Monday, July 31, 2017

Catherine, on "the perfect partner for Michelle"

One more memory from Friday evening's memorial service, this time from Catherine Mussatti.

Good evening. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Catherine and I am one of Michelle’s best friends since grade school. My husband Nick and I were dating at the time Michelle first introduced us to Kris, and since then, we became especially close to Kris and will always remember the times we have had building our relationship alongside theirs.

I knew Kris was the perfect partner for Michelle from that first time we met him, and witnessed Michelle drunkenly throw a pencil at his eye during a heated night of board games and beer. In that moment, I figured most guys would start to have second thoughts about my crazy best friend, but in some goofy way, that was a metaphor for the kind of relationship Kris and Michelle would have. Fun, fast-paced, forgiving, and patient. They married just two years later. It was meant to be – God surely had a plan.

It’s been inspiring and humbling to see Kris and Michelle’s love grow from the very start. Nick and I have been lucky to spend time with them at bars and breweries, out in back yards and playing board games, and most memorably, on a trip to New York City last summer where we agreed Chicago deep-dish is infinitely better than New York-style pizza, which Kris called “just normal pizza”. I’ll always remember Kris and Michelle’s wedding entrance, which involved them dancing to and twerking to hip hop in sunglasses, or seeing Kris slow dancing with Michelle at our wedding, with Michelle in his lap, arms around him in his wheelchair.

I am most thankful that he showed Michelle, who means so much to me, what it is to be a great man, husband, and friend. Michelle told me that Kris was a thoughtful listener, and I always considered him to be genuine in conversation, and able to tell it like it is. Kris’s intentions were always real and his love unwavering. Even in these last weeks, he planned ahead to his and Michelle’s upcoming 4th wedding anniversary, and surprised her with an early gift. Despite the unexpected difficulties in his life, Kris always managed to put others first.

Reading through people’s reflections online in these past few days, the words inspiration, determination, courage, strength, confidence, ambition, and optimism are used consistently to describe Kris. The one word I feel that summarizes all of these, is GRIT. The dictionary describes grit as a firmness of mind or spirit and unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger. Grit is a trait based on an individual's passion for a particular goal, coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve their objective. Kris embodied grit, and never lost sight of his goal of ending ALS, advocating for and in the community, and to continue to be a positive, optimistic person despite facing an unimaginable challenge and battle. He lived with a purpose, and spent all his days living up to that.

To close, my vow and call to action for the Gronk’s Grace Army, is to not let our passion and the fight against ALS die with Kris. His life here on Earth may be over, but Kris’ legacy is far from settled. His legacy isn’t defined by just the times we’ve shared together, or the memories we have of him, but the impact Kris has made on us that changes who we are. Kris’s name is not etched on a tombstone, but is carved on our hearts forever. Kris, you’ve showed us what we need to do – it’s our turn to lead the fight now. Love you and God bless you.

Kamm, on Kris

Kris's friend Mark Kamm spoke at the memorial service on Friday evening, July 28, at First Free in Rockford. This is what he said.

Yesterday, in preparation for this time of sharing, I sat at my desk sifting through some 12 years of memories trying to pull a few meaningful paragraphs together. I found myself staring at the wall. My mind had gone mute, with only what seemed to be silent films of the past several years faintly rolling through my frontal lobe. The week had been a long and exhausting culmination of three increasingly difficult years.

Since Kris' passing on Monday, I've read hundreds of comments, anecdotes and messages about Kris' lively spirit, caring heart and inspirational mental toughness. While I love to read all of these things about my friend whom I've often thought of as my personal Butch Cassidy, these are not the things that caused Kris and I to grow as close as we did. Our friendship actually blossomed out of our mutual frustrations with life. We were roommates for the first time during our sophomore year at Valparaiso University. Kris was navigating a lot of personal turbulence in those days, and I was dealing with some things that caused me to feel like I was in a flat spin heading out to sea. All at the ripe age of 18 years old.

Our ability to intensely (some would call it violently) talk with one another about the things we were dealing with, and come to trust each other with such personal and private emotions and issues, not only grew us closer on a brotherly level, but allowed us to lean on each other during the dark times so that neither of us had to sleep with our heads in the mud. Each of us needed to be heard, and each of us needed someone to understand him at that time -- and the timing of our assignment as roommates couldn't have been more perfect. It was a God-thing – a divine appointment - that would prove itself and come to full fruition ten years later.

