Three Months with Mom

100_0680There’s no way to sum up the summation of a life, no need to document every bit of a parent’s decay, perhaps no blog worthy of sacred last words. But, largely for my sake, I’ve written up something of July 18th (when I arrived home to Knoxville) to October 26th (when Mom died). Read on if you want to.

Surgery and “Recovery”

I got home from Vienna on Monday, 18 July, after a fantastic week in New Jersey/New York with cousins. That evening Mom and Hannah and I got the awaited call – a surgery date two days hence. This was good – we were getting anxious about Mom not having enough recovery time to feel good for Hannah and Peter’s wedding on 20 August. Surely a month would suffice?

I think they said Mom would be in the hospital a few days, maybe till the weekend. We were told there were risks involved in the surgery, uncertainties in what they would find. But, however pleasant the surgeon’s bedside manner, we were to learn that perhaps surgeons tend to be an optimistic lot – downplaying difficulties and not especially gentle when it comes to follow-up care. After all, they are used to cutting open the body – and the only reason their work is potentially healing is that God made the body to restore itself, re-knitting damaged tissue and mending broken skin.

The night of Mom’s surgery was truly wretched. Although the surgeon told Hannah and me that it was the worst thyroidectomy that he’d ever done, we were still unprepared to see our collected, poised, calm mother bandaged, anxious, and fighting a breathing tube. …Friday, still in ICU (side note: I have a better appreciation now for what people mean when they talk about being in ICU – the constant of machines running and beeping, the staff who seem to be, and maybe are, dealing with more pressing cases down the hall), the surgeon showed up to tell us the dreaded news that the cancer was the rare (1-2% of thyroid cancers) that is the worst. I’m pretty sure that after he left was the only time we all three cried. We were a bit embarrassed that we were caught off guard by the arrival of Mom’s radiologist, who somehow managed to be both pleasant and a tad intimidating (though also with a sense of humor, which surfaced on other occasions). …The saving mercy of the day was our friend Elaine bringing a picnic. We weren’t allowed food in ICU, so Hannah and I and Elaine sat in the hospital courtyard with comfort food and the better comfort of a good friend.

Time passed. Mom didn’t want visitors, seemed anxious, discouraged. We realized in hind-sight that part of this was anesthesia taking time to wear off, but it was terrible to see Mom not “herself.” On the 25th, a stomach tube was deemed necessary – swallowing difficulty not allowing for normal food intake. This was explained as a five-minute procedure – but the surgeon didn’t mention that it would be extremely painful after he’d finished his work – till the abdomen recovered from the shock of being penetrated by a quarter-inch tube. At the last minute, a trach was also considered necessary, the undesirable solution to breathing troubles and tangentially essential for the PEG tube surgery. We were assured that it could be “temporary,” and that talking with a trach in your “real” voice was not impossible. But, without sugar-coated it, I guess that Mom would have said that living with a trach was the closest she ever got to hell.

We went home after 9 days, scrambling to be ready for the transition. Although I’d say that Hannah and I are both pretty competent, observant people, we aren’t nurses, and we were not prepped very well for the demands of home nursing. So, there was a steep learning curve, not to mention maddening phone calls to straighten out medical supply issues. Mom kept a small bell by her bed, so she could “call” us any time. Hannah wrote out a list of all the medications and times to administer them, plus the food, and we followed it with religious zeal.

The weeks up to the wedding were a blur. Hannah tried to juggle wedding planning and helping Mom (and succeeded, I must say). I tried to care for Mom without missing out on the fun (and stress) of wedding prep. Aunt Renie, Mom’s younger sister, arrived to help, at our request, Mom’s wish, and her desire. She threw herself into whatever needed doing.

Visitors

Other friends and family helped – many with wedding preparations, and so many all autumn long. If I list people, I will surely miss someone obvious. But, how can I tell the story without naming names? There were the nurses: Marilyn came out of the woodwork, a family friend of many years, who devoted untold hours to sitting with Mom and researching with me various alternative treatments. Vicki, another nurse, popped in at the shortest notice, and didn’t weary of offering a calm reply to crisis calls and texts. My first morning alone with Mom, she coached me over the phone the first time I had to suction Mom’s throat (at which point we both panicked – Mom insisting I call Vicki, I insisting I couldn’t do it till I knew she was breathing). Caroline, another nurse, who volunteered mornings her son was at pre-school. Jewel, a doctor, who sat with Mom so I could get out a bit. I’ll remember sharing amazing take-out Indian food before going shopping in the rain one Sunday afternoon.

Other friends came with meals, sent flowers, did house-cleaning, sat with me over cups of coffee, listened to long harangues about my frustrations with medical suppliers, popped in unexpectedly.  To borrow the words of the author of Hebrews, I do not have time to tell about Linda and Anita and Paige and Elaine and Phyllis (and many more), who through faith offered encouragement, brought laughter, spoke truth, and generally went above and beyond anything we could have expected.

Relatives came from far away, too. Aunt Susan knows the path from St. Louis to Knoxville well, coming in April for Easter, May for Dad’s funeral, 100_6985August for Hannah’s wedding, September for the Labor Day weekend, October just to be there and help, and November for Mom’s funeral. Aunt Renie, from Phoenix, must have spent two months, more or less, in Knoxville, this summer and fall. Young at heart, chipper, chatty, practical, prayerful. We spent a lot of good and intense time together. From farther away yet came cousin Laurel (left), all the way from New Zealand, to share her and Mom’s birthday (October 12). This was a very unexpected visit, and an absolutely rare treat to get to know our cousin better, benefit from her readiness for any practical task, bask in oddly summer temperatures for mid-October, see the front porch and then Mom’s room turn into a veritable florist shop of birthday bouquets, and enjoy her calm and cheerful spirit (and guess how much it meant to Mom to have her come).

Autumn

Never in my memory has there been a warmer, sunnier fall than this year. While farmers no doubt bemoaned drought – and more recently, local communities mourned the devastation of wildfires – I couldn’t help but be glad for every single sunny, warm day. In late October, we were still wearing shorts and pretending like it was early September. The trees hung on to their leaves, which finally turned glorious golds and reds in November.

Mornings seemed to be the time when Mom could finally get some decent rest. After interrupted sleep at night – every four, then three, hours for medicine, plus trips to the bathroom or coughing fits – the quiet of the new day was balm to weary bodies and tired minds. She slept, or dozed, and I drank huge cups of coffee and cream, often stealing away to the front porch (within ear-shot of Mom’s bell). It was the one time of the day that was usually quiet – no phone calls or home health visits.

Small joys have room to bloom in quiet moments. Hanging out a load of laundry, clotheslines strung in front of the sky’s bright backdrop, was a delight. Sitting on the front porch watching an ant – noticing his crazy shadow that exaggerated his tiny features, watching him trudge along with a bit of booty for the anthill, wondering if the little fellow viewed my toes with the same confusion the enigmatic Easter Island statues engender in us 21st century folks. I felt at these moments again like a child – engaged, if momentarily, in quiet contentment, or simple wonder. There was a strange peace in knowing there was nowhere else to be.

Routine

It must be a defining element of humanity – however easily some of us are bored, however eager for adventure – that we look for, long for, routine. Routine gives something to measure by, aim for, rest in. Routine doesn’t fit very well with being sick, or with caring for the ill. But, in Mom’s case, a certain amount of routine was absolutely necessary. We did our best to stick to the timetable for medicines and food (at its peak, about 15 different administrations per 24 hours), but it was hardly a satisfying rubric for measuring time or “progress.”

Early on, Mom would still get herself up and dressed and perhaps sat down in the kitchen for tasks she had in mind. Certainly the weeks of daily radiation treatments were their own routine – but an increasingly difficult task to check off the list, and accompanied by expressions of anxiety that were so out of character for Mom. As time progressed, I’d try to coax Mom from bed in the afternoons, perhaps for a bit of time on the front porch, or just a change of scenery in the living room. If she wasn’t up for it, and if I was trying to make inroads on odds and ends on my computer, we’d at least manage to haul equipment (oxygen and humidifying machine) to the living room in time for the nightly news broadcast at 6:30 and for Jeopardy at 7:30. Hardly the most worthy entertainment, but splendidly predictable, and some little window open into the wider world. For some number of days, during commercial breaks, Mom and I would do as many of her swallowing exercises as she could manage. They seemed more like torture than helpful, but it was some part of not giving up and holding on to the slim chance Mom could still manage to pass a swallowing test and be up for sharing a cup of coffee or a bite of real food….

