Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Our Shining Star

Count your blessings, they say. Think positive. Easy enough for people who aren't going through major life changes or depression.

I left for work this morning sulky and downcast. Though inspirational music played cheerily on my car radio, I couldn't muster one good thought. I arrived at work and the day began. Little by little, the routine began to settle me. I found that being busy was good for my spirits. And when a co-worker and I took a long walk during lunchtime, I turned my face upward to the shining sun and whispered a prayer of thankfulness.

As we returned to the office, I received a phone call from my son. He was going to spend a little time with my mother, his grandmother today. She had a doctor's appointment and he had volunteered to take her. He had questions for me, and I could hear in his voice that he was a little agitated, but he patiently answered the receptionist at the clinic while being respectful to my mother who kept talking in the background. My heart cracked in half as I thought of my son's goodness. It can't be easy for an almost thirty-year old to "hang out with grandma" one day a week. It can't be easy watching her mind failing, and answering her questions over and over, or listening to stories he's probably heard hundreds of times by now.

He took her out to eat after the appointment--something he does each week. He made sure she took her afternoon pills, knowing how much I worry about this every day. My mind could settle a bit as I relaxed and knew that Mom was in good hands. Matt is my mother's shining star, you see. She adores him and still refers to him as "My Darling." This is a name she has called him since he was a baby. I would walk into the house with Matt in my arms, and the minute he'd hear her say those words, his little feet would start kicking and he'd get the biggest smile on his face.

When she asked the other day who Matt was to me, my heart sank. But then I thought: at least she knows him. But I couldn't believe she didn't realize he is my son.

Matt is my shining star too, though. He is the blessing I am most grateful for every day of my life. His name, Matthew means gift of God, and it is appropriate. Any time I'm really down, I think of Matt and smile. His good heart, his infectious grin, his passion for causes that are right. Such a good young man. The best.

I am proud of him for more than this. He is someone who picked himself up from his own bout of depression. He cast off shyness that he'd had as a child, and did something about it. Matt took his passion to a whole new level and began doing what he really loved. Playing crane machines and making kids and their families happy. His YouTube channel and popularity have skyrocketed and I cannot think of a more deserving person.

I watch him at meet and greets when fans line up to talk with him. He takes time with each and every one of them, asking where they are from, and still humble enough to be amazed when they say they've come from out of state to see him. I see the looks on the faces of the children, the excitement of meeting their idol, and the joy from being there with him and it warms my heart. Matt gives of himself going above and beyond to make sure each child and family get plenty of attention. He's helped several kids who have been depressed as he shared a special story on his YouTube channel called "Draw My Life." And he donates his many wins to special charities and events. Yes, I cannot help but smile and feel very, very blessed when I think about the amazing person my son has turned out to be.

God, thank you for Matt, this gift you've given, this shining star for so many of us. And if anyone should be a true star in every sense of the word, I pray that Matt's popularity would grow and flourish even more in the years to come.

Hey, if you have a minute, check him out. Subscribe to his channel. I think he'll make you smile, too.

Matt's YouTube:

Matt's Facebook Fan Page:

Matt's special story: Draw My Life:


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Small Stories to Touch the Soul

I have chosen Valentine's Day to share a few small stories that I hope will encourage and bless you. If you are a caregiver of an elderly family member, please know you are not alone. And know that there are moments, these sweet moments that you will remember forever.

Love in the Golden Years

Love in the senior years: A true inspiration to me. My parents were married over sixty years. Sixty years of ups and downs, good health and bad, happiness and sadness. But one thing remained: a steadfast love. It was this love that inspired me to write stories; theirs, and another couple: my husband’s elderly aunt and uncle.

Louise, my husband’s aunt, had a stroke several years back and was hospitalized and eventually moved into a nursing home. Her husband, Hubert, took the time every single day to drive to see her. He helped her eat, talked with her even though she couldn’t speak well, and made sure every need of hers was met. There came a time he couldn’t drive any longer, and he would wait as the senior bus picked him up, not wanting to miss one day with his wife.

