a May flower

This spring has been slower to warm than usual. Most years, we have lilies of the valley by Mother’s Day or by Nana’s birthday on May 16th at the latest. Lilies of the valley are the birth flower for May and we always picked bud vases for her while they were flowering.

Years ago, B and I transplanted a few pips from our childhood yards in New England to our home in New York. Lilies of the valley “spread aggressively” as horticulturists say and we now have a patch at least 25 square feet (2.3 square meters).

I’ve written previously about some of the hidden blessings of not having to deal with the complications of 2020 last year as we spent our final months with Nana. We were able to bring her beautiful, fragrant bouquets of lilies of the valley for her last birthday, which would not have been possible with the later spring blossoming this year and the restrictions on visiting skilled nursing facilities.

Lily of the valley, with Paco’s card to Nana and birthday card made by artist-friend Jim

Nana’s ashes are in an indoor niche at a memorial park in our town where fresh flowers are not allowed. I’m hoping someday to find some beautiful artificial lilies of the valley to leave there for her, so there will always be a bit of spring and her favorite May flower nearby.

Overwhelming news

The pandemic has highlighted inequities in the society of the United States around race, ethnicity, national origin, and socioeconomic status, problems that have existed in our country since before its founding and that have insidiously endured through the centuries.

A few days ago, white police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota killed George Floyd, an unarmed black man, while horrified onlookers tried to intervene and recorded Mr. Floyd’s final minutes and death.

Our nation, already mired in grief and denial from COVID-19, is now grappling again with deadly racism. George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers is appalling but, sadly, not unusual.

There are protests against racism and violence/death by law enforcement in cities around the country, remembering George Floyd and calling for justice while adding the names of other black men, women, and children who have been killed or injured by police. Depending on the location, there are different victims who are commemorated, as many cities have seen this type of violence.

The demonstrations have been peaceful during the day and have even seen protesters wearing masks and leaving space between them so as not to spread the coronavirus. In the evening, though, the anger sometimes gets out of control and results in looting and arson from the protesters and flashbang grenades, teargas, and pepper bullets from the police.

All racist incidents are bad and should be universally condemned, but they aren’t and racism continues and mutates and injures and kills.

Again and again.

I wish I had some helpful insight to offer that could make a difference.

All I can do is reiterate the universal message to treat others with respect, recognizing their inherent dignity.

Now and in the future.

Memorial Day 2020

Today, the United States observes Memorial Day. It originated as a day to honor Union soldiers who died during the Civil War, but expanded over time to include service members who died in any armed conflict.

I am also thinking today of all the civilians who lose their lives in wars. Perhaps, this is because I just finished watching World on Fire on Masterpiece, which is about people from various countries in World War II Europe.

As the country continues its struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic, we often hear politicians and media describe it as a war. The medical personnel, first responders, and caregivers are called the front line, a term that is sometimes also applied to other essential workers, such as transit, delivery, and grocery workers. I am confused, though, by the use of the term “warrior.” Sometimes, it seems that the general public are considered warriors, serving others by staying at home to avoid spreading the virus further. Others are using the term warriors to describe those who are giving up on stay-at-home orders and going back to “normal” whether or not the public health officials say it is wise.

I am extraordinarily grateful to be living in New York State, where our governor and other leaders are methodically working to expand economic activity while safeguarding public health. National news reports have shared data that twenty-four states are re-opening their economies with the rate of infection still increasing, even though the national guideline is that at least two weeks of declining infections is required first.

While I remain unsure of who the “warriors” are, I am painfully aware of who the casualties are in this war. As I write this, there are 98,000+ confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the United States. The number will surely reach 100,000 within the next two days. Over these last few months, the United States has lost more lives to coronavirus that it has service personnel in all the wars since the end of World War II combined.

Today, I am commemorating all the service members and civilians who died in war and all the pandemic victims. May their memories strengthen us to serve others.

a year ago today

Today is the first anniversary of my mom’s death. She was known as Nana here at TJCM and she appears in many posts from the past years.

