Quiet Sleep and A Sweet Dream

Dream (3)Throughout her adult life, Mom experienced a recurring dream that was poignantly revealing. In the dream she roamed the halls of a school, unable to find her locker or her classroom. She was always lost, always searching, never finding. One hardly needs to consult a dream interpreter to understand the obvious meaning behind her unresolved quest. To think that she was perpetually adrift, unable to find her heart’s desire, was reminiscent of an ancient Greek tragedy.

Toward the end of her life, Mom also suffered from vivid nightmares. Many times I would hear her during the night or during an afternoon nap fighting against someone or something that posed a threat. She could rarely recount the experiences when I woke her, but judging by the flailing and yelling, the danger must have seemed very real. Sometimes she was so enmeshed in these dreams that it was difficult to break the spell. When gently touching her shoulder or softly calling out “Mom” didn’t work, I resorted to shouting her name, “Joy!”

One day just before she was admitted to the home hospice program, she was able to recall a particularly powerful vision. It began harmlessly but ended in disturbing cries that drew me to her bedside. Her story is still clear in my mind.

I was with a bunch of other people by the water. I’m not sure whether it was the ocean or a lake, but there was a pier. I’m pretty sure the people around me were my brothers and sisters. Sam (her late husband, my father) was in the water and he wanted me to get in. He kept laughing and trying to coax me, but I didn’t want to go. Finally, he grabbed me and pulled me in. Everyone was laughing, but I was really mad.

Dream (2)

As with her recurring dream, this one did not require hours of thoughtful analysis. She simply was not ready for the end of this life … or on the flip side … the beginning of a new one. The hospice social worker she shared the story with concurred without hesitation. I was quietly concerned because I knew Mom did not have much time left to prepare. The ethereal boat was going to leave the pier with her aboard regardless of whether she wanted to go. I shuddered to think that she might die flailing and shouting – figuratively if not literally – as though she were in the middle of another bad dream.

The day inevitably came, of course, when she traded her hospital bed for a seat on that ghostly vessel bound for the Other Side. By that time, though, I was no longer worried that she wasn’t ready. Long after she stopped talking to us, my sister and I heard her pose two important questions to no one that we could see. I was alone with Mom for the first question. My sister was alone with her for the second.

Where are we? Where are we going?

Although she displayed some typical signs of near-death anxiety in the days leading up to her departure, Mom was entirely calm and peaceful when she asked these two questions. Her eyes were closed to the mortal world. There was no trepidation in her voice whatsoever.

I can’t think of anything she could have said in her last hours that would have given me more comfort. The answers would be interesting, but the questions are solace enough. Evidently, she went somewhere with someone.

Dream (6)The idea that our loved ones depart on a journey of mystical proportions is not without basis. Religious beliefs aside, it is a fact that the dying use travel as a way of expressing their impending departure without even realizing it. In their 1992 book Final Gifts, hospice nurses Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley documented multiple examples of patients who exhibited near-death awareness in this way. Mom could have been one of their case studies. Out of the blue, about three months before she died, she told me that one day I would come home from work and she would be gone – out the front door, walking and carrying everything she needed in a small bag. I thought she was joking as she so often did, but her voice was somehow different. Faraway. When I questioned her scenario, she was indignant. I let it go, and we didn’t talk about it again.

Today, with about 17 months of bereavement under my belt, I still miss my mother terribly. However, I don’t worry about where she is. I don’t picture her splashing around with my father in a lake or the sea near a pier, nor do I imagine her walking down the sidewalk of our neighborhood with a hobo sack slung over her shoulder. I don’t think of her futilely roaming the halls of a school because I think that, in the end, she finally located the elusive door of her locker or classroom and found paradise inside. No, I have embraced another vision – one that she shared with me on a sunny morning after she awoke from a quiet sleep accompanied by a sweet dream.

I was riding a motorcycle down a winding road with tall trees on both sides. It was getting dark and all I could see clearly was the headlight of the motorcycle on the road as I went around the curves. I don’t know where I was going, but I could feel the wind in my face and I felt free.

Dream (1)That is how I like to think of Mom – on an endless sojourn with no particular destination. I can imagine her long, dark hair blowing in the wind and a beautiful smile on her youthful face. She leans right into one curve, straightens out her bike, and leans left into the next turn. She is free.

And maybe freedom is the real point after all. Not where you are going or how you get there.

When our family gathered to scatter Mom’s ashes at her beloved Oregon Coast, we took some time to play and sing the songs she had requested – Mr. Tambourine Man by Bob Dylan, Tender Years by John Cafferty, Around and Around by John Denver, Always by Irving Berlin. I read a little poem she wrote when she was a child about wanting to be a cowboy. We wrapped the tribute up with a piece by the late British poet laureate John Masefield; a poem Mom had loved since she was old enough to read and appreciate classic prose. I could never deliver it in the resounding, dramatic way she always did, but it was the perfect farewell nevertheless.

Sea Fever

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by, and the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking, and a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking. I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied. And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying, and the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying. I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life, to the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife. And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover, and quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

On this Mother’s Day 2015, my long trick writing Notes From My Mother has come to a natural end. I have shared all of the posthumous notes Mom left me and have posted some additional stories that fit in nicely with the theme. As of today, I am going to suspend my weekly entries in order to follow my maternal muse down a different path of remembrance. If you look back at my October 2014 column titled “Don’t Forget Our Secret Handshake,” you’ll get a clue about what is to come. I expect to check in periodically while my sister and I work our way through this other exciting project. For now, I thank you for reading these stories about my beautiful, funny, sometimes weird, always wonderful mother. And I wish you all – wherever you are – quiet sleep and a sweet dream.