 When he suffered his own health crisis, he ended up in the same care facility. Though they weren’t in the same room, Uncle Hubert would wheel himself down the hall to spend time with his beloved each and every day.

Hubert and Louise didn’t have many family members, so I became a regular visitor of theirs. I watched as love appeared to grow even stronger as Hubert sat by his wife’s side, gazing upon her as if she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, and talking to her as if she was the only person in the world who mattered.

Then came the day when we had to tell him that Louise had passed away. Brave man that he was, Hubert made it to the funeral. When he stood from his wheelchair to give Louise that final kiss, I thought my heart would break. 

He would live another two years without her, and it was during that time that I would grow closer than ever to him.


One Christmas morning my husband Jim and I went to visit Uncle Hubert in the nursing home after Aunt Louise had passed away. We signed the guest book in the front lobby and walked through the doors to the hall that leads to the patient rooms. A little way up the hallway, Uncle Hubert was sitting in his wheelchair, the only patient in the immediate area, an expectant look on his face which broke into the most beautiful smile the instant he saw us. "Merry Christmas," he said, extending both arms toward us. We embraced and went into the dining room with him to chat. A lump formed in my throat as we spoke, realizing we probably got the most wonderful present by giving our time to this dear man. "I knew you were coming," he said to us. It was the strangest thing. We could have chosen any time that day for a visit, yet he knew in his heart it would be then. All our love, Uncle Hubert....

Basket of Love

There is a basket my mother keeps near her kitchen table, spilling over with love letters and cards that Dad sent her through the years. We lost my father only four months ago, and these writings have become a beautiful link to his love for Mom.

Every so often when I’m visiting, Mom pulls a crumpled page out and asks in a shy, giggling, school girl kind of way, “Did you ever see some of the notes your father wrote me?”

In her dementia, Mom doesn’t realize that I’ve heard the letters read many times now. But to her, it’s the first time. It’s a way to reignite the passion she and Dad shared, and makes her see herself as my father always saw her: as the young beauty he once courted.

Though the ravages of aging are upon her, the thinning, gray hair, bent body, and same sweatshirt stained with jelly from the previous day; inside is the young girl. The one my father loved.

Friday, February 10, 2017

When Mom Found the Light

I've debated putting this story out there. It was difficult to go through and not easy to write about. Yet I feel that if it blesses someone, helps another person if they, too, are going through either of the family issues I speak of, then God has led me in the right direction.

I've been trying to get this story into Guideposts and other magazine publications and so far, I've hit dead ends. So for you readers of my blogs, my true inspirational stories, I give you something deep to ponder today. A true story that I hope will bring you comfort with its message of light.

With Valentine's Day approaching, it is appropriate. For part of this tale took place on a Valentine's Day so long ago in my family. Appropriate also, because it is about the heart in many more ways than one. . .

When My Mother Found the Light
Karen L. Malena
“Do you have the earrings I gave you?”  Mom asks. “You know, the ones with the rhinestones?”
Mom’s wiry gray hair stands on end around her face; food from the previous day stains her pink sweatshirt. She’s seated at the small, round table nibbling the corner of a jelly donut, licking her fingers like a little kid. It hits me hard how truly childlike she has become. My heart cracks like fragile porcelain. 

 Familiar sights and sounds bring me a bit of desperately needed comfort as I stand in my parents’ kitchen. The old percolator-type coffee pot, stained from years of use, comes to a boil on top of the stove. The harvest gold refrigerator hums the same tune as always, and white ruffled curtains flutter in the light breeze that floats through the open window. 

The back door creaks, and Dad walks in, cane in one hand, well-worn prayer book in the other. Dad: my rock. Our eyes meet for a moment and he smiles a tired smile. 

Mom asks again about the earrings. Dad and I look at each other, and this time he winks at me. We’ve talked about this before. We are amazed that she is able to recall a gift she’d given me long ago, but thoughts from only a few minutes ago evade her entirely. 

