Sister’s Keeper, iii (Time Slows)

(Note: This is part three of a series. Click here if you missed Part 1 or Part 2.)

The sun’s rays slant through the shutters. I couldn’t sleep in if I tried. I’m up and ready to go, although I have nowhere to go. It’s the morning after surgery, and we are in the thick of drug deals.

Because my sister’s jaw is wired shut (technically, her braces are bound together with strong rubber bands), she can’t talk. I’m her middle-man, brokering deals between nurse and patient. As for painkillers, she wants it all and she wants it now. It’s my job to watch the clock and make sure she gets her doses on the regular. Friends in the medical field have told me that pain is much easier to manage when you tamp it down with regular, clockwork doses, instead letting it break through and get out of control.

The night before I had to insist that my sister get some drugs that were left out of the doctor’s orders, except they actually were in the orders, just overlooked. I don’t enjoy confrontation, but I’m happy to advocate for her. Within a day, she’ll be texting to communicate her needs. For now, it’s hand gestures and trying to write with her eyes closed. I sit on the sofa-bed where I can see her hands move.

Pain is invisible. That’s the hard part, and maybe the hardest fact of life. No one can see your pain — you have to describe it, rate it on a scale of one to ten. Maybe scientists will invent technology that makes pain visible. Readily, easily, maybe even quantifiable. I wonder how different the world might be if we could see others’ pain.

My Fitbit tells me I’ve basically spent an entire day sitting. I hope to walk around the hospital at some point, but my peripheral vision is trained on my sister’s hands. Before all this, I had been walking farther than usual, knowing I’d be sitting a lot and not knowing how long the hospital stay would last. I forced myself to walk extra miles. When I’d take the extra block or go the longer way, much against my will, I told myself, “We do hard things.”

I can’t explain the plural “we.” Maybe it seemed less grandiose than telling myself, “I do hard things.” Sitting on my makeshift vinyl bed, I think about the hard thing my sister is doing. Maybe the plural “we” meant Amanda and me. Sis and I, we do hard things, admittedly sometimes because we are just hardheaded. But she has done many more hard things than I.

The hours wear on in the dim hospital room. Amanda is bothered by light, so the shutters stay closed all day. I’m passing the time with reading, podcasts, crossword puzzles, and Netflix movies. Also to entertain myself, I’m pretending we’re college roommates just chilling on a quiet weekend. Neither of us has been to the library. I did some reading while my roomie napped all day.

No, we are not college roommates, but maybe spending this time together will make up for our paths diverging way back then.

That was twenty-five years ago, and time moves steady as a river. Except in this hospital room, where we are suspended in time like fruit chunks in Jell-O. That’s how it feels anyway. But I know this: time is a river and a healer as well, and so we wait.

Psalm 23

Sister’s Keeper, ii (Juneteenth)

Note: This is the second entry in my series of posts about being with my sister through surgery and recovery this summer. If you missed it, check out Part One first.

My sister has been in surgery all day, and I’ve been keeping busy with magazines, crossword puzzles, and vending machine snacks. Earlier, a family in this large, crowded waiting room got some bad news. The women are sobbing, and a chaplain sits with the grandfather, talking quietly. It’s unnerving, this reminder of being in a hospital where births and deaths are the currency of everyday business.

At 4 p.m. the receptionist calls me up to tell me my sister’s room number now that she’s out of surgery. I’m thankful for the good news, but my prayers feel somewhat perfunctory – of course she’s fine, of course she’s a textbook case – as if smooth sailing were inevitable.

As if all it takes is waiting for everything to click into place.

On the elevator I text my parents to let them know she’s out of surgery and all’s well. My phone rings immediately; it’s my mom, asking if I’ve seen Amanda yet. Mom tells me to take deep breaths and prepare myself before walking into the room because she might not look good. Mom knows I have a tendency to faint at the thought of, well, anything medical. I wasn’t worried before, but now my pulse races and armpits sweat.

I find her room number and pause outside the curtain. When I walk in, nurses are arranging her tubes and wires. I dare to say hello. My sister’s head is wrapped tightly with a stiff, white gauze all around her face. Tufts of hair stick out. I don’t know quite how to act. She warned me beforehand that she’d come out bandaged up like a Civil War soldier with a head injury, but it’s somehow less funny now.

Her health insurance hasn’t approved the jaw replacement. They’ve fought her every step of the way, compounding the chronic pain with psychic pain and good, old fashioned stress. Just yesterday, nervous and fretful, she came very close to cancelling the procedure, for fear that she could never pay off the bills without insurance. I asked, “Can you stand the pain until the insurance comes through?” She tearfully said no. “Then I think you’re gonna have to take a leap of faith tomorrow.”

