Lessons I’m Learning as a Caregiver: Elvis, Honor, and Sacrifice

I looked down, surprised to see her tapping her feet in rhythm to “Blue Suede Shoes”.  A little while later, it was Jailhouse Rock, You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog, and The Trilogy.

I never even knew she liked Elvis.

She had always loved music, though, so I’m not that surprised. But the music she loved was The Gaithers and other old gospel singers.  But here she was, grooving along to old Elvis staples.

Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 11.56.46 AMThe sixty-something-year-old impersonator’s voice moved up and down in harmony with the music cranking out of an old ratty speaker connected by a conspicuous black cord to an even older and rattier boombox.  We had sat in the back of the tiny courtyard because she had said the music was “too loud.”  Maneuvering her wheelchair past the thirty or so other wheelchairs parked in the grass was no small fete, let me tell you.  But I was happy to do it because I was desperate for any chance that something might bring her joy and cause her to be more accepting of her current lot.

I was surprised we were there at all, though, because she never liked loud things.  She would complain every time my father and I would watch television together at her small apartment if the the volume was even close to normal hearing range.  To our bewildered amusement, she would go so far as to stuff tissue in her ears on some occasions.  But she had smiled and said “Yes” earlier that morning when I had asked her, “Are you going to the singing?”

“Yes,” she said.  “That little old lady invited me.”  She pointed to another resident about the same age as her.

To Ma, all of the other people in the nursing home were “little old ladies” and “little old men.”  Since arriving the week earlier, she had remarked several  times on how this place is “full of elderly people.”  Ma had spent the majority of her life as a caregiver for elderly or sick family members at the end of their life including her father, her mother, her husband, her sister, and her sister-in-law.  She had also always taken care of me, most notably when I was a young child wrecked and traumatized by my parents’ divorce and later when I was a young adult, lost in life, when she took me in to live with her.  Being a caregiver was her identity.  She felt it was her duty, the right thing to do, and required of her by her savior who had given His life for hers, that she lay down her life for others.  Her display of this kind of love has greatly marked and impacted my life.

Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 11.57.18 AM.pngShe stayed in the nursing home only for 21 days before returning to her apartment across the street from our house, but the whole time she was there, she couldn’t quite reconcile why she was in a place for such “elderly people” who needed great care when she was the one who always took care of elderly people.

She was 86 at the time.

She was born in 1930 during the height of the Great Depression in America.  But if her family felt the effects of the Great Depression, she never really let on.  She always spoke fondly and with great honor of her father and mother who had owned a farm and later a grocery store in the heart of Hardin County in Southern Illinois.  When she was a young girl, she would help her mother in the kitchen prepare food for the migrant workers whom her father would employ to work on the farm.  I think this is where she learned to really love people through acts of service.  It helped, too, that she had eight brothers and sisters (three of whom had died as young children).  She was always close with her brothers and sisters and spoke lovingly and respectfully and honoring towards them.  But she held the most honor for her mother and father.  In fact, I’ve never heard her say anything negative about them, only sweet and positive things.

They were hardworking, moral people, with a simple and understated faith in God.  I never knew her father, Alonso Patton, because he died when she was still a young women of a rare blood disease that no one in my family actually knows the name of.  She dutifully helped her mother care for him right up until the end.  Some years before he died, she had quit school after the 8th grade because he had asked her to.  He said her mother needed help at home and he needed help running the store.  Although it wasn’t what she wanted to do and she has often expressed regret that she didn’t finish school even to this day, she honored his request because he was her father.  And she always honored her mother and father.

Lately, I’ve often thought about the spiritual implications of that.  Because, in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul urged them to follow the commandment to honor their fathers and mothers because it was the first commandment that came with a promise.  That promise is “that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.”  To be honest with you reader, I don’t know how I feel about that right now.  Because my Ma is not “well.”  She has Alzheimer’s, dementia, and aphasia, as well as some physical ailments that require daily care.  And it would not really be a blessing at this point for her to “live long on the earth,” not unless some miraculous healing of body and mind were to occur.  And I believe in healing and I believe in miracles and I believe John 10:10 that Jesus came to give us an “abundant life” and it’s the “thief who comes to kill, steal, and destroy.”  So, I cannot tell you how much my faith and understanding of God’s will, His nature, and how His promises operate in the lives of believers has been stretched over the past year as I’ve watched my grandmother wither in mind and body.  I cannot tell you the confusion, and fear, and worry, and guilt, and anger, and stress Blake and I have battled over the past year as we’ve learned firsthand  just how hard it is to be primary caregivers of a sick, elderly person.  I cannot tell you how bizarre and disconcerting it is to be locked into a season of grief wherein you’re grieving a person who is actually still alive but not who they once were.

