Monday, August 10, 2015

The Beauty of Ordinary

My friend Kim taught me the beauty of an ordinary day even before she was diagnosed with the cervical cancer that would take her life.  She was my best friend when we lived in Philadelphia, and was anything but ordinary herself.  She was valedictorian of every class of which she was a member.  She could have been a concert pianist, but was a successful physician of internal medicine, an athlete who loved to bike and cross-country ski, a woman overflowing with biblical wisdom, having come to faith in Jesus Christ in her twenties.

Somehow in the course of one of our conversations she mentioned the beauty of an ordinary day. An ordinary day was one in which you woke up feeling well, spent time with the Lord praying and reading His Word, went to work, completed the usual tasks at home, enjoyed a good meal, spent time with family or friends, then retired for the day to do it all again tomorrow. Such a day is not boring, mundane, to be disdained. It is precious and rare.

We think of such days as ordinary when actually they are anything but. Most days are interrupted by the extraordinary—things that may be wonderful, such as an unexpected visit from a friend far away.  But more often they are interrupted by the difficult or traumatic. Ordinary days vanish when we wake up with a virus that puts us back in bed; when a child gets sick in the middle of the night; when we get the pink slip at work; when the test result comes back positive; when our spouse walks out; when our teenager doesn’t come home; when our elderly parent takes another fall…

We think of ordinary days as those in which we can go about our regular lives in our usual way, or in the way we’d like to go about them. The car starts; the computer works; the day is free of crises. But do I appreciate those days as the rare and precious gifts that they are? 

On a recent girl trip, one of the group asked the rest of us, “If you had two or three days to live over again—not to change them, but just to experience them—which ones would you choose?” We asked her the same question, and she said that one of hers would be any ordinary day when she was a child at home with her parents, the kind when you fall asleep in the car on the way home at night knowing that you’ll wake up in the morning in your bed because your daddy will have carried you in. Another she chose would be an ordinary day when her husband was alive and her children were school-age, perhaps on one of their regular hunting trips when they would gather around the campfire outside the trailer on the hunting lease, tell stories, eat s’mores, and laugh until they cried.

What we think of as regular or ordinary days actually occur very seldom.  Most days do include relationship conflicts, something breaking, health problems, or other difficulties. Our spheres may include community unrest, state financial crises, threats to our national security, or international military conflict.

Yet, even in the midst of such things, we can appreciate the ordinary moments. My friend Kim taught me that as well. When her cancer weakened her to the point she knew she could never cross-country ski again, she took a day to grieve her loss in a healthy way, and then she moved on, living to the full the life that remained. 

She was able to handle her cancer in this way because of what she had made a regular part of her ordinary days for many years: that daily time with the Lord in prayer and in His Word. Because of that, she knew not only that God is sovereign but that He is good, and that everything that comes to us—even bad things, because we live in a broken world--comes through His loving hands for our ultimate good and for His glory.

What God has put into this day is His gift to me, no matter what it is or how “ordinary” it may seem. May I really taste my food, breathe deeply, hug often, work hard, give thanks. May I appreciate it all, as the writer of Ecclesiastes expressed it:

There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? (2:24-25 ESV)

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Caregiver in Recovery

Some might call it grief; others might call it recovery.  Really, it’s both. 

It’s what the caregiver enters when the aging parent dies, as my mother did on June 7.  Her death was sweet.  My husband and I were with her. The medical staff in the skilled nursing facility where she lived had made her very comfortable, and she slipped away with no struggle and no pain. I had glanced away when suddenly my husband stood up; I looked at my mother and knew she was gone.

She had left her unhappiness behind and entered into the joyous presence of her Savior.  To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). Our hearts immediately were flooded with a mix of emotions: relief at her release from the frailty and sadness that had defined her final years; hopeful joy at the realization of what she now was experiencing; and sadness that the final good-bye had come.

The first thing I did was call my brother. We cried on the phone together, briefly. My husband and I stayed in her room for a while, adjusting to the reality that she was not there.  Once we got home, I called my nephew, my mother’s 100-year-old sister, and her four remaining friends in Texas.  The first response from each of her friends was, “Oh. I’m so sorry. But she was so unhappy, and now her unhappiness is over.”