Over the years, communication between Kris and I became more seamless. We could pick up on each other's body language and understand each other by reading simple facial expressions. We could express vast ideas through a few simple anecdotes. This became more and more invaluable as Kris began losing control, first over his body and, then, over his ability to communicate/speak clearly.

I feel blessed to have had some of the conversations I had with Kris. We discussed things I've hardly had the opportunity to discuss with anyone else: deep, confusing, terrifying things. One of our last great epiphanies after a day of conversation, beers, and tears, involved uncovering what we felt was the most important part of our time here on earth. We came to agree that only one thing in this world pays back dividends when you're gone. That's the relationships we have with other people. People are the most important thing. We also came to the realization that though many people may say they believe this, few actually live it.

You see, it's become so simple to communicate with people in very abbreviated, very matter of fact, very impersonal ways. Yes, no. Up, down. Left, right. Too often we feed each other this controlled commentary of our lives rather than dare to engage in genuine intimacy. Too often, we switch our ears to passive intake and think, "Oh, it's not my business," or "It's not my problem…"

The ability to communicate and connect with and care about other humans beings is a gift – one that Kris fought to hold onto and employ until the very end. I can think of no greater tribute to the life of my friend than to do the same.

Kurt, remembering Kris

My younger son, Kurt Grahnke, spoke at the memorial service for his brother, Kris, on Friday evening, July 28, at First Free in Rockford. This is what Kurt said.

People tend to see diseases, especially neurological diseases as losses or deficits of certain functions. In medicine there are a myriad of fancy words to describe these deficits: agnosia, amnesia, ataxia, apraxia, the list goes on... It is easy to look at Kris’ disease as a loss – a loss of the ability to walk, drive a car, hug people back, eat a sandwich…. speak, and eventually on Monday night, a loss of the ability to breathe. However, the human organism is not simply a machine whose parts break down when we get sick. One of my favorite thinkers once said
“There is always a reaction of the individual to attempt to repair, to compensate for, and to preserve one’s identity in the adverse circumstances of sickness” (Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat).
This ability to adapt is a key characteristic in all humans–healthy and sick. Since the dawn of Homo Sapiens, the ability to adapt has allowed us to become such a proliferative species. With a constantly changing environment, our knowledge and abilities have advanced, our skulls have morphed, our brains have changed in ways we still do not fully comprehend, equipping us with conscious awareness of this joyful, beautiful, puzzling, and indeed, sometimes incredibly sad human condition….

But I think we’ve reached a state where it is easier to be totally comfortable with ourselves, our status quo, our default setting…and we may feel like we don’t really have to adapt so much anymore.

Kris showed me, showed us…that this is not good enough and that there is always room for self-improvement and adaptations. Kris knew there were other people around the world battling the same disease he had, and he never stopped fighting for them through Gronk’s Grace. He realized his work might not lead to a cure in his lifetime, but this did not stop him from making a contribution towards finding a cure for others down the road. He never stopped fighting for anyone he loved and he had love for a lot of people, including the special needs community, with some extra tough love on our sister, Eliza. He continued to teach these children from his power chair and even after “retiring” he never in fact stopped teaching all of us…

To do so, he found new, creative ways to help others despite the deterioration of his body….And this to me is what is most meaningful in life and makes us most human and made my brother, Kris, a particularly fantastic human: the ability to continuously adapt and improve one’s self for the sake of other people, especially the underdogs in society.

Moving forward, I hope we can all find our own ways of adapting to our losses, whatever they may be, to preserve and strengthen our unique identities, so that we may fight for the underdogs with the same tenacity, grace, and love that Kris showed us.

I’d like to close with a quote, keeping in mind that every single one of us will die one day.
It goes:
“Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for [those you love]. You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving” (Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air).

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Gronk's Grace

So here I am, on Thursday, July 27, one day before my 63rd birthday, trying to figure out how to wear a Gronk's Grace t-shirt to a funeral.