Dementia, the sneaky robber, is slowly stealing my mother’s mind, replacing it with simple conversations and yet oddly leaving a few precious memories of times past. 

I promise my mother I will look for the earrings when I return home later. 

 Dad sits, and I count their pills out of endless medicine bottles. Mom talks excitedly about the old high school yearbook she discovered last evening. I know better. She really found it last month, and I know exactly how the conversation will go. I listen as if it’s the first time she’s telling the story, oohing and aahing at the proper times, while Dad complains about another hospital bill. 

I wash a few dishes left from the night before, and look out the window into the backyard where my brother and I had so many marvelous adventures. The countless haunted trails we fabricated to frighten our neighborhood friends, and the paths we cleared to explore deep into the woods; lawn darts, badminton, family picnics. Life has been quite an adventure, I think to myself. A sigh escapes, and I wipe my hands on a well-worn kitchen towel. I promise to visit again soon, and kiss both of my parents on the forehead before I go. 

Later, at home, I bring out the jewelry box from my childhood looking for the old earrings. I root through, fingers brushing past a cherished heirloom, my Nonna’s beloved locket, and then pushing aside a small faux gold seahorse necklace I haven’t worn in years. A torn, yellowing piece of paper sits at the back of the box and I reach for it; the childish scrawl, a page ripped from the diary of my youth. Mom went to the hospital by ambulance today. 

I sit down hard on the edge of the bed, and memories pepper my brain like the sting of tiny wasps. Emotions run through me in succession: shame, fear, anger, and finally, guilt. A silent scream forms in my throat: It’s happening again. It’s not fair, Lord!

Tears well up in my eyes and make their way down my cheeks. The paper is clutched in my hand and the writing begins to blur. I was eleven years old, only eleven. The words, a litany of the small girl I’d once been, afraid as her mother was taken from her and not for the first time; a little girl who’d been lost and alone due to the descending darkness of her mother’s mental illness. I wipe at the tears, overcome with emotion.

When my mother had gone to the hospital that long ago snowy day in February, it hadn’t been one of her moments of insanity, or even one of the imagined illnesses she sometimes had. This time it was much more serious. She’d suffered a cardiac arrest. The doctors saw that they were losing her and assembled a team quickly to resuscitate her. 

 That Sunday is indelibly etched into my mind--a snowy, windy day, cold and bleak. I remember my father running into the house, his face careworn from all we’d recently been through. I see myself alone and confused as ambulance attendants take my mother from me. I wouldn’t learn until much later what had happened that day. I never could have known that I’d almost lost my mother.

For the second time in my life, Mom is leaving me; but this time it’s the memory thief. 

Mom, where are you going? I have so many stories I want to share with you about my own life. I miss you.

 I know I’m fortunate to still have her, but this doesn’t feel like my mom. It’s a shell of who she once was. Conversations have now been replaced with questions, so many questions. We replay past moments again and again. 

   Sometimes I feel as if all the good years in between never happened. This isn’t the strong woman who once ran several businesses of her own. 

I glance down again at the scrap of paper, the diary entry from a February in nineteen seventy, and a shiver runs through me.

Nobody had ever given me and my father a complete diagnosis of Mom’s mental state. I’d only heard snippets of cruel words from insensitive people: depressed, crazy, suicidal. While growing up I’d watched as my mother returned home from other hospital visits, a haunted look on her face and the smudges of dark circles beneath her eyes.

 All that I’d seen, the spiraling depression, and secretive whispering, threatened to pull me down. I became a nervous, hyperventilating child, preferring to retreat into the fantasy world of books and movies, making up my own tales where everyone lived happily ever after and mothers didn’t talk crazy. Sadness and fear became constant companions and it became difficult to talk about my feelings. I daydreamed about having a normal family, but at times, I thought I might never see my mother again. 

