Even As You Do Unto Them, You Do Unto Me….

Thanksgiving! What a wonderful time of the year! However, this year will be just a little sad, as this is the very first Thanksgiving that I will experience without my Mother. Thanksgiving was OUR time! Thanksgiving is the holiday that ALL of our family members come home to celebrate. Mother would prepare each child and grandchild’s favorite dessert for this occasion (so we had quite a lot of desserts). She would begin a week ahead of time, cooking. I would arrive a couple of days before the holiday, and she and I would cook and cook, laughing and enjoying our time together in the kitchen. The night before Thanksgiving, I would tell her to get some rest, that I would get up throughout the night and check the turkeys and hams in the oven. One of my favorite, funny memories is of our entire family playing charades the night before. It was Mama’s turn and she had to act out the movie, “The Exorcist.” She turned her back to us at first to prepare herself, and when she turned around, she had contorted her face and body to where she DID look possessed!! All of us were just on the floor, killing ourselves laughing. She had nailed it!! And she had never even seen the movie! Of course, NONE of us guessed the correct answer…

We never knew how many people would show up for dinner, as Mother would invite ANYONE in the community who would be by themselves, or they had no family. We have had over FIFTY people present at various times for Thanksgiving dinner! Mother taught us that it was always better to give and share, especially when you had the means to do so. Her favorite saying was, “the word is compassion.” She lived by that Bible verse…”Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” She instilled that belief in all of us. So, here is the story for this week…

A couple of years ago, I was visiting my folks in MS. Although Mother had Alzheimer’s, she was still able to live at home. Whenever I visited them, the visits were always filled with my making repairs around the house. Mother and Daddy had always relied on me to do these things, and would have a “to do list” for each of my visits. Mother understood that this was one of the ways that I expressed my love for them, and that I enjoyed doing these jobs for them.

I was outside the house, completing some work on their carport. As I was working, a man walked up the driveway, and introduced himself as one of our new neighbors. He told me his name and we visited for a few minutes, as I welcomed him into the neighborhood. Then he got down to the reason for his visit…he explained to me that his family had just moved in, and he was starting a new job on Monday. However, he had a problem…the alternator in his car had gone out, and he was going around the neighborhood, attempting to find some “handyman jobs” in order to get enough money to pay for the alternator. He explained that he had just completed some work for one of our neighbors, and was wondering if he could do anything for us. He indicated that he was about $35 short of the amount he needed. Now, I will admit, I was not born yesterday, nor did I fall off of a turnip truck, so my first instinct was that this was a scam. The only problem was this…what if he was telling the truth, and what if I could help him, and I did not. Then there was that Bible verse that kept repeating itself in my head….”Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” I was in a quandary as to what to do. Adding to the “drama” unfolding before me, was the knowledge that I had exactly $40 in cash in my wallet, and I NEVER, EVER have, or travel with, any cash on my person. As I examined all of the information, I realized that I had only one course of action…I excused myself for a moment, went inside the house, and got the $40. I simply gave it to the man. I told him he did not have to earn it. His eyes filled with tears, and he starting crying as he began thanking me. I went over, placed my arms around him, and we cried together…perfect strangers. I told him that all of us find ourselves in situations at times where we need a little help from others…that I had been in his situation numerous times myself. I explained that I did not want him to do any work for me, but that at some time in the future, maybe he could help someone else in need. He promised that he would. He left, thanking me again for my kindness.

Was I taken in by a very good con artist? Did I give good money to someone who would abuse it? Who really knows? Maybe so, but I think not. And anyway, I could not have done it any differently…you see, there’s this Bible verse…Life lessons, those taught to me by my parents, still drive my actions today. I do feel that I made the right decision that day. I am thankful, and will continue to be so, for those wonderful lessons that have shaped my character, integrity, and have molded me into the person that I am at present. Each day I will continue to try and do the “right thing!” Won’t you join me? Just for this week….