It was a Sunday afternoon, and I was so glad about that.  There was nothing really to be done until the next day. The funeral home in Texas was handling everything related to the memorial service and burial there. So we could just be quiet and let it sink in. And we could follow our regular routine to attend the Sunday evening worship service at church.  What better time to worship than this, when we were overflowing with gratitude for the salvation that is my mother’s in Christ?

The next morning things kicked into high gear.  “Achiever” and “Activator” are number 1 and 3 in my top five “StrengthsFinder 2.0” profile, and when those are in operation it’s amazing what can be accomplished through God’s enabling grace. The first priority was to pack the things in Mother’s room and arrange for the movers.  Yes, they could come and move on Tuesday morning. (Hooray!) Next was planning the graveside and memorial services in Texas; all the contacts were made, everything put in motion for Thursday. Travels plans had to be made, and yes, there were enough seats on timely flights for all of us to get there. Then all the financial institutions and other necessary parties had to be notified. I was glad I had written her obituary before she died, as my brain could not have done it as well afterward.

In two days her room was vacated with everything delivered to our house or Ditto re-sale shop, all the plans for the services verified, and we were packing for Texas. On Wednesday we arrived in Odessa, took care of everything at the funeral home, and had a three-person wake with my brother, telling stories and remembering my mother. On Thursday we attended the graveside and memorial services; after that all I wanted to be was home. One more day to go. On Friday we met with the financial advisor and headed to the airport. Some of our dear friends picked us up in St. Louis and had us over so that we didn’t have to ask ourselves, “What are we doing for dinner?”

The next morning I woke up and realized that, for the first time in five years, I didn’t have to go anywhere. I didn’t have to put on my make-up. (You Texas girls will understand that statement.) There was time to go through all the boxes we had packed when Mother moved from her home in Texas, then from her assisted living apartment and skilled nursing room here in St. Louis.  I could not believe the treasures I found:

Here were all the contents of her recipe drawer from her Texas kitchen including those for her homemade egg noodles, cabbage rolls, and pecan pralines that she recorded by following her mother around the kitchen in the 1940’s. There were clippings from magazines marked “Delicious!” or “Gene (my dad) loves!”

There was the christening gown and cap she had worn as a baby, photos of my young parents with my brother when he was little, Christmas cards they had sent through the years…

And then, this: a scrapbook I did not know existed. Looking back at me from the first page were my parents in a photo from their wedding that I had never seen. On the following pages were more photos of that day in 1943 and of their early marriage. There were the newspaper clippings from when the Phillips 66ers, the industrial league basketball team on which my dad played forward, won the National AAU Championship. There were the papers from his enlistment into the navy. He did his officer training near New York City, and there were programs from Broadway shows and menus from Manhattan restaurants (“Stuffed Flounder….75 cents”).  There were mementos from their time in training in Jacksonville, Florida. 

Then a wedding anniversary card as Daddy was about to sail for the South Pacific: “Darling, Am in my tent at Mira Loma and my heart is breaking over the thought of leaving sweet you. When you find this I will probably be far away—but my heart is always with you. I’m only living until I can hold you once more. Do take good care of yourself and remember that I love you all the worlds full. Gene.” And the long-awaited telegram at the war’s end: “BETTER FILL THE ICE BOX WILL BE IN WEDNESDAY VIA KANSAS CITY DON’T KNOW EXACT TIME LOVE = GENE”

My husband and I wept like children. Here on these pages were the tall, beautiful, smiling, courageous people that we missed, the two that had given us so much, and that we loved so deeply. God had given us the gift of looking back, beyond the years of heart attacks and failing memories and fear, to the years of faith and strength and industry and joy. 

So now we grieve, but it is with hope and with sweet tears. We adjust to the new schedule that does not include a visit to the nursing home every day and all the other things that caregivers must do. We read and re-read the mountain of thoughtful cards and notes that have come. There is an estate to settle, but even in that there is opportunity to appreciate my father’s detailed, loving care for us. Ecclesiastes 3:4 says that there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” What I realize now is that all of these are simultaneous when God relieves the aging parent from her suffering and the caregiver from her post.

Monday, May 18, 2015

What Kind of Listener Are You?

