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.

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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.

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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.

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The Dead Cabinet

For at least the last decade, my living room has featured an unusual conversation starter known as The Dead Cabinet.

Although I am at times likely to curl my upper lip and offer “aargh, matey” as a gravely greeting, this wonderful curiosity has nothing to do with pirates. It’s not a reproduction of the Dead Man’s Chest where scurvy buccaneer Davy Jones stashed his broken heart. It’s not a rendering of a faraway Caribbean island where 15 men sang about a bottle of rum.

It is, however, very much a treasure chest.

Dead Cabinet (7)Safe behind three glass casements are keepsakes so precious that, in case of fire, I would likely choose to save them as soon as I was sure that people and pets were out of harm’s way. It’s not because any of these mementoes could add significantly to my bank account. They are, instead, an irreplaceable link to my family’s past. Dead men may tell no tales, but The Dead Cabinet surely does.

Mom and I bought the cabinet a few years after we began sharing a home in the high desert of Northern Nevada. During one of our Sunday morning coffee chats, I mentioned a long-time fantasy of creating a sort of family museum if ever I had enough space. It seemed so pointless to accumulate mementoes of lost loved ones and then keep them packed in boxes gathering dust in the garage. Mom’s eyes lit up.

We didn’t have enough square footage in our little, yellow house to devote an entire room to things that belonged to the dead, but we could certainly spare some wall space in our main living area. A trip to the local furniture store turned up the perfect size display cabinet fashioned like a lawyer’s bookcase. As soon as it was delivered, we both began unearthing treasures that hadn’t seen the light of day for decades.

Vintage jewelry, eyeglasses, Bibles, a well-loved Raggedy Ann, a pair of tiny antique baby dolls, a blue fabric hat, letters and postcards, trinket boxes, photographs, sheet music and dog-eared, yellowed documents all found a place on the shelves. As long as an item was handed down from a deceased relative, it was a candidate for the cabinet. Once we discovered that a small plastic Kewpie doll standing in one corner had actually belonged to my husband and not his departed sister, so out the little guy came. Exactly how and when we started calling the case The Dead Cabinet, I don’t recall, but it was typical irreverence for Mom and me.

There’s nothing irreverent about my adoration for what is in the cabinet, however. Every piece is a true delight. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be my grandfather’s wallet. Perhaps it’s because I never knew him.

Dead Cabinet (8)Mom was 14 years old when her father, Noble Cleveland Metzger, was one of about 45 people killed at sea during the only tropical storm to make landfall in California in the 20th Century. It was the proverbial “perfect storm” because the currents off the Pacific coast are very rarely warm enough to carry a Mexican hurricane that far north. The difference that day in September 1939 was that the area had just experienced a week-long, record-breaking heat wave.

In the absence of any kind of weather tracking system, the historic storm caught everyone by surprise when it whipped through the region with gale force winds and torrential rain. Onshore, cars floated down flooded streets past homes and businesses that had washed off their foundations. Offshore, pleasure and commercial boaters frantically fled for safe harbor when the pleasantly rolling sea suddenly turned into an angry, churning adversary.

A fisherman by trade, my grandfather was trolling aboard The Nina off the coast near Oxnard when the storm struck. The engine swamped and failed, but the captain of a nearby fishing charter loaded with guests came to the rescue and tossed a tow line. In a punishing shower of rain, salt water and foam, my grandfather steadied himself on the pitching deck, caught the line and lashed it securely to The Nina’s bow.

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Mom with her Pop, sister Carrie and friend Mr. Schneider.

At first it seemed that The Nina was out of danger, but it soon became apparent that both of the wildly rocking vessels would likely be lost if the tow line was not severed. Over the roar of the unforgiving wind, the two men desperately called back and forth. My grandfather begged the captain not to cut The Nina loose. The captain shouted an anguished, “I’m sorry,” and sliced the strained line. It whipped back toward my grandfather with violent force and broke his neck. He was killed instantly, his deck hand perished, and The Nina sank.