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It has been a wonderful week! A brisk, “nip” to the air…hearing from old and new friends…celebrating life and renewal with those I love…What more could you ask for??? Hope your week was wonderful also!!

Because I travel a great deal, and because I find human beings to be so wonderfully odd, interesting, bizarre, motivating, frustrating….I do a lot of “people watching.” I try to figure out their “stories,” as I am observing from my “viewing seat.” I have been offended, reassured, surprised, disgusted, delighted, and my heart has been touched at times by the actions of other people…”casual strangers,” if you will…

Until recently (when a new grocery store opened closer to my home), I did most of my grocery shopping in town at a large franchise grocer. I will admit, on occasion, I did like to get one of their deli lunches and eat “on site,” before hitting the aisles for groceries. This particular store had an outside covered dining area that was very pleasant. A friend of mine had come with me on this trip, and we had decided to get us a bite to eat before shopping. As we were eating, we noticed a much older Asian woman sitting about two tables from us with her buggy and purse. She was not so much actually sitting at the table, as she was sleeping at the table. She would occasionally rouse up, look around and go back to sleep. Of course, with my background and field of work, she was like a “red flag” waving in front  of me, calling for my attention. Not wanting to assume that there was something wrong with her, or that she was lost and did not know where she was, I had observed her for a while to determine what my action should be. Before I could get up to check on her, a young lady came from inside the deli, and asked if she could sit down with the older woman. The woman said, “Yes.” I was interested in where the conversation and interaction was going, so I did indeed eavesdrop. 

The young lady, with kindness, respect, and empathy, began talking with the older woman. During their conversation, she found out all of the necessary information to determine if the elder woman was lost, in distress, or needed help or assistance of any kind. She spent a good amount of time with her, just “visiting.” She never exhibited any condescension, impatience, or lack of respect as she interacted with the older woman. Finally, after apparently being satisfied that nothing was amiss, the young lady took her leave, thanking the older woman for giving her time and conversation.  After a few minutes, the older woman rose from the table, got her buggy and purse, and approached the entry door back into the grocery store. We stood up to help open the door, and the woman started a conversation with us. She said with a chuckle, “You know, I think that young lady thought there was something wrong with me. I had come to shop for groceries, but it looked so nice out here, I thought I would just stop and rest for a moment. She was so sweet to check on me, but everything is fine.” I chuckled along with her and commented that wasn’t it nice someone cared enough “just to check on you.” You could tell that she was pleased at both the concern and the interaction that she had experienced.

The young lady could have handled this situation so much differently…she could have “fussed” at the older woman for napping at one of their tables…she could have assumed that the lady was lost, and could have insulted her…she could have assumed that because she was older, that she was not capable of making “sound” decisions…Any of these scenarios would have ended up badly, because there really wasn’t anything wrong with the woman. It made me wonder how others might have handled the situation. Do we automatically assume the worst, when we see that an older person is involved? Do we automatically assume that an older person needs our guidance, that they don’t know what to do and can’t make decisions? Do we automatically speak to them in that child-like, sing-song voice, as if they have no sense at all??? Oh my, I think many of our elders just chuckle to themselves, and humor us… As I teach in my sessions, don’t label a person by age, race, ethnicity, gender, geographic region, religion or medical diagnosis – just to name a few…Get to know the person individually, and give them the opportunity to show you “who they are,” and what their capabilities, strengths, and needs might be. Look at the person as an individual…a real, live human being, who should be treated with all the respect and dignity that you can provide. That’s what I do! Won’t you join me? Just for this week…

My Mother, the mad scientist….

