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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

In lieu of Christmas letter

Joan gave me a bad time about not writing a Christmas letter this year because, after all, I’m retired and have lots of time to write.   I can think of nothing more appropriate for a Christmas letter than reflecting on the experience of delivering 16 Christmas trees of hope to people I know. Honestly, if I could do something like this everyday, my life would be so blessed and I’d be filled with joy every time I surprised someone with this simple gift.  I want this blog post will count as my Christmas letter this year.  I’m reluctant to be so public, but I want to remember this experience and share the joy that comes from giving.  

I started a list of potential tree recipients in January, adding names when someone lost a spouse, received a cancer diagnosis or experienced some other "ache in their daily journey."  Sometimes it's painful to enter into the ache in people's hearts, but Paula D'Arcy suggests that the experience might move me to a deeper spirit and love. Moments with this group of 16 people helped me get past the surface of their suffering and into something extraordinary for me.   Little lights shining in the darkness!

I started out giving trees to people I visit every week who are homebound.  I've learned on my Holy Communion rounds that giving up going to weekly Mass and receiving the Eucharist is painful for most people.  Some don't drive anymore and some are intimidated by our new, big church.  These little trees gave them a sense of being connected to the outside world and their reactions brought big smiles to my face.

I intended to take pictures of each one, but soon gave that up.  Here are a few I can share with you.

1.  Ben and Florence Beckman Seubert, 94 and 86 respectively, don't get to church often.  Florence recently had a second cancerous breast removed. They had no Christmas decorations up because "it's just too hard to drag all that stuff out."  I love visiting with them because Ben often tells me stories of working with Dad in Lucille.  Florence grew up two houses from the church as went to Mass everyday and said two decades of the rosary with her parents at 8 o'clock every night. "That's all we could sit still for."
Ben's story appeared in our local paper earlier this month.  It's amazing because even though he was injured in WWII, he wanted to go back into the service and was finally cleared for the Korean War.  While he was waiting to re-enlist he worked for my Dad.

2.  Mae McPherson lives in an adult family home.  She has children, but she says they don't come to visit very often.  She's 94, with a little dementia, but great memory to pray with me. When I unwrapped the tree she got tears in her eyes and gave me the biggest hug!  I had an extension cord to plug it in, but the owner told me those cords are not safe!  Oh, the memories of my days as a director came flooding back.  I should've known.  Mae's content to watching TV, sitting under a warming blanket.  

3.  Bryant and Dorothy Sather suffer from a multitude of health problems.  They can drive, but limit their trips for medical appointments and grocery shopping only.  They are not able to get their decorations out either, and were tickled to get the little tree.  They love to share stories - Dorothy is Japanese, 12 years old on Pearl Harbor Day, living in Hawaii.  She remembers her Mom and Dad talking about being outsiders after the attack.  I love visiting with them, always tempted to do more, like getting on a ladder to change the batteries in their smoke detectors so they don't have to call the firemen when the detectors start beeping.

4.  Dale Funke, Roy's nephew, has to refrain from any heavy lifting or physical exertion now because he's had three surgeries to remove skin cancers on his lower leg.  I left the tree with Craig, his brother, at Funke's Auto Renovation, and Dale called me later to thank me.  He chatted for over 20 minutes, telling me he had warning signs, but chose to ignore them instead of seeking treatment.  He made sure I knew not to tell Bernard, his 93 year old father because Bernard already worries about Bonnie, Dale's sister, who had the same diagnosis 2 years ago.  He expressed gratitude for all the prayers of family and friends.  "Those prayers are helping me deal with this and I feel their power throughout my days."

5.  Melba Boyle, a friend from our days attending Holy Family Church in Clarkston, is going through chemotherapy, has lost her hair, but not her optimistic spirit.  She was not at home when I delivered the tree, but I got this sweet note from her later, "thanks for the evergreen tree.  It is so pretty and what a great idea for a family get together.  Please pass my thanks on to your family."  Her last chemo treatment was Dec 22 and she invited me to visit her in January.

6.  Sue Ahlers suffered a major stroke in late October.  She's Ted Ahlers widow and currently living at Life Care of Lewiston.  When I visited her she told me how hard it's been to be in a rehab center.  "I never have any privacy.  I have a roommate.  The staff won't let me eat in my room and I have to eat in the dining room with a bunch of old, sick people."  Her comments struck a chord with me as I recalled my nursing home days and our insistence that residents eat in the dining room, probably so we could observe them and ensure that they were getting enough nutrition.  Sue's unable to walk, get out of bed on her own, or dress herself.  No wonder she's depressed!  Mutual friends have told me since that she loves the little tree.  "It brightens the room and lifts her spirits every day."

7.  Angela Davies, the Ministry Director at All Saints, lost her mom recently.  "Even though she was 97, I was not prepared to live without her," she told me after her death.  I left the tree by her office door and she wrote this note to me. "What a beautiful symbol of a life in this sweet Christmas tree - my mom LOVED holidays and would so appreciate this..."

8.  Vince Lopardo's wife, Naida,  died in July.  Naida and I worked together at Tri State Convalescent Center.  She managed a large nursing staff and maintained her calm demeanor during every crisis that hit the facility.  Vince told me a staff member said to him, "Naida was so professional and gentle with her reprimands that she could tell you to go to hell and you would look forward to the trip."  It's ironic that this strong Director of Nursing would live out her last days in an Alzheimer's facility.  Vince visited her every day and told me when I delivered the tree that he missed doing that.  "My life fills with loneliness now."  I hope the tree lights helped to brighten those dark days.

