Touch Has a Memory

By BENJAMIN PRATT

Picture of the Communion Service at Prism the alternative Baptist Assembly strand 2008 Blackpool

Photo by Ian Britton, released for public use via Flickr and Creative Commons.

Some phrases grab me, hold me and stir me. I let them rummage around my soul forming images. Sometimes those images are formed into words. “Touch has a memory,” by poet John Keats is such a phrase. Three memories flash across my mind. The first is a memory of skiing with my daughters in Vermont when they were 6 and 8. The second is comforting my grandson when he was ill at 14 months. The third is  serving my mother communion for the first and only time.

As you read these three short passages, think about the many ways your hands touch others, perhaps on a daily basis as a caregiver. Why should we perform this service for another day? Over time, does anything we do really matter?

One answer: Touch has a memory.

1. Cold

From Saturday ’til Thursday
the thermometer never peaked
above zero.
Novice skiers were we,
undaunted by the cold,
squealing and chilling
as we rode the blanket-clad lifts.
Two runs down powdery perfect snow;
into the lodge with chattering teeth.
Off with gloves and boots.
Tears form as their chilled,
skinny bodies shake.
I rub and rub
their feet and hands,
even put their tiny feet
in my mouth
blowing back warm smiles.
A little hot chocolate,
then, “Dad, it’s so much fun.
Let’s go again.”

2. Wet

Temperature rising,
spitting up, cranky,
no longer his sweet talcum smell.
He can’t help himself.
I can’t comfort him.
I shed our clothes
and step into the shower.
Vomit down my back;
urine down my front.
The shower washes it away.
Then, it’s over.
He snuggles into my neck.
We rock in the gentle warmth
of healing water,
baptized in love.

3. Broken

I press communion bread
gently but firmly into her palm.
Hands so gnarled and twisted
by rheumatoid arthritis
they could not fully
close nor open.
“His body broken for you,”
I murmur.
She lifts her face.
Smiles.
Our eyes hold each other:
Mother and son.

Lou Gehrig: The stricken hero was ‘The Luckiest Man …’

(Originally published June 29, 2014.)

By BENJAMIN PRATT

This week, Americans are remembering an inspiring moment that happened 75 years ago in New York City, when a man stricken with a disorder that eventually would kill him declared himself, “The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth.” As I am publishing this column, fresh news stories about this anniversary are popping up in newspapers nationwide—from the Wall Street Journal to Newsday.

Once rivals, on July 4, 1939, Babe Ruth enthusiastically hugged Lou Gehrig, who had announced he was dying and at the same time declared himself "The Luckiest Man."

Once rivals, on July 4, 1939, Babe Ruth enthusiastically hugged Lou Gehrig, who had announced he was dying and at the same time declared himself “The Luckiest Man.”

The man who made that declaration was Lou Gehrig, “The Iron Horse”—first baseman for the Yankees in the 1920s and 1930s, when baseball was by far the most popular sport in America. He earned his nickname for the strength and endurance he showed throughout his career. Gehrig played 2,130 games in a row from 1925 to 1939. He had a .340 career batting average with 493 home runs. He drove in more than 100 runs in 13 consecutive seasons.

In 1939, at age 36, everything changed for Lou Gehrig. In the spring he lacked energy, looked thinner and less confident at first base and in the batter’s box. His performance was so poor that he removed himself from the Yankee lineup. He went to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota where he was diagnosed with amyotropic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, the rare, debilitating disease that attacks the body’s nervous system. It was eventually called Lou Gehrig’s disease. So Gehrig, one of our country’s most revered sportsmen, knew he would become more and more helpless.

That summer, Gehrig agreed to go public with his diagnosis. His fans clamored for a way to show their love for him. That groundswell led to the July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day and a special program between the first and second games of a double header. Gehrig was surrounded by his Yankee teammates, including his former rival Babe Ruth. They were joined by their friends once known as “Murderers’ Row”—for the ruthless power that Yankees lineup showed in the 1927 World Series. The festivities included the retirement of Gehrig’s Number 4.

When Gehrig himself stood before the microphones, he began:

“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.”

Gehrig turned to thank his many friends in baseball, concluding: “Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky.”

But then Gehrig did something unusual. He talked about his family—the people who would become his circle of caregivers. He started by poking fun at his wife and mother-in-law: “When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter—that’s something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body—it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed—that’s the finest I know.”

He ended his brief talk this way: “I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.”

The crowd applauded for two minutes!