Wow! It has been quite a busy few weeks for me. It’s “fall conference” time, and luckily for me, that means a lot of speaking engagements…and a lot of travel. I have been from Kentucky to North Dakota to West Virginia, and will be leaving this week for Minnesota. I usually just “hang on” and ride the schedule through…It’s hard, but immeasurably satisfying! When traveling, one usually spends a great deal of time either running through the airports at a breakneck speed, OR sitting hour after hour waiting for: 1) the next plane to arrive; 2) plane repairs from mechanical issues; 3) the flight crew to “show up,” 4) lightning strikes, and 5) re-routing and rebooking the original flights due to items 1-4. There is quite a bit of time for one to “ponder.” This week I remembered a humorous incident that involved my Mother…

My Mother and I got to share a number of experiences as mother/daughter. A very unexpected, and pleasurable, experience came about when my Mother started to work as an Activity Director in a nursing home. I ended up being her Activity Consultant for a period of time.  This meant that I actually trained and taught her how to do the job correctly. It was so much fun, and she was a WONDERFUL Activity Director. One never has to go far to figure out where I got the creativity, enthusiasm, and commitment for my work. The apple definitely did not fall far from the tree…She was one of the most innovative, creative, and unique persons that I have ever known.

One evening I got a phone call from her, and she was just beside herself with excitement. Easter was just around the corner, and she shared that she had done something that was going to surprise all of her residents. Earlier I had shared a neat activity idea with her – getting a small incubator from the local co-op to hatch some eggs. The residents would be so excited to nurture, turn the eggs, and be responsible for the successful “hatching” of little Easter biddies. Of course, Mama being Mama, she just could not bring herself to “do it straight.” She started the conversation by saying that her residents were going to be especially surprised when the eggs hatched, because the biddies were going to be all different colors…not just yellow! She proceeded to tell me “the rest of the story…” She had coerced a local dentist into letting her borrow a drill. She had drilled a tiny hole into each egg, and had added a drop of food coloring into each one. As she was describing the details, all I could think of was that she was going to end up with little “mutant” biddies…and the residents would just be horrified! I could just picture a  “circus act”….two-headed chicken…one-winged marvel…little biddies running into the walls continuously…or running in circles…or psychedelic freaks…You get the picture! None of the images in my head were success stories. I tried to dissuade her…to get her to replace the ones she had drilled with “normal” eggs. She laughed and said that I worried too much, that it would all be good!! The residents took their jobs very seriously, turned the eggs at the specified times, and looked forward to the “births” with great anticipation!

I happened to be visiting my folks at home when she got the call from the residents. “The babies are hatching! The babies are hatching! And they are ALL different colors!” We all jumped into the car and rushed down to the facility. Sure enough, the biddies had all hatched right on schedule…AND, they were all different, and vibrant colors! There were a couple who were “marginal,” with psychedelic colors, but for the most part, they had turned out exactly how Mother intended. And, oh my, the residents were thrilled beyond words! They would not have been prouder, had the biddies been real, live children.

I think of this story often, and it always brings a chuckle, along with the satisfaction of a mutually shared experience with my Mama. She is the one who taught me to ask, “Why not?” – one of my most favorite questions in life! Too often we miss chances (and opportunities for success) by going with the average or norm. Why not try something different? Why not be different yourself? Why not be brave and courageous and carve your own path in life?  Simply…WHY NOT??? That’s what I am going to do! Won’t you join me? Just for this week….

Please, don’t let me die alone…

When I first started working in nursing homes, my background and education was in social work. Oh, the plans I had in my head regarding this profession and career. I was going to blaze new paths for the field of social work…I was going to “save the world”…I was going to solve people’s problems and make all of their lives so much better. Initially, I found this “mission” to be a little harder than I had anticipated. Each day I learned that there was quite a bit of knowledge that I needed, that could not be found in any textbook. Much of what I did in the beginning was “trial by fire.”

Just as an aside, you need to know…People who work with elders, especially those precious ones who live in nursing homes, find that it is possible to have a few “favorite” people who are in their care…those individuals who you automatically “connect” with…they need and give just a little extra loving and affection. They may have no family at all. They may have been abused. They may simply be wanting to be loved. For whatever reason, you find that you form a strong bond with these wonderful, old people. The professionalism comes into play in that the “favoritism” is never shown, especially in front of other residents. They are all cared for, loved, and attended to the very same. At least in my buildings they were!!

