Thanks For Everything

In twenty two years as an Oncology nurse I’ve said goodbye to a lot of people. The real goodbye, the last one, when you look each other in the eye and know you will never see each other again on this side. It takes some real emotional grit to allow it, to allow them to do it and not try to deflect it because of your own discomfort.

The first time it happened I hadn’t been an Oncology nurse very long, and she was one of my favorite patients. She was a spunky, bright Mom of two, with a vicious cancer. Every time she came for treatment she had everyone in the infusion room laughing. She was full of light.

When she was first diagnosed her husband saw the lay of the land and immediately left her for another woman. As she endured one failing treatment after another, he refused to pay child support and fought her the house. But you’d never have known it.

And then one day there was nothing left to do. She would go home with Hospice and finish her days surrounded by family. On her way out I flushed and deactivated her I.V. port. It was just me and her and the elephant in the room. She was quiet for a moment and then she said:

“You know I won’t be coming back anymore. I just want to thank you for everything you did.”

I was just so young, and my heart was broken, and I couldn’t let her do it. I made some response that she’d come in for port flushes and I’d see her then. The moment passed and she was gone. And I never did see her again.

I wish 50 year old Mary could reach back across time and tell 29 year old Mary to just let her do it. That it would be the last thing I ever got to do for her.

I’ve had to say goodbye so many times since that day, and my heart has been broken so many times that it’s a roadmap of scar tissue. I’ve learned that you won’t die of it and that you won’t be sorry.

So, today I heard that a long time patient was in the hospital. Nothing left to do, going home with Hospice, at the end of a long, hard fight. So I went to see him.

I walked in and saw him there in the bright overhead light someone had left on. He was shrunken in his hospital gown, any sense of who he was or dignity removed.

When he saw me, his face crumpled and he began to cry. And the years fell away and he looked someone’s scared little boy. I hugged him and called him by name and pulled up a chair, and in so doing, handed him back his humanity.

We talked for awhile, then I asked if I could pray with him. I did, we cried, we hugged and as I stood to leave he looked me dead in the eye and said:

“Goodbye. Thanks for everything.”

And I let him.

Memorial Day

Originally published June 5, 2018

Memorial (n.)-created or done to honor a person who has died.

I have a friend whose Father was killed in Vietnam when she was a little girl. Forty eight years later she can still tell you everything about that day, about that moment, when the soldier came to the door with the envelope in his hand.

She can tell you what the weather was like, what she was wearing, the way her baby brother’s foot looked hanging from her Mother’s hip, about the strangled sound her Mother made and then the wailing.

She wonders what she was doing at the exact moment her big, strong Daddy laid down his life in a rice Paddy far away.

She tells me all of it, with tears in her eyes. Her tears are frozen at her eyelids as that moment is frozen in time. Her shoulders drawn in as though to ward off blows on a place still tender. After all these years.

Today, maybe even at this moment, somewhere in the world, someone’s child, someone’s parent, someone’s friend, someone’s someone will die for our country. It will probably be in a desert rather than a jungle, but still, alone, afraid, miles away from anything that feels like home. We will be eating BBQ when this happens, or lounging by the pool, or binging Netflix.

May we all stop for a moment and remember that somewhere in this country, a soldier is coming to the door with an envelope in his hand and drawing a line of demarcation down the middle of a life, across which all events will now be placed in time as either “before” or “after”.

And in a moment, I will send my friend a text, as I always do on Memorial Day, to let her know that I am thinking of her…and that I remember.

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Sea of Galilee. Photo credit: Trey Ingram.

“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.”-Ps 84:5

In the great dining hall of our hotel the day is beginning. Pilgrims are everywhere, eating strange foods, drinking coffee and tea, checking backpacks, chatting in every possible language of what they’ve seen, what they will see, eyes wild as they try to assimilate what they’ve already learned before another round. As a woman from Kansas says to me:

“It’s like trying to take a drink from a fire hose.”

As good a way as any to describe the complete assault on the senses, on the spirit, on the heart, that is the Holy Land.