And that’s how tomorrow became today, a day that’s been anticipated for years. First came the pain, then the diagnosis, then getting braces on her teeth to prepare her jaws for surgery. When I first heard Amanda use the term “jaw replacement,” I was aghast. It sounded like something from a sci-fi novel. But it’s real, and for my sister it’s been a long time coming.

Today, after many years of suffering, she has new joints. Today is a turning point in her adult life after long-term chronic pain.

Today is June 19, Juneteenth. It’s the day when, back in 1865, Union soldiers landed in Galveston, Texas, bringing news that the Civil War had ended and the enslaved people of Texas had been freed.

Tragically, June 19, 1865, was a good two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect. For two and a half years people in bondage hadn’t yet heard that freedom was theirs. I want to tell Amanda, when she’s more lucid, about this date and what it means.

I think we both know that this day marks the start of her emancipation. In the case of people enslaved in Texas, heartbreakingly, years came between the proclamation and the emancipation. Two and a half years of life.

As my sister knows, sometimes decades pass by before you’re set free.


Amanda & me, 2000

Sister’s Keeper (Moonlight Drive)

The moon glows bright to my left. I blink hard to wake up my eyes. It’s not even 5 a.m., and we’re headed west. I squint as we pass Busch Stadium, lit up like an all-hours convenience store.

I glance up at the moon, so full and bright it’s distracting. The fourth time I look up at it, I wonder if it’s a sign. This is a habit of mine, looking for signs, attaching meaning to found objects, making a story out of a pattern. But I can’t come up with anything for the moon at the moment.

Hours later, to pass time in the waiting room I will google “moon symbolism” and find it’s a symbol of the feminine, the rhythm of time, immortality, and some other vague abstractions. The first thing I thought of, and quickly put out of mind, was lunacy. Doesn’t the moon make people silly? Nurses and Pre-K teachers say so. Anyway, not the sign I’m looking for.

I’m taking my sister to the hospital for a seven-hour surgery and a three- to five-day stay. She has been waiting for this day after many years of pain and people assuming she’s being dramatic. Diseased joints are a fact, however, not merely a pretext for the dramatic. I’ll be her driver, durable power of attorney, in-home caregiver, ministry of information, advocate, and kung fu fighter (as needed).

I wonder if my sister notices me glancing up at the moon every half-mile. She seems to be asleep, but I can’t tell. The moon is so big – if I stretched out my arm, I could touch it.

She’s not sleeping. I notice this when we drive by SLU, lit up in blue and white. At the same moment, we turn and stare at the north campus, marveling at the changes — new buildings, new street lamps. Amanda and I were at Saint Louis University at the same time for just a sliver of a year. We ran into each other on campus only once.

I came out of a restroom stall and saw my reflection in the mirror at a strange angle. My brain told me this was not possible. But there I was. The reflection looked at me with surprise. Until Amanda said “oh, hey,” I couldn’t quite process how the mirror had tricked me. She laughed, I laughed. Maybe we went out and had a bowl of soup in the student union, I’m not sure.

I’d found myself that day in the campus bathroom — well, not really but something very close.

Reflection — maybe that’s all the moon signifies. Which is fine. I was just kinda hoping for a white dove or a butterfly or even a cardinal flying in the moonglow. Something with wings, I guess, would be fitting. My sister is taking a leap of faith today. But then if she had wings, faith wouldn’t be necessary.

I veer right onto the exit ramp towards the hospital, my turn signal suddenly loud in the silence. We lose sight of the moon. I wince at the bright signs directing us to the surgical center, parking garage, reception desk.

At some point in the windowless no-man’s-land of pre-op, the sun rises. Amanda is under anesthesia most of the day. When she wakes up, maybe I’ll read her a horoscope she doesn’t believe in, just for kicks. I ran across several while googling for moon symbolism.

The full moon is a new moon. The new moon will mean something – not just the marking of time but something personal.

It has to.

“Forget about what’s happened;
don’t keep going over old history.
Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new.”

-from The Message, Isaiah 43:18-19

Amanda & me

Amanda & me, around 1981

She Came Home

Earlier this June, some good friends invited us to meet up at the movies. It was part of the free summer movie series at the Lincoln Theater, so they kindly got there early and saved seats for Caroline and me. Good call on their part — the parking lot was packed and the theater was nearly full, too, with groups from kids’ summer camps, day care facilities, and day camps for people with special needs.  Lots of matching t-shirts.

