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.

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Here Are My Accolades

My mother took her first breath in a small, white houseboat floating in the cool waters of Potato Slough on the California River Delta on December 4, 1924. She took her last roughly 200 miles northeast in the big, brown home we shared in the dry desert of Northern Nevada on December 9, 2013.

Nothing of global importance happened on either of those days. No wars were declared or peace treaties signed. No major scientific discoveries were announced or natural disasters reported. There wasn’t even a full moon. Yet, those two days are of supreme importance to me. They marked the beginning and the end of a life that affected me more than any other has or will.

Between those two Decembers, Mom lived 89 years. But, in her mind, she was ageless. She used to tell the grandchildren that she was in Ford Theater when President Abraham Lincoln was shot in 1865 and, while they were young and impressionable, they believed her. She used to lament to me that she was nothing more than an 18-year-old trapped in an aging body and, the older I got, the more I understood how she felt. She professed to everyone that she was going to live forever, and we all wished it could be so.

When I began writing this column last August, the primary purpose was to share the words of wisdom Mom left behind for me in a priceless series of cards and notes she entrusted with family members to deliver posthumously. Week after week, I’ve taken the quotes and catch phrases she preserved for posterity and turned them into stories about her, about caring for her, and about losing her. I would like to believe that, in some small way, these columns have served to support her wistful dream of everlasting life. As my gifted British friend, Chris Bannister, wrote in his lovely song Everybody Knows, what we leave behind is our best hope for immortality.

Everybody knows that nothing lasts for long except the sky. We can’t live forever but we try … by leaving something beautiful behind.

The something beautiful in those lyrics need not be a classic novel, a life-saving vaccine or a celebrated work of art. Exceptional experiences like those happen to so few. What every one of us is able to leave behind, though, is the unique way in which we’ve touched others. Most of the time, we aren’t even aware that the ripples of our lives circle out farther, ever farther, and gently collide with other lives. The impact may be no more than a tap, but it can alter a course, transform a life or simply create a precious memory that makes us smile or provides comfort in times of sorrow.

Here - Mom With StudebakerFor me, the ultimate example of this phenomenon was embodied in a condolence letter that arrived about a month and a half after Mom died. It was from her old friend “Little Mary” who took the opportunity to share a story that brought my mother’s vibrant youth to life. I paraphrased the tale when I wrote about Mom’s free-spirited nature last fall in the column This Hunt Is Dedicated. While driving a carload of friends from San Pedro to the opera in nearby Los Angeles, the rather unreliable coupe broke down and blocked the Red Car trolley. Mom hopped out in the rain, Little Mary wrote. “She lifted the hood and with her comb she tapped something, got back in the car and we drove off. The passengers in the Red Car applauded wildly. I’ve never heard the name Joyce that that video didn’t play in my head!”

Here - Mary's LetterThe tap that started the car on that otherwise forgotten day stayed with Little Mary for more than 60 years. Her condolence letter was the ripple that brought the story full circle. When it showed up in my mailbox, the colorful anecdote tapped me with a lovely reminder that the sum of my mother’s life was not wrapped up in her last years of ill health and dependence. It was as though Little Mary was the unsuspecting guardian of a secret that was long ago destined to comfort me in the wake of my mother’s passing.

Here - Memorial BrochureIn 89 years, Mom touched countless people as she drifted from the harbors and valleys of California, to the mountains and beaches of Oregon, and finally to the high desert of Northern Nevada. Some folks she knew well; others she did not. Either way, it was her Joie de Vivre that most of them remember. As I’ve said previously in this column, she was a fan of the weird and wonderful, the bright and beautiful. She loved to explore, wonder, dream and hope. Most of all, she loved to laugh. So much so that, in an unattributed poem she left with her Last Will and Testament, she told us to “remember me with smiles and laughter” or not at all. We honored that by using the poem in her memorial brochure along with a photo of her smiling gaily.