It seemed like a crazy assignment to me.  The professor in the Introduction to Counseling class was having us interview three individuals of our choosing to give us practice in asking questions, directing conversation, and listening.  It was to be an information-seeking interview only, for one hour, with persons of different ages, stages, and gender. Just to listen.  I didn’t see the point, but I had to do it.

So, I interviewed a high school boy whose father had recently died, a single mom with a middle-school daughter, and a newlywed young woman. For each one, I thought beforehand of a question that might lead to meaningful conversation:  “It must be so difficult for you since your dad died. How are you doing?” “You are such a good mother.  What is your greatest challenge in being a single mom?” “Tell me about your first year of marriage.” Even though they knew this was for an assignment, every one of them talked for at least an hour and a half, with tears. All I did was nod and sometimes ask a follow-up question.

When it came time to meet with me, the high school boy had been reluctant, but his mother made him follow through with his commitment. Afterward, however, he did not get to the end of my driveway before he was calling his mom (of one my dear friends) on his cell phone: “Mom! This was the best thing I’ve ever done!  Mrs. McGreevy helped me so much!”  What? But I didn’t do anything… Oh, wait.  Yes, I did.  I listened. I had listened, with no judgment, no evaluation, no agenda, no advice.  I just listened.

It was a powerful lesson to me that everyone I meet is carrying great burdens and is hurting more deeply than I know. People all around me are in need of a sympathetic and listening ear.  To listen is to do something very important for another person, something that encourages and edifies.

Good listeners hear what is being said behind the actual words that are spoken.  Active listening requires concentrated effort that notices body language and tone of voice.  Listening means not thinking through your response while the other person is speaking.  Sensitive listeners respond to comments with “door openers” that convey an interest in hearing more and that transmit two crucial messages:
“I am interested in whatever you have to say” and “I will accept you regardless of what you say.”[1]

Four active listening skills that everyone can develop are:
1.       Reflection: serving as a mirror reflecting back to the one speaking what she is really feeling, doing, and pursuing.  “What I’m hearing you say is_______.  Is that right?”
2.       Clarification: determining whether we have studied the other person’s words from enough angles to arrive at a good picture of what is meant.  It is as simple as asking, “What do you mean?” or “What is the problem, exactly?”
3.       Exploring: pursuing further understanding by asking open-ended questions rather than yes/no questions.  “Tell me how you felt when that happened.” “Why do you think that bothered you so much?” Why questions, in addition to what questions, are important for self-reflection in uncovering hidden problems that hinder spiritual growth.
4.       Acknowledging intimate communication: assuring of confidentiality and continued acceptance after sensitive information has been shared.

You never know when God will give you an opportunity to give someone “a listen,”or when you might need one. After our mentor/pastor/friend/boss in Philadelphia, Dr. James Montgomery Boice, had died, one of my more talkative friends flew there to be with me.  For an entire weekend, all she did was listen to me while I talked and cried.  She was the only one of my friends who came.  We walked all over town, went out to eat, sat in our house...and she listened.  It was so helpful for my own grief process to be able to talk as much as I needed to talk. She gave me the gift of listening with true empathy.

You never know… Early one morning last week, I had just checked my car into the dealer for service, settled into the waiting area with my hot coffee, iPad and book, when another customer began talking to me. We chatted about our cars a bit, and then he hung his jacket on the chair next to mine, sat down, and kept talking. Soon I learned that his wife had suffered a stroke six months ago and was now in a skilled nursing facility. It seemed to me that his “word quotient” had built up over all that time and now the dam had burst.  I put my book down and prayed an arrow prayer: “Okay, God, I get it. This is my assignment this morning. Please let me be of help to him.” Almost three hours later, our cars were ready, and our conversation ended.  The gentleman shook my hand and thanked me profusely.  I did not say, “Oh, it was nothing.”  It was something.  I smiled and said, “You’re so welcome.”  Because I had listened, and it had been a blessing to me to do it.

Ask God to help you hear “beneath words” and to be willing to listen when an opportunity arises.  You will give someone true encouragement, and you will be blessed.

[1]These statements as well as the following explanation of listening skills are from: Lawrence J. Crabb, Jr., and Dan B. Allender, Encouragement: the Key to Caring (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 122-125.