There was a very tiny African American lady that became a “favorite” of mine. She had no family that I could find, and absolutely no one ever came to visit her. We became fast friends, and would spend time each day singing old Spirituals and visiting. Oh, how she loved to sing! When she saw me coming around the corner of the hallway, her eyes would light up, and she would grin from ear to ear. One day I arrived at work to discover that she had a massive stroke the night before and was in the hospital. She was dying, and they returned her to the only home and family that she knew at that time…us! She had a tube in her nose, made horrible gurgling sounds, body-jerked a lot from fear, and her eyes would dart around…just practically scared to death! I would hold her hand, stroke her hair, and try to give comfort as best I could. However, I knew that I was NOT meeting her needs. It kept me awake for a number of nights. One night, I sat straight up in my bed, with a good plan of action for the next day… and it did NOT come from a textbook. It just felt like the right thing to do.

I walked into her room, took my shoes off, climbed up into the bed with her, put my arm under her, placed her head on my shoulder, and held her just like a mother would a child. I began singing to her very gently. She stopped jerking, her eyes stopped darting around, and for the first time since she had returned from the hospital, her breathing came easy and she slept. I began doing this several times a day, as often as my schedule would allow. She ended up dying in my arms one morning. She finally found the peace that she so needed, and I felt that I had been able to give her a gift in dying, just as she had given me a gift in living.

We mostly overlook those people who have lived long, full lives, and have now outlived everyone they know. For them, there is no one to say to, “remember when we…” There are no shared memories. They are truly and forever alone. I cannot begin to fathom the depth of loneliness that they must feel and face each day. Each one of you reading this post has the ability to give just a little back to these precious elders. How about spending a little time with an old person? Visit with them, take the time to get to know them, and learn from them. You may find a love and friendship that just might mean more to you than you could possibly imagine. And what it means to them is indescribable. Won’t you join me? Just for this week…

How About a Little Coke Up Your Nose???

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Today is Father’s Day! Due to my schedule, I was unable to be with my father this Sunday; however, I went and spent five days with him a little over a week ago. So, I got my “Daddy fix” in, and got some good “sugar” during the process…We celebrated “Father’s Day” at that time. I did get to talk with him today, and told him how much I loved him, and that I was so glad that he was my father. I think that is a pretty good lead-in for this week’s story…

When I was a child, I absolutely idolized my Daddy. Whenever he was at home, not working, I was his shadow. He worked so hard in construction every day, out in the hot, hot temperatures. When he would come home, he had sweat so much during the day, and was so exhausted from the heat, that his voice would almost be gone, and his eyes were just sunken back into his head. As a child, I did not realize how hard he worked to take care of, and provide for, us. He was simply my Daddy, and I wanted to be just like him.

When he would come home, the first thing he would do, of course, was to take a nice cool bath. Once he had done that, he would get a tall glass bottle of Coca Cola, lay down on the floor in front of the couch, and prop his legs up on the couch, with one arm behind his head. I would lay down beside him, prop my legs up as best I could (I was really, really small), and put one tiny arm behind my head…just like him. On this particular night, I was probably about 4 years old, and he had shared his coca cola with me in a small glass. Lying there, he tipped that bottle to his mouth, and swigged a good part of his Coke. I wanted to do everything just like him, so I tipped up my little glass of Coke, and of course, as you can imagine, it went up my nose and all over my face! It scared and startled me, and I started crying, because I could not understand why I had made a mess, while Daddy was able to get all of his Coke into his mouth. Not to mention, that I was choking because I had Coca Cola up my nose…Now, I know that Daddy was tired, and the last thing he wanted to deal with was a child’s mishap and tears. However, my father picked me up so sweetly, held me close to his chest, and told me that everything would be OK. He then gave me a swig of Coke from his bottle, and explained to me why I could not do the same with a glass. It was one of many lessons that he taught me throughout my life.

