Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Speared by the Lightning Eyes!

I’m usually a book-a-day reader; always have been. But I’ve been digesting a book over the past month or so called The PAPA Prayer by Larry Crabb (yes! a nonfiction book! A rarity for me and odd to appear on a blog called "fiction mirrors truth"--) The PAPA Prayer is definitely NOT a one-day read… in fact, it is revolutionizing the way I pray and the way I see myself.

P.A.P.A is the acronym Crabb uses to illustrate his 4-step process to relational prayer. (yes, an acronym. I know.)

The first step of Crabb’s prayer is to “Present yourself to God.” This is the no-holds-barred “Hey, man… this is how I’m feeling about me and about you right now” place where I whine a while before I realize I’m whining. (LOL) The next step is to “Attend to how you’re thinking about God.” Crabb suggests picturing the Revelation Christ—the scary Holy warrior with lightning-fire eyes and a sword coming out of his mouth.

“But that isn’t very comforting!” you’re thinking, "I like Jesus with the children and stuff!"

Yep. Exactly.

So today, I pictured that particular, slightly frightening view of God while I read Psalm 139; a highlighted Psalm which, in the past, has always been a sweet sort-of passage of comforting Abba-Daddy time for me. Well, Psalm 139 comes off a little differently when you’re faced with the Lightening-fire Eyes and Sword mouth of the Revelation Christ.

O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. (uh-oh.) You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. (Oh, crap.) You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. (um-hm. right. Darn.) Before a word is on my tongue (stop, stop, already!) you know it completely, O LORD. (sigh) You hem me in—behind and before; (could someone show me the exit, please?) you have laid your hand upon me." (Like it wasn’t hot enough with those eyes staring me down!)
(taken from NIV, parenthetical interjections mine)

That reminds me of a time when my Papa Eric was having a dementia moment about a year ago and, as was his habit, gave his usual Lutheran blessing to me. “May the Lord bless you and keep you,” he began as always; but then, he decided to crank it up a notch and change the meaning a bit. His tone darkened, his eyes piercing me as he continued, “Make his face stare right at you...”

AAAHHHHHHG! He must’ve been thinking about the Revelation Christ, too.

In step three, you “Purge yourself of anything that blocks your relationship with God” – which is a lot easier to see after you've been run-through with that sword a couple of times. Anyway, Crabb spends a lot of time focusing on relational sin with our human counterparts because how we behave/think within those relationships shows us who we really are and what is truly blocking us from enjoying the fullness of God. I thought looking at the Revelation Christ was uncomfortable—looking at my own heart was downright, well… disheartening!

As it turns out, I’m completely self-obsessed. Sure, I knew this before I read the book, but now, knowing what I’ve learned from reading it, I have to see that ugliness for what it is each time I approach the throne of God. Ouch.

So after all this nastiness is attended to, you get to move to step four, which I’ve paraphrased: “Approach God with confidence as the first thing in your life and stand before God as a loved child.” Now this, this is where another couple of Papas helped me out. The character of “Papa” in William P. Young’s book, The Shack (see post further down) and my own Papa Eric have made the second part of that step a breeze for me because I know what it feels like to approach an authority figure completely confident in that person’s love for you. It’s the first part I stumble on. So many things vie for that first place; my family, my writing, especially; not to mention all those nasty other areas of self-obsession which mutate and renew themselves each day as I experience Step 3 of the PAPA prayer.

But it’s a process, isn’t it? I’m just a 36 year old kid out here trying to figure it out.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Condolence Stupidity

"He looks good."

How many times did I have to hear that over the course of Papa Eric's visitation Thursday night?

Luckily, I still contain a modicum of self-control, so the sailor's vocabulary of my inner voice did not give in to outward expression, because, seriously, it was in full-on, make-your-mama-blush mode.
Honestly, "He looks good." ?!?
Give me a freaking break!

No, he doesn't look good.

He looks dead, yes; he looks nothing like the man I remember, yes. but he doesn't look "good." He barely looks human.

