Things Change

We have come to what was once called a “nursing home” in Mayfield, Kentucky, to visit Mom on a beautiful Easter morning. The knot that has been forming in my gut for the last thirty minutes twists tighter as we walk down the hall to her room.

She is sitting in her wheelchair, wearing a blue dress. Her hair is neatly combed and fastened up behind her head. She has cleaned her breakfast plate, unusual for her this last year or so. That lack of appetite is vividly reflected in the fact that she now weighs less than ninety pounds. If her spirit continues its current cohabitation for another few months, she will be ninety-nine years old.

Not much of the past few years could rightly be called living. She hasn’t recognized me in over two years. She shows not even the slightest bit of emotive response when Randa and I walk into her room. I tell her that it’s Easter morning and have to repeat the statement two more times. Mom gives up on understanding what that means and shakes her head a couple of times.

I take a seat on the bed, right beside her and Randa sits beside me. “Do you want to drink some of your juice?” I ask Mom, picking up the small glass on her tray. “What?”

I repeat the question and lift the glass toward her mouth. “What is that?” she asks and I tell her that it’s apple juice. “What?” I repeat, louder, “Apple juice.” She barely touches it to her lips and takes a tiny taste. I put the glass back on the tray and she comments, “That’s sweet,” but she has no interest in any more of it.

She keeps staring down at her feet, lifting them up over the bar of the rolling stand, studying them as if trying to figure out to whom they belong and why they are attached to her legs. Or maybe she’s puzzled about the shoes. Her legs are thin and bony and covered with bluish marks. I look up from her legs and look at her hands.

Swollen by arthritis, her knuckles seem huge, exaggerated by the loss of weight. Or maybe it’s not exaggeration, just harsh truth without the deception of surrounding flesh.

From time to time, in between the times of asking me if I have a big family and where we live, she repeats, “Things have changed.” After a few minutes of nearly shouting to try to help her understand what I’m saying, I give up. She isn’t able to answer in a coherent fashion anyway. In a little while, I tap Randa on the knee and nod my head toward the door. Just then, Mom reaches over and lays her hand on my left arm. I quickly put my right hand over hers. Her flesh is cold and soft and I rub my fingers lightly over hers.

We sit like that for several minutes. Mom continues to inspect her feet, shake her head slowly and say again, “Things change.”

Finally, I tell her that we’ve got to go. She seems startled and sad. “You’ve got to leave?” As I stand, she begins pushing herself up out of the wheelchair. Randa and I look at each other, surprised and unsure of what we should do. Mom walks carefully over to the door, gripping the edges of chairs, cabinets, doorframe. A couple of nurses come over to us. Mom reaches up to hug me and the twist in my gut rises up to my throat. I manage to keep the sounds stifled but I cannot stop the heaving of my sobs. I kiss her and turn away so she cannot see my face.

Somehow, even though she showed no recognition of me or Randa or of the names of the siblings when I asked if she’d seen them, there was some sense of connection. Something in her made her reach over and lay her hand on my arm, some deeply buried sense of emotional attachment pulled her up out of that chair. Not even the fierce silence of dementia has yet been able to erase all notion of affection, no matter how little else of cognition remains.

“Things change.” And one day, that change will set the spirit free from the body the mind has already left. And One Day, my mother and I will be together again, and she will know it.

H. Arnett

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Earth Day, 2014

Our dairy and crop farm in Todd County, Kentucky, was on the Farm Bureau “Model Farms” tour when I was growing up. Dad operated a Grade A dairy with a purebred registered Jersey herd. We didn’t have a weedless farm but the pastures were well tended, the row crops cleanly cultivated and the hay harvested in a timely manner. Nearly all of the clutter was kept out of the sight of passersby and I learned at an early age the importance of stewardship and attention to detail. Detail is pretty blasted important when you’re cleaning milk-handling equipment; people’s health and safety depend on it.

