Friday, May 12, 2017

Watching the signs grow, seeking discerment

For a Christian, discerning the times is important. How do we live in the midst of unbelief or revival? How do we react in a society that has reached the edges of collapse amid the decadence of materialism? Or how do we live during the years of spiritual hunger and intentional seeking after God? The same is true when we consider the lives of our loved ones when they are sick and in need. And part of that discernment is discovering why someone close to us is finding life so difficult. Perhaps why they are reacting in anger, why they do the seemingly strange things they do.

Almost thirty years ago, visiting my father-in-law and his wife, my husband’s step-mother, we laughed about several incidents but then never considered that anything was wrong. My father-in-law, and he could be rather pushy, made a big deal about his wife using instant coffee in the coffee maker. He said this because coffee grounds can look like instant coffee when they have been used, and so not ‘remembering’ that instant coffee would have disappeared if boiling water was poured over it, he lectured my mother-in-law about using the wrong coffee.

Later, on Sunday morning, Amy called me into their bedroom to help her convince her husband Jack, that he was dressed strangely. His plaid shirt did not match his checkered pants. Jack had always been a very sharp dresser and she didn’t understand why he insisted on dressing that way for church. (She outflanked him in pushiness.) I don’t remember who won that battle, but I carefully stayed out of it.

I am sure that Amy, experienced many other dilemmas before they both discovered what was wrong, Alzheimer’s.

Watching a loved one, especially a spouse slowly lose parts of themselves, is devastating, to say the least. It is called the long goodbye.   

My husband Brad was at one time the main Steinway piano tuner in Sacramento.  He tuned for both individuals and concerts including the University of California at Davis, and the Mondovi Center. It was a wonderful career, an honored career. And I enjoyed the fruits of his labors in many ways including attending many concerts. Our experiences together were so fun: back stage at ‘Governor’ Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration concert which included Jack Benny, back stage at a Johnny Cash concert, backstage at a Garrison Keillor show where we were invited to sit with the performers as they waited for their turns on stage. What a gift.

He made chili for Ursula Oppens at the Bear Valley Music Festival, shared dinner with Russian pianist Olga Kern, at the same festival, and tuned pianos for Kathleen Battle and Wynton Marsalis concerts.

And the friends, so many. Piano teachers, concert pianist, families, churches—God has blessed us both through these many friends.

And then Brad kept forgetting tunings he had for the university on Sunday afternoons. He forgot to pencil them into his appointment book. And that became one of the final problems—over about a three year period—he slowly lost the ability to schedule the Sunday appointments and after he lost the person who made his weekly appointments he couldn’t do that job himself. I heard him on the phone telling old customers how glad he was to hear from them and that he would gladly tune their piano, but he never made the appointment or called them back. I took over the job. At the end he couldn’t drive and one of his son’s drove him on his days off. And then he couldn’t tune—partly his eyes—partly his inability to sequence—and I am sure just loss of memory.

There were earlier clues. They started slowly but finally came fast and furious. An inability to follow rules and sequences in games, our two favorites, cribbage and scrabble. I put them away out of my sight several months ago. An inability to take care of money or business issues. But it happens slowly at first. The questions come. Why didn’t that bill get paid? Why is it that every time he takes checks to the bank he makes a mistake on the deposit slip?

And now the loss of language, and the loss of memory of recent events. (But not all!)

What I am trying to show here is that there are early clues and awareness is a friend although painful. The doctor gives a small test, checks everything else out, and then if needed sends the patient to a neurologist, who gives further tests and does Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain.  

And all of this is so important, because how else to understand the person you love and their loss and yours. I find myself trying, praying, to put away the demand sound in my voice when I ask why are you doing that? What are you looking for? I already told you we are going …! How now shall we live, Francis Schaeffer asks in his timely book. Indeed, how shall I, or any of us without the love and promises and presence of Jesus Christ in the midst of our sorrow.

Today Brad went for a walk, he does that safely for now, although he does get lost trying to use his bike. He told me, when he returned, how he had met a man in the park who was a Jehovah Witness and who had also spent time “in the big house.” Brad used to do prison ministry. He sat and talked with the man about Jesus. Perhaps in the end God turns us from what seems like great events toward his better events—witnessing to the lost about Jesus.


Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The crown of glory ... and some dirty clothes

Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. The Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! Indeed, the Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is this not a brand plucked out of the fire?” Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments and standing before the angel. He spoke and said to those who were standing before him, saying “Remove the filthy garments from him.” Again he said to him, “See, I have taken your iniquity away from you and will clothe you with festal robes.” Then I [Zechariah] said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments while the angel of the Lord was standing by. (Zechariah 3:1-5)

My husband has tucked away among his keepsakes a shirt his mother made him when he was a little boy. It is covered with pictures of trains and train items. It is so old it is starting to fall apart. Clothes and memories are often intertwined. Brad has always loved steam engines. When he sees the shirt he is probably thinking of his mother and his many experiences with trains.

The Bible sometimes uses clothes as metaphors which embrace the promises of God. Sometimes clothes are a picture of our sinfulness and our repentance. People have an interesting relationship with clothes. The good wife of Proverbs clothed her family in scarlet. Jacob gave his favorite son Joseph a coat of many colors.  The armies of heaven are clothed in white.

But how clothes are worn and treated can be a symptom of disease.  In practical terms people experiencing mild cognitive impairment and different forms of dementia have a problem with clothes. And a problem with cleanliness. No one knows why they don’t like showers or bathing. But many do not. No one knows why they don’t like to change into clean clothes.

Thinking about this I thought of the verses I have placed above from the prophet Zechariah. And while I have at times not had the tolerance I should have, about not showering or changing clothes, God truly blessed me with promises that these verses and the rest of the chapter provided. But first the biblical context.

Joshua, as high priest after the Babylon captivity, represents the people gathered from their exile. Satan wants to accuse them of their past sin, but God wants to redeem and does redeem them. Joshua does not change his own dirty clothes, it is God’s command and God’s doing.[1] And there is a promise at the end of the chapter of the coming Branch, the servant of God. The Messiah.

Sometimes I think we, me, as caregivers get a bit snobbish. About cleanliness. But this person who loves to stay in the same clothes day after day, and generally would if allowed—has that sweeter disposition—it’s the people who he cares about, it’s the books he wants to share and the conversations he hopes for. His is a heart transformed in the middle of a reluctance to conform to my expectations. So, as some expert I read, I can’t recall who, stated, two or three showers a week is enough. And if necessary lay out the clean clothes. And you might add, it is going to be hot today you might want to wear a short sleeve shirt, or I think it is rather cold outside why don’t you take your jacket.

And now the blessing. As usual the biblical text is speaking of a particular time in Jewish history. After the exile, while the temple is being rebuilt. But the text is also a promise of God’s work in his people’s lives and a promise about a coming savior.

Thomas Edward McComiskey in his commentary on the text writes of Joshua receiving a clean turban and points out that this replaced the shame the people felt because of their past sin and exile. As he puts it, the turban “crowns the high priest’s glory.” McComiskey goes on to remind his readers of a crown in the New Testament. He writes:

“The New Testament speaks of the “crown of glory” that completes the believer’s process of glorification: ‘And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away (1 Peter 5:4; see 2 Tim.4:8; James 1:12; Rev. 2:10).’ As Joshua stands before the heavenly assemblage in this vision, he symbolizes his nation, but he foreshadows as well the experience of the believer under the new covenant.”

The image I am left with is of a Savior who will clothe all of our brokenness with a clean turban, a crown of holiness, which is his and his alone. I will see him, Brad, in the cleanest of clothes that will shine with the righteousness of Jesus. And because of that I see him different now—glorified with the love of Christ.

[1] For good commentary see, Joyce G. Baldwin, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, in Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries & Thomas Edward McComiskey, “Zechariah,” in The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical & Expository Commentary. Vol. 3 (Baker).

Friday, April 28, 2017

Tacos, hospitality & dementias

So why Tacos With Grace? I wanted to have grace in the name and when I went looking through the post I had written, the taco part just jumped out at me. As a family we have experienced many taco meals. They used to be big family events, first at my husband’s home and then after we were married and had children at ours. My husband’s grandmother, Mary Curd, was partly Native American, a great cook, who had her own Mexican recipes. She taught her daughter, my husband’s mother to make tacos and she taught me how to make enchiladas.  There were a lot of Louisiana relatives who gathered with my husband’s Oklahoma, New York and California family to enjoy the feast.

Yes, grandma and her family belonged to the great exodus of families who traveled to California out of the great dust storms of the plains. Finally, settled in Pacific Grove, Mary worked in the canneries of Monterey.

But this is about gatherings, feasting, enjoying hospitality alongside mild cognitive impairment, dementia and Alzheimer’s.  

