The last words you will ever hear…

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As you know, for the last few weeks, I have been attempting to post positive, uplifting, or humorous stories because I felt that we could all use that in today’s current climate. I was on a good run, and then the rug was pulled out from under me once again. My father unexpectedly passed away! Yes, he was 91. Yes, he had lived a long, wonderful life. Yes, he was ready to go. But I had just talked with him on the phone, and he was feeling great…

I got the call late Tuesday evening from my brother and sister, telling me that Daddy had passed out, was unresponsive, and they were taking him to the emergency room. Once he got to the hospital, he was in a lot of pain, and having great difficulty breathing. After a few tests, they “thought” he might have had a mild heart attack, was in the beginning stages of pneumonia, and had a horrible UTI. The decision was made to transfer him from our little local hometown hospital to a larger hospital in a nearby town. Once there, he was stabilized, and my brother reported that he was resting better.

Since I live in another state, I was trying to get to the hospital as quickly as I could. I did not make it in time!! I did not get to see him or tell him good-bye!! I was devastated that I did not get to tell him how much he meant to me, or that I loved him beyond reason. But then, I thought about our last conversation on the phone the week before. The last words he ever heard from me were, “I love you Daddy!” And the last words I ever heard from him were, “I love you baby!” He knew that I loved him, with every fiber of my being, and I knew that he loved me. We had spent a lifetime sharing and showing that love to each other.

I have always lived with the knowledge and the belief, that when you leave someone, it may well be the very last time you see them. None of us are really guaranteed one more moment of life than we have. As a result of that knowledge, I have always made certain that my last words to anyone are of full of love and caring. I have shocked some people by ending phone conversations, email messages, and direct dialogue with “love you,” or “you matter to me.” It seems to take them off guard. Some don’t know how to respond. Others respond immediately with similar affection. My message is clear: I ALWAYS want those in my heart to know how important they are to me, and to know that they are loved – fully and completely.

This whole experience made me start thinking about the words we use with others, and what will be remembered when we are gone. Are you careful in what you say to others? Think about your last words to those you love…Were they spoken in anger? Hurtful? Cruel? Lies? Or were the words spoken in love, supportive, meant to inspire, lift up, or motivate? You never know when any of the words that come out of your mouth will actually be the very last words that someone will hear.

When they explained to my Daddy that there was nothing they could do for him, that there were no options, his response was, “Praise God! Thank you Jesus!” Those were his last words before he simply stopped breathing in his sleep. I think that says everything you need to know about the kind of man he was. What will your last words be? And will people remember them? Will they be happy or terribly sad with that memory? Maybe we need to give a little more attention to what we say…and who is listening. I think I will try to be even more like my Daddy…Won’t you join me? Just for this week….

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“Red and yellow, black and white…they are precious in His sight…”

It was late one night and I got the above message from two good friends…just a photograph that said “It’s a boy! It’s a girl!” I knew that there had been no pregnancy, so I was clueless as to what this meant. I wrote back, “WHAT???” My sweet friend and her husband had desperately wanted to have a child together, but it was not possible. They turned to adoption here in the U.S. and learned that they were “too old.” I just busted out laughing when they told me that! I could NOT believe that was valid criteria for THEIR adoption, but learned very quickly that it was. So, like many individuals in the United States, who want very much to share their love and lives with a child who desperately needs a loving family, they turned to the adoption of a foreign child.