I sit down with my plate and look out the big window to my left and see that the sun is clearing low clouds on the horizon to come up over the Sea of Galilee. I go to the door and step out onto the balcony, into the Tiberias morning. As the door closes the din of pilgrims becomes a murmur that bleeds into doves calling to each other in the Mimosa trees, and workmen below me arguing good naturedly in Arabic, school children running by calling to each other in Hebrew, somewhere in the distance laughter, the Universal language…that and tears. There is a gentle breeze that brings me the smell of baking bread and flowers and garbage and the scent of lake water. A heron goes low and skims the water in search of breakfast. A calico cat grooms herself on an overturned crate. Everything falls away and it’s as though the dial of my senses turns all the way up and I am completely here in this moment, in this place, rooted to the ground as though I were born here. And in that moment I feel the “Beautiful Land” gently sink her teeth into me, and I know I will leave a piece of myself behind in this holy and tragic place. That for the rest of my days I will be a little homesick for a place that I’m not from.

And then, like all transcendent moments, it’s over and I step back into the dining room. I step into the tide, into the song of pilgrims going forth to seek the holy. From the four corners of the earth we come, under many flags, speaking many tongues to file onto buses that will take us to stand on ground soaked in blood and tears, settled by Canaanites, to look at ruins left by Romans, to sing hymns in churches built by Crusaders, to run our fingers over mosaics laid by Byzantines. The old and the new, the past and the now, the conquered and the conquerors, the beautiful and the ugly, all jostling each other for the same patch of ground. Like tired children with nowhere to go, elbowing each other in the backseat on a long car trip. A very long car trip. Are we there yet?


30 years.

3 Bridesmaids, 3 Groomsmen, only one of each not carried away by time and distance.

1 Rental house with brown shag carpet where we learned to be married.

1 Tiny yellow house, now painted gray, where we started our family. We drove by it the other day and smiled and agreed that we were happy there. Happy in the way that you are when it’s all before you and when you’re too young to understand how happy you really are.

3 trips to the hospital for 3 boys, now 3 men. 3 Christenings, 3 Confirmations, 3 Graduations. All the noisy, messy, goodness that is raising children, the joy of seeing them starting their own lives. The sweetness and the bittersweetness.

5 funerals, 1 for a life short and tragic, 4 for lives long and wonderfully lived. Our teachers all.

Trips, too many to count, to the ball field, to the beach, to parks, to the hospital, to camp and so many happy hours in the woods. When I fall behind on the trail, I look up and see him looking back to be sure I am coming. And he waits for me to catch up. Always.

Meals and holidays and laughter and tears and science projects and flat tires and trips to the grocery store and taxes. The best moments of our lives and the worst, and every moment in between, we stand, sometimes apart, sometimes very close, but always side by side.


Brave Part II

Brave (adj.)-having or showing mental or moral strength to face danger, fear, or difficulty: having or showing courage.

For a time I worked on a hospital unit that primarily took care of patients that had had OB/GYN surgeries. One of our functions was to care for patients that had had “poor maternal outcomes” as it was put, or otherwise needed to be on a unit where they wouldn’t have to listen to someone else’s baby crying.

During my time there I cared for several of those women. Obviously, that usually meant that they had lost their babies and had stillborn infants, but there was one other circumstance where they came to us, and that was when the Mother was putting the baby up for adoption.

She was 18, a freshman in college, the boy involved long gone. I don’t know if she didn’t have family or they didn’t know, but she was utterly alone. It was a private adoption and the couple adopting her baby had been kind to her. They were there when the baby was born. She held the baby girl once and then came to us. The couple came to see her once after and cried and thanked her. After an awkward goodbye they left, radiant, delirious with happiness, trailing joy in their wake. She sat there with a very blank look on her face and then picked up her book and began to read.

The next day as I walked down the hall, the door to the small conference room on our unit opened and a woman stepped out. She stopped me and said she was a Social Worker and they needed a witness for the consent for adoption. I walked in and she was at the table surrounded by official looking people. She looked very small and very young and very alone, her narrow shoulders drawn in. The Social Worker had kind eyes and gently explained the form and process to her. Then she said:

“Do you understand that once you sign this it’s permanent? You cannot change your mind in an hour or a week or a year?”

She said:

“Yes, I understand.”

Then she picked up the pen and signed her name, and as she did a single tear slid down her cheek.

I walked back to her room with her and helped her back into bed. I couldn’t think of a single thing to say and she said nothing. She asked for something for pain, took it from me and then turned her face to the wall. When I came back on shift the next day she was gone.

I’ve thought about her so many times through the years, and that baby girl would be a grown woman herself by now. I thought about her when they placed my own babies in my arms and I got to see every milestone of their lives. It was only then that I could understand what she gave up, what she missed and what courage she had.