Sometime in her last year, when it was clear that time was growing short, I asked her what she remembered about helping her older sisters take care of their Here - Mom and Birdie90-year-old mother in her final days. I wasn’t making casual conversation; I was fishing for advice. She thought about it for a minute and said rather sheepishly that her most vivid memory wasn’t of bathing her mother or changing her soiled sheets or engaging in meaningful conversation. Instead, she clearly remembered sitting in the living room of her mother’s home laughing hysterically at a skit on Saturday Night Live. What made her and our equally unconventional relative, Birdie, giggle uncontrollably, she couldn’t say. Based on the month and year, though, I have a pretty fair guess. I can imagine both of them cracking up over the 1978 Christmas message that Gilda Radner’s recurring character, Roseanne Roseannadanna, shared with viewers as part of her trademark rant on the Weekend Update.

Life is just like a fruitcake. When you look at it, it’s rich and sweet with honey and sugar and spice, tastes delicious, makes your mouth water and everything. But if you look at it real close, there’s these weird little green things in it and all that and you don’t know what it is!

I’ve probably never heard a more perfect … and perfectly hilarious … analogy. Life is, indeed, like a fruitcake. But I would venture to say that the weird little green things in it are not necessarily all distasteful. An unexpected turn of events – for instance, living with and taking care of your mother for the last 12 years of her life – could prove to be just as rich and sweet as the honey, sugar and spice.

Today’s column heading is the last line from Mom’s posthumous notes that I have to share with you all. While that puts a punctuation mark on the foundation for these essays, it doesn’t end them. Mom left so many more “notes” for us to explore through things she often said but did not write down, through tape recordings she made more than 20 years before she passed away, and through scrapbooks filled with intriguing memories. My intent is to carry on for as long as the stories find their way from my immortal maternal muse to the keyboard of the computer she and I shared.

Here are your accolades, Mom.

Here - From Card

Here they are – bringing a smile, a tear, a laugh or an insight to every reader who scrolls through these columns. As of this morning, your stories have been viewed 2,162 times by readers in 34 countries. Your body may have returned to ashes, but your spirit is alive and well. Your playful inspiration is the something beautiful you left behind. That and your Joie de Vivre are rippling around the world at this very moment. Someone, somewhere just felt your gentle, joyful tap.

 

(Desiring to give credit where it’s due, I want to note that the poem “Remember Me” may have been written by Laura Ingalls Wilder or by Michael Landon when he wrote the script for a Little House on the Prairie television episode called “Remember Me.” Mom probably heard it on the television show since I know she didn’t read the books. )

Live Long and Prosper, Revisited

Last November, I wrote about Mom’s passion for all things Star Trek and how the epic space franchise played into birthday and Christmas traditions in our household. Mr. Spock’s most famous line, “Live long and prosper,” served as the foundation for the story.

A couple of days ago, the man who embodied Mr. Spock for nearly 50 years permanently beamed off this planet to explore strange, new worlds in ethereal dimensions. Actor, director, photographer, writer, global icon Leonard Nimoy died Friday, February 27, at the age of 83. When his gentle spirit arrived on the other side, I would like to think that Mom was among the crowd of friends waiting to greet him.

Mom always had a soft spot in her heart for the half-human, half-Vulcan who nobly struggled to maintain a logical decorum even in the most challenging situations. One of the quintessential moments for Mr. Spock was written into the television episode called This Side of Paradise, one of Mom’s favorites. It took several, increasingly inflammatory insults by his space cohort, Captain James T. Kirk, to raise his ire and free him from a mind-altering alien spore. “You belong in a circus, Spock, not a starship!” Kirk shouted, “Right next to the dog-faced boy!” It was hard not to feel sorry for Mr. Spock when he was jolted from utopia and compelled to sacrifice romance for duty.

