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A musical Mennonite, the sound of silence, and the hokey pokey

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photo © 2010 gerbor, Flickr

photo © 2010 gerbor, Flickr

I have no doubt I inherited my love of music from my Dad. He grew up singing in a quartet with his dad and brothers, trained professionally as an opera singer before switching to a career in ministry, and conducted many choirs over the years. The rest of my family is no less musical – Dad’s twin brother did, in fact, have a long and successful career as an opera singer in Europe. My grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents also sang in quartets, conducted choirs, wrote music, and played instruments. We Mennonites have inherited a rich musical heritage.

So it’s no surprise that, as a kid, I listened to music and loved to sing along. I had many favourites, Raffi and Sesame Street among them. As a teen I sang in choirs at school and church. At home, I spent hours alone in my room with the stereo blasting one Christian rock band or another. And in university, I studied guitar – classical and electric – and listened to folk, celtic, and oldies, like the Rankin Family, Enya, and ABBA.

Then, when I came down with chronic pain, I found that worship music got me through the darkest times. Later on, in an especially painful dating relationship, my tastes switched and singers like Dido and Evanescence kept me company. And all the way through, of course, Dad’s own voice and his musical favourites – the Gaithers, Steve Green, opera, and country music – were a staple in our home.

But when Dad came down with dementia, as I watched him lose bits of himself on a daily basis and I began to grieve those losses, my tastes switched again. To silence. For the first time in my life, I lost interest in music. You see, I couldn’t listen to moving or meaningful lyrics anymore. They stirred up too many emotions for me during a time when I was already overwhelmed by the deep, difficult emotions I slogged through every minute of every day.

Lyrics that were trite, materialistic, and romantic also hit me in all the wrong ways. I couldn’t listen to people obsess over normal, everyday stuff – it reminded me that most of society didn’t understand the heart-wrenching, mind-bending daily grind of a family carrying a loved one along the road of dementia. This type of music declared society’s ultimate values, and its general apathy towards the problems faced by families like mine.

Even instrumental pieces, if they sounded overly melancholy, chaotic, or epic, were too much for me. My brother, who listens to movie and television soundtracks, has learned to skip the ‘sad’ and ‘heavy’ songs if I’m in the room.

There were a few exceptions: Classical and jazz were usually easy to listen to. Also, when I was looking after Dad on a daily basis, we’d often take in free classical concerts in the community. Two of those stand out to me: I lost myself at a fantastic jazz concert put on by a local university music professor. And I found myself thoroughly enchanted by a string quintet’s performance of Peter and the Wolf.

But for the most part, I listened to the sound of silence. (Not the song. Actual silence.) By the time I was expecting my son, I had read numerous articles on the benefits of playing music to babies in utero. I liked the idea of this, and deliberated over the styles and composers to prioritize on the playlist. But I kept forgetting, because I was so used to silence by then.

In spite of my quiet ways, though, today my now-two-year-old son is a music lover, and in that he takes after his Grandpa Friesen and the rest of his music-loving Mennonite family. And while I still don’t listen to music for my own sake, I find myself happiest with the music my little boy introduces into my life.

And you should see him dance the hokey pokey.

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Dementia in Springtime

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My Dad, on one of our hikes (2009)

My Dad, on one of our hikes (2009)


Loving Dad at every stage

Each of the four stages of Dad’s dementia changed his personality a little, and I find myself missing not just ‘healthy Dad,’ but I also miss each expression of who my Dad was along the road of his illness.

The middle stage brought by far the biggest changes. He lost awareness of his illness and had terrible outbursts of anger almost daily. But he could also be very sweet, loving and self-sacrificing in his own way. He appreciated beauty, loved people and cherished hopes for the future.

Surprisingly, it’s this expression of him I miss terribly. He’s in the hospital now, the disease so advanced that he doesn’t notice the change in seasons. Some days this is too heartbreaking to bear.

Dementia in Springtime

Spring and summer bring vivid memories of my Dad. He was so antsy, he always had to be active.

So every day we went for a long walk, and we’d comment on the blossoms on the trees, and all the flowers we spotted along the way, and the different animals we saw, like a family of ducks or a stray cat. Each discovery filled him with joy.

This was after his first, life-changing seizure, the one that ushered him from mild dementia into the thick of the most chaotic symptoms.

At times it was easy finding distractions for him and other times it was nearly impossible. But I could usually rely on a walk to keep him in a calm, happy mood. Thanks to his stamina, we’d often walk for hours, consuming his nervous energy and relaxing him for a time. He was always delighted by the things we saw and the people we met on our spring and summer walks.

