For the Men Folk

This post describes, in part, the effects of a degenerative neurological condition called Huntington’s Disease. Any negative behavior on the part of my wife should be attributed to that condition. Any negative behavior on the part of myself should be attributed to my need for God’s ongoing grace.

If you would like to read our story from the beginning, you can start here: How We Got Here…

This week Janet stopped eating. As I write this, Frannie and I have been able to get her to eat some soup from an Italian restaurant, but there were days when she didn’t eat at all. Her weight is below 100 lbs. How long can someone with such a low body weigh last with no – or at very little – food?

Janet and her Dad
This picture is of Janet on our wedding day with her father (from whom she inherited the gene). I have always loved this picture because it shows the little “derby” that went with her tulle veil – though to me it always looked more like a small white cowboy hat.

Janet has started taking naps in the middle of the day; in fact, she’s sleeping almost non-stop now. Friday morning we had a meeting with a hospice nurse, and she has been accepted back into home hospice, so we will be receiving visits from a home health aide three times a week. Later that day we took delivery on her hospital bed (which she loves) and some other miscellaneous equipment.

The only remaining question is how long will she be needing them?

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When I first started coming to the support forums, the first thing I noticed was that the demographic of the participants was overwhelmingly female. To me this fact was curious because I knew that HD affects men and women in equal numbers. Therefore, it seemed logical that there should be about equal numbers of male and female participants on the forums.

At Janet’s next HD appointment, I talked to the clinic’s social worker and related my observation. Her reaction was, “Oh yes, they have done studies and it’s a real thing. Male caregivers rarely reach out for support, and male patients with no woman (wife, daughter, etc) caring for them also don’t get the support they need.”

Ok, but is that observation accurate? Well, as they used to say back in the 60’s, “It’s a mixed bag.” On a gross level, my feeling about numbers was pretty close. An organization called the National Family Caregivers Association did a study a few years ago across all chronic conditions and determined that in the US there are about 54 million people who are serving as primary caregivers for a family member. Of that number 44% – or just shy of 24 million – are men.

But therein lies a problem. If the social worker is right that men just aren’t getting the support they need, guys should be dropping like flies, but statistically speaking, we just don’t see that happening. So it would seem that we men are getting the support we need, but it looks different. That realization, in turn, got me wondering: what other things do men do differently in a caregiving situation?

But before we go any further, I need to issue a couple warnings:

  1. Generalizations: There are a lot of them coming up. The point is not to try to force people into boxes with roles to fulfil. Rather, learning about generalized behavior can be a path to self discovery because, even if the fit isn’t perfect, it can nevertheless give you insight into how you behave and react.
  2. Exceptions: Yes, there are always exceptions. This point sort of goes with the previous one about generalizations. People are not stereotypes, so if you don’t fit the mold: Good for you! Celebrate the parts of you that don’t fit the pattern. Often I find that those “ill-fitting” bits are actually gifts that make me better suited for what I need to do.

So starting with the question of where do guys get support, we need to recognize that “support” can look very different for men.

To begin with, it is a well-recognized fact that men are not “joiners” – meaning that associations outside their inner circle of family and friends tend to be transient. In discussing this tendency, psychologists often like to think in “evolutionary terms” and so will wax philosophical about wandering bands of nomadic hunters meeting by chance on the vast Serengeti plain and agreeing to temporarily work together to bring down a mammoth, giant sloth or something.

For me, though, it matters little whether this trait was “evolved” into men, or as I feel is far more likely, consciously put there by our Creator. The point is that the support structures for men clearly tend to be less formal and more ad-hoc. Consequently, it is reasonable to have fewer men willing to “sign up” for a support group, and for fewer still to actively participate.

But, if support doesn’t occur in formal groups, where does it happen? Sometimes in a tree stand when there doesn’t appear to be a deer in 100 miles of you. Sometimes support occurs in a boat in the middle of a lake, when nothing is biting. And sometimes it happens during a lull in an oil change, or over a beer while you’re enjoying the pleasant coolness of dusk and watching the sun go down.

While, there will be those that will complain that the last paragraph was written from a rural North American (i.e. red-neck) perspective, the point is that support happens in unpredictable and unplanned ways. Support can also occur at work, in a pub or cafe, or riding on a commuter train.

Next, it should be noted that, paradoxically, many men will only argue with close friends. Why? First, it’s because the only opinions that most guys really care about are those of their friends. Why get into an argument with someone who’s opinions you don’t respect?

Please note that in making this statement I am drawing a distinction between having an argument (or making an argument), and just yelling at someone. It’s the difference between having a “meaningful dialogue” and “sending a message” – a thoroughly offensive cliché, by the way. For completeness sake, I should point out that there is also something called expository speech where someone is trying to convince someone of something. In this framework, expository speech falls somewhere between arguing and yelling at people – exactly where it falls, depends upon the topic and the speaker!

Secondly, men argue with friends because it is safe to do so. With a friend you can disagree and shout and yell, but you never have to worry about losing that which is really important: your friendship. This point is so important because the best conversations occur when personalities, identities and ego aren’t involved.

Therefore, among men, expressions of friendship can be more (How shall I say this?) “abrasive.” For example, once while I was in the Air Force we once flew into an Italian Air Force Base outside of Pisa. Two local civilians came out to service our plane and got into a disagreement with each other about something. Soon they were toe-to-toe screaming at each other and gesticulating wildly. Concerned, I asked another one of the other ground crew whether we should do something.

“No,” he said, “they’re brothers-in-law. They always yell at each other. They’ll be fine.”

And they were, I saw them a hour or so later laughing and joking over beers.

In a similar vein, it should be remembered that it was men who invented “snipe hunting” and many similar “bonding” exercises…

There are also differences in the way men approach challenges, in that we are problem solvers. We like to approach challenges logically and dispassionately because it is built into our DNA to react in that way. For us our #1 goal is to, “work the problem.” Hence, we try to shut out everything that isn’t part of the solution – including emotion.

So you see, it’s not that we don’t care, but rather it is precisely because we care very deeply that we appear to shut down emotionally. Perhaps this is the reason that men are so good at handling crises. Of course the other side of that coin is that we try to bring that same level of intensity to the management of chronic situations, so we tend to burn out (a lot) faster.

So where do I fit into this puzzle? Well remember what I said above about “generalizations” and “exceptions?” When I was a kid we would go to visit my Mom’s family in Iowa (a little town named Morse, near Iowa City). At these family gatherings, the men folk would, depending upon the season, congregate in either the living room or on the front porch. They would talk about cars, tractors and the price of hogs and corn – all important things to know about if you live in Iowa.

But the women – my Mom, grandmother, and always a couple aunts or great aunts – would gather in the kitchen and talk about things that sparked my imagination. They would have wonderfully loud, joyous conversations. In some ways, fixing dinner was like a religious ceremony because everything meant something.

For example, there were the holy relics:
“That’s your great-great-grandmother’s roasting pan.”

And rubrics:
“Always stir cake batter to the right and never reverse directions – it will spoil the cake.”

History lessons:
“Did you know, when I first started teaching, teachers weren’t allowed to be married?”

And applications for daily living:
“Don’t use all the buttermilk! Pappy will want some to sop his cornbread in after dinner.”

The bottom line is that dinner wasn’t just about food, it was about telling and retelling for the millionth time the story of who were. So I guess while I unabashedly exhibit many of the male traits mentioned above, thanks to the strong women that were around me as I grew, I have also come to wear my heart on my sleeve, at times rather more than what is comfortable.

Because I understand how remembered stories and traditions can hold us together when times are hard, I may someday share some of those stories. I may write about my grandmother who was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, and often said that the main thing you learned in a one-room school was how to be a good citizen. Or I might talk about her sister, my Aunty Butch (pronounced to rhyme with “hutch” or “crutch”) who gave up the chance of having children of her own to protect her best friend’s children from an abusive father.

We’ll see…

Finally, we need to understand that culturally, men are horribly ill-prepared for the role that they find themselves in when caring for a dying spouse. Think about it for a minute, little boys and little girls get dramatically different messages growing up. Little girls growing up see, modeled in the lives of perhaps their mother, but certainly their grandmothers, and ladies that they know socially, the truth that someday their husband will die and they will be alone again.

This fact is borne out by insurance actuarial tables, and even government statistics. The US Census Bureau has pegged life expectancy in the US at 77.1 years for men, and 81.9 years for women. While that knowledge certainly doesn’t make it any easier for women, when their spouse dies, they at least have role-models in whose footsteps they can follow.

But now think about little boys and the message that they get growing up. They witness the same world, and read the same statistics but have a very different reaction. I have to be honest, when Janet and I got married I didn’t hear the pastor say, “Till death do you part…”. What I heard the pastor say was, “You are going to be married to this beautiful woman for the rest of your life.” I mean, that’s the way the world works right? There’s a law about that or something … isn’t there?

