Word by word, step by step

I first saw Loretta at the dysphagia table in the hospital.

She was helping a stroke patient with his lunch. Dressed in white, she could have been any number of the nurses or aides who roamed the hallways and rooms of the acute care unit.

Eight stroke patients sat in a semi-circle, eating as best they could, and as I fed dad his food, I watched her from the corner of my eye.

As life draws to an end, compassion is more important than food.

She was different somehow. Older, yes, but also more caring than the many medical professionals in this unit who seemed callous performing their duties. She was present. She encouraged. She listened.

I was still learning who was who in the maze of dad’s care, while every day, mom and I and my brother would trek to the hospital.

There, we encouraged him out of the labyrinth of darkness into which he had entered after his stroke. Helped him move with the walker, encouraged him to speak words. And fed him. Stroke patients often have trouble swallowing — dysphagia.

So we sat with dad at breakfast, lunch and dinner at that table. Helping him eat. Spoonful by spoonful. Even though he would often use his knife with the pudding or his fork with the apple juice.

We had entered a strange world of shadows, one which had little light.

Until Loretta entered dad’s hospital room that next day.

She announced herself as the speech therapist, someone who would be helping dad regain vocabulary and communication. She sat next to him as he lay on the bed, was patient with him as he stared at her, trying to connect.

toddler-walkingSlowly, the journey began with Loretta and dad’s speech.

After he left the hospital, I would drive dad for his bi-weekly sessions with her, load him up in the wheelchair and push him through the hallways of the hospital to her office. There, in that cramped space for an hour I watched as she led dad, step by step, word by word.

He was a toddler, learning to maneuver vocabulary again.

She’d ask him questions. Ask the day, month, year. Engage him in conversation. And ask him to pray, understanding how much his life had been centered around God and faith, how rote prayers often return in speech.

A first-generation Mexican-American, dad spoke Spanish first. She said that often a first language kicks in for some people. I speak some, so I would talk to dad in Spanish.

Then Loretta began to learn more of dad’s story from me, that he had been a professional and inspirational speaker, how he had helped thousands with the speeches he gave around the world.

It seemed cruel that God would take away the one gift he valued.

After six months, dad ended speech therapy. But my friendship with Loretta was beginning.

Over the last four years, we have remained connected. Strange how a tragedy can lead you to new people and heart spaces if you’re open. We email when we can, have met for lunch and coffee when time allows. Share about our families. Pray for each other.

Today dad still has aphasia. The word “tortilla” seems to replace just about every other word and my heart smiles. But whereas he was silent before, he now forms sentences. Some days he is more lucid than others and for a few hours, I cherish the “old dad” remembering what he was like.

Letting-go21Yesterday, I had to have biopsies at the hospital. I emailed Loretta and asked for prayers.

As I lay on the table, waiting for the surgeon, anxious and terrified, Loretta surprised me by coming into the room. She’s a busy woman, with many patients to see.

She hugged me, kissed me on the cheek. She placed her hands on me and prayed and offered words of wisdom. She encouraged me to better self-care. I listened. And the last few months I have indeed been moving into more self-nurturing. Daily meditation, small walks, reconnecting with friends.

But just as dad has been a toddler, learning new words, I am still a toddler learning to love myself more.

I am teaching myself, step by step, to nurture that little girl who is often afraid, who simply wants to be acknowledged and loved. I can offer her that. I am.

bigstock-Woman-Silhouette-Waiting-For-S-5824100Now I wait for the results of the biopsies. And again, I struggle with staying present, in the moment, in faith and trust.

I attended a workshop a few years ago for people who were experiencing grief after the loss of a loved one. As everyone went around the room, sharing their stories that wrenched my heart, I heard each one say this, in varying ways:

“It didn’t feel OK. But I knew it was going to be OK. Even if it wasn’t.”

That’s what I believe now. It’s going to be OK, even if it isn’t.

And that, my friends, is grace.

As are the angels of light God sends.

All the lonely people

The diner was noisy and overcrowded. A friend and I finally found a booth next to the counter where three men sat, talking.

