“Courage is contagious. When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are often strengthened.” — Billy Graham
This was our Thought for the Day at work yesterday. It is such a noble and romantic thought, a lofty ideal. It sounds strengthening, team-inspiring, uplifting, and my posture changed as I read it. I straightened and sat tall and felt empowered, felt brave. And then I remembered, I’ve done that many times. I’ve taken a stand, I’ve spoken out, stood for the right — when another was bound and determined to take me down and prove me wrong, I’ve stood. And … I stood alone. Every time.
I respect and admire Billy Graham. I often stop as I flip through TV channels and watch a few moments of reruns of his old crusades. I even attended one — in September of 1971, I saw and heard Billy Graham in person at Texas Stadium, as construction was completing, one month before it officially opened for football.
But Billy is wrong here. This statement is not true.
My life experiences have proved over and over that this statement is not true. In the Christian ministry for 24 years, in the local church, in a position of leadership in a nonprofit, I have seen reality. Most people stand with the noise of the group — with the small-minded person who is pushing harder and louder to prove something and to achieve personal gain. Actually, most people are silent, which means they stand with the noise of the group. They don’t want to get involved, they don’t want to rock the boat, they want to protect their own butts, they want to be accepted … they don’t care about truth.
When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others mostly shrink to the shadows, fold up and hide. People don’t like conflict, so they flock to the one who creates it, hoping she’ll shut up and life can be normal again. People love to ride the popular wave, the one that knocks over and drowns the one who took the stand. People are little. People are shallow.
Billy, you live on the top of a mountain. Life on the plain is different.
People are spineless.
Life’s too short.
When it comes to paddling on a river, I can make my arms work, I can make myself move through the flow, I can get to the take out point. When it comes to words and sentences, I am out of the flow, sitting on the bank, looking at a white screen that has the potential for paragraphs and pages. There’s a “strainer” somewhere in my mind, keeping me from moving forward. A strainer is a downed tree, a beaver dam, some huge object in a river that clogs the pipeline. It’s a dangerous thing for a kayaker, to be avoided, as the water pressure through a strainer can be intense, trapping boats and paddlers, while the water flows fast through it. Somewhere in my brain there’s a strainer, and its grid of twigs and branches has trapped my creative attempts to lay out words across the page, to tell a story, to even think, design, and craft words and sentences.
I feel as though I’ve lost my boat. I wish to find a way around this dam of debris that holds me back.
The Narrows of the Harpeth is an easy jaunt west of Nashville to Kingston Springs. The Harpeth River was flowing at 79 cfs Saturday — a quiet ride. But the water was always flowing — never still, and there were ripples and faster-moving places, so it made for an easy paddle. We went five miles.
It’s a pretty ride, with lots of shade, rope swings along the bank, small beachy areas, turtles sunning on branches in the water, and some high rocky cliffs along the way.
It was my baptism into kayaking. I’ve canoed, but I wanted a one-man boat, and the Heritage Featherlite 9.5 fit the bill. It will fit inside my Outback and is fairly easy to maneuver at just under 40 pounds. The cockpit is wide, too, which makes it stable.
I had two experienced kayakers showing me the ropes, both who deal with whitewater in North Carolina. Leah teaches the sport at UNCA.
I hit a few shallow rocky places — my boat now has a tiny gash! — and I got carried to the bank, but I got the hang of it and loved the challenge of moving straight down the river and looking for the V and following the current. I love the water … and I’m hooked!
“If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.” — Milton Berle
Sunday before Labor Day at ten of six I embark on a journey south under moonlight. I’ve always wanted to take a trip in the country under a full moon. The Natchez Trace stretches out before me in curves, over hills — asphalt, grass, a treeline. The road narrows ahead, and an occasional leaf drops in front of me. I don’t see another car for the first fifty minutes. I watch the sky lighten and the morning clouds burn away. A coyote crosses the road, then another, a deer, bands of wild turkeys, vultures on the center line, a hawk flying toward me then lifting. The rising sun helps to clarify the world around me. It filters through the trees and throws its light across the road and lays stripes against the tree trunks. Against the texture of blue-green pine needles, the hardwoods are paling, thinning, and there is a smattering of yellow. Dogwoods are turning red. Sycamores look like succotash. They signal the change to come. Soon winds will whip the dropping leaves across the roadway and into the fields, and there will be cold air and earthy colors, then icy rain and barrenness — the end of the living season.
Bagworms hang on branches, some out over the roadway in my path, snuffing out the life of the tree. I don’t want to experience this ugly invader on my journey through pristine woods, but I am forced to look at these obstacles in my path.
Most of my life has been spent on the bank watching the river flow. The rest of my life, I have been knocked about by strong currents, thrown into the rocks. I want to get into the water and manage the flow.
I have a new Heritage Featherlite 9.5. Yellow.
Saturday before Labor Day I christen my new kayak in the Narrows of the Harpeth out near Pegram. At the Narrows you can park in one spot for the put in and take out because here the river makes a five-mile loop and the put in is barely four hundred yards from the take out, yet it’s a three-hour paddle. We launched from a steep ramp and stairs, and there I was. Alone, with a Werner paddle, yellow to match the boat. It’s one thing to be in a canoe with another person paddling. There’s a backup, I could take a break, I could rest and depend. Now every paddle, every obstacle, every strainer, every ripple is mine. We hit rippled water from the get-go. I angle my boat into the V and move with the current, then I hit an eddy and get pushed to the bank. I maneuver, I keep the boat straight, I get the feel of her. She’s a glider, she feels good in the water, she’s easy, I’m in love. The Harpeth River has a gentle flow here at 79 cfs with occasional ripples that bounce and carry me faster. I paddle in circles for practice, in shallow places I get pushed onto rocks, and I get carried toward other canoes and toward the bank, and I learn to rock my hips and keep my upper body still, to paddle in a rainbow, paddle deep, paddle hard, to keep on paddling even when it looks like the flow alone can take me through.
