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  • Writer's pictureNancy Willbern, PhD


          About a year before my dad died, he slipped off the planet into cardiovascular dementia. After walking out of his apartment in the senior living community where my parents lived, declaring he was going home, my mother and sisters and I made the excruciating decision to have him admitted to a geriatric psyche unit. He stayed there for three weeks to get his meds regulated.

          I’ll never forget the first time I went to visit him. He sat in his wheelchair, in a drug- induced-stupor with chocolate icing smeared on his disheveled shirt. Entering that space felt like walking into the Twilight Zone. And although I am a psychotherapist, I don’t work with psychosis. This altered atmosphere came as a shock as one patient wrote lecture notes on an imaginary chalk board; another beckoned me to come sit next to him so he could sell me some shoes; while another pulled her chair up right next to me, putting her face next to my left ear to express her anger towards a man who “dared to pound the Bible” in her direction; while still another lay in a recliner loudly moaning out her obvious pain; and another got to her feet and walked over to the locked door, began to shake its handle while screaming, “Get me out of here! Get me out of here!” I wanted to join her. And, to make matters even more surreal, more jarring, Bob Barker’s voice could be heard over all the cacophony beckoning his, The Price is Right-TV-show-audience to “Come on down!”

          I did my best to keep my focus on my dad, trying hard to hold onto any thread in the conversation, coherent or not. He didn’t make much sense, talking about an airplane that was coming to pick him up. My stomach clenched. My heart raced and ached with a depth of pain I had never felt before. An inner voice inside of me began to scream, “No, not this! Not him! Not this! Not him!”

          When visiting hours were over, I made my way back to my car and drove home in a daze. When I got inside, I sat down to my computer and started typing out all of my frazzled emotions and my ignited rage at the indignity of it all. "This could not be happening to my father - my father, the well-respected attorney, my father the wise elder at our church, my father – the man who oozed dignity and integrity, a quiet, warm wisdom that so many had counted on in so many ways. This! This was not supposed to be happening to him!"

          I realized I was mad at God. “How could You!” This was too much. It made no sense to me. It felt so completely unfair. Wrong! And then, I got really quiet and I went inside myself and asked my Guides, “Help him! Please help him! Help me! Help me to understand this! How could this be happening?!”

          And then I heard Them, “Nancy, the father that you have always known, the one who is dignified and wise and lived with integrity, a quiet warmth – he has already gone. This one that you are screaming about is the remnant of the cloth. This part of him is not finished yet. He is working through something important. Can you not allow him the time and the space and the dignity to find his way through?" This gave me pause.

          "And there is more, They continued. "This is not just happening to your father, Nancy. It is also happening to you and your mother and your sisters. It is a time for you to ask, ‘Why is this on my plate? What is there in this situation for me to learn?’ No one is left out, Nancy. There is a gift here, should you look more deeply, a gift for all of you.”

          That Voice got my full attention. It said things, noticed things on a level I was not used to maneuvering in. It brought me to a perspective that I have never forgotten – a fuller recognition that we are all connected, that whatever happens to someone else cannot help but affect all of us, as well – especially if we have an emotional reaction to it. That emotional reaction is a clue that there is a hidden passageway inside this most unwanted situation that can lead all of us, should we choose to seek it, to uncharted territory that brings with it deeper insight, closer connection and greater freedom.

          It's as if each of us is one tiny colored piece of glass inside a kaleidoscope. With each turn of the cylinder -- with each turn of events -- all the shards of glass shift in position to adjust to the movement. With each spiraling twist, all the pieces relocate in relation to each other. And with each new-found position, a brand-new picture of reality organically emerges, should we dare to notice. I love this. It was my lesson, my gift from that horribly, unwanted moment in my life. Of course, I would still so earnestly choose to have my dad die of a heart-attack in his sleep and be spared the slow decline that he actually experienced; but given that it is not up to me, I will gladly accept the gift hidden in the pain of my resistance.


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