Dream (8)

Life Is Just A Bowl Of …

Forrest Gump famously said that his mother compared life to a box of chocolates because you never know what you’re going to get. My mother had an opinion on life as well, but it was a little more fruity. Depending on the circumstances, life could either be a bowl of cherries or a bowl of cherry pits.

Last Note (12)In the latter half of the 1980s, Mom and I repeated the cherry pit version often. We would laugh each time we said it, but it wasn’t really very funny. During those years, Mom lost her little home on a forested acre with a creek running through it because she couldn’t afford to install a dedicated water system as the bank required for refinancing. That meant she was unable pay off a 10-year mortgage balloon on her private contract, and the house reverted to the former owner. Also during that time, she spent the last year of her career working as the administrator of a nursing home that was in danger of closure due to licensing violations. The corporation she worked for gave her the assignment because they trusted her to bring the facility into compliance and, indeed, she did. However, the stress was monumental. All the while, she was living in a rustic geodome without water or heat on a friend’s property.

As for me, I was burned out as the editor in charge of the content of eight neighborhood newspapers in the city of Portland. Although it may sound like an important job, it didn’t pay particularly well. Neither did my husband’s job, so we were constantly counting pennies. At least we were when we were together. In 1988, we hit some bumps in the marital road and split up for several months. The same year, my mother-in-law succumbed to a six-year battle with lymphoma. That was in May. Two months later my father died unexpectedly during orthopedic surgery. My parents had lived apart for years, but his death hit my mother hard nevertheless. Looking back, it’s no wonder that she and I periodically shook our heads and, with utter resignation, made the cherry pit comment.

Last Note (11)By 1994, both of our fortunes had changed. Mom had retired and realized her dream of moving to the Oregon Coast. I had embarked on a more fulfilling and financially stable career in public service and happiness had been restored to my marriage. In a just-in-case farewell note I wrote and tucked away for Mom that year, I documented five rules of life. A few I’ve covered in this column because they were also among the posthumously delivered farewell notes Mom left for me. Live long and prosper. I’m the pretty one. A more uplifting version of Mom’s personal mantra, I’m the only one. In the Number One spot was the Joie de Vivre we had lost for a while.

Life isn’t always a bowl of cherry pits.

Whether you compare life to a box of assorted chocolates, to juicy cherries or to the ugly pits, the fact is that life is an ever-changing adventure. One day can be entirely different from the next. Grief is of the same nature.

Over the nine months or so since I started writing this column, I’ve sometimes gotten lost in the joy of remembering my beautiful, funny, sometimes weird, always wonderful mother. Some weeks, though, I’ve found myself slipping backward into sorrow. During those times, I would trade all the sleep and personal freedom I now have for the pleasure of helping her in and out of bed, escorting her to the bathroom, preparing her meals, managing her medications and otherwise caring for her 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

These past few weeks have been like that. I miss her so much that my heart aches. Even with other family and friends close by, I feel lonely. Talking to a peer the other day about the tough choices she is faced with concerning her elderly parents, I was secretly envious because she still has her folks … even if they are in fragile health. I want my mother back, gosh darn it.

It started because I discovered something tucked away in her closet that I didn’t expect. It was a surprise, a delight and a source of agony all at the same time. Three big scrapbooks full of memories.

I knew the scrapbooks were there; I just didn’t know what was in them. I found out while searching for documentation of a particular event in Mom’s life. I wanted to see if, by chance, she had saved the program from the Christmas Day party aboard the battleship U.S.S. Oklahoma in 1937 when she received her first doll. I didn’t find that particular item, but the pages were filled with so much more.

Last Note (2)Inside one of the scrapbooks were touching mementoes that celebrated both special moments and everyday occurrences. A postcard my father sent from the Gulf of Mexico in 1947 was full of passion and love, along with a P.S. to order a new lens for his glasses while he was away. A 1977 letter from my grandmother shared all the family news from afar. A pocket pasted to one page held poems, songs, quotations and toasts that Mom explained “all meant something and touched the inner me in some way.” Another pocket held a multi-page love story she wrote when she was a pre-teen. Roughly the second half of the scrapbook contained page after page of drawings, stories and cards from her children and grandchildren.

Last Note (9)Another of the three scrapbooks was home to dozens of examples of Mom’s artistic gifts, including a self-portrait etched in charcoal in 1949. I browsed through the drawings with interest and appreciation until one page stopped me short. I immediately felt a lump in my throat and tears stinging my eyes. I was looking at the faded remains of a once beautiful watercolor Mom painted for a community college class that we took together in the spring of 1974. Our instructor sent us into a wooded area adjacent to the campus and told us to paint what we saw. I was in front of Mom. She painted me amongst the tall trees and bushes. As I gently ran my fingertips over her brushstrokes, I was overwhelmed with longing to share the moment with her. Instead, I texted my sister, who said she knew about the contents of the scrapbooks since she helped Mom fill them. Even in a text, I was too choked up to say little more than, “Well, I did not.”

Last Note (8)My sister commented that, for Mom, the scrapbooks were “a work of undying love for her family.” How I miss that love right now. Friends tell me that the love is still there or that I will see her again when it’s my turn to Walk into the Light. Of course, there is truth in those words. But when I go into Mom’s bedroom, today’s reality is that she is not sitting in her recliner watching the birds in the trees that my husband and I planted by her slider. She is not napping peacefully in her bed with her oxygen machine rhythmically pumping nearby. She is not there to talk to me, smile at me, laugh with me or cheerily greet me with a lyrical, “Hello, Laurie Joy.” She will never be there again.