He taught me how to build, roof, paint, repair. Any time I build a “project,” there is a little voice in my head that ALWAYS says…”just like Daddy.” He taught me how to drive a car AND a truck (stick shift on the column), and whenever I would start driving a little too fast, he would say, “gettin’ a little too pure…” and I knew to slow down. He taught me how to love by loving my sweet Mother, and his family. He taught me how to love God, because he lived that life every single day of his life. And now he is teaching me how to deal with loss, as he lives a life without my Mother. He is a quiet man, but when he is not at home, the house is so silent and lonesome. I am so glad that I still have him in my life! He is a sweet, tender man, and no matter how old I get, he will always be my “Daddy.” 

Fathers, please realize the path you chose when you had a child. Understand that children want to be just like their fathers…whatever you do…they will also end up doing. Set the example, have patience, and teach your children well. Love them with all of your heart! I will be extra thankful that I had, and have a Father who cared. Won’t you join me? Just for this week…

It Will Never Be The Same Again…

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As many of you know, my Mother passed away in February – that means that this weekend holds a holiday that I have never experienced without my Mother. So, here’s the story for this week…

Two weeks ago I had to go grocery shopping. We were just about to head to the checkout, when I remembered that I needed just one more item. I rushed back to the area where I thought the item could be found, and turned down an aisle to get there a little faster. As soon as I started walking a few feet into the aisle, I realized that I had made a mistake. I had unknowingly turned down the greeting card aisle, and plastered everywhere were Mother’s Day cards. In an instant my eyes were filling with tears as I realized that this year I would not be buying a Mother’s Day card, nor would I be making the trip to spend the weekend with her in celebration. I left the aisle as quickly as I possibly could, and tried not to think about what I had just seen, and what it meant for me.

I will be honest…I have struggled with this loss, just as I struggled with her disease process. I have the skills, expertise and ability to train healthcare professionals in these areas, but I have been rather inept in helping myself. I have a very dear friend, who has watched this struggle of mine. She finally asked me, “Cat, just what are you thinking and feeling? What are you hoping for? What are you looking for?” And I tried to verbalize…I said, “I don’t feel Mother’s presence. In my mind, I just assumed, because we were so close, that when she died…I would feel her presence ‘with me’ constantly. That has not happened, and I don’t know what to do.” As soon as I expressed those thoughts, she said, “Cat, she is with you every day…she is in your heart…she is in your mind…she is living inside you.” And now comes the best part…she said, “All you have to do to ‘feel her’ is continue being the person that she wanted you to be.” And just like that, I felt a peace that I had not felt since Mama’s death. You see, I realized that this is something I could do! I can be the person she raised and was proud of…I can emulate the character, integrity and Christ-like traits that she taught by living example. You see, I simply do NOT know how else to be, but who I am…who she made…and who she loved.  I AM my Mother’s child!

For those of you whose mothers are still living…MAKE the time and effort to visit with them, make memories with them, enjoy them, just “be” with them…for one day, they absolutely will be gone from your life…and it will never be the same again. For those of you whose mothers are no longer living, do what I am doing…let’s live the lives that our Mamas taught us to live…strong in faith, compassion, loyalty and love…and ALWAYS doing for others. BE the person that “Mama” would have you be. Won’t you join me? Just for this week….

I will always love you….

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As I am writing this article, I am sitting in a nursing home, holding my Mother’s hand, and literally watching her die. So many thoughts are running through my head. Most of them center around what this woman has given to me, the legacy she leaves behind, and the hole that will be in my heart. But because Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, the obvious topic for this week’s article is true love.

April 3rd of this year, my parents would have been married 65 years. Because their love was so much a part of our daily lives, I never gave it much thought as being extraordinary. As I grew older, however, I realized how phenomenal their relationship was. You see, I can’t ever remember a time that they argued. I’m sure they “discussed,” but I never, ever heard an argument or cross words. They went through hard times, slim times, and good times. Their love never wavered…it only grew stronger. His eyes have always “lit up” when she came in a room, just as hers did at the sight of him. The nursing home staff cannot seem to fathom a love this deep…that adoration can be this lasting…but it is. Even as sick as my Mother is, her blood pressure and heartbeat “jump” at his voice.