These days I can’t walk outside without grieving that he isn’t by my side. I can still hear his comments about the landscaping we came across and about his dreams for the future. I miss seeing his face light up with joy and his insistence upon petting every dog we passed and telling every young child how cute they were.

Springtime at the Hospital

I see him in the hospital now, where he’s been for a year. He can’t talk anymore and barely makes eye contact. He’s too weak to spend more than a few minutes standing up from his wheelchair.

Whether he recognizes me is doubtful. And my heart aches that I can’t talk to him like I used to and that he can’t dream about the future anymore.

He took his last spring walk in 2010, when he was too sick to walk faster than a shuffle, with Mom leading him by the arm. It was too challenging to change his shoes, so he walked in his slippers, barely aware of his surroundings.

I spent 2.5 years building a new kind of parent-child relationship with him during that time, and 1.5 years as his full-time caregiver so Mom could work. So while I find myself missing ‘healthy Dad,’ of course, I also miss the Dad I got to know mid-way through the illness.

I suppose when he passes away, I’ll miss my Dad in the advanced stage too. Now, at least, I can still hold his hand and I can tell when he’s happy, hug him, and tell him “I love you” and, when I’m lucky, I might even hear him say, “I love you too.”

I’ve been missing him for eight years now. But I especially miss him in springtime.

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Bittersweet by Shaua Niequist

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Bittersweet: Thoughts on change, grace, and learning the hard way by Shauna Niequist was really quite moving. It’s a series of semi-autobiographical/motivational chapters that touch on pain and the beauty we can find in it. Shauna is quite the artist, I found, given the way she takes experiences of brokenness that are common to many of us, sketching in honest detail why they hurt us so much, and then lingering on the way pain and death intertwine with beauty and new life. Imagine a painting of a flower pot that’s been knocked over by some kind of turbulence, and is now laying on its side amidst scattered shards and soil. Looking more closely, you notice that the flower has managed to take root and even flourish where it had spilled onto the ground. That’s pretty much how this book has impacted me.

Shauna has an honest, down-to-earth way of sharing her own stories about heartache, loss, and troubles that resonate with many of us. There’s lots to relate to in this book: The pain of losing a child, the sorrow of losing a grandparent, the difficuly of keeping a marriage healthy during hard times, the loneliness one feels when friends and acquaintances remain silent and distant during your time of grief. But there’s plenty of fun and light-hearted stuff in here too: Shauna draws the reader in with meaningful, well-written stories, and unique insights on the joys of cooking, traveling, weddings, and quality time with friends and family.

It’s definitely a book for women, as it deals a lot with issues around motherhood, female friendships, and “crying in the bathroom.” However, some of the chapters are great for men too. I’ve had moments where I just *had* to show my brother, my husband, and my uncle a chapter or two. And once they start the first few sentences they’re usually hooked until the end. Of course, the point isn’t that they got hooked on the chapters, but that the book has an enjoyable way of revealing truths about common life stages and experiences that stay with the reader long after the book has been shelved.

One of my favourite chapters is called “Things I don’t do” about having boundaries on our personal time, and getting a healthier perspective on our priorities in life. It’s one thing for me to describe this chapter to you, though, and quite another to read it. I’ll post excerpts of Shauna’s book here on my blog in the near future to show you what I mean about her refreshing insights and writing style.

If I had one concern, it would be her take on theology and her critique of theologians. She’s a pastor’s kid, as am I, so I would have expected her to have a more nuanced and sophisticated view of the Gospel and the people who teach it to us. Her perspective sounds a lot like the disdain for theology I heard from members of a former church I attended, and I’m concerned that a growing number of Christians–who are understandably disillusioned with dogmatic, fundamentalist-style Christianity–are throwing out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to regarding God’s Word and the people He has gifted as teachers with value and respect. This chapter appears near the end of the book, so it didn’t affect my experience of the rest of her thoughts, which was good. I’ll post more about this in the future as well. But this is the only reason I can’t give the book a perfect rating, as much as I would have liked to.

So I give it four out of five stars. If you can find a copy, I definitely recommend reading it at least once. As for me, I’ll be re-reading Bittersweet many times over.

A special request: I’d be Shauna’s first customer if she were to publish her tips on dining and entertaining, along with recipes for the many fabulous dishes she describes in Bittersweet. They all sounded so delectably irresistible!

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I want to express my sincere thanks to Zondervan for the opportunity to review Bittersweet. I received a complimentary copy of this book from Zondervan in exchange for writing a review, and I was free to express my honest impressions of the book, whether positive or negative.

If you’re interested in signing up to receive review copies from Zondervan, visit http://zondervan.typepad.com/zondervan!

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