Her death followed a long period of decline from congestive heart failure. In some ways, it seems that I lost her much longer ago because, as her illness progressed, she was not the same mom, the confidante with whom I spoke nearly every day of my life. She also wasn’t able to keep up her active social life in the senior community where she and Paco had lived since its opening ten years ago. She had a special gift for conversation, for listening attentively, and remembering each person’s stories. She also kept up with current events, so our conversations were often wide-ranging.

With so much changed in the world these last few months, I’ve often felt thankful that it was last year rather than this that we were dealing with Nana’s final months. Nana spent her last months in the skilled nursing unit of their senior community. Paco and I were able to visit as often as we wanted and my sisters came into town frequently for a few days at a time. Because our adult daughters E and T and our granddaughter ABC were in residence with us, they were able to visit often, too. This is one of my favorite four generations photos – Nana, me, E, and ABC at Thanksgiving in November, 2018.

Thanksgiving four generations

This spring, though, the skilled unit has been in full lockdown for weeks due to COVID-19. Visitors are only allowed when there is imminent danger of death. As difficult as the last few months of Nana’s life were, it would have been so much more difficult if we had not been able to be there to talk when she was awake, help with her meals, put in calls for staff when needed, and just be present. My heart goes out to all those who are residents of long-term care facilities and to their families as they continue to contend with being separated at this critical time.

I’m also grateful that Nana did not have to experience the permanent move of E and ABC to the UK. Being able to see her only great-grandchild regularly was a joy and it would have been so hard for her to lose that in-person connection. Nana was also spared the worry when the London contingent of the family were ill with probable COVID-19.

It’s hard to say if a year is a long time or a short time in these circumstances. Mourning follows its own path and this year has submerged us in a sea of societal grief and loss, as well. I only hope that I am able to be a testament to Nana’s love and care for her family and friends in these troubled times.

bad timing

The United States government authorized direct cash payments to adults in order to help people face the challenges of the pandemic economic impacts.

The implementation has been dicey, though.

Most of the payments were based on 2018 or 2019 income tax returns and were made by direct deposit, if banking information was on file with the Internal Revenue Service, or by check.

Unfortunately, the IRS didn’t cross-reference with the Social Security system, which meant that some payments were issued to people who were deceased. That is what happened with my parents, known here as Nana and Paco, who received a payment by direct deposit last month, even though Nana’s date of death was on file at Social Security.

Many others were similarly affected and, at first, it seemed that surviving spouses would be allowed to keep the full payment as had happened in a similar economic stimulus program a number of years ago.

However, a few days ago, the government issued instructions that required people to mail them a check for any payment sent on behalf of someone who had died.

I am not arguing against the principle of payments to only those who are living, but I wish that the program had been implemented with accuracy. It’s been painful dealing with the hassles and uncertainty of the situation.

I couldn’t make myself write the check and required note to the IRS on Mother’s Day, my first without my mom. I did put it in the mail today. Later this week will be Nana’s birthday and the following week the first anniversary of her death. I didn’t need another reminder of her absence from the government in the midst of it.

I feel badly for those whose loss is more recent, who may need the money to help pay funeral bills or to support surviving family. I would hope in those instances that the government would not demand that the money be returned, but I doubt that the current administration will act with compassion and competence.

It’s sad.

a very different Mother’s Day

Today in the United States, we are observing Mother’s Day, which was originally begun as a call by women for peace, but that is another story.

I have been dreading Mother’s Day this year because it is the first since my mom’s death last May.  She was under hospice care in the nursing home, but we were still able to be with her and bring cards and flowers and treats. I keep thinking about how different it would have been this year with pandemic protections in place. No visiting is allowed. I know that is necessary to keep the virus away from such vulnerable people, but it must be so difficult today for all those moms, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers to be separated from their loved ones.

