Thursday, November 29, 2007

"Baby Grace"

This is a bit of a departure this week, but I simply cannot get my mind off of this tragic murder of a little girl in Texas. The body of two-year-old “Baby Grace” was found in a plastic container in Galveston Bay and was recently identified as Riley Trenor.

The mother, Kimberly Dawn Trenor has been arrested, along with her husband, Royce Clyde Zeigler II, and is in Galveston County's jail, charged with injury to a child and tampering with evidence. According to court documents, Trenor told police she and her husband killed the girl in July and hid her body in a shed before dumping the body in Galveston Bay.

What sickens me most about this story is not that it is merely another innocent child who suffered at the hands of adults, but the fact that she suffered horribly over a period of at least six hours. According to a statement by the mother, her husband beat Riley repeatedly with a belt because the girl failed to say “please” or use other forms of what he considered good manners.

According to the statement, this abuse continued each time the girl failed to respond appropriately and escalated into throwing her across the room and holding her head under water. When the stepfather became more enraged, he threw her so hard that she hit her head on a tile floor, sustaining severe head trauma. Allegedly, that is when the couple gave her some pain medication and she died.

Any parent can understand that flare of anger when a child misbehaves and you have the urge to slap him or her, but most parents, thankfully, take a deep breath and calm themselves before taking action. Sometimes they don’t stop in time, but certainly after that first slap, they stop and say, “What on earth am I doing?”

That these people could not do that, baffles me. There is simply no way that I can understand what drives people to abuse and murder children. It's got to be more than just anger. Anger flares and then dies down. It doesn't stay at a fever pitch for six hours.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Gone Fishin'

Sometimes ministry takes strange turns. One wouldn’t necessarily consider fishing a ministry, but in the case of Mr. Charles it was.

Mr. Charles, a retired Presbyterian minister, was our neighbor in Omaha and about a year after his wife died, he was diagnosed with leukemia. It was not the virulent leukemia that kills so many young people, He had Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia, which is a slow progressing form of the blood cancer and is very treatable for several years.

I first met Mr. Charles when I was out walking my dogs and would go by his yard. He was one of the few neighbors who would be outside no matter what the weather was like, and we would often chat for a few minutes. He was thrilled to find out that my husband is a minister and that I am a chaplain, finding a common bond in shared ministry.

When I would stop to visit, some of our other conversations revolved around fishing and the great walleyes that could be found in lakes north of us, although Mr. Charles preferred the trout at a lake much closer. One day he told me how much he missed fishing, and I was surprised to find out he was no longer going out. He explained that his children, both of whom lived some distance away, were afraid for him to go out alone now that he was sick, and the friend he used to fish with was no longer able to.

He talked about this a couple more times when I stopped on my daily walk, and finally it hit me that maybe he was really grieving for this loss in his life. I asked if he would like to go fishing with me sometime.

“Oh, I thought you would never ask,” he said.

“But why didn’t you just ask me?”

“Because a black man cannot invite a white woman to go fishing,” he said. “That is the way I was raised. I could never be that forward. But there is nothing in that code of conduct that says I cannot accept your invitation.”

So, for the next year, Mr. Charles and I went fishing about once a week in prime fishing times, stopping only when winter snowed us in.

Sometimes we would talk about the beauty and bounty of God, and other time we would talk about social issues, or books, or whatever topic struck our fancy. That would always be on the drive to and from the lake, however. The time at the lake was spent in quiet contemplation of the warmth of the sun, the gentle splash of water against the dock, the screech of a gull, or the drone of a curious bee circling our can of soda.

Actually catching a fish was never a criterion for measuring the success of a fishing trip.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Magic of Music

One of the patients at Day Services was a young man who had been in an automobile accident and had a severe closed-head injury. He had been in a coma for weeks, followed by weeks of inpatient rehab. Since I can’t use his real name, I’ll call him Dave.

Prior to his accident, Dave had been in a band with some other high school buddies, and he wrote much of the music. According to friends, the band was quite good and had actually played a few gigs, with hopes of more to come. Unfortunately, the accident had dashed those hopes, but Dave still liked to sing and would occasionally attempt to play my guitar.

One day while I was playing the usual warm-up exercise I do right after I tune my guitar, Dave focused on the music. When I stopped, he asked me to keep playing the song. “It’s not a song,” I told him. “It’s just a little riff I do.”

“But it’s a song,” he said.

“Okay, sing it.”

He did, filling in with a melody and lyrics as if he was reading them off a piece of sheet music.

He sang that song every day for a week, with only slight variations in the music, but wide disparity in the words due to his short-term memory difficulties. So I got the idea to tape him singing and send the tape to my son who writes music. I asked my son if he could write out the music for Dave, smoothing the rough edges of the melody and filling in missing lyrics.

A few weeks later I was able to gift Dave with a tape of his song, as well as sheet music. He was thrilled. He still couldn't remember the song from day to day, but his father told me Dave listened to the tape every day on the way home from the hospital.

Others in Day Services had certain songs they wanted me to play week after week, and I thought that all I was doing was making them happy for a little while. I had no idea that the music was actually helping them physically.

I knew of music therapy programs in healing, but had always thought of them as good for the soul, more than the body. But the director of the Day Services said that the music was helping, especially in Dave’s case, the patients’ brains to make new synaptic connections to compensate for those broken in the accidents that caused their brain injuries.

Even today, over ten years later, it still thrills me to know that this meager musical talent was able to have such a positive impact.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Shall We Sing?

One of the areas I served when I was taking my CPE classes was Rehab Day Services, housed in a large room furnished like a home with comfy chairs, a dining table, flowers and artwork. Patients who had suffered head trauma from accidents or strokes and had completed the in-hospital rehabilitation would come for outpatient rehab and spend their down time in Day Services.

During lunch, there could be as many as ten patients gathered around the large table sharing a meal, and Jean, the Director would always encourage them to share their joys and frustrations with their rehab efforts.

Bob, my supervisor, thought it would be good for me to go to Day Services at noon to bring some spirituality to the gathering. Ha. There was so much spirituality already there, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. They didn’t need me to lead them in prayer. They already did that. They didn’t need someone to listen to their fears and frustrations; they were already “chaplain” to each other.

So I sat and ate with them and visited. Then one day someone started to sing. Several others joined in on a sweet version of “Amazing Grace” When I saw how the music brightened the faces of those who were down that day and calmed the nervous jitter of others, I realized what I could do for them.

I could bring my guitar and we could sing.

So I did, and we did, to some amazing results. I thought it was all about brightening their day, making them feel better, but we accomplished so much more.

I’ll tell you about that next time.