After a very long process, they qualified to adopt a child from Ethiopia. Turns out, though, there were TWO children up for adoption – a little girl and her younger brother that the agency did not want to separate. So my friends became “instant” parents to two beautiful babies. I have watched their growth and “blossoming” in the love of their parents and family. I have laughed at their antics and “discoveries” in this new life. I have watched as they grow into their “personalities.” They have had a wonderful life…up until the past few months. At school, other children are now telling them that they are going to be sent back to Ethiopia, that they will have to leave their parents. They’ve endured others yelling at them, “Go back to Africa!” My heart can almost not take this! I can only imagine what their parents are feeling in the depths of their souls. I imagine my own little niece and nephew…how scared and confused they would be if someone told them they would be taken away from their parents…that they would be sent to a foreign place that they did not know or recognize. I wonder how could you console those babies? How would you assure their fears were baseless? I cannot come up with any solution that would “fix” that particular situation. I don’t know how I would deal with attempting to comfort a child’s very real fear regarding these actions. I mean, really, what could you possibly say? And how would you deal with the anger over someone else doing this to your child? I don’t think I would be able to contain that anger, because I am angry right now about how these two precious children are being treated, and they are not even MINE!!

I have another very dear, close, lifetime friend who married an African American – she was, and is, a very white caucasian. Unfortunately, the marriage was not successful, but they had two precious, absolutely drop dead gorgeous, biracial daughters who I have had the privilege and honor to watch, and share their lives, as they grew to be wonderful, loving adults and mothers themselves. They are simply family to me, and I love them with a full heart, unconditionally. I have nieces and nephews who have dated, and do date individuals different from their own ethnicity and culture. I have Hispanic friends who fill my heart with joy. They work hard, are not on welfare, and have values that are very similar to mine. Although I am from the “South,” and “southern” through and through, I WAS NOT TAUGHT PREJUDICE!

Children are so wonderfully cute and adorable when they are babies. The thing about children though, is that they grow up into adults. And what was “tolerated” as a child, is not always tolerated and accepted once they become adults. Like being Ethiopian…or African American…or Hispanic…cute as babies, but not so much as adults…But here’s the deal, remember the song we learned as children in Sunday School? “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they’re all precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” I have to believe that! I have to act on that! If God made us in His image, then doesn’t that mean that every race and ethnic group is in HIS image??

The God I was taught to love and serve dictates my actions…to feed someone who is hungry; to give them clothes when they have none; to provide monetary support if that is necessary; to treat them as equal, human beings with dignity and respect; to LOVE THEM AS I WOULD LOVE MYSELF!!

Most of you know that I lost my Mama to Alzheimer’s, and I have shared some of those stories from our journey. During one Doctor visit, they were giving her yet another Mini Mental Status Questionnaire. One part of the test asked her to write a sentence. (And with each test, her sentences got shorter and shorter, until there were no sentences at all.) On this particular test, she wrote “I love all people.” I knew this to be true, for that is how she lived, and that is how she taught me. “I love all people.” How profound! And wouldn’t the world be such a better place if everyone practiced this? For you see, they ARE precious in His sight, and as a result, they MUST be precious in my sight also! Maybe we could all be a little bit more loving and accepting during our journey on this earth. Won’t you join me? Just for this week…

“I don’t want to be a burden…”

Most of you know that I began this blog as a way to deal with my own grief…while watching my Mother slowly die, literally and figuratively, of Alzheimer’s Disease. Those who loved her beyond reason, had to stand by and watch her descend into that living hell. She remained home, with family, until we could no longer give her the care that she so desperately needed. One of our strategies, to keep her home as long as possible, was to “share” the responsibility of her care among the four children and my Father. Part of my responsibility (and honor) was to stay with her and Daddy, one week out of every month (more often, as I could)…

Mother had gotten to a point where she could not bathe herself, go to the bathroom by herself, or feed herself. So, on this particular day, it was time for her shower. I found it easier (and safer) to just get in the shower with her, and gently bathe her as we talked, laughed, and reminisced. Some times this was a difficult task for her, in that she could not follow or understand anything that I was saying. Other times, bathing was easy, and she would assist me with her own care.