One glorious bit of routine for me was weekly dinners with a small group of friends. They very graciously agreed to regularly meet at my place, meaning I could be on call for Mom and dance between her room and the conversation and dinner going on in the kitchen or dining room. I’m afraid I avoided reminding Mom it was Thursday night dinner with “the girls,” lest she find it necessary to call off what felt like a staple of my sanity. Thursday suppers provided me some outlet for creativity, too. Whether the wisest thing to balance tart baking and keeping tabs on when to crush the next round of medicines, I did enjoy putting some baking ideas into practice.
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Another bit of routine was music. Mom asked for piano music – from me, or Aunt Renie, or cousin Laurel – with a repetition that could only be interpreted as enthusiasm or desperation. A few times she wanted classical music, but mostly hymns. I’m afraid I got sick of paging front-to-back, or for a change of pace from back-to-front, of the hymnbook, but she apparently found the music calming, appreciating the well-known texts. For a bedtime song, though, the preferred piece was Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” – I don’t know how many times I played that.

We always had bedtime prayers, too, their own routine of pleas for good sleep and whatever else the day’s mustard seed of faith allowed.

Interruptions

Interruptions, welcome and less so, were more the norm. Home health visits were helpful and valued, but usually they also were tiring for Mom, and for me meant a certain outpouring of verbal energy and sometimes decidedly too much small talk and rehashing of the latest information. Hannah and Aunt Renie and I all had our ups and downs of establishing routine, as I rather less than gracefully adjusted from being primary caregiver to weeks of shared caregiving.

Another aspect of caregiving, which evaded fitting into a neatly ordained routine, was exploration of treatment options. I spent countless hours sifting through websites, making lists, writing emails, talking with doctors and nurses, and checking in with Hannah and with nurse friend Marilyn. It was, if nothing else, a way to expand the lexicon – beyond radiation and chemotherapy as general concepts, there were drug names and their commercial brand names, research doctors’ names as institutions like Mayo and Dana-Farber and the National Cancer Institute (names like Dr. Bible, or the doctor whose first name was, no kidding, “Electron,” or even, at UT, a Dr. Junior Univers). There were clinical trial names and acronyms of genomic mutations. And everywhere, rabbit trails, everywhere decisions.

I don’t think I went into the research with any great hope of finding a cure, but it’s my all-or-nothing personality that meant that, once the task was begun, research had to be systematically conducted and extraneous options be duly eliminated. In the end, both Mom’s oncologist (a wonderful man) and Mom herself determined that none of the “options” were really viable – or worth the increased misery they would likely cause. Along the way, I was amazed by the several doctors – one a specialist known around the world for anaplastic thyroid cancer, and two research doctors at big-name medical institutions, plus specific local physicians – who took time to discuss the situation over phone or email or in person, and who, instead of belittling the non-medical person’s questions, took them seriously.

The biggest and most maddening interruption to any sense of routine was the hospital stays. There were three before I got home in the summer, which I’m sure Hannah could describe as frustrating at very best. After the nine days in the hospital following surgery, Mom was once more in the hospital, for five nights in September. It all started with a low sodium level. I got a call from one of the doctor’s offices that we should go into ER and was told that they might want to admit Mom. Note: NEVER, unless you really are on death’s door, go to the ER on a Friday afternoon.

We arrived about 3:30. Patients and caregivers milled about, sat around. Of course, I can’t know what emergencies there may well have been, arriving by ambulance or helicopter, but no one in the waiting room looked needier than (or perhaps as needy as) Mom; but she sat there for hours, hunkered down in her wheelchair, waiting. Finally around 6 p.m., we were ushered back to a room and bed of sorts, though they just wadded up sheets for a pillow. Eventually an IV was hooked up, and then staff disappeared for long stretches. Around 1 a.m., they said a room wasn’t ready, but we could go to a transition room. As soon as Mom was settled, I wended my way to the hospital cafeteria for a 2 a.m. supper. Back in the room, we tried to sleep. Around 6 a.m. they gave Mom some food finally – but they didn’t ask me if she could take a whole can at once, and suddenly she was sick just as a real room was finally going to be ready. It was an awful nightmare.

All the doctors were good over that stay, and the nurses were probably fine. But, I doubt I won too many brownie points with them – resetting the over-sensitive and ever-beeping IV machine, questioning methodology that didn’t match what worked fine at home, prowling the hall to find a nurse when pain medication was overdue, fending off offers of “breathing treatments” that at times had a way of seeming to be more about the respiratory therapist having something to feel good about than making the patient feel better. Well, that’s a pretty bleak summary, but I was incredibly frustrated, knowing that each day meant overall decline of motivation and energy. (You know, they say that for every day in the hospital, you need at least three days to recover once back home.)

However, even there, there were saving graces – a kind respiratory therapist who thought creatively and tried to minimize shocking treatments; a doctor who went out of his way to correct a mistake; the meal lady who started offering me meals; the discovery of the stairwell, which meant the pleasurable workout of a dozen flights up and down before the reward of a big breakfast coffee; the Starbucks card that got me through breakfast and beyond every day; friends who visited.

Communication

My communication with Mom over her last three months was centered around day-to-day affairs and markedly low regarding any sorts of “meaningful” conversations. For one thing, after the surgeries, she couldn’t talk. However, being a clear enunciator, she was easy to understand as she mouthed her words, at least up till the last few weeks. But, most of the time she was just so very tired, or just hanging on till the next pain medication was due. Writing was a good back-up, but less personal somehow, even if delivered in her neat, confident hand – that, too, got muddled at the end.

So, besides mouthing things or writing them down, Mom communicated her patience and endurance and faith with a pretty ready smile, a compliance with the routine of food and medicines, sometimes interest in reading or being read to, requests for hymns on the piano, and pushing herself to get up at times that her bed most certainly was the simpler alternative. She communicated weariness and discomfort with reduced engagement, a lower tolerance for my typically enthusiastic chattiness, with inquiries about timing of pain medication, with requests for prayer.

There was also, perhaps, a subtler communication – a transmission of trust, confidence, or dependence on someone specific. Aunt Renie, Hannah, and I, the family who spent the most time with Mom this fall, caught catches of this. Mom wanted Aunt Renie there to pray, most of all. Hannah had a gift for logistics – piling a dozen pillows just right – and she and I made a good transport team. By default of being the most on-hand, I became the favored “suctioner,” a dubious honor, to say the least.

If you’ll pardon a bit of medical information, what isn’t thoroughly explained to you when you are told you need a trach is that the throat of a trach victim is constantly rejecting a foreign entity (the trach) and constantly producing the only means it knows of mollification (congestion). The strong patient coughs a lot, seemingly endlessly, in semi-successful attempts to dislodge the congestion. But, coughing is tiring work, and sometimes the go-to method of removing and rinsing the detachable portion of the trach doesn’t suffice. At these moments, a little machine, fitted with a slender suctioning tube, is necessary to do the job. (Do be sure to ask the respiratory equipment delivery man to please give you a machine that actually works.) So, when coughing becomes sufficiently ineffective or panicked, the “nurse” tears open a suctioning kit, hurriedly puts on the enclosed sterile gloves, picks up the sterile suction tube and attaches it to the machine (without compromising any must-stay-sterile equipment in the process – or she has to start over), and proceeds to insert the tubing into the patient’s trach, anywhere from a couple of inches to maybe six inches. Done unsuccessfully, it makes the patient feel like she is being gagged and suffocated. Done successful, it does all that and manages to extract phlegm or hardened secretions from the airway. Let’s just say, Mom was a patient patient.

The Home Stretch

In early October, Hannah returned to Knoxville, just six weeks after her and Peter’s wedding. It was pretty obvious, by then, that Mom really couldn’t keep managing to get to doctors’ appointments or attempting to meet progress goals with home health nurses and therapists. And, I was about at the end of my rope in terms of energy, after a month of nights on solo duty. Hospice had already been strongly suggested, but we decided to wait till Hannah got home to make the decision. Really, it seemed like a relief – to accept that we could focus on helping Mom be as comfortable as possible (or as little uncomfortable as possible), even if we kept praying for God’s healing intervention.

