A Graced Trip (to see my dad)

My favourite childhood memory of my dad? Was it us going on our Saturday morning trips to have yet another Chevy's tires rotated, the perfect excuse for him to buy me a coca cola, the one in the curvy glass bottle? Was it him taking me (and not my sisters!) after hours to his elementary school library, the one with the smelly, blackened linoleum stairs, so I could help him take inventory of all his books? Was it us delivering flowers to homes across 'The Hat' in our red station wagon (no doubt a Chevy!) when my parents were co-owners of a florist shop? Was it him affably driving my mom, two sisters and myself on a crescendo of wonderful summer camping trips from the west coast to the east coast, first with a green canvas tent, then a tent trailer, and finally a spacious, hardshell Triple E trailer? Or perhaps it was him introducing me, almost by accident, to the captivating game of golf at that, out-in-nowhere-land, sand-greened course at Redcliff, overlooking the expansive South Saskatchewan River valley.

Despite these good memories, Dad and I had an awkward, uneasy relationship, and looking back, way too may tense, unspoken moments. What were we afraid of? I'm not quite sure but often it seemed like we were staring at each other across a gaping generational chasm. I wasn't the relational and trusting son he yearned for, and he wasn't quite the intellectually stimulating father one hoped for growing up with an inquiring mind. Yet as the years of my narcissistic disdain slowly dried up, I began seeing him as another flawed person - like myself! - I could relate to as a human being.

For instance: during the past several yearly visits, he and I would go out for coffee at Timmy's or Starbucks. These one-on-ones didn't contain profound breakthroughs, but we were relating relatively normally, which I now see as pure grace. From two people who barely talked to each other, to two adults who could have a conversation. Sounds simple, but such an arduous path! (God must have a lot of patience, and a sense of humour!) What I found in these little encounters were someone wanting to listen, someone who wanted to do what's right. Both admirable qualities I could learn from. I remembered that he said that one of the joys of his life was hearing the stories of his customers when he owned an independent book store, after retiring from his teacher-librarianship.

I also remember that my dad was suspicious of our somewhat unorthodox community of Watershed, and of our teacher and mentor Paul Patterson. Our group didn't exactly fit into his idea of what was acceptable church-wise. Yet in ways he held back from judging us. He once said to me "I can't judge you." At the time, I thought to myself, "but you really want to, don't you" which I thought was sad. And it was, but from his conservative Mennonite worldview, his response to our group has been better than some. I even remember a good time that Paul and I shared with my dad over coffee a few years ago...

Times of meeting 'man-o-mano', as rare as they were, I found don't last.

On January 23 of 2011, on top of his advancing Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, my dad came down with a debilitating case of delirium from pneumonia, although we didn't know it at first. Within an hour, my sister Cheryl relates, he essentially lost touch with who he was. He didn't recall who others were, where he was and why he was taken by ambulance to the hospital. Sadly, he didn't know his own name.

Panic struck, I thought this was the end... but it wasn't really. Not yet anways. After spending three weeks in the hospital, and visited daily by my mom, and by Cheryl who conveniently worked in the building as an emergency ward nurse, my dad was moved first to a nursing home before eventually transferring back to the assisted living home where my mom lived. With backing from my wife Lydia and others in our Watershed house church, I decided to visit in early June.

Just before I left the friendly confines for my trip, I read Richard Rohr's poignant reflection: "Any way we received the Spirit, it was just as real and just as good as any other. The Lord met us where we were and made his presence known to us in the way we were most ready to experience it. The Spirit blew where she willed, she filled our hearts in whatever measure we were open to the Spirit. And when it does happen, we known that we did nothing to deserve it. It is God's graciousness lifting us to a new relationship."

My Watershed Community passport repeated the theme with a slightly different metaphor: "My citizenship is in heaven."

I left the airport on a Air Canada Jazz jet bound for Calgary knowing this trip was the right thing to do, but I didn't know how things would turn out. Even now, weeks after my trip just thinking about the weakened, fragile Dad that I met makes me tear up. (He used to be a pretty emotional guy himself, so maybe we have more in common than I imagine.) I didn't know I would be so affected by my father being how he is today, even if we were not at all close. "The Lord met us where we were and made his presence known to us..."

