Dwell on the ugliness, that is.

When we lived in Wyoming, Bud and I had stopped to see a little pine tree that had grown out of a rock in the high desert between Cheyenne and Laramie. The story goes that back in the 1860s Union Pacific engineers had noticed the little sapling and would lean out the window of the train to pour water on it as they passed.

I thought about that pine tree, now big, and the rock it grew from, now quite broken, as I returned home from Hutchmoot.

If I had to choose my theme for Hutchmoot this year, it would be brokenness.

You see, someone took a whack at me before I left, but instead of hitting me, it was as if they hit the rock instead.

And the wounded rock broke just a little more, so that, as the water of Hutchmoot was poured on me by so many passing engineers, my roots were able to grow just a little bit deeper.

Timidly I had shared my story with Leah over that first Hutchmoot meal on Thursday night. She grew quiet as she listened. Fear started squeezing my heart with its icy fingers.

Later, in the sanctuary, I asked Leah, “Do you still like me now that you know my story?”

“I love you even more,” she said.

Water on my brokenness.

So Joan Jackson or Jay Richmond or whatever you prefer to be called, thank you. And I mean that sincerely.

And, dear friends, old and new, who spent the past weekend at The Church of the Redeemer, thank you, for all the water that is still making its way to my thirsty roots.

The Orchard

In 1968, I remember looking in awe at the catalogs with my father. The trees, heavy-laden with perfect ripe apples and pears, were low enough for the child in the picture to pluck them without standing on tiptoe.

When the trees arrived, I was even more awed. Surely these slender saplings would never – could never – look like the ones in the catalog.

The orchard in 1968

The orchard in 1968

Over the years the trees grew and yielded fruit. Small, imperfect, blemished fruit.

I grew in skepticism. Nothing is as it is advertised.

My father sometimes bemoaned the fact that he never sprayed the orchard. “We’re always in Myrtle Beach when I should get that first spraying in,” he would say, looking at the insect-ridden, blighted fruit.

It never seemed to bother my mother. She gathered the fruit, cut off the bad parts, and made apple sauce, pie, cake, crisp — you name it.

Over the years, I sort of forgot about the orchard.

Well, not really. I mean, it looks me in the face when I sit on the sun porch, which I do nearly daily. But you know how you see something so much that you just don’t see it anymore? Yeah. That.

This fall I’m seeing the orchard again. The trees are loaded with fruit. It is falling on the ground faster than anyone can pick it.

I’ve made some pies and crisps, but nothing like the production volume of my mother.

Bud gathers the rotting fruit off the ground so he can mow around the trees. Carts full of rotten apples are going to the compost.

Yesterday, I looked at the orchard and laughed. The trees are the very picture from those old catalogs.

I can reach right out and grab an apple — no device, no ladder, no step-stool.DSC05386

Their branches are weighed down with so much fruit.DSC05385

This morning I stood in the same spot my father must have stood 47 years ago and snapped this picture.

The orchard in 2015

The orchard in 2015

Bud cut up a bunch of apples for me yesterday. We are enjoying the fruits of his labor and my father’s so many years ago.

Apple crisp

Apple crisp

The skeptic in me has been silenced.

Perhaps that just it —

When I was a child I simply wasn’t patient enough or mature enough or something enough to see that the apple trees will eventually grow and bear fruit.

But the promises are true.