We were both in the shower, drenched from head to toe, and she placed her hand on my arm and made me stop. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “I never wanted you children to have to do this. I never wanted to be a burden.” Those words broke my heart and I struggled to find just the right thing to say, to convince her that she was never a burden to us. With a smile on my face, I said, “Mama, didn’t you tell me that when I was a baby, while nursing, the only way you could get me to go to sleep was to let me pinch the skin under your arm, and roll it back and forth between my fingers?” She smiled so sweetly with the memory, and said, “Yes, that’s right.” I asked her, “Didn’t it hurt?” She said, “Yes, but that motion somehow soothed you, and you would go to sleep every time.” I then said, “Didn’t you spend countless, sleepless nights, sitting by my bed, or laying beside me, or just holding me, because I was so sick that you would not leave me alone?” Again, she said, “Yes, I did!” I continued to tell her that there were too many examples to count, too many memories of selfless sacrifices that she had made not only in my behalf, but for all of her children. I asked her if she considered being our Mother a burden. She looked at me in shock, and said, “No! I loved all of you, and I wanted to take care of you!” I then explained that we were doing the same thing for her now; that we wanted to take care of her, out of our love for her. She smiled through tears, and said “OK, then! That’s settled.”

Some times the greatest gift we can give someone is to simply accept their help and caring. Those who are being cared for DO feel like a “burden” to their family. You have a choice as to how you are going to make that person feel…You have a choice as to HOW you are going to give that care – either out of guilt or out of love…and your actions will indicate which choice you made. Have you let your parents, or loved ones, know that they are NOT a burden? Or do you let them know how inconvenienced you are? I tell families and caregivers all the time, “It’s not that you just gave the care, and got it accomplished, but rather, HOW you gave the care.” Do you make them feel guilty? Let those individuals, the ones you are caring for, know that providing care and assistance is an act of love… I don’t ever want someone I love to feel as if they are a burden to me. Caring should be given freely, from the heart. Won’t you join me? Just for this week…

Is that punch SPIKED???

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Sunday was Father’s Day!  I am so thankful that I still have a wonderful “Daddy” to honor and celebrate. He will be 90 in the fall of this year, and is doing well. We are going to have a HUGE party to celebrate this monumental occasion. He is already excited, telling everyone within listening distance that he is going to be 90!!! “90,” he says with wonder…he cannot believe it!  Most of you know that he was a Minister (preacher) for all of my life, which does make me a preacher’s kid…and I don’t want to hear any grief about that…lol! He pastored small country churches. I am certain that much of my love, respect, and passion for elders was developed in those little churches, because small country churches are FILLED with older adults (who sing really, really loud…). This week’s story is about an event that happened in one of those churches…

Just like in larger, metropolitan churches, babies are born, couples get married/divorced, and people die. As a result of those life events, my Father conducted numerous ceremonies for his church members. As the pastor’s family, we were not expected to attend the funerals; however, if it was a “joyous” occasion, like a wedding, we put on our “Sunday go to meeting” clothes, and got to attend. My Mama always made sure that we behaved and conducted ourselves in a manner befitting a “preacher’s family.” Although we had to put on those socks (with lace), patent leather shoes (that always hurt your toes) and wear the scratchy, “stand-out” petticoats (to look like a little lady), we always looked forward to going because of ALL THAT FOOD!!!

On this particular occasion, we had made it through the ceremony and had gotten to the reception without any incidents. Mama got us each a plate, filled with wedding cake and ice cream, a few peanuts, and a few of those wonderful “wedding mints.” She got us all together in one place, told us to stay put, and she went off to get our punch. Daddy, of course, was across the room talking and visiting with his members and the bride/groom’s family. Mama finally returned with the punch, sat down, and took a sip of the punch. She looked at me with horror on her face, and said, “The punch is spiked!” She then said, “Get over to your Daddy and tell him NOT to drink the punch!!” I ran over to get him, but he had already had THREE cups of punch, saying how good it was! Once we explained the situation, he immediately stopped drinking the punch and sought a way to remove himself (and us) from the vicinity. We could hardly stop laughing, trying to get to the car. (Daddy did NOT drive home that day!!) My Daddy had never tasted ANY alcohol, so he really was an innocent.

