Sometimes, life turns left. And can leave us bewildered or floundering. As if what we count on or believe, has been reshuffled.
More than ever, we need stories to remind us that all is not lost. Stories that make space for grace. Or as J.R.R. Tolkien stirred us,
“From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
a light from the shadows shall spring;
renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.”
(The Fellowship Of The Ring)
Today, I want you to meet Mr. Bramwell.
Life turned left for him with dementia (literally meaning de-mented or deprived of mind). “Dementia challenges what we think of soul, spirit, and personality,” Dr. Victoria Sweet writes in God’s Hotel. “Which was why, when I saw Mr. Bramwell dancing to the tune of Glenn Miller, I never forgot it.”
Dr. Sweet paints us the picture of when they met. “Mr. Bramwell was sitting in the chair by his bed, dressed in dark blue pressed chinos and a green plaid shirt with the collar buttoned all the way up. He was African-American and dark brown, with a wide face, slack jaw, and incurious eyes, which stared at his own hands tapping softly on the table in front of him. Mrs. Bramwell was standing next to him. She was beautiful. Tall and statuesque, she was calm and confident in high heels and nylon stockings, a maroon skirt-suit, and an elegant green wool coat. Which sounds like it would clash, but against her dark, clear skin, did not. She was probably the same age as Mr. Bramwell, which was seventy, although she could have been ten years younger. She just couldn’t manage Mr. Bramwell any longer, she told me. The Alzheimer’s was just too hard.”
We learn the background about the Bramwells, about their six children, and his construction business and his drinking too much, and how he had quit, and how he’d been in a car accident with head trauma, and how they didn’t know if his slowing down and crazy talk was from the drinking or not.
With any profound but rather static dementia, how do we know the beginning with any certainty?
In her exploration of circumstances, Dr. Sweet describes medical conditions, pseudo dementia, schizoaffective, and Parkinson’s. I do get that part, you know, the urge to make sense of it all. We want to find the words. With the hope that understanding the recipe of any adversity will allow us to find the ingredients that are treatable.
Of course, restoration is never an easy or short process.
Just to get Mr. Bramwell off his medications and treat his depression took more than a year. “And I wish I could say that he had a remarkable improvement. But he did not. He continued to be kept and shaved, with his little smile and his tapping hands; and Mrs. Bramwell continued to visit him every day, bring in home-cooked food. Then one day Mr. Bramwell demonstrated one of the oldest observations about dementia; that even when a patient is de-mented, his soul, his anima, is still… somewhere.”
Hospital activity therapists are enthusiastic individuals with a perplexing job, in the case of Laguna Honda, coming up with activities to engage the demented and disabled.
And a storyline sadly familiar; because of policy or funding, the program at Laguna Honda had been discontinued.
Even so, at Laguna, there was still a weekly dance. Well, there was a room with 90 patients in folding chairs or wheelchairs. And nurses dancing, with various levels of both oomph and skill. Dr. Sweet watched a young Filipino nurse throw out her arms and pull up a patient to dance with her. It was Mr. Bramwell. He stood confused and uncertain and swaying. Was he afraid to fall?
He stood, slack jawed, open mouth, a puzzled look on this face. Then he lifted his right hand and took her left hand, and began to dance. And though he no longer remembers how to talk or how to clean himself, and barely how to eat, he wasn’t a bad dancer. Actually, he was a very good dancer.
Then he danced with another nurse, twirling her and smiling, manly, in control and suddenly young.
Reading the story today, I’m smiling from ear to ear. I can’t help it.
“From the ashes a fire shall be woken, a light from the shadows shall spring.”
Then the music stopped, and Mr. Bramwell stopped, too. He slumped, he stooped, he came to a halt; he forgot the dancing and shuffled with the nurse back to his ward.
“But I didn’t forget,” Dr. Sweet writes.
I wonder, is he now waiting for those first strains of Glenn Miller to sound again?
If you ask me what makes a good sermon or homily, I’d say that making space for the first strains of Glenn Miller isn’t bad.
I want to keep my smile and my hopefulness, but it gives way to sadness. Because I have to recognize that this story is not about silver bullets. Or about any cure-all.
But this is a story about healing. And about what is alive (even though) deep inside.
So, here’s the deal: when I despair, I want to know that the people who love me ask, what will invite him to dance?
You see, all healing begins with an invitation.
Yes, the circumstances are very real. But I want you to know that I see the dancer in you.
Fourteen hundred years ago Saint Isidore of Seville wrote that dementia shows that life goes on, even without the spirit. However, sometimes the soul—the anima—remains in spite of the loss of mind. That no matter how demented, deep within, there is still anima in his soul. When life turns left, no matter how demented (or disconnected, or lost, or adrift, or broken), deep within there is still light—anima—in our soul.
Or to put it another way. Even when we don’t have a cure, we can still find healing. And it may be that in our quest for a cure, we often miss the healing.
My friend Bob has cancer. The bad kind. (Are there any good kinds?) And, no, the diagnosis isn’t good. And my heart hurts for him. So, what do you do? Well, you fight, and look for a cure, some ways to treat what devastates. With treatment Bob is fatigued, but his wife Holly still takes him on a daily short walk, around the block. There’s a house on the corner with a charming garden. And now in spring (Chicago area), there is something new every day. After the walk, Bob tells her, “That garden makes my day.”
Not expecting Bob’s profession, I love Holly’s response, “Now I know. Every day, we will take that walk.”
Keep dancing you two…
Even while looking for a cure, let the healing float on the strains of Glenn Miller to soothe the spirit. Or in the beauty and fragrance of a flower and a garden.
Easy for you to say Terry, you’re not suffering.
I confess that I may not know what I’m saying. Except this. I’ve had dark days. I need stories of grace because my heart is susceptible to cynicism and numbness.
No matter how dark the days, we can still invite one another to dance.
This past week Seattle had 82 degrees. No, that’s not a typo. That kind of heat in April, well, that’ll make you dance.
Seeds in pots on the kitchen counter are sprouting, reaching toward the sun and ready for the garden.
And sometime this week, just start dancing. If anyone asks, tell them it’s called “preventative dancing,” prescribed for healing heart and the soul.
Quote for your week…
We do not commonly live our life out and full; we do not fill all our pores with our blood; we do not inspire and expire fully and entirely enough; We live but a fraction of our life. Why do we not let on the flood, raise the gates, and set all our wheels in motion? Henry David Thoreau
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POEMS AND PRAYERS
Do we really need much more than this? To honor the dawn. To visit a garden. To talk to a friend. To contemplate a cloud. To cherish a meal. To bow our heads before the mystery of the day. Are these not enough? Kent Nerburn
Sometimes, when I visit the Mansion (Senior Center), Joan is on the other side of the glass looking out. We wave to each other, and we talk to each other through the window. She seems to love these conversations, we can’t really hear each other so we make funny faces at each other and laugh. By the time I get inside, she has forgotten. But she never forgets to play the game. I wrote a poem for Joan which I will take to the Mansion and read to her, perhaps later today. Jon Katz, Bedlam Farm Journal
God has invited you to a party,
and you said yes,
everyone who comes will be my special guest.
and I asked her,
what will you say to them when they arrive,
and she replied,
everyone I know is on this
jeweled dance floor
and I will ask them,
why not? why not?
Why not dance and sing?
Jon Katz, April 24
May God the Gardener bless you.
May God the Gardener bless you.
May you be planted in God’s deep rich earth,
nourished with God’s grace and wisdom
and refreshed by the dew of God’s love.
May you know the experience of breaking through
and of flowering with compassion, justice, and mercy.
May God the Gardener be with you.
Maxine Shonk, OP