One thing is clear. Although the circumstances were not ideal, I felt truly graced visiting my ailing dad and the rest of my family too.

Finally at my parents' assisted living home, ironically called 'Masterpiece', in a ward for those who need full-time care, I searched for my dad. There was an old woman sitting on a chair by the wall, silently shadow boxing with a phantom personal demon. Another was sitting in a wheelchair, recounting the story of her love life to an interested nurse behind a counter. And I saw another woman who walked down the hall, and whispered to everyone she met. I don't know what she was saying, but was excited to meet everyone who came. I think she wanted to leave through the keyed door at the end of the hallway, but was likely more safe behind locked ones. Oh god. I was struck by the helplessness of the patients. How can one survive here? I can't imagine being here myself one day. The environment of utter helplessness and human mental limitation made my skin crawl. I resisted the urge to run out. I had a purpose here.

My dad's room, second on the left, had his name emboldened in big dark helvetica capitals on the otherwise blank wall beside his door. NORMAN PENNER. The name tag confirmed it. My parents who had stuck together through thick and thin for 57 years now live apart. I never thought I'd see this day...

I then I finally met him: sitting in his black, rented wheelchair, head down, neck outstretched, gazing into his lap. I notice he'd lost weight, and more wrinkles had found their way onto his weathered neck. He amazingly has not gone all grey in his hair, except for his short sideburns, but his hair is now seemingly permanently ruffled, from his hands constantly caressing his head.

I said, "Hi dad, this is your son, Lyle," knowing that he very likely would not recognize my voice. My sister Cheryl who was with me told him he had a visitor. "Look who's here?" she encouraged, in her consoling nurse-to-patient voice. I bent down so I could get down to his eye level, if he chose to look. "Hi dad, I came to visit you, and I wanted to surprise mom for her birthday." He gave no verbal response at all, but, gnarled into himself he poked his head up oh so briefly to look at me. What an odd experience. Dad was really a relational person, and used to love visits of all kinds. Now he was reduced to being mute. And unknowing, even to himself.

The next day I meet him again, this time with my mom, who was used to his antics. Once in a while she gets him to say 'hi' or 'good-bye', or 'yes' and 'no' to certain questions. Her hopes start to get high when he responds at all, or when he lifts his head. These moments are unfortunately very fleeting. Does he understand who is there? And what's being said?

This time he seems lost down a darkened corridor who turns to look back and is told to say hi, and he does faintly, and my mom tells him to hold my hand harder, and he does. But I don't get the sense he knows why he's doing these things. I talk to him for a while, telling him about my trip, Lydia's year, and our son Joel's adventures (who was working and travelling in Europe for the summer). I tear up, and mom continues the one-way conversation, until I can pull myself together. This is hard for me, but how much harder is it for my mom who does 'this' almost every evening? Later I tell her I really admire her strength and patience. I think to myself" I've never said those words to her and meant it as much.

My dad's days have become pretty routine. He is hoisted out of his bed with a complex pulley device. A nurse or two help him go to the washroom and dress him for the day, which is largely spent in his wheelchair. He either is fed his meals in his room or in the common room. He sits out in the common room in his wheelchair as the nurses go for a smoke break in the courtyard. He has a long nap in the middle of the day..and after supper, my mom comes and sends the evening with him. Sometimes, she says, he keeps his head up, but sadly there is no ability to hold a conversation. They do listen to religious music on the radio or TV, or another program of some kind.

Sometimes, when she wants to leave, he holds onto her arm with more force, which is a comfort to my mom, who is handling this covenant with my Dad with a heck of a lot of grace, given that she also has a form of Parkinson's, and walks now very slowly with her walker.

The Spirit blew where she willed, she filled our hearts in whatever measure we were open to the Spirit.

I stayed at Cheryl and my brother-in-law Paul's house on the city's southside. How to make sense of all this? I mused. I was troubled seeing my dad without being himself. Part of it was anger, I realized. How could reality, or the universe, or God allow people to live with this such indignity? It didn't make sense, not emotionally anyways. Accidentally I stumbled upon a book at my sister's. It was just there at the bottom of a stack under her coffee table, not to be noticed. It was by a Catholic spiritual writer, Brennan Manning, and it touched me as I was musing on this steep decline of life. It wasn't a stale, formulaic book of religion, that slowly drains the life out of you. Manning spoke from the fringes of society, as he talked about the tenderness of Jesus being central to his 'Way'.