All of that care for the condition of the place evaporated in just a few years after Dad sold it in 1967. The new owners simply lacked a deeply rooted sense of pride and devotion, I suppose. After a feed company’s huge blunder killed most of their Holstein herd and a successful lawsuit against said company, they allegedly got enough money that they didn’t need to work any more. So… they didn’t.

I last visited the farm back in the early Eighties; I may very well never go back there again. The fields were full of thistles and the holding lot by the barn had been relocated to where the runoff drained into the pond. Junk cars were parked all around the house and the barns were falling down. Weeds grew to the height of a grown man within twenty feet of the house. Fields had been plowed straight down the slopes and clear to the edge of the creek. The water in that creek was clear and pure enough to drink when I was a boy; now it was dingy and murky.

I wish there was some sort of Legacy Law or something that required subsequent owners to maintain the same degree of care and attention, something to preserve what was good and right about a place, some sort of stipulation that if you cannot maintain good stewardship, you forfeit ownership. But, of course, we all know that in our culture and many others as well, owning a thing often brings no accompanying legal obligation to take care of it.

I believe that one Day, though, we will all have to give an account for our stewardship. I believe that there will be a Reckoning. In the meantime, I’m a bit more careful about what I throw away, what I recycle and what I fix so it can be used a while longer. I can’t control much of the earth and I can’t determine how my children and grandchildren will respond to the things that I pass on to them. But I believe that I should try to assure that those things, including the planet itself, are in good condition at the time of the passing.

H. Arnett

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A Pretty Good Day

A warm, sunny day,
miles of dogwood, wild plum, pear and redbud
in full Kentucky spring,
breakfast with my brother from Ohio
and my sister from North Carolina,
a tire repair that cost three dollars
instead of ten,
grocery shopping with my son,
showing him how to use a froe
to split oak into shingles,
the detail in a colored picture
drawn by my granddaughter,
watching my grandson wearing
his birthday shirt and using
his new magnifying glass
to burn holes in dead leaves,
my daughter and daughter-in-law
making Easter dinner a day early,
nineteen of us having a meal together,
ten grandkids hunting Easter eggs,
holding three new grandsons under six months old,
reading to two granddaughters on my lap,
the adults watching an old favorite movie
after the kids have been put to bed,
and a hundred other fresh memories
that speak of grace and goodness.

H. Arnett

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Deadly Combination

Hatred and stupidity is a damnably dangerous combination. It’s not that either one of them on its own lacks for potential damage or disaster but putting them together takes the risk factor right off the charts. We had another fine example this weekend over at Kansas City in the Overland Park area.

All of the alleged facts in the following allegations are allegedly based on published sources. The opinion parts are my own insertions.

A seventy-three-year-old former head of a Ku Klux Klan unit, after many decades of hating people for one superfluous reason or another, apparently decided it was time for more than speeches and cross-burnings. So, he grabs the guns which should have been pried from his cold dead fingers long ago and heads over to the Jewish Community Center and shoots a grandfather and his grandson. If you’re in the parking lot at a Jewish Community Center, you must be Jewish, right? Surely you wouldn’t just be a couple of Gentiles showing up for a Scout meeting.

That being just a start and it being such a lovely day and all, he then headed over to Village Shalom senior living center and shot a female victim there. What better way than to celebrate Palm Sunday than by going out and shooting a few Jews, right? I mean, just because Jesus taught us to love our enemies and do good for those who abuse us, we can’t let that get in the way of a little religious fervor, right? Never mind that these people weren’t enemies in the first place and had never abused the shooter or anyone else that we know of, demented religiosity can’t be bothered by trivia like that.

As it turns out, and this is where stupidity strips off its raincoat and runs around the stadium completely naked, none of the victims were Jewish. That’s right, folks, our shining white supremacist shot three Christians. Never mind that Christians have a long and proud tradition of killing each other, that’s beside the point here; this guy was supposed to be killing Jews.