I am grateful to have daughter T here with us. We got to videochat with daughter E and granddaughter ABC. ABC showed me a special drawing that she and her dad had made for me for Mother’s Day. They were able to scan it and B printed it for me, so now it is on the mantel. It was fun to see ABC dancing about the living room, to hear her sing and “play” the piano, and hear her ever-expanding vocabulary. She will turn three next month. This is also the first Mother’s Day since they moved to London after E’s spousal visa finally came through. Though I wished E a happy Mother’s Day, the UK celebrated weeks ago.

It has also been unseasonably cold here. We have had snow this weekend, which is late in the spring for us. No outdoor flowers for Mother’s Day gifts this year!

Because of my mood and the pandemic restrictions, our celebration here will be low-key. B made Chelsea buns for breakfast, which were amazingly delicious and hot-from-the-oven. For supper, he is making lasagna, using the recipe that my mom always did. It is definitely the comfort food that I need today.

It was also comforting to watch mass recorded from television. The one I chose was my mother’s favorite when she was homebound for so many months. Of course, they mentioned Mother’s Day and included prayers for mothers. It was another way to remember my mom on this special but difficult day.

March 17

Today is March 17, which is usually celebrated as Saint Patrick’s Day. Although it is a feast day for Saint Patrick in the Catholic church, it is generally celebrated in the United States also as a secular holiday with parades, Irish food, and, in many cases, way too much alcohol.

This year, with COVID-19 social distancing protocols in place, things are very, very quiet. Paco will still get to have corned beef and cabbage and potatoes, but he will be eating it in his apartment instead of a dining room filled with his senior living community friends wearing green and sitting at tables decorated for the occasion.

Fun fact:  Paco’s middle name is Patrick. He finally got to visit Ireland, the home of his grandparents, last fall.
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B’s side of the family had some different March 17th traditions. B’s dad was an elementary school principal who had a running joke with his students and staff. He celebrated March 17th as Evacuation Day, which commemorates the British leaving Boston on that date in 1776 after an eleven month siege, under pressure by the Continental Army, commanded by George Washington and bolstered by cannons captured from Fort Ticonderoga. Parts of Massachusetts celebrated it as an official holiday, although not the western part of the state where his school was located. He used to make an announcement on the public address system in the morning and even designed an evacuation day card which he printed with his then-new dot matrix printer.

He also used to buy an “evacuation day” bouquet for B’s mom, known here at TJCM as Grandma. After he passed away, B and I continued the tradition of giving Grandma evacuation day flowers, first ordering them delivered to her home from their favorite local florist and then bringing them in person after she moved to our area.

In 2016, we changed it up a bit and gave Grandma a planter. We had no way of knowing that she would pass away after a heart attack a few days later. Our daughter T, who has a special affinity for plants, took over care of the planter, eventually having to separate the plants into different pots as they grew too large.

Today, the African violet and the kalanchoe from the planter are in full bloom.

On the dining room table, is an evacuation day bouquet that B bought for T.

charting a pandemic path

Around the world, most of us are sharing in the battle to limit the damage from COVID-19 to the extent possible.

In some places, the path is proscribed by local or national government and there are not a lot of personal decisions to make.

Here in my county in upstate New York (USA), things are not laid out as clearly. I have been trying to prepare and make plans, but circumstances keep changing – and so must the plans. Our state and local governments and community organizations have been much more proactive than the federal government, but, as more and more cases are diagnosed closer and closer to where I live, additional measures continue to roll out.

Over a week ago, I started the general preparedness guidelines to have a couple of weeks of food and medications available in case we had to self-isolate. This was not a big deal for our house, but I have been much more concerned about preparing things for my dad, known here as Paco. He lives in a senior community in an independent living apartment, so he has a number of services available in-house, but I visit every day to check on him, make sure his medications are all organized and his schedule is laid out, etc. Early last week, a sign went up that people who were having any symptoms of illness should not visit. This is practical and a commonsense precaution that I would follow anyway, but, later in the week, the health care part of the center was closed to all visitors, except those whose loved one is in very grave condition. This meant that Paco could no longer go over to concerts and singalongs held in the health care facility. At the same time, they cancelled activities in independent living that involved outside performers or volunteers. For example, the Irish dancers would not be able to come for a scheduled pre-St. Patrick’s Day performance.