Well, not a funeral. A service that is a celebration of the life of my son Kris Grahnke, who died on Monday evening after three and a half years of living courageously with ALS. His blog, "Gronks Finding Grace," chronicled the reality of a devastating disease that destroys the body's ability to move, talk, swallow and finally, breathe. He also told the story of God's amazing grace in all of this -- in his wife, Michelle, who bore all the burdens of caregiving with wisdom, faithfulness and a radiant smile; in friends and colleagues who became the Gronk's Grace fundraising warriors for ALS research, and in the blessings of life in God's good world—summer, beer, multi-tasking in the bathroom.

Now he lives in God's eternal kingdom, safe and whole and still blessed by grace.

Back to the wardrobe issue. Last night, as I considered different options for the bottom half of a Gronk's Grace outfit, I fumed just a little, in my mind, at Kris. A t-shirt at a funeral, when I've got a perfectly lovely navy blue summer dress? The things I do for this child! It was a familiar, comforting feeling, and when I recognized it, it made me smile. I thought of my Cub Scout Den Leader's shirt, not near as flattering as a Gronk's Grace shirt, but worn so that I could be included in an important part of Kris's growing-up.

Kris often pushed me past the life I was accustomed to, got me out of my rut, and forced me to be more outgoing, just to keep up with him. His friendships in junior kindergarten brought me lifelong friends. He introduced me to Facebook and cell phones and to many wonderful young women and men, drinking beer at Poor Phil's. (I learned about the beer, too, from him.) For what it's worth, I use the f-word more freely because of Kris. More critical—I survived my husband's dementia and raised three healthy kids because of Kris's help, his ability to plan and be flexible, and his fierce concern for his siblings. He negotiated change and adventures with Eliza. He helped Kurt become his own person, his own kind of Grahnke cool.

A week or so before Kris died, I heard myself think, "his life has become a burden to him." Struggling to breathe is hard. Not being able to talk and be understood was, I think, harder still for Kris. He connected with everyone, and conversation was the medium for that. It was fun to watch him work a room. It was also fun to de-brief with him after a party or family gathering. One thing we shared was an interest in people and how they interact.

In these days since his death, there have been news stories about Kris--one on local TV in Rockford and one in the local paper. They used footage and photos from past stories about him as a teacher and someone fighting ALS. It was good to see his round, smiling face, to see him in a classroom, with kids, to see him buzzing down the hall in that power chair. When he was a baby, we often described him as "alert," always looking around, tuning in to his surroundings. Grown-up, this quality became enthusiasm and friendliness and social intuition. Yesterday, in our back-and-forth about the obituary on the funeral home website. Michelle told me that the information about his masters' degree needed to specify "behavior interventionist," because he frequently pointed that out to people. His gift for understanding people and the many different ways in which they see the world became a resource for helping children adapt to the school environment--and for adapting the environment to the children.

I will think about Kris and love him and miss him for the rest of my life. My heart, somehow, is not broken, it's full. Full of love for him, and blessed by the love of all the people he touched--the quirky individual kids he had such great relationships with; his beautiful Michelle and the whole Jamerson family, who took such good care of him; Eliza and Kurt, and Kamm and Cate and Rosie and so many other friends; Emily, his caregiver during this last year.

May Gronk's Grace, which is really God's grace, be incarnate in all of us, in memory of our dear Kris.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Fledgling on the ground

There's a fledgling on the ground. A baby cardinal in the grass, stretching its wings, but managing only a big hop forward on the grass, not flight. It's brown, not easily seen--through orange enough and pointy enough around the beak and head that it is distinctively cardinal. I saw it first because the bright adult male swooped down with food to share. He's hanging out nearby, in the mulberry and slippery elm and weedy trees that separate my yard from the alley. Chipping sounds are everywhere --hard for me to determine where they're coming from--and sometimes I heard the clear call of the adult male. He seems, to me, concerned, worried, as am I. He's the leader. He's persistent. He will solve this thing.

This patch of mown weeds and grass does not seem a dangerous spot, though a cardinal egg met its demise here a few weeks ago, I'm not sure how. Now there are other birds flying in and out of this patch of grass, many of them brownish, not-yet-adult cardinals, though it's hard to tell. Their heads in profile give them away, but the orange and red that give them their identity are not yet out.

I've watched for ten or fifteen minutes now, and that fledgling has finally gotten out of the open and disappeared into the weeds by the fence. I swear that little gathering of other young birds a few minutes ago provided cover, their meet-up on the grass urged the little one forward into safety. The anxious calls have ended. But I wonder, what will this fledgling's fate be on this quiet Sunday in July?