Once the hospice service was set up, Mom still enjoyed visits (mentioned above) from Aunt Renie, cousin Laurel, and Aunt Susan. One day a dear Korean couple drove all the way from their home in southern Georgia in order to say “good-bye” to Mom, 17 hours in the car in one day. The last weekend Mom was really coherent, Hannah and I asked a handful of her closest friends just to drop by, if they wanted to. A whole Saturday and Sunday afternoon friends came and went, carrying a wealth of shared experiences and unique perspectives on Mom.

At night, we went to a one-day-on, two-days-“off” shift, sleeping, or trying to, in Mom’s room – lest she slip towards the edge of bed or not be able to ring her bell when she needed help. The frequency of her needing something grew by leaps and bounds. We massaged her feet, and someone stayed in her room pretty much all the time. The last days, it grew very hard to communicate. But, just a couple of days before she died, when she had become largely uncommunicative, she seemed once while we were all gathered in her room to take time to look directly at each of us, as if in some sense to say good-bye. Was there some question in her eye – some person she was still looking for? We wondered if she was wondering where Dad was. We hoped very much to be with her when she died, and that she wouldn’t go in the middle of a respiratory crisis. There was one especially terribly attack, when we thought she was gone, and that the suctioning had been either too much or not enough, but she slowly started breathing again and regained a “normal” oxygen level.

Her last night I happened to be on duty – first on a mattress on the floor, then next to her in bed. She was incorrigibly congested, but no longer seemed troubled by it. I got up what felt like countless times, but she didn’t wake. Morning finally came, and slipped away. In the afternoon she died around 1:30, with Hannah and Aunt Renie and me with her. Our prayer for her going peacefully was answered.

…The following days were filled with a host of practical details. Before family arrived from Massachusetts and New Jersey and New Zealand and Pennsylvania and Arizona and Missouri, however, Hannah and Aunt Renie and I managed to steal away for a wonderfully refreshing hike up to the Chimney’s, the delayed fall colors on glorious display.

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Services were about 10 days later. Our pastor at Cedar Springs gave a beautiful homily, based on John 11, and Hannah and I asked some specific family and friends to say a few words. What blew me away was how seriously they took the challenge, and in just a brief couple or three minutes captured something beautiful of what they treasured in Mom’s friendship, something of who she was and is. Hannah read a long selection of Scriptures, and during the service a soloist sang “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth” from the Messiah and also the early American hymn “What Wondrous Love Is This?” Before the service, I played classical prelude music with dear friend Kathleen, a cellist, who flew down from upstate New York.

The next day was the burial service – hymns, and a homily by family friend and long-time pastor John Stone, from Psalms Mom had especially liked. After services both days, church friends showered us with meals, so that all of the out-of-town family could be together and visit.

There doesn’t seem to be a blog post word limit, but here I’ll stop and pick up next time with other thoughts…..

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The Wedding

Hannah and Peter’s wedding on 20 August was – obviously – the high point of the year. I certainly missed out on some of the planning and preparations by arriving home just a month from the big day, but there were still plenty of tasks to help with and special pre-wedding festivities to enjoy.

Bridesmaids’ Brunch

A good friend of Mom’s, Terri Felde, who is the most enthusiastic and gourmet chef I know, graciously hosted a brunch for the bride-to-be, bridesmaids and close friends, sisters of the groom, and Mom. It was a lovely and long morning enjoying each other’s company around a sunlit table set with cheerful Fiesta ware and a feast to remember. My, what a spread! Like all the events surrounding the wedding, the celebration was tempered by wishing so much that Mom could enter more fully into it. (More in the next post to explain.) She did manage to come along, sporting an uncharacteristic new outfit and her usual gracious self – eager to enter into the delight of others, even though she couldn’t enter audibly into the conversation or eat any of the splendid meal.

Bridesmaids’ Dinner

I hosted my own version of a bridesmaids’ party at Hannah’s place. I am prone to extravagant culinary imaginations, but rarely does a meal come off as happily as this one did – and I’ve never cooked a multi-course dinner for seven before! The rules were clear: 1) Everyone else stay out of the kitchen; 2) Hannah, take photos of what comes to the table; 3) Friends, enjoy – and make Hannah feel as celebrated as possible! We dressed up, which made it more fun.img_6609

I printed menus. And, between courses we drew questions from under the plates that I thought would encourage some intentional conversation, like “What especially do you wish for Hannah and Peter as they start their marriage?“

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Besides the sheer fun of conversing with friends, the conversation spread out the meal, which included:

Appetizer: Spiced cashews and pesto-stuffed peppers img_6631

Salad: Greek salad with Gougères (Gruyere cheese sticks)img_6613 img_6619

Soup: Cream of carrot soup and creamy corn and squash soupimg_6614

Entrée: Chicken Hollandaise and rosemary-butter summer squash and green beans with bacon drop biscuitsimg_6624

Cheese Board: Walnut-crusted Boursin with crackers and fruitimg_6627

Dessert: Crème Brulé with coffeeimg_6629

Wedding Cake

While we’re on the subject of cooking, the baking of the wedding cake certainly shouldn’t be overlooked! I spent quite a full day with family friend Mary Rochat, baking multiple lemon rosemary cakes. Such amounts of butter and so many lemons to zest! Thank goodness a friend has a copious rosemary patch, and she and Peter’s sisters provided us cake bakers with three or four cups of finely chopped rosemary – no small task!

The six layers for the three-tiered cake were a lot of cake, but we also made several more “normal-sized” cakes. Thankfully, Mary knew her oven well and had all the materials to work with. By the end of the day, the cakes were all safely stowed in the freezer, waiting to be transferred to the church the day before the wedding. (Note: The only photos on this post that are mine are the following few of cake baking.)

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While we’re on the topic of making things, I’ll include photos of the cake plates I etched (with the monogram that Hannah designed) for a wedding gift for Hannah and Peter.
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Rehearsal Dinner

The rehearsal was preceded by an afternoon setting up at the church. Hannah was one organized and prepared bride, and a marvelous volunteer crew converged to iron tablecloths and arrange hundreds of splendid hydrangea blooms. dsc_0917 dsc_0914There was, of course, lots of visiting meanwhile – college friends traveling from as far away as Alaska, and other friends and family gathering from near and far. The rehearsal was quite fun and relaxed (at least I thought so), and the dinner to follow was lovely. It was wonderful that Mom made it to both the rehearsal and dinner, but again she must have felt keenly the impossibility of entering in as she and we would have imagined.

Wedding

The wedding day was wonderful! The morning was a bit rushed – I found out the evening before that neither of the two friends we’d asked to do the final cake decorating could after all. So, at the rehearsal dinner, I asked cousin Franci and Peter’s sister Margrethe to hazard the project, which they pulled off with style, even if it wasn’t exactly stress free.  dsc_0925 dsc_0926-large dsc_0945A friend stayed the night before the wedding with Mom – a night off for me, but a rough night for the two of them, as it turned out. Aunt Renie helped Mom get ready for the wedding, and friend Julie helped out pretty much all afternoon, too. …It was fun getting ready together with Hannah and the other bridesmaids at the church. I was pretty nervous about all the details, since I so much wanted Hannah, the consummate detail person, to be happy! But, everything came together well in the end! (Note: Most of the following photos are from the wedding photographer, Lillian Prince.)

        The service was beautiful – the church building a lovely setting, the instrumental music marvelous (cello and organ), the array of friends and family representing unique connections to Hannah and Peter. Mom gave Hannah away, and Mike Kuhn gave a beautiful homily. I especially enjoyed witnessing the unhurried thoughtfulness with which Hannah and Peter exchanged their vows. They recessed – Mr. and Mrs. Weston – to the jubilant grandeur of Widor’s organ “Toccata.”

