In December, I attended an art show of a new friend*. His lakeside gallery was filled with beautiful watercolors, silk banners, stone lithographs and more. In a small sun-filled corner was his latest commissioned project currently in progress. Around the easel were photos of the subject and all the requisite tools of an artist: containers of paint, brushes, rags, drop cloth, etc. In the center of it all the client’s requested seascape was forming on an oversized canvas. Brushstrokes had created the silhouettes of cliffs, trees, the horizon, and rock formations. But to my surprise, it was all done in red paint. Not what I expected. He explained this was a special technique and when he later applied the familiar hues of sand, water, and sky, the red base underneath would bring warmth to the entire composition. Layers would also be added in some areas that needed intensity in their depth. The idea completely intrigued me – setting down a foundation to make what was later placed over it feel warmer and stronger.
For weeks afterward I thought about it and I found myself comparing the painting to my life as I face challenging times. Do hard times just hit me free and clear? Do I just hold my breath hoping it’s not too destructive this time? Or have I laid a foundation that lessens the impact of these challenges, making them not quite so dark and damaging but allows warmth and strength to seep through?
When I freely give control of the purpose and design of my life to God, I also take the responsibility to follow and keep up with Him as He moves. I need to create a base that helps me hold onto Him as He adds to and subtracts from my life, or when He takes me in a direction I haven’t anticipated and don’t understand. That base layer – my red paint – shows through and helps me stand firm. That layer is more than just having a positive attitude or reciting affirmations. I must deliberately lay down thick, red brushstrokes of hope and grace. Hope that comes from remembering His faithfulness to me in the past and trusting He will continue to do good things now and in the future. Grace that reminds me that I don’t have to be perfect and I am not relying on my own abilities to get everything right.
When I intentionally build towards His purpose for my life and I equip myself with hope and grace, I can pursue it with a sense of warmth and strength, even when my life is not picture perfect.
*Steve Scheibe is an accomplished and awarded artist with over two decades of professional art experience. On his website, visibleinvisible, he has posted “An Oil Painting in Progress” which follows the development of this project. While you’re there, please browse through the rest of his site and enjoy the other excellent artwork Steve has produced.
The morning started with me picking up my father’s ashes. By the evening I am miles away standing and watching a storm brew over the ocean. The rain slowly, relentlessly drums on the window. My friend, Sandy, is tucked into the couch with her nose in a book. I am at the table with my laptop, tapping away at some journal-entry-turned-stream-of-consciousness when I realize I am typing in rhythm with the rain. I return to the table and think about this first day of our getaway. Sandy’s plans for a solo day trip for a wedding at the beach morphed into long-weekend treat for me to escape the grief of these eleven days since Dad’s death.
As I prepare for bed I notice my cell phone is lit up, indicating an unseen message sent at least an hour earlier. The text is from my sister: MOTHER HAS HAD A STROKE. ON THE WAY TO HOSPITAL. WILL LET YOU KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON WHEN WE KNOW. My mind goes blank. I call her back and get the details and we try to determine whether I should leave immediately or wait to head out on the three-hour trip the next morning. There’s not enough information yet.
As I wait to hear back, I make a shallow attempt to pack some of my things. Sandy calls her husband and they decide I should take their car and worry about getting her back home later. Close to midnight the call comes. Mother will not make it. I am needed. Sandy hands me the keys to her car and says, “Please drive carefully.”
It’s a long drive, very late at night, and it turns violently stormy. Windshield wipers are on full force and seem to set the pace for the speed of both the car and the tumble of thoughts about losing both my parents almost back-to-back. My phone’s headset is my only connection to the real world that I am driving toward. I conference call in to my family and listen in on consultations with the medical personnel at the hospital. I chime in now and then with what I know first-hand of her end-of-life preferences.
“She specifically said she did not want any heroic measures.”
I take my foot off the accelerator and change lanes to pass by a serious road accident, red and blue lights flashing everywhere off the wet pavement. The irony of the moment is not lost on me.