Never. For those coping with grief, that word cuts like a brutally honest knife. The only thing that can dull the pain is time. The most we can hope for is to cherish our memories and move on in a way that would make our departed loved one proud. Through this column, I have been able to bring my mother’s memory to life for family, friends and other interested readers. I’ve often felt as though she has been standing at my shoulder whispering in my ear, “Put in this. Don’t say that.” I hope that she is proud of the result.

Last Note (6)What I think she would most be proud of, though, is any success I may have in moving on with my life after 12 years of sharing a home with her and caring for her. It’s not an easy task, especially when every room in our house is filled with reminders that she is gone. But I am trying. I just have to remember that some days are always going to be better than others. As the late singer-songwriter John Denver once sang, “Some days are diamonds. Some days are stone.” And to paraphrase what Mom and I used to say …

Some days life is just a bowl of cherry pits. Other days you get the cherries.

Here’s to more days full of ripe, juicy cherries. As for the pits, well, I guess when you think about it, they aren’t really so bad. Pits are the seeds that grow into the trees that produce the cherries that fill the bowls. With apologies to Forrest, you can’t say that about a box of assorted chocolates.

Last Note (7)

 

Don’t Hang On To The Dogwood Tree

Last week’s column served as a prelude to the following story written by my mother-in-law in 1977. In it, she recounts the untimely death of her young daughter, Marsha, and wrestles with change, faith, hope and the inescapable fact that life must go on. To me, it is the perfect Easter story. Just 11 years after she wrote this, we lost her to lymphoma at the age of 62. I knew her only 16 years, but in that time she left an indelible mark on my life. Herewith is a note from my other mother.

By Joan Millard Olson

The dogwood tree stood beside the wooden walkway that led through the ferns to and over the creek to our rustic, modified A-frame home. It had never bloomed, even though it appeared to be happy in its sunny spot surrounded by the wild things of the woods, the vine maples and the alders.

Dogwood Tree 2 (4)As I stood before it one recent summer day, I could see in my mind the scene of another afternoon six years before. It was Mother’s Day. With my three teenage children gathered near me, my husband shoveled the last bit of dirt around the newly planted tree. It was to be a living memorial to our daughter, Marsha, who had so recently passed from our sight.

I now glanced at the house and my mind raced back to the many good times spent there. The preparations for two marriages, for our sons had found fine companions. Thanksgiving dinners and the twinkling lights of many Christmas trees. Snow falling softly outside and the warm glow of a fireplace within. Hikes up our hill and wildflower picking. Friends in for hot cider and singing praises to the Lord. Warm embraces. Taking our handsome, little grandson for his first walk in the woods and seeing a precious new granddaughter smile as she stood in her playpen.

Dogwood Tree 2 (1)0001And then there was that sad, April morning.

I came downstairs and looked in on my two daughters in their side-by-side beds. Something made me go to Marsha, our handicapped child. She was lying there with her beautiful, brown hair curled over the covers, her face turned to one side, seemingly peacefully asleep. I touched her, and she was lifeless and cold.

Then the arrival of the doctor who gently said she must have slipped away during the night. And the most indelible memory of all – the sight of the hearse pulling away with the body of our beloved child. How can a stranger enter your home and take away someone you love so much? I wanted to scream.

You have no right to take her from me! You have no right!

Dogwood Tree 2 (2)Supporting friends helped us through the first few days. And so did our faith that life, in spite of appearances, is indestructible. We were grateful that we had been able to share in the life of this little angel for almost 14 years. Her gentle, merry spirit was an inspiration to us all. A strong conviction came upon me then that the only thing of any real importance in life is love. All the petty complaints, the needless worries, the complexities of our lives are absolutely nothing. Only love matters.

Yes, this house represented so much, including a seven-year metamorphosis in my thinking. I had come to the mountain with my head in the clouds, an adventurer of the 60s, feeling that desire shared by many to get close to the land. A desire to touch and love. I had sensed that something was happening to mankind; that out of those turbulent times a new consciousness was emerging. Young people, particularly, were saying that there was more to life than hypocrisy, lack of love, greed. I was thrilled, too, that the expression of the feminine and masculine qualities was beginning to be balanced and that woman’s role was being appreciated. It was at this time that I wrote to a friend enthusiastically.

Never before in the history of man has there been such a challenge. There is a spiritual revolution going on and each individual stands at the point of decision. Will he live his life from self, or will he live it from Christ within? The one way leads to destruction. The other to eternal life. The Spirit of God is sweeping over the Earth like a mighty wind. What a glorious time to be alive!

I stood by the tree this sunny morning realizing that change was upon me again. We were planning to move, and it was hard to believe that a simple thing like a little tree could stand in the way. I told myself that we had, after all, moved before – several times. From our first little home in Oregon’s capital, where the first of our children was born, to a year living in a small town overlooking the Columbia River, the place of Marsha’s birth. Flavel House for BlogThen to the city and a lovely home on a tree-lined street. This was where our oldest son went from kindergarten to high school graduation. This was where we lived through the joys and trials of Indian Guides, Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Brownies, Girl Scouts and Little League. This was where we first found out that our beautiful little girl, our fourth child, was for some unknown reason, both mentally and physically handicapped. During our years there we lost three parents. But we were blessed with good friends, good neighbors and a warm church home.

