Tuesday, August 31, 2010

In A Roundabout Way

As many of you know, I am collecting a single teacup and saucer from twelve different countries (note: must be made in that country). This one came to me from India - in a roundabout way. Here's how it happened:

My daughter's
pastor's wife's
sister - was a missionary in India.

My daughter's mother-in-law asked this missionary to bring a teacup and saucer for me next time she returned to the United States. And she did!!

And I love it!!

Chapter 4 - Fear - Up Close and Personal

The next few years were busy years ... finishing high school, going to college, getting married, having a baby, being a "Pastor's wife". Outwardly I had it all together. I had no experiences with death since that episode in the nursing home. Eventually, the terrors at night came rarely. And when they did I would force my mind to repeat memorized poems, Bible verses, and anything else I could think of until I fell back to sleep.

Then, suddenly, I encountered death like I had never imagined. Completely unexpected to me, my dad died. Died. The man in whose home I lived for 18 years was dead. This time I could not ignore, I could not run out of the room and flee from it, I could not think it away. The grief was overwhelming and all-consuming. Along with my mom and siblings, I lived and breathed this loss, pretending to be so strong. As plans were made for the family service and the funeral service, my fears were added to my grief. There was no escape.

At the family service, the setting was beautiful. The soft music was playing, "Be not dismayed what e'er betide; God will take care of you..." Coming into the room I saw the open casket at the front. Praying, and acting strong, I made my way to the front. Dear dad; he looked so good, so peaceful, but .... so dead. As I was standing there alone, I reached out to touch his cheek. It was cold ... and hard. And suddenly, the assurance rushed over me - he is not here, this is only a shell. My eyes were opened and I realized emotionally a truth I had embraced mentally - the real person, the one we love, is a spirit. Our spirit lives temporarily in a body. When the body gives out, the spirit, the real person, moves to a new place. My heart flooded with peace, with understanding, with comfort.

I encountered death, up close and personal. Although the grief remained, the fear was gone. At least, the fear over the death of someone I loved was gone. I had finally reached the end of my fear journey -- or at least I thought I had.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Chapter 3 - Fear on the Job

My first “real” job was as a nursing assistant in a nursing home. After a shocking first few days, I learned to love and truly care about the residents. I found purpose and felt I was making a difference for these vulnerable aged. Whether it was feeding them, bathing them, or cleaning up their messes, I went about my duties with care and compassion. There were challenges I had never faced before, but I felt competent and fulfilled.

One summer day as I was going about my work, “spreading sunshine” (as my colleagues said I did) I started getting my charges up from their naps. I bounced into Mr. Olson’s room, singing a little tune. Thinking it a little strange that he didn’t respond the way he usually did, I went over to his bed, put my hand on his arm and gave it a little shake. Looking at him, I suddenly felt a cold fear sweep over my body. Something was not right. I ran from the room and called for one of the other aides to please come quickly. She took a quick look at me and ran into Mr. Olson’s room. Soon the room was full of people; one went to call the doctor, another started straightening out his bed, closing his eyes, making him look nice. I was plastered against the wall, watching what was going on, wondering what my role is supposed to be, and feeling very, very weak.

The nurse, noticing me on her way out of the room, said, “Audrey, you better go take a break. We can finish up here.” Running from the room, I locked myself in the bathroom, and leaned against the door, trembling. This was the first time I had ever seen someone who was dead. And it shook me to the core. Unexpectedly, with no warning, I was suddenly face-to-face with my biggest fear, my biggest demon. And I was unprepared. I resumed my duties, but I was never the same. The fears returned with a vengeance, just as before.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Chapter 2 - Grace Taught Me to Fear

My fear continued to follow me. It tormented my mind and my soul; coming as always like a thief in the night. I searched for peace, but could not find it. Finally, at age 15, partially driven by my fear, I had a true spiritual awakening; a new soul was born within me. It felt so cleansing, so good, so liberating. I felt that, finally, I had conquered my fears. But was I really freed ... or was I only using a new method to cope? I was soon to find out.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Chapter 1 - Fear, With No Hope

It was the middle of the night and I woke from my sleep. The demons had come back. The fear in my gut was real and it was strong. I lay in my bed hugging myself tightly to stop the trembling. I sat up, put on my bedside lamp and looked at my hands. They were very young, smooth and unblemished. As I looked at them I envisioned myself 50, 60, 70 years later. I could see these beautiful young hands spotted with speckles of brown, wrinkled and with thin, dry skin. And I felt my mortality. Though I had never seen a human death and never been to a funeral, I knew that someday I was going to get old and someday I would die. Death was fearsome and final. It was incomprehensible to me, as a pre-teen, that this could actually happen. But I knew it would and, other than dying young, there was no way I could stop it. Sometimes my mind went to the grave, to cold and dark and alone … and to decay. With time I learned to quickly grab a book and read, read, read until I fell into a deep sleep. In the morning I was able to push it all from my mind.