For me, this point is getting to be very, very real. As I stated earlier, Janet is eating less and less, and sleeping more and more. What’s more, I know how this movie ends: one day I’ll go downstairs and she won’t wake up. Then what? The only widower that I knew personally was a great-uncle who started trying to act like a teenager again – it was embarrassing.

When our spouses die, men don’t usually have the benefit of reassuring role models to fall back on. Yet even in that dark time, we aren’t ever really alone. Even when the world seems upside-down and tilted off-center, even then we worship Emmanuel – God With Us.

In Christ, Amen ☩

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A prayer for when you are wrestling with what happens next…

“Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe. It is right that I should at all times and in all circumstances bless You for Your foreknowing wisdom. But today I want to bless You especially for the certainty that I can have that, even without role models, everything will work out as it should. Amen.”

Mirages

This post describes, in part, the effects of a degenerative neurological condition called Huntington’s Disease. Any negative behavior on the part of my wife should be attributed to that condition. Any negative behavior on the part of myself should be attributed to my need for God’s ongoing grace.

If you would like to read our story from the beginning, you can start here: How We Got Here…

Janet is continuing to eat less and less. This week on Facebook, a memory picture came up of Janet back when we could go out to eat. At the time of the picture, we had gone out to a Cajun restaurant here in Houston and she probably weighed 185 lbs., or thereabouts. Now she weighs 100 lbs., give or take a bit.

Lately I have been thinking about the past and our life together – a lot. For instance, I have been remembering when she was pregnant with our son (our first child) and we were trying to spruce up the house that we owned in Norwood, Massachusetts. It was during that effort that we learned the “joys” of such things as removing horsehair plaster and working with turn-of-the-century electrical systems.

It was also during that remodeling effort that Janet got it into her head that what the house really needed was a fresh coat of paint.

Now the thing to understand is that while the house itself was only two stories high, due to the way the land sloped and the way the basement was laid out, the second floor in front was actually nearly three stories off the ground.

So we bought the paint, a spray gun, a ladder and all the other miscellanea that one needs when one is going to paint a house. After we got all the stuff home, I discovered that Janet expected that SHE was going to paint the house. When I tried to point out (quite reasonably, I thought) that she was eight months pregnant and shouldn’t be climbing up and down ladders, she pointed out that I needed to mind my own business. After all, she had painted a house before – even if that house was a single-story bungalow.

In the end (I thought) we agreed that she was not to be climbing up and down ladders. Moreover we would get professional painters to handle the eaves of the second floor, which were a full three (scary) stories off the ground.

But 2 days later, I got home from work and there was my very pregnant wife painting the second story eaves. Never did figure out how she got the ladder up that far…

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A basic truism today is that much of society is consumed with the issue of identity. And like so many things, people today have paradoxically redefined the word. Rather than meaning who you are personally, it is seen as a way of indicating what group you belong to. Don’t get me started on that degenerative practice!

But even when the word is used properly, it’s crazy some of the ways in which people choose to identify themselves. For example, when growing up I had an aunt who took great pride in identifying herself as a [blank] of the Rockford Illinois, [blank]s. I guess we were supposed to be impressed.

Then in the 60s and 70s, identity became something for which you had to search – often in exotic locales. In fact, it became something of a cliché for someone to say they were taking a trip or undertaking some other kind of experience in order to “find themselves …” Over time, as the baby boomers grew older and became more settled, the story evolved into one of a successful, but unhappy, person abandoning their comfortable life and taking up a quest to figure out “…who they really are…”

A popular subgenre of this type of story concerns a successful professional person who thinks that they have life pretty much figured out, but for some contrived reason, moves from the city to the country (or vice versa) and there discovers “…who they really are…” – often in tandem with a new love interest. Here in the US, there is an entire TV network (called The Hallmark Channel) dedicated to broadcasting seasonally-inspired versions of this story 24/7.

While a key part of all such modern fairy tales is the idea of making a clean break and starting over, reality has an unpleasant way of intruding. Even if you aren’t a successful professional, you can find yourself being forcibly evicted from your warm, safe, comfortable rut. When my wife first got sick, she did some counseling where she was advised to remember that, “You aren’t your disease.” And for a while, I guess that was true. But as time and the disease progressed, it became increasingly difficult to maintain that facade.

Moreover, it wasn’t just Janet that was going through changes. I was desperately trying to figure out where our life was going. Consequently, there were two identities in a constant state of flux, but what are the odds of two erratic lives staying connected the way they had been before?

In my own experience, as well as those of others, it is not uncommon to hear someone invoke or describe an “Alice in Wonderland” feeling. For instance, at one point, as Alice wanders about trying to find her way, she encounters a hookah-smoking caterpillar.

Alice and the Caterpillar
Alice and the Caterpillar

“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I – I hardly know, sir, just at present – at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

“What do you mean by that?” said the Caterpillar sternly. “Explain yourself!”

“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir,” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.”

“I don’t see,” said the Caterpillar.

“I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,” Alice replied very politely, “for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.”

Whether you are a patient or a caregiver, that is the haunting question – “Who are you?” – even as society imperiously demands that we explain ourselves. Moreover, we seem surrounded by things offering hope for our sad condition, each bearing helpful little tags reading, “Eat Me!” or “Drink Me!” Little wonder the 60’s drug culture fell in love with the book.

One pill makes you bigger,

One pill makes you small,

And the ones that mother gives you,

Don’t do anything at all.

Go ask Alice, when she’s 10 feet tall…

Jefferson Airplane (White Rabbit 1967)

Like Alice (and perhaps Grace Slick), we sometimes feel so big that we are the unwelcomed center of attention, while at other times we feel small, insignificant and ignored. And yes, being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.

The basic problem is that we always define our identity, who we are, relative to something or someone else. My aunt derived her identity relative to her ancestors and their perceived social standing. People who went out trying to find themselves were searching for an identity based on novel experiences that were bigger than the familiar world they grew up in. The folks in the Hallmark Channel movies are simply exchanging an identity based in one set of professional and personal relationships for one based in a different set of professional and personal relationships.

But those relationships are the identity’s vulnerable spot. If something happens to the relationship, the identity or identities deriving from that relationship crumble. And what is there that isn’t susceptible to loss and decay? Marriages end in divorce or death, siblings are lost, children grow and move away for lives of their own, careers end, pets die, and organizations come and go – or change beyond recognition.

As far as the eye can see, everything around you, animate or inanimate, has a life span, a service life, an expiration date, a timeout, a proper season, or a shelf life.

So I might say, “Ok, if that’s the game – I choose not to play it!” Unfortunately that strategy doesn’t work either. Even if I eschew all contact with the world and become a hermit, I am still defining myself in relation to the world – in this case a world in which I don’t wish to participate. But that identity is as vulnerable as any other. Remember the classic children’s story Heidi? All it took was for a little girl to wander in and demonstrate that the world is not so terribly horrible and the grandfather’s identity as a curmudgeon is blown sky high.

So to recap, nothing around us is permanent and we can’t even “opt out” of the predicament. So is there no hope? Are we doomed to an endless cycle of traumatic relationship collapses and identity rebuilding exercises? No, there is good news to be had. The simple (though far from easy) solution is to base our identity on a relationship that is unshakable and indestructible to the point that it can survive anything – even death.

“But,” you might object, “didn’t you just say that everything around us is impermanent?”

Actually, what I said was, “As far as the eye can see…” Maybe we need to try looking where the eye can’t see.

“Sounds like we are back in ‘Wonderland.’”

Hardly. If you think back, last week we talked about the different reasons that people might have for running a race. One person ran as an expression of who he was as a human being. However that statement means more than simply identifying with a particular skill, which can obviously fade over time. For this runner, it meant that he ran because the skill was a gift that God had given him. Hence, he focused on God and giving Him pleasure by using that gift to the fullest extent possible. So while one gift might fade over time and be replaced with another, the runner’s identity remained untroubled and at peace because it was based on the identity of the Giver, the One who is never ending, and Who is constant.

There is our way forward: An identity that is based on God and His intent in creating us. As I have said many times in the past, whether you are the patient or caregiver, what you are experiencing is not random. There is a point to it all, and that point is to transform you into the being you were created to be.

By the way, as Moses (משה רבנו) discovered at the burning bush, God has a really good answer to the question “Who are you?” He simply said, “I am. I am the One who is.”

In Christ, Amen ☩

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A prayer for when you aren’t sure who you are…

“Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe. It is right that I should at all times and in all circumstances bless You for who You are. But today I want to bless You especially for also being the basis for the ultimate reality of who I am. Help me to discern the difference between who I am and the temporary labels that I get from the world. Amen.”

A Grief Observed (Preemptively)

This post describes, in part, the effects of a degenerative neurological condition called Huntington’s Disease. Any negative behavior on the part of my wife should be attributed to that condition. Any negative behavior on the part of myself should be attributed to my need for God’s ongoing grace.