One was loud, his voice booming above the clamor of rattling plates, forks and knives as bus boys cleaned up tables.

He was perhaps in his late 60s, scruffily dressed, and he made his boisterous presence known.

“So there was my son, hurt and in a heap on the football field and my wife said, ‘That’s your fault. I didn’t want him playing this game.’ That was years ago when the kid was in high school. He’s got a high-falutin job in California and I never see him. And you know Rosemary died last year.”

The other two men lowered their heads. “Sorry, Jack,” they said and sipped their coffee.

Jack went on about the Super Bowl, asked the waitress behind the counter what team she was betting on and shared more of his life with the rest of us nearby, whether we wanted to hear it or not. He was retired, Vietnam war vet, and Eagles fan, depending.

Then Jack stood up, said goodbye to his friends, and left.

My heart went out to him as he walked unsteadily out the door.

loneliness-blog“He’s lonely,” I told my friend.

“He’s drunk,” my friend said.

Perhaps. But it didn’t matter to me. I saw a man who had a grown son living elsewhere, who had lost his wife and who was returning, most likely, to an empty home. Lonely. At least here, in this diner, he was visible. He was connecting with others. He had a place to belong.

At heart, I believe we are all lonely. It’s inevitable and part of the human experience.

I know I have been lonely in my life more times than I care to remember, especially when I’ve moved for jobs in new cities where I didn’t know a soul. Being shy and introspective didn’t make connection with others any easier.

Along the way, however, I’ve learned a few things about this human experience and one is that “being alone” and “loneliness” are not the same.

pain and sorrow womanMany times I enjoy being alone, without others. I like to spend quality “me” time doing things I enjoy. In fact, solitude often draws me closer to my spiritual center and to God. And when alone, I’ve learned to be comfortable with my own company, to treat myself with compassion.

Being lonely, however, is when I have that unsettling inner gnawing at my soul, a feeling of disconnection from others, an emptiness and emotional hunger that wants to be filled with any diversion as to avoid that pain.

Today, loneliness seems rampant. It seems we’d rather do anything other than face our loneliness. So we distract ourselves with Facebook, Twitter, TV or “whatever” it may be rather than face loneliness and ask what it has to teach us.

The late Henri Nouwen, spiritual writer and theologian, writes:

“When we have no project to finish, no friend to visit, no book to read, no television to watch…and when we are left all alone by ourselves, we are brought so close to the revelation of our basic human aloneness and so afraid of experiencing an all-pervasive sense of loneliness that we will do anything to get busy again and continue the game which makes us believe that everything is fine after all.”

So what do we do?

Perhaps we can transform our loneliness into solitude, a time to sense our oneness with God or all of creation. I’m sure many of us have stood in awe at a glorious sunrise, crashing waves, an unexpected rainbow, a majestic mountain range. We are all part of that glory so we are never truly alone.

If that doesn’t work, perhaps we might consider reaching out to others and helping them in their struggles. Offering a listening heart and hand to those in need is not such a bad idea during the times we feel lonely. And in the end, life has a strange way of giving back what we put out.

woman by door at oceanAnd sometimes, as uncomfortable as it may feel, we can simply “be” with that loneliness. We may choose to listen to what it has to teach us and know that as part of this human journey we share in that experience of loneliness — ironically — together.

In fact, loneliness and many other feelings we call negative can be great teachers, if we allow. Psychotherapist and spiritual counselor Matt Licata writes:

“Your sadness, your loneliness, your fear, and your anxiety are not mistakes. They are not obstacles on your path. They are the path. The freedom you are longing for is not found in the eradication of these, but in the information they carry. You need not transcend anything here, but be willing to become deeply intimate with your lived, embodied experience. …Nothing is missing, nothing is out of place, nothing need be sent away.”

Then again, we may choose to be like Jack, and head to the nearest diner. Shout and boom to the world that we are here. And for a few seconds, like him, we may distract ourselves from the pain of loneliness. Perhaps that, too, can be a part of the path and if we are open, part of the learning.

After all, we each have a bit of Jack in us. May we learn to bless that loneliness in our being. May we know we are never truly alone.

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