Then we made our move to this home in the mountains. It’s funny how God seems to mentally move you before you ever pack a box. I was already a mountain person inside. I remember the last time I raked the leaves from our neat, trim yard in the city. This was an almost fanatical occupation with the households on our block. Not a leaf should mar the beauty of the trimmed lawns. And then one day I just left them all lying there where they seemed to belong, making an autumn carpet of gold.

Now as I stood by the dogwood tree outside our mountain home, I wrestled with the fact that a return to school and the city was beckoning. I thought how often I had declared that I would never move back to the city with its noise, its dirty air and its impatience. But we should never say never. Why, if anyone had told me just two years ago that I would come in my religious life to just a simple love of the Lord, I would have laughed and said that I could never go back to that orthodoxy. I had studied and practiced Christian Science. I knew about consciousness, the “All Inclusive Mind” and the “Principle of the Universe.” I didn’t need a personal God when I had all that understanding!

Yes, there I stood in front of the dogwood tree, faced once again with my old friend – change – and all the memories of other life changes racing through my head. But this time it was different. I couldn’t bring myself to say yes.

Dogwood Tree 2 (3)How could I possibly leave the tree? How could I leave this house? It seemed as though I was leaving Marsha there where we had last seen her – that I was deserting her. I, who thought I had it all figured out. How true it is that to know about God is one thing, but to actually know Him is altogether different. His presence had to fill me. He had to heal my memories.

Then one day soon after, it happened. He didn’t take the memories away. But over them all He flooded a love – like a swiftly flowing river – and showed me that, regardless of appearances, through all the experiences, good and bad, only Love was operating. I praised Him for each event that had shaped our lives, for there had actually been no bad ones, only clouded vision. As the poet Robert Browning said so beautifully, “On the earth, the broken arcs; in the heaven, a perfect round.”

The truth is, although we shouldn’t deliberately seek out or wallow in suffering, it can bring its rewards when it comes. We are purified, like gold, in the fires of tribulation. The broken heart is the open heart.

Dogwood (2)With that realization came the ability to let go of the past, to start the day anew. I could treasure the memories and lessons learned, but live and rejoice in the ever-present Now.

So I knew then that the tree would always be there, reaching its roots down into the cool earth, its trunk blanketed by forget-me-nots and wild sorrel, its branches stretching toward its neighbors, the maple and the alder. And perhaps, now that I have released it, next spring will find it breaking forth in resplendent bloom.

Prelude: Don’t Hold On To The Dogwood Tree

Last week while writing about the grandmothers and mothers who helped to shape my character, another story emerged from the synopses of their lives. It would seem irreverent to blithely skip past the brief but stunning notations that two of these four, resilient women buried children. Every parent knows there is nothing more tragic or impossible to bear. Those who have experienced it can attest to that truth. Those who have not will agree that losing a child is their greatest fear.

Paul Daniel Samsel

Paul Daniel Samsel January 30, 1914 to October 14, 1914

Paul Daniel Samsel
January 30, 1914 to October 14, 1914

Imagine holding your firstborn baby boy in your arms, smiling down at him with more joy than you ever dreamed one person could feel. It’s January 30, 1914. In Europe, World War I is beginning to brew. In America, Henry Ford starts mass producing cars and Babe Ruth is about to sign his first minor league contract. None of that matters to you. Everyone and everything else in the world could disappear like snowflakes in summertime and you wouldn’t notice. You no longer own your heart. It now resides in that baby boy’s beautiful eyes and in the grasp of his tiny, perfect fingers. The only thing you know is love. Your only expectation is that he will grow and learn and play and ever after be the greatest source of your own rapture.

Less than nine months later you are standing in the surreal landscape of a cemetery, staring at that baby boy’s gravestone. He has died horribly of a mysterious condition that stole his strength and turned his skin dark and scaly. Because it caused hideous lesions to erupt in his tiny mouth, doctors called it Black Tongue Disease. No one would know for decades that it was actually just a niacin deficiency easily addressed with a diet change.

For the rest of your 93 years, you will rarely speak of the little spirit who entered and exited your life in a shockingly short span of time. Oh, you will be a mother again. You will smile, laugh and love again. But shards of your broken heart will forever reside in your firstborn baby boy’s closed eyes.

Marsha Ann Olson

Marsha Ann Olson October 21, 1957 to April 19, 1971

Marsha Ann Olson
October 21, 1957 to April 19, 1971

Now imagine you are a young mother in the late 1950s. Your fourth child has come along unexpectedly but your delight in this happy little girl’s presence is not diminished by the surprise. About a year of normal childhood milestones comes to a screeching halt one day when she is scrambling up the stairs in yet another gleeful attempt to explore the uncharted territory of her siblings’ second-floor bedrooms. In the single tick of a clock, she can’t remember how to climb. Soon, any words she has learned are gone. Her hands are compulsively clenched, often with fists raised as if poised for a boxing match, and her siblings gently hold her arms down for family photos. Seizures grip her without warning. Eye contact is increasingly rare. She understands little except perhaps the fact that she is loved.

At the time, you are a Christian Scientist who puts more faith in God than doctors. Yet, you still consult them. They are clueless. You accept the reality and continue to love your sweet, unusual child with all your heart and soul. Your other children are protective when neighborhood bullies tease her. They periodically sing to her, “I love you a bushel and a peck.” You sometimes buy her little hand bells to see her eyes light up in momentary enchantment. You help her walk and eat, take her to a special school, change her diapers and put her to bed at night for almost 14 years. Then one morning you go into her bedroom and find her precious body lifeless and cold.

