When the Light Left

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From my six week psychiatric inpatient rotation at a Veteran’s Hospital—February/March 1979

Sixty eight year old male catatonic with depression

He lies still, so very still under the sheet, eyes closed; the only clue that he is living is the slight rise and fall of his chest.  His face is skull like with bony prominences framing his sunken eyes, his facial bones standing out like shelves above the hollows of his cheeks, his hands lie skeletal next to an emaciated body.  He looks as if he is dying of cancer but without the smell of decay.  He rouses a little when touched, not at all when spoken to.  His eyes open only when it is demanded of him, and he focuses with difficulty.  His tongue is thick and dry, his whispered words mostly indecipherable, heard best by bending down low to the bed, holding an ear almost to his cracked lips.

He has stopped feeding himself, not caring about hunger pangs, not salivating at enticing aromas or enjoying the taste of beloved coffee.  His meals are fed through a beige rubber tube running through a hole in his abdominal wall emptying into his stomach, dripping a yeasty smelling concoction of thick white fluid full of calories.   He ‘eats’ without tasting and without caring.  His sedating antidepressant pills are crushed, pushed through the tube, oozing into him, deepening his sleep, but are designed to eventually wake him from his deep debilitating melancholy.

After two weeks of treatment and nutrition, his cheeks start to fill in, and his eyes are closed less often.  He watches people as they move around the room and he responds a little faster to questions and starts to look us in the eye.   He asks for coffee, then pudding and eventually he asks for steak.  By the third week he is sitting up in a chair, reading the paper.

After a month, he walks out of the hospital, 15 pounds heavier than when he was wheeled in.  His lips, no longer dried and cracking, have begun to smile again.

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Thirty two year old male rescued by the Coast Guard at 3 AM in the middle of the bay

As he shouts, his eyes dart, his voice breaks, his head tosses back and forth, his back arches and then collapses as he lies tethered to the gurney with leather restraints.  He writhes constantly, his arm and leg muscles flexing against the wrist and ankle bracelets.

“The angels are waiting!!  They’re calling me to come!! Can’t you hear them?  What’s wrong with you?   I’m Jesus Christ, King of Kings!!  Lord of Lords!!  If you don’t let me return to them, I can’t stop the destruction!”

He finally falls asleep by mid-morning after being given enough antipsychotic medication to kill a horse.  He sleeps uninterrupted for nine hours.  Then suddenly his eyes fly open, and he looks startled.

He glares at me.  “Where am I? How did I get here?”

“You are hospitalized in the VA psych ward after being picked up by the Coast Guard after swimming out into the bay in the middle of the night. You said you were trying to reach the angels.”

He turns his head away, his fists relaxing in the restraints, and begins to weep uncontrollably, the tears streaming down his face.

“Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”

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Twenty two year old male with auditory and visual hallucinations

He seems serene, much more comfortable in his own skin when compared to the others on the ward. Walking up and down the long hallways alone, he is always in deep conversation. He takes turns talking, but more often is listening, nodding,  almost conspiratorial.

During a one-on-one session, he looks at me briefly, but his attention continues to be diverted, first watching an invisible something or someone enter the room, move from the door to the middle of the room, until finally, his eyes lock on an empty chair to my left.  I ask him what he sees next to me.

“Jesus wants you to know He loves you.”

It takes all my will power not to turn and look at the empty chair.

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Fifty four year old male with chronic paranoid schizophrenia

He has been disabled with psychiatric illness for thirty years, having his first psychotic break while serving in World War II.   His only time living outside of institutions has been spent sharing a home with his mother who is now in her eighties.  This hospitalization was precipitated by his increasing delusion that his mother is the devil and the voices in his head commanded that he kill her.  He had become increasingly agitated and angry, had threatened her with a knife, so she called the police, pleading with them not to arrest him, but to bring him to the hospital for medication adjustment.

His eyes have taken on the glassy staring look of the overmedicated psychotic, and he sits in the day room much of the day sleeping in a chair, drool dripping off his lower lip.  When awake he answers questions calmly and appropriately with no indication of the delusions or agitation that led to his hospitalization.  His mother visits him almost daily, bringing him his favorite foods from home which he gratefully accepts and eats with enthusiasm.   By the second week, he is able to take short passes to go home with her, spending a lunch time together and then returning to the ward for dinner and overnight.   By the third week, he is ready for discharge, his mother gratefully thanking the doctors for the improvement she sees in her son.  I watch them walk down the long hallway together to be let through the locked doors to freedom.

Two days later, a headline in the local paper:

“Veteran Beheads Elderly Mother”

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Forty five year old male — bipolar disorder with psychotic features

He has been on the ward for almost a year, his unique high pitched laughter heard easily from behind closed doors,  his eyes intense in his effort to conceal his struggles.  Trying to follow his line of thinking is challenging, as he talks quickly, with frequent brilliant off topic tangents, and at times he lapses into a “word salad” of almost nonsensical sentences.  Every day as I meet with him I become more confused about what is going on with him, and am unclear what is expected of me in my interactions with him.  He senses my discomfort and tries to ease my concern.