9.  Kristian Kopczynski opened up a barber shop in Clarkston two years ago and named it The Blue Door. She got married in September, the same weekend of Jeff and Kristen's wedding, so Steve and Sandy stayed at my house with Kristian's sister and four children.  I wanted Kristian to have a tree, as a way to celebrate her married life and the success of her business.  And to let Steve and Sandy know that I was thinking of them, too.

10.  Sandy Peck, my friend, Jackie Ringo's sister, lost her husband in January.  Larry's brilliant career as the Professor of Chemistry at Texas A&M did not protect him from the ravages of Parkinson's Disease. He spent months in the nursing home and begged Sandy to bring him home for Christmas last year.  She hired help and managed to make his last days peace-filled, surrounded by family and friends.  I wanted her to have a tree as a tribute to her ability to re-build her life in this community.  Marilyn and I got a tour of her sewing room and all her quilting projects.  She had several quilts folded on a chair and we unfolded them all and put them on the guest bed.  The visit reminded me of the way my Mom showed visitors all her quilts stored on a shelf in her bedroom closet.  

11.  Pat Martin probably endured the most tragic year of any of my recipients.  Last year a nephew committed suicide, this year her Dad and mother-in-law died and in July her son died after a recent diagnosis of ALS.  No one I knew had more reasons to grieve than she did.  I reluctantly left a tree on her patio, wondering when she might return home.  I received a sweet note from her thanking me for the wonderful surprise.  She also wrote, "The tree is on my counter and every time I look at it, my heart smiles."  Not much else brought smiles to her face this year, but perhaps the prayers we said will bring the hope she needs to start her life anew.

12.  Betty Huffman, my dear friend, feels anxious about an impending move to Spokane.  She has two children and four grands living there and they think the move would be the best for her.  She, on the other hand, gets tearful and sad about leaving her home of 50 years and all her friends.  She's concerned about feeling isolated and neglected once she moves up there.  I wanted her to have a tree to bring little rays of hope into her life and perhaps be the sliver of peace as she makes this important decision.

13.  Cecilia Turner is another 91 year old friend who cannot drag all her decorations from the garage into her condo.  Cecilia has a little dementia and I worry about her because she can't remember where she put her keys and sometimes her credit cards.  She's fiercely independent and continues to drive around town, even though she gets lost sometimes. Cecilia's lost two sons, one to cancer and the other to ALS, and still grieves the losses.  She's not close to her daughters who live here, so she spends many lonely hours trying to figure out her computer and/or the TV remote.   I wanted her to have a tree to experience the grace of our prayers, to ease her into the possibility of being more homebound. 

14.  Cheryl Westfall, lost her husband, Marvin, in August.  He died suddenly of a heart attack.  Cheryl worked at Juniper Meadows for 18 years, being one of the original hires in 1997.  She loved the residents and their pets, often volunteering to care for a dog when the resident was no longer able.  She could cook, clean, do laundry, pass medications, and give great tours.  I loved working with her and felt so sad when Marvin died.  He dressed in the Santa Claus outfit and often handed out gifts to the residents at our Christmas parties.  He loved Cheryl and often brought her a special coffee drink on his way to work at Macy's.  Duane went with me to deliver this tree because I was quite sure the home could not be a place where Cheryl would live.  We walked through a yard, filled with stuff, and entered a warm home, greeted by Cheryl and her barking dogs.  She proudly announced that Marvin was a hoarder and she's been going through things and cleaning up.  She gave me a big hug and I breathed a sigh of gratitude that I'd had the courage to enter the yard.  

15.  I mailed a tree to Levi, my nephew who lives in Boise.  Levi spends a lot of time alone and I wanted him to have a tree and experience the joy of receiving a big package from someone who cares about him.  
Levi wrote, "Thank you Aunt Theresa Wessels for the Christmas tree! I had to tape it down, my cat kept knocking it over."  Seeing Levi's creativity to get the tree to stay upright made me giggle with delight.  Levi's had to overcome incredible obstacles to maintain his independence and live a meaningful life.  He seems grateful for his cat, Alaska, who obviously brightens his days.  

16.   My neighbor, Rachael, lives in a duplex across the alley from my home. She works full time at Brookdale, formerly Juniper Meadows, as a CNA.  Her grandmother, Noni, lived at the facility for several years when I worked there. Rachael loved her grandmother and now loves all the residents, often taking time to walk their dogs during her shift. Sometimes I take her dog, Juniper, for an afternoon walk while Rachael works.  I noticed that she had no Christmas decorations in her apartment and I wanted to surprise her with the gift of a little tree.  Rachael's family lives miles away and I worried that she'd be all alone on Christmas Day.  She called me, in tears, thanking me for the tree.  She told me she volunteered to work a double shift on Christmas Day so the residents would be cared for while another employee spends time with her family.  It was then I knew Rachael would not be alone on Christmas Day, but surrounded by people who need her loving care. 

I'm grateful that God has plans for my life, too - a future full of hope!

Here are the submissions from family:

From Karen Stubbs:  Loved this so much!    You and your open heart are such an inspiration to me!    I loved Connie's note at the end.....I want to be like you too.    Thank you for showing us the way to live a life of loving.    You are a Christian who really walks the talk.

I gave one tree to Christine and one to Linda.  I just saw them yesterday and they talked about how much they have enjoyed them.   The others went to Good Sam.   I took one into an older couple room and they seemed a little confused but then happy to have it.   The rest were to be distributed by the staff.    You can see I shorted myself on all the tender experiences you had, but maybe next year, I'll pay more attention! I love you sweet sister!

From Larry:  He gave this tree to al client who is going through a divorce.  She sent him this picture:

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