My family has had certain routines and traditions that go as far back as I can remember, many that began well before I was born and continued long after I became an adult out on my own. One was my mom getting her hair done every Saturday at the hairdresser (washed, put in rollers and heatset under the dryer for 45 minutes), followed by lunch out with my dad. As a kid, I was surprised when I learned that other moms actually only went to the salon to get a haircut once in a while and did their own hair every day. I’d seen my grandma get her hair done this way (pinning it up with little clips and tissues and not sleeping with a pillow during the week to keep it nice) and so I assumed that’s how grown-up ladies managed their hair. I was greatly relieved to find out as I grew older that the practice was a little old-fashioned and unusual, and I didn’t have to keep up that tradition. I don’t think I could sit still 45 minutes under a dryer every week, and I know I couldn’t give up my pillow so my hair would look pretty.
Still, there have been other little routines that I grew up with that I cherish, and as an adult, even miss from when I was a kid. Sunday morning was spent going to church, a practice normally preceded by my brother and I trying to find ways to dawdle long enough to be too late for service so we could get out of going. But after church, well, that was another story. The reward for going to church was getting to go out to lunch, which was certainly a treat. We were allowed to drink soda and could order what we wanted to eat, as long as it wasn’t too expensive.
As I became an adult with my own family, we continued this habit of lunch out after church, oftentimes eating with Dad and Mom. It was a time to connect with them, catch up on what was going on with everyone, and just be a family. As it always does, over time this became less and less frequent as life got busier with kids’ activities and commitments. After we started attending a different church, and my aging parents didn’t get out to church as often, those Sunday afternoons with my parents became a thing of the past.
It was such a gradual thing I think I hardly noticed until I realized the little family tradition had ended. That season of life, for all of us, and a humble routine that I took for granted, had come to a close.
A few days before Halloween last year, my mom suffered another round of strokes that left her very weak and unable to swallow. She stayed in the hospital until the beginning of December, when they discharged her into a skilled nursing center. I felt very comfortable with the place we picked for Mom, as my daughter, Erin, and I have volunteered for the last few years helping with our church’s service held there once a month. It was always clean, the staff friendly and caring towards the residents, and not too far from our house. But, still, it was placing her in the care of strangers, away from the familiarity of home, family and her beloved dog.
The first few weeks at the nursing home were a new experience for all of us, having never navigated that particular system before. Admitted under her health insurance plan, she was given daily physical and speech therapy (that worked on her swallowing ability) for about three weeks. Unfortunately, the health insurance company decided that there was unlikely to be any more progress to be had, and said she was ready to go home, even though her sole nutrition was through a feeding tube, she was unable to dress herself, walk or get out of bed unassisted (thus, use the restroom by herself without major help). My father’s health is less than ideal—he has mobility issues and cannot get around by himself, either, so sending her home was not an option for us. We made the decision to keep her there at the home, as a resident versus in a rehabilitation setting. Anyone who has ever had a loved one in a nursing home understands the range of emotions it brings to the family, as well as the patient. No matter how much I realized that the level of care needed for Mom was beyond my family’s and my abilities, it felt like we had given up on her.
As she continued to improve slowly, and was able to sit up for longer periods of time, we started bringing her down to the church service held in the main dining room on Sunday mornings. The first time we took her was the morning of Christmas Eve. Snow was falling like a scene straight from a movie, and as I listened to the message and watched the snowflakes fall gracefully through the large front windows of the facility, I took in the sight of all the residents in their wheelchairs. Some were listening intently, others sleeping; my mom was sitting with my husband, Darrell, hunched over a songbook. I quietly sucked in my breath, and realized it was the first time that holiday season that it actually felt like Christmas. It wasn’t the Christmases of my childhood, and my dad wasn’t there with us, but it felt like it would all be okay. I felt peace.
Since then, we’ve started to take her to the service every Sunday that we can. When I visit her during the week, she continues to tell me how much she got out of the service from the previous Sunday. She’s been getting to know the people that help with the service, as well as the other residents. She’s known around the facility as the Dog Lady. I bought her a stuffed dog that looks like her dog at home, and even though she knows it’s not real, it keeps her company. She says it makes her think of me, and she brings it with her wherever she goes. During the week, several visitors bring their dogs with them, and they all know to take their canines to go visit Mom. She will shower them with all the love and praises a little doggy could hope for.
More recently, my dad has been joining us on Sunday mornings. He loves that we sing the old hymns he enjoys so much and he gets to take communion. Dad and Mom hold hands during church, and share the songbook together. There are times I see the two of them like that and my eyes fill with tears I can’t hide. It is so precious to see a love that has endured. I will put my arm around my mom and squeeze her thin, bony shoulder during the verses in the songs where I know where she gets emotional. In that moment, we are a family.
Mom has been slowly weaned from the feeding tube, and we now have lunch in the dining room of the nursing home after church. Darrell makes a point of going out to get us something from a local restaurant that we will all enjoy and brings it back for us to share a meal together. Last week we had a video call with our son, Tyler, who is away at college, so he can say hello to his Grandpa and Grandma. We laugh and catch up on all the things going on and just enjoy being together.
I wish I could tell you that we turned a corner and since we re-vitalized this family tradition all is happy and well, but of course, that isn’t true. The reality of navigating the health issues of the elderly has many twists and concerns, and there are still good days and bad days. These Sunday mornings often serve as a reminder of where all of us are in this journey of life. Yet, somehow this comforting routine of church and lunch connects us in a way that no other gathering of our family does. The familiarity of this simple custom, even under different circumstances with limitations, brings us immeasurable joy.
Some traditions go by the way of hair rollers and overly-long hair-drying sessions. That’s not such a bad thing! And sometimes a tradition just needs a tweak to make an old thing new all over again. A family tradition that focuses on the family part, not all the details of the where and when, or practiced merely for the sake of tradition, is the one that will be remembered, cherished, and celebrated. Even in the most unexpected places.