I’ve been learning a lot.  

In fact, if you’re my friend or family member and you’ve been wondering where I’ve been the past year and why I’ve neglected our relationship, it’s because I’ve been learning (kicking and screaming) how to love.  I’ve been learning how to serve, and how to honor, and surrender, and trust, and believe, and pray.  I’ve been learning how to share in Christ’s glory by sharing in His suffering.  I’ve been learning what Ma learned a long time ago:  that our holy, acceptable, and reasonable service to God is to present ourselves as living sacrifices.   I’ve been learning just how much I need the sacrifice of Jesus because my flesh is very weak.   I’ve been learning just how much I have to learn to love the way Jesus loves.

And I’ve been learning that my grandma likes Elvis.

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All I Wanted Was To Take Her Shame Away

This is a very embarrassing post.

 But part of overcoming your fears means laying aside your pride and being able to laugh at yourself.  Besides, even though what I’m about to share with you and the rest of the internet (i.e. the whole world) is one of my most embarrassing moments, it also happens to be one of my most profound encounters with the Holy Spirit and, for that reason, is worth sharing. It never ceases to amaze me how God speaks to me when I least expect Him to and how He can redeem every moment of our lives (even the embarrassing ones) and turn it around for our good and His glory. gbhouse2

It all started around this time last year.  It was a few weeks before Christmas and, upon the suggestion of a friend, I had driven to Evansville to check out the annual Aurora Gingerbread House Competition.  Being a cake designer, I’m intrigued by any pastry-based competition and was particularly interested in the hefty cash prize that was awarded to the winner.  It didn’t hurt either that the proceeds benefited Evansville’s homeless (spectators need only bring a canned good or perishable item as cover).  The only hitch was that beyond assembling a store-bought gingerbread kit, I had never worked with the medium, therefore I felt it necessary and wise to do some reconnaissance before actually entering such a competition.  I concluded I may enter the following year, but first I wanted to scope out the level of competition and ask the designers as many technical questions as I could about working with gingerbread without revealing my agenda.  Sneaky… 

The day was fantastic!  I highly recommend this event to anyone, whether you’re a seasoned pastry chef, a kid who likes to play with icing, or just a looky-loo in the Christmas spirit.  They have a few different competitions for people of various skill levels including a kid’s track, each with its own prize.  It was so much fun to meander from table to table with a cup of hot chocolate and watch the artists assemble their creations with a Christmas choir signing in the background. gbhouse I saw every type of gingerbread house imaginable, from the very traditional to Santa’s summer retreat to a working gingerbread cuckoo clock to a haunted gingerbread house.  This intricate gingerbread bird house was my favorite and ended up winning first place in the professional division. 

Side Note:  Aurora, Inc. is a really great organization!  You should check out their website and their blog, http://aurorahelpshomeless.wordpress.com/

When I left the event, I still had plenty of time to kill before my husband, Blake, got home.  I think he was at a speech tournament otherwise we would have most definitely been together.   We really are best friends and would prefer any activity together rather than solo and thus usually find a way to accompany one another even on our individual adventures.  This aspect of our relationship is great, but it makes Christmas shopping for one another nearly impossible.  We usually just buy each other’s gifts together, wrap them together, and then act surprised on Christmas morning.  But, since I was actually out alone for once, I decided to take advantage of the situation and stop by Eastland Mall to pick him up a few secret presents. 

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As I drove across town, it dawned on me that I must have drank one too many hot chocolates at the competition.  And by the time I got to the mall, I was under a full-fledged code yellow.  I had to go…BAD!

 Have you ever tried to find a quick parking place, close to the door, and close to a bathroom at a busy mall on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of the holiday shopping season all while nervously squirming in your seat so as not to endure a wet trip home?  I had traded one near impossibility for another.  Finally, after driving around for what seemed an eternity, the heavens opened and the hallelujah choir began singing as a car pulled out near the back side of JCPenny.  I couldn’t have been more relieved (well, that’s not actually true, I was in desperate need of greater relief); I knew that there was a small bathroom located at the back of the store just inside the closest door.  I thought to myself, “This is perfect!  Surely there won’t be anyone in this bathroom.  Most people don’t even know it’s here.” 

frequenturination Wrong!  After running awkwardly into the store with my knees together, I swung open the bathroom door to see that the line of perturbed, exhausted women ended just beyond it.  I squeezed my way in, desperately praying that I could hold it until my turn.  The good news is that I made it to the stall.  