When hatred and stupidity infiltrate a religion, or more accurately, use religion to infiltrate our minds and hearts, we turn into monsters. Regardless of who or what we hate. It is no wonder that Scripture warns us to take caution in judging others and to be especially careful about feeling superior to others. Even others as stupid and hateful as Frazier Glenn Cross or F. Glenn Miller or whatever his name is…

H. Arnett

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Dark Changes

On Friday evening, I brought out a couple of our lounge chairs on the patio and we sat out there for a little while, enjoying the evening’s warmth. On Saturday, Randa took her horse to a training clinic near Ottawa, Kansas. I spent the morning and early afternoon doing spring chores and took a load over to the re-cycling center at St. Joseph. Mid-afternoon, it was so balmy that I took a break from installing a door in the garden shed.

I had my friend Neil come over and document me “Taking the Plunge for Landon” in Peter’s Creek. The creek water didn’t feel like a sauna session but it was certainly a lot better than Neil and Katrena’s jump into a cold pond a few days earlier when it was only fifty degrees or so outside. There probably wasn’t a lot of difference in the jumping in part but the getting out part is definitely better when it’s seventy-eight and sunny.

The sunny part ended in the evening on Saturday when a very slow-moving storm moved in with the sunset. We had a really fine lightning show that lasted for three hours or more with more thunder during the night. On Sunday, we had more rain on a long gray day that seemed to drag on forever.

This morning, we have a light covering of snow on the ground and a forecast for a hard freeze tonight. A few days can sure make a lot of difference in the weather in a place where it seems it can be so fickle. But it’s nothing to compare to the changes a few days made almost two thousand years ago in a city halfway around the planet from here.

There, thousands of people turned out on a First Day morning for a huge celebration welcoming a humble prophet from the countryside, a man of compassion and wisdom who had healed thousands. A few days later, they nailed him to a tree.

H. Arnett

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Blessing for a Spring Morning

I hope that the calm stillness
of this day’s slow wakening
stays with you from dawn till darkness.

I hope that some good growing
will freshen in you
like tender buds opening on maple branches.

I hope that grace will flow for and from you
like the gentle waters of the creek
brushing against smooth stones.

I hope that your vision
will be clear and guileless
as a cloudless day.

I hope that you will feel
God’s own love and presence,
warm and reassuring like a gentle breeze.

I hope that you will find goodness and blessing
bringing hope as fresh as slender green branches,
bowing toward earth on the willow tree,

testifying that the work of God
is being born in all creatures,
in all that lives.

And may it find its fullness in you.

H. Arnett

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A Whispered Kiss

Earlier this week, a few of my colleagues and I had occasion to observe short segments of several classes being taught by some of our adjunct instructors at our Wamego regional center. One of those was a math class that was scheduled to begin at five p.m. that afternoon.

When we entered the room a few minutes early, several students were already seated and the teacher was doing some review work on the board. As we filed in, we couldn’t help but notice two small children seated at one of the long tables beside a woman whom we presumed to be their mother.

The little boy looked to be about five and his sister about three. Both were coloring but the little boy was already fidgeting. I looked at the middle-aged woman seated behind them for any expression of annoyance; I saw none. Still I wondered how long it would be before the children became a distraction for the adult students in the room.

A few minutes later, a young man appeared in the doorway and walked quietly in without looking at the teacher. “So,” I thought, “you come in late without a book, a notebook, or any indication whatsoever of any preparation for class.” As I watched, though, my initial impression began to change dramatically. He wore a blue industrial work shirt with a name patch above the pocket on the left. His clothing, face and arms were streaked with dirt and grease and his expression, body language and manner of walking clearly conveyed a man who had worked a full shift on a long day.

He walked silently to the third table. As he knelt beside the small children, their faces brightened; the boy grinned broadly and the little girl beamed at him. He began quietly gathering up their crayons, books and markers and sliding them into a pack. As he was kneeling and busily stuffing away their belongings, the little girl, tiny and bright-eyed looked up directly into his face. Without a word, she kissed her fingers and then patted her kiss onto the side of his face.

I won’t presume to know what that simple gesture meant to him but I suspect that all the tiredness of a long day at the shop suddenly faded away and he knew that every moment of his life was worth all that he had done.

I do know that I felt as if God himself had just breathed on me.

H. Arnett

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