It becomes more and more obvious that Mother is, in essence, gone. Only a breathing apparatus is keeping her alive.
“Don’t keep her going for me.” I try to be firm and unemotional. “It’s okay if you want to let her go right now. We had a really good visit last weekend. I don’t want her to have any suffering on my account.”
The doctor assures everyone that Mother feels no pain, is not in distress, and that it is no problem to wait.
“Don’t wait for me,” I repeat. I am outvoted.
A plan is developed where someone in the family will meet me at a Park and Ride lot about forty-five minutes from the hospital and they will drive me the rest of the way. I tumble out of the lonely little fishbowl of a car into the warmth of family to share this newest loss. At 3:00 a.m. we pull into a parking spot at the downtown hospital. It is cold and dark and damp. On my own I never would have been able to navigate these streets or find the off-hours entrance into the building, or the room where I needed to be. Her room.
When I step into the world of the Intensive Care Unit, it feels like I’ve dived into the deep end of a swimming pool. The loudness of the outside world halts abruptly. I am underwater, moving slowly. Sounds are muffled. The dim lights are almost like waves. The edges of the room are bathed in dark sepia tones. A soft light glows down between the Gothic machines on either side of the bed. The “ch-ch-ch” of the breathing machine catches my attention and my eyes follow along the labyrinth of tubes to the unwanted reveal of the face of the patient. Mother. But not Mother. She looks as if she is taking a nap, but uncomfortably. Her gray-brown bangs are pushed roughly back from her forehead. I reach out to put her hair in place properly, but it won’t stay. The thought crosses my mind that she must have been attached to other equipment for a while.
I take her hand in mine and say, “Mother, it’s Pam. I’m here… and I’m not wearing any socks.” There is soft laughter from those who know the running joke between us. I try to kiss her cheek but the side guards on the bed prevent me. Someone pulls them down. I stroke her face. I tell her I love her. I look at everyone. They have been waiting for me and, when I finish saying good-bye to her, it will be the end.
“This is so surreal.”
Everyone tears up and nods their heads. I know that Mother is not there. I know she left long ago. But I am not quite ready yet.
“We should sing grace.”
Mother’s tradition on holidays and at big family gatherings is for everyone to hold hands around the table and sing grace. We all gather around her bed. I take my mother’s left hand, my sister holds the right. My older brother always starts us off. He looks at the unbroken circle of family and chokes on his grief. My younger brother looks at him, smiles and nods encouragement, “You can do it.” Soon the song softly fills the room.
“For health and strength and daily bread we praise Thy name, O Lord. Amen.”
I look around the circle too. They are my mother’s children, their spouses, their children, and their children’s children. We are all singing our good-bye. I hug each of their necks as they depart. It comes down to the four original kids and three spouses to close out the chapter.
When the staff come in to remove her breathing tube, I step out into the hallway. I watch as one of my tears splashes in slow motion on the tiled floor. Back in the room it is oh so quiet as the seven of us wait. And, just as we did just eleven days earlier with my dad, we watch as life ebbs away and leaves the mortal shell of my mother behind. 3:30 a.m.
I choose to return to the beach and finish the long weekend. I walk what feels like miles in the damp, cool sand. I stand ankle-deep in the waves. The wet breeze circles around me and I sway with the motion of it, the ebb and flow of life.
It is my thirty-third day walking through these doors at the nursing home. The weather is quite warm and I’m desperate for cool, but there is little relief inside. My elderly father is napping when I reach his room. With his pallid complexion he is almost completely lost against the thin white sheet that covers him. He shivers in his sleep. I pull the heavier blanket over him and tuck it around his shoulders. Then I go straight into my afternoon routine of setting his half-eaten lunch tray aside for pick up; sorting through the papers that litter his bedside table, tossing notices of extracurricular activities and keeping the trivia questions for later; finding the cart in the hallway for a pitcher of fresh water and ice; and checking his closet to make sure the three shirts I bought him for his stay here have made it back from the laundry this time. Then I sit down in the wheelchair beside his bed – I learned weeks ago that it’s ten times more comfortable than the stiff visitor chairs – and I pull out my book and begin to read.