The band news?  Well, this is going to take some explaining.  Bear with me.  This was the holidays and I was sporting the obligatory few extra holiday pounds but I still wanted to look nice in my skinny jeans and sweater, which is why I decided to wear my secret weapon and trusted ally: Spanx! (Don’t hate.) These weren’t just simple Spanx either.  Oh no!  These were full-body, over-the-shoulder Spanx; the kind you have to take off all of your clothes in order to remove.  Well, there was simply no time for any of that nonsense (finally getting into the stall had actually increased the urgency of the situation, if you know what I mean.)  If you’re unfamiliar with the design of this type of Spanx, this is the part of the story in which it’s unfortunately pertinent I explain to you that they have an opening which, in the case of an emergency (of which this was one), allows the wearer to utilize the bathing suit pullover method.  Ladies, you get me.  Fellas, ask your wives because that’s all the details I’m willing to give. 

Let’s just say, it did not go well.  I had waited so long to go and was so close to my goal that I lost control. There was nothing I could do, but try my best to get as much fabric as possible out of the line of fire and pray the damage was minimal.  By the end, I was wet, my hand was wet, the Spanx were wet.  To top it off, I felt a lot of pressure to hurry knowing that there were only two stalls and a slew of irritable women waiting on me to exit just outside the door.  I cleaned up as best I could with tissue paper and thought I had all but taken care of the problem.  I zipped up,  thoroughly washed my hands, and made my way out into the busy mall.  That’s when I learned a hard lesson:  spandex is like a sponge.  It feels dry to the touch, but actually retains a ton of moisture.  In other words, spandex lies.  My trusted friend had betrayed me. 

Slowly, I could feel my jeans getting wetter and wetter.  I tried to find a mirror so that I could do that move where you check yourself out all while pretending not to check yourself out.  But it was impossible!  People were everywhere!  The mall was packed with frantic holiday shoppers. I knew my pants were wet, but I didn’t know for sure if it was noticeable.  So I pulled my sweater down as far as I could and decided to make my way to the next nearest bathroom to assess the damages.  There was no way I was going back to the cramped and crowded restroom from which I had just escaped and face the same angry line of women.  The only problem?  The only other bathroom I knew of was all the way across the entire mall in the food court.  What could I do?  I had to go for it.  Surely my pants weren’t that bad.  But as I made my way there, every pack of laughing teenagers walking behind me made me as paranoid as a turkey on Thanksgiving. 

images (1)I finally made it, only to see a sign reading “Under Maintenance” and a janitor directing me and other traffic to a different bathroom upstairs.  Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Eastland Mall, but “upstairs” means walking up a completely open stairwell directly above the dining area of the food court.  And at that moment, the last place I wanted to be positioned was above a huge crowd of people who were eating.  But what choice did I have? I made my way upstairs and joined a long line of women waiting along a wall in a hallway to enter a tiny bathroom.  Finally.  I could rest and hide my shame for a while.  I took refuge by placing my back against the wall and pretended to look at my phone.  Nervous thoughts raced through my head as fast as I was aimlessly scrolling through my Facebook feed.  I was so ashamed.  I kept wondering how bad it was and how many people had noticed and what did they think and how was I going to get out of here and how could I be such a screw up!  I was so caught up in my own spiral of shame and self-loathing that I almost didn’t notice the family behind me.

A mom with four little girls ranging in age from nine to four were clumped together along the wall.  The mom was visibly and verbally annoyed with the eldest girl who was talking in a very high-pitched winy voice.  My attention was divided between them, the slowly moving line, snippets of Facebook posts, and my own self-defeating thoughts so it took me a while to realize that this girl wasn’t just being a brat.  She had a legitimate complaint, a complaint with which I could empathize.  She had to GO!

