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Do Unto Others (or not …)

It is puzzling to watch how, in various social media (and in a wider sense as well), some Christians reach out to other Christians and interact with them as a closed circle, yet fail to extend their friendship quite so generously with those who might either be struggling with their faith, or simply not Christian at all. I suppose it’s natural to do this. Like seeks like. But when it becomes self-focused, then it also becomes less than inclusive. At least, that has been my personal observation just lately.

I wonder if this is what Jesus would have intended. The Christian Church is shrinking in membership. Is this sense of exclusivity a part of the reason? A retreat behind the barricades of faith, so to speak? A feeling that “our church” is better than “your church” because WE do it right and YOU don’t? I have heard this sentiment explicitly expressed from the pulpit. It disturbed me so much (coupled with the anti-scientific mindset I encountered) that I stopped attending services anywhere. My gardens are my sacred places these days. God – genderless and remote but still present – glimmers above my head and dances in the leaf shadows. I suspect I have become something of an animist. I detect that holy but unfathomable presence in almost everything, from the stones and water to the air and light. It doesn’t wear the skin of either a man or a woman. My fundamental Christian acquaintances will no doubt be concerned for my soul and consider me damned for eternity. I have done many things worthy of damnation, after all. But is this one of them?

I’ve belonged to a “traditional” church but now live at some distance from it and am no longer a participant – although I hasten to note that these are fine people with beautiful hearts. So it’s not their fault; I’m just standing outside the circle. My home congregation from childhood is in another region entirely. I have been exploring the Jewish roots of my father’s Levy lineage, with considerable and increased attention. That is the surname I’ve carried from infancy and its history is undeniable.

And then there’s Yeshua, Jesus, the Jew at the foundations of Christianity. He never once claimed to be anything else but Jewish. I think too many Christians have forgotten that over the years. Western society harbours a groundswell of anti-Semitism that I find frightening. The situation in the Middle East has some bearing on this, but it’s not the whole story. There’s this knee-jerk reactionism that gets directed at a much broader spectrum. So I quietly research my name and its ancient antecedents and wonder if we will ever truly be comfortable with our own identities, any of us, regardless of beliefs or cultures or places of residence. I doubt it. Contention is inherent in humanity. We do not play well with others. If we believe otherwise, we are lying to ourselves. No one ought to get too smug about our capacity for committing acts of goodness.

Meanwhile, my family’s home in Yarmouth will become increasingly our “prison” owing to my husband’s physical deterioration, thanks to ALS. Its address is not far from several mainstream churches. People from these congregations know us and many also know what we are dealing with. Yet David has received nary a visitor from any church, except Mormon – and they were total strangers to him until then. He appreciated their attention. Otherwise – nada. Nary a card. Nary a knock on the door. Nothing. He is confronted with mortality and it will be a terrible conclusion to a life bravely lived. His atheism is, I suspect, more along the lines of agnosticism. He has a keen intellect and his mind closes no doors entirely. It doesn’t need to. The religious community closes them for him. We have been the recipients of generosity from many sources but all of them were secular. I do find this curious.

Still … he can hardly hike out to the nearest place of worship these days. And he’s probably not alone. Well, yes, he IS alone in that terrible sense. On his hospital admission forms, he always writes “Anglican”. He was born in England although he deems himself 100% Canadian but that one tie remains. I believe the last time he saw any clergy member one-on-one was in a hospital setting. And for a religion that originally emphasized outreach and conversion, this strikes me as rather sad.

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The former Catholic Church in Corberrie, NS – now unused and no longer consecrated.

I took this photo on a recent drive around the area. I have never attended this church, however. 

Tripping on the Road: August 20, 2014

It’s been a long day. Sometimes, we celebrate even though there’s a darker shadow just below the surface. Birthdays come and go, in their endless parade – until suddenly, we wonder if there will be a next one in that lineup. At least I do. Mortality casts a lengthening shadow, and at this time of year, as the sunset looms ever earlier in the evening, we start to think of the way things wane and wind down. The blades spin slower. Their shadows fall in dark bands across our skin.