Many friends rushed to offer Gehrig new roles that this great star might fill in his waning years. The only one Gehrig accepted was an appointment by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to serve in a special post granting parole to some of the city’s more deserving prisoners. Gehrig refused to allow any media coverage of his work, in this role, but he did pay many visits to correctional facilities to help prisoners who might deserve paroles.

He never complained. “Don’t think I am depressed or pessimistic about my condition,” he said at one point.

Then, just shy of two years after his Appreciation Day, on June 2, 1941, Gehrig was gone.

WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM ‘THE LUCKIEST MAN’?

Benjamin Pratt cover Guide for CaregiversNo, none of us is Lou Gehrig. No one could be. But consider this …

When I was interviewing for my book, Guide For Caregivers, I constantly heard from caregivers about the remarkable people they were serving—and about the sense of purpose and courage they shared in facing tough odds. Many caregivers across our nation understand the kind of attitude Lou Gehrig expressed 75 years ago.

One of the most moving statements I heard, in my research, was from the father of his disabled son, who came home wounded from his military service. Here are just a few of that father’s words to me:

“Since my son got wounded I have often thought how I wish we could get our life back—you know, as it was—comfortable, simple, and familiar. And, I often felt angry or jealous, as well as guilty, for thinking I wanted my life back. …

“But, the unexpected just happens to us and we are coping. We are on the front line—in the trenches—all day—every day. This is our life … and our lives have to be lived as best we can. Our son was doing his job when that damn bomb went off. None of us will ever get back to the life we had.

“One thing feels pretty strange to me now—I’ve never felt more like I have a reason to stay alive than I do now.”

No, this proud father never called himself the world’s “luckiest man.” But I do know that he is deeply grateful and his life is full of purpose.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

No Suggestions Please; Just Read.

Rocker at Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill KYBy the Rev. Dr. BENJAMIN PRATT

No suggestions please;
Just read. Just see. Just hear.

The weather outside is mild, gloomy—rain is predicted but not anticipated.

She sits in front of the fire wrapped in a soft, deep blue prayer shawl, crafted by a friend with love.
She shakes against the cold that is more a part of her body than the room—she curls in to contain warmth she wishes were hers.
The pain started where it always starts—behind her left shoulder. It creeps slowly up her neck and around her left ear. Nothing stops it this time!

She requests the heated collar for her neck, an ice pack for her eyes. Then, she lies back in her chair—quilted robe, quilted socks, shawl, heat collar, ice pack, roaring fire.
Sometimes we rock together, but today she wants to sink back on her own. She nestles the plastic buds into her ears—those links to sanity and distraction, an audio book. It must always be read well and, as she always instructs: hopefully not by the author. She wants it read with feeling and clarity.

Set now?
No, one more item—a trashcan with a plastic liner for a sudden bout of vomiting that may come with little warning.
And now? Set? I know the rules:
No Loud Noises!
No Jarring, Bright Lights!
They deepen the pain.

No suggestions please;
Just read. Just see. Just hear.

This bout has lasted nine days.
My regular gait  has moved to tiptoes. I am the caregiver and, once set for a while, I move on to read, write, pray, hum. All quietly. I ponder. Responsive and purposeful. A veteran. And still honestly—filled with hope. Yet, sad.

Sometimes I picture God. We have a lot in common, now. God and I ache about our loved one and often feel helpless.
We are in a rocking chair. Sometimes, she and I rock together. Today, I am holding and rocking God. Other times, God is holding and rocking me. God and I sing a gentle song to each other.

No suggestions please;
Just read. Just see. Just hear.

“I am holding you, my beloved, and rocking you with love. I wish I could do more, but faithful presence and loving faithfulness is who I am.”

God and I rock each other and sing those words of Grace.

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Calling Dad or Mom in a panic? One Dad says …

‘I’m Only a Father’

By BENJAMIN PRATT

Panic ButtonAFTER our younger daughter graduated from college with a degree in interior design, she was hired by Pottery Barn to help design and setup stores across our country. When she wasn’t traveling to other cities, she would spend a day or two at stores in the mid-Atlantic region working on redesign.

One morning she left in her little car before 6 a.m. for Baltimore. About five miles from her destination, on a busy interstate, the car broke down. She called me—frantic and scared—as 18-wheelers sped past shaking her and her little car.

“Dad, I’m going to be late for work. I can’t get the car to start. What can I do?  I need your help.”

That’s when I said the words I’ve got to live with forever, now.

“I’m only a father.”

