Observations: The right place

Published on: June 30, 2011

My family is gathered in the living room of my Mom’s apartment while some of her life’s souvenirs, a collection of Shirley Temple dolls, silently listen in to the conversation and laughter. Mitch Traphagen Photo

My family is gathered in the living room of my Mom’s apartment while some of her life’s souvenirs, a collection of Shirley Temple dolls, silently listen in to the conversation and laughter. Mitch Traphagen Photo


“You sure travel a lot.”  I hear those words at least a few times a week. The truth is that I used to travel a lot, but now I just end up in a lot of places. Right or wrong, there are places I feel I need to be.

When my wife and I first returned to Florida in early 2010, I remained on the staff of the U.S. Congressman I worked for in Iowa for the rest of the year. As a result, every so often I would return to Iowa. That didn’t feel much like travel, it felt like work. Now I’m returning to nearby Minnesota for my mom. That doesn’t feel like travel, either, I simply feel the need and desire to be there.

My mom is in one of life’s transitional stages. She was recently diagnosed with Lewy Body Disease. There is no need to detail the symptoms and causality; it is something that will progressively affect both her body and mind. The road ahead is uncertain — how and when things will affect her is unknown. There are good days, and there are bad days.

Last week, there were a whole string of bad days and, as a result, my wife and I rushed up to my little hometown on the prairie to be there, despite the fact that I knew there really wasn’t anything we could do. As much as I wish for one, I have no magic wand in my pocket.

My brother, who lives in my hometown, has become her primary caretaker. He is a busy man — he has successfully raised three sons who are now going on to live their own lives, and he still works as hard as he ever has as a teacher and activities director for the town’s middle school. It is a rare evening that he can actually go home after work. Yet he manages to find time to visit Mom every day.

This weekend was the first time in years that my brother, sisters, and I would be in the same place. My brother pushed hard to drive home from a church service event in Idaho. My sister missed an important event, choosing Mom over her own needs since she was the closest to her at the time. My older sister rearranged her schedule and waited patiently as my wife and I all-too-slowly covered the miles from Florida to pick her up. The string of bad days ended shortly after we arrived and by the time the entire family was together, the bad days had been forgotten.

“Would you like to go to church with me?”  That was a question that required a quick moment of very deep thought. I’ve probably never been asked a more significant question in my life. People say that when you die, your entire life is seen in review, much like a high definition movie. I felt certain that how I answered that question would have serious impact on how I would eventually see my life’s review. When my aging mother living in an assisted living facility asked that simple question, I have no doubt that God’s video editor, the guy who puts everyone’s life review together, paused and waited for my answer. How I answered would influence how my life review would turn out — answering one way could have made his job a lot easier.

I didn’t grow up in a church-going family. My parents were religious but we didn’t often go to church. My dad, certainly the smartest man I’ve ever known, had a very certain belief in God. I know that because when I was young, he would talk to me about God. When our church needed help, he would volunteer. But Sunday mornings were some of the few hours that he could actually catch his breath. As a child, I was good with that. For some reason, I always felt a certain coldness and detachment in our church. Inside it was big and echo-y and I felt that some people were there simply because that’s what you were supposed to do in a small town on Sunday morning. I didn’t mind not going to church. I didn’t feel comfortable there, yet I grew up feeling comfortable about my belief in God and Christianity.

After driving non-stop to Minnesota from Florida, I had no real desire to go to church on that Sunday morning. I didn’t pack clothes with the thought of going, I certainly didn’t miss the church that always felt oddly cold to me. But I knew with certainty that the question my mom just asked held a significance beyond anything in my life.

“Would you like to go to church with me?” she asked. Had I told my aging mother that, no, I didn’t want to go to church with her, I could have spent the rest of my life doing all sorts of horrible things from robbing old people to murdering kittens but the ONLY thing I would have seen on my after-death life review would have been that scene of me declining to simply go to church with her. Nothing else would have compared. It would have been unnecessary to show anything else.

“Yes, I’d love to go to church with you,” I said. And the next morning we were sitting on a pew in what I felt to be an oddly cold church with echoes so extreme that, due to my hearing impairment, anything spoken was entirely unintelligible — so much so that I could not have testified under oath that anyone was even speaking English. Afterwards, my wife said the minister gave a great sermon and was very warm and personable. It seems I was wrong about that church. Now I think that perhaps I’ve been wrong all along.

Right or wrong, there are a lot of places I feel I need to be. Certainly, sitting on that pew on Sunday morning next to my mom was the right place. Being in Minnesota with my family was the right place. A little more traveling isn’t a big deal.