While traveling for business, I get to observe numerous couples and their “dynamics.” I watch husbands and wives sitting in restaurants, not speaking to each other the entire meal; couples waiting in lines, staring straight ahead, never conversing. The neglect and lack of consideration is so evident. It makes me sad to see that these individuals are missing the love that my parents have. And I wonder what happened to them…why did their love apparently “die,” while my parents’ love grew fuller and deeper each day.

I think I have it figured out…my folks were in it for the long haul. They did not attempt to “jump ship” when times were tough. They respected each other and treated each other with consideration and love. They genuinely liked each other, and they shared the same values and faith.

Loving relationships do not come easily…they take effort…nurturing…patience… understanding…communication…and so much more. So this week I don’t actually have a challenge. I would simply encourage you to cultivate and nurture the love that is in your life and not take that person for granted. Show them how much they mean to you – not “just for this week,” but for always…

Wonder, the Dog…

My Father has always been a quiet, gentle, soft-spoken man. In the past, whenever I would visit my Mom and Dad at their home, it usually ended up that Daddy mostly “listened” as the rest of the family did the talking. As my Mother’s Alzheimer’s progressed, and she eventually had to enter a nursing home, it meant that our family had to make yet another change in our “dynamics.” Instead of my Mother and I “running our mouths” a mile a minute, it was now my sweet Father and I in front of the TV watching so many westerns, that I actually felt bow-legged at times. I kept having an irresistible urge to say, “Howdy, Partner!” to everyone I met…

I thought, you know, you’re wasting precious time with your father, just watching TV. Why not try to draw him out and actually talk? So, I began the plan for “conversation” during  my next visit. Much to my delight and surprise, he began telling me stories from the past…stories that I had never heard before. I discovered that he asked Mother to marry him by writing the words, “Will you marry me?” on the inside of the windshield of his car one night. He was a “romantic” young man, and I never knew that. One of our discussions has led to my story and challenge for this week…

Daddy and I were sitting in the living room, watching another western, when he turned to me and said, “you know, I used to have the prettiest little dog when I was a boy.” (This was the first time I had ever heard that Daddy had a pet as a child, and being an “over the top” animal lover myself, he had my undivided attention.) He said, “it just came up one day, and never left my side…a little collie…followed me wherever I went.” He said that they tried to find out if the dog belonged to any neighbors, but no one claimed him, so my Dad got to keep him. He continued with his story, and said, “oh, how I loved that little dog.” I wanted to know more, and asked, “what did you name the dog?” He said, “Wonder.” Now, I was expecting to hear “Spot,” “Rover,” or anything else, but “Wonder?????” I then asked the obvious question, “Where on earth did you come up with the name, Wonder?” He looked at me as if that was the most ridiculous question he had ever heard, and said, “Well, we always wondered where he came from….” I was laughing so hard, that he got to laughing with me; and the more we laughed, the more tickled we got. It was a pretty wonderful time, and a great memory for me to hold in my heart.

Families are losing their histories because younger family members don’t really talk to their older relatives – grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, etc. As a result, no one hears, or takes the time to listen to, these wonderful stories. If you have ever watched the face of an older individual telling their story, it is as if they are actually reliving the event – their faces are full of wonder, and at times seem like a video that you are able to watch yourself, firsthand. So here is my challenge for this week: Start talking to your older family members! Ask them to reminisce. There are guides and books everywhere on the Internet to assist you with “topical suggestions” for conversations, if you can’t come up with your own. If you no longer have older relatives, there are THOUSANDS of precious elders living in nursing homes, assisted living centers, even in your own neighborhood, who would love to tell a story and have someone listen. I am going to see if I can learn more stories like “Wonder, the dog.” Won’t you join me? Just for this week…