Large gatherings, even family gatherings, are hard for those with various dementias and mild cognitive impairment. My husband tends to sit off by himself and can be very quiet. He loves to see all of the great granddaughters—yes they are all girls. He likes to play with the children but sometimes there is just too much noise. Here are the problems:

Noise: (Most people with these disorders have trouble with noise. When I am putting dishes away in the kitchen Brad is always asking me if I broke something.)

Confusion with so many people: (comprehension is hard and with many people talking comprehension is impossible.)

Confusion with a table full of food: (Brad has trouble with sequences—he will just stand there looking unable to make food choices or even understand that he should pick up a plate first. I usually guide him or do it for him.)

Too long a time is tiring: If the gathering is at our house, I suggest that when everything is too much Brad just go in the bedroom and read or lie down. If we are somewhere else with a lot of people I try not to stay too long.

Hospitality is a Christian gift and blessing but it must be approached differently for people with brain disorders. My sense of care for the other has now to be mostly focused on Brad. One of the great ways hospitality happens in our family is when a son and his wife comes and takes us out to eat and brings a movie to watch. Or a daughter brings food and her family and we eat together. Or old friends, just a couple, invite us for dinner, so only four of us eat together and share conversation. Or maybe just one family member or friend comes and sits, drinks coffee, and talks.

We are called to be kind and full of love like our Lord. This is sometimes hard because it feels like isolation when ministry goes from many to one—but God cares for the one as much as the many. Psalms 136: 23 “Who remembered us in our low estate, for His lovingkindness is everlasting.” He remembers us even when we are forgetting many events and people. He loves us through Christ our Lord.
The video below is for all of those suffering:

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

There are those days and times when reality comes unglued.

by Viola Larson

There are those days and times when reality comes unglued. The shattered reality then gets scattered all over my sense of security. We are watching, at home, a movie, sitting side by side. He keeps looking behind him for something. “What is it I say?” “I am looking for you, I want to sit by you he says.” I am stunned but it doesn’t happen again. Not yet.

We put the groceries away in the back of the car and, as he always has, he takes the cart to put it away.  I wait and then I see him return with the cart, open the back of the car and start to reach for the groceries. I ask him what he is doing and he says he is putting the groceries away.

We are having tacos for dinner. He actually makes the salad, while I cook the tacos and grate the cheese. And then he dumps his very hot, hot sauce all over the salad instead of putting it into his taco. I yell, “Stop” grab a large serving spoon and remove the top part of the salad with the hot sauce and put it on a separate plate.

It isn’t, as some think, just memory loss. It is confusion, loss in many ways. This is mild cognitive impairment which we were told may get better, stay the same or progress into some type of dementia such as Alzheimer’s, a disease his father died with—probably his grandfather also. The grandfather’s death certificate says died of insanity. When we obtained it, almost thirty years ago, we had no idea what that meant.

My husband’s younger sister has now been diagnosed with early dementia.   

But here is something good. He loves to read. He loves to visit and will start a conversation with strangers, well, just because they smiled at him. He does, after all, look like Mark Twain. Just a week ago a lady stopped us in the grocery store. She asked me, “Has anyone ever told you your husband looks like Mark Twain?” Both my husband and I laughed. Strangers have walked up to him on the street to tell him they know who he is.

And he looks for an opening, to tell the stranger, about Jesus.

Brad is so sweet now—will yes—sometimes when I can’t understand him, or he can’t understand me, he gets loud. (And I have gotten loud, thinking he can’t hear me when actually he isn’t comprehending what I am saying.) But this is my time for learning patience. I am not a patient person and I too often forget that something is wrong. I have spent too many years enjoying the fun (yes, fun) of sparring with him over intellectual ideas. Our two ideal games, scrabble and cribbage, we can no longer play.

God is giving me his grace and insistently pulling away, here and there, my very rough edges. And he is teaching me to trust in ways and places I have-not experienced before.  Everything, is now my responsibility and so I am learning to hand it all back to the Lord I have walked with for so many years. Without the Lord Jesus Christ, ... But now, instead, while there is grief there is a great deal of joy, even fun. Yes, again, fun.

I will use this blog to write about our journey through this awful disease. Many do not understand it or think of it as only memory loss. Too many caregivers have been deserted by both friends and family (Not me!). I want to share what this journey means from a Christian point of view. It is an exploration for me as well as others.
Here is a book I recommend: Second Forgetting: Remembering the Power of the Gospel During Alzheimer's Disease by Dr. Benjamin Mast