Monthly Archives: February 2014

A Dead Cat and the Joy of Forgiving

ForgivenessAs my mother combed my hair before I left for the last day of fifth grade, she told me I needed to be brave. I had no idea what she was talking about, but she seemed pretty concerned. Before the end of the day, I was called out into the hall and told that I, along with five other students, was being transferred to another school for our sixth grade year because the school we were attending was overcrowded. I don’t remember feeling all that upset about it. I had lots of friends at my current school, and I think I just assumed that I would make new friends and things would go on as they had, just at a different place. I had no idea what was ahead of me.

I don’t know how they decided who was going to the new school; the selection seemed very random. Out of the four or five neighborhood kids my age, I and a boy I wasn’t really friends with were assigned to the new school. Another girl was the only one out of her neighborhood to be transferred, and the other three transferees, two girls and a boy, came from yet a third neighborhood. The school district’s policy was that you had to live a mile or more from the school in order to be bused. We were only 7/8 of a mile away, so we walked. I typically met up with the two girls who lived in the same neighborhood and walked to and from school with them. I assumed that since we were all in the same boat, we would, of course, be friends. I was wrong.

It ended up that I was in the same class as the three who lived in the same neighborhood. Because they knew each other fairly well, I was the odd man out to begin with. I think the meanness started pretty much from the first day of sixth grade. It began with little things—walking in front of me so I was left trailing along behind, snide remarks about my undeveloping figure, ignoring me on the playground at recess. Given their treatment of me, I don’t know why I kept trying to be friends with them. But try I did.

As the year went on, meanness developed into full-blown bullying. Things came to a culmination one spring afternoon on our walk home from school. Along the way, the two girls found a plastic bag on the road and decided I should use it to pick up trash along the road. They gave me the bag and, because my hair was in braids that day, each of them took hold of a braid. When we came to a piece of trash, they would pull down on my braids until I picked it up and put it in the bag. This went on for probably about ¾ of a mile, the two of them laughing and thinking this was great fun and me pretending that it didn’t matter. Then came the dead cat. I distinctly remember one of the girls saying, “That’s garbage. You have to pick it up.” And they began pulling on my braids. Finally, finally, I’d had enough. I dropped the bag, ripped my hair out of their hands, and ran, sobbing, the rest of the way home.

It had taken most of the school year, but I finally gave up on trying to be friends with them. I don’t remember if they bothered me anymore or not, but the damage was done. Someone had told me in fifth grade that I was popular. I don’t know if that was true, I just know that I didn’t question whether or not I was accepted by my schoolmates. That all changed. After sixth grade, I was never quite sure of my acceptance by my peers, especially the “in” crowd. Even today, I have a tendency to expect being unwelcome in a new group.

As you might imagine, that experience traumatized me, and I was really angry about it for many years. I blamed it for my reluctance to try new things and meet new people. I blamed it for the self-loathing I felt. In fact, I pretty much blamed all my emotional problems on that incident. Finally, one night I remember saying out loud, “Those girls ruined my life.” Almost before the words were out of my mouth, I knew how absurd that was. Even in the middle of my depression, I recognized that my life was far from destroyed. In fact, I had a really good life. It was then that I realized what was really damaging me was not the actions of a couple of twelve-year-old girls thirty years earlier, but rather my unwillingness to forgive. Yes, I had been wronged, but certainly not ruined. As I looked at that experience from a broader, more mature perspective, I realized that we were kids, and kids do dumb, even sometimes cruel, things. It was time for me to stop living in the past and move on. So, although it wasn’t instantaneous, I forgave them. Or so I thought.

A couple of years ago I got a letter from one of those girls. She acknowledged her wrongdoing and asked if I could possibly forgive her. I wrote back and told her that not only did I forgive her, but also that I had done so years earlier. Additionally, I told her that I was grateful for the opportunity to let her know of my forgiveness. The feelings of love and compassion I felt for her as I wrote that letter were entirely unanticipated. Even more surprising was the sense of sisterhood I felt towards her. In fact, it was a privilege to tell her that she was forgiven; that’s when my forgiveness became complete.

This was a new concept for me, the idea that forgiveness isn’t finished until the wrongdoer knows he or she is forgiven. Also unexpected was the bond forged, not so much by the act of forgiving, but rather by making that forgiveness known. Is this, I wonder, why God is so eager for us to repent, knowing that His forgiving and our knowing that we have been forgiven creates unity of being and shared joy? He is, I believe, more ready and more willing to forgive than we realize and are willing to accept. Fortunately, He is also lovingly long-suffering and waits with perfect patience for us to receive the gift of forgiveness He offers.  All I have to do is open my heart and receive. It seems so simple on paper, but, for me at least, it is more difficult in practice. But I’m working on it.

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Blizzard in July

Blizzard in JulyWhen I was in high school, my parents had an old, red Chevy Impala that I would occasionally drive to school. It certainly wasn’t the coolest car on campus, but it did have one unique capability—every time I turned left (or was it right?), the horn would honk. Obviously, there were some crossed wires somewhere under the hood.

