Friday, November 29, 2013

Happy Birthday, Brother!

I grew up the middle of five kids, but I haven't enjoyed that status for a very long time. My oldest brother, Steve, has been in a mental hospital since I was eleven, and my older sister has been impossibly angry as long as I can remember. Then there was me. The brother born after me, Andy, drowned when he was three, and Michael is the youngest. This story is about him.

He was born when I was seven, just thirteen months after Andy, and just before our dad went to prison, robbing Michael of even one decent father-son memory. His childhood, like mine, can be summed up in tragedy and loss and, though he was too young to remember most of it, I know it greatly shaped his life. The year following Andy's death, as my mom began to surface from her grieving, she asked my sister and me who in the world had been taking care of Michael. Though my sister deserves a lot of credit for standing in the gap, the answer was that Mom had been. So, though she was taking care of his physical needs, Michael was without the emotional presence of our mother for quite some time. It was a hard time for all of us.

Michael adapted and he and I became good friends--except when he played in my makeup and wrote on the mirror with my Bonne Bell lip gloss. He and I would look through my yearbooks as he told me which of the girls from my class were foxes and which were hounds. I put him in ridiculous poses and used Mom's Polaroid to snap pictures--some of which I'm now finding in Mom's old attic boxes. He was a good kid, very sweet and smart as a whip. Mom enrolled him in a Montessori school and he passed all the other kids up, which challenged the teachers to keep him occupied. He and I always got along but I moved away for a foreign exchange program in high school, and we started to grow apart after that.

Our whole family went their separate ways to some extent. Mom remarried (which ended in divorce) while Michael was the last one living at home. Later, Mom met the love of her life and tried to make a long distance relationship work. Michael was coming of age and was doing the types of things any young man left alone to rule the roost on weekends would do. As a result, my Christian lifestyle wasn't appealing to him in the least and, though he graciously listened to the simple presentation of the gospel John and I gave him during our first year as Christians, he clearly had a lot more fun to attend to than we could offer. I didn't see much of him but prayed for him often.

Since we moved to Texas, the stress of my mother's situation and the thread of dysfunction already running through our family have taxed my relationship with Michael. We hadn't seen each other for almost a year when he called John earlier this month for a meeting where he expressed his desire to be reunited with our family. He said he and his new wife had been going to church for the past six months, and he wanted John to baptize him. Monday night we went to the pool at the rec center where John works, and God gave my brother back to me. He said he was sorry for losing a year, and so am I, but I prefer to look at what I gained--a brother, a sister-in-law, and two and a half cousins. (They are expecting their third child.)

I've used words to convey this story to you, but words cannot express the joy in my heart, knowing my brother and I will spend an eternity together in the presence of God. I love you, Michael. Happy birthday for turning thirty-five today, and happy birthday for being born again last week.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Mom's Best Decision Ever

October 2012
April 2013
November 2013

Life in Texas has finally become something more than just taking care of my mother with Alzheimer's, but her needs are still a primary focus and, ultimately, the reason we are here. I don't blog about her much, but people do often ask how she's doing. It's not a pleasant question to ask or answer, which is why I greatly appreciate anyone who goes out on that limb. The harsh reality is that my mother is dying and will never again be well in this life. What I've come to realize is that the best way to answer inquiries about my mom is with how my family is doing. That seems to be what most people are really asking anyway.

I realize this is a difficult discussion not many people enjoy. It's also quite painful for me, though I deal with it on some level every day, whether it be paying her bills, communicating with her doctor, making sure she has comfortable clothes as her weight fluctuates, or painstakingly sifting through every piece of paper and all of her personal belongings that remain in boxes. Then there's the grim task of funeral arrangements and other necessary evils that make life less than palatable. That's not to mention the visits which become more and more difficult as we debrief the kids on "what's happening to Grandma." They have witnessed more than their share of tears and don't enjoy the visits like they used to when Grandma would play or dance with them. Last week was the first time she didn't recognize me right away and had difficulty getting up from her chair. She had already forgotten the children, as Alzheimer's tends to erase the most recent memories first. I asked Mom last week what my name is and she answered with a smile, "Elizabeth Jane Rayson" (her maiden name).

During this sad time, I try to dwell on pleasant memories--and there are many--like her famous spaghetti sauce, the slumber parties she hosted for my birthday each year, her dependable goodnight kiss and hug, and the fact that she made it a point to visit me everywhere I have ever lived--and that's a lot of places. She was also one of the nicest, most forgiving people I have ever known. She was very adventurous and had a wonderful sense of humor. I'm also learning to appreciate her patience in parenting five kids more and more as my three grow, as well as the fact that her financial prudence now makes it possible for me to take care of her affairs without going into debt. She was a great mom and a wonderful friend. I say "was" because my beautiful mother is gone and there is only a shell of a person in her place. That's one thing that makes these last years, months, or weeks (as the case may be) so very difficult.

Another is that, though I'm living in my hometown, I have little to no contact with any of my family members. I'll spare you the details, as I'm sure you understand dysfunction. That has been one of the most painful aspects of this chapter of my life. Lest you think I lament, I have not given up hope in God's ability to change people, and there is a silver lining here. You see, my husband recently had an epiphany. He said the pain and suffering that this chapter has caused me--losing my mother and finally letting my family go--has greatly changed who I am for the better. He feels I have transformed as a wife and mother and, the way he looks at it, God is using our current situation to bring about those changes. John has always had a great relationship with my mom, but has a new-found appreciation for the way God has chosen to use her life to bless his. He baptized her about four years ago because, as she put it, "I've been listening to you and watching what you do all these years, and I want to be a Christian." Shortly after that, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and we didn't have much time to grow with her in Christ, but John feels the transformation in my life is God's gift to him. Right now, I feel more beat up than transformed, but I am deeply moved by his perspective and once again awed by God's ability to work all things together for the good of those who love Him.

Recent developments had us thinking we would be handling Mom's affairs long distance, but God has graciously given us a local ministry for the time being and I hope to be here for her last day on this earth. The rest of my family has not made the decision to follow Christ that my mom made. They've chosen different paths, but I'm not going to beat them up. I get it. I was there when my dad went to prison, when my younger brother drowned, and when my oldest brother was admitted into the mental institution. I've seen what drugs, alcohol, and anger can do. I know pain and I know it's impossible to handle well without God, and I choose not to live that way any more. I also know what it's like to turn it all over to Him and gain a new family--one that will be together forever--and I choose that. Knowing my mother made that decision also and is part of my eternal family has made this, otherwise unbearable part of the journey, endurable.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

New Job - New Mission Field

We attended a staff meeting on Monday for that recreation center I told you about. The board of directors announced to the employees that John is now their executive director. That means quite a bit more busyness than we are used to for a time, but the fact that he's not the manager also means the potential to hire one in the near future to relieve some of the workload.

A sizable group of volunteers has come forth to offer their services and help us in the restructuring of The Gem. We are hopeful that God has big plans for this place in the realm of missions and ministry. The previous administration created a friendly and engaging environment for the public to enjoy. We hope to advance that effort while reorganizing the business model to streamline the programs and services. We value your input and especially your continued prayers.