I hope she has had a wonderful life. A life that included meaningful work, and a man that would stay when the going got tough. I hope she had children, and got to know the joy of that, and maybe got to reunite with the one she so bravely let go of to have a better life than she could give her.

I hope time has healed or at least a scar that she could live with, and I’m grateful for what she taught me about love and about what it means to be brave.

Brave Part I

Brave-to face or endure with courage

In the world of cancer treatment it is known that sometimes the treatment causes problems of its own. Medicines strong enough to kill the bad cells of cancer also kill some of the good cells. The hope is that the good cells recover and come back, the bad ones don’t. During my son’s long months of chemotherapy there were times he needed transfusions of blood and platelets. Many was the time we drove the hour to our beloved Children’s Hospital to get one or the other, or both. They had to be administered through his I.V. very slowly. If he needed both it was understood that we would be there all day.

One long we day we had outlasted all but one other patient and her Mother. Anna Grace was 12 and had been fighting for a long time, the horror of a cancer for which there was never any hope of cure, only the hope of time, precious time. Recently she had been too sick to go to her 8th grade graduation, the last grade she would ever complete, so they had brought it to her. Her Mother showed me the pictures as waited. And in the pictures I had seen on her face the same look I had seen on her face that morning. A 1000 yard stare of such blankness and resignation, as though she already had a foot in the next world and would soon be going. It was a look I had come to recognize over the months we had been coming to the clinic and it was as reliable as any biopsy or MRI to indicate who would soon be gone.

Today they were here like us, to get blood and platelets. A full day in the clinic and we had again outlasted all, even some of the employees whose shifts had come and gone as we sat there. We were getting it to be ready for the next round of treatment, they were getting it so that she would feel well enough to go to the beach one last time. It was the end of the day and the lights were low as the two patients slept in their recliners in the infusion room. Anna Grace’s Mother sat beside her, her Bible in her lap.

Out of nowhere she burst into tears, a sudden, violent storm of weeping, inarticulate but conveying all the anguish and grief and sorrow that could ever be. I started to go to her but felt the gentle restraining hand of Spirit to stay put and let her have this moment. I prayed silently for her, for all of us, as my own tears slid down my face.

After a moment, it was over. She took a deep breath, dried her eyes and blew her nose. She reached over to pat her sleeping daughter and then picked up her Bible and began to read again.

That was so many years ago now, my own little patient is 20 years old, and so far away from all of that that it seems like another life. I guess if Anna Grace had lived she would be a young woman now. I hope the years have brought healing to her family and that they have known joy again. But that moment has stayed with me, an image seared on my mind of courage and strength. Of what it means to be brave.

Madonna and Child

Christmas Eve 1996

I ease him into his “Baby’s First Christmas” outfit. He is 3 months old and starting to sleep at night. This coincides with me thinking that I may survive this tiny earthquake and all it’s aftershocks with sanity intact. I will be going back to work soon, but first I have promises to keep. I add the finishing touch, a tiny hat, which for now he is leaving on his head. We are ready. I step out into the cold.

My firstborn was born in September. I was a home health nurse at the time. I cared for mostly elderly residents in what was once a nice part of town, with small but neat homes that you could own if you had a job at the Paper Mill or the Coal Mine. A piece of the American Dream slid into the darkness of drugs and crime, leaving my patients to cling to what they had built as it crumbled around them.

The day I found out I was pregnant it was because of a visit to one of these patients. He was cooking chitlins (my non-southern readers may have to look this one up) and the house was full of the stench of it. I kept having to go hang my head out the back door and gulp fresh air to make it through my visit due to my nausea. I left from there and immediately took a test and that is when I knew I would be creating a new being. What I didn’t know was that I would soon be a new being too.

My patients, many of them so lonely and isolated, took great interest in my pregnancy, weighing in on whether it was a boy or a girl, and how big it would be. Many shared stories of their own long ago babies. All made me promise to bring the baby to see them.

Even my most notoriously difficult patient took a grudging interest. Carrie was, as we say in the South, a “mess”, and not always in the good way. She was alone in the world and barely able to manage in her tiny section 8 apartment even with our help. Help she frequently didn’t cooperate with or even appreciate. She could cuss you so a fly wouldn’t light on you just for trying your job, and if you ever came and her pistol was on the table that meant she didn’t want a bath that day. Still, I liked her and tried my best to win her over with mixed results.