Doctors still have no answers for you. They shrug and state the obvious; that she slipped away in her sleep. More than 40 years later, your other children come across a website that indicates she probably suffered from a rare genetic condition first identified as Rett Syndrome by an Austrian doctor in 1954 but not widely recognized until 1983. Even if you had known, what could you have done but exactly what you did when your little girl was mercifully freed from her mortal prison? You would pray, carry on, and plant a dogwood tree in her memory.

Don’t Hang On To The Dogwood Tree

Joan's Original Manuscript

Joan’s Original Manuscript

“Don’t Hang On To The Dogwood Tree” is the title of a story my mother-in-law, Joan Millard Olson, wrote six years after the awful morning she walked into her daughter’s bedroom and had her heart ripped from her chest. As only a bereaved parent could, she describes with painful honesty what it’s like to suddenly lose a child and then be confronted with the need to move forward in life. My mother-in-law has been gone 27 years this May and is hopefully dancing on some ethereal plane with her sweet, unusual daughter. Here on Earth, I am blessed to have her manuscript in my possession. It’s a different kind of “Note From My Mother,” and one I will be most proud to share with you next week.

Until then, I will leave you with one particularly poignant line from her story that, curiously, she red-lined. Why she wanted to delete it, I can’t say. Perhaps she thought it unoriginal or too esoteric. I, however, find it achingly hopeful in its eloquent simplicity.

The broken heart is the open heart.

Marsha and Joan in a rare moment of connection.

Marsha and Joan in a rare moment of connection.

Beam Me Up, Scotty!

“Beam me up, Scotty” is an oft-misquoted catch phrase from the grand patriarch of all television and film space odysseys, Star Trek.

Contrary to popular belief, Captain James T. Kirk never issued precisely this command to his Chief Engineer, Montgomery Scott, at any time during the last half century. He came close in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home when he said, “Scotty, beam me up,” but no script contains the exact words in the exact order that fans ‘round the world love to repeat.

Mom loved that hijacked line, too. It was one of the axioms she commemorated for posterity when she dictated some recollections to my sister in her final days. After she passed away, we borrowed the essence of it for her memorial brochure.

The mortuary that handled Mom’s cremation suggested the brochure even though we weren’t planning a service, and we thought, well, why not? However, the samples they provided completely turned us off; they just didn’t reflect Mom’s spirit. I’m sure our faces looked as if we had just sucked lemons when we read standard language like, “Entered into the world on (insert date) and returned to the loving arms of the Heavenly Father on (insert date).” Finally, in a moment of dazzling inspiration, we decided to characterize Mom’s arrival and departure in Star Trek terms.

Beamed Down: December 4, 1924.  Beamed Up: December 9, 2013

She would have loved it.Beam Me Up (5)

Like legions of other Trekkies, Mom used the altered quote, “Beam me up, Scotty,” as a synonym for escape. Who wouldn’t want to be transported from an unfriendly planet to the safety of a powerful starship? From a stressful workplace to a peaceful tropical island? From a miles-long traffic jam to the serenity of home? From a time in your life when insulin shots and a wheelchair are your best friends to a better day when you enjoyed good health?

While many Star Trek innovations like communicators and hand-held electronic tablets have emerged in real life as cell phones and i-Pads, scientists haven’t quite come up with a way to dematerialize matter and rematerialize it somewhere else. I understand that a handful of brilliant Montgomery Scott wannabes are working on it, but it’s not likely to come true in my lifetime.

It certainly didn’t come true in Mom’s. She had to settle for virtual trips through time and space with her Star Trek comrades. Once she had an opportunity to become part of her favorite crew through a green screen technique at a Universal Studios souvenir shop. Years later she enjoyed a museum tour, a make-believe battle with the cybernetic species known as the Borg and lunch in a futuristic Ferengi café – all within the earthbound walls of the now defunct Star Trek exhibit at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel.

Beam Me Up (3)Mom wasn’t really content with fictional interstellar exploration, however. She was the quintessential skywatcher. My niece, Rhianna, and I both have vivid memories of midnight adventures oohing and aahing with Mom as we watched the Perseid and Leonid meteor showers. Most of the family also remembers being with Mom when we excitedly spotted Comet Hale-Bopp hanging over the Pacific Ocean in 1997. Half a dozen years later, while cruising through Alaska’s Inside Passage, I clearly remember rousing her in the middle of the night and pushing her wheelchair to the observation deck to witness the unique spectacle of the Northern Lights.

Memories of her delight in heavenly mysteries are the intangibles Mom bequeathed to us, but she also left behind hard evidence. Ever the organizer, she preserved some of her celestial research in a big, white binder labeled “Things That Interest Me.” The thick scrapbook commemorates her fascination with everything from The Lord of the Rings to Charles Schulz and his immortal Peanuts cartoon strip, but the last section is all about “Outer Space.” It begins with a 2008 article from Parade magazine about the final repair mission of the Hubble Telescope and is followed by Internet printouts of photos snapped by the amazing contraption. Breathtaking galaxies, incredible star formations and other stunning cosmic anomalies constitute a proverbial feast for the eyes. Meanwhile, the cover she chose for the binder erases any doubt about her principal interest. It’s a portrait of the Pillars of Creation inside the Eagle Nebula.