"In the man Jesus, the invisble God becomes visible and audible. And he's seen as a God 'whose tender compassion has broken from on high, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet on the road to peace' (Luke 1:78-79)."
Because God absolutely accepts us, without special conditions, the liberated sinner can live again. "As Christians living in the Spirit, we're called to pass on the tenderness of God. The parameters of our compassion extend beyond those who opt for our lifestyle, favor our existence, or make us feel good. Charges of elistism are dropped for the lack of evidence. Peace and reconcilation for all, without exception -- even for moral failures -- is the radical lifestyle of Christians living in the wisdom of accepted tenderness. We may be called friends of tax-collectors and sinners-but only because we are (or should be). We understand that we're in the company of some rather honorable people, those sinners; in fact, we're in the company of Jesus himself. Accordig to the gospel, it's unrestrained tenderness and limitless compassion that stamp our relationship with the father of Jesus as belonging to the order of the Really Real. That claim has the ring of truth. Like Jesus, it leads us deeper into the Abba-experience."

This kind of talk resonated with and consoled me. My anger maybe stemmed from a fear of wanting to see how fragile life is, how uncontrollable it really is. One day my dad is shuffling along, a little worse for wear, and the next he loses all sense of himself! And if it can happen to him out of the blue...

Maybe if I can set aside my anger, and just be present, and show up, I can witness to God here, even with my dad, and my family. Because God has accepted me, without condition, I can maybe be a channel of acceptance too? But where is God, when he seems so absent in near death?

I talk to Cheryl and Paul, and I am grateful that they are there are to support my mom and dad. I live far away, and show up for a weekend, but they are here day in and day out. In our talk about parents, kids, travel and food, I sense that we are a lot similar than I sometimes think. Is it because of dad's decline? Yeah, there are differences in style, but we seem the same in terms of being limited humans before someone who is dying. I'm grateful for being there for my mom's 86th birthday party. She is surprised I have come.

I hold my dad's hand at the party. Cheryl feeds him birthday cake. We watch the Canucks playoff game. My dad holds his head down. A CP locomotive outside the window strains to pull a train up the hill leaving Medicine Hat going west. Paul make a small inconsequential joke about the train needing a second locomotive just for the climb. Dad 'wakes up' a gives a chuckle. Was he listening to that? Has he been listening the whole time? It's really hard to tell.

Paul, my Watershed pastor and good friend, later says that God loves us in the incline of our lives as well as in the diminishment of our lives. It's easy to forget that when dad's life has become so fragmentary. But it must be true, right? I think back to my friend Marilyn's comment before I left. "He may not remember you, but you can remember him." How true. I look at my dad and remember. His goofy humor, his emotional difficulties, his warm smile.

And when it does happen, we known that we did nothing to deserve it. It is God's graciousness lifting us to a new relationship.

As Scripture says: If anyone wants to boast, let them boast of the Lord." I Corinthians 1:31

I used to scoff at my dad who kept saying to me "keep looking up". He was being spiritual and I was being so secular and cynical! Now that my faith has been reconfigured, I see the metaphorical meaning of course. To look beyond the surface of things, and look for the transcendent breaking in. It makes a lot of sense, in faith anyways.

I talk to Cheryl about caring for mom and dad. She says she feels called to do it. That's her purpose right now. I say thanks, and I can see how it gives her purpose, despite all the work and the hassles that it involves. It does seem true though. Having dad in this near catatonic state has brought us very different family members together in service. A new kind of relationship as Rohr says. It's a relationship not built on family worship or emotional dysfunction, but service of a higher good. If it involves suffering, maybe that's what makes it approach love?

Before I leave for Winnipeg, I wheel my dad out into the common room of his ward. I don't know what to do or say. It won't be enough. I bend down, and I whisper into his ear: "God loves you, and so do I." And I walk solemnly out through the locked doors.

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