I sat near the back of the funeral home with Dana most of the night, because I think my control could have very easily snapped if one more person walked through the line, past that empty shell of flesh and bone and mortuary make-up told me "He looks good" --

How do you tactfully respond to such an inane comment? I bit my tongue and nodded, digging my fingernails into my palms to keep from causing a scene. But inside, I was screaming like a banshee, "If you want me to pull your tongue out and wrap it around your neck, say that one more time. I dare you. "

Okay, so now I sound like a Sopranos episode. I'm a little defensive when it comes to my Papa. Sue me. Or leave a comment below telling me how wrong I am to feel this way, I don't care. This is my blog; deal.

The body in that box is NOT my Papa. Except for my pictures and my memories, Papa is gone. And that unmistakable fact made it easy to walk by that box. I never saw that expression on his face in life; not even when he was in pain and close to death. No, that was not the Eric Gustav Gustafson I knew; not the man born in Ulrika, Sweden in 1915; the little boy who watched from the ship as his grandfather soaked his shirt with tears on the dock as he watched his son's family sail away; the same little Swedish boy who later saw a shipmate buried at sea, the body devoured by sharks, before finally reaching Ellis Island. No, that lifeless form in the box is not the boy who struggled to learn English as a child, the young man who met a girl behind the candy counter at the Capitol Theatre and told his buddy, "That's the girl I'm going to marry." And married her three years later; not the man who raised two daughters and unreservedly loved three grandchildren and eleven great-grandchildren. The man who sang "Jesus Loves Me" and "Peace in the Valley" and "Yes sir, that's my baby" when he saw his wife of 68 years. That wasn't the almost-94 year-old man with the nearly flawless complexion and beautiful, wavy white hair who said "Tack sa myket" (thank you very much in Swedish) to everyone. No; the shell in that box was not my Papa. Not remotely.

How could anyone walk past the bulletin board of scenes from his full, generous life; see the sparkling, often ornery smile within the snapshots and portraits; view the lovingly, painstakingly hand-crafted wooden items his scarred carpenter's hands had fashioned; then proceed to the frowning shell in the coffin and say, "He looks good." Puh-leeeeze.

Visitations are uncomfortable events. I appreciate that. I know people don't know what to say at a time of loss, but, honestly; "He looks good" ?? that is the dumbest thing ever. and not in the least bit comforting. How about, "Those are great pictures." or "You obviously loved him very much." or "Wow, this really sucks."

That, I could appreciate. Maybe. Later. When the yawning hole in my chest doesn't seem quite so raw; when the swelling has gone down around my eyes, and that scene from my dream the morning he died doesn't make my heart ache quite so much.

I miss him so much.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Mocha Madness (and other coping mechanisms)

Dana and I are sitting at Motos, trying to Mocha our way through the numb void of losing the last remaining tie to our childhood. The coffee is (hopefully) counteracting the bottle of wine we shared from 11pm-1am as we waited for the call.

As it was with Grandma in October, we decided Papa should leave with only his daughters by his side. he didn't wait long. After warming up from the cold with the wine, the call came and we shivered; some sort of primeval form of shock, I guess. We had to face the fact that we have to grow up now. We're both 36; she grew up on the east coast, I grew up in Iowa, but she's more my sister than my cousin and our loss is keen... and dulled by disbelief that a chapter in our existence is closed.

We reminisced. We cried. We laughed. We mourned something that cannot be put into words because its bigger than words; bigger than death; bigger than a person. We never had to prove ourselves to Papa and Grandma; there was acceptance that never had to be earned and it never wavered. No matter what we did, we were "good kids" and loved unconditionally; accepted without restraint or strings attached; no behavioral modification necessary.

Early this morning, after I got the kids off to school; when sleep finally came for a brief 45 minutes, I dreamed that I looked out my window and saw a blanket-fort. Under the hanging sheets, was an outdoor glider rocker holding 2 people. In my dream I ran to the door and I rushed outside and they asked, "What do you need, honey?" And I sat down at their feet and I looked up at them and said, "I just need to see your faces one more time."

I woke up sobbing; and there was no blanket fort outside my bedroom window.