Through it all, my father became a tower of silent strength. With deep faith, patience, love, and even a sense of humor, he handled each crisis with grace. I never heard him speak unkindly to my mother, nor did I ever feel that he was giving up. He would attempt to make me laugh with silly stories and a ridiculous language he invented. He listened patiently as I sniffled over some school bully’s infraction, or helped with nightly homework. We attended church most every Sunday, and prayer became a way of life for my father. His Bible was never far from him. We adjusted to life without my mother for months at a time, and my grandparents stepped in to help raise me. 

 One day Mom returned home after another of her particularly lengthy hospital stays. I noticed a dramatic change. The dark circles were gone from under her eyes, and her face glowed. When she talked, she spoke clearly, and made complete sense. Confusion, anxiety and sadness had vanished and I saw lightness in her step that I’d never seen before. I was so elated to have a normal family once again, that I never asked about the transformation. 

Only Dad seemed to know something the rest of us didn’t. A huge burden had been lifted from his shoulders, and like a secret he meant to keep, Dad didn’t talk openly about the fact that a miracle might have occurred. In the quiet of his heart, he knew. 

 Laughter replaced hushed voices and secrecy. Warm conversation and affection rooted my parents’ love more deeply. Life settled into the kind of boring routine I’d envied from my friends.
Though other trials followed, Mom showed strength I didn’t know she’d been capable of. She delivered my brother at age thirty-nine, even though doctors had warned her that a late pregnancy could be devastating to her health. 

She stood by during my own health battle with scoliosis, a source of comfort and courage during a frightening time of surgery and my torturous year-long body cast. 

 Mom became an antique dealer; something she’d always wanted to do. Then she and Dad bought a small Mom and Pop grocery store in our small town. The customers gravitated toward my mother’s welcoming, compassionate personality. Her infectious laughter carried through the opened door on warm summer nights.

 Many of the patrons grew close enough with Mom to share stories of their lives and daily struggles. To those who were hurting, Mom began to tell her story of faith; one I’d never known. She told the story to anyone who needed hope.

It seemed when my mother had gone to the hospital that long ago snowy day in February, when she’d suffered the cardiac arrest, she felt herself being lifted from her body and headed toward a long, dark tunnel. The faster she traveled a feeling of complete love began to wash over her, surrounding her. She explained that it was almost indescribable, all-encompassing, and put into simple words, it was as if she was the only person who mattered. 

 After a few minutes, she felt herself being pulled rapidly back into consciousness. As her eyes opened, she heard the technicians and doctor exclaim, “She’s back!” 

 Mom hadn’t understood at first what had happened, but later would say she had seen a glimpse of what is to come, the feeling of God’s love complete and overwhelming; a personal, individual type of love. St. Augustine put it this way: “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.”

If she sat in a doctor’s office and someone spoke about a sick loved one and how frightened they were for them, Mom would tell the story. When people talked about a family member who had died, and how unbearable life was without them, she would tell the story. Whenever she felt it would bless another person, my mother would recount the few moments she’d spent wrapped in the miraculous love of God. 

This happened to her in the early nineteen-seventies before talking about near death experiences became popular; a time when it wasn’t fashionable to speak of such things. Mom knew that she’d been given a true gift. A new chance at life and the opportunity to share about the light of God’s healing presence. Though Mom’s earlier years had been spent wandering in darkness, she arrived on the other side bathed in radiant light. 

I need to remember this now as I think about her dementia. It’s not the same as mental illness, though it feels like it at times. But the thought that sustains us, my father, brother and I, is that we know where Mom is headed no matter when her life should end. We know that miracles can and do happen, and we experienced such a gift in the face of some of the most horrific events a family should ever go through. 

I find Mom’s earrings, and hold them in my hands. The stones wink in the overhead light, reflecting so many memories of better times. I’ll call her later, and she may or may not remember that she asked about them. It doesn’t matter. For this tiny spark contains a lifetime of precious moments: love, lessons learned, and miracles.