But the sky is indelibly blue and the close of the light casts glory across the waters. The Pubnico windmills turn, turn, turn … the gulls on Yarmouth Harbour rise and scatter over its salt mirror. I stitch the path between these two actions with smaller things: opening a pat of butter at a restaurant; helping to put on a pair of shoes (no laces – only velcro now); assisting my husband with getting out of our car and being able to stand. When he falls, I can’t manage to restore him to his feet. Chatting with friends, I am keenly aware that on the other side of the table sits a man who, not so long ago, would have introduced himself, added his own remarks, enjoyed the conversation – but can only smile now, as well as his facial muscles will allow. It’s almost like looking at one of the Greek masks: comedy or tragedy.  I’m relieved when comedy wins.

His voice inevitably falters. He tries not to talk much any more, in case someone might misinterpret or, worse, assume he’s “not all there” – drunk, on drugs, senile. Explaining about his disease takes too many words and he doesn’t have enough breath to deliver them without his voice amplifier. A couple months earlier, he could manage three syllables per breath. The amplifier has pushed that number to ten. But he doesn’t always wear it when he’s just out wandering around. So the words drown him.

Still, he gamely tackles his parmesan haddock with mashed potatoes (no more french fries), sips a Diet Coke (his throat seems to respond to the carbonation and he doesn’t choke as much), samples some bread pudding. His feeding tube lurks beneath his shirt. He knows it’s there, of course, but he refuses to relinquish his solid meals just yet. That will come soon enough. On the drive home, he speaks of pain – cramps in his arms, legs, chest. At night, he fumbles with a BiPap breathing mask so a machine can force his lungs to take in air. And he wonders where to buy suspenders to hold his pants up! Weight loss and diminished muscle tone make it tough to keep them in place. Gravity is merciless.

While we’re on this day trip, unknown to us, compassionate folks in Yarmouth are participating in the Ice Bucket Challenge. They shiver and grin through their discomfort, which is duly recorded for posterity. Two thumbs up to them all! ALS gets much-needed attention and those who wish to donate are inspired to do so.

I briefly wonder if any of the PALS (People with ALS) from our area were able to attend this wet and icy event. There aren’t very many – only two or three. It would have been fun to watch the local challenge in person, since we “ALS families” are affected more than anybody else. But this, I think, highlights the ultimate isolation that this disease can bring. When there’s a community fundraiser for, say, breast cancer research, chances are there will be breast cancer survivors or patients applauding or even saying a few words of appreciation, or possibly tossing a ball at a hapless dunk-tank volunteer. Same goes for MS, diabetes, kidney disease or almost any other health-related cause one can name. You’ll usually see a few patients and their families represented among the spectators. With ALS, in a smaller community it might be hard to find anyone who actually has the disease, let alone is able to be there. Thank goodness for videos! They’ve allowed so many of us to share in the experience without struggling to make a physical appearance.

Still, it’s very cool – literally as well as figuratively – that David’s birthday was also the date chosen for the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in his own town! Perfect timing. Thanks, Mayor Mood.

So ALS is finally “out there”. People are learning what it is, why this battle is so important, how they can help. ALS isn’t just a bunch of letters that need to be explained. And it no longer wears only Lou Gehrig’s face. It wears David’s, and Pete Frates’, and all the others who take this same road trip. These are beautiful, brave faces even when they can’t smile any more.

This, my friends, is the reality behind the ice water and the donations and the long-overdue hype. These are people who have been going about their lives, working, learning, sharing, contributing, hoping and planning. Suddenly it all crashes. At any age, under any circumstances, that terrible diagnosis changes everything. Yet hope remains as a constant, in these bleakest hours. There’s reason to celebrate even on these long days when the sun fades in mid-evening. Maybe not a wild, street-dancing kind of party but at least a whoop of excitement. A “YES”! An awareness that we aren’t in this fight on our own.