Now I have to grow up. This mocha is good.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Life is Messy (and so is this post)

It’s about a quarter to midnight, but I’m not sleepy. I’m sitting by my Papa Eric Gustafson’s bedside at the Great River Hospice House. He’s nearly ninety-four years old, so it seems silly to say “he’s terminal.” I mean, really; he’s ninety-four.

But still…

This is my second experience with Hospice care in just over two months. In late October, Papa’s wife of 68 years, my Grandma Betty Gustafson, went to be with Jesus after a short battle with lymphoma. She was “with it” until nearly the end, surrounded by her family and the music she loved and she barely felt any pain.

Not so with Papa.

We’ve been “losing him” for several years to progressive dementia, although until recently he was physically healthy (for someone in his 90s!) The moments he’s understood who I am and how I’m related to him have been few and far between, but he knows my face and my voice are familiar and I think my presence gives him comfort.

A few short evenings ago, my cousin was here and we helped Papa eat a meal of pancakes and coffee, which he enjoyed. We received the usual blessing, “May the Lord bless you and keep you, make his face shine at you… I forget the rest” without knowing that Papa had just had his last cup of coffee; or that his last sparkling word would be, “Coffee?” In that tone that could have just as easily said, “Manna?” or “A Million Dollars?”

This, as a last word, may not be monumental for your average American, but for our Papa Eric, still a citizen of his native Sweden, coffee was more a part of his life than that the combined residents of Seattle could even dream. He has since tried to speak, but his throat is dry, words don’t work. The hand that helped bring those syrupy bites to his mouth is too weak to even make the trip from his side to his chest.

Papa’s condition has progressively worsened; instead of black coffee, morphine is now an ever-half-hourly requirement, as well as some other periodic pain med which I can’t remember its name. He tries to communicate with his eyebrows and his smile muscles-- the words don’t work and the smile never quite appears. His eyes have dimmed and only one seems to really open, and it a sliver. But I wonder…

They say that some of our senses, especially hearing, sharpen near the end; and the skin can become so sensitive that all but the lightest of touches is excruciating. I wonder if God has given Papa the gift of knowing who I am again for these few hours, to get the comfort which comes from the company of a much-loved family member. I hope so, but I’ll never know till heaven. He can’t tell me now. But he squeezes my hand, he uses his eyebrows… he opens that one eye just a slit when I tell him I love him.

I spent the night with him. Just he and I and the morphine drip. I told him about the two books I’ve written; I’d never mentioned them before… and for good reason. By time I started writing in earnest, Papa rarely knew who I was; but all of a sudden, it seemed as if he did. That could have been God’s gift to him… or maybe God’s gift from me. or both. Either way, God is good. When I told Papa my dream of seeing my books on a bookstore shelf someday, the look that crossed his face in that moment will stay in my mind forever. With only his eyebrows and his chin, he gave me affirmation; it was almost as if he was saying, “And won’t that be something!”

It is not easy to see him in pain… and it’s getting worse.

I haven’t written a lot of personal stuff in this blog before today; it’s a safety issue. Not that I’m all that worried about cyber-stalkers (let’s face it: this blog doesn’t get that many hits!) But so few people know me well enough to “roll with it” that I just hesitate before vomiting my personal life out into the world because life stuff gets messy and ugly and painful; because I can’t cut and paste my personal pain in succinct little edits or flowing literary prose. Case in point: the former sentence: a complete run-on; an English teacher’s nightmare. But that’s life; it’s either so messy that it’s breaking all the rules, and quite possibly ripping your heart out, or so boring that nobody even cares.

Right now, it’s breaking all the rules of order. It’s a run-on sentence with too many ellipses. (The dot, dot, dot which leaves a thought hanging); at this moment, as death approaches a loving fixture in my life, my mind is littered with poor punctuation, randomness, and inconsistent time-jumping through a fog of memory vs. “the now.”

So, unlike other posts, which I’ve been careful to edit and spell-check and de-clutter, I’m leaving this one as-is: in all its vomitous glory. Because, most of the time, the mirror of fiction is kind to its more imperfect reflector. Truth can get pretty messy and you can't even get a window between yourself and it's ugliness; let alone a detached reflective surface…

This whole losing-a-generation-of-your-family-in-the-space-of-two-months stuff really sucks. The end.