Prov 17:22

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine... - Proverbs 17:22

Friday, June 5, 2020

A Happy 104th Birthday, COVID-19 Style

Imagine you were born in 1916, half-way through the first world war and a Polio outbreak. You were two when the Spanish Flu claimed 50 million lives worldwide. When you reached 14, the Great Depression began, and by the time you were 24, your fellow Canadians were engaged in World War II. In your thirties, you survived a second Polio outbreak and another influenza pandemic in your early forties. You saw still another flu epidemic called Hong Kong flu in your fifties. In the middle of that one, you watched man land on the moon. You’ve seen the world go from horse and buggy days to super-sonic jets, from telegraph to instant messaging. You’ve been through fires and floods, losses and celebrations. Now you are 104 and living through yet another worldwide pandemic.

I have not met Helen Doell, but she turned 104 last weekend. Born to Russian Mennonite immigrants on May 30, 1916, Helen grew up in a family of eleven siblings in a two-room house in rural Saskatchewan. It’s hard for us to grasp the level of poverty experienced by her generation, especially during the Great Depression.

Helen’s memories include roughly-hewn floorboards, a bench that converted to a bed, and their only toys being a pair of scissors and the Eaton’s catalogue. In summer, they played imaginative games with stones and old syrup tins.

If you’ve found isolating a challenge, imagine being cooped up with all these kids in a tiny house with no modern conveniences, books, or toys. Helen’s dad would not allow them to play outside in winter because he did not want them ruining their only shoes. When her dad left to collect mail, Helen’s mom sent the kids outside despite the rule. I hear ya, sister.

Helen’s parents built a covered wagon and moved from southern to northern Saskatchewan where they were offered free land. At the age of 12, she developed an ear infection which continued to drain from her ear for over fifty years. When she finally had an operation in her seventies, her doctor said it was a miracle the infection hadn’t reached her brain.

Helen attended school in German for only three winters and then in English at age 13 when she had to begin again at Grade 1 because her English wasn’t good enough. At 15, she left school to help support the family. Food was scarce, especially following the drought and dust storms when a plague of grasshoppers consumed their garden. Though they never missed a meal, those meals frequently consisted of gooey dumplings or bread cubes dipped in sugar water.

Daughters Helen Wiebe and Carolyn Paul visit
Still, her children can’t remember her ever complaining. Generous, hospitable, and humble are words they use to describe her. “She’d always give something to visitors or if she went to visit others: a dozen eggs, a jar of cream, or something she had sewn,” her daughter Carolyn says.

Now a resident of Lions Prairie Manor, Helen has endured isolation from family during an already confusing and lonely stage of life. Carolyn describes their visits. “We contact a staff member who brings Mom to the window and helps us connect by phone. It’s difficult because Mom is hard of hearing and masks make it even harder. But staff have been so accommodating and kind.”

When staff asked her Saturday morning what she would like for her 104th birthday, Helen’s reply was “God’s blessings.” With the recent loosening of restrictions, she was able to enjoy her first face-to-face visit with her four daughters since March (albeit from six feet away), two at a time, outdoors. God gave them a beautiful, sunny day.

Helen’s family knows her as a prayer warrior with a heart for service and a well-worn Bible. One of Helen’s favorite expressions is, “We don’t know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future.”

Perhaps Helen and her generation understand more than any other that, although we live in a desperately broken world, it’s possible to live with joy and hope in your heart—the definition of a full life, regardless of its length.
Helen Doell on her 104th birthday. Behind her are her four daughters.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Lessons from a Blind Man, Part 3

Have you ever noticed that telephone keypads have a raised dot on the number five? Gene McKenzie had never noticed either, until he learned it’s there to help the visually impaired dial a number accurately.

Gene has had to learn many things since losing his sight to Macular Degeneration. His wife Alice told me about a helpful CNIB club that used to operate in Portage. “They’d talk about how they managed in their kitchen, for example. About ten of us got together for friendship and encouragement, but the club has dissolved. We wish someone younger than us would pick up the leadership and get that going again.”

Experiencing life through someone else’s eyes, as Gene sometimes does through Alice’s, gives one new perspective. “We tend to only notice the things we naturally notice,” Gene says. “But get ten different people to study the same picture and they’ll describe it ten different ways.”

Three of Gene’s six siblings in the U.S. also have Macular Degeneration, and the McKenzies feel grateful for our medical system and for the CNIB, which is supported by the United Way.

“Our kids have been tremendously supportive as well,” Alice says.

Gene & Alice with granddaughter Heidi
I can vouch for this. Their granddaughter Heidi happily sent me more photos than I could use for this series. In a message I received from their daughter Val, she said, “Dad has risen to the challenge and faced it with grace, courage and humor.”

With a chuckle, Gene tells me why he has stopped going shopping with Alice. “It’s too easy to lose her at the end of an aisle if I don’t know which way she turned!”