She spent the months of my pregnancy making dire predictions about the baby’s chances with me as a mother inserted into her usual grousing. But occasionally while I was taking her blood pressure or checking her blood sugar, her gnarled hand would slip over to touch my belly, and a small smile would steal across her face. Once he kicked for her and she announced that I would have to bring the baby to see her, because she just loved babies.

And so it was that on Christmas Eve 1996 we went visiting. My son passed through many hands that day and endured it all patiently, his eyes never leaving my face, trusting. I left Carrie for last and prayed that it would be one of her good days. She looked at him for a long moment and then asked to hold him. I hesitated for just a second, as she was weak and unsteady, but only for a moment.

I carefully settled him in her arms and stood back. She rocked him and spoke to him much nicer than she’d ever spoken to me, in a gentle tone I’d never heard from her before.

“I just LOVE babies!” she exclaimed. Then she looked up at me with a radiant smile, her face beatific. And so it came to pass that on the night before Christmas there they were, she and my son, an unlikely Madonna and Child. And for just a moment the dinginess and sadness and darkness of the tiny room was pushed back by the light into a circle of all the love and joy in the world.

What We Leave Behind

I carefully separate the cuttings, teasing the roots apart gently. As I press down the soil around the plant in the pot, I press down my prayers and hopes for healing for a friend whose family has suffered an unimaginable loss.

In the corner stands the Mother plant, lush and glorious, of uncertain age, though certainly many years old. As is my habit, every time a sprig falls I root it for just such a time as this.

She came to our center for radiation, palliative of course, as there was no possibility of cure. We bonded immediately because of a certain shared feistiness, and a love of plants and digging in the dirt. She had once had a magnificent yard though she now could only go and sit and direct her son to do her bidding.

It was spring and all was in bloom, and every day she would bring an offering to lay on the altar of hope that was the nurses desk, in supplication for the gift of time, more time. Usually it was a day lily, she knew all the names and we would stand there and admire and debate the merits of Stella D’oro and Crimean Crimson and Barnabus. And for those few minutes her face would light up and she would forget that she was dying and remember that she was alive, and somehow still a part of that force web that weaves us all together.

Time passed and eventually so did she. One day I was told that her son was at the front desk and wanted to see me. In his hands was a pot with a beautiful Christmas Cactus in it. He told me she had wanted me to have it, a final act of sharing beauty with me.

That was many years ago, and I have faithfully tended it and enjoyed its blooming, in winter and again in spring, the time when I knew her. Eventually I had enough potted to call him back and give him his own plant, a piece of his mother returned to him. He stood there in the waiting room, wordless and moved to tears, and in the silence we remembered her and the beauty she left behind.

I’ve shared pieces of that cactus many times now, usually to someone that has suffered a loss. A reminder that every life, no matter how short, leaves something of itself behind, something beautiful, that says “I was here.”.

I carefully place the plant in a box with a note of explanation, and head out the door, in my hands another slender thread in that great tapestry being continually woven by the hand of something greater than ourselves.

In memory of:

Blaire Margaret Bennet

Child of God, who lived an all too short, but perfect life of love.

One of the many “daughters” of the original plant.

And Now For Something Completely Different

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed here are entirely those of the author on a account of its my blog. And anyway you wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t languishing in a really long line somewhere, thinking bad thoughts about your fellow human beings and possible saying “Bah, humbug!”.

So let’s talk about Christmas songs. We might as well, they’ve been playing in Hobby Lobby since before Halloween. And you have miles to go before you sleep (read, New Year’s Day).

First the good, I could have an entire playlist of covers of O Holy Night. All the really old Christmas hymns, the Christmas Song by Nat King Cole, Santa Claus is Coming to Town by the Boss. Run DMC, Christmas in Hollis. You know, the classics.

Then the bad, New Kids On the Block, Funky, Funky Christmas. No…just no.

And then the ugly, the songs I could happily live the rest of my life without hearing again. Here are my top 5. Number 1 is DEFINITELY number 1, the rest are in no particular order.

The Little Drummer Boy

1. Why would a shepherd boy in 1st century Israel need a drum? Do they have some previously unknown soothing effect on sheep?

2. Who wants visits from dirty strangers moments after giving birth?

3. Who in the world thinks playing a drum for a newborn is a good idea? I know when mine were small and sleep elusive, I would’ve shown that shepherd a special new place to keep that drum.