My grandfather’s body, with his wallet still in his pocket, washed up on the beach at Point Mugu a few days later. The distraught captain of the other vessel told the authorities and my uncles the details of the heartbreaking story. It was passed down to me through my cousin, Norm Metzger, from his father, Cecil.

The fact that my mother, the youngest of 10 children, ended up with my grandfather’s water-logged wallet is a blessing to me. It’s empty now except for the fine grains of sand leftover from that tragic day. Once in a while I take it out of its place of honor in The Dead Cabinet and run my fingers across the brittle, stained leather. I close my eyes and imagine my grandfather’s strong hands flipping it open to retrieve a dollar bill to buy chewing gum or soda pops for an entourage of children, and then slipping it back into his pants pocket. The vision connects me to a man I can only dream of through my mother’s stories, photograph albums, and documents discovered on genealogy websites.

Dead Cabinet (1)Of course, not every family keepsake from the past few generations will fit into one, small Dead Cabinet. Now that she has reunited with her beloved Pop, Mom actually has her own display case. We used to talk sometimes about what items she might like me to place in the original cabinet after she passed, but she left behind so many meaningful mementoes that I simply turned the tall curio in her bedroom into a resting place for a generous selection. Inside are elephant figurines, crystals, a charm bracelet, sparkling earrings that dangle to your shoulders, a white feather boa, old tin tags for dogs who crossed the rainbow bridge more than a half century ago, a bust she made in a long-ago art class, and a lengthy list of other memorabilia. The little brass bells she chimed to summon me after our relationship evolved into one of caregiver and care receiver have a special place in front.

Fittingly, Mom’s bedroom has become the quasi family museum that I once envisioned. The curio is the centerpiece, but the room is a cornucopia of heirloom furniture, photo albums, handmade quilts, fat scrapbooks and vintage clothing. Most of Mom’s bedroom furnishings also remain in their original places. I picture her watching from a safe distance, chuckling as she remembers a conversation we had when we knew her time was growing short.

“What are those black spots on the arm of my chair?” she asked as I prepared to help her transfer from her wheelchair to her lumpy, old, beige recliner.

“I don’t see anything. I’ll have to get down there.”

“Right there!”

“Oh. Those little spots? They look like ink marks. Your pen probably slipped when you were writing down your blood sugar.”

“Oh. Oh well. You’ll probably get rid of that chair anyway when I die.”

“No, Mom. Your room is going to be a shrine.”

“Well, in that case, you should buy a better bed.”

“What? Mom, you’ve waited until now to tell me you don’t like your bed?”

Priceless.

Priceless is also the most appropriate way to characterize the family keepsakes I’m fortunate to have amassed. They are like the keys to the kingdom in terms of our heritage. Clues in a vast treasure hunt through the roots and branches of the family tree. The elusive “X” every pirate seeks on his tattered map to buried booty.

Hold that thought while I curl my upper lip, clear my throat, and conjure up my inner sea-going scoundrel.

Avast, me hearties! Riches await ye. Meet me here next week. Together we’ll set sail and venture …

Beyond The Dead Cabinet.

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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.

Be a Good Girl

Not every note my mother left me was on paper. Some messages go so far back that they are part of who I am. Over the course of 60-some years, I’m sure that I heard today’s four-word lesson literally tens of thousands of times.

Be a good girl.

That reminder followed me out the door every day when I was a child. Whether I was heading off to school or to a friend’s sleepover or to visit one of my grandmothers, that was Mom’s fundamental rule. Becoming an adult didn’t alter her parting words. Becoming her caregiver didn’t change the ritual either. In her last years, I began to tease her that she had ruined my life with that phrase. What if I had wanted to be a bad girl every once in a while?

Alas, with sugary nicknames like Pollyanna, Goody Two-Shoes and Mary Tyler Moore, it’s no secret that I have, indeed, been a good girl most of my life. When I was about 5 years old I tarnished my reputation by putting gum in my sister’s hair, forcing an unwanted haircut. In high school I got caught parking with my boyfriend on a dark, quiet road and then made things worse by lying about it. But, compared to serious problems like drug addiction, alcohol abuse and criminal mischief, my transgressions were ridiculously tame. Bad … really bad … just wasn’t in my genes.