When asked whether he ever feels unsafe, Alice tells me a story about when they needed to take a cab to a different gate at the Vancouver airport. With no time to explain, Alice left Gene’s side to run and catch a cab. When she looked back, she saw terror on Gene’s face.

Gene feels encouraged when friends call to invite him for lunch or coffee. When they offer a ride to an event without his having to ask, he loves it. “It’s hard to ask,” he says. “One of the great lessons of this has been that in time of need, don’t push your friends away. Draw them to you. Often when a person goes through a hard time, they draw away from friends. That would be the wrong thing to do.”

So, what did I learn from my conversation with the McKenzies? The biggest is that attitude is everything. Gene may not realize it, but one of the reasons his friends stick around is because he remains his cheerful self and continues to take interest in their lives. While he’s happy to talk about his situation when asked, he doesn’t dwell on his loss or seek pity. He keeps learning and growing rather than allowing his world to close in and insisting others live there with him.

We can all learn much from Gene. Losses in this life are inevitable and usually unavoidable. Self-pity is always optional. Faith is optional, too, but Gene’s remains intact. He is fully confident that when his days on this earth are completed, his sight and so much more will be restored.

I asked him what he most looks forward to seeing when that day comes. Without hesitation, his heartfelt answer was exactly what I expected: “I want to gaze into the face of Jesus.”

I’m pretty sure Jesus will be happy to see your face too, Gene.

In the words of John Eldredge, “The beauty of the lives of God’s true friends is the sweetest and most winsome argument for Jesus there could ever be.”

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Lessons from a Blind Man, Part 2

Eric Davidson was a toddler, standing at the window playing with a toy on the windowsill during the 1917 Halifax explosion. The glass exploded, blinding Eric. Shattered glass and flying debris stole sight from more than 1,000 residents that day. The mass blinding helped birth the CNIB. A memorial park in Halifax is named for this amazing man who worked as a sightless mechanic for decades. His daughter, Marilyn Davidson Elliott, wrote the book The Blind Mechanic about her father and it’s become a favorite of my blind friend, Gene McKenzie.

Lots of other great books about the blind and their accomplishments have inspired Gene, like Thunder Dog: The True Story of a Blind Man, His Guide Dog, and the Triumph of Trust by Michael Hingson. The author and his guide dog, Roselle, became famous after they escaped the seventy-eighth floor of the World Trade Center on 9/11. Hingson refers to sighted people as “light dependent” and says, “Blindness doesn’t mean the end of the world. With technology and education, blindness can be reduced from an all-consuming disability to just another human limitation, of which there are many. There is more to life than eye function.”

I asked Gene if he’d considered learning Braille, but he said not at his age. With technology making it easier for the blind to listen to books and to have internet content read aloud by your computer, we discussed whether Braille might go the way of Morse code. A Braille Bible occupies more than eight feet of bookshelf, while the entire audio Bible fits on your phone.

“Apple has developed software which lets me touch my computer screen and it tells me which icon I’m touching, so I can find my way around,” Gene says. “Filling out forms online is tricky, and I need help. I still have enough peripheral vision to move around my home, but it’s the details I can’t see. I can tell there’s a picture on the wall, but I can’t tell you what it is. It’s been three years since I’ve seen a picture.”

Gene’s optometrist tells him he will likely hang onto at least some of his peripheral vision, for which he’s grateful. “Depth perception is flawed, but my white cane helps. The trick, in a crowd, is if a child darts out suddenly in front of me.”

Gene with his daughter, Val
Gene enjoys the questions of children who can be uninhibited in their curiosity. One boy wanted to know, “How do you cross the street? Those new electric cars are pretty quiet. You need to be careful!”

Gene’s love for children and youth is obvious. As a pastor and PMU rancher, he spent 21 summers running Beracah Valley Ranch Camp. You can still hear the passion in his voice when he tells about it. “I believe this gave our own kids a vision for ministry and what Christian relationships are all about.”

I asked Gene what he misses the most. “My ability to study,” he said with little hesitation. “I can listen to everything on audio, but you can’t stop and find that last paragraph easily. I used to remember names. Now I realize I’d been tying names to faces. They say you learn to hear better when you lose your sight. That may be true if it happens when you’re young, but my hearing is not keen enough. Often I can’t distinguish between voices. Listening requires a lot of energy and can be exhausting.”

When asked if he’s tempted to feel sorry for himself, Gene admitted to moments when he feels his world pressing in on him and he wonders “what did I do to deserve this?” But those times are few and far between.

“This has not harmed my faith in any way,” he says. “I am genuinely thrilled when I hear of other people receiving healing. Certainly, I question why it doesn’t happen for me, but I always fall back on Paul’s words in II Corinthians 12: ‘Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”’”

Healing is not always sufficient. God’s grace always is.

Next week I’ll share with you what Gene looks forward to most.