Beam Me Up (2)Until I was preparing to write this column, I never paid much attention to the details of Mom’s enchantment with those far away images. Now I know that the Eagle Nebula is essentially a cluster of gas and dust, that the Pillars of Creation are giving birth to stars, and that the phenomena is situated near the constellation that is Mom’s astrological sign – Sagittarius the Archer. Interestingly, some astrologers say that people born under this sign enjoy experiences that are beyond the physically familiar and are eager to explore new dimensions of thought. Whether Mom was aware of that last piece of trivia is unknown but, for me, it opens another window into the soul of the person who was my own Pillar of Creation.

While poking around on the Internet, I was sad to discover that the Pillars of Creation that Mom so loved no longer exist. They were destroyed 6,000 years ago by a supernova, but the shockwave hasn’t reached Earth as yet. We are basically seeing ghosts carried on beams of light over the vast expanse of space.

Learning about the Pillars’ demise is a little like finding out that “Beam me up, Scotty” is not actually a true line from Mom’s beloved space franchise. Yet, I somehow find both realities rather poetic.

Mom’s physical body is gone but her spirit continues to light my way like a heavenly beacon. The letter, cards and notes she left behind for me have served as a loving foundation to document priceless memories about living with her, caring for her during her last years and loving her for a lifetime. As I said to her grandchildren and great grandchildren in last week’s column, she will never truly be gone as long as we keep her in our thoughts, our conversations and our hearts.

As for the errant line from Star Trek, I take comfort in what Captain Kirk and other crewmates often did say when they were ready to return to the safety of their interplanetary home on the starship Enterprise. By the time she passed away five days after her 89th birthday, Mom was exhausted and no longer able to move or talk. Her physical resources were completely used up. In Star Trek jargon, her Dilithium Crystals were depleted. I’d like to think that, when she finally departed, someone somewhere issued the simple but beautiful command that restored her weary soul.

Energize!

Today I’ll borrow one more line from Star Trek in salute to Mom. In the words of 20th Century whale biologist Dr. Gillian Taylor when she had to say good-bye to Captain Kirk at the end of The Voyage Home, “See you around the galaxy.”

Beam Me Up (1)

Forget Me Not

My husband’s first introduction to members of my extended family was at our high school graduation in 1972. Among others, my Aunt Birdie and my Aunt PeeWee traveled to Oregon from Southern California for the big event.

The two women were as different as night and day. Birdie (who was actually a much older first cousin) was a free-spirited soul who brashly gave 17-year-old Pete a quart of beer as a graduation present. PeeWee (the wife of one of my six uncles) was a faithful Mormon who I’m sure spent the night praying for us when we took off on a co-ed campout.

It wasn’t their disparate personalities that made an indelible mark on Pete, though. Credit that to their nicknames. Birdie was actually Frances. PeeWee was actually Irene. When I began reciting some of the other nicknames of the aunts, uncles and cousins he should someday expect to meet, all he could say was, “It sounds like the seven dwarfs!

OK. I have to admit. The list does sound a bit like Snow White’s whistling troupe of happy jewel miners.

Tuck, Art, Cutie, Rolly, Dopey, Curlie, Ozzie, Buck, Stinky, Snooky, Skippy, Dutch and Micki.

Try applying any sort of logic to match those monikers with Chester, Esta, Carrie, Roland, Helen Mae, Bennie, Raymond, Norman, Keith, Dennis, Tim, Wayne and Karolyn. And those are just the ones I can remember.

Cross my heart. Every one of these nicknames was used regularly; so regularly, in fact, that given names faded into the background. As the youngest of 10 children born over a span of about 20 years, my mother had grown weary of the tradition by the time she was ready to start her own family. She called my father Sam instead of his given name, Earl, but was adamant that none of her three children would ever be referred to by anything other than the names documented on their birth certificates. Although my grandmother’s Indiana upbringing made my name, Laurie, sound like Larie, the family basically complied.

To be fair … and I always like to be fair … Mom wasn’t 100% true to her own rule. She routinely called my brother Jesse Man and My Baby Boy. After we were all grown, she frequently referred to my sister as her O.D.D. (Oldest Darling Daughter) and, when I assumed the role of caregiver, she sometimes called me The Boss. Yet, those references didn’t quite qualify us to hoist a pick ax and sing Heigh-ho, Heigh-ho with the rest of the family prospectors.

Mom’s rejection of colorful nicknames magically disappeared when her own grandchildren and great grandchildren arrived. She didn’t bless every one of them with an alternate title, but she knighted a few with everlasting remembrances. Just before she passed away, she included some on a list of “forget me nots” that she dictated to my sister. The conversation was recounted in a letter my sister sent to me last December.

She wants to make sure Espen doesn’t forget that he is the Espenator or Skyler that he is “My Sweet Boy.” She wants Jesse to remember that he is Mr. Pister.

With Pistol and Trail Blazer

With Pistol and Trail Blazer

My son Jesse was the first grandchild to earn a nickname. Pistol, which later evolved into Mr. Pister, fit the bill because he was born with a gunpowder persona and hasn’t really mellowed in 39 years. Maybe he’ll slow down in another decade or two, but right now there is still too much to do, too much to see and too much to learn.

Sweet Boy Skyler, or sometimes Skyler Dyler depending on Mom’s mood, was not technically her first great grandchild but the first she had the opportunity to truly know. A soft-spoken boy, his tender sensibility was so endearing to Mom that she wanted to protect him from the unforgiving world from the day he was born. She was privileged to be the first person my daughter confided in when a plus sign emerged on her pregnancy stick back in 2002, and she honored that by treasuring every minute she spent with him.