In today’s world, there’s not many grown children who can say that their Father never smoked, drank, cursed, or abused them in some way, whether physical or emotional…but I can! My Father set a true example for his children to follow. He never said, “Do as I say, not as I do.” He continually said, “Do as I do!” By living that sweet, pure life before us, he gave us the most wonderful example to follow. My Father took this responsibility to heart. He and Mother wanted (and planned for) all four children. He taught us wrong from right. He lived his life the way he wanted us to live ours…and we heard (and saw) that message loud and clear. We live fuller, more complete lives because of the lessons he taught us. I can’t think of any other person who truly emulates the word, “Christlike.” And no matter how old I get, he will ALWAYS be my “Daddy.” Let’s celebrate those Fathers every day – not on just one day out of the year. And stay away from that punch…Won’t you join me? Just for this week…

Just. Let. Go.

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OK, OK, I KNOW!!! I took off an entire month from the blog. All I can say in my defense is that I apparently needed a little “breather.” So, if you will all forgive me, I am back, and I am going to try my best to continue to post on a weekly basis. Being right in the middle of summer, and seeing and hearing about family and friends’ vacations, I was reminded of some of my own that were more memorable than others. So, this week’s story is about one of those vacations…

One of the most wonderful benefits of having friends all across the nation, is the knowledge that at some point in time, you can arrange to get together for visiting and fun times. A number of years ago, there was a group of us that would go on vacation together each summer. It never really mattered where we went…we always knew there would be good food, lots of laughs, AND adventures!!!

This particular summer we decided to meet up in Lake Tahoe. Each of us had rented a little “Theme” cabin at a resort, close by the Truckee River. Of course, it was our plan to raft down the river during our stay. Although the river was listed as “white water rapids,” the part we were going to be on did not look like anything more than “mild swirls…” (Now, a little aside…I am not known for my expert swimming abilities and/or water skills. Make no mistake, I LOVE the water…as long as I am wearing two items…a life vest…and nose plugs. I can’t help it! I just suck up water through my nose when underwater…I’m like a human vacuum cleaner…Nothing I have tried has helped or made it better. So, you can imagine what I look like…go ahead….picture it…) All of my friends know about this particular “attribute,” and they watch out for me. They know that it would not take much for me to panic and lose even the small skill of swimming that I do possess. So, whenever I am in the water, someone is in with me…within reach…Go ahead and laugh, but know this. This “respect” for water does NOT inhibit my actions. I will try almost anything. I just take “necessary” precautions…

The day arrived for our rafting adventure. There were eight of us. Since the rapids were very mild, and the attendants told us it was very rare for a raft to be overturned, and…not wanting to really look like a nerd, I chose not to wear my nose plugs. So there we were, two at the front of the raft, two at the center, and my best friend and I sitting on the back. We set off and were having such a wonderful time, laughing, enjoying being together, and just being outside in all that glorious beauty. One of my friends at the front kept wanting to make the ride a little more adventuresome, so instead of just allowing us to “drift” down the river, she would try to direct the raft toward the more “active” rapids. She was “admonished” the entire time, and asked not to do this, as all of us just wanted to make the ride last as long as possible, and not have to “work” at it. She just could not help herself, though, and she kept trying to redirect our path. I was enjoying the trip so much, that, eventually, I zoned out and did not pay her anymore attention. Everything was fine until she had somehow gotten us over to one side of the river. The last words I heard from everyone was, “Cat, watch out for that tree…..!!!” I looked up just in time to see the branch swiftly approaching my chest. There was no where to go! The branch caught me in the chest and flipped me over backwards into the water. Knowing my fear and my ability to panic in a heartbeat, my best friend grabbed the waist of my swimming shorts as I flipped over, to keep me from being tossed from the raft. However, she (and I) now had a new quandary…she was holding my bottom up on the raft, but my chest and head were underwater. She knew that if she kept holding me in the raft, that I would surely drown, so she just let go. She and some other friends jumped in immediately to help. Here’s the funny part…when she let go, I simply flipped over and then stood up in about two feet of water. I was safe!! Even without the nose plugs!!!  Since the rapids had taken our raft on down the river, we were stranded, until a raft came by with a bunch of guys on a bachelor’s party/trip, drunker than a skunk! They pulled us into their rafts and we made it to the end of our river journey safely.