                  The reception was a lovely time, but I felt like I missed a lot of people I would have liked to talk with more. Various ones made toasts. Hannah and Peter are both fond of a good pun. So, Hannah told the guests that, while they were obviously anticipating seeing her become “Mrs. Peter Weston,” they probably didn’t think they would also witness him become “Mr. Hannah Holder”:p1040416

I figured, as maid of honor, I should come up with a toast, too. But, I couldn’t bear to write something serious, which would certainly sound cheesy. So, instead, I made a tongue twister based on the one Mom taught us a kids – “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,” but of course my versions was with a certain Peter Weston:

Peter Weston picked a pretty, perfect partner.

The perfect partner did Peter Weston plainly pick.

If Peter Weston picked this picture-perfect partner,

Pray, how did Peter Weston procure her as his spouse?

Hannah Holder headed up to Wheaton College.

Via High Road Hannah hurried up to Wheaton happily.

If Hannah hastened off from home up north to Wheaton,

Hey – how did Hannah Holder find her future husband there?

Well, they went one summer out West with fellow Wheaties,

Out West to South Dakota they wandered ad(w)enturesomely.

If woodsy walks and watching stars were weaving mem’ries,

Why, I wander how they wound up wedding now?

Time aplenty past, but friendship proved persistent.

If a trip south for Peter prompted a plethora of trips,

and a penpal-ship deepened a persevering friendship,

Pray, how did Peter propose that they promise love today?

Peter planned a private picnic with perfectest aplomb,

A perch in Maine proved the perfect spot to pop the question privily.

When Peter proposed, proffered the ring, snapped pictures,

Praises be! Surprised, but pleased, she promised him that day.

Today we’ve heard “We do!” We’ve witnessed Westons wed.

We want their best, we wish them well, we wish them a wealth

Of what wear’s well with time – peace and perseverance,

Health, happiness and hope.

I’ll end my rhyme and raise a cheer – to Peter and his palindromic Bride!

…A number of friends stayed after the happy pair had left to help tidy up and figure out what to do with all the leftover cake and flowers. In the evening, late, dear friends from Spain came over to the house for another hour or so of visiting, making up a bit for the way a wonderful event like a wedding means lots of two-minute conversations that one wishes could each be a whole afternoon.

The next day friends welcomed all of the out-of-town family over to their home to enjoy wedding reception leftovers and just more time to talk. Amazingly, Mom was able to go along, though she rested most of the time there. It was a long and happy afternoon, catching up with cousins and aunts and uncles and new in-laws. Even the newlyweds graced us with their presence.

Some more photos to conclude…

                         

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Catching Up and Cousins

It’s been seven months since I last posted a blog entry. In an effort to “catch up,” I’ve cataloged the past months in a series of five posts that will appear weekly for the next month or so. To start, backing up to May….

Finishing the Semester

After I returned to Vienna in mid-May after Dad’s death, I was in some sense catapulted into finishing up the school semester. At the end of May Marianna and I had a voice-piano concert, so there was scrambling to do to have the music ready – several Lieder each by Ullmann, Schumann, and (a new set to me) Rachmaninoff.

I’d also been hatching a plan for New City Wien to participate unofficially in the city-wide Long Night of the Churches. Not wanting the idea to fall through the cracks, I rounded up ready volunteers, put together music with Maria (a classical flutist, who is also fond of improvising), and handed out flyers at the university. Sadly, hardly anyone showed up, partly because we couldn’t be part of the official booklet of participating churches (not being a state-recognized denomination). But, the ONE person who did come seemed to very much enjoy the evening and stayed and stayed: “Do not despite the day of small things.” …For me, it was new experience, as it was the first time I’d tried improvising with another musician for an audience! Quite fun, actually!

The school semester sort of felt like it petered out, rather than winding up for a stressful conclusion. This year I managed to go along for the teachers’ end-of-year outing – a day to the countryside along the Danube, in an orchard and vineyard region. We enjoyed a long and hot walk and ate well – a welcome chance to connect with colleagues outside the hurry of normal school-day interaction.100_6809

At Uni, I had taken an especially light load. Providential, as the semester turned out. My only exam was an oral exam for a class focused on the Easter narrative – biblical accounts, Pauline interpretation and application, and the interpretations of various theological and philosophical camps since. It was a bit nerve-wracking getting grilled even for just 15 minutes by the professor, but also vaguely fun.

Outdoors weren’t completely neglected, though no big hut-to-hut hike this summer. Instead, runs with friend Anne, and a splendid day hiking with roommate Jessica.

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There were hellos and good-byes. A series of visitors or house guests continued the trend from the spring. Two friends from college came, and I met up with an Indian friend our family’s known since I was maybe three. I also spent an afternoon with my aunt’s old German professor and his wife. This was a special treat. Professor Schwarz is 94 and comes often to his native Vienna, a city he was forced to flee as a teenager at the outbreak of the Second World War. Besides welcoming friends from afar or meeting people who know Vienna much better than I ever will, there were also some good-byes. Besides telling friends good-bye before heading home for the summer, there was the reluctant task of saying bon voyage to my French friend Pauline, who was moving to Chicago.

A backdrop to the end of the school term and arrival of the summer was the ongoing unknowns regarding why Mom wasn’t feeling well. Many doctors’ visits, plus hospital stays, had turned up mostly question marks – until an endoscopy unwittingly revealed a lump on her thyroid. By the time I left for the States, we knew that she was suffering from metastasized thyroid cancer, but we were consoled by the encouraging news that thyroid cancer is typically curable, due to its unique responsiveness to iodine treatments.

The day I flew home I made a last run by the visa office, hoping to have the awaited visa in hand after a particularly trying run of visits and paperwork demands. Unfortunately, it was not ready. Nothing more to do about it for now – except to lay the matter aside and anticipate a week with cousins in New York before heading home to Knoxville for Hannah’s wedding and whatever Mom’s needs might be.

Cousins

Catching up with cousins for a week outside of NYC was truly splendid! Hoyt cousins Ben and Bryan are two of my eight “New Zealand cousins,” and the two whom I’m closest to in age. Ben and wife Franci, and their three girls, are strategically located in New Jersey/New York City these days, meaning that their home is the ideal launching station for flights to Vienna. But, it’s way more than a matter of practicality – and always also a chance for hearty laughter, tasty meals, meaningful conversation, and a place that easily feels like “home.”

However, although I’ve seen a good bit of the Ben Hoyts the past few years, seeing cousin Bryan again was a long time in coming – the last visit 2005/2006 when we Holders were in New Zealand for three months. And, I hadn’t met his wife Alexia or their four children! Needless to say, I didn’t want to miss out on a corner of their U.S. tour this summer!

Hence, a wonderful week, full of cousins and second cousins. The seven little people pretty well entertained themselves, and the adults had a surprising amount of time to “hang out.”

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We had a day in the city – who could guess that asking the doorman at a fancy jewelry shop if the children in our midst could borrow a bathroom would turn into a friendly and funny encounter with a New York shop assistant? Or that one “must” eat donuts after a happy walk across the Brooklyn Bridge? Or, for that matter, that four adults could without mishap keep track of seven youngsters in the Big Apple? We walked a lot, took the ferry to Staten Island (the views of the Statue of Liberty fun,  but just standing at the ship’s rail, hair flying in the wind, was more memorable).

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Another day Ben and Bryan and I headed into the city on Ben’s normal commute route. We got a tour of Ben’s work setting (great, though I don’t know the least thing about computer programming), and then Bryan and I headed out for a visit to the One World Trade tower. …Now, admitting readily that we were every bit as much tourists as everyone else, it still felt a bit odd that the whole thing was so decidedly a tourist attraction. The underground elevator access area felt a bit like the start of an amusement park ride, and the elevator itself was part of the “experience” – showcasing an audio visual history of the rise of NYC, the soaring buildings digitally displayed on the elevator walls matching our own rapid ascent to the viewing level. Another audio-visual presentation greeted us at the top before we were “allowed” to see out the windows. We bypassed the cheesy ipad building locator interactive and finally got to take in the amazing views of the city. Quite impressive, even after all the hype, and worth doing once. That said, I probably enjoyed our bus ride home and a good talk as much as touring the NYC icon.