"Live Long and Prosper"

Mom’s soft spot grew to embrace the real Leonard Nimoy when she, my two children and I had our photo taken with him at a jam-packed fan convention in Sacramento in 2006. Event staff were tasked with quickly herding dozens of people in and out of the banquet room where Mr. Nimoy and his Star Trek co-star William Shatner stood in front of a gold backdrop, smiling on cue through flash after flash. In the few minutes we shared with the two men, we at least were able to thank them for three generations of unparalleled entertainment. Mr. Shatner was suffering from a cold that day and, understandably I suppose, was not particularly engaging. Mr. Nimoy, though, treated Mom like a person instead of a prop. Unhurried, warm and welcoming, he leaned in toward her wheelchair and rested a friendly hand on her shoulder for the souvenir shot. She often recounted how special this simple, sensitive act made her feel.

I’m sure that brief moment did not impact Mr. Nimoy in the meaningful way that it did Mom. After decades of photo shoots, the parade of fans he touched must have been a blur. However, when I read the last comment he posted on Twitter four days before he died, I was amazed by the way his powerful words seemed to reflect on moments just like that one.

A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP.

Preserved in memory. Through this weekly column, I am the guardian of my mother’s memory and the storyteller entrusted with commemorating her life and experiences. Today I am also privileged to be one of the many guardians of Mr. Nimoy’s memory by chronicling his small act of human kindness toward my mother.

I can’t help but be reminded of Admiral James T. Kirk’s eulogy when Mr. Spock died at the conclusion of the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. “Of all the souls I’ve encountered in my travels,” Kirk said, “his was the most human.”

Kirk’s voice broke during that monologue. Poignantly, he struggled to keep it together to appropriately honor his friend. Today, in real life, there are millions around the world struggling to do the same as they remember Mr. Nimoy. He was truly our friend, if only through television, film and photo opps. If he could speak to us, perhaps he would repeat the dying words of Mr. Spock as he slowly succumbed to radiation poisoning after saving the ship and all hands on board.

Don’t grieve, Admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one. I have been and always shall be your friend. Live long and prosper.

One of Mom's favorite axioms, commemorated in a posthumous note.

Mom’s favorite signature line, commemorated in a posthumous note.

To Infinity and Beyond – Part Two

Last week’s column ended with the image of my mother’s soul drifting up from her breathless body and perching on the foot of the hospital bed that served as her last resting place on Earth.  Like Buzz Lightyear from the 1995 animated film Toy Story, she opened her angel wings, raised her arms, flexed her knees and took a leap of faith. As she flew to an immortal destination, she shouted joyfully …

To Infinity and Beyond!

Even though my mother did not embrace religion or consciously accept the idea of life after death, this picture is plausible to me because of the extraordinary visions and ghostly encounters she experienced from time to time. Such tales became almost commonplace after she moved from Oregon to live with me in Nevada. Years before she started her final decline, Mom saw people and heard voices that no one else could see or hear. She evidently had a head start on the phenomena that the authors of the book Final Gifts, Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley, consider “the most prevalent theme in Nearing Death Awareness.”

To my occasional surprise, I was swept effortlessly into some of the visions. One of the most memorable involved Mom’s Yorkshire Terrier, Lucy, who died in 2007 after enduring a lifetime of health issues 20141213_201623stemming from a liver defect. Mom spent thousands of dollars over the years to make the little dog’s life as happy and as long as possible. When they finally had to say good-bye, she never stopped missing the tiny companion who she considered her true soul mate.

“I can feel Lucy snuggle up to me on the bed at night. Remember how she used to sleep curled up by the back of my neck? In the morning I feel her jump off the bed.”

I never questioned her story, but imagine my surprise when I was presented with proof. A few days before Mom passed away, she was sleeping in the hospital bed rented for us by the hospice program. I was resting on her double bed across the room. I was fully awake when I suddenly felt the spring of a small animal jumping off the bed. Our petite rescue dog, Rosie, had died about eight months prior and our cat was nowhere to be seen.

Our cat. Adopting him was a difficult decision, to say the least. Mom had periodically wished for a kitten. I love cats as well but declined to give in because we live in a rural area where curious felines who escape the safety of home can easily become a tasty dinner for prowling coyotes. One morning, several months before Mom died, she remarked:

“A white cat jumped across the foot of my bed.”