If my friend had held on, trying to save me, I really would have drowned in two feet of water. By letting go, she allowed me to take my own action…and she placed herself in a position to offer assistance. Some times, in life situations, we hold on, when letting go would have the better result. We hold on to children, scared that we will no longer be able to protect them from the world’s harms, or that they might grow distant from our love…we hold on to old beliefs and biases that limit our growth – personally, professionally, and spiritually…we hold on to relationships and friendships, trying to make them work when they will not…we hold on to grudges that hurt only the ones holding the grudge…we hold on to an old way of life, when a change in direction would be so much better…we hold on to a job, when there is no joy in the work…we hold on to “worries,” when no amount of worrying has ever changed an outcome…we hold on to fears, and “cultivate” them, instead of facing them and educating ourselves…All of us usually have good intentions, but maybe right now is the time to JUST. LET. GO. Won’t you join me? Just for this week…

“You’re getting a little too pure….”

Among many other valuable lessons in life, my Father taught me how to drive a car…and a truck…He was so very patient (and BRAVE!!) We started when I was about five years old, and he would let me sit in his lap and “help” him drive to church. Yes, I KNOW, it is a wonder I am alive today!!! LOL! Just to send you into a real “tizzy,” I also used to lay up over the back seat of the car, right next to the back windshield, and gaze at the stars at night…So, yes, I am a one-woman-wonder…I survived!! So…getting back to learning how to drive…As I got older, I got to sit behind the steering wheel myself, with Daddy in the passenger seat. He never hollered at me, or shouted out in fear, he never reprimanded me. He simply, gently, taught me. Whenever I would get to going a little too fast, he would always comment, “You’re getting a little too pure…” I knew what that meant, and I would slow down a little. To his and my credit, I have had only one wreck in my life, and it was the fault of the other driver. I’m thinking his teaching methods were pretty successful!

Driving was not the only lesson and skill he taught me. My father is one of the most gentle, humble, soft-spoken spirits you will ever meet. He doesn’t talk a lot, but when he is not around, words cannot describe the sense of bereftness that is felt. He worked hard all of his life to provide for his family. He was both a carpenter and a preacher. (A pretty good combination, even if I do say so myself.) As a carpenter, he taught me how to paint and build. My brother has always laughed and said, “It’s a crying shame when your sister has more tools than you do!” And I always say, “And I know how to use them…” There is no greater pride when I build something, and when I get through with the project, my first thought is…”just like Daddy.”

But the greatest lesson he taught me was how to live “Christ-like.” I have watched my Father all of my life, and I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he LIVES his beliefs and faith. There were times when I wanted him to get angry at a situation, to lash out at individuals who were hurting him or our family, but he never would. He ALWAYS turned the other cheek…”70 times 70…” His faith, along with my Mother’s, has been the driving force in my life. It is the one thing that I am sure of in this life!

About halfway through my life, I realized that he and I never really verbalized our love for each other. I always told Mother I loved her, but I could not remember doing that very much with Daddy. Once I made that realization, I set about to correct it. He now hears the words “I love you” each time we talk and each time we are together. He KNOWS it!! He will turn 89 this year, and I am so thankful that I have him! He will never know how his lessons direct my path and my actions, even when I tell him. So, on this past Father’s Day, as well as all the other days, I love and appreciate him even more. What a blessing that God gave me to him and Mother!