“Listen, this is not your problem to fix but I’m bipolar and regularly hear command voices and have intrusive thoughts.  My medication keeps me under good control.  But just tell me if you think I’m not making sense because I don’t always recognize it in myself.”

During my rotation, his tenuous tether to sanity is close to breaking.  He starts to listen more intently to the voices in his head, becoming frightened and anxious, often mumbling and murmuring under his breath as he goes about his day.

On this particular morning, all the patients are more anxious than usual, pacing and wringing their hands as the light outdoors slowly fades, with noon being transformed to an oddly shadowy dusk.  The street lights turn on automatically and cars are driving with headlights shining.  We stand at the windows in the hospital, watching the city become dark as night in the middle of the day.   The unstable patients are sure the world is ending and extra doses of medication are dispensed as needed while the light slowly returns to the streets outside.  Within an hour the sunlight is back, and all the patients are napping soundly.

The psychiatrist, now floridly psychotic, locks himself in his office and doesn’t respond to knocks on the door or calls on his desk phone.

Stressed by the recent homicide by one of his discharged patients, and identifying too closely with his patients due to his own mental illness,  he is overwhelmed by the eclipse.   The nurses call the hospital administrator who comes to the ward with two security guards.  They unlock the door and lead the psychiatrist off the ward.  We watch him leave, knowing he won’t be back.

It is as if the light left and only shadow remains.

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A Case of the Dwindles

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“Morning without you is a dwindled dawn.”
Emily Dickinson

I’m finally adjusted to our children being grown and away from home: I no longer instinctively grab too many plates and utensils when setting the table.  The laundry and dishwasher loads patiently wait several days without being too full and the tidiness of their former bedrooms is no longer disturbing as I pass by.

Even so, I need to know that living and loving is actually happening under this roof and that all is well.

It has been two days since my husband went out of town for a work-related conference and I’ve been knocking around an unbearably empty and quiet house, talking to myself out loud and looking for things to do and people to take care of.

I have a serious case of the dwindles. The cure will arrive back home tonight.

I realize, like the fading of a dwindled dawn, these are cycles to which I must adapt, appreciative for the reminder of what I have living with and loving you every day and what you restore in me.

But for now, it’s clear: time without you diminishes me.

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The Gate Flung Open

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To young friends on their wedding day

Today is the day the pasture gate is flung open
after a long winter; you are let out on grass
to a world vast and green and lush
beyond your wildest imaginings.

You run leaping and bounding,
hair flying in the wind, heels kicked up
in the freedom to form together
a binding trust of covenant love.

You share with us your rich feast today,
as grace grows like grass
that stretches to eternity yet bound safely
within the fence rows of your vows.

When rains come, as hard times always do,
and this spring day feels far removed,
when covered in the mud or frost or drought of life,
know your promises were made to withstand any storm.

Even though leaning and breaking, as fences tend to do,
they remind you to whom you belong and where home is,
anchoring you if you lose your way,
pointing you back to the gate you bounded through.

Once there you will remember the gift of today:
a community of faith and our God blessed
this opened gate, these fences, and most of all your love
as you feast with joy on the richness of His spring pasture.
2013

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As If

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God loves each of us as if there were only one of us to love.
Saint Augustine

When I am one of so many
there can be nothing special
to attract attention
or affection

When I blend into the background
among a multitude of others,
indistinct and plain,
common as grains of sand

There is nothing to hold me up
as rare, unique,
or exceptional,
worthy of extra effort.

Yet it is not about my worth,
my work, my words;
it is about His infinite capacity
to love anything formed

by the touch of His vast hand,
by the contraction of His immense heart,
by the boundlessness of His breath
reaching me
as if
as if
as if
I were the only one.

 

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Turning the Light Off

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Marlee has gone home this morning, far sooner than we planned.  She was only twenty two, born only two months after our daughter’s birth, much too young an age for a Haflinger to die.

But something dire was happening to her over the last two weeks — not eating much,  an expanding girth, then shortness of breath, and last week it was confirmed she had untreatable lymphoma.

Her bright eyes were shining to the end so it was very hard to ask the vet to turn the light off.  But the time had come.

Marlee M&B came to us as a six month old “runty orphan” baby by the lovely stallion Sterling Silver,  but she was suddenly weaned at three days when her mama Melissa died of sepsis.  She never really weaned from her bottle/bucket feeding humans Stefan and Andrea Bundshuh at M&B Farm in Canada. From them she knew people’s behavior, learned their nonverbal language, and understood human subtleties that most horses never learn. This made her quite a challenge as a youngster as it also meant there was no natural reserve nor natural respect for people. She had no boundaries taught by a mother, so we tried to teach her the proper social cues.