It was the kind of comment that doesn’t really stay with you but your brain nevertheless stores for future reference. A couple of months later I felt compelled to begin a serious hunt for cats available for adoption. All of the little sweethearts I visited in shelters and read about on websites deserved a forever home but none of them seemed right for our family. One night, after weeks of searching, I finally felt a spark when I saw a four-month old abandoned fellow online. The next day I blew off work and lunch with a friend to get to the adoption event 40 miles away before someone else fell in love with him. Much later I remembered Mom’s clearly precognitive remark.

Smokey is our mostly white Siamese mix.

Phone Upload (1.29.14) 2984

 Mom saw people, too. It almost became routine for her to ask whether someone had been in her bedroom early on any given morning. Sometimes she was certain my husband had been standing in her doorway. Once she reported a woman and a little girl by her bedside. She thought the woman might have looked like me, but she didn’t recognize the child. In any case, my answer was always, no, we hadn’t come into her room earlier. The incident most clear in my mind is the day she stated:

“You came into my room this morning in that white robe you always wear.”

“Mom,” I gently replied, if you saw someone in a white robe today or any other day, it wasn’t me. I don’t own a white robe … just the fuzzy, purple one you bought me for Christmas a few years ago.”

“Oh.”

If the paranormal spooks you, it’s easy and perhaps soothing to chalk these experiences up to the visions of a half-asleep, chronically ill woman whose mind was beginning to wander. However, she wasn’t half-asleep when most or all of these visions occurred, and she never suffered from dementia or confusion. She was as much awake and alert as you and I are right now. It should also count for something that, during the last few years of Mom’s life, I saw my share of sideways images of people who disappeared when I looked straight toward them and felt a hand upon my back when no one was near.

The most incredible story I can share, though, is Mom’s repeated claim:

“I can hear the man singing.”

I wish I could remember the first time she said it, but I know it was at least a year before she died; possibly earlier than that. Mom swore she could hear a men’s choir … and later just one man … singing. At first I thought she was imagining this while the rhythmic pumping of the oxygen condenser by her bed lulled her to sleep. When she told me she heard the choir one afternoon while wide awake in her recliner in the living room – and with the oxygen condenser sitting silent on the other side of the house – I took more notice.

Infinity and Beyond - Part 2“Do you recognize the songs?” I asked.

“Sometimes I think so, but I can’t quite understand the words.”

She believed they were possibly old hymns or folk songs; something akin to Danny Boy, but she couldn’t put her finger on it.

“Do you recognize the voice?” I asked another day when she reported hearing just the one man. “Is it John Denver? Is it Eddie Arnold?”

“No. I don’t think so.”

Closer to the end of her life, when she told me she could hear the man singing, I would stand very still or sit next to her on the bed with my eyes closed just listening, listening … hoping I could hear him, too. I never did.

Dreams notwithstanding, almost nothing that can’t be logically explained has occurred in our household since Mom passed away. Like many bereaved daughters and sons might do, I have often walked into her quiet bedroom thinking I would see her sitting in her chair or resting on her bed. I haven’t. I have felt no touches, seen no fleeting images of uninvited guests. Mom has moved on, and she apparently took her spiritual playmates with her.

Where did she go? As noted in last week’s column, I believe that Soul lives on to Infinity and that Love transcends the Great Beyond. Some call what comes next Heaven. Others refer to it the Pearly Gates, Paradise or the Promised Land. Some know the next step in our journey as the Deep Sleep before the Resurrection. Still others favor unique, colorful euphemisms – like my grandmother who called her divine terminal the Peach Orchard.

While I wait to be reunited with Mom in the Kingdom, in Glory or the euphemism I personally prefer – Home – I know I will ever be alert for sweet hellos from the other side. I will listen for Mom’s voice carried softly by the wind, perhaps asking whether I ever bought myself a white robe to match my white kitty. I will rest comfortably on the bed in her quiet room hoping to feel tiny Lucy spring to the floor. I will stand very still and listen for the man singing.