With Sweet Boy Skyler and the Espenator

With Sweet Boy Skyler and the Espenator

Espen came along a couple of years after Skyler and was the polar opposite in terms of both build and personality. While husky, sensitive Skyler was Mom’s sweet boy, daring Espen was her fun, little firecracker. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator and Chris Owens’ Sherminator in the American Pie movies served as the inspiration to turn Espen’s name into the manly designation Espenator.

In her dictated remembrances, Mom didn’t mention the granddaughter she initially wanted us to call Trail Blazer because the Portland Trailblazers won their only national basketball championship just days before she was born in 1977. When my husband and I balked, Mom later attempted to nickname her J.J. because we had christened her Jennifer Joy. The fact that we vetoed Trail Blazer and J.J. didn’t mean the stories were forgotten, however. In fact, they are legendary. My daughter heard them so often that, when she reached the age when kids typically want to establish their own identity, she wished we had listened to Mom and given her a more unusual name.

With Rhianna Danna and Lucas the Enforcer

With Rhianna Danna and Lucas the Enforcer

With her last days closing in around her, Mom’s fuzzy thoughts also floated past the granddaughter who actually did win a nickname. My sister’s dear Rhianna became Rhianna Danna in homage to Gilda Radner’s Saturday Night Live character Roseanne Roseannadanna. Whether her nickname is on the “forget me not” list doesn’t matter, though. It’s not likely she will ever stop cherishing her grandmother’s pet name for her and the special love that is always behind such endearments.

To Mom’s other grandchildren – Rachel, Lucas, Cary and Eddie – Grandma Joy may not have given you (or tried to give you) nicknames but you have titles nonetheless.

Rachel, you were the amazing first of seven grandchildren. Like the Knight of Templar, you are privileged to safeguard the oldest memories of your Grandma Joy. You are one of the original Oompa Loompa Girls and the Princess of Quite a Lot. You know your grandmother passed her crown as Queen of Everything to you. Wear it proudly.

Lucas, with you Grandma Joy got her wish that a child would be named after a member of the 1977 Trailblazer championship team. The late Maurice Lucas was the power forward, and his fierce play earned him the nickname The Enforcer. Remember this as you power through the life changes you’re undertaking. Maurice Lucas led his team to victory. You can, too.

With Cary the Fearless

With Cary the Fearless

Cary, your Grandma Joy was thrilled when your parents named you after her mother, Carrie Elizabeth Heasman. Your fearless pursuit of a career in music is reminiscent of her courageous spirit. More than a hundred years ago, she followed your Great Grandpop, Noble Cleveland Metzger, from Indiana to the untamed landscape of Montana where they claimed a homestead on some of the last free land ever offered by the United States government. Though it didn’t work out exactly as envisioned, it was a bold move. You embody that same, brave, pioneering character.

Eddie, the youngest of the seven, you were named for rocker Eddie Van Halen. On the off-chance that wouldn’t impress you later on, your Grandma Joy and several other family members engaged in an impromptu brainstorming session at a beachside restaurant one day. Their efforts to remember every famous Eddie in recent history was so hysterical that anyone who wasn’t there (like me) wishes he or she was. Somewhere there is a framed list of all the names tossed about that day. Eddie Albert, Eddie Arnold, Eddie Money, Eddie Murphy, Eddie Rabbitt, Eddie Rickenbacker. The list goes on. You probably have that memento. If you do, keep it. It will always be a fond reminder of one of your Grandma Joy’s favorite stories. You were still just a “baby bump,” but you were the star of the show.

Mom didn’t leave one of her trademark catch phrases for me to use as the foundation for this story. She just wanted her grandchildren and great grandchildren to remember her. That was the reason behind the “forget me not” list that she dictated to my sister. In the absence of a quote from Mom, I will borrow one from Morrie Schwartz. My favorite author, Mitch Albom, shared his words in the powerful book Tuesdays with Morrie.

Death ends a life, not a relationship.

Remember this, Rachel the Queen of Everything, Jesse the Pistol, Jennifer the Trail Blazer, Dear Rhianna Danna, Lucas the Enforcer, Cary the Fearless, Eddie the Star of the Show, Sweet Boy Skyler Dyler, and Espen the Espenator. Grandma Joy will never really die as long as the nine of you keep her alive in your thoughts, in your conversations and in your hearts.

With Eddie the Star of the Show

With Eddie the Star of the Show

With Rachel the Queen of Everything

With Rachel the Queen of Everything

 

All Righty, McDity

Looking back over the years that I was primarily responsible for my mother’s care, I know I was remarkably fortunate in many ways. One true blessing was that I never had to argue with her about following medical treatment plans or accepting personal care.

In my longtime workplace of mostly middle-aged colleagues, there has never been a shortage of exasperating tales about elderly mothers who stubbornly refused to bathe or chronically ill husbands who repeatedly ignored advice to watch their sugar intake. Unfortunately, a word of sympathy or a comforting hug was the best I could ever offer my frustrated friends. Experience is the best teacher, as the familiar idiom suggests, and I had virtually none with this aspect of caregiving.

Often I walked away from these conversations with grateful astonishment. Self-determination is a grand concept until it begins to diminish the quality of life of those around you. On a few isolated occasions, Mom may have pushed the limits of her physical abilities beyond what I deemed safe. Mostly, though, she was as compliant as they come. One of her favorite axioms in the last few years neatly summed up her outlook.

All righty, McDity.