When turned out with the herd as a youngster, she was completely clueless–she’d approach the dominant alpha mare incorrectly, without proper submission, get herself bitten and kicked and was the bottom of the social heap for years, a lonesome little filly with few friends and very few social skills. She had never learned submission with people either, and had to have many remedial lessons on her training path. Once she was a mature working mare, her relationship with people markedly improved as there was structure to her work and predictability for her, and after having her own foals, she picked up cues and signals that helped her keep her foal safe, though she had always been one of our most relaxed “do whatever you need to do” mothers when we handled her foals as she simply never learned that she needed to be concerned.

Over the years, as the herd has changed, Marlee became the alpha mare, largely by default and seniority, so I don’t believe she really trusted her position as “real”. She tended to bully, and react too quickly out of her own insecurity about her inherited position. She was very skilled with her ears but she was also a master at the tail “whip” and the tensed upper lip–no teeth, just a slight wrinkling of the lip.  The herd scattered when they saw her face change.  The irony of it all is that when she was  “on top” of the herd hierarchy, she was more lonely than when she was at the bottom and I think a whole lot less happy as she had few grooming partners any more.

She accompanied us to the fair for a week of display of our Haflingers year after year after year — she could be always counted on to greet the public and enjoy days of braiding and petting and kids sitting on her back.

The day she started formal under saddle training under Val Bash was when the light bulb went off in her head–this was a job she could do! This was constant communication and interaction with a human being, which she craved! This was what she was meant for! And she thrived under saddle, advancing quickly in her skills, almost too fast, as she wanted so much to please her trainer.

She has had a still unequaled record among North American Haflingers. She was not only regional champion in her beginner novice division of eventing as a pregnant 5 year old, but also received USDF Horse of the Year awards in First and Second Level dressage that year as the highest scoring Haflinger.

With Jessica Heidemann she did a “bridleless” ride display in front of hundreds of people at the annual Haflinger event, and with Garyn Heidemann as instructor,  she became an eventing pony for a young rider whose blonde hair matched Marlee’s.  She galloped with abandon in the field on bareback rides with Emily Vander Haak and became our daughter Lea’s special riding horse over the last few years.

She had a career of mothering along with intermittent riding work, with 5 foals –Winterstraum, Marquisse, Myst, Wintermond, and Nordstrom—each from different stallions, and each very different from one another.

This mare had such a remarkable work ethic, was “fine-tuned” so perfectly with a sensitivity to cues–that our daughter said:   “Mom, it’s going to make me such a better rider because I know she pays attention to everything I do with my body–whether my heels are down, whether I’m sitting up straight or not.”  Marlee was, to put it simply,  trained to train her riders.

We will miss her high pitched whinny from the barn whenever she heard the back door to the house open. We will miss her pushy head butt on the stall door when it was time to close it up for the night.  We will miss that beautiful unforgettable face and those large deep brown eyes where the light was on.

What a ride she had for twenty two years, that dear little orphan.  What a ride she gave to many who trained her and who she trained over the years.   Though I never climbed on her back, what joy she gave me,  the surrogate mom who loved and fed her, unable to resist those bright eyes, which are now closed in peace.

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Photo Montage by Emily Dieleman

Pink Synchrony

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After all, I don’t see why I am always asking for private, individual, selfish miracles when every year there are miracles like <white> dogwood.   (I insert pink here)
~Anne Morrow Lindbergh

It started this weekend.  The dogwood tree right in front of our porch, having looked pretty much dead to the world since October, started to bud out in subtle pink petaled blossoms. Last week there had been nothing remarkable whatsoever about the tree.

Suddenly it is a feast for the eyes, almost blinding in its brilliance.

Each year the old dogwood startles me.  From dead to brilliant in a mere two weeks.  And not only our tree, but every other pink dogwood within a twenty mile radius has answered the same April siren call: bloom!  bloom your heart out!  dazzle every retina in sight!

And it is done simultaneously on every tree, all the same day, without a sound, without an obvious signal, as if an invisible conductor had swooped a baton up and in the downbeat everything turned pink.  Or perhaps the baton is really a wand, shooting out pink stars to paint these otherwise plain and humble trees, so inconspicuous the rest of the year.

Ordinarily I don’t dress up in finery like these trees do.  I prefer inconspicuous myself.  But I love the celebratory joy of those trees in full blossom and enjoy looking for them in yards and parks and along sidewalks.

Maybe there is something pink in my closet I can wear.  Maybe conspicuous every once in awhile is exactly what is needed.

 

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Orchard Mowing

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The rain eases long enough
to allow blades of grass to stand back up
expectant, refreshed
yet unsuspecting,
primed for the mower’s cutting swath.

Clusters of pink tinged blossoms
sway in response to my mower’s pass,
apple buds bulge on ancient branches
in promise of fruit
stroked by the honeybees’ tickling legs.

Bowing low beneath the swollen blooms,
caught by snagging branches
that shower from hidden raindrop reservoirs
held in the clasp of blushing petal cups,
my face anointed in perfumed apple tears.

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