If you would like to read our story from the beginning, you can start here: How We Got Here…

This week we welcomed a new member to the Porter household. Her name is Lawtay and she is a 6 month old boxer mix. She is very gentle, loves to cuddle, and is already helping to support me and Frannie too. The only problem is that she may end up being a bigger dog than we originally expected. Right now she weighs 40lbs and according to the vet is a little underweight. By the time she’s full grown, she could be a 50 to 60 lb dog…

Janet is spending more time alone (her choice) but occasionally gets very persistent about calling Frannie for things that she either has no control over, or are things that are already done. Finally, I had to tell Frannie to not answer the phone when her mom is in that sort of mood. At the same time, Janet fell again this week and sat on the floor for a couple hours before getting herself up. She didn’t have her phone with her and she fell because she refuses to use her walker, which she needs. I have talked to her about getting a LifeAlert-type device.

If you are of a certain age and live in the US, you likely remember the TV commercials where an elderly actress intones the now famous line: “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” Random thought: I wonder if the company exported the commercial anywhere else?

However, Janet has resisted that assistance too. She says that she doesn’t want something hanging around her neck. Maybe if we could find something that she wore like a watch, or pinned to her. In any case, it may be time to stop asking her, and to start telling her that we are getting something.

   

When I first started writing this blog, I frankly didn’t think Janet would live very much longer. This was perhaps understandable because last November she was talking constantly about wanting to die. In fact, one of the first things I wrote was a death announcement with blanks for time and date of death. As it turns out, it was just perseveration – this time on death. One benefit that the exercise of writing Janet’s death announcement brought out was that it got me wondering what it would actually be like for Janet to be really and truly dead.

This week I have been rereading C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. I first read it many years ago and it was, at the time, a rather academic exercise of the nature of, “Oh isn’t that terrible what he went through.” Needless to say, my experience of the book is markedly different now. Now, there is nothing academic about it. Now, I have some “…skin in the game…” In fact, when I was starting this blog, many of the names I considered were variations on the title of that book.

For those who are not familiar with the book, Lewis wrote it in response to the death of his wife Joy Davidman, from cancer. However, it didn’t start out as a work to be published, rather its genesis was a collection of notebooks that he kept around the house and wrote in during the time in which he was recovering from his wife’s death. Because these notebooks were essentially just between him and God, he exhibited in them an extraordinary degree of intellectual and spiritual honesty. Moreover, many of the notes read as though he felt that Joy was, in some way, watching over his shoulder to make sure he was being honest. In the end, he didn’t hold back on any thought, any feeling, any idea, or any doubt – and he did have doubts.

It was only later that it occurred to him to take the contents of these notebooks and get them published, and when he did so, it was initially under the pseudonym N.W. Clerk.

That story also explains one of the most striking features of the book: When he went to turn it into a book, he didn’t try to take the raw material and forge it into a continuous narrative with a beginning, a series of obstacles that he had to overcome, and then finally the requisite happy ending. Rather, the book consists of short paragraphs, and even single sentences, that document isolated moments in his life and the thoughts that went with them.

As I began writing this blog, I had two prayers: 1) that I could become even a fraction of the author that Lewis was and 2) that I could be as honest as he was. As it turned out, writing is, at its core, simply a skill like brain surgery or pipe fitting. Consequently, it is something that can be learned. (Having a good copy editor who studied English at Purdue helps a lot!) The second goal, however, is a far harder nut to crack, at least in part because, unlike acquiring a skill, it is an ongoing battle. Intellectual and spiritual honesty is always a struggle because (for me at least) there is always that voice in the back of my head telling me, “Oh no, you can’t say THAT. People will be disappointed. People won’t like you anymore.”

But even if you aren’t writing for the eyes of others, this type of honesty is critical because it helps keep us grounded. There is a popular meme on line that says:

The most common lie
that humans tell is:
“I’m okay…”

Unfortunately, we don’t just tell this lie to others, we lie to ourselves too. We tell ourselves that we are “okay,” when the truth is that we are far from “okay.” For example, one of the many things that Lewis observed and documented is the trouble he had pulling together the motivation to even shave in the morning. What difference did it make, he mused, whether his cheeks were smooth or scruffy?

But he openly discussed weightier matters as well, and he examined each one with an unflinchingly honest eye. He talks about his doubts about who God is, and His motivations, doubts about his own faith, doubts about the nature of grieving, doubts about Heaven and the afterlife, and even doubts about his love for his late wife.

We often think that when sharing with others that we should avoid the “soft spots” in our faith and concentrate on the places where our faith is the most sure and solid. But is that approach always the best policy? For me, the answer to that important question depends on the point of your sharing. If the point of the conversation is to highlight what a wonderful person you are, then yeah, that sort of sharing will probably serve you well.

If, however, the point is to help the person you are talking to, then it might not be the optimum approach. I have mentioned before that by training and by vocation, I am an engineer. One of the mistakes that I often see young engineers make is to think that our customers want us to be able to recite preformulated answers to their problems. Now, while these sorts of inquiries do typically lead to the formulation of a solution, what makes a customer feel comfortable with us professionally is (paradoxically) not the answers that we present, but the questions that we ask.

I would assert that the same principle is in play for matters of faith and life. When someone asks you how you are doing, perhaps they are just passing time with small talk. But perhaps too, they are wanting, or even needing, to open a dialog with someone who understands their weaknesses – not a Superman or Wonder Woman who has everything all sorted out. Perhaps when you are talking to someone, the thing that they need to hear above all else is that they can survive the worry and the doubt. I can’t tell you how many times I have felt so low that I prayed to last just one day longer than Janet so I can see this thing through to the end.

But I can also tell you that those feelings pass. I can tell you that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I can tell you that in spite of doubt and fear, there is always hope to not only survive, but to thrive.

In Christ, Amen ☩

   

A prayer for when you are weak with doubt…

“Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe. It is right that I should at all times and in all circumstances bless You for Your strength and the strength You give me. But today I want to bless You especially for my weaknesses, but not because your strength is visible in my weakness, but thank you for the weakness. Thank you for giving me the wounds and scars that allows me to relate to those in need, and offer them hope for the future. Amen”

Clouds Parting

This post describes, in part, the effects of a degenerative neurological condition called Huntington’s Disease. Any negative behavior on the part of my wife should be attributed to that condition. Any negative behavior on the part of myself should be attributed to my need for God’s ongoing grace.

I guess you could say that it all started with Frannie wanting to get her hair dyed. She had always had brown hair and, perhaps as a way to express her independence, she decided to dye her hair red – not a bright fire-engine red, but a nice natural burgundy color. So after some internal family turmoil (which is not part of the story) she purchased the dye and I agreed to help her dye her hair. The clear understanding was that no matter how it turned out, it was her decision, and her own responsibility

When the time arrived to “do the deed”, Frannie came to my room to let me know that she had everything set up. So I got up, took two steps, and the next thing I knew I was sitting on the floor cross legged with a bump on my head and Frannie kneeling next to me saying, “Are you Ok Dad? Are you Ok?” I had momentarily blacked out. After sitting on the floor for a few moments I got up and laid down on my bed.

My first thought was that I had recently lost several pounds and so perhaps my high-blood pressure medicine was at too high a dose. So I decided to stop taking it and wait a couple days to see how things fared. Two days later when I took my BP again, it was still very low so, at the urging of two daughters and a sister, I went to the local Emergency Room here in Pearland to get it checked out.

In the end, after interminable tests, two different sonogram examinations and numerous samplings of various bodily fluids, the determination was that my BP meds were too high which, through a series of interactions that would have potentially stumped Dr House, had left me severely over-medicated and under-hydrated.

The other significant side-effects of all this drama were that I was in the hospital overnight. From that brief respite, I discovered that Janet did just fine without me hovering around every second, and Frannie did an exceptional job handling things while I was out of commission.

PS: Frannie did get here hair dyed, and it’s really lovely!


Years ago, I wrote a monthly column for our church’s newsletter called Everyday Epiphanies – a title that I always liked due to its slightly oximoronic flavor. After all, epiphanies are supposed to be epic discoveries typically accompanied by things like burning bushes or God engraving commands in to your living room carpet with fire. They certainly aren’t “everyday”. This memory comes up for me today because this week has been one of epiphanies for me, but ones coming from very everyday sources.

My first insight was that when God is telling you that it’s time to sit down and slow up for a bit, you need to do it. Otherwise, He will sit you down – sometimes cross legged on the floor. The point here is that just because you have a job to do, that doesn’t mean that you are indispensable. God never sends you into a situation without backup. In my adventure this week, my backup turned out to be my daughter Frannie. And to show how deep a bench God has, He backed her up with a large supporting cast including my daughter Catherine, my sister Margie, our pastor, and a family from church that I’m not totally sure that I know.

Before this week, I had major concerns as to how well Frannie could handle things in a crisis. Now I do not. I see now that when push comes to shove, Frannie has the backbone to do what needs to get done. I am very, very proud of her.