At times, I’ve wondered why Mom routinely told my sister and me to “be a good girl,” but she peppered her farewells to our little brother with a fairly large repertoire of less constraining phrases like “have a good time” and “if you can’t be good, be careful.” Perhaps being a girl herself, she knew what kind of childish shenanigans or youthful escapades we could engage in and the potentially devastating consequences thereof. I prefer, however, to think it was really because she wanted to continuously instill in us the extraordinary character of the women in our family.

Carrie Elizabeth Heasman Metzger

Good Girl (1)No woman in my family lineage was more amazing than my mother’s mother. In the early 1900s, she toiled tirelessly with her husband to cultivate unforgiving homestead land in Montana. World War I, the military confiscation of horses for the overseas cavalry and the Navy’s strong “invitation” for my grandfather to build warships in Washington’s Puget Sound interfered with their plans. When the war ended, they found themselves living nomadically in the valleys of Northern California, much like the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. Ultimately, they migrated south to the Los Angeles harbor area where my grandfather took up ocean fishing. Soon he wanted their six boys to forgo school and work with him. My grandmother objected, the two separated, and my grandfather was later killed in a violent storm at sea. Shockingly for the times, my grandmother lived openly with another man out of wedlock, helped to take care of his elderly mother, and determinedly continued to raise her children and some of her children’s children. When she died in 1979 at the age of 90, she had 10 children, 25 grandchildren and 56 great-grandchildren. The fact that there was standing room only for her memorial service was a testament to the love she so richly deserved.

Beulah Ann Todd Samsel

Good Girl (8)My father’s mother was equally tenacious, although not as beloved as my maternal grandmother. She had no children except for my father. Her firstborn son tragically died as a toddler of a vitamin deficiency hideously called Black Tongue Disease in 1914. My grandfather was a drinker and, although family references to him were always vague, I suspect he was abusive. Sometime after my grandmother divorced him, he was struck and killed by a truck while walking intoxicated down a country road in Tennessee. Meanwhile, my grandmother was bravely raising my father and working in a café at an aircraft manufacturing plant in El Segundo, California. She somehow also found the wherewithal to take care of her aging mother in her last years. Life wore my grandmother down and, by the time my parents married, she had become a somewhat bitter, critical, meddlesome presence. In hindsight, I know that she was doing her best, in whatever misguided way, to ensure that her son was loved and her grandchildren would someday find a place at God’s knee. Sadly, she denied she even had a family just before she died in a nursing home at the age of 93. That doesn’t change the fact that she was courageous and strong when she most needed to be.

Joyce Maxine Metzger Samsel (Joy)

Good Girl (4)Although I didn’t give her enough credit while I was growing up, Mom’s inner strength is solely responsible for our family’s survival. Back when it still wasn’t generally accepted to be a working mother, she kept the books for medical doctors and raised three children while my father traveled the world as a Merchant Marine. She was forced to finally and forever become the head of the household in 1970 when my father had a late-life diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia coupled with bipolar disease. His breakdown while alone and far from home destroyed the family emotionally and financially. Yet, somehow Mom found the will to rise from the ruins and rebuild a stable life for us. At first, I don’t think she believed she could do it. Decision-making was never Mom’s favorite task, but she pulled up her proverbial bootstraps and marched ahead into the unknown. When she passed away in 2013 at the age of 89, she had little to show for her efforts in the way of material possessions, but she enjoyed the priceless devotion of her children and grandchildren.