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The few days with Bryan and Alexia and family and the rest of the week at Ben and Franci’s were so full of good things that it seemed almost longer than it was…not the usual feel of a vacation that disappears almost before you started to relax. Probably a good thing, as the rest of the summer was anything but restful.

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Traveling Home

“How precious are Your thoughts, O God. How vast is the sum of them. If I were to number them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with You” (Psalm 139).

Ron Holder

May 3rd, 5:00 a.m., found me in a taxi (thanks, Mark and Karissa) bound for the Vienna airport. Given that I’d only booked the ticket at 5:00 p.m. the day before, four or so hours of sleep was pretty good. I hadn’t planned to be going home to Knoxville mid-semester, mid-week. But, no one plans the day of his Home-Going, either.

Backing up, Sunday evening I’d made my usual call home, managing only a short conversation with Mom and Hannah between Dad’s needs in the midst of a particularly rough day. I was content to postpone a proper conversation for the next day or so, sensing they weren’t really free to talk and also feeling the encroachment of a new work week about to begin and the need for a good night’s sleep. I certainly didn’t – and neither did they – guess the significance of the following few hours; I went to bed, oblivious to unfolding events six time-zones away.

Around 2:00 a.m., the last vibration of a missed call woke me. It didn’t take much creativity to see who’d called and know something was up. I listened to Hannah’s message and called right back, relieved they’d figured out the international calling code for Austria and found my cell phone number, but pulse-quickening with the hint of what was up on the home front. …Mom and Hannah were on the way to the hospital, following an ambulance. Dad’s rough night, morning, and afternoon had grown critical by evening.

What to do? Pray, yes, and then sleep. What more can one do from nearly 5000 miles away?

When the phone rang again at 4:30 a.m., I wouldn’t have had to answer it in order to know why Mom was calling. Dad had passed away either en route to the hospital or upon arrival. Mom and Hannah were back home, a doctor friend had come by and insisted they have a cup of something hot to drink, and both were going to attempt to get some sleep.

Sleep on my end seemed pointless. I perused airline websites for schedules and fares and, while waiting an hour on hold with Delta, got ready for work. The day was strange. I taught the three lessons I was directly responsible for, delegated work to willing colleagues for the following two weeks, met with my pastor and his wife, returned a library book that was due, booked tickets to fly home, made and received an array of phone calls, looked at stunning photos from my roommate’s weekend away in Slovenia, and welcomed four friends who dropped by to be of whatever help they could.

Note: I don’t intend to give, and I don’t suppose my readers want, a full report of the following two weeks. It would be impossible, even if anyone wanted it – any sort reflection would find that events raced ahead (albeit, without chaos) while emotions lagged (lag) behind, with no prediction possible of when fact and feeling will reunite. So be it.

Details

Until you experience it, you don’t know just how much there is to do after someone dies. A myriad phone calls are demanded, and funeral and burial arrangements take time, even if a burial plot has already been acquired and even if a friend has already crafted a beautiful chestnut oak casket that was ready for when it would be needed…. Thankfully, we had two weeks to plan it all. And, at least we were all free to drop pretty much all our normal day-to-day tasks, freed up even more by the meals provided by friends and neighbors.

(The verse on the casket is what Dad told Mom his favorite verse was: “I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” — Psalm 27:13.)

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Company

The first weekend I was back, Hannah’s fiancé Peter and his dad and sisters came for a visit. This had been long-planned as a chance for the future in-laws to meet each other, and everyone felt that the plan should proceed. We had a very good time getting acquainted, which included taking a hike in the Smokies (and observing both wildflowers and snow) and visiting the farmer’s market and the UT Trial Gardens.

100_6701 100_6703100_6708 100_6696 100_6698Knoxville’s “International Biscuit Festival” was one reason the Westons came down — not so much for biscuits, but because Hannah had an art show opening. Every piece had to be somehow biscuit-related, which meant everything from advertising, to self-portraiture, to allusions to Knoxville history, to Antarctic exploration, to word play and quoting poetry.100_6709For a gift for Mom for Mother’s Day, I managed to get a small garden planted – beans, corns, yellow summer squash, zucchini, and tomatoes – all somehow without her catching wind of what I was up to in the back yard.

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More Details

After the Westons left on Sunday, we had several days to gather the many remaining details together for family coming from out-of-town for a memorial service the following weekend. Hannah and I spent a lot of time sorting through family photos (with plenty of comic relief along the way), and with Mom we planned a memorial service…date and venue, pastor to officiate, friends to share memories, special music, reception afterwards (actually, we didn’t plan that – it was completely taken care of by friends of Mom’s at church), housing to arrange for out-of-town guests (graciously provided by friends and friends-of-friends), etc. Mom continued to spend uncountable minutes on the phone. Hannah put together a large collection of photos we’d chosen, and I practiced prelude music. One strange task was to decide together on materials for a lining for the casket. Hannah was the seamstress, determined to craft something beautiful to match the finely crafted casket, even if the three of us were the only ones really to see the finished work.

Family and Services

Between times, we had a few visits with friends and family locally – whether folks simply dropping by or something planned. Each a welcome gift.

By the following weekend, relatives from Mom’s side of the family were all arrived. Really a remarkable number came –from Missouri, Iowa, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Arizona. Holder relatives drove in from Nashville and Virginia. Peter came a second weekend in a row from Pennsylvania. (Alethea, sorry we didn’t get a photo with you before you headed home!)

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Sunday we had a hymn sing at home in lieu of going to church elsewhere. Actually, the afternoon memorial service was like a really good church service, complete with music (hymns for prelude music, congregational hymns, “The Trumpet Shall Sound” from the Messiah, and Michael Card’s “Emmanuel”), Scripture (a reading from I Corinthians 15, for one), a wonderful homily from Dad’s good friend and fishing buddy Peter Stone (Scripture and stories woven together to honor Dad and exalt the Savior), and memorable stories (some endearing, some funny – some revealing sides of Dad I didn’t really know, or things I’d overlooked in the tyranny of the present or forgotten due to his decline these past years) from a variety of friends and family. The chapel at Cedar Springs was totally full, and there were lots and lots of people to try to visit with afterwards. Later in the evening, all the relatives in town came to the house for more time together.

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Mondays’ burial service was much simpler and smaller. Because Dad was in the Navy for a few years, he chose to be buried at the Veterans Cemetery, a tract of land looking over the Holston River east of town. It seemed rather foreign to me, but the service included a 21-gun salute and the playing of taps (quite impressive). The best part of the service was singing “Be Thou My Vision” – the acoustics were excellent, and people sang parts. The pastor’s words were perfectly suited, I thought…excerpts from Psalm 90, John 17, Romans 15.

In the late afternoon, the relatives still in town (just 10 of us by then) gathered at the house – first there were some rounds of croquet (a Holder – and especially Ron Holder – favorite), and then an unhurried dinner and conversation and stories.

Monday before the burial and again on Tuesday there were lots of goodbyes to say, as family headed back home around the country. I changed my return ticket from Tuesday to Wednesday, in order to have one evening yet with Mom and Hannah. Now I’ve been back in Vienna two and a half weeks, but any report on that will have to wait.

So, that’s all for now.

p.s. Any personal comments please send to my email address rather than posting them as comments here. Thanks.

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A is for Adventures, B is for Budapest, C is for Croissants

100_6488For most of the Easter holidays I traveled to visit friends outside of Austria. To minimize travels costs – and maximize time with friends – I decided to take a bus to Paris, then a budget flight to Budapest, and then a train home to Vienna. I was prepared for the bus trip to be awful, but it was – unbelievable – almost pleasant. Two seats to myself the whole time, books to read, snacks to eat, frequent breaks. I could recommend it! The one strange bit was stopping at a border check, I think in Liechtenstein. They collected our IDs, ran a check, and then returned the whole stack. (I didn’t really like the people in front of me in the bus sorting through the stack to find their IDs — what if someone took my passport?!). But, one person proved to cause a border patrol dilemma; and, after much time passed, we went on without him.