I quickly added, “You will have to call a local garage or towing company.” And, an hour later I got a call that she was at work. The mechanic had come, made a minor adjustment, and she was on her way.

Once the panic was over, and with a relieved smile, my daughter told the story to all her colleagues at work. They teased her for weeks with my line: “I’m only a father.” For all the young people at the store, that captured the universal, inevitable moment of discovery: Mom and Dad aren’t super heroes.

“I’m only a father,” has become one of those touchstones in our family lore. It is raised and shared in our family gatherings. I often repeat it myself as I acknowledge my limitations and sometimes re-frame it:

“I’m only a caregiver.”

“I’m only a husband.”

“I’m only a minister.”

“I’m only human.”

The irony is that, the more I acknowledge my power and limitations, the more I discover my capacity to be present and available to others. As I shed the demands of perfection, I often experience the genuine good gifts I am capable of sharing.

Please, add a comment below: What’s your story of admitting your limitations? And, share this with friends: Click one of the social-media icons with this column and invite friends to read this with you.

(Originally published at www.WeAreCaregivers.com.)

Tips for Caregivers: Keep Up vs. Catch Up

Let a SEAL be your guide: “Keep up!”

US Navy Seals face the waves

By BENJAMIN PRATT

U.S. Navy SEAL training is spiritually, intellectually and physically rigorous, rugged. SEALs have a saying about running, which they do as a group.

“It’s easier to keep up than to catch up.”

This succinct, crisp phrase captures wisdom relevant for our lives in so many ways. Students know that it is easier to keep up with their studies than to languish through a term and race to catch up at the time of finals. It is easier to exercise regularly than catch up after years as a couch potato; easier to keep our bodies at a proper weight than catch up with endless diets; easier to limit our spending by restrained buying than recover from mounting debt. It is vibrant, necessary advice that promises us success in our primary relationships, our finances, our health and our life goals.

It is a basic life guideline.

Living by this sage advice is of inestimable value for caregivers. We caregivers can become so focused on serving our beloved that we ignore caring for ourselves. We isolate ourselves and do not run in a group as the SEALs do, thus making us vulnerable to a life of forever struggling to catch up.

We must care for ourselves by engaging in relationships where we can share our story, feel nurtured, experience the comfort and compassion of others while we extend the same to our care recipient. It is vital that we keep up with good food and adequate sleep and exercise to sustain body and soul. Our well-being requires soul-nurturing with humor, song, poetry, gratitude, prayer, manual labor and frequent respites.

Be a wise self-caregiver by running in community.

Don’t attempt the job alone.

Practice the good advice of the SEALs: “It’s easier to keep up than to catch up.”

Please, share this column with friends! Add Comments with your own tips.

Thanks go to Shane T. McCoy for today’s photo of US Navy Seals. He released it for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

Simple Gifts: Seeing opportunities to humbly help

Simple Gratitude for Simple Gifts

By BENJAMIN PRATT

I.
A Praying Mantis in the wildHe is old
uses a cane
bent over and slow
takes all he has to climb into the city bus
Takes the only seat left
Others fill the aisle—hanging from the loops
The bus jerks forward
He searches each pocket, jacket, pants, and shirt
His nose is running, now dripping—
but nothing to wipe it
Across the crowded aisle, I reach into my pocket
where I always carry napkins
I slide some toward him
across the aisle
between the legs of standers
He takes the napkins
wipes his nose—never looks my way
I know he’s grateful
if a bit ashamed
I know because I’ve been there.

II.
How she managed two shopping carts
we do not know
She loads the rear of her SUV
with food and drinks
Stuffs her small child in his car seat
Ready to go?
No!
Two carts to return with:
Child waiting. Car unlocked. Groceries piled.
My wife sees her predicament
“I’ll take your carts back.”
“Oh, thank you. Thank you!”
Relief
As she drives away,
she rolls down her window:
“Oh, thank you. Thank you!”

III.
She is hanging upside down
inside the window screen
She looks puzzled, trapped, chagrined—
her ET-like eyes
overwhelming her small head
bobbing on her long, slender, mint-green body
I’m certain she is a she—
her regal head contentedly nodding,
despite her obvious predicament
I slip a cupped white paper under her
The queen slowly steps forward
entering her carriage
“Welcome Madame.”
She is deferential to her new footman
I escort her outside
where she slowly exits her carriage
onto an hydrangea leaf
She pauses as she turns
and with the slightest nod of her head
she acknowledges her new footman.

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The Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt is a noted expert on compassionate care and is the author of Guide for Caregivers.