Up Into The Cherry Tree

 

Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses
Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Gar­den of Verses

My mother died a few days ago. While I’m over­whelmed with the mes­sages of prayers and con­do­lences, at least at some level it feels like cheat­ing to accept them too fully. This isn’t a new con­di­tion. This is just the final moment of a slow-motion death.

A lit­tle over five years ago my mother was for­mally diag­nosed with Alzheimer’s. It was quite brave of her to get the test­ing done. This had always been her worst-case sce­nario for aging. Grow­ing up, we had befriended an active elderly neigh­bor who had gen­tly died in her sleep after a minor slip on some ice. My mom thought that was the best exit ever. She swore Mrs. Gold­smith had come to her in a dream the next night to con­grat­u­late her­self, say­ing “See, I told you I was lucky!” For years after­wards, my mother con­vinced her­self that she would go in a sim­i­larly ele­gant way.

My mom, Liz, must have sensed that Alzheimer’s was a pos­si­bil­ity when she sched­uled her doctor’s visit. The news didn’t come as much of a sur­prise to us fam­ily. For years before, I remem­ber jok­ing that my mom had twenty sto­ries that she kept on rota­tion. After she read a study that cross­word puz­zles keep your brain sharp, she became an obses­sive cross­word puz­zler. She had bravely bought her first house in her late 60s. At the time she let us all know, repeat­edly, that she would be leav­ing it in a box. But by 2010, she must have known she wasn’t going to have Mrs. Goldsmith’s luck. It was time to adjust.

When she called to tell me the diag­no­sis, she couldn’t even use the A-word. She told me her “brain was dying” and that the doc­tor was putting her on Ari­cept. A quick Google search con­firmed this was an Alzheimer’s drug and a call with the doc­tor later that after­noon helped map out the road ahead.

Alzheimer’s is a slow-motion death. She’s been dis­ap­pear­ing from us for a long while. Reg­u­lar out­ings became less fre­quent till we couldn’t even take her out to a nearby restau­rant for her birth­day. As words dis­ap­peared and speech began fal­ter­ing, I’d show her recent kid pho­tos on my phone and tell sto­ries to fill the emp­ty­ing space. Even­tu­ally she stopped show­ing inter­est even in this. On my last reg­u­lar visit with her, I brought the kids and we had lots of fun tak­ing pic­tures. Mom kept point­ing out the phone’s dis­play as if it were a mir­ror. But con­ver­sa­tion was too dis­jointed and after a few min­utes, my kids started wan­der­ing in ever widen­ing cir­cles look­ing for inter­est­ing things to touch and pull and I had to round them up to leave.

In the past few weeks her for­get­ful­ness has extended to eat­ing and swal­low­ing. Inter­ven­tion would only buy a lit­tle more time until she for­got how to breathe. Alzheimer’s is a one way trip.

On my last few vis­its she was mostly sleep­ing. She’s was calm, preter­nat­u­rally calm. Lying on her back, pale and peace­ful, she looked as if she might already we rest­ing in a cas­ket. I felt awk­ward just sit­ting there.With lit­tle chance of inter­ac­tion. I struck on the idea of read­ing favorite kid poems she read to me as a child.  “Up into the cherry tree, who should climb but lit­tle me?” I don’t know if she heard any­thing, but it was a way for us to be together.

The slow-motion nature of Alzheimer’s means she slept a lot until she didn’t. For rea­sons that go deep into biog­ra­phy, she was a won­der­fully friendly per­son who didn’t have a lot of close friends any­more. It seems pecu­liar that one can walk upon the earth for so many decades and only have a dozen or so peo­ple notice your depar­ture. But then maybe that’s the norm for those who live deep into their eight­ies. Most of us will leave life with the same kind of quiet rip­ples with which we entered.

Liz (Betsy) Klein(top) aka Mom

My mom Liz just passed away tonight. It’s not unex­pected. And sadly, given her health, it’s per­haps not even so tragic; she’s been declin­ing for years from Alzheimer’s and all but stopped eat­ing in recent weeks. I’m sure I’ll find voice to tell some sto­ries in the months ahead, but for now I’ll share some pic­tures. She would have turned 85 next month.