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As she hopped back and forth on one foot, bent over with her hands between her knees, bemoaning to her mother, “I gotta go bad! I can’t hold it,” my current quest faded from the forefront of my thoughts and I became increasingly worried for this little girl.  I tried to act nonchalant as I began paying closer attention to this family.  The mother was not in the mood to handle the girl’s current crisis and reprimanded her for making a scene.  It’s understandable.  She was powerless to help her little girl.  She couldn’t make the line move any faster and no one was offering her their place.  I’m sure this mother had been shopping all day, fighting the crowd, with four unruly kids in tow, spending money she could have used on bills or food, and was more than a little frazzled.  All she probably wanted was to get these kids to the bathroom and get out of there.

women-line-bathroom-400x400But, I felt so bad for this little girl and I was genuinely worried that she was going to have an accident right there in the hallway.  It didn’t seem like anybody else cared, so I vowed that when we finally got into the bathroom, I would let her go in my place.  As the line inched closer and closer to the bathroom doors, the girl’s cries became more and more frantic, “I really, really can’t hold it!  I’m gonna go!” and I became increasingly nervous for her.  I was so relieved when we finally made it into the actual bathroom.  Eventually, there was only one woman in line in front of me, but she was completely oblivious and seemed to be lost in her own world.  

As the girl’s voice reach a frenzied climax behind me, a stall opened up, and I practically pushed the lady in front of me into it.  I pressed forward on her shoulder shocking her back into the present moment, pointed at the open stall, and commanded, “Go!  Go!”  She let our a sudden, “Oh!” and slowly sauntered into the stall as if she had all the time in the world.  

We had almost made it.  All that needed to happen was for one more glorious door to swing open.  I watched those doors like a hawk waiting for even the slightly movement.  And that’s when it happened.

The room went silent.  There girl’s urgent pleas had suddenly ceased.  I turned around only to see the saddest sight:  a little girl peeing her pants in the middle of a crowded room.  It all seemed to happen in slow motion.  Shock settled on the room.  Everyone just stared at her.  She just stood there, frozen, as her pants became more and more saturated and the liquid slowly pooled on the floor.  You could have heard a pin drop.  No one knew what to say or do.  And that’s when the mother did something I will never forget.

Without acknowledging the little girl besides directing an extremely aggravated huff and a very conspicuous eye roll in her direction, she turned to the next eldest in her brood,  handed her charge of the two younger girls, and said quite loudly and quite hatefully, “You take your sisters to the bathroom.  I’ve got to go tell your father.” 

Then…she walked out.  She. Walked. Out.

She left this precious baby standing in a puddle of her own urine.

I was stunned.  The little girl was stunned.  Her sisters were stunned.  The whole room was stunned.  

headinhandsThe little girl still just stood there in the middle of all of us, too frightened and ashamed to even step out of the puddle on the floor.  Her sisters were huddled together and inching back away from the liquid as it spread out along the bathroom floor.  The devastated little girl looked up at me with shame-filled eyes from the midst of her mistake.  My heart just broke.

Just then, a stall door opened.  I told the sisters to go ahead and use that stall.  They dutifully obeyed, relieved someone was finally telling them what to do.  I looked the little girl in the eyes and asked, “Do you want to come stand over here by me?”  She nodded her head, and sheepishly muttered, “yeah…”  That first step out of the puddle was all it took to release the tears.  She sobbed and sobbed as she took her place in the corner of the room with me.  I wrapped my arm around her shoulder.

In that moment, I didn’t know what to say.  All I wanted was to take her shame away.  I loved her in that moment.  I wanted her to know that it was going to be okay.  I wanted her to know that it could’ve happened to anyone.  I wanted her to know that it didn’t matter what anyone thought about what she had done.  I just wanted to give her her dignity back. 

We stood there, side by side, me hugging her shoulder against my hip, her quietly sobbing, me praying, her whimpering, me directing traffic to go ahead and cut in line.  Finally, I felt the Holy Spirit release me to talk to her.  I bent down, looked her in the eye, and just started asking questions I prayed would take her mind off of what had happened.  

“What’s your name?”  Ruth*

“How old are you?”  Nine

“Where are you from?”  Mt. Vernon*

“What grade are you in?”  Third

“What’s your favorite subject in school?”  Reading

“Really!  That’s awesome!  I used to be an English teacher.  What’s your favorite book?”  Some YA title I didn’t know. 

“I’ve never read it.  What’s it about?”  

She began relaying to me the plot of her favorite book.  And as she told me all about who she was and shared with me something she was interested in, the shame melted from her face and I saw her true countenance.  Her face was so bright and beautiful; it was practically glowing through the tears.  She remembered, even if for a moment, her true identity, which wasn’t defined by this one mistake.  She wasn’t the girl who peed her pants.  She was Ruth from Mt. Vernon who likes to read!  She had a name.  She had interests.  She had a personality.  She had a heart.  She had a soul.  She had dignity.  She had worth.  (The Holy Spirit is a genius.  He knows just how to handle every situation.  Just ask Him.  He’ll give you the words to say.)