Sometimes I went weeks, sometimes months without experiencing this episode of fear. But many times during my youth this would come back to me in the night. How do I get rid of this fear? I didn’t feel I could talk with anyone about it; death wasn't something that was talked about. I was probably the only person in the world who just couldn’t get it together concerning death and my personal eventual demise. I had no one to turn to, nowhere to go. It was like a hound, biting at my heels, coming at me unexpectedly; but always at night.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Down To Eight

We started out being twelve. I don't think I've ever seen a picture of all twelve of us at one time. It seemed like we had forever to take family pictures; we'd get around to it some day. But suddenly, in 1975, Dad was gone. It was then we realized that we need to make the effort to get the pics -- while we could. Over the next 32 years, several pictures were taken of the "Eleven"; the most recent was at mom's 90th birthday party in 2006. We had a professional photographer come to that party so we could get some really good pictures. I'm so glad we did, because the very next year, 2007, we lost David. That put us at ten; Then in 2009 LeRoy left us. Down to nine. One year (minus seventeen days) later, mom, the matriarch, passed into the next life. So now we are down to eight. I get an odd feeling watching my family unit gradually roll over from this world into the next. Makes me realize how temporal and mortal our human bodies are. Some day, one of us in this picture will say good bye to the final sibling, and be the only one standing. I wonder - who will it be?

For those who haven't seen us for awhile: Each row Left to Right - Bob, Tom, Jim, Don; Audrey, Vivian, Sylvia, Evie.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Conversation With Dad, Part 2

August 14, 2010

Hi, Dad. I'm back. As you must know by now, Mom is here beside you. I want you to know that her end was peaceful and without pain. I turned away for only a minute or two, and when I looked back, she was gone. I don't understand everything about the spirit world; it is hard for me to comprehend what it is like. But I hope you have reunited with her by now.

I wish you could have seen your nine grandsons, who were pallbearers. You would have been so proud of them. You would have delighted in seeing all the granddaughters and all the great grandkids. We miss mom, but her funeral was a wonderful gathering of the living, a celebration of the family you both created.

I want to thank you both. Thank you for loving one another. Thank you for the example of a committed marriage. Thank you for your "old fashioned" values and for your strong work ethic. Thank you for your involvement in your communities, your churches and your families. I sorrow over the end of the Oscar-Viola era.

Now that you are finally here together, I will be leaving you. Tomorrow I will be driving out of North Dakota. It is time now to focus on living the rest of my life. I don't know what the future holds for me, but I am confident that the same God who holds your souls still cares about me. It may be many years before I am back at this spot, but I will always hold you both very close to my heart. I love you and I miss you. Good bye - until we meet again.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


Should I go home for the night, or should I stay? I vacillated back and forth. Finally, I decided to go to my car, fetch a quilt, and cozy up in the love seat until my sister from Omaha arrives. It would only be a couple more hours. Coming back into her room, I checked on her again. She was sleeping so peacefully. Putting my mouth next to her nearly-deaf ear, I said, "Mom, I'm here with you. I love you." No response, just as it had been all day.

Rather than curling up on the love seat, I decided to sit in her recliner. I looked through her Bible. I found her devotional book, with the bookmark on July 24. Had it been that long since she felt she could read from that book? I organized her magazine rack, throwing away Kleenexes and napkins and old church bulletins.

Suddenly, looking over at her, I felt I needed to check on her again. Throwing off the quilt, I stepped to her side and knew immediately. Can it really be? I touched her and she was as warm and soft as ever, but no rising of the chest. I felt for a pulse, knowing there would be none. I put my finger under her nose to feel the soft whoosh of a breath, knowing there would be none. I hugged her, crying tears of rejoicing and sorrow. Reluctantly I reached for the call bell. "She's gone," I said.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Last Smile

I wish that my camera had been ready. But it was so unexpected -- as so many of life's precious moments are. She was having a bad day, oscillating between sleeping, groaning, a few words here and there, and then the nausea. My childhood friend, Kay, was supposed to come and see my mom. Putting my mouth next to her ear, I said, "Kay is here. Do you still want to see her?" I fully expected her to say she wasn't up to it. But she quickly replied, "I want to see her." It had been years, if not decades since she had seen Kay, who was like another daughter when we were young. She and I stayed overnight with each other on a weekly basis.

I met Kay in the lobby and tried to prepare her. With apprehension I led her into mom's room. Just as I was about to lean down to wake her up and let her know that Kay was here, mom suddenly lifted her head. A big smile came over her face and for a moment she looked like her old self. "I would have recognized you anywhere!", she clearly said. Within five seconds she was sleeping again. Then she woke up and began taking with Kay, sharing memories from 45 years ago. Kay left when mom was again nauseated and retching with dry heaves. After she was all settled down, she said, "Where's Kay?" I told her she had to go, and she went back to sleep.

I knew when it happened -- that would be the last big, spontaneous smile I'd ever see on my mom's face. That brief moment was a final glimpse into the spirit of my true mom. I didn't catch it on camera, but I will always remember how beautiful and full of life she looked at that moment.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Beyond My Control

She feels so helpless ... and so angry. She feels so despondent ... and so vulnerable. It is a terrible position to be in. As hard as it is to see my mom's body deteriorating right before my eyes, the hardest part is seeing the struggle of her spirit. She is completely dependent on others for the very basics of life. And "others" are busy, they are in a hurry, they have time lines to meet. Some are very kind, others are impatient. Some take time for her to express her thoughts, others finish her sentences for her or ignore her. Too many patronize her. She feels de-valued.