Bringing up children is the great drama of our lives. We leave our parents' nest, we fledge in the grass, succeed or fail, and repeat in the next generation.

My contemplative journey this Sunday morning began with opening Mary Gordon's "Reading Jesus" to the chapter on the Beatitudes. I went from there to a writing exercise on who has influenced my life and whether that influence was expansive or constrictive. My notebook now has notes about parents and spouse and a teacher, but this question could just as well lead to ruminations on sons and a daughter. The running themes are compassion and kindness, alongside courage and restlessness.

Sparrows and other small birds are now fishing goodies out of my gutters, in-and-out activity that makes a distinctively aluminum sound. There is so much life to watch here in my backyard, more than other places, perhaps, because I am careless about cutting down weed trees and cleaning out gutters. I am content to sit and watch and mark the presence of abundant life.

Which brings me back to Mary Gordon:
Mourning is not a moral act. To mourn is to mark. It is, in this, related to the artist's work. A kind of making. A making of something of the nothing caused by loss of the beloved. It is simply an act of deep human connection. ... It is, once again, a refusal on Jesus' part of the straight and strictly defined in favor of the deep movements of the heart.
God's eye is on the sparrow, and the fledgling cardinal. And God cares for my heart, my human, troubled heart.

Peace to you this Sunday morning!

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Sunday evening

For the last several weeks I've been watching a pair of cardinals who have claimed my back yard as part of their territory. They have built a nest in the cascade of Concord grape vines staked ten feet in the air on a rusty post next to my patio. The nest is well hidden. It is only because I spend time out there, morning and evening, that I know it's there. I looked for it only after seeing both male and female fly to perches near the nest, hop to the top of the vines and dive in.

I suspect from the goings and comings of both birds that there are babies by now. A couple weeks ago the story was all about the female, pulling strips of bark off a branch on the fence and flying into the tangle of leaves to wind each strip into the vines to secure her nest. A few days later I found one broken egg in the grass, with purple-gray spots on the shell, just like the picture of a cardinal egg that I'd seen when I looked up cardinals on Wikipedia. Last week I saw mostly the bright red male flying across the yard, perching on the pole that holds the hanging baskets of marigolds. From there it was a short flight upward to the post that holds the vine. Silhouetted, you could see the food in his mouth. He'd dive in. There'd be a rustle and a flutter--the female taking the food--and off he'd go again. This morning it was both birds flying in and out--hauling in bits of seeds and whatever else it is baby cardinals eat. I suppose I should scatter sunflower seeds on my back steps--it's what my Aunt Clara would have done. But then you have the challenge of keeping the squirrels away. Clara would sputter at them, but it didn't help much.

I've just finished reading Mozart's Starling, by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. It's a good read, with chapters on linguistics, music, natural philosophy, Mozart, Vienna and a pet starling named Carmen. It made me listen more carefully to the birds in my backyard. I can't say I know much more about what I hear than I did a week ago, but I have a new sense that birds are not only chirping--they're listening. I can pick out the cardinals better, not just their pretty territorial boasting, but also the male and female chip-chipping at each other, one in the lilac bush, one near the nest, just to stay in touch. A couple nights ago, a multi-sentence fuss went out from the under the grapevines when I pulled out my chair and settled my candle and notebook on the table. "She's there. She's there. Want to be sure you know—she's there. Careful."

Every now and then I get out of my aluminum chair, step closer and look up at the nest from underneath, ducking my head under the umbrella of vines and trying to pick out which patch of grey brown is the actual nest. I can see it, barely, but it's above my head, so I can't see into it. I'm curious, but I don't need to know. I'll mind my business so that they continue to mind theirs. They are that kind of neighbor. .

I'm sitting in the backyard as I write this. It's growing dark. Since it's July 2, there are fireworks popping in the distance and the noise of traffic a few blocks away. I just watched the female cardinal come and perch next to the vine. I heard a soft chipping sound coming from the nest. For a minute I thought it might be the babies. I stared and listened hard. Then--a flash of bright red--just the male taking his turn at bringing food to the family. He flew off and she went in next.

So much going on. So many sounds. Such peace.