The other insight that I gained this week was about the basic nature of mourning and grieving. The source of that epiphany was a short video clip that I posted to my timeline on Facebook. The video is the end of an obviously, much longer musical piece by a Croatian cellist named Stjepan Hauser. The music itself is the climax of an operatic aria, the title of which I don’t remember though I seem to remember hearing Luciano Pavarotti sing it.

The video is very moving in that it shows a variety of people: first responders, shop clerks, everyday people removing their masks and smiling. These images, combined with the music brought tears to my eyes – so I shared the video. However, when you share something like that, Facebook wants you to comment on it when creating the post, and the problem was that I had trouble describing my feelings. The music was very triumphant, but nothing has, of yet, been won. In fact, there is still a long way to go. Moreover, I’m not even sure that thinking about this in terms of “victory” and “defeat” is the right paradigm because both imply an end to the story. We may “defeat” this virus, but there is always more that needs to be done. In fact, there is an unending list of diseases (both contagious and not) that need to be conquered.

Likewise with grieving, there is no “end” to the process, there is no point (here on this side of the veil at least) where you can say, “Ok, that was a nasty job but it’s over, and I am free to move on now.” – a statement that pretty much sums up the myth of “closure”. Closure is the idea that at some point you will get to a place in life where having lost a loved one will no longer hurt. The only problem is that grief doesn’t work like that. Over time the open wound may heal, but like an injured joint that aches when the weather is changing, things are never quite the same as they were before.

In the end, I described the video as “coming out from under a cloud”. In this view, the cloud doesn’t go away, just as the pain, the loss, and the risk of disease, never goes away. The difference is that I no longer choose to live in the cloud’s shadow or let my life be ruled by it. Consequently, I may still have the pain or the fear, but I have decided to stop being the pain and the fear. Instead of railing against the darkness and rain, I will now begin moving towards the light.

Going through this transition is hard and unfortunately there is no set formula for how to do it. Moreover, it is no simpler helping someone else go through it either. As much as I would like, there are no A, B, Cs on how to do it that I can give you. But I can tell you that it requires many of the things that we have talked about before. Things like empathy so you can truly feel their pain; love to enable you to go through it with them; and a willingness to leave behind formulaic “solutions” in favor of (lots of) prayer that provides the insights to replace the formulas.

In Christ, Amen ☩


A prayer for when you are living under a cloud…

“Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe. It is right that I should at all times and in all circumstances bless You for light and joy that You bring into my life. But today I want to bless you especially for the support you give when my life seems dark and cloudy. Thank you for those You send into my life to support me, especially {  name supporters  }. Please show me how to pass along this divine gift to others. Amen”

Mary lost her son, a story of Holy Week

This post describes, in part, the effects of a degenerative neurological condition called Huntington’s Disease. Any negative behavior on the part of my wife should be attributed to that condition. Any negative behavior on the part of myself should be attributed to my need for God’s ongoing grace.

This week I’m doing something that I have never done before. You can call it a mindful memorial, a tribute, or just trying to deal with the reality of being surrounded by death from various neurodegenerative diseases – the actual label doesn’t really matter, I guess. On any given day, the various support forums carry a litany of death from a multitude of causes that have nothing to do with viruses, and so unfortunately draw little attention.

These brief notices are typically written by the deceased’s caregiver and naturally talk about how wonderful their late loved one was – which is as it should be. But something can get lost with that approach to memorialization: the caring people left behind. These short obituaries talk about the deceased’s challenges and bravery in the face of adversity, but rarely mention the sacrifices that the caregiver makes to allow their loved one to reach the end of their days with some dignity. Neither is it mentioned that these extraordinary measures are undertaken knowing that they won’t change the long-term prognosis even one single bit.

So this week I want to talk about one particular HD-related death from the standpoint of the patient’s caregiver – his mother. Please don’t see this choice as in any way denigrating the contributions of people with other relationships. Fathers lose daughters, children lose parents, and spouses lose each other, and they all perform noble service.

Rather, my choice of subject to stand in for the hundreds of thousands of caregivers worldwide was simple and pragmatic. It is someone that I know personally, and her son is also the fourth family member with HD that she has cared for.

The mother’s name is Maria and she might be familiar to some of you. She lives in Italy and over the past month I have posted several prayer requests for her and her son Giuseppe. So many of you have responded that Maria was, at one point, left speechless. She thought she was the only asking God to give her strength. Not quite! And for the record, I am incredibly proud of the family we have assembled here.

To make a long story short, Giuseppe had JHD and like so many of his countrymen, contracted the coronavirus. Maria spent many long hours living at the hospital helping to care for him. In fact, at one point she went 48 hours without sleeping or eating, and ended up collapsing on the floor. She said the nursing staff was initially afraid that she had suffered a heart attack, but she was just exhausted.

Then during Holy Week, the end came. Since then, there has been an unending stream of details to be managed and arrangements to be made. As I was thinking about this today (Wednesday, April 15th), I started writing. Even though I never met the young man, I had come to feel very close to him, despite his being on the other side of a very large ocean. So the writing was initially to clear my own head and help deal with my own sense of loss – though, to tell the truth, I felt a bit embarrassed to even mention my feelings.

Eventually, my feelings fell to the wayside and the writing morphed into a series of thoughts on motherhood in general, and Maria’s loving dedication to her family in particular.


I have been thinking about it and it seems to me that, for mothers, raising children involves a long series of “letting go” events. For nine months you carry them in the womb but even here, at the very beginning, they are a separate person, so there is a relationship with the child, a connection. The paradox is that they are at once, in you and yet distinct from you. They have their own gender, their own blood type, and their own heartbeat. While this heartbeat may from time to time synchronize with yours, it is unique.

This point becomes obvious at birth when the umbilical cord connecting the two of you is severed and they can become a fully independent human being. But still, you feed them from your breast and change their diapers. Then one day you have to let go of that connection because they no longer need the same degree of attention. I well remember the poignant moment when my Janet realized that she had just breast-fed our son for the last time. But he made it clear that, while milk was all fine and good, he wanted solid food – and lots of it!

After that, life seems full of letting go events that strain, redefine and restructure the connection: potty training, starting school, dances, dating, graduation, college, marriage, and parenthood – each with its own unique set of letting go moments.

But sometimes something goes wrong with that neat plan, and there are other things that a mother has to let go of. When Maria realized that Giuseppe had the Juvenile form of Huntington’s Disease, she had to learn to let go of his laughter and smiles, and eventually the personable young man that he was. Then in a kind of hellish regression, she had to return to feeding and changing him, and doing her very best to care for his most basic physical and emotional needs. But then, doctors and nurses became involved.

I will always remember the message I got from Maria when Giuseppe was being taken to the hospital. I am just learning Italian, but even without running the text through Google Translate, I recognized the words or phrases for “my son”, “hospital”, “intubated”, and “panicking”. The resulting online prayer request is when many of you became acquainted with her name, and there were dozens of you. (Thank you Pamela at the Huntington’s Disease Prayer Support Group!)

Eventually, in the final stages, Maria had to face letting him go completely in death. But even then, her mother’s love was so strong that she continued hanging on, becoming a living “la Pietà” mourning a son, not of marble, but of flesh and blood. She cradled him, craving one more moment of human contact. Soon even that was gone, as people explained to her about “contagions” and the necessity of cremation. She had to let go of even his physical body. In the end, it appeared that all she would have left to show for a lifetime of love and commitment, was just a few handfuls of ashes.

But no, God does not leave His children so destitute. Maria also has memories: The warmth and intimacy of suckling him that first time in the delivery room. The look of brave determination on his face as he headed off for the first day of elementary school. The pride he showed at graduation, and many, many more treasured moments that “moths cannot eat nor rust destroy.”

But in addition to the memories, God also has promises for the future. Promises of renewed hope and love that can, frankly, be so hard to hear while we are in the midst of the mourning. However, we can be confident that these promises have no “expiration date” and their time will come. For example, as people of faith, we have the assurance that death is not the hopeless end to an essentially meaningless life. Rather, one of the great lessons of Easter is that, as strange as it may sound, in death there is healing. When Jesus appeared to his disciple following the resurrection, He still bore the marks of the crucifixion. The difference was that they were no longer bleeding wounds, they were healed and Jesus was none the worse for wear. And so it is for Giuseppe and all our loved ones: There is no HD in heaven.

But for right now those around Maria are supporting her, and while she is so tired and full of grief that she doesn’t at times know which way to turn, she is not the kind to stay down. The life of a Christian in this world is not about “either/or” but “both/and”. We aren’t confronted with the alternatives of either sinner or saint, or either being faithful or grieving. In both cases, we are “both/and”. Always remember that the opposite of grief is not faithfulness, but rather apathy.

