Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Spring Break 2009: Ode to Bill

I spent my daughters’ spring break last week visiting my in-laws in Montana. I always approach these trips with a bit of ambivalence. Montana is a beautiful place and there are some fun things to there. However, I know that I will also be in the company of those like my mother-in-law, Thelma, that still blame me for Lynda moving to Nashville after college. The trip this year was complicated a bit more by the fact that my father-in-law, Bill, is in a nursing home. Each day we spent part of the day at the nursing home visiting with him. (This was probably not the most exciting Spring Break my teenaged daughters could imagine. Not that they said anything negative about it.)

However, I did come away with some reflections from my time with my in-laws that are worth noting. My wife’s family is worried and annoyed with their mother because of the pressure she puts on herself to monitor her husband’s care every day. The nursing home staff, I’m sure, loves her hyper-vigilance of all that they do. (Granted there are some things that need some attention in his care.) My mother-in-law gives EVERY afternoon to caring for and sitting with her husband in the nursing home. Her life IS caring for her husband. I have my own concerns for her well-being in this, but I did note the dedication she has in caring for and being with her husband. I also hear her say that she does these things because of the years she has spent with him, feeling that he put her interests first and pampered her. While I would argue for a bit more balance in the mix, it is moving, in some ways, to see that level of dedication to one another after 59 years of marriage.

The saddest part of the trip for me is seeing Bill in the nursing home. Bill suffers from a form of dementia, but not in such a way that he has lost touch with reality. He seems to come and go in his recognition of those around him. He also seems to have suffered some “mini” strokes or such and at this point is not able to walk, feed himself, or speak well. When he is awake (which is not often) he seems to observe the activity around him, but cannot or does not comment on it. My experience was that often he was like a person trapped in his own body; aware of what is going on around him, but not able to interact verbally or physically. What makes this profoundly sad is the level of activity and creativity that Bill had just a few years ago when he retired with big plans for his retirement years.

Bill has been a man of many gifts. While I have not always (if ever) agreed with his political or theological views, I could not deny the quality of his character or his gifted abilities. Bill has been a man who lived out his beliefs. This, to me, is the mark of a man with integrity. Even if I did not agree with him, I had to respect the depth of his integrity. Bill obviously cared for his wife. Though they often seemed to argue and complain about one another, it became clear over time that they each understood this as a mark of the care that each had for the other. Thelma describes several acts of kindness and little acts of service that demonstrated for her the depth of Bill’s love.

Bill was also a gifted craftsman, carpenter, and gardener. As a woodworker, Bill was able to craft beautiful pieces of furniture and other items. We have a cradle at our house made by Bill for our daughters. We have shelves, quilt racks, bowls and trivets all carefully constructed from carefully chosen beautiful wood. Bill could build anything from cabinets to complete room additions. He added a room to their house and completely remodeled their kitchen. Each thing he did demonstrated his strong attention to detail. He was as gifted outside as in. He could pour concrete, build flower beds, or anything else outside you could imagine. As when any artist develops his or her gifts to such a level, Bill’s abilities inspired a sense of awe that was a shadow of the creativity of God. The beauty of this was the quiet humility with which Bill used his gifts for others. Bill built equipment and props for use with children with special needs in the schools. He used his gifts to literally build a church building (with some help, of course). He was generous and caring in the use of his talents and abilities.

One cannot speak of Bill, however, without mentioning his gardens. From the carefully manicured flower beds and custom-made walkways to the raised vegetable gardens, Bill was as gifted in the garden as he was in his workshop. A picture of Bill with his prize of a 3lb tomato currently hangs outside his room at the nursing home as a testament to his ability. Flowers, fruits, and vegetables all grew beautifully under Bill’s careful attention. Without ever being among the “tree-hugging” crowd, Bill insisted on organic gardening. He could kill all kinds of blight and insects with natural concoctions that he whipped up in the house. He had natural ways of fertilizing and caring for his plants and they always responded by producing for him. Again, the care of these plants was representative of God’s care and the beauty of Bill’s gardens a reflection of the beauty of God’s larger creation.

As much as Bill could produce in the garden, Thelma could process, can, and freeze anything. The family could enjoy the fruits of Bill’s gardens all year round. Thelma carefully attended to the inside of the house as meticulously as Bill tended to the outside. In this way, they reflect the stereotypes of their generation, but don’t make the mistake of labeling them. My wife’s strong convictions of feminine strength and challenging meaningless authoritarian traditions are rooted in the strength of her mother. Thelma is a powerful woman who does not seem to comprehend the power that she wields.

Though my in-laws are sometimes frustrating to me, I have to honor the strength, integrity, and commitment that they embody in their lives and in their marriage.