Although I never heard that man while Mom was alive, it’s entirely possible I could hear him now. My brother did a few months back. He heard him singing in the wet, green hills of Southwest Washington … and he heard a woman’s voice singing with him. My brother is certain it was Mom. He couldn’t say what their song was about, but I’m pretty sure I know. Mom was singing of her enduring affection for her family; telling us in death what she so often told us in life …

With love to infinity and beyond.

To Infinity and Beyond (3)

And The Horse You Rode In On

The Wicked Witch. That’s how a Wizard of Oz personality test on Zimbio.com once pegged me.  “Vile, foul, odious and deleterious to all.”  My vocabulary is above average, but I still had to look up the last two adjectives to be sure I understood.  Hateful and toxic.  Hmmm.  OK, I know those online personality quizzes are intended for entertainment and the results are arbitrary, but let me just say this about that …

And the horse you rode in on.

Tank - 2If you’re a regular reader of my weekly essays, you know that my mother and I had a robust repertoire of catch phrases for use on almost any occasion. This one came in handy when one or both of us were annoyed about something or with someone.  To be candid, it’s only part of a rather off-color phrase.  The opening two words are not appropriate for a family column, and Mom and I rarely, if ever, used them.  It was sufficient to refer to the poor, four-hooved bystander.  Besides, contrary to the random result of one Zimbio quiz, I have always been the Pollyanna of my family.  Vulgarity is generally not my style; playing “the glad game” is.Horse Note

Nevertheless, about four months after Mom passed away, “and the horse you rode in on” came to mind pretty much on a daily basis … including those first two uncouth words. I was emerging from denial; the oh-so common stage of grief that allows you to shut out the enormity of what has happened.  Although I had watched her life slowly fade, her breathing stop, and the kindly morticians remove her body, my heart could not believe she was really gone.  I remember breaking down in tears one evening after work and crying on my husband’s shoulder, “I can’t believe I have to live the rest of my life without her!”  It was the truth.  I honestly couldn’t believe it.

Anger moved in just as soon as denial moved out.  It happened when family from the Pacific Northwest gathered at my house in Nevada to distribute her belongings.  It wasn’t enough that I had lost her.  Now I had to part with many of the things she held dear.  Teacups in our shared China cabinet, elephant figurines from her vast collection, quartz crystals, small animals carved from soapstone, Christmas decorations, framed family photos, books, movies, hats, clothes, furniture.  We were scattering her life in much the same manner we would scatter her ashes a few months later.

The only way I could get through that weekend was to convince myself that dispersing her belongings was the best way to honor her.  As a Depression-era child, she attached great value to her possessions.  Parting with anything was painful for her, which is why a broken bird feeder became yard art under the crabapple tree outside her window and several cracked water tumblers remained in the kitchen cabinet.  In a generation or two, I reasoned, very few of her belongings would have meaning to descendants who didn’t know her.  Scads of it would end up in second-hand stores with two-dollar price tags.  Wasn’t it better for her children and grandchildren to receive and enjoy mementoes that they considered priceless?  After all, as the late George Harrison said, “All there is ever is the now.”

This reasoning certainly helped … until I watched everyone drive away with loaded-down cars and trucks. Practically overnight, anger consumed me.  Zimbio was right.  I became the dreaded Wicked Witch.

Everything that anyone did or said was irritating.  At home, I was angry with my husband because our lives had not instantly changed after Mom’s death.  We had freedom but we weren’t using it.  We didn’t spontaneously stop at restaurants for dinner after work, watch movies in bed, go on outings with the family or do any of the carefree things we had imagined.  Our routine was the same; except Mom wasn’t there.  At work, I was angry with the mountains of paperwork, the confounding complexity of some procedures, the disturbing lack of documentation for others, and the perceived futility of it all.  Our department director had three, simple house rules — “No mean.  No loud.  No negative.”  I was in almost constant violation of the last one.