So if you have been praying for Maria, please continue to do so – which if you thinks about it is another case of “both/and”. She is both in need of prayer and already under infinite God’s care. To protect her from total despair, God is continuing to fill her heart every day with fresh hope, and the rod of steel that He placed in her spine means that this time of pain and sorrow will not leave her permanently bowed down.

This loss will not be the end of her, and the testimony of her story is yet another assurance that ours won’t be the end of us either…

In Christ, Amen ☩


A prayer for when you mourn…

“Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe. It is right that I should at all times and in all circumstances bless You for your wonderous promises. But today I want to bless you especially for understanding and sanctifying our grief. In scripture we see Jesus first weeping at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, and then reassuring the two grieving sisters that in Him there is life regardless of how things look at the moment. And then again, we have Jesus’ reassuring words, ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’ Thank you for the opportunity to experience the grief of separations so we might experience an even greater joy at our reunions. Amen”

Ambiguous Loss

This post describes, in part, the effects of a degenerative neurological condition called Huntington’s Disease. Any negative behavior on the part of my wife should be attributed to that condition. Any negative behavior on the part of myself should be attributed to my need for God’s ongoing grace.

So what can I say about this week? Should I go into the details of what it is like to be quarantined with a woman that says the words, “I love you” but in actions says the exact opposite? No, there is no point in plowing that field again, so let’s talk about something else. The weather? No, that is too local. Politics? No, that is too divisive.

I have it: Risk. That is a good topic, but it is a dangerous one. To risk is to put something, perhaps everything, on the line. Risk means to put up or shut up, to commit yourself regardless of the cost. Risk is a timely topic right now too, as every newscast seems to be about it.

I haven’t mentioned it before publicly, but I have started learning Italian. Why? Partially because it is a risk, though an admittedly small one. But love, marriage and life – those are big ones. When Janet and I were going on our honeymoon, we decided to go to Tahiti because Janet had a job where she flew a lot, to the point that the airlines were almost paying us to go there. While there we met an Italian gentleman Signore Mantovani. As I recall he was some sort of official with the EU. He was alone because he had just lost his wife after a long illness and was traveling, revisiting all the places they had gone together as a couple. When he heard Jan and I were newlyweds he immediately “adopted us” taking us on obscure tours that he knew about and one night took us to dinner.

For those of you who have never had a real Italian dinner, it is not a quick sit-down to a plate of spaghetti at Olive Garden. A real Italian dinner is an all-night affair. So we had been “dining” for a couple hours and had just finished our appetizers and a bottle of very good wine, when Signore Mantovani looked at me and said, “You know what the problem is with Americans?” I had to admit that I did not know. He said, “You eat too fast! In Italy, we talk a little, we eat a little, we have some wine – and then we talk some more. In Italy, dinner holds us all together! Dinner isn’t about feeding the body. It’s about feeding the soul.” What he meant, of course, was that in Italy eating is always about more than food. Meals are about famiglia, family – and that understood in the broadest possible way. The dinner table is where traditions, lessons, love and recipes are passed on from one generation to the next.

Questo è per te Signore Mantovani!


Last week, I mentioned a term, more or less in passing. I had heard it from a friend online but have since found out that it is a real thing. The term is ambiguous loss, and it provides the title for this post. To my surprise, a psychologist, Dr. Pauline Boss, has been writing on this topic for nearly 20 years. One of the points that she makes in her work is that while “ambiguous loss” certainly applies to situations such as people suffering from dementia, there are also many other sources. For example, for someone who is divorcing, there is an ambiguity about the loss in terms of what exactly is going to be the relationship going forward. Likewise, she has worked with wives of MIAs about the ambiguity of their own marital status. Are they still married, or are they, in fact, widows. Even a child leaving home for college can produce a sense of ambiguity. Do we set a place for them at Thanksgiving, or should they be included when you say “we” (meaning the family) are going to do something? In the end, we see that ambiguous loss is actually much more prevalent than the “normal” kind where we can, for instance, see a body lying in a coffin.

For this reason, I have been looking into the matter further and the result is (at least) this post. While I haven’t done a book report since high school, that is what you are getting this week. Specifically, I’m going to be talking about Dr Boss’s first book on ambiguous loss called, appropriately enough Ambiguous Loss, Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief. This book is available on Amazon in hard copy or as a Kindle download, which is how I read it.

The first thing I want to point out about this book is that, while its primary audience is the psychological “clinician,” Dr Boss has a writing style that is nevertheless accessible and very easy to read. For example, the “case histories” that she presents are as likely to come from her own or her family’s experiences as from those of a client. Which is another good point, she never refers to the people or families that she sees as patients. Likewise, she doesn’t refer to her sessions as therapy because, in her view, words have meanings and to use the word “therapy” would imply that there is something wrong with the person or the family that needs to be fixed. In truth, she points out, the problem is not dysfunctional people but a dysfunctional situation. It is the situation that needs to be addressed. Consequently, rather than being the problem, the people are always part and parcel of the solution.

Dr Boss, likewise, doesn’t try to rephrase discussion of psychological matters in “layman’s terms.” She says, and I agree wholeheartedly, that talking down in that way is condescending to the people with whom she is working.

In addition to the psych-jargon and condescending attitude, also missing from this book are long drawn out discussions of the brilliant solutions that she developed for a family’s problems. Instead she presents solutions that people developed on their own to address their own needs. For example, she cited the case of a woman whose husband had an advanced case of Alzheimer’s Disease and who, despite not remembering who she was, was continually making sexual advances to her. In the end, the accommodation that the woman developed on her own, was to remove her wedding ring and put it in her jewelry box. She had realized that the thing that was causing her so much grief was the ambiguity between the conflicting roles of “wife” and “caregiver.” This simple act of removing the ring gave herself permission to temporarily set aside the wife role so she could concentrate on being the caregiver that her husband needed. Eventually, when her husband died, she retrieved her ring and took up her new role as “widow.”

Now obviously this solution will not work for everyone, but that very fact demonstrates an important point. Just as the loss is ambiguous, so are the rules that govern dealing with the loss. Therefore, the person or persons grieving will often have to cast a wide net to obtain the information that allows them to (prayerfully) synthesize for themselves a way forward. Such input can come from psychological professionals, family/cultural traditions, and their faith community.

In another case history, Dr Boss points out a fact that in hindsight is rather obvious: ambiguous losses are cumulative. In other words, most of us will go through multiple losses that would fall into this category and ones that are not resolved adequately add to the mental load imposed by the later ones. This stacking of loss upon loss can mean that dealing with a current loss can easily turn into an archeological expedition digging up and healing old unresolved grief that is being triggered.

So what is my final evaluation? I would say that this book would be money well spent for anyone who is being troubled by uncertainty – and who isn’t these days? You won’t find in it pat answers or how-to “recipes.” What you will find is information that will help you understand, and come to grips with, what is going on in your life.

As I was finishing up this post, it occurred to be that right now the whole world is in the midst of dealing with a massive ambiguous loss – so ambiguous that we can’t even be sure what it is that we might have lost. I am speaking, of course, of the pandemic that may (or may not) be raging across the globe. Is this the greatest threat to civilization since the bubonic plague, a hoax thought up by a shadowy global elite to enslave mankind, or a biological warfare experiment that went horribly wrong? Whom do we trust for information? Friends, family, media that can be owned by the government that it is reporting on, or the proverbial “guy in a bar”? Due to the ambiguity inherent in this situation, these ideas, whether we believe them or not, can and do create question marks in our minds that we have to deal with.

And then there is the question of what we may (or may not) be losing, or be in danger of losing: our life or the life of a loved one, freedom, country, religion or perhaps something larger like our sense of community and trust? Clearly we all have a lot of work to do.

In Christ, Amen ☩


A prayer for when you are feeling uncertain…

“Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe. It is right that I should at all times and in all circumstances bless You for the certitude that You provide. But today I want to bless you especially for ambiguity. You are at once the central exclamation point of my life and the biggest question mark. There are so many things of which I can be absolutely certain, but at the same time so many things about You that are (to use the theological term) mysteries. Lord, help me to learn to be comfortable resting in the mysteries of who You are, and give me Your words to reach out to others. Amen”

Which Way is Up? (Part 2)

This post describes, in part, the effects of a degenerative neurological condition called Huntington’s Disease. Any negative behavior on the part of my wife should be attributed to that condition. Any negative behavior on the part of myself should be attributed to my need for God’s ongoing grace.

This week has been hard. The new medication is helping a bit with Janet’s chorea and she is sleeping like a baby every night. However, other issues are continuing to worsen. The anger has been much more pronounced and she is very demanding in terms of what to do and the order in which to do it. Our daughter Frannie, understands that when Mom changes her mind and gets angry, that it is the HD. But on some level, she doesn’t care anymore. She just wants Mom to hear her and believe what she says. For myself, everything that I hear about on the news seems in a lot of ways be our home dynamic playing out on the world stage.