A note about names: she was born in late sum­mer 1930 as Eliz­a­beth Ann Klein­top. In her adult life she went as Betsy and took the last names of her part­ners. In her late 60s she decided to take back a vari­a­tion of her last name and overnight Betsy Kel­ley became Liz Klein.

Behind the scenes on corporate activism

I had the plea­sure of an author chat with Jeff Perkins, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Friends Fidu­ciary Cor­po­ra­tion, the orga­ni­za­tion that pro­vides finan­cial ser­vices to Quaker meet­ings and is on the fore­front of socially respon­si­ble invest­ment. We talked about the kind of activism that hap­pens on investor con­fer­ence calls. Jeff’s arti­cle, Main Street Activism and Wall Street Advo­cacy: Strange Bed­fel­lows?, appears in the June/July issue of Friends Journal.

From concern to action in a few short months

rooftop3A grow­ing list of sto­ries is sug­gest­ing that black churches in the South are being tar­geted for arson once again (although one of the more pub­li­cized cases seems to be lightning-related). This was a big con­cern in the mid-1990s, a time when a Quaker pro­gram stepped up to give Friends the chance to travel to the South to help rebuild. From a 1996 Friends Jour­nal edi­to­r­ial:

Some­times a news arti­cle touches the heart and moves peo­ple to reach out to one another in unex­pected ways. So it was this win­ter when the Wash­ing­ton Post pub­lished a piece on the rash of fires that have destroyed black churches in the South in recent months… When Friend Harold B. Con­fer, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Wash­ing­ton Quaker Work­camps, saw the arti­cle, he decided to do some­thing about it. After a series of phone calls, he and two col­leagues accepted an invi­ta­tion to travel to west­ern Alabama and see the fire dam­age for them­selves. They were warmly received by the pas­tors and con­gre­ga­tions of the three Greene County churches. Upon their return, they set to work on a plan.

I’m not sure whether Confer’s plan is the right tem­plate to fol­low this time, but it’s a great story because it shows the impor­tance of hav­ing a strong grass­roots Quaker ecosys­tem. I don’t believe the Wash­ing­ton Quaker Work­camps were ever a par­tic­u­larly well-funded project. But by 1996 they had been run­ning for ten years and had built up cred­i­bil­ity, a fol­low­ing, and the abil­ity to cross cul­tural lines in the name of ser­vice. The smaller orga­ni­za­tional size meant that a news­pa­per arti­cle could prompt a flurry of phone calls and vis­its and a fully-realized pro­gram oppor­tu­nity in a remark­ably short amount of time.

A first-hand account of the work­camps by Kim Roberts was pub­lished later than year, Rebuild­ing Churches in Rural Alabama: One Volunteer’s Expe­ri­ence. The D.C.-based work­camp pro­gram con­tin­ues in mod­i­fied form to this day as the William Penn Quaker Work­camps.

Update: another pic­ture from 1996 Alabama, this time from one of my wife Julie’s old photo books. She’s sec­ond from the left at the bot­tom, part of the longer-stay con­tin­gent that Roberts mentions.

WQW

Banishing the demons of war plank by rotten plank

In National Geo­graphic, Jane Brax­ton Lit­tle writes about the restora­tion of one of the most sto­ried protest boats of the twen­ti­eth century:

The Golden Rule project is an improb­a­ble accom­plish­ment by unlikely vol­un­teers. Mem­bers of Vet­er­ans For Peace, they are a mot­ley bunch that might have appalled the orig­i­nal crew, all con­sci­en­tious Quak­ers. They smoke, drink and swear like the sailors, though most of them are not. Aging and per­pet­u­ally strapped for money, the mostly retired men sought to ban­ish their war-related demons as they ripped out rot­ten wood and replaced it plank by pur­ple­heart plank.

Friends Jour­nal ran an arti­cle by Jane, Restor­ing the Golden Rule,  back in 2011 when the VFP vol­un­teers first con­tem­plated restora­tion, and a longer fol­lowup by Arnold (Skip) Oliver in 2013, The Golden Rule Shall Sail Again. Of course, the cool thing about work­ing at a estab­lished mag­a­zine is that it was easy for me to dip into the archives and find and com­pile our 1958 cov­er­age of the ship’s famous first voy­age.

You ca fol­low more about the restora­tion work on the VFP Golden Rule web­site or check out pic­tures from the re-launch on their Face­book page.

Golden-Rule-crew-1958