She Came In, Singing

(For all who make visits)

 

She came, oh, she came in singing!

I needed to go, to get out of here.

These are not my people.  I have to go home.

But her, I’ve seen her.  I’ve heard that voice…

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…”

 

Daddy’s here with me. 

He brought me a sucker from Donald’s store. 

Grape!  My favorite. 

You make me happy when skies are grey…”

 

We went riding in the country at sunset.

I rolled down the window for a honeysuckle symphony!

It sweeps over me.  The rolling pasture grasses with their dotted cows.

A fly or two, barely spotted in the lazy late day haze.

 

You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you…”

Each tire whirls a dust cloud on this shadowbox of day.

Then we took up our vantage for the sunset show.

It never leaves us wanting.  But we do want, still.

I pick up a speckled rock or two. 

Fireflies lift a curtain for the night shift.

 

Please don’t take my sunshine away

I’m down the road a bit now.

Daddy’s car moves on the face of the red clay sun.

I reach out for him, and she takes my hand.

And we dance.  We move together to the sun’s conducting.

It sets over my house, down behind the back porch under the hill.

And I know these folks.

And everyone is singing.

And I sing, too.

TRANSFORMATION

I could not have been more unprepared for what I saw on the first day of my pediatric neurology rotation during residency.  And I could not have been more profoundly affected by seeing it.

My team had just walked up stairs to the Neonatal ICU to make rounds.  Since the first time I had set foot in an NICU as a medical student, I had found the environment unsettling.  Baby cries were drowned out by the noises of machines designed to support their life functions.  Many of those little bodies were as sick as human beings could be and still remain alive.  It didn’t seem right for lives so new to be in such peril.  The sounds and smells drove one to fight or flight.

In essence, many of those babies were in a state of fight or flight as well – the children of addicts, withdrawing from the chemicals which used to drown their mothers’ sorrows.  No longer anesthetized, their developing brains seized in the terror/panic of a new reality without drugs, a reality in which they did not choose to find themselves.  And there was no Mama or Daddy to hold them; none to calm the torment of those God-forsaken moments.

As we passed through the entrance, then through columns of hospital cribs with their death-denying attachments, I saw another row which looked as out of place as baby beds in a nursing home.  There, between two lines of newborn patients was a stand of old wooden rockers.  That’s right – rocking chairs like those out front of any assisted living facility you might have visited.  And they were adorned with well-worn quilts and blankets and seat cushions, just like the ones at grandparents’ homes.  And what I saw next stole my very inhalation’s breath.

Pot-bellied and balding with a halo of gray, and bespectacled in granny readers sat the surrogate, rocking his precious babe who twitched periodically through the dying down time of a fit.  An eighty-something retiree, he and others volunteered several times each week to take a sick, abandoned little person in their arms and sit and rock with them and show them that the whole world is not the frying hot cauldron of Hell that was the airless tank into which they had been locked.  And when the shaking finally stopped, and even before, something in the beating cells of each child had known that there is a warmth that does not fry, a voice that does not scream, a movement that does not tremble.

The serenity in the faces of those elders as they rocked reached out and drew my soul into a place where the fullness of peace permeated all.  What I saw there was so right and true that it obliterated all hatred, death, decay, destruction, abandonment, poverty, addiction, forsakenness, shame, hopelessness, hunger and despair.  It was Love in action, the kind of Love that had lived and lost, died and risen again in one great infinity of “YES,” and it sat itself down in hard wooden seats with arthritic backs and it didn’t mind.  Because that’s what Love does.  Despite the cost or pain it just loves the least of all these children ’til they feel it.  ‘Til they rest.  ‘Til somehow, they’re well.

As I left to tackle the work to be done that day and night, I took a last long look at those old folks, draped in their yellow gowns, gently moving to the rhythm each thought would calm their patient best.  And I knew that every desperate child had reached for something.  Perhaps they didn’t even know they had.  But they reached.

And needle tracks turned to age spots.  And Mama came and rocked them, and made everything better.

The Little Boy

An old man of the mountains traveled into town one day

to find a little boy he knew but lost along the way.

The lines of rugged living lay like furrows on his face,

and tears plowed through those dusty rows to clear the way for Grace.

 

Some say it was poor choices, some say disease or fate

that drove him up that stony road and shut away the gate.

I say, for sanctuary, the elder sought repose

beneath a verdant canopy where mountain laurel grows.

 

And in the spirit of an ancient spring-fed, sparkling stream

his thirsty soul drew sustenance, and Heaven was his dream.

 

Though weary from the wayward ways embarked upon in youth,

a wisdom gained in wandering had etched his stone with truth.

But broken years still left for him a longing so profound

to muster all remaining will and walk familiar ground.

 

So with his only trapping an old heart that longed for home

and bygone days of innocence burned by the urge to roam,

he limped along toward the gate he’d fastened long ago

to wall away his brokenness the world could never know.

 

That day he walked on Holy Ground: a churchyard near a grave,

a grassy spot beneath an oak that “progress” chose to save,

the playground where, in fantasy, he’d whiled away his time,

the schoolyard where a snow-capped dame had taught his lines to rhyme,

 

the lot upon which stood the timbers of his childhood home

(a mansion in his memory, with ivy overgrown),

his double-secret hideaway: a fort for all the boys

who’d bravely fought marauding bands and shared in manly joys.

 

And as the sun was sinking down behind his mountain wall,

he passed the spot where love’s first kiss had bade its beckon call.

 

And there amidst the shadows of the lives he’d loved before,

an old man thought he heard again from just beyond a door

the voice of Mama calling home a little boy he knew

for supper and serenity, for warmth and welcome, too.