It occurred to me that maybe all the news readers have HD, or Alzheimer’s or something and that is why they can never get the stories right. But no, that’s crazy, right?


A long time ago (or at least what feels like a long time ago) my second post to this blog was titled, “Which Way is Up?”. That post was supposed to be about some of the disorienting changes that took place in our lives after Janet got her diagnosis. Although it started off that way, the post quickly developed a mind of its own and wandered off in another direction – which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It did, however, leave this topic unresolved and recently I have seen a lot of newbies on the support forums who are struggling with this transition. Consequently, I’m circling back to give a little more of a voice to this early time in our HD journey.

After Janet got her diagnosis, we moved back to Ohio pretty quickly so her first real HD appointment was going to the Center of Excellence at the University of Ohio Medical Center. During that first appointment we understandably had hundreds of questions about the disease and the sort of care that would be needed. So someone advised that a great way to get our questions answered would be to attend a local support group meeting, and we arranged to go to the next one. Unfortunately, no one spoke to us to prepare us for the meeting, or help us to set our expectations.

Their group at that time had a couple late-stage patients attending. Needless to say, we were totally unprepared for what we saw, and we went home terrified – each for our own reasons. At that time Janet’s major physical symptom was that her feet were twitching at night. She couldn’t imagine needing to be strapped into a wheelchair so her convulsions wouldn’t throw her out if it. For myself, I had no idea how to care for someone with that level of need.

When, a few years later, we had gathered enough courage to attend another meeting – this time in Texas – we were better prepared and understood things much better. First, we understood that everyone with HD is on their own journey. Some have extreme chorea, some have hardly any. Some slowly forget everything about their previous life and drift off into a kind of non-being, some become so emotionally disturbed that they must be committed to an asylum. Still many things are common for most, like anger or perseveration.

Which, by the way, brings up another good point. If you are a caregiver for someone with HD you will be learning a new language. I know your neurologist appears to speak the same language you do, but in fact they are speaking a specialized dialect called “doctor”. So you will be learning a lot of new words – like perseveration. Over the coming years, you will also be earning a minimal degree in nursing as you learn to deal with your loved one’s daily medical and personal care needs. And that’s to say nothing of all of what you will learn about how the medical systems in your country work, which it should be no surprise, is very different from the way the politicians tell us they work.

My advice? Get a notebook and keep notes of everything you hear and learn. There will be a test on it later.

During this time, I also learned the real meaning of the term “degenerative”. It means that often today, no matter how bad it may be, today may be the best day that Janet will have for the rest of her life. I also learned that “degenerative” can be a kind of perverse blessing in that as Janet slowly grew worse and worse, I had the time to grow up and grow into my new role. If you are the caregiver, there will be days when you want to give up and surrender or simply give in to the anger, depression and anxiety. While I could tell you to not give in because it doesn’t work, I won’t bother because everyone does from time to time – or they do until they learn for themselves that it doesn’t work.

So does anything help? Yes. Prayer (constant and unending), counselling (to help you learn), fellowship (to gain perspective) and medications (to get you through the rough patches) – these can all help.

The thing that has been the hardest for me to remember is that who Janet and I were 12 years ago, is gone. But as bad as it has been for me to watch what Janet has gone through, I can’t begin to imagine the horror of being her, and everyday feeling some piece of who you are, slip away through your fingers.

When Janet and I first got married, there were many things that I didn’t understand about Janet’s personality. However, Janet came from an abusive home environment so I thought that eventually Janet would come to learn that in this relationship, at least, she was valued and treasured. But that never happened. I learned instead about Huntington’s Disease, and I learned that her father wasn’t just abusive, he was sick. Finally, I learned that Janet had the same illness, and many of the same symptoms.

So, I guess, I have made peace with the way things are. Or at least I have made peace to the degree that peace is possible. How does one ever make peace with seeing the one you love disappearing before your very eyes, yet while their body continues to exist. I have heard that this process is called “Ambiguous Loss” because your loved one is gone, but then again, they aren’t. One of the things that I have consistently tried to express throughout this blog, is that there is no going back. Who you were and who they were, no longer exists.

Given all this doom and gloom, there are those around me who, like Job’s “friends”, seem to suggest that I should just curse God and die. In addition, there are those that claim that HD is unequivocal proof that God does not exist, or if He does exist he is in reality a demon. But I reject both arguments. I reject them because, as I’ve explained before in the blog, they start from faulty assumptions about the world. But just as important, while there are many dark places where I am traveling right now, there are also many bright spots. While some of those bright spots are the many wonderful programs and facilities that are available to support you and your loved one, for me though the brightest spots are always the people. On the support forums, God has gathered together many, many really good people. For example, there are people from the USA, the UK, Australia and Italy that I have never met face to face, but who, if it came right down to it, I would nevertheless trust with my life. In addition, the internet is global in scope so if you have a problem, someone is always awake, no matter what the local time is for you.

So there is my message for the newcomers: have faith, learn as much as you can, don’t stress over letting go of things that you can’t hang onto and, to quote the line from the play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, “Fasten your seat belts. You’re in for a bumpy ride.”

In Christ, Amen ☩


A prayer for when you are new, confused and afraid…

“Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe. It is right that I should at all times and in all circumstances bless You for Your love and presence. But today I want to bless you especially for not abandoning the world that you created perfect, but which, today, has so many problems. Thank you for living among us as “Emmanuel”. Thank you for using me to help heal the brokenness in this world. Show me the way forward. Amen”

Puppy Dogs and Unicorns

This post describes, in part, the effects of a degenerative neurological condition called Huntington’s Disease. Any negative behavior on the part of my wife should be attributed to that condition. Any negative behavior on the part of myself should be attributed to my need for God’s ongoing grace.

The big news this week is that I got a call from Houston Hospice that Janet is stronger and so no longer qualifies for their services! While that is good news, there appears to be a little confusion. I was called by Jan’s hospice nurse Friday morning and was told at that time that Jan no longer qualified. Then Friday afternoon the same nurse came by the house and not only failed to mention her status change (which the nurse told me on the phone she would) but went on to tell Janet that she was going to get evaluated for PT under hospice next week – what?

Beyond that, there is a new symptom that I don’t think I have mentioned. She has suddenly started needing to know exactly where I am every minute. For instance, if I go to get her something at the store she will call me once while I’m on my way, at least once while I am there, and again as I’m on my way home. Not sure what that is about, but it’s not worth stressing over.

I remember the very first time I saw Janet. It was at a restaurant called “Friendly’s” that was across from Symphony Hall in Boston. As I explained previously, we met through a newspaper ad that I ran, so I didn’t know what she looked like. Unfortunately, I have to admit that the first thing that ran through my mind when I saw her was, “Man, she’s short.” But she packed a lot into a small package. From Friendly’s, we walked to a Thai restaurant that was around the corner, to have dinner. There I learned that she had just recently left teaching due to layoffs. She had also traveled internationally, visiting England, Scotland, and France – and liked trying new things like Thai food. Before saying goodnight, I remember thinking, “Yeah, this one is special. I’ll be calling this one back. Definitely.”


The first thing I need to say this week, is that the title above is a bit of a red herring as this post has absolutely nothing to do with either puppy dogs or unicorns. Rather, the title is a bit of dark humor that I will explain later. In fact, one of the things that I enjoy most about writing is being able to draw connections between seemingly disparate things, and in so doing, expose larger patterns in the world. However, making the connections that I have in mind this week won’t require much imagination at all.

Lately there has been a lot of conversation about being a “warrior” – I even wrote about it myself a few weeks ago. The problem is that there are two sides to everything, and being a warrior is no exception. There are the strong, heroic images of warriors in armor battered and bruised, but victorious! We love seeing those kinds of pictures where we can imagine ourselves or a loved one in the heroic role.

But another side also exists that is not so pleasant to consider. In addition to the prize that goes to the victor, there is also the price that the warrior has to pay in order to gain the victory. In the real world, all-out battle can sometimes extract a heavy toll in the form of a physical injury or disability, while at other times the injury is emotional or psychological in nature.

Yes, being an HD caregiver can be dangerous.

“Wait, what? Caregivers? I thought you were
talking about military veterans!”

What I’m talking about is a condition called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, and to be honest, up until a few years ago PTSD was for the most part only considered in terms of either the military or first-responders like the police, firefighters and EMTs. However, recent research is showing that anyone can feel the effects of PTSD, from little children to grandparents, and one of the top sources of PTSD in the civilian population is being a caregiver for someone with a long-term debilitating illness like HD.