At this point, I had to face the probability that even healthy visitors might not be able to visit independent living at some point, so I started making contingency plans that could be carried out reasonably well without me. Sadly, we’ve had to cancel a planned visit from my sisters and their families to celebrate Paco’s 95th birthday later this month. They all live in areas where the virus is more prevalent and we didn’t want to risk them bringing it with them, given that they might not have obvious symptoms.

Thursday night into Friday, several large employers announced that they would be having most of their employees work from home starting on Monday. The universities had also announced that they were moving most of their instruction online for several weeks or the rest of the semester. Professional sports leagues announced they were suspending or delaying their seasons. Some combination of these functioned as a trigger that caused some people who hadn’t been taking the virus very seriously to spring into action – or, at least, into shopping. I went to my favorite grocery store to pick up a few things for Paco and for my household and was surprised to find that there was almost no peanut butter, canned legumes, frozen vegetables, etc. in the store. And I hadn’t even checked the cleaning supplies and paper goods aisles. The evidence of panic-buying took me by surprise. Given that I had been in concern and preparation mode for days, I had obviously underestimated the number of people who were suddenly paying attention and freaking out a bit.

On Saturday, the county executive announced that all primary and secondary schools will close through mid-April. Now, people are even more upset.

It appears that there are some people who still think that fears of the virus are overblown, given that we have no known cases in our county, even though our neighboring counties do have confirmed cases; they don’t want their personal and family routines disrupted. Others have been following the news and the advice of medical experts and realize that, while we can’t stop the virus completely, there will be fewer deaths and more treatment available to those with severe illness if we can spread out the number of cases over a longer period of time, so as not to overwhelm our medical system. The way to do that is to reduce the number of people who are in close contact and in large groups, also known as social distancing.

There are a number of different opinions about how much distance is required and how many is considered too many to be in a crowd. This leaves some situations to personal discretion. I admit that I had a difficult time figuring out what to do about church attendance this weekend. Our diocese has dispensed with our obligation to attend mass, but services are still being held. I am not especially concerned about my getting seriously ill, but I am concerned with the possibility of bringing the virus into Paco’s community, so I’ve decided to participate in a mass on television. At least for now, I plan to still shop. occasionally eat at restaurants, and attend small gatherings with friends. If we start seeing community spread in my town, though, I’d cut back further. If we get to that point, I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to visit Paco; it’s likely that only residents and staff would be allowed in the building.

I admit that it is disconcerting to know that, despite our best efforts, people are going to continue to get sick, some of them severely sick, and some of them will die. I hope that our communities will face up to this challenge and do as much as we can to protect people, especially the most vulnerable.

Be well. Be kind. Be thoughtful. Be considerate.

Hospice month

November is National Hospice and Palliative Care Month in the United States. Some people don’t realize that palliative care exists outside of the context of hospice. Palliative care addresses pain that affects someone from any cause. People who are dealing with chronic or severe pain can consult with a palliative care specialist, who will put together a pain management plan for them. Hospice care involves palliative care for those in their final weeks/months of life.

While the alleviation of pain is an important part of hospice care, hospice is meant to serve other needs for the person who is dying and their loved ones. There are social workers and chaplains for help with personal, social, and spiritual needs. Aides help with physical care and companionship. Volunteers come to keep the patient company or offer special skills, such as massage, to relieve pain and stress. Nurses are the driving force that coordinates care. They visit as often as needed as circumstances change.

Hospice as a philosophy is meant to unfold over the final weeks and months, but sometimes is only called in for the very last days. For decades, hospice care providers have been advocating for referrals to be made enough in advance that there is time to develop a relationship with the patient and their loved ones, so that they can provide services while the patient is still able to interact. There are, of course, instances in which that is not possible, when an accident or final illness occurs without notice, but it is still unfortunately common for primary care physicians and specialists to delay hospice referrals.

We experienced such a delay with a family member, so that hospice was only called in for the final day. Even though time was brief, the experienced nurses were able to give us the tools we needed to relieve pain and recognize the progression of symptoms when our loved one was near death.

