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Daily adherence to my routine of self-care, basically unchanged since last March, convinces me that countless prayer supports this uncharted journey in which I’m largely content. My gratitude soars, my new learning challenges and enriches, my diminishments, especially my silvery-white wavy hair, a surprise. And with these changes, I’ve scraped free the outer Liz that no longer works, reminding me of the transparent skin of a garden snake I discovered in my front garden, years ago; its owner, freshly gone.  

But there are interludes of transient pain, clothes that no longer fit, phone calls from solicitors, tiring conversation from visitors. At times, meals lose their taste, fatigue chokes my spirit, and my dry eyes burn, even with Refresh. At other times, noisy motorcycles roar past my bungalow, delivery trucks inch past parked cars, and lawn mowers manicure yards already trimmed.

And occasional exposure to the global news confounds me even deeper and jettisons me into prayer, especially for growing families. And even August colors sigh with inevitable change—the marigolds in my flower beds straggle with blackened leaves.

When yanked away from what I want, I resort to Jesus’s teaching in Luke 12:19:

I’ve come to cast fire upon the earth and I wish it were blazing already.

This same gentle fire informs both Gospel and Twelve Step living and restores my acceptance of “Life on life’s terms” until the next downer. This is how the gentle fire works. It always does.

Sixteen years ago, we met: a mature sweet gum tree shading the front of my new bungalow with rich green foliage. It had survived the city’s removal of a large limb, its wound long healed.

Months passed, before spotting a solitary yellow leaf laying on the grass, its stem dormant, announcing the change. I looked up. Still largely green, occasional bi-colored leaves hung on the branches. The surprise was unfurling like swirls of colorful cloths shown at auction: scarlets, lime greens, buttery yellows, and thievery browns.

For several weeks, the show continued until its demise: mounds of faded shriveled leaves strewn around the yard, later raked and bagged for the city’s yard waste pick-up. Stripped from my natural beauty, I grieved. It would be a long wait for its return.

As years passed, the sweet gum tree continued prospering, with more bags of gum balls lined at the curb for the city’s pick-up.

Then, the disruption began: 2021’s violent rain storms wrenched two large branches from the trunk leaving large swaths of exposed wood. Its woundedness remained with us until three weeks ago, when another large limb crashed to the street, with nothing precipitating this loss. The sweet gum tree was ailing and the arborist’s response was to take it down. A red cord, now circling the trunk, will enable the crew to identify it.

The analogy between the ailing sweet gum tree all that lives, including ourselves, is obvious, but our spirits continue on.

We wait for the inevitable.

At 6:00 A. M., I awoke with this dream:

On Sunday morning, the director of nursing says she is understaffed in her home, nearby, and asks me to volunteer, sight unseen. I disregard my plans and hurriedly put on my new white uniform, white hose, and tie shoes and set out. As I pull open the door of the women’s ward, the stench from urine and bowel almost causes me to retch. Rumpled sheets from iron-frame beds lay in tangled knots on the sticky floor. None of the women have had morning care and shuffle around, some of their gowns unfastened in the back. Listless and uncaring, aides stack trays for lunch. The nurses’ desk is empty. I’m appalled and don’t know what to do.

This dream suggests significant regression in my psyche: the director of nursing manipulates me to help her in her home, despite my spending Sunday mornings in prayer and reflection that better serve my needs.

This lack of decision-making is a behavior pattern that dominated my formative years, one that still surfaces: this time likely provoked by pushing myself to complete the daily routine I set for myself; as if its completion will slow down the diminishment of the pesky symptoms of my terminal illness—the diminishment is happening anyway.   

In the dream, the alacrity with which I put on my new white uniform, white hose, and tie shoes suggests an opportunity for which I had been waiting all my life. In reality, that nurse’s uniform duplicates the one I had worn as a seventeen-year-old aide, though a bit snug around the waist, in a fan-cooled hospital.

And the mayhem in the women’s ward reflects the piecemeal handling of the anxiety of my mortality, beneath the surface of my consciousness. Among them circulate many directors of nursing waiting for moments to interject the “shoulds coupled to obsessive thinking and indecision.”

Deeper discernment is needed, and for that I call upon God for proper direction. Time is short. I’ve little time to spend in bedlams.

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