Unfortunately, this condition is something I know about. I was diagnosed with it about 4 years ago as a result of my military service and something else that I will talk about later. In terms of the military, I was in the United State Air Force and my last duty assignment was in the Strategic Air Command, or SAC, where I was Radio Maintenance, or RM, flying on what was called the Airborne Command Post. One of our EC135s was in the air 24/7/365 for more than 5 decades. At the same time, we had crews standing by on ground alert, but we all had the same mission: Wait for WWIII to start, and if it did, fight it regardless of cost. To be clear, I in no way regret my service. It was the dedication of military men and women on both sides of the “Iron Curtain” that kept WWIII from ever happening. Since you are here reading this, it’s clear that our mission was a success. But for me personally, there was a cost: an inability to sleep, a trashed marriage, depression, emotional and social isolation, accentuated startle response, and flashbacks when fire alarms went off unexpectedly.

The thing that saved me was when God brought Janet into my life. She helped me see beyond the old pain and start healing by making it safe for me. She was also one of the few people I have met who fully understood what I was doing in SAC. She used to call me her hero for helping to protect her. Unfortunately, Janet is now dying of HD, and the stress is slowly bringing back the old symptoms – and a few new ones to boot. Recently, a fellow wrote on one of the HD support forums about the changes that his wife had started going through. I told him that, “…being a caregiver feels at times like you are literally living in a war zone.” Some days it takes an act of God for me to get to work and stay connected to the world around me.

But what is PTSD actually and what are the major symptoms? To answer that questions, you remember seeing this list online anywhere? This is PTSD symptoms in a nutshell.

For a more formal evaluation, I have also found an excellent website by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, or the ADAA. This link is to the section specifically on PTSD. In addition to the quality of information, the other thing I like about this site is that it (like this blog) has a menu that allows you to select the language in which to display the contents, from Afrikaans to Zulu.

To help you gain insight into either your own condition or the condition of a loved one, there is an online evaluation you can take. Unlike other online tests I have seen, the result of filling out the form isn’t an answer, but rather an opportunity to print out your answers with a recommendation to see a doctor and share the results. In other words, you are pushed to get evaluated by a doctor, which is the responsible thing to do.

Unfortunately, that simple step can be the hardest. A friend from the UK recently told me that the waiting list for obtaining psychiatric therapy with the NHS was 2 years and even when you do get to see a doctor, according to my friend, “…they just want you to pop pills, it’s cheaper.” However, while pills may help you through a crisis, they are not a long-term solution, and what we need is a solution not for the next few hours or even the next month or so. We need a solution for the rest of our lives because the trauma that causes our PTSD doesn’t get better or go away. Like all our experiences, the trauma becomes part of who we are.

So if we can’t depend on “the system” to take care of us and our PTSD, what can we do? The option we have left is self-care, which obviously starts with awareness. Of all the posts I have read on the HD, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s support groups I have yet to see even one that talks about PTSD and identifies it correctly. As caregivers we need to educate ourselves on this condition and be sharing with one another what we have learned. We need to be talking about it and sharing our stories of success and failure. We need to own what is going on inside our heads because if we don’t, it will own us.

The other thing we need to do is set reasonable expectations. There will be days when we are doing well, and there will be days when the old dragon will unexpectedly awaken, and we will have to respond – like a couple months ago when my sister was getting ready to welcome her 18th grandbaby, a boy. The other source of trauma that I didn’t mention earlier was that my second wife and I lost our first child, a boy, when he was three days old. In short, when I heard that my niece had gone into labor, my mind went into a tailspin and all I could hear was the beeping of the fetal monitor and the doctor saying over and over again, “The baby’s in trouble… heart rate is dropping… heart rate is dropping… heart rate is dropping…”

Physically, I was sitting at my desk at work, but mentally and emotionally I was in that delivery room 40 years ago. I was totally blindsided by something that I thought I had resolved decades ago. But the fact of the matter is that no one can ever say I used to have PTSD. The dragon may be asleep or quiet for a time, but it is never gone. No matter how “resolved” you think things are, there will be times when it will stretch out its serpentine neck and try to push you to the limit. We need to always be ready to counter those attacks using the same weapons of grace and faith that got us through the original trauma – especially if you don’t think it was grace that got you through originally.

So for me, reading the forums and answering questions is hard, and writing this blog can be very hard – but I soldier on because I know that each obstacle surmounted strengthens my faith, makes my vision clearer, and enlarges my heart. In fact, that is where the title of this post came from. The other day I was talking with someone about this post and I cried out at one point, “God, why can’t I just once write about puppy dogs and unicorns?” Giving this post that title is basically my military sense of humor kicking in to say to PTSD: you may always be part of me, but you are not me, screw you. (I’m no John Howard, but it works for me…)

In Christ, Amen ☩


A prayer for when your past comes calling unbidden…

“Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe. It is right that I should at all times and in all circumstances bless You for the ways that you make all things new. But today I want to bless you especially for this thorn in my flesh. Thank you for using my past to make me stronger. Sometimes it hurts so much that I would rather hide away, but you have shown me again and again that when I am at my weakest, you are at your strongest. Thank you for not letting my life be ruled by random chance. Thank you for giving me the experience, skill and wisdom that will make me useful to you. Show me how to reach out to others despite my wounds. Amen”

Letting Go…

This post describes, in part, the effects of a degenerative neurological condition called Huntington’s Disease. Any negative behavior on the part of my wife should be attributed to that condition. Any negative behavior on the part of myself should be attributed to my need for God’s ongoing grace.

Resuming where we left off last week…

A few weeks ago, Janet and I made the final arrangements to have her admitted to home hospice. It’s clear that Janet has been talking to Frannie because she now understands what “hospice” really means: Mom is dying soon. The three of us spent a lot of time last night hugging and crying. This is a very hard time and “letting go” is becoming very real.

One of the things that I have learned over the years is that grieving is a complicated business. In 1969 a woman named Elisabeth Kübler-Ross came up with what she called the 5 stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). While her work has come under some criticism in more recent years, it doesn’t take a genius to see that degenerative conditions like HD, complicate things by requiring you to basically start the process over every morning, because every morning there is a little more of your loved one “missing”.

For me, grief has become an open sore that is constantly getting picked raw. Thus even on good days, I have noticed that I tend to have a very “thin skin”. It’s as though all my capacity to deal with the world is used up by the normal flow of the day. Consequently, even small problems can leave my emotional reserves “overdrawn” and throw me into a tailspin. I imagine that this is what the next few months are going to be like, until Janet actually passes – and probably afterwards too.

But that’s not the whole story. The fact is, no story is over until God has His say. I just finished a piece that I wrote for the church newsletter that consisted of some thoughts brought up by the classic Eagles song, Hotel California. Besides ending with The Greatest Guitar Duet in Rock-and-Roll History, its words tell a story that haunted me for a long time. The thing was, I lived in California for several years, but they weren’t good years. In fact, they pretty much stunk. During my time in SoCal, I made a lot of mistakes and went through a lot of changes that left me feeling empty inside. I got to thinking that since California was the problem, all I had to do was get back to who I was before I moved to California. Then things would be good again. Then my life would be back on track – as the song said:

“…I had to find a passage back to the place I was before…”

Unfortunately there was one small problem with that approach:

“…’Relax’ said the night man, We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like, But you can never leave!”

In other words, the hope of getting back to who I was when I left the hills of southern Missouri, was ultimately a false one. No matter how hard I tried, I could never leave behind me California and all the pain it represented. Eventually, though, I learned that the line I took as hopeless, really wasn’t. The point I was missing was that while its true that every experience permanently changes who I am (which is actually the point of the song), it’s also true that God uses the “stuff” I go through to help form me into what He wants me to be – and that includes something as tragic as the looming death of my beautiful Janet.

With that realization, I began to grasp the utter pointlessness of looking at past mistakes and life events from the standpoint of, “If only…”. The hard truth is that there is absolutely nothing that I can do to turn back the clock and undo my mistakes. As lawyers like to say, you can’t unring a bell, and as I know from my own experience, you can’t unmake mistakes. But just because I can’t do it, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. As a believer, all of those failures in my past are opportunities for God to step in with His redemption and grace. There is nothing that is so broken that God can’t fix it. Divorces, deaths, relationships, you name it – God can, and does, redeem it all.

In Latin, there is a motto that I have come to love: semper prorsum. It literally means: “always forward”.


I started out this blog a couple months ago by talking about a wedding in our family. As we now come to the end of the first phase of this blog – the “historical” part of this story, I can see a parallel between marrying someone and losing them to illness – which if you think about it shouldn’t be too surprising.

For example, we tend to think about both things in terms of events – weddings and funerals – when in reality they are processes that can start months or even years before the culminating event. For example, you don’t become united with a spouse all at once, rather you start drawing together the moment you first meet. In the case of Janet and I, that first meeting took place in a Friendly’s restaurant around the corner from Symphony Hall in Boston. Likewise, when you are losing a spouse or loved one to a terminal illness, the letting go doesn’t occur at the graveside. For us it started when we got the diagnosis of Huntington’s Disease sitting in Dr Cotugno’s office in Washington PA.