As you might imagine, my dad had more than a few “crossed wires” under his hood after his brain injury. Sometimes they resulted in some pretty funny situations. For example, one day during his hospitalization, he started loudly singing church hymns while he was in the bathroom. This was unusual first of all because I had never heard my dad sing. What made it really funny was his hymn selection—the chorus of “Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel.” It goes like this: “Put your shoulder to the wheel, push along. Do your duty with a heart full of song. We all have work; let no one shirk. Put your shoulder to the wheel.” I have to admit that, of all the hymns he could have chosen, that was probably the most applicable one to sing while going to the bathroom. Once he got back into bed he started singing, “Gonna take a sentimental shicken. Gonna take that shicken home.” If you’re too young to recognize the reference, the actual lyrics talk about taking a sentimental journey, not a shicken. How his brain came up with “shicken” I have no idea, but my sister and I had to go out into the hall to compose ourselves because we were laughing so hard we were crying.

During his stay in the hospital, Dad always had to have someone from the nursing staff with him when he got out of bed because he was at risk for falling. There was a female nurse with whom Dad had developed quite a rapport, and one day while she was on duty, we called her to come take Dad to the bathroom. Before long we heard giggling coming from the other side of the closed door. (I don’t know what it was with Dad and bathrooms . . . .)  When the two of them came out, she explained that Dad thought he was the leader of his church congregation, which he actually had been at one time, and that she was the leader of the women’s group in the congregation. They started laughing when Dad asked her what the members of the congregation would think if they saw the two of them in the bathroom together.

However, one of the strangest “crossed wires” experiences was the day I went to visit him in the hospital, and he kept commenting about how much rain we had been getting. He would look out the window and say, “Just look at how hard it’s coming down! It’s been doing this for weeks. I hope it doesn’t flood.” Except, it was the middle of July, the sun was shining, the skies were clear, and it hadn’t rained in a month or more. As I knew that his vision was just fine, it seemed incredibly odd to me that he could be looking out the window and not see what was really there.

Unfortunately, that confusion eventually evolved from merely strange to sad. I was staying with Dad that day because my mom had gone to our family’s cabin in the mountains with my sister and her husband; I don’t remember why. When I told Dad why Mom wasn’t there, his rainstorm suddenly turned into a dangerous blizzard, and he became desperately worried about Mom’s safety. The cabin is accessible only by snowmobile in the winter, and Dad kept asking, “Can she drive a snowmobile? What if she gets stuck? How will she get out?” I reassured him that my brother-in-law was driving and that he would make sure she was safe. This conversation went on for about five minutes or more before I was able to distract him and get him focused on another topic, although he continued to express his concern for Mom off and on throughout the day.

I’ve thought about this incident in relationship to a few crossed wires of my own. Years ago, when I was in the worst of the depression, there were times when it seemed that I was completely surrounded by unhappiness and trials, so much so that it was almost more than I could bear. But suddenly, something would click, and that melancholy would immediately disappear. Then I would wonder why I had felt so sad and hopeless. This didn’t happen often, but it occurred enough for me to take note of these incidents and puzzle over them. More often, however, my descent into and ascent out of despair occurred almost without my realizing what was happening.

Sometimes I still see the world as the distorted reflection of a fun house mirror, a circumstance that is rather unsettling. If I can’t trust what I see out of my emotional window, how do I know what is real? How do I know if the blizzard, or sunshine, I’m looking at, which seems absolutely authentic to me, is truth or falsehood? Fortunately, although it has taken many years and a roller coaster ride of emotional ups and downs, I am getting better at recognizing distortions in my thinking when they occur. Nonetheless, I have to confess that even though I can tell myself that a despairing perspective is just the depression talking, I still have a hard time believing what I am saying—but I’m working on it.

Mercifully, I don’t have to depend on my own perception to know what is real. If I will allow myself, I can hear the voice of God in the scriptures telling me that all will be well. I don’t necessarily feel that assurance in my heart—but then, my feelings are what get me into trouble in the first place. Nevertheless, there is always a sliver of my soul, separate from my feelings and emotions, which maintains the capacity to sidestep the maelstrom of my mind and recognize the truth of God’s love and promises. In that small stillness, I know that, because He is God, He sees things as they really are, He knows the beginning from the end, His is the path of Truth, and He is lighting my way along that path. All I have to do is follow—without turning left or right.

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My Dad was in the hospital for about a month after he fell down a flight of steps and suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI). From there, we took him to a care facility near my parent’s home so he could continue his rehabilitation. He was in that care facility until The Incident. Since none of us were there when The Incident occurred, we’ve had to kind of piece things together.