I wasn’t that excited about the movie, but I was excited to catch up with Kelly and Abi after a couple weeks of summer vacation. The title of the movie was A Dog’s Way Home, and, to be honest, I thought the trailers would be the best part of the experience (especially with the sequel to Frozen coming out this fall).

The movie sounded like something I would tolerate more than like. When we were kids, my sister had The Incredible Journey on VHS. She nearly wore out the tape from watching it over and over. For me, the journey of two dogs and one cat was more stressful than incredible, with too many moments of animals in danger. I saw bits and pieces of it — it was unavoidable with only one TV in the house — but I’ve always found it risky to invest in an animal movie.

Anyway, as we watched the trailers before the movie, the crowd was already pretty lively. When Elsa appeared on the screen in the Frozen 2 trailer, I heard at least two little voices gasp, “Elsa!” Then the movie started, and I started to think of places where we could eat lunch with Kelly and Abi. Also, because the parking lot was full of buses and minivans, I’d parked in a semi-legal spot. A couple minutes into the movie, I was worrying about what kind of parking ticket awaited me.

But then . . .

Then the people sitting a couple rows back got invested in the stray puppy named Bella who was raised by kindly feral cats until the perfect man-boy rescued her. There was oohing at the cute puppy and awwwww’s at the motherly cats. The crowd was really into it. And so a movie that I might have dismissed as cheesy or sappy was getting to me.

The whole story bent toward the dog getting back home to her family. In all, the dog managed to travel from New Mexico to Denver, Colorado, with the help of other strays, benevolent humans, and a mountain lion kitten who’d lost her mother to hunters, reminding us that inter-species friendships may be the most heartwarming.

But the very best part was when Bella the dog, after many dangers, toils, and snares, found her way home. The audience burst into applause. Not polite applause but raucous clapping that came in waves, fervent applause with zero irony.

Eventually, after the applause died down to a few quiet sniffles, someone a couple rows away shouted tearfully, “She came home!” and, I kid you not, the applause started all over again, in waves, ebbing and flowing spontaneously through the dark theater.

It tickled me, this unabashed celebration, and I clapped and laughed at the wholehearted sweetness of it. The feeling of unity among the movie-goers was nearly tangible. We loved that dog, darn it, and we agreed one hundred percent that she would find her way home.

Pretty simple stuff. Also pretty deep, because, aren’t we all somehow trying to find our way home?


Coming next month: Caregiving Diaries    

pic sparky

Elementary Gifts

This school year has been a gift.

Back in September, God dropped an opportunity in my lap, and I’m so grateful for the chance to help out at my daughter’s elementary school. I’ve volunteered in the past, but this year I began working every day with a fourth grade student (as well as subbing now and then, library work, and miscellaneous other stuff).

Many aspects of the job felt like a gift, but perhaps the biggest gift was laughter. What can I say? The end of the school year brings out the funny.

A couple weeks ago, the teacher was handing out math worksheets. One little boy pushed his worksheet back towards the teacher.

“Do you know if this paper was made from oak or maple trees?” he asked. I was working with my student across the room, but the boy’s question caught my ear (probably because it sounds like a Portlandia sketch).

The teacher seemed reluctant to engage yet remarkably patient. Sliding the paper back across the desk, she said, “I really don’t know what kind of tree was used to make this paper.”

“’Cause I’m very allergic to oak and maple tree pollen, and I really hope this math sheet isn’t made of those.” At this point I’m in awe of the boy’s creativity and cracking up.

He knew that paper was made from trees, he knew he was allergic to certain trees, and he really didn’t feel like doing another stinkin’ math worksheet. The kid’s an unsung genius!

Also, is it summer yet?

Another day that week, I subbed in my usual fourth grade class. Although I knew all the kids well, the afternoon felt a bit hectic. They have a special talent for keeping me on my toes.

At dismissal time, a boy told me he’d left his Spider Man lunchbox at school last week and wanted to go check the lost-and-found box for it. He came back a few minutes later with the lunchbox and a sheepish look on his face. I asked what was wrong and he said, “There’s something in it.” I peeked inside and saw a thermos.

“Ummmm, is it an animal?” I asked, not sure if we were playing Twenty Questions or what.

“I . . . think so,” he said slowly.

At that moment, I hated being the grown-up in charge. Hesitantly, I unzipped it all the way. Under the thermos were five or six roaches of different sizes – a family of roaches staring up at me. I zipped it up as fast as I could and asked, “Do you really like this lunchbox?” He looked confused, maybe a little scared.

I told him there was a whole family of roaches inside – Mama, Daddy, Bubba, Baby Sister, a cat-roach, a dog-roach, a hamster-roach. I was in shock, not sure what to do.

