The Life of Grandma Phyllis

My beloved Grandma Phyllis died last week.  There are many stories I could tell about her, but perhaps the most important to me is an exchange she had with my uncle Jim a night or two before she died.  Her body ravaged with cancer (missed by her physicians until it was too late to help), Phyllis had moved to a hospice facility where she was growing progressively weaker.  Although I am assured her blue eyes burned as clearly and forcefully as ever when she was awake in these final hours, breathing – let alone speaking – was an increasingly difficult endeavor, so when Jim asked her, “How do you feel?” he had to lean in close to hear her feeble voice.

When he had drawn near enough to render her audible, Phyllis whispered her answer: “With my fingers.”

That was my grandma.  Witty and cheeky until the very end, cancer broke her body, but never her spirit.

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As Christians, it can be easy to lose track of what the result of our faith should be.  We become so concerned with what to do about issue X or personal struggle Y that we fail to bear fruit as we obsess over ourselves rather than others.  This is unfortunate, but it’s also life.  The struggle to rise above our own weaknesses and fulfill our potential through usefulness to God is never as linear as we would hope, and even those I would regard as saints have had their moments of fruitless distraction.

Even so, our natural tendency to focus on self-need and self-improvement isn’t always directly opposed to achieving results.  One such case is found in Jesus’ instructions to be salt and light.  Found in the fifth chapter of Matthew, the metaphor is a simple one: the world has a natural tendency – in these two metaphors, a tendency towards either spoiling or darkness, respectively – that is to be reversed by followers of Jesus.  We are to be agents of reversal, and it’s a case where simply worrying about myself – doing what I should be doing by going against the flow wherever I happen to be at the moment – should bear fruit for others too.

Which is easy to say, but hard to do.  There’s a prayer, however, that articulates just how faith should look when it’s operating in an agent of reversal like you or me, and it’s a prayer that tradition ascribes to St. Francis of Assisi.  (Wikipedia disputes its provenance, but has several versions here)

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Grandma asked my dad to read that prayer at her funeral.  He did.  And as he read it, it occurred to me that while I hadn’t always understood Phyllis’ faith, part of the reason was because my grandmother was always more interested in using her faith as an agent of reversal than she was in saying the right things.  Which isn’t to say that she didn’t say the right things if asked; rather, unless she was asked, she focused more on action than on words.

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Last summer I visited Grandma, and during my visit, she gave my wife and me a driving tour of her hometown of Rapid City.  She was always proud of Rapid, and as she grabbed an unopened box of Cheez-its from the cupboard on her way to the car, she actually swaggered a bit.  As we drove, with Phyllis occasionally stopping in the middle of the road to point at things and tell stories (with the cars behind us growing increasingly frustrated), she talked a bit about her church.  Grandpa had grown up Episcopalian, but Grandma had no particular love for that denomination when they moved to Rapid City, so they tried a few churches.  The Episcopal church, however, had a women’s group and a bridge club, and that sealed the deal.  As she said this, she slowed in her consumption of Cheez-its, the memory of finding community in a strange city 60 years ago satiating her briefly.

Turning to today’s generation at the church, however, she grew frustrated, and the Cheez-its began disappearing faster than most people would be able to chew.  “Now nobody wants to go to church, and churches don’t bother to give young people activities that will draw them in.  I suppose a bridge club wouldn’t work anymore, but there must be something people can do together!”

At the time, I just interpreted it as Grandma wanting more programs at church to get people interested in worship.  Now, however, after hearing her tell more of her life story as her illness progressed, I think I misunderstood.  This wasn’t an old Episcopalian’s complaint about a lack of church programming.  It was a woman who had spent her life trying to be an agent of reversal bemoaning that the community designed to promote that reversal was wasting away.

It makes sense.  We’re supposed to be salt and light, but what good is one match against a dark mansion, or one grain of salt against a leg of lamb?  Obviously, it works better with a community.

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We had Grandma’s funeral on a Saturday, and the next day four of us were at Grandma’s church, attending her usual service, and sitting in her usual pew.  I looked around the room at that early morning service, and realized that – except for the absence of Grandma – the room looked basically identical to the last Sunday I had been there, 13 months before.  The same people were seated in the same pews and saying the same liturgy.  Except that there were fewer of them.  One woman whom I had met last summer even thanked us for sitting in Phyllis’s spot, since Grandma’s death now meant this lady would have that entire 1/3 of the sanctuary to herself every week.  She had become an island, essentially, as others – now including Phyllis – had passed away around her.

We could talk all day about dying mainline churches, but that misses the point.  Grandma’s community of salt and light was dying, but you’d never have known it from Grandma.  She just kept working on lighting and seasoning the world in all the ways she knew, working as an agent of reversal until the very end.  She missed those who had helped her in that project for most of the last 60 years, but she didn’t let their absence stop her.  She wished her church was growing, but she didn’t let that become her obsession or distraction.  She just kept giving her time, her money, and especially her wit to those who would benefit from a little salt or light.  She did it for people at her church, she did it for her five sons, she did it for her nieces and nephews, and she definitely did it for me.