A few minutes later a nurse comes in for her routine and tries to remove his blanket and wants to open the windows to create a breeze. I reply firmly: “No, he is cold,” and wipe beads of sweat off my own forehead. She leaves in a huff of impatience. I don’t care. I have fought with someone on the staff – nurses, CNAs, physical therapists, social service reps – every. single. day over issues ranging from missing laundry to wrong medications to unattended catheters. We have come to an uneasy respect for each other.
I reach over to Dad and push back the snowy lock of hair that falls across his forehead. I remember when his hair was jet black; when his frame was lean, tall, strong, not almost skeletal and huddled in a hospital bed. I remember how he would come home from work in the evening and before he even took off his jacket, he would swoop me up to piggyback and we would gallop out to the backyard toward his beloved pigeon coop. As we neared it, he would let loose his unique five-note whistle, and the birds would dive and glide back to their home from housetops, trees, and telephone wires. Dad would release me to the ground and turn his attention to the scruffling of gray-blue feathers that followed him into the coop for the feed he would scoop into the trough on the floor. I would stand at the doorway watching but unwilling to enter. As they nibbled, he would close and lock the pen doors so the birds could rest for the night safe from the reach of predators. Then he and I would walk side by side back to the house.
I am shaken back to the present by Dad’s weak voice, “Hi there.”
“Hello,” I respond, “Do you know who I am?”
It completely shook me the first time he didn’t recognize me. But now I am used to it and have come to expect anything from “No” to a reprimanding “Of course I do, why wouldn’t I know my own daughter?”
Tonight it is a quiet, sort of insecure, “Yes.”
“Do you know where you are?”
“The hospital I think.”
“Yes, you’re in a convalescent and rehabilitation center.”
“Yes, you are recovering from breaking your hip.”
“How long have I been here?”
“33 days. You do physical therapy every day and you’re doing very well. Nothing to be worried about, you’ll remember everything tomorrow.”
He asks me if I am going to stay overnight with him. I explain I am going to have dinner with him and then stay until he falls asleep. He begs me to stay until morning. I decline, but assure him that I’ve been here every day and I promise I’ll be back again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, until he is out of here.
He looks out the window and comments on how pretty it is, and that he feels a little cold. I grab another thin blanket, unfold it, and with a huge flourish throw the ends up in the air and guide it as it floats down over him. He watches in fascination. I smooth it down all around him and ask, “How’s that?” Instead of answering, he brings his hand out and grabs hold of mine and smiles at me. I sit down beside him and smile into his crinkly blue eyes.
When dinner is delivered, it’s time for the evening routine. He sits up on the edge of the mattress. I pull up a chair to share the over-the-bed table with him. We eat and chat. He tells me what he can remember about his morning and I tell him the latest world news. A nursing assistant comes in to help him into the wheelchair for a spin down the halls. (“It’s warm in here,” she says. “He has no fat on his body,” I reply.) When we return it’s time for pajamas, settling in for the night, and solving the saved trivia questions. Finally he reclines back and falls asleep. I tuck him in, kiss his head, close the curtains, tape a note to the temperature controls – “DON’T TURN DOWN. HE IS COLD,” gather my things, and leave.
As I walk to my car, I think about tomorrow, day 34, and day 35, and day 36… and wonder how much longer the chain will grow before things start to improve. A trace of guilt about wanting change for my own sake tries to wedge into me along with the impatience and frustration towards the circumstances that are already there.
I lift my eyes up to the clear sky and say aloud, “God, please, let things change.”
A cool breeze stirs and a flurry of pigeons bursts into flight across the parking lot.