“Maybe we should burn it,” I said, half serious.

“My lunchbox?”

“No, the school. Down to the ground.”

That sweet boy couldn’t tell I was joking. I wasn’t quite sure, either. That’s when his friend stepped in, the tiniest girl in class, and said, “I’ll take care of it!” She took his lunchbox outside the double doors and turned it upside down. Out fell Mama Roach, Daddy Roach, and the whole family, which she stomped to death with her pink Chuck Taylors. It was like a tap-dancing recital right there on the blacktop.

A thing of beauty, really.

Meanwhile I stood inside with the other kids, squealing in disgust. It’s a wonder they still ask me to sub. I’ll never forget how my little friend saved the lunchbox, the school, and the day.

These are just a couple things that made me smile, but there are bursts of joy in every day. One day it might be my student discovering the handicapped stall has great acoustics for impromptu math songs. Another day it might be the sheer exuberance of a second grader with a sequin glove moon-walking in the year-end variety show.

Or it might be hearing twenty-six fourth graders try to sing along with Louis Armstrong’s “It’s a Wonderful World.”

Yes, I think to myself . . . What a wonderful world.

Oh yeah.


Painted in Waterlogue

Things that Matter

A few years back I heard a speaker at a writing conference who said something that has stuck with me. Author David Dark said that the culture in which we live has one nagging message: “Hurry up and matter.”

Are you famous? Are you rich? Are you a viral sensation on social media? No? Then get busy — hurry up and matter.

I dislike this message. As a mom, I especially dislike the pressure of having to prove yourself special at an ever younger age. And I hate that the measure of mattering has so little to do with character and so much to do with piling up likes and views and subscribers.

Oh, and racking up “friends,” the kind that require quotation marks.

It makes me worry about my daughter, who is naturally impressed by people who have built up a following online, whether by sheer talent or sheer desperation. These people seem to really matter.

I want her to recognize the difference between image and substance. I wonder if this distinction is becoming harder to make.

What I’m getting at, I suppose, is that she matters. Already.

You matter, too. No need to hurry up and matter.

You are an image-bearer of God. Ignore the voices that say you’re not enough.

You do matter.

Already and always.

peach blossom

That’s all. Love, Em

No Place Like Home

It was a rough winter. Normally, I don’t mind cold weather. I much prefer wearing sweaters and coats to shorts and T-shirts, but at this point, I am just plain sick of long sleeves and fleece.

This winter, with its snow and low temps and days off school, seemed to go on forever. (Note the leap of faith in using past tense here.) And my annual sickness, a nasty cold that spanned February and March, made it feel even longer.

But something interesting happened this winter. While being penned in by cold weather and pinned to the couch by germs, I became really, really grateful for our home.

Out running errands, I’d pick up groceries and then become suddenly homesick. I’d drive straight home, put on my fleece pants and fuzzy socks and plant myself on the couch. The dry cleaning (or whatever) could wait. Home was my haven.

I have always appreciated our home. Yet in the past, I thought of home more as our default place, the place we are when we’re not out. This winter, however, home was the place I most wanted to be.

An upside of being a homebody is having plenty of time to read, and one book in particular fit perfectly the feeling of home-as-haven: Christie Purifoy’s Placemaker.

In short, her book is about home – being at home wherever you may be and making yourself at home by cultivating beauty in your spaces. She writes, “What is placemaking? It is deliberately sending your roots deep into a place, like a tree. It means allowing yourself to be nourished by a place even as you shape it for the better.”

The book is not a hospitality guide, but being hospitable is part of being a placemaker. Nor is the book a home decorating guide, although curating spaces that evoke peace and comfort is part of placemaking. It is memoir-ish, but its narrative arc moves through places rather than life events. Christie is a gardener and lover of trees, and the landmarks of her life – in the various places she has lived – are uniquely botanical.

Christie’s writing is lyrical and gentle, with a way of deftly pointing out things in the world worth noticing. I especially loved her musings on an oak tree: “Each acorn is a wish for more, a dream of a tree, and a desire for enduring legacy.” Reading that sentence, I thought Well said! That’s why I love acorns.

Now that the weather has started to turn, will I remain a homebody? Probably not. I’d go for a bike ride right now if it was warmer outside.

I always love finding a book that speaks to my life at the moment – the right book at the right time. Christie’s book came at the height of a season when I felt the sheer comfort of making home a comforting place for me and my family – not just a landing spot between flitting here and there, but a soft place to land.

Purifoy Placemaker


Full disclosure: I’m a member of Christie’s book launch team. Still, I would recommend Placemaker even if I weren’t, and I do not benefit from making this recommendation.