 

Uncovering Lou Gehrig’s Mirror

I never knew how someone dying could say he was the luckiest man in the world.
But now I understand. – Mickey Mantle

You should have scrabbled for it sooner,
hung it before the images first appeared –
maybe to reflect yourself, maybe this room
when snow sifted against a windowscreen.

But summer’s here now, with diamond afternoons,
and star-showers over the hills. Time to look.
The glaze wavers you. Your masked smile inverts.
Not tragedy yet, but the corners loosen.

You hold out a hand, touch the slicksilver,
fingertip to fingertip. “Make a fist,” your doctor
asked yesterday. But you can’t anymore. Arms
ripple their own nerves, and the child they held

has been gone for years. You used to laugh
and swing her up, that game you played best –
just a small girl’s arc through air. “Higher,
Daddy, higher.” First base: front step,

lunch pail beside you, crickets rubbing wind.
Old weathervane spinning on the barn. Radio
scores from the kitchen: no errors. You will
make one. Somebody else can be champion.

The glass tarnishes everything. Your shadow
drops its razor and rolls away. Supper flows
from a bag, libation for a man without hunger.
Bottom of the ninth: Steee-rrrriiike threeee!

In your head, you flip that chair and run crazy
down the lawn, gut trailing a tube. Those damn
wheels slowly turn and stop. You churn for the plate,
dust on your legs, no breath, nothing but crickets.

A long slide home.

 

(c) 2014 Brenda Levy Tate

 

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“Emotional Predators” of the Elderly

Advancing years – coupled with illness – often make us vulnerable to many challenges. If we have loved ones to help us cope and to offer protection against personal harm, this can be immensely reassuring. Sadly, some seniors – especially if they’re confronting major disabilities and gradually losing their sense of self-control or independence – often fall victim to others who insinuate themselves between the concerned family and the struggling father, mother or grandparent.

Because women tend to outlive men in Westernized nations, this particular situation can entail a gender imbalance. However, both males and females do become targets for the unscrupulous. Sadly, these unethical individuals usually gain the confidence of the victim through an appearance of friendship and good intentions. By the time family members become aware that something is awry, the relationship between predator and prey might be firmly established. It’s then very difficult to convince the elderly person that he or she is being conned.

This is frequently not a matter of mental incompetence but of misplaced trust. As we age, or face various hardships at any stage in our lives, we do need to feel that we’re the focus of someone else’s attention. We need to believe we’re highly valued and that we’ll receive assistance from those who know us best. Usually, in fact, we are important to our loved ones and we do get help as needed. Unfortunately, our adult children might well have jobs and families that take up much of their time. Spouses, too, might be feeling overwhelmed by the demands of caregiving and coping with their own ageing processes. They might not be aware that others are showing excessive and inappropriate interest in their partners.

Granted, elder abuse – and the kinds of scams that often accompany it – can also happen within families. This is a whole different topic. And there are many wonderful souls who visit seniors in nursing homes or at their own residences, assist them with everyday needs and genuinely want to make a positive difference. Heaven knows, we need these merciful angels! But my own concern is with total-to-near-strangers who materialize almost out of nowhere and gain the trust of their victims. Whether their intent is to acquire property, exploit financially or merely to interfere with the individual’s social and personal interactions, the results can be disastrous.

Con artists have no shame and will practise their deception without any qualms. But then there are those other folks who don’t understand the circumstances and honestly think they’re being kind and compassionate. They never stop to consider the impact their attention might be having on others who have been part of that senior’s life for many, many years. These people are, perhaps, more naive than malicious, but in the end they can do dreadful damage. If the person is undergoing medical treatment, usually the next-of-kin are the ones who understand each procedure and help to manage appointments, medications and so on. Most medical authorities want to deal with next-of-kin, such as spouses and/or grown children, or professionals such as nurses and Homecare providers. They’re not going to accept someone with no legal connections as an appropriate source of patient support.