I follow the Natchez Trace to Tupelo, then take Highway 6 west to Oxford. Mama has been at the Missisippi State Home for Veterans for six days. For now, she needs heavy pain medication and management. She is still able to socialize and walk around and visit with others.
One year ago Mama was mowing her own yard and weed-eating and taking care of her flowerbeds. Then her pain hit. She has gone to doctor after doctor, from Cleveland to Memphis, and even a chiropractor, and no one was able to find the source of her pain. Actually, doctors don’t look for the source any more. They don’t even touch patients. You go in and tell them where you think your pain is and they give you medicine for that. So Mama presented with colon pain. She was tested and treated. No one thought to look further. I took Mama in and made her pull up her shirt and point to the pain. The doctor said, “Well, that’s not your colon.” So he X-rayed her hip, and her hip wasn’t fractured.
A simple rule I’ve learned over the years is that if you are in pain 24 hours a day and cannot sleep because of it and you are overdosing on Ibuprofen for some measure of relief that never comes, you have cancer.
Come to find out Mama has lung cancer that has metastasized to the bones and to the space between the lungs, and she probably has adrenal cancer, as well. And it might be in her brain. Her pain is getting stronger. She can’t stand any clothes touching the bones in her low back and thoracic area or against her ribs in front. She has cut into the waistband of all her pants to allow for more room. She said a chaplain told her she has three or four months. No one has told me that.
I am unable to cope with her impending death because I cannot get past the fact that she is in a nursing home. She was in pain, she was overdosing, she was unsafe at home, she needed 24-hour care, she got her diagnosis, and she got put in another town 120 miles away, in strange surroundings, among strangers. No one will visit her here, except close family, maybe once a week. No one from her hometown, or from the church where she’s been a member for sixty-three years. My head tells me she’s getting the care she needs.
My heart tells me she needs to be home. Home, where she can look out the front window and see Iva Lou’s old house and two big trees in the front yard, even though Iva Lou is in North Cleveland Cemetery. Home, where she can spend her days wandering about the wegelias, the roses, the hydrangeas, the crepe myrtles and pampus grass. The Carolina jasmine and the daylillies. Home, where she can spend her last nights in the front bedroom where she has slept for sixty years. Home, where she can get peace, comfort, and closure. And die in the same room my father did.
We’ve decided to take her home before the end. She hopes it is soon enough. So do I.
I just took a journey through grief after the loss of my husband. I’d been through the rough waters, the rapids, the rushing whitewater pulling me up the river; I didn’t know where I was going, but I got there. I had just arrived in calm waters. I was beginning to laugh and experience life again and to want more out of life. The kayak was a gift to myself, to a new and different, wild and crazy life.
Now this with Mama. And the familiar journey begins again. I recognize that tingling in the backs of my arms, the heaviness of my legs as I try to put one foot in front of the other and walk, the shallow breaths I am forced to take, and the head pointed down, chin on collar bone — the posture of grief. My pain centers in my neck, and I am drawn to the bottle of Ibuprofen, and it doesn’t help much.
Once again, I am swept away by the current. I need to remember to paddle.
It’s Thursday, and the little blue mark on my thumbnail is fading.
I first noticed it through a blur of tears Sunday morning when I put my hands on the steering wheel at “ten and two” and headed north up Highway 61 — the road stretched out straight and flat ahead of me, tall signs and neon flashing red. I had been crying aloud and begging for answers since I said good-bye to my mother and drove away from Deering Street and the house of my childhood. “How do I leave the home I grew up in, the only ‘home’ I’ve ever known?” “How do I leave my mother, knowing I won’t see her standing at the front door waving, ever again?” “How do I bear this pain?”
On Monday morning my mother would be leaving her home of 60 years. My sister would be driving her to the State VA Home in Oxford, Mississippi, where she will have around-the-clock help and palliative care. Only, my mother didn’t know that yet. I’d spent four days trying to assure her that we would make sure she had 24-hour care and we’d always be there for her. I couldn’t even assure myself that things would be okay.
In gathered times when I could catch some private moments, I’d wash her clothes and label them LH with a blue fine-point Sharpie and pack them in a black suitcase. And with every item I lay in a stack, I’d sob, “Please, God, forgive me.” And I knew I’d never forgive myself.
Mama has lung cancer that has metastasized. She also has dementia — or is it really cancer in her brain mimicking the symptoms of dementia? I believe the latter. There’s no good answer to our dilemma of how to care for her. There’s no solution I like. There’s just damn nothing.
Oh, to be an “unfeeling rock,” as Young expresses it in The Shack.
Even with me in the house right beside her, she overdosed on her pain medications and put two patches on because she didn’t remember that one had already been placed. She warmed up her leftover Captain D’s catfish in a skillet and got involved with another task and left the eye on, and the fish burned and the smoke alarm went off. It is time to put safety first.
For my heart, it will never be time.
The blue spot may fade from my fingernail, but it will never go away from my heart.