The body is failing fast. How can it not, when she takes in so few calories and drinks so little? It is getting harder to tell a story; there are more and more mistakes in what she says. Her skin on her lower legs looks like a bad burn. Her toes and fingers are cold and blue. She sleeps a lot. Sometimes she will rally for awhile and seem "better". But it doesn't last long anymore. She hates what is happening to her, but is powerless to change it.

My heart breaks to see this happening to such a strong woman. My prayer has become, "Lord, release her. Bring this devastation to an end." Meanwhile, all I can do is be there, listen to her, advocate for her, let her know that she is not alone.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


The wind was gently blowing and the sky went back and forth from cloudy to sunny. Driving on the dusty gravel roads of North Dakota, we went past mile after mile of open fields and swollen sloughs. We were traveling through the prairies where my parents were born, grew up, fell in love and married. Most of the houses are gone and most of the churches are remembered only by the big bells displayed by the roadside.

But the cemeteries are still there. Cemeteries that are far removed from city streets and noisy activities. How appropriate that my ancestors were laid to rest in these beautiful and peaceful spots; close to the churches they helped build; near the farms they carved out of the prairie grasses. Most of them spent their lives toiling just to survive. Most had little more than the necessities. Some were so poor they could not even afford a granite stone to mark the grave of their infant child.

It was in this setting that I found my grandparents, Lars and Petra. It was here that I found my great-grandmother, Christine Westad, from whom I got my middle name. It was here that I found the "temporary" grave marker of my aunt Florence, who died at age 2, nearly 85 years ago.

Enjoying the peace and beauty of this balmy North Dakota summer day, it is easy to romanticize about how life must have been. But I know North Dakota. I know the long, cold winters. I know what it is like to lose crops to hail or to drought. I remember the three day blizzards. I understand the devastation of a sick cow, a horse that needs to be put down, chickens that are killed by the foxes. Life was hard. But it was also full. Families were important and neighbors took care of each other. There was love and laughter. There was a sense of belonging, there were deep roots.

Thanks, Susan, for taking me on this trip through the past. It helped to anchor my soul and give me hope for my own life and for the legacy I will be leaving my descendants. It helped me focus on what is really important in my life.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A Conversation with Dad

Hi, Dad. It's been a long time since I've been here to see you. In fact, it was so long that I had a hard time finding you. But here I am. Is it okay if I lay on top of you? Today I need to feel close to you; I need to feel your strong and steady spirit. Things have been pretty tough for me lately. Sometimes I feel like the life has been sucked right out of me; that my bones are as old and brittle as yours. Why did you leave me when you did? I want so much to know you better and learn from you. If you had lived another ten years, I know I would be a stronger and better person because of it. Maybe I would be better equipped to deal with life's hard times. But, wait. What is that you are trying to tell me? Oh, I hear you clearly now; "My daughter, you have a heavenly father who is still alive and is very real. Go to His arms, lay your head against His chest and listen to His heart. He will comfort you and lead you down the right path." Yes, Dad, you are right. Sometimes I lose my way. I need to come back home to the One who leads me beside still waters, who fills my cup to overflowing, who anoints my head with the healing oil; the One who restores my soul.

Dad ... thanks for helping me today. Now I am going to rise from this grass. I will set my face to the wind and march on. After all, I am my father's daughter - and I am strong, like he was.

But before I go ... there is another thing I want to tell you. Mom is going to be joining you soon. I don't think it will be very much longer and she will be lying here beside you - just where she wants to be. We're taking good care of her, but her heart is already in the next world. So I'll be back to see you again. And by then, things will be much better. I'm sure of it.

Time with Mom

Here I am - back in North Dakota. Yes, I drove again. It takes me longer each time, as I stop more often.

Mom is so frail. I was here at the end of June and I can see decline since then. The fluid in her legs build up until they start leaking out profusely, pulling the skin apart in the process. Once the pressure is off, they are fairly dry for a short while. Then the process begins again. She has a deep sore above her right heel and the skin on both legs is breaking down. I used to be so glad she enjoyed her ice cream every day, as that was a source for some calories. But she doesn't even want ice cream anymore. She eats barely enough to keep a bird alive. She told me she just has no appetite at all, her gums hurt when she tries to chew (I'm sure her gums have shrunken, leaving her teeth to be very ill-fitting), her eyes are no good, and today she mentioned that she is short of breath. She doesn't do puzzles anymore and she sleeps a lot during the day. It is almost like she is disappearing right before my eyes. Tomorrow I plan to meet with her nurse and on Tuesday morning I hope to meet with the hospice nurse. She is taking morphine from time to time for the pain that she is now experiencing in her legs.

I encourage you to send her short, large-font (18 or more) emails. She said there was one whole week she didn't get a single email. How about we all make an effort to send a bunch of emails while we can. Short emails are okay!

I plan to spend a lot of time with her over the next week. Much of that time is just sitting there with her. I'll give another update after I have a chance to speak with the nurses.