The phrase took a place in our repertoire of oft-used quotes after an episode of Sex and the City, one of our favorite guilty television pleasures. We regularly watched pasteurized reruns of the racy series on a cable channel until we had seen each episode at least three times. One night, when uptown Charlotte York suggested marriage to devastatingly handsome Trey MacDougal, his flaccid response sent us into gleeful hysterics. Later in the show, friend Carrie Bradshaw’s good-natured poke about Charlotte’s muddled engagement cemented “all righty” in our vocabulary. Mom added “McDity” sometime later simply because she was partial to playful rhymes. Ultimately, she fancied the maxim enough to grant it space in one of the posthumously delivered cards I frequently refer to in this column.

All Righty McDity

Whether I was assisting her with dressing, managing her medications or tucking her into bed, Mom appreciatively accepted my help with the elegant grace of Jackie Kennedy. Congenial, compliant, cooperative – she was the living, breathing definition of any agreeable synonym you might insert here. I can’t say that this viewpoint came naturally to her. On the contrary, if pressed to describe her predominate characteristic as a younger woman, I probably would choose free-spirited over sweetly agreeable. Yet, the latter is how acquaintances she made in the last decade of her life assessed her. I know because they said so … and often. The notion that Mom must have decided to be amenable, and then worked diligently to make it so, adds considerable meaning to her achievement.

When I was a teenager and then a young adult, I can’t ever remember aspiring to be like my mother. I was too young for Woodstock but rode the tail-end of the psychedelic 60s into the early 70s. In those days, I wanted to be almost anything except like my mother. Four decades later, I want to be like her in almost every way. Agreeable is near the top of the list.

Although I walked with her through the life-changing fire of declining health and increasing dependence, I know she felt the heat differently than I did. It’s easy to be supportive when your loved one’s diabetic treatment progresses from a few pills once a day to insulin shots four times a day. It’s not easy to be the one to dial up your own shot and inject it into your bruised tummy roughly 12,896 times before you die. Likewise, it’s easier to be the one pushing the wheelchair down sidewalks, through department store aisles and into examining rooms than to be the one confined to it. Why Mom didn’t cry every single day of her life for the nine years she had to rely so much on others, I will never know. I can only pray that, under similar circumstances, I would be as accepting and agreeable.

Alas, ever since Mom died a little over a year ago, I’ve actually been agreeably challenged. (I like that terminology better than disagreeable, much like the person who can’t configure their mobile phone might prefer technologically challenged over dim-witted.) To tell it exactly like it is, I haven’t been congenial, compliant or cooperative. I haven’t been amenable, affable or adaptable. When it comes to losing Mom, I’ve been downright pig-headed. I’ve managed to get through four of the five stages of grief that Elizabeth Kübler–Ross famously identified – denial, anger, bargaining and depression. However, I haven’t quite mastered acceptance.

Mom and Espen 2005I’ve missed Mom so much this year. And she has missed so much. Periodically, I used to remind her how lucky she was that she lived long enough to see her grandchildren grow up and her great-grandbabies become youngsters full of promise. None of my children’s other three grandparents even lived to see them graduate from high school. Today I’m still grateful that she lived a long, full life. However, the Earth has continued to rotate since her passing and each new dayMom Espen and Skyler has given rise to something that she did miss. Less than two months after she passed away, the long-suffering Seattle Seahawks finally won a Superbowl. A few days ago, the University of Oregon Ducks won their first Rose Bowl game since 1917. In the interim, she has missed a Star Trek movie premiere, a chance to meet sci-fi actor Walter Koenig, political satirist Stephen Colbert’s swan song and, more importantly, a granddaughter’s wedding and the birth of a great-granddaughter.

The list will grow longer as the years roll by, I know. My wish is that life’s inherent highlights cease to be bittersweet for those of us she left behind and become explosions of pure delight. Less momentous but still a prayer is that everyday routine is not forever shaded by her absence. The morning that I can open the kitchen cabinet above the coffee maker and reflexively choose a mug will be a red-letter day. It will mean I didn’t deliberate over whether to drink from one of her favorites or one of mine. The evening that I can watch television in her bedroom recliner and fully concentrate on the program will be a milestone. It will mean my mind wasn’t wandering every 15 minutes, thinking about the day she died in a hospital bed in that very spot.

Acceptance that someone so dynamic, influential and important in your life is no longer there is a monumental task. Yet I know in my heart of hearts that it can’t be any more difficult than it was for Mom to accept that her body was failing and congenially take help from me and others who willingly gave it. Like her, I must make a conscious decision to be open and agreeable to a life that differs from what I may have imagined.

I don’t really believe in New Year’s Resolutions. They are fragile things. Easy to make. Easy to break. I do believe in hope, though, and I do believe in choosing to be happy. She Chose JoyJust before Christmas, I saw an inspirational sign in a popular local gift shop. It was too perfect to pass up; partly because I see the changing of this year’s calendar as one of many turning points in my healing process and partly because I’m a pushover when it comes to decorative items that incorporate my mother’s name. In the upper right corner of the pink canvas is a quote attributed to ancient Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius. “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” In larger, more cheerful script centered among artful daisies, the modern message for me is clear. “And finally,” it says, “she decided to choose joy.”

As 2015 begins, I am choosing joy. Along with that, I know I must also choose to accept that Mom will always be with me in spirit but is forever gone from my mortal sight. I must agree that our life together was enough and that this new arrangement – built around photographs, posthumous notes and memories – is also enough for the remainder of my time on earth. I know I can do it. All I need to do is take a deep breath and express my agreement in the playful way she always did when I was caring for her.

All righty, McDity.

Bring on the joy.

(This week’s column is lovingly dedicated to my friend, Jerre, whose precious mother, Betty, passed away unexpectedly on December 28, 2014.)