Cancer or no cancer, my Grandma was salty till the end, with her blue eyes lighting up every room she entered.  Phyllis Frankenfeld was an agent of reversal for as long as she had breath.

My Little Miracle

One reason I’ve posted infrequently lately is due to an illness and subsequent hospitalization.  Don’t worry – I’m in the process of recovering, but my prognosis is great and I’m feeling better daily.  I won’t bore you with too many details; I myself seldom care to hear much about the medical maladies of others, and I assume everyone feels that way whether they admit it or not, so I have no expectation that mine will be of particular interest to those of you who did not birth me.  Nevertheless, I do want to say something about my experiences, if only because I feel as though I’ve been the recipient of a minor (and I do mean minor) miracle.

One day, I noticed that if I applied pressure to a specific spot on my abdomen, it felt much as I’ve always imagined it would feel to be stabbed in the stomach.  Being an adult male, I hatched the plan to Google my symptom to see what might cause it, and then ignore the problem.  Google revealed to me that this particular symptom – apparently properly called ‘point tenderness’ – should lead one to call 911.  Surprised by that revelation and having no other indication that I was suffering a medical emergency, I followed my original plan and ignored it.

Which worked for a day or so, but the pain worsened.  I stopped eating, because that helped a little, but when I realized that simply driving over railroad tracks threatened me with blacking out from the torment, I called my doctor.  She’s a laid-back and blunt woman (an odd combo to be sure), who casually dismisses misfortunes over which other doctors I’ve had would obsess.  Our visit was short, and she was anything but laid-back, attempting to get me in to see a specialist immediately.

I saw the specialist the next day.  He called my doctor, and they agreed that I most likely had a serious abdominal infection, but wasn’t in imminent danger unless the organ in question broke open and I became septic, which any fan of House, M.D. can tell you is very bad (and happened every episode…).  So he scheduled some tests (on a Monday, 72 hours away) and sent me home with antibiotics.

24 hours later, I was in the ER with symptoms suggesting that the ‘unless’ had happened, and my condition was going to put me in the ICU or emergency surgery.  Needless to say, I got my tests that Saturday instead of waiting until Monday, and while the tests were scrutinized, my condition stabilized and I was admitted to the hospital.

The timing here matters immensely.

My doctor had referred me to the care of a specialist, but over the course of the weekend, among the 12 doctors I would see would be all three members of that specialist’s practice.  Each of the three has his strong suits, and I have to think that had I gone in for tests on Monday, I would have been reliant upon just the one specialist.  Because I was brought in over the weekend, however, each ended up getting involved, which led to my minor miracle.

It turns out that my condition was as unserious as it was excruciating, and no organs did go nor ever were in danger of going supernova.  What I had (or have, for a few more days) was an extremely rare malady called epiploic appendagitis which mimics a few very serious ailments without being much of a problem at all.  It’s painful, but it fixes itself given enough time, and there’s no need for surgery or other extraordinary measures.  Crucially, however, it’s so rare that most – and likely all – of my doctors had never actually seen a case, including two that have practiced medicine for 70 years between them.  In fact, a few of them seemed to have never even heard of it, and it’s not at all uncommon for people with this condition to be subjected to unnecessary surgery since doctors frequently miss the diagnosis all together.  In short, it’s a condition that basically doesn’t happen.

As I said, I was seen by 12 different doctors during my three days in the hospital, but let me assure you that you’ve never seen so many smiling and incredulous physicians in your life.  After the diagnosis was made, some of them came by my bed simply to smile, shake their heads, and tell me how incredible it was that the specialist had even thought of this diagnosis.  The doctors had no doubts whatsoever about it, but they were all in disbelief just the same.

This then, is what I view as my little miracle.  I showed up to the hospital with a straightforward set of symptoms pointing to an obvious and serious malady, but just happened to have a different complaint that basically never happens but mimics those exact symptoms without being at all serious.  Also, because my symptoms worsened at precisely the right moment (Saturday), the doctor who I’m relatively certain would have missed the diagnosis on Monday was on vacation, and his partner caught it in his absence.  And all this happened after I sat in a specialist’s office that Friday, unsure of how to pray, finally settling on simply asking God to work it all out in the best possible way.

So that’s my little miracle.  Not necessarily divine intervention, but a series of perfectly timed and improbable coincidences that just happened to take place after I prayed.  If you had asked a doctor about my best case scenario on Saturday night, being sent home and given over-the-counter medications would NOT have come up.  Not even close.  But – after a few days in the hospital – here I am.