Our experience with Nana was on the other end of the spectrum. She was under hospice care for fifteen months, was decertified and off hospice for four and a half months, and back on for her final ten weeks. Some people commented to us that we had called hospice in too early, but that wasn’t really the case. Without hospice care, Nana would have died much sooner. At least twice, they were able to treat symptoms that would have caused fatal repercussions, had the hospice nurses not been able to get them under control.

It is true, however, that there are a lot of rules, especially with insurance, about hospice care. Those rules are set up for people who have a fairly accurate life expectancy estimate, such as someone with late stage cancer or kidney failure. With something more unpredictable, like certain types of congestive heart failure or pulmonary disorder, the hospice rules requiring a certain amount of decline over a given time don’t fit very well. I hope that, over time, the rules will be changed to make hospice care more accessible.

As National Hospice and Palliative Care month comes to a close, I salute all the compassionate nurses, aides, volunteers, social workers, chaplains, and administrators of hospice. You help people at one of their most vulnerable times. I wish you the strength and peace needed to continue in such important work.

All Souls

In the Catholic tradition, early November is dedicated to remembering those who have died. November first is All Saints Day and November second is All Souls Day. Our parish does a special commemoration for All Souls Day of all the people whose funerals were held at the church since All Souls Day of the prior year. Family members loan the church a picture of the deceased and they are displayed on tables with name cards and candles for the whole month of November.

This year, my mom, known here on the blog as Nana, was one of those commemorated. I printed an enlargement of a favorite photo of her; Nana was not fond of having her picture taken, so photos of her alone are pretty rare. I bought a Shaker-style wooden frame for it. I admit that the liturgy was emotional for me, but it was also comforting. It also felt fitting that the handbell choir played at the mass. Nana always loved to hear E and T ring.

In the evening, I attended a concert for all souls by the Southern Tier Singers Collective (STSC). I know a number of the members, including one whom I met in University Chorus and with whom I have been close for years. The founder and director of the group is Bill Culverhouse, the current choral director at Binghamton University. The concert was beautiful, although the music was emotional for me, given that the loss of my mom is still very much in my mind and heart. Thankfully, I was able to join some friends from University Chorus in the audience, which helped me to feel supported during the performance.

The concert took place at Saint Patrick’s Church, Binghamton, which is considered the mother church in our county. The building is old, high-ceilinged, and has lots of hard surfaces, so the acoustics are good for choral singing, especially a capella, which is what STSC does. St. Patrick’s was the boyhood parish of my retired pastor, who sang there, in Latin, as an altar server. After his retirement from our parish, members of our music ministry came together there to participate in a mass celebrating his 50th anniversary of ordination. It was a large group with instrumentalists, so I helped out by conducting. Several years later, we came together again to sing for his wake service and funeral, so thoughts of him were also present in my mind.

The most moving piece in the concert for me was Dale Trumbore’s How to Go On (2017). She chose to set texts from 21st century women poets Barbara Crooker, Laura Foley, and Amy Fleury. The passages speak more to acceptance of mortality than to mourning. I loved the language of the poems and the often haunting, often meditative, way they were set. The piece begins with a question from Barbara Crooker’s poem “Some Fine Day”:  “How can we go on, knowing the end of the story?” I could feel my own answer to that question working its way through my mind in response to the poetry and music – and could imagine my mother’s.

There was a third woman that I could also imagine, a woman my age who died recently. I had sung in the choir for her funeral on Wednesday. She was a beloved member of our community, who used all her skills and gifts in service to her family, her work, and charitable causes. She died at our local hospice residence, where she had been serving as president of the board of directors. I know that she must have found her own answer.

A passage from the movement “Sometimes peace comes” from Laura Foley’s poem “Syringa” speaks to part of my answer at this point in my life.

and you have stepped into
a place beyond time,
beyond sadness and form.
A wide, high plain
where in the endless, deep silence
you find out what it is, what it is,
and your part in it.