 

Then mourning something of himself while passing by a grave,

he clasped the little hand of one he’d left those hills to save.

Together there, old man and boy, in unity, made whole,

began the upward trek to where a mountain meets a soul.

 

And after lifting up the latch that locked away the gate,

the care-free boy left it ajar, as time was ticking late.

 

Each ray of sinking sunset left its hue upon that place.

Each dusty tear upon the cheek had cleared the way for Grace.

And then the old man, with his boy, fell peacefully to rest:

the balm applied for broken life, Bright Canaan for the blest.

Art With Mary

The following are recollections of an art therapy session which occurred as part of the University of Alabama Honors Seminar Course, Art to Life, developed by Cognitive Dynamics Foundation.  The course pairs students and persons with Alzheimer’s disease in an enriched relational experience, utilizing art therapy and reminiscence to reveal and preserve life stories and promote empathy for those experiencing cognitive impairment.

In our second art therapy session of Art to Life there were six students in attendance who were enrolled in the course, one graduate journalism student and our student facilitator for the course.  An art therapist conducted the session.  Our participant was Mary, a 95-year-old with Alzheimer’s disease, nearly sightless from macular degeneration, but with one of the most joyful and enlivened spirits imaginable.

Before the session our therapist had talked with me about the challenges of artistically engaging someone with poor sight.  She had decided to try shaving cream art because of its use of the tactile sense, and thought this might be appealing to Mary.

One of our participants was not able to attend that day, so Mary got the group to herself.  She is always so warm, and she reached out to all of us in the room.  In each session she starts out by telling us how grateful she is to be there, to be included, and about how she is afraid she talks too much in the sessions.  She talks about how she can’t see well.  As we delved into the session, she said “Oh, this is just fabulous!”  (She said this many times)

The therapist started the session with some life story discussion, and it flowed very naturally.  Mary told us details about her family and we reviewed some of the life story she had relayed at the previous session.  She told us about her father’s cotton farm, and about how the cotton was used for airplane wings.  She mentioned that her husband was a pilot.  Then the art activity started.  Mary sat at one end of the table and the students filled out the rest of the space (the tables were placed in a “T” shape).

Mary was then instructed about how to squirt shaving cream into the aluminum pan, to choose her food coloring, to place drops of her favorite colors in the shaving cream, and then to swirl the colors around in patterns of her choosing with a small wooden stick.  Then she was to blot a piece of watercolor paper into the mix, absorbing the color.  At last, she would scrape off the shaving cream, leaving beautiful patterns of color in abstract form.

Mary sat eagerly and affirmed her interest (everything about Mary is affirming).  She had some help from her students, as she said she really could not see any of the details or colors.  She chose red, yellow and green food coloring, and her students helped her place the colors.  The therapist then placed the wooden stick in her hand, and Mary made the patterns.  The paper was blotted, and then Mary, with help, scraped the cream. This is what was left on the paper:

2.Mary.Celebration

What happened next was miraculous, and I will never forget it.  Ingeniously, and with much compassion and empathy, the therapist suggested to Mary that, since she was having trouble seeing the art, the students would be asked to each comment about what the art meant to them, and share those comments with Mary.  Then Mary would be in a better position to be able to title it.  So we went around the room, and each one of us told what the art made us think of, what we felt when we looked at it, etc.  When the last person had shared, Mary was asked to title the art based on those comments.  Quite obviously moved, Mary said she thought “Celebration” would be a good name.  Then, in tears she said something I hope I never forget…

“There’s something there…a new beginning.”

She then told how she had thought that she would never be able to make art again due to her poor vision, and about how art had meant so much to her in the past.  She began to speak of how wonderful her life had been, and how grateful and full of joy she is over God’s goodness in her life.  She then told all of us, none of whom she could really see, how much it meant for her to know that all of us were feeling the same thing; that we all were experiencing the power of art to kindle relationship.  She said “I want you all to know it, to really know it, every one of you.  How important this is!  I am so thankful.”

She then began to talk about how this experience was causing memories to flood into her consciousness, and about how thankful she was for this.  She tenderly spoke of her wedding day, and how the minister had started a custom that was apparently not being done at that time, of having the bride and groom turn and face each other to exchange vows.  As she talked about turning to face her husband and exchange the promises, she cried.

There are many other details that came out that day.  It seemed that the storehouse of the heart had been unlocked.  The students were so attuned to what she was saying.  Everyone was completely present with each other, and with our selves, in the moment.  Nothing else mattered at that time.  And everyone was sharing.  Mary said, “Lord, Honey, I didn’t know we were gonna have ourselves a prayer meeting today!”  Then she added, “The Lord sent you all to me.  I know He did.”

I could say so much more about the importance of that day.  Mary was validated in her current reality, in that moment.  She was creating again, and she was so thankful for that.  Her spirit and memory were quickened by the experience, and she seemed to be possessed of life that transcended Alzheimer’s disease or any other limitation, and it kindled the life in each of us.  We came to bring something to her that day.  But we are the ones who got the benefit, the honor, the blessing.  What a great privilege to have had that experience!

After the event, one of the students said that, in the car on the way home, she and her friends began to open up and share in their own vulnerability, to talk about their heartaches and some of their trials, and to try to meet each other’s needs.  She said that they were all perplexed at first, but then realized it seemed right to do this after the example set by Mary.  They were entering into the vast expansive warmth of the self, shared in relationship with others.  That’s what Art to Life is all about.

Thank you, Mary, for sharing your art!