Another similarity is that, for both of these processes, the fact of what is going to ultimately happen starts as an intellectual concept that seems at first rather unreal despite our recognition that it will occur – someday. Then somewhere along the way, something happens that turns the ephemeral someday into the reality of today. For me, our wedding became “real” the first time I looked at Janet as we were doing something mundane like washing the dishes and I said to myself, “Yeah, I’m going to spend the rest of my life with that beautiful woman. I done good.” For our family, the point of grasping the full import of our impending loss came when we admitted Janet into home hospice and I said to myself, “Oh God, I’m not going to spend the rest of my life with this beautiful woman.”

One of the things that grief can do is turn your head around and keep you pointlessly fixated on the past. If only we had argued less, if only I had taken her dancing more, if only I had spent less time working away from home.

If only…

If only…

If only…

But you don’t find hope dwelling in the past because hope is about the future. It wasn’t so long ago that I couldn’t visualize tomorrow at all. When I tried to think about the future, all I saw was an endless string of dull, gray todays. Now I can sort of see to Christmas, which is good because we hear at Christmas one of God’s most beautiful names: Emmanuel – “God With Us”. This name assures us that God doesn’t stand back and view us in a detached way from some far-off heaven. Rather, God is committed to walking with His people as they walk through whatever dark valley that they must traverse.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol*, behold, You are there.

If I take the wings of the dawn,
If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,
Even there Your hand will led me,
And Your right hand will lay hold of me.

If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me,
And the light around me will be night,”
Even the darkness is not dark to you,
And the night is as bright as day.

* ”…make my bed in Sheol…” is a euphemism for dying.
Hence, the line means, “Even if I am dead, behold, You are there.”

In Christ, Amen ☩


A prayer for when you are viewing life in the rear-view mirror…

“Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe. It is right that I should at all times and in all circumstances bless You for your timeless love. But today I want to bless you especially for being by my side throughout the troubles of life. Please give me the faith to not reflexively obsess about past sins that I have confessed and You have long-since forgotten. Teach me to always “face front” as that is the only way that I can see where you are taking me. Amen”

Which Way is Up?

This post describes, in part, the effects of a degenerative neurological condition called Huntington’s Disease. Any negative behavior on the part of my wife should be attributed to that condition. Any negative behavior on the part of myself should be attributed to my need for God’s ongoing grace.

Resuming where we left off last week…

Even though Janet and I read together all the information on the web about HD, in the beginning I have to admit that I didn’t really grasp the significance of the disease. For several years, it really wasn’t too bad – in hindsight at least. At the time, of course, I was confused and had no idea how to deal with what was happening. Neither could I imagine what was coming.

Then one day all semblance of a normal marriage relationship went out the window as she got angry and started yelling that I was trying to drag her “down to hell” by sleeping in the same bed with her. Although it had been years since we had been “intimate”, she was suddenly concerned that I was divorced.

To make matters worse, she has began to experience something called perseveration. This symptom causes her mind would get stuck on an idea and she can’t let it go. One time she asked me if I had paid the rent 7 or 8 times over the course of an hour. Each time I answered that I had, and she accepted the answer – but only for 5 minutes or so and then she’d ask again.

But even as she got sicker and sicker, I tried to maintain the relationship with Janet as an anchor, a reference point of stability. One of the interesting dynamics in our marriage was that, as a math teacher, she was always very organized and believed in taking life one, carefully planned, step at a time. For myself, on the other hand, my personal motto has always been: “Just get started, inspiration will come!” Together, we had always made the differences work, but if she was no longer the smart, capable, organized and rational half of our team, what was left? And who was I?

As I write this, I am realizing how appropriate the image of an anchor truly is. Unfortunately, the anchor that I have counted on for so long is losing its hold on reality, and I feel adrift and rudderless. At times, I feel as though I don’t even understand my own mind, feelings or needs. Even as Janet’s anger becomes violent producing bruises on my chest and arms, I instinctively tell myself that despite what the doctors say, she really is OK – she HAS to be OK – so I must be the crazy one. Is this part of the grieving: resisting letting go of what was?

I know that it certainly ties into my fear of being alone. Looking back, I realize now how much of my life has been driven by that fundamental fear – and yet here I am again, facing a future of TV dinners and cold beds. In popular culture, there is the image of the crazy “cat lady” who lives as a recluse, alone with her 90 cats.

I wonder what the male equivalent (who doesn’t like cats) would be?

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Irrespective of whether you are on the path of grief yourself, or are witnessing someone else’s struggles, there is one thing that you need to grasp up front. It’s very easy to underestimate the power and range of grief. For example, it is possible to grieve for many things: a lost loved one, a lost career, lost youth, and so on. Likewise, grief is not simply feeling “sad” over the loss of someone or something, grief is no mere emotion. True grief shakes the mourner’s world to its very core because it calls into question their most basic assumptions about themselves and the world in which they live. Ironically, love can have the same effect, but whereas love calls us to reevaluate ourselves in relationship to others, grief highlights our isolation.

The next important point is that the opposite of “grief” is not “faith”. If the mourner is a Christian, one of the hurdles that they may have to get over is the idea that their pain means there is something wrong with them spiritually. They may think, “If I just had more faith, then I wouldn’t be feeling this way.” In response, they may go out and read books and inspirational tracts in an effort to force themselves to be more “faithful”. Unfortunately, such self-powered efforts almost fail because they are based on the faulty assumption that faith is something that I can generate on my own – all I have to do is grit my teeth hard enough.

The truth, however, is that faith is not human-generated. As Paul points out concerning faith in his letter to the Ephesians, “…it is not of ourselves; it is the gift of God…”. The bigger problem, though, is that the whole premise is flawed because grief is not even about a lack of faith. To see this, consider the story of Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus, and the one bible verse that every Sunday School kid learns by heart: “Jesus wept.” Regardless of how you interpret Jesus’ tears, Jesus could not (by definition) be faithless. His grief was a very real, very authentic part of His humanity, and so is ours.

For myself, the basic problem at this stage of our journey, was that I needed Janet to be healthy more than I needed me to be healthy. After more than 30 years together, I only recognized myself as part of that relationship, that marriage. I was scared witless that when she died, I would in some way disappear too. I felt alone and disconnected. Even in church, I often felt like the odd man out because the people who were paying attention and saw my pain often just sat with their hands folded hoping I wouldn’t look at them. Rare was the week where I didn’t break down in tears during the worship service.

Please don’t get me wrong, the people in the church I attend are not bad, heartless people. Like all the folks sitting in all the pews of all the churches in all the world, they are imperfect people saved by grace. They just didn’t know what to do, so out of fear for doing the wrong thing, they did nothing. Which, ironically, is the only thing worse than doing the wrong thing.

Still, sometimes I did get the support I needed. One Sunday was particularly hard and as usual I was crying quietly, when suddenly I felt arms wrap around my shoulders. The lady sitting behind me had seen my upset and reached over the back of the pew, put her arms around me and just held me for about 5 minutes until the tears stopped. She never tried to cheer me up or verbally reassure me. In fact, she never spoke at all: words weren’t needed.

Thinking back on that incident and others, I’ve come to realize what people that are grieving really need. Hint: it’s not the stuff you read if you try Googling, “How to comfort the grieving”. The problem with the advice that you get from sites written by psychological experts is that they concentrate on giving you lists of things to say and not to say. However, the result is that if you follow that advice you end up sounding like a “psychological expert” and not yourself.

When someone is grieving openly in church or elsewhere, they are expressing an openness that is seldom seen in other situations. They have given up all pretext of maintaining composure or proper public decorum and their inner emotional state is on display for the whole world to see. What they need, more than anything, is for the people with whom they interact to show the same level of openness. Or to put it another way, they are crying from their heart, so they need you to be reaching out to them from your heart. (Please read this paragraph again.)

One of the most wonderful examples of this type of expression was my oldest daughter when she was a toddler. If she saw someone crying in church, she would go and climb up on the pew next to them, take their hand and cry with them. At that age, she didn’t understand why the person was crying, but she didn’t need to. Many times that simple act opened up the person so they could start talking about their pain – the first step in healing.

The real name for this type of expression is “authenticity”. Speaking from personal experience, I can assure you that people who are grieving have enough on their plate that we don’t have the energy to try and figure out right and wrong. Thankfully, being authentic isn’t that complicated, just look into your heart and say or do what you find that God has put there.

And don’t sweat saying the wrong thing. I would rather hear one statement that didn’t come out “quite right” but was said from the heart, than a 1000 psychologist-approved platitudes that you don’t mean.

In Christ, Amen ☩

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A prayer for when you aren’t sure what is real or true…

“Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe. It is right that I should at all times and in all circumstances bless You for who You are. But today I especially want to bless You for being real. Sometimes the world seems so full of inauthentic people and situations that I feel like I’m lost in a carnival fun-house. So, thank you for the people in my life who are willing to reach out and feed my soul from the bounty that you provide. And when I am unsure and don’t know which way to turn, please remind me that I can always depend on you. Amen”