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Arriving in Paris, I made my way to the address I’d been given for James and Davenne, friends from Knoxville. I met James in grad school at UT, and his wife Davenne is currently working on art history doctoral research in Paris. The days in this iconic city also included visiting Ernesto, a cellist friend I know from Vienna and concerts together, and Pauline and her family. Pauline is a Parisian violinist, a dear friend, and Hannah and I visited her and her family in Provence the summer Hannah visited me here.100_6286 100_6447 100_6448

100_6294Rarely have I enjoyed an equally relaxed vacation – so often I am unnecessarily anxious about work left behind, or confused by not having to be busy, or not sure what hosts or fellow travelers are expecting. However, Paris was a gracious gift – wonderful conversation and outings with friends, easy-going but active approach to sight-seeing, and (how could it be otherwise in Paris?) such incredible food…whether a roadside treat of crepes, or a “simple” (i.e., splendid) dinner cooked by a real Frenchman, or a “simple” (i.e., fabulous) soup and salad supper at Pauline’s, or heavenly butter-rich pastries that disappeared with delight and were walked off over Paris’ sprawling landscape, or bread and cheese and apples picked up at the local grocery for a very satisfying picnic, or sitting in a café with the most glorious piece of lemon pie beckoning. (Note: If too much culinary talk annoys you, read further at your own peril – or practice the virtue of forbearance, and offer a prayer on behalf of those tempted by gluttony in the face of the glories of the cheese board and butter-infused pastries.)

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The first evening James and Davenne, their landlord, Ernesto, and I headed to an organ concert at Notre Dame. It was a late evening, because afterwards the landlord (temporarily in Paris and staying with James and Davenne) offered to make dinner. Of course, this had to mean before-dinner drinks, then a spinach/cheese tart (accompanied by a carrot salad Davenne had made), followed by mash potatoes served with chicken and crème fresh on top, followed by a cheese course, followed by bananas flambé. A bottle of white wine disappeared with the first two courses — and Jean-Pierre (the landlord) was sure we needed a nice bottle of red to go with the cheese. After all of that, I really needed the espresso to end the meal (now nearing midnight) before finding my back to the hostel where I was staying for one night. …It was cool to exit the subway station with a view of the distant, lit Eiffel Tower.

The next morning I walked an hour to James and Davenne’s place, passing a couple of familiar spots (Notre Dame, Pompidou Center). Ah, the smell of browned butter (do you sense a theme?) and of croissants, the view of huge and colorful meringues in the shop window of a patisserie. 100_6274

100_6294…Sipping PG Tips tea and sharing three pastries was a great way to start the day together. We went to an English speaking church for quite a decent service and then walked pretty much all afternoon — to the Eiffel Tower, over to the Arch de Triumph, down the Champ de Elysee, and then to meet up with Ernesto for a concert — then back to their neck of the woods for crepes. Quite a lot of good conversation along the way. Chilly and cloudy weather, but no real threat of rain. …Finally, I made it to Pauline’s place at midnight. Her family is extremely hospitable – the first night I was there none of them were there, but instead two Swiss guests, a German friend, and me. Most were leaving the next day, and a Korean student was arriving, along with our hosts themselves the following day!

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Monday morning I did a bit of reading for uni and popped out long enough to find a boulangerie for a breakfast. (Can you believe that a splendid almond pastry is only about a Euro fifty?) After an exodus of the other Kempf-household temporary inhabitants, I walked toward James and Davenne’s, taking in a bit of the Jarden des Plantes (botanical gardens) on the way. (There were poppies blooming, of all things in March.) I practiced a bit of piano on James’ keyboard, and after baquette sandwiches for lunch, we caught up with Davenne at the library where she had headed to do a bit of research. They wanted to take me to a wonderful tea and cakes shop nearby the library – absolutely fabulous!!!! We split the most glorious big slice of lemon pie with magnificent piled-high meringue, as well as a lovely pear and chocolate tart — both with shortbread crusts. Man, oh man.

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Then James headed to French class, and Davenne and I walked part of a promenade similar to NYC’s High Line. Not much makes for a better afternoon than a good walk and meaningful conversation. Then we headed back to the flat, via the grocery store, and got started on dinner…vegetarian lentil stew, along with potato/turnip pancakes and turkey breast “steaks.” Salad, bread, cheese. Butter fried apples, with rum-soaked raisins, topped with crème fresh. (Of course we had to go all out – the landlord was our guest this time!) More “Frenchness” from the landlord — such as describing how the French have to guard the names of their cheeses – Brie and Camembert are places, not just types of cheese! Fun!

100_6337100_6336Tuesday I started out with a walk (and pastries), met up with James and Davenne to visit the Jardin du Luxembourg, and then we proceeded to Montmartre/Sacre Coeur. 100_6340 100_6351 100_6353 100_6354

 

Everyone was feeling pretty tired, but I soldiered on with more sights in the afternoon – a huge park on the western outskirts of Paris, then back to the Arch de Triumphe (and up all the stairs – the elevator was out of order).100_6382

 

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In the evening, a group of us went to a fabulous concert that a friend of Ernesto’s had arranged tickets for. Vivaldi, Mendelssohn, Shostakovitch, etc. Really fabulous.

I came home to the Kempfs’ to find Pauline’s Mom, the German friend, and Pauline sitting around drinking tea and eating the zucchini bread I’d brought! I joined the circle of tea drinkers and ended up staying up late with a second wind of energy!

Wednesday morning I met up with Ernesto in the northern part of the city, near where he lives, for some Rachmaninoff and Piazzolla music. Good to play together again! Then he made us lunch before I met James and Davenne at the Louvre. It can be hard to visit a museum with friends. However, we were all up for two or so hours of looking, with over-lapping pace and taste. So, it was perfect. …I’d decided I was going to feel bad if I didn’t go, and it wasn’t as expensive as I thought it would be. And, how cool to go with an art historian! We focused on Dutch/Flemish painting, and also saw some other worthy pieces. A Rembrandt painting of lace was about the most amazing, plus a huge oil painting that somehow looked like it was in watercolors (Italian, I think).

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100_6423    100_6425We also saw a museum curator giving one statue a bath (so we thought) or repairing it in some way. Interesting:

100_6437       100_6435 We ended up at Pauline’s for dinner, with Ernesto joining us later. We had a wonderful combined meal and, again, delightful conversation. It was fun to have friends from different spheres all enjoying each other.

And a few more photos (the first for any Jerome K. Jerome fans):

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100_6401Budapest

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Thursday I had to say goodbye to Paris. But, the trip wasn’t over! On to Budapest! Budapest, from my short acquaintance, feels a bit like Vienna and Prague mixed. Definitely eastern European feel, with architecture that harks back to Hapsburg days and the glories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

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Marianna Szivkova KUGThe first evening Marianna had a concert, which was great! Afterwards, we sat around in a Hungarian pub eating pizza till nearly midnight.

 

The next day Marianna showed me around quite a lot – “Buda” is particularly wonderful. Located across the river from “Pest, ” it commands a lovely outlook over the Danube and wider city and boasts an incredibly beautiful church and other wonderful architecture.100_6455 100_6493 100_6457 100_6501 100_6502 100_6497 100_6486 100_6460 100_6490  100_6469

We also saw the basilica and parliament in Pest, met friends at a beautiful cafe (where you can feel free to buy something fancy, prices being lower here), and returned home for lunch. At 17:00, I went to the opera (Wagner’s Parsifal, traditionally played on Good Friday), which lasted till 10:00. I’m not a big Wagner fan, but it was a lovely opportunity – beautiful hall and just 1000 Ft. (about 3 Euros), since Marianna’s former teacher, who was singing a minor roll, had extra tickets on hand.

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On Saturday I had breakfast with Maria (Marianna’s mom – Marianna had to head back to Vienna already on Friday evening). We didn’t talk a lot – her Hungarian and Russian and my English and German left us with precious little common language!), but smiles and hand signals and a few words were enough!

I explored on my own for much of Saturday, visiting an Easter market, Parliament (fantastic architecture – I’ll know to book a tour in advance next time, as it was already sold out), strolling through a large island park. In the afternoon I took the train home to Vienna. What a wonderful trip!100_6523 100_6585 100_6587 100_6586

Easter

The next day was Easter! So, up bright and early (Daylight Savings) for a run, then organizing things for the morning church service. Our small Easter choir sang an arrangement of the American folk song “I Know that My Redeemer Lives,” and the day – both at church and afterwards – was spent festively.