Betty Joan Millard Olson (Jo-Anne)

Good Girl (5)When I was 20 years old, I was lucky enough to marry into a family with another remarkable maternal presence. She wasn’t my mother by blood, but she became my second mother by heart. She was a traditional housewife in the 1950s and 1960s; raising three children and unexpectedly losing one to a mysterious genetic condition. By the mid-1970s, though, she had evolved into a dynamic, free-spirited woman whose circle of friends ranged from laid-back, mountain-dwelling hippies to driven, progressive yuppies. Breaking free from mid-century expectations was not easy since her husband was the quintessential ruler of the roost with staunchly conservative values. Regardless, she went back to college and earned a master’s degree in religion, converted to Catholicism when she fell in love with Mother Mary, and became a compassionate spiritual counselor. For several years she watched over her elderly, widowed stepmother who, by all accounts, was not a particularly warm and accepting substitute for the mother she had lost as a child. Yet, it was not in her nature to feel anything but love for the tiny, straight-laced, Christian poet we called Grandma Millard. My mother-in-law died of lymphoma in 1988 at the age of 62. It’s hard to believe I knew her only 16 years. Her example of love, kindness, forgiveness and spirituality has followed me every day since we lost her. In difficult situations, I often find myself pondering, “What would Joan do?”

Laurie Joy Samsel Olson

Every one of these women was strong, self-reliant and had a significant influence on my life. Collectively, they were seekers, doers, fighters, achievers, lovers and believers. All were mothers. And all were caregivers.

I look at their lives and their photos and I see … me.

Good Girl (6)Next week I’m turning 61. In July, I will have been married to, acrimoniously divorced from, and happily married again to my high school sweetheart for a grand total of 43 years. The descriptors that fit between those milestones run the gamut from joy to hostility, dependence to self-reliance, forgiveness to contentment. In October, I will have been a grateful mother for 40 years and a doting grandmother for 13 years. Sometime this year, though I’m not sure exactly when, I will pass the 35th anniversary of the day I became a full-time career woman. And in December, I will observe the second anniversary of the day I said good-bye to the woman who cared for me when I came into the world and who I cared for when she made her exit.

My path does not exactly mirror those of Carrie, Beulah, Joy and Joan, but the basic journey shadows theirs in almost storybook fashion. The Brothers Grimm could not have written a better parable about children walking squarely in the footsteps of their forefathers.  I am my grandmothers’ granddaughter. I am my mothers’ daughter.

Maybe that’s why Mom didn’t write down the most important lesson she ever tried to teach me. Maybe … just maybe … she thought I had already learned it. The only thing left to do is pass it on to my daughter, stepdaughter, daughter-in-law, nieces and the great-granddaughters’ who are still just a gleam in my grandsons’ eyes. To all of them … and to all my readers of the feminine persuasion, remember to …

Be a good girl.

Grandma Carrie Metzger (about 1930) at Cabrillo Beach, California.

Grandma Carrie Metzger in 1930 at Cabrillo Beach, California.

It’s All About Me, Revisited

Last fall, I wrote back-to-back columns that used comedian Al Franken’s trademark line – “it’s all about me” – first to describe the world of a dependent care recipient and then to remind caregivers of the need to stop and take care of themselves periodically.

I’m no longer a caregiver, but I’m heeding my own words today. I’m taking the week off from blog writing.

Last Sunday afternoon, after happily polishing off my weekly post, I was outside repotting a thriving Christmas cactus. While walking back to the house, I unceremoniously tripped and fell on the brick patio. My beautiful, new, green ceramic pot went flying and, of course, broke when it landed on the unforgiving surface. Meanwhile, I went down hard on my right knee and then found myself nose-to-nose with a rather inhospitable octagonal block.

Let’s just say, the brick won our little skirmish.

A week later, my nose is improving but my knee is not. Sitting at the computer increases the pain. So, after wrestling with my inner sense of responsibility over a self-imposed deadline, I’m taking my own advice about self-care. I’ll check in again soon with another Note From My Mother, but today I think my Momma would approve of my decision to invoke Al Franken’s declaration …

It’s all about me.

Have a wonderful day and week, everyone, and may you all win any battles you might have with gravity and hard surfaces.

1 - Mom and Me 19540001

Mom was my caregiver long before I was hers. Here we are shortly after I arrived March 28, 1954. (And get a load of that early television and that funky lamp in the background! Wish I had both of them now!)