It was a glorious moment.  And I just wanted to stay in that moment with her and talk about how wonderful she was.

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But, in an instance, the spell was broken.  Her mother burst back into the room.  She said nothing to Ruth.  She walked right past us, disgustedly glared at Ruth from the corner of her eyes, and momentarily stared daggers at me.  I stood up.  I had no desire to interfere with this woman’s parenting.  She was probably embarrassed too.  Maybe she didn’t know what to do or say.  Maybe she was trying really hard not to be angry.  Maybe she was keeping quiet so as not to reveal how much her anger had gotten the best of her.  We’ve all been there before, trying to keep it together because we know we should, even though we’re on the verge of a breakdown.  

Ruth and I watched as she yanked handfuls of paper towels out of the dispensers and commenced to silently mop up the urine on the floor.  She then forcefully slammed the wet towels in the trash.  

Just then, the sisters came out of the stall.  The mother growled at them, “Come on!  We’ve got to go buy your sister some pants.”  She still  hadn’t said anything to Ruth.  The mother, once again, stormed out of the restroom.  The sisters followed and Ruth hung her head as she joined them.  And just like that, she was gone.  

The woman who was next in line offered for me to go ahead.  When I got in the stall, I just stood there for what seemed an eternity trying to process what had just happened.  In that moment, I was so mad!  I thought, “I just know that woman is going to march her through the mall and everyone is going to see!   How could she do that to her?!”  Then I regretted not offering to go buy the pants for her or at least stay with her until the family bought the pants.  But no, I had done exactly what the Spirit led me to do.  I was okay.   “But why didn’t she stay with her while the dad bought the pants?  Why didn’t she protect her dignity?”  I was mad again.

I was so shaken, I didn’t know what to do.  So, I just did what comes naturally when you’re standing in a bathroom stall, I unzipped and sat down.  It wasn’t until then that I even remembered why I was there in the first place.  I looked down at my own soiled pants.  They were noticeably soaked through in the back.  Then, I finally made the connection between Ruth’s shame and my own.  I hadn’t thought about it until that very moment.  And I felt Jesus say within my heart, “I am your High Priest.”  And the Holy Spirit immediately brought to my remembrance Hebrews 4:15-16 which says, “Our High Priest is able to sympathize with our weakness, because He was tempted in every way that we are tempted but didn’t sin.  That’s why we can come boldly before His throne of grace and receive mercy for our sins and find grace to help in the time of  need.”  

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I just wept and wept.  I wept to know this High Priest who was tempted in every way I am tempted.  I wept to know this King who understands me.  I wept to know this intercessor who forgives my sins and erases my mistakes.  I wept to know this God who stooped down and became a man because He cares for me.  I wept to know this Lover whose heart breaks for me, who wraps His arms around me, who talks to me about who I really am and what interests me.  I wept to know this Savior who just wants to take my shame away and restore my dignity.  I wept to know this Warrior whose anger is kindled when I am abused and misused.  I wept and wept to know my Jesus who loves me.  

I wept to know that He had let me glimpse His heart and had done it by allowing me to feel for Ruth what He feels for me. Who was I to deserve such divine favor?  Who was I to deserve such grace and mercy?  It didn’t matter.  I was His.  He saw my true countenance, my true identity.  I wasn’t the woman who had made all those mistakes.  I was His Promise and I had dignity and I had worth.

1526__67131.1383422039.1280.1280Dearest Reader, this is the same way He feels about you.  He is no respecter of persons.  He loves you with an unbelievable love!  Let Him talk to you today about who you are.  You are precious to Him.  He isn’t mad at you.  He isn’t embarrassed by you.  He doesn’t walk out the door and abandon you in your time of need.  He’s not running to the Father to tell on you.  He protects your dignity and goes before the Father interceding on your behalf.  He’s not focused on your mistakes.  His intention in drawing them to the surface of your heart is so that He can skim them off and heal you.  He has no intention of marching you and your sins before a crowd of people.  He would never put your mistakes on display like that.  He’s more interested in talking to you about who He made you to be.  He looks beyond your faults and sees your needs.  He sees your true countenance, your true identity.  He sees your heart, your soul, your worth.  

So, if you have any shame in your heart today about anything in your life or in your past, let Him take that shame away.  

That’s all He wants to do.  

*Name and location has been changed.