Monday several friends came over for an Easter brunch. I had wanted an excuse to extend the celebration – why not embrace the 40 days of the Easter season? So, I baked Mom’s recipe for hot cross buns and a couple quiches. It was a wonderful, relaxed visit. Most of those invited didn’t already know each other, but we found plenty to talk about.100_6600

Tour Guide and Tourist

Just as brunch was wrapping up, James and Davenne arrived from Paris for a week or so! It was a very spontaneous idea that they would come visit me in Vienna, but why not? More good visiting and another city to enjoy together.100_6602

 

Of course, I had regular work duties (and they brought some work along, too), but we still found time to walk around Schönbrunn, study blown and painted eggs at an Easter market, watch a great movie with Pauline (Woman in Gold – based on a true story about art restitution after WWII; I especially enjoyed all the familiar sights around Vienna, including a church square practically across the street from where I currently live), go jogging with Davenne, and bake a lemon pie that rivaled what we’d tasted in Paris.100_6605     100_6610
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While James and Davenne held down the fort for the weekend (my flatmate was away), I traveled with one of my school classes to Munich for a history field trip. Munich was the birthplace of the Nazi party and remained the party headquarters throughout the war. So, there is a lot of (infamous) history, and we visited both a documentation center and the university where a student uprising led to disastrous results (if you know the movie Sophie Scholl…) We also saw some of the city sights. (I caught myself feeling funny that I could speak German in this city that is both very different than Vienna, and also similar in other ways!). It was a privilege to get to know colleagues a bit better.100_6655 100_6625 100_6653 100_6650

…A story from Munich:

The priest starts the sermon with the statement that the Resurrection was not an historical event. Wait – did I hear that right? Maybe it the echo-y hall, the language barrier. He carries on: No one saw the Resurrection as it happened, so it can’t be proven. But, he appeared (bodily? In some sort of inner experience?) to the Disciples, to the disciples down through history who have believed, met Him in some way, spread the message. The Resurrection is a present reality to be experienced and believed, not a historical fact that may or may not have actually happened.

I sit with a group of 11th graders and fellow teachers from our Catholic school in Vienna, taking in morning mass in the Holy Ghost church in Munich, after a weekend of exploring the city and its history. Afterwards, the kids head off on an hour’s photography project, and we teachers opt for a café in the sun on the main square. The talk turns to the sermon. We all agree that the Resurrection cannot be empirically proven, but then opinions divide. One of our number suggests that the value of the Biblical narrative of the Resurrection, or of other miracles, is chiefly in the meaning behind what’s written, and a more metaphorical reading is a gracious and enlightened response to the doubts engendered by what we are taught by the laws of nature and the findings of science. For my part, I think it makes a world of difference whether Jesus actually rose again or not. If Jesus is maybe risen, why, for crying out-loud, do we pray to Him, request His presence, or celebrate His Cross?

The “real meaning” behind the miracle is for me inseparable from God actually intervening in a surprising – miraculous – way in history and, on the other hand, quite independent of my propensities to skepticism or unbelief. 

It was both a good and frustrating discussion with the other teachers. I wonder what the students took away from the sermon, or from similar messages they get at school or perhaps in their local parish. Will they relegate the Resurrection to the realm of metaphor? Will they turn in disbelief from an empty fable, an embarrassingly outdated story? Will they be robbed of the joy and power of the Gospel by trying to force God into the walls of the world He created? Or, will they cling to Him, the Ground and Source of reality – the Truth who upholds them in faith and doubt, who has stepped into their world and who will appear again (“to be marveled at among all who have believed”)?

…On a lighter note, what some people do in a park in Munich on Saturday morning:

100_6645 100_6647…Shortly after I got back from Munich and then James and Davenne headed on to visit her brother in Berlin, I welcomed other guests from Hamburg! Some will remember my writing about Olga, the dear friend and violinist who lived with me and Rachel for a number of weeks last year. I got to meet her roommates in Hamburg last July, and so now Olga and Vero made a trip together to Vienna!

Sadly, I didn’t have as many free hours as I would have liked to have had! But, Olga got to show Vero around the city, and we shared good talks, some walking, and a visit to Olga and my favorite café, among other things. It was great to have Olga back at church for one Sunday, as well as for the German home group mid-week. And, a time with Olga wouldn’t be complete without some ridiculous giggles – and serious conversation. Two reasons I cherish this friend!

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Although the people who have peopled this post all deserve more space, my readers are probably not only in a culinary-vocabulary-induced-stupor, but a bit überfordert (overwhelmed) with sheer words. So, I will bid each “Adieu!” for now and sign out with one last photo.100_6682

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The Sun Coast (and other February happenings)

…Books pile on desks and shelves, quotes insinuate themselves into Word documents, and the hands of the wall clock circle with a slow determination. It’s the month of February, and the library is populated not only with the cacophonous array of languages and opinions of authors over the centuries, but by the students wishing to distill what they’ve read into fresh and elegant prose, not to mention somehow to assimilate their own never-before-thought-of insights. 

…Waves roll in over the cold sand, the morning sun promising balmy afternoon temperatures. I jog along barefoot, wondering if I’m going to work up the courage to jump in the chilly sea. It’s February and the semester break. The average Austrian is off skiing, but I’m in warmer climes, taking in the absolute luxury of the Spanish coast.

So, what’s been going on in Vienna lately? First, a look at a trip to Spain and then to more scholastic and day-to-day affairs!

Costa del Sol

Some time before Christmas a friend suggested that we spend the week of our semester holidays in Spain, as she had access to a remarkable discount on an apartment at a resort near Málaga. It wouldn’t have crossed my mind to head there, but the idea proved rather irresistible. …It turned out to be quite a lovely week with Megan (right) and Genny (left)!

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For starters, the resort was a bit out-of-this-world — ocean view from the terrace, beautiful landscaping, swimming pool(s!), gym, access to the beach, etc. Even though it was hardly lying-in-the-sun-on-the-beach weather (a bit chilly yet), we were a bit like a kid with a cookie in each hand and not knowing where to start munching first!

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Besides lounging at the resort (and supposedly working on university tasks or what-not), we visited the surrounding towns, soaking in the lovely architecture and relaxed pace. The first afternoon we took the bus to Marbella — the highlights were a nice bakery and an open-air market (where we bought a rather huge quantity of Brussels sprouts, incredible olives, and chestnuts to roast).

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The last afternoon we took the bus and train to Málaga, birthplace of Picasso. We visited a museum dedicated to his works and landed briefly in the most delightful wine bar/restaurant for some of the sweetest wine and most savory olives imaginable.

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The other two day trips were a bit more of an undertaking. Mind you, if we had been traveling with a car, it would have been a somewhat different picture. But, renting a car was really out of the question, and the buses (and trains) were fine — as long as you weren’t in a great hurry!

The afternoon (after about five hours of travel) at the Alhambra was very memorable! An extensive network of palaces and gardens, the Alhambra embodies the beauty of Moorish art (think arabesques, carved plaster, seemingly infinite variety of geometric patters, and characteristic Moorish arches) and also stands as a reminder of just how old Europe is in the eyes of Americans. It was already old when, after the Reconquista in the 1490s, Ferdinand and Isabella made the Alhambra their royal seat and Columbus sailed to the New World.

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Probably the most outstanding elements of the visit were the fountains (in an otherwise rather dry area) and the elegance of the architecture design, adorned with exquisite patterns.

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The other day’s outing was to Gibraltar, an island of British territory located at the end of Spain. I’ve always heard of the “Rock of Gibraltar,” but I didn’t realize that it’s really a small mountain, perched as if ready to leap across the narrow strip of water separating the European and African continents.

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The bus drops you off still in Spain, and then you get to walk across the border, going through passport control on the way. The first strip of land is actually an airstrip — runways to both sides and arms like at a train crossing ready, apparently, to block foot and car traffic when a plane is ready to land.

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Gibraltar is really an intriguing place. On the one hand, there are obviously a lot of Spaniards who live and work there, and not everyone knows English. On the other hand, the currency is pounds, there’s PG-Tips tea in the gas station super market, and bright red mail boxes give the impression of being straight from the British postal service.