When called to account for their actions, these so-called “friends” will typically protest. “But I was only trying to help.” “He loves going for drives.” “I’m just being a good neighbour.” Or – worst of all – “I don’t see any of YOU looking after her!”

At times, either party may misrepresent his/her marital status or familial ties. He or she might even play the “pity card” rather effectively. “Poor me – my wife is more like my sister now.” “Don’t worry; we’re separated.” “Our marriage has been dead for years.” “It’s OK, she (he) won’t mind as long as we’re just friends.” “He totally ignores me most of the time.” “My children never do anything for me.” And so on. Without actually having known this individual beforehand, the sympathetic listener might well be inclined to believe everything at face value. This can also occur in online relationships where the “details” can be slanted to fit the intention. Indeed, the devil is in those details when that’s the case.

It’s usually not hard to determine the truth. Separated or divorced? Ask to see proof – the papers themselves, or a document scan sent as an email attachment. Neglectful family? Check the Facebook page, if there is one, and see whether or not family members show up on it. Or make discreet inquiries around the community. She (or he) won’t mind? Then why not talk to him or her, make email contact or call and ask? If you’re reluctant to do that, perhaps you ought to question your own motives and then back away. And if there is no documentation of a marriage breakdown, it’s best to run. Fast!

Otherwise, such a “friendship” can quickly alienate a family from a loved one if that person is still living independently and has, in fact, not been estranged from those who care most. This is simply not fair. 

Some opportunists will even claim to be affiliated with a particular religion that sincerely cares for the senior’s soul, even when it doesn’t. They’ll pray with him, visit him regularly, invite him to their church. Flattered, and unaware he’s being used for profit, he will respond with eagerness. Needless to say, there will be some tradeoff: salvation for donations. The relatives often have no idea this is going on. Countless elderly folks have been bilked out of their life savings by charlatans operating in the name of God. A valid and caring church will offer support to its adherents. A fake one will siphon away their money.

For partners and others responsible for the welfare of a vulnerable individual, here are a few warning signs that might indicate a problem:

– the appearance of a new “friend” or “companion” whom the family members don’t know very well, if at all
– the exclusion of family, by the above individual, from activities involving their loved one
– unusual generosity on the part of the senior when it comes to either money or time given to a stranger
– secretiveness and refusal to respond to questions about new or recent relationships
– unavailability for family events, or unexpected refusal to attend them
– increasing suspicion directed at loved ones over their concern for the situation
– hostility and resentment that appear to have little or no cause
– lack of communication through the usual channels (phone, email, texting, Facebook messages or whatever)
– loss of empathy with others who might also be facing hard times; self-absorption
– indifference to consequences, or inability to think ahead
– sudden and inexplicable interest in activities that have never before been important

I am the wife of a seriously ill senior. His disease has no cure and it will ultimately take him from us. Yes, my daughter and I occasionally find ourselves dealing with disruptions by those who don’t have his (or our family’s) best interests at heart. Sometimes there have been innocent approaches and other times, not so much. The trick is to know the difference! I’ve also had connections with other families that were torn apart by the machinations of a predator.

I hope that anyone in similar circumstances will find my reflections relevant. Some readers might even recognize their own stories here. They key is to remain vigilant. We have to speak up! If we don’t, who will?

Stand firm. We’re our loved one’s last and most reliable line of defence.  He or she might not realize this, but we do.

Sonnet for a Not-So-Well-Meaning Stranger

You call yourself his “friend”; he names you thus
as well – and yet, my dear, you have not been
with him these thirty years or more; not seen
his weeping wounds, nor braved the night, to rush
down rainy back roads while he cries in pain.
Have never heard his doctor say “Cancer”;
his specialist sigh “ALS” – his answer:
“Thank you. I’ve lived my span. I can’t complain.”

You, madam, think a casual embrace
is somehow your entitlement to share
one more adventure with this man? His wife,
his daughter, and her little son must face
your interference? You were never there!
Just go away – wreck someone else’s life.

Brenda Levy Tate

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