So men, it takes more than “making a baby” to be a real Father…it’s always being there, always supporting, always providing, always teaching and guiding, always loving…and ALWAYS living an example before them…the RIGHT example. So pay attention, little ones look up to you, and want to be just like you. And no matter how old a child grows, you will always be their Daddy. Make it count! Won’t you join me? Just for this week…

“Sticks and stones…”

As kids, we all learned those old “comebacks” to win an argument: “Oh yeah? Well, your Mama…” “Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah!” “I know you are, what am I?” And of course, the best one, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me!” As we grew older, we learned very quickly that words could indeed harm us. In his book, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” Robert Fulghum gave us a new quote regarding “sticks and stones.” He writes, “Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will break our hearts.” I would like to add to that statement. Words will also break our spirit. I am sure you have guessed by now that the “power” for this week is WORDS.

At conferences, I am often asked to present a session entitled, “They’re ONLY Words…” In that presentation I tell of a little girl in the second grade. She was very tiny for her age, and had a “clubfoot.” (Also called congenital talipes equinovarus (CTEV), a congenital deformity involving one foot or both. The affected foot appears to have been rotated internally at the ankle. Without treatment, people with club feet often appear to walk on their ankles or on the sides of their feet.) In addition to this deformity, she had a “cauliflower ear” and could not hear very well with that ear. (Cauliflower ear is a condition that occurs when the external portion of the ear suffers a blow, blood clot or other collection of fluid under the perichondrium. As a result, the outer ear becomes permanently swollen and deformed, resembling a cauliflower.) I have told you the exact definition and descriptions of those two deformities because I want you to get a good visual image of this small child. This was quite a few years ago, before we had all of the latest technology to test someone’s hearing. The way they tested a child’s hearing in school went something like this: the teacher would call up one child at a time, whisper a phrase into their ear, and ask them to repeat the phrase they heard…all conducted in front of the entire class. The little girl remembered last year when this was done…how she was embarrassed and humiliated to have to go before the class, dragging her little foot, and hoping against hope that she could hear the phrase well enough to repeat it. I can just picture her…her heart pounding so loudly in that little chest that you would think it might explode…trying to remember to walk as straight as possible, not limp or drag her foot…and praying so hard that she might actually hear what the teacher would whisper in her ear. (I can never tell this story without tears springing to my eyes. I am such a visual person, and I can see this little girl in minute detail every time I recount this event. Even now, I am writing this with tears in my eyes.) So, it was time for her to walk up to the teacher. She took a little longer getting there than the rest of the children. As she was walking to the front of the class, she heard the comments: “retard,” “gimp,” “not right in the head…” Oh yes, she heard all of that!! She finally reached the teacher, turned her “good” ear to her, and tried to hide the tears already forming in her eyes. The teacher leaned down, scooped the child as closely in her arms as possible, and whispered tenderly to her, “I wish you were MY child!”  And right there, in that moment, those words made all the difference in the world to that child. Just from those few words, she discovered that she had worth and value; that someone wanted her…defects and all. Those words gave her hope!

I hear what people say to their children. I hear what people say to the people they supposedly love. I hear what people say to, and about, the people they work with. I hear what neighbors say about other neighbors. I hear what husbands and wives say to each other. I hear what children say to their parents. And my heart breaks over and over again. When did we become so cruel? When did we become so uncaring? Once a word is spoken, you can never take it back. There are no “do-overs.” You can never really correct it. Oh, you can apologize, but the memory, and that you said it in the first place, will ALWAYS be remembered. Words can absolutely destroy a person. Words can lift and encourage one’s  heart and spirit.

I always think that if this was the last time I saw a person, what words would I have left them with? Would the words be fault-finding, cruel, disrespectful, harmful, and destructive; or would the words be loving, comforting, encouraging? I want my words to be tender to the heart and soul…loving in every way. Won’t you join me? Just for this week…