Because of his brain injury, Dad had a hard time discerning what was real and often thought that what he saw on television was actually happening to him at that moment. We think that on the evening of The Incident, Dad heard a story on the news about some girls who had been kidnapped or were in some other kind of danger—we’re not sure what. We assume Dad thought the event was occurring right at that moment, and he wanted someone to call the police. As the staff tried to calm him, he became increasingly agitated because, from his point of view, they weren’t doing anything to help these girls. Finally, in an effort to get them to listen to him, he picked up a small bookcase and threw it against the wall. Needless to say, that got their attention. As I’ve mentioned before, my dad was a big, strong man and could seem very intimidating. The young woman at the nurse’s station was, I am sure, genuinely frightened by my dad’s outburst and called 911. Once she made the call and Dad knew the police were on their way, he calmed down. After all, that was what he wanted someone to do in the first place. Nonetheless, that call set in motion a chain of events that led to one of our family’s most difficult experiences associated with Dad’s fall.

The 911 call brought the police and paramedics to the care center, and policy dictated that they had to transport Dad to the hospital for evaluation. Unfortunately, that was the worst possible thing they could have done; Dad absolutely hated the hospital and, without fail, became agitated and combative when he was there. My guess is that he felt powerless in the hospital and, in an effort to get himself out of the situation, responded the only way he could think of. Because he was combative, he often had to be restrained in his bed. I am sure you can imagine how that made the situation even worse—not only was he trapped in a room, he was now tied down to his bed.

The doctor at the hospital tried to find a combination of medications that would calm Dad down so he could go back to the care center. This was no easy task. Not only was there the problem of Dad’s TBI, he also had a history of depression and anxiety and was on medications for those conditions as well.  Fortunately for us, Dad’s doctor realized he didn’t have the knowledge needed to successfully prescribe for his conditions and called a specialist at local a brain trauma clinic. He spoke with the head of the clinic who, it just so happened, specialized in neuropharmacology, i.e., drugs for the brain. As a result of that consultation, we learned that one of the medications Dad was on for depression was contraindicated because it causes agitation in brain injury patients. Working together, the two doctors were able to come up with a pharmaceutical cocktail that brought Dad to a point where he could go back to the care center and continue his rehabilitation.

There was only one problem—the care center wouldn’t take him back because they were concerned he would continue to act out. So we started calling around to find another place where Dad could finish his rehabilitation. More than once, we had a facility tell us they would take Dad, only to have them call later to tell us they wouldn’t take him because of his history of agitation and combativeness. In the end, every facility we contacted said they wouldn’t take him. Dad was simply unwanted.

UnwantedI cannot adequately describe the distress this caused my mother, my siblings, and me. Nobody wanted Dad. Unfortunately, taking him home wasn’t a possibility; we just didn’t have the expertise to care for him, let alone provide rehabilitation, and having nurses and therapists come to the house was cost prohibitive. To make matters worse, because the doctor had said that Dad was ready to be released, the insurance wouldn’t cover any more days in the hospital. However, because he had nowhere to go, the hospital couldn’t discharge him. So there we were with Dad stuck in a hospital room he desperately wanted to escape, the specter of an uninsured, indefinite hospital stay hanging over our heads, and no one willing to care for Dad. We were out of options, and hope was fading fast. Needless to say, we spent many hours in tearful prayer pleading for an answer to a problem to which we could see no solution.

As always, though, the Lord provided a way. First of all, the hospital didn’t just turn its back on us. As Dad’s hospital stay went longer and longer, we were told that the hospital wasn’t going to charge us for his care. That was a very heavy burden lifted from our worries. Also, the case workers assigned to Dad spent many hours talking with various facilities trying to find someplace for him to go. As I understand it, they finally brought in representatives from two facilities, the one where Dad had been staying as well as another facility run by the same company, and told them that one of them had to take Dad. Ultimately, the second facility finally agreed to accept Dad as a patient if we would provide someone to be at his side around the clock, which we readily agreed to do. That arrangement lasted only a few days as the staff quickly realized that, once he was out of the hospital, he was no longer aggressive. Lastly, the specialist at the brain injury clinic agreed to take Dad on as a patient. As this physician is one of the leading experts in the country in his field, we were incredibly blessed to have his help during our journey with Dad.

It is difficult for me to put into words how helpless we felt when no one wanted Dad. I’m so glad Dad wasn’t aware of what was going on; it would have devastated him. Those of us who struggle with depression, including my dad, are prone to feel that we are unwanted or unwelcome anyway, and this incident would have set that perception in stone for him. But having gone through this ordeal helps me put things in proper perspective when I experience those feelings of unwantedness. If I am honest with myself, I know that all, including me, are wanted, loved, and watched over by a very caring Father in Heaven. And, even though my feelings of unwantedness seem absolutely authentic, I have to remember that they are in reality the lies of the depression demon and not fact. Ultimately, this experience reminds me that not only am I lovingly wanted, I am also never truly alone. It is evidence that, even when it seems that I’m out of options and facing an insurmountable, seemingly unsolvable problem, God always has a solution. For with Him, all things are possible.

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