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Besides shipping off a few postcards with special Gibraltar stamps and eating Indian take-away from a fabulous hole-in-the-wall spot, we of course took in as much of the local historical sights as possible. Taking the gondola up the mountain, we were first greeted by the terribly over-friendly monkeys that have established their own kingdom, probably without asking the Queen’s permission. Both Megan and I experienced a greedy monkey jumping on our backs in search of the snacks packed in our backpacks — very cheeky indeed!

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From the top we had a good view of a bit of Africa rising above the mists. That was quite cool! Meandering back down, we stopped at a natural grotto and also at the tunnels made during the Napoleonic Wars and expanded during the world wars.

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The last morning at the resort, I decided that it was worth a plunge indeed.

Back in Vienna

Back in Vienna, school started right back up, though university was off for the whole month of February. That meant enough time to put together a sizable paper. For my class on Augustine’s Confessions, I decided to focus in on the 10th chapter, which in some ways ties together the largely narrative earlier chapters and the especially theological last three. The book deals with various themes, but particularly the idea of God’s presence and of finding rest/peace in Him is a recurring thread. In chapter 10, Augustine asks where he can find God and how he can know God amidst his ongoing struggle with sin. Both questions lead him to the conclusion that encountering God is chiefly God’s gracious gift — countering and overwhelming the limitations of man’s capacity to grasp God’s presence and glory and man’s propensity to double-mindedness.

I’d like to say that I achieved a new understanding of the concepts of God’s presence and rest — but that would be to think I could work that up on my own! Anyway, writing term papers, whatever the subject, doesn’t tend to be restful — especially if you are coming up with 9000+ words (in English!), and a goodly percentage of the 90+ footnotes are in Latin! But, hopefully it will bear some fruit.

Paper-writing aside, there have been plenty of other things to keep one busy. Although spring seems ’round the corner, there’s bit a bit of ice-skating yet (a good flatmate “date”):

School is plugging along, and now the new uni term has started. At church, we are continuing to see growth — hopefully in depth as well as numbers. Today we had an experimental second service, as we are beginning to outgrow our space! Meanwhile, the church calendar is pointing us toward joyful Easter celebrations in the coming weeks.

I’ll close with a favorite quote that seems appropriate not only to the season, but to the new work week beginning and the ever fresh need for renewed perspective and vision:

“…with Easter, God’s new creation is launched upon a surprised world, pointing ahead to the renewal, the redemption, the rebirth of the entire creation….[E]very act of love, every deed done in Christ and by the Spirit, every work of true creativity—doing justice, making peace, healing families, resisting temptation, seeking and winning true freedom—is an earthly event in a long history of things that implement Jesus’s own resurrection and anticipate the final new creation.” (N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope). Amen!

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Waltzing into 2016

In keeping with my New Year’s resolution to post once a month, it’s time for an update! A month ago, I was in Knoxville, enjoying Christmastime with family and friends!

The two plus weeks were filled with cherished holiday traditions (baking cookies with Mom and Hannah, singing Christmas carols, enjoying the fragrant Christmas tree, listening to Handel’s Messiah and van Williams’ Hodie, and other Christmas favorites), significant nondescript family time (that’s not a negative [non-]description, but it’s not very interesting to blog about sitting around drinking coffee and chewing the fat), lots and lots of wedding talk with Hannah (quite fun), and a number of good visits with friends – dropping by old neighbors’, finding friends willing to dive into deeper conversation, enjoying a wonderful and beautifully icy hike up Mt. LeConte….

100_5865100_5860   100_5876100_5874 At the same time, the trip was not easy. Dad seems to be in about the same place as when I was home over the summer. Everyone who I talked with back home wanted to know how he was, but daily life (even for those who rejoice in good health) tends to be rather unremarkable. Especially for a prolonged illness, how does one convey the painful monotony of each day, the unforeseen hurdles, the relentlessness of it? How does one even pretend to “report” accurately? How to even communicate one’s own, undefined participation in the suffering of another? “O Lord, you know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! In your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. I awake, and I am still with you” (from Psalm 139).

…Coming back to Vienna I had hardly any jetlag and jumped pretty much right back into the routine here. That said, I sometimes feel like I live torn between two worlds – cherishing friends far and near (wherever I find myself) and sometimes at a loss to communicate on either shore of the Atlantic what it is that constantly tugs in the other direction.

…In Vienna in the winter, after the Christmas season passes and the Christmas markets close, certain other intriguing cultural icons materialize. You know you are in Austria – where skiing is the domain of 3-year-olds on up – when you climb on the tram, and the info screen is a summary of the snow levels and number of lifts open at the nearest slopes. Or, you know you are in Vienna – where the coffee culture is celebrated – when the winterizing of the rose bushes in the public gardens is accomplished with the help of burlap coffee sacks.

100_5897   100_5901 100_5899 100_5900 You know you are in Austria – a country that boasts a lake with a 25-km ice-skating loop – when hundreds of people turn out on a Saturday night for ice skating  in front of the city hall (this year the area boasts three skating rinks, connected with ice paths through the park). And, perhaps most of all, you know you are in Vienna – home of the waltz – when ball season comes.

This year I’ve managed to take in two balls. The first was a charity ball put on by the Russian Orthodox Church. It was pretty unusual seeming to have a bishop show up at a ball!

The second was quite spontaneous. Elisabeth, a friend from the first school where I worked, asked me if I’d like to join her for the Blumenball (flower ball) at the Rathaus (city hall). Her boyfriend and his boss were working there for the evening (as DJs), and there was an extra ticket. Well, why not?

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Oh my, oh my! One hundred thousand flowers, including hordes of orchids. Hundreds of elegantly dressed couples of all ages. Vast main hall where, after the traditional opening dance (performed by dozens of couples, all the women in white gowns), the floor was opened to all for the following eight hours or so. Staircases and hallways and other rooms with smaller dance floors. Did I say there were lots of flowers?

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We did a lot of watching people dance, as the two guys were busy working. However, Elisabeth and I managed a bit of line dancing and a rather hopeless attempt at the complicated quadrille (at midnight and again, slightly less hopelessly, at 2:00 a.m.).  However, at something like 2:30 a.m., just after we’d eaten some sausages (totally Austrian, if not exactly fitting with ball attire and atmosphere, in my mind), Erwin and Norbert could take a break for a waltz or two. I’m not a good dancer at all, but my lessons in the fall paid off a bit. The best part of the night might have been dancing the Vienna Waltz just before 5:00 a.m. Sailing around a hall with parquet flooring and vaulting ceiling, with a long ball gown, and a guy who really knows how to dance, is quite a lot of fun.

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100_5893 For lots more photos, click here.

While most of the guests left, we still had all the sound equipment to pack up. Man, it seemed like a lot of work at that time of morning, but finally everything was packed and loaded in the van. I walked home at 7:15 – with enough time to sleep for an hour. I’d rather foolishly promised a friend to go running at 9:00!

Lest it sound like all I’ve done the past three weeks is dance from one elegant engagement to another, there has been a decent amount of work for university (plus school teaching, of course). The winter term runs October through February – with some written assignments to be turned in by March 1st. So, I managed my first uni essay exam yesterday (Old Testament Israel) – nice professor and small class, though I was less fond of the deconstructionist (in my view) reading of the biblical text, or of the minor detail that I could hardly ever stay properly awake for a whole class. The course on the history, religion, and culture of Oman turned out to be interesting; maybe someday I’ll see more than the airport. (I think I flew through Oman on the way to India in 2004???)

The hermeneutics class proved to be my favorite – a wide sweep of backgrounds and opinions among the class members (from no biblical background, to a Catholic priest, to the lone [?] Protestant); incredibly well-informed, young professor, who did a great job juggling the diverse class; interesting assignments, mostly about the book of Jonah. The last class – and the most challenging – has been one on Augustine’s Confession. I’m in the throes of figuring out exactly what I’m going to write my paper on (10 pages, single-spaced, seems long to me), but it will have something to do with either Augustine’s/the Confessions commentary on music or on the concept of God’s rest. Thankfully, I can write the paper in English!

Well, as usual, I’m blogging late at night before an early more train or plane. More on that next time!

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