Christmas Don’t Be Late, Alvin and the Chipmunks

1. Chipmunks don’t sing.

2. Chipmunks don’t observe Christmas.

3. Chipmunks don’t wear sweaters. (At least not in Alabama).

All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth

1. Sure hope you got ‘em by now.

2. Stop.

3. No really, stop.

I Want a Hippopotamus For Christmas

1. It’s an ear worm.

2. It’s an ear worm.

3. It’s an ear worm.

Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer , Randy Brooks

1. Because what’s Christmassy about Trauma?

2. Do I need another reason?

3. Randy Brooks, what’s the matter with you?

In short, it just seems like some songs (even the ones that were cute the first 125,463 times you heard them) have just been played so much that they should be taken out of circulation. You know, retired, like a sports jersey, and never, never played again. And when we’re through retiring Christmas songs I’m coming for you Stairway to Heaven.

Wow, I feel better now. Thanks for letting me vent. If I missed any, let me know. I think I’ll go have a Christmas cookie now, just not a reindeer one…or a drum.


Faux (adj.)-made to look like something else that is usually more valuable.

In 2016 I made the decision to get off of Social Media. I had been edging that way for some time. During times of prayer and fasting it had consistently been the thing I gave up, the thing that was always in the way of my connection with God. Finally, my keen mind realized that it needed to go.

At the time it was for reasons more personal than global, but with time and distance I can report that I’m concerned about the effect it’s having on the world, on us as a species. Like a gun, it’s a neutral force , the harm depending on who is wielding it; but it is also true that guns were made to kill things. From the remove of 6 years it now seems to me that Social Media is a Trojan Horse, something that looks good but tricks you into letting something bad within your gates.

For me it became a seduction of sorts. I began to share pictures of my kids and share the funny things they said and did. I came to enjoy the attention it got me, the “likes”. I had no thought for the fact that my kids had not given their consent for their words, their images, their whole lives to be put out their for all the world to see. A vehicle for their mother’s dopamine hits. By the end it became common for them to have my “friends” approach them, to have people they didn’t even know know a lot about them. The dark underbelly of parenthood is that we get reflected glory from our kids, but Social Media has elevated it to the level of a sacrament. (I have since apologized to my kids and offered to pay for their therapy).

I hesitate to talk about my reasons for decamping, much less blog about it. It seems to make people feel the need to justify to me that it’s okay for them to have Social Media. It absolutely is. So please don’t blow up the comments section to tell me that you use it to keep up with your Aunt Pearl in Omaha, Nebraska (say hello to Aunt Pearl for me), or so you’ll know what your kids are doing (you still don’t, trust me on this). As you were people, I just found in me that it fed things that needed to be starved and starved things that needed to be fed.

*Sidebar, Social Media platforms make it very difficult to actually delete the account, and I think that’s on purpose. I had to Google instructions and eventually call in my tech support (read my teenagers) to do it. And even then I got a message from Facebook that was the digital equivalent of a bad boyfriend saying:

“You don’t know what you want. No one will ever love you like me. You have 30 days to come back or all your stuff will be out in the yard.”

(Think King George singing “You’ll be back” in Hamilton).

But finally I succeeded and then there was silence. I had the strange sensation of coming out from under something. I was stunned to realize that somewhere along the line I had begun to live and view my life in terms of how I would post it, how I would present it to others for their approval, what caption, what hashtag. Now I just lived. I took less pictures. I had more time and less anxiety. It was a relief to not have to know what everyone was doing, and what everyone felt all the time.

I was surprised to see how few of my “friends” were actually a part of my life, the ones that you called or they called you, got together with, actually saw in person. I had a benignly positive feeling towards them as though we were friends in theory as long as no effort was required. I came to see that there was really no relationship. Social Media had created the illusion of relationship, a facsimile of friendship, a faux intimacy where none really existed. It was as though I walked through neighborhoods, peering into windows, making note of what was on the table, the pictures in the fridge of school first days and vacations and yet didn’t really know them well enough to come in the house. There was no “there” there.

A few months after the big break up I was in the mall during the holidays. I saw a woman I’d known in high school who’d been one of my “friends”. I’d seen her wedding, vacations, her sweat streaked face moments after giving birth to the little boy standing beside her waiting to see Santa. We inquired after each other’s families, plans for the holidays, remarked on the busyness of the season. And within 5 minutes we were completely out of things to say to one another. I said goodbye and walked away from her, a very nice woman that I hardly knew at all.