The reason for this irrational resentment toward every person, place or thing on the face of the Earth completely escaped me.  That is, until my brother decided to part with a memento Mom had specifically saved for him.  He had his reasons, and he also had every right to make this decision.  My intellect was aware of that.  Regardless, all of my pent-up anger erupted in his direction through every electronic method available.  Text messages and voicemail recordings that must have made his cell phone hot to the touch came pouring out of me.  A week or so after both my sister and I had sufficiently alienated him, she phoned me and quietly said, “Um, remember Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s explanation of the five stages of grief?  Maybe you should read it again.”  The line went silent for a moment.

A simple “duh” is the best way to describe my reaction. I have worked in social services for more than 25 years; many of those years providing advice and comfort to people in crisis.  How could I have forgotten that anger during bereavement is misplaced rage?  I was not ticked off at my husband, my job or my brother as much as I was just goldarned mad that Mom had left me.  Immediately, I felt the fury dissipate and a sense of calm wash over me.  It was like taking a deep, cleansing breath.  The Wicked Witch went packing and Pollyanna came home.

In the weeks following the disagreement with my brother, apologies were extended and our respective parts in the debacle were acknowledged.  Still, the hurt cast a dark shadow over the June weekend we gathered at the Oregon Coast to scatter Mom’s ashes.  Since then, a few brief text messages, perhaps one phone call, and an occasional comment on a Facebook post have comprised the sum total of our communication.  Last weekend, that finally changed.

On Friday I hitched a ride to Oregon with my son and daughter-in-law. My son, an electrical contractor, needed to finish some work on my sister’s kitchen remodel, and I saw it as a perfect opportunity for a visit.  On Saturday my sister and I went to see our brother and his family at their small farm across the Washington state line.  He had initially responded to her text message with a litany of irrelevant excuses; the kind one dreams up as a diplomatic way to say “no.”  She replied that we were coming anyway.  It was a bold move to melt the glacier that had formed between us, and it worked.

Tank in PastureAs soon as I saw my brother, I began weeping.  To be fair, I wasn’t crying just about our estrangement.  Lack of sleep over another matter had made me particularly vulnerable.  Sometimes, though, destiny has a way of mystically weaving unrelated experiences together, and my tears triggered an immediate thaw.  My brother took me in his arms and told me everything was all right.  Then he said, “I know what will make you feel better.  It always makes me feel better when I’m sad.”  At his behest, I changed into his wife’s work boots and sweatshirt and followed him down a muddy trail along a line of tall fir trees to the old red barn at the bottom corner of the pasture.  The air was clean from recent, heavy rain, and the scent of hay drifted from the stable like heavenly perfume.

“Here you go,” my brother said and filled my cupped hands with apples freshly quartered from a stash in a nearby plastic bucket. “You know how to feed a horse, don’t you?”  I nodded.  Tank, a four-hooved giant with kind eyes and a gentle soul, poked his head out of his stall.  Slice by slice, he carefully nibbled the sweet fruit from my open palm.  When the treats were gone, I caressed Tank’s rust and white muzzle and stroked his powerful shoulders.  I kissed the air, he leaned in close for a soft smooch on his nose, and my soul surrendered to the serenity enveloping a green, wet hillside on a misty Washington morning.  In that precious moment, the catch phrase Mom and I had assigned to annoyances took on a sweet, new meaning.

To my brother, if you’re reading this, you were my knight in shining armor on an October day that will forever be a cherished memory. With all my heart, I love you …

… and the horse you rode in on.

Tank - 1

(Photos of horses, pastures, barns and all that is serene -- courtesy of my sister-in-law, Lori. Big smiles courtesy of enduring love.)

(Photos of horses, pastures, barns and all that is serene — courtesy of my sister-in-law, Lori. Big smiles courtesy of enduring love.)

 

To The Pretty One

My mother signed off on the 19-year-old farewell letter that was the subject of last week’s installment by pairing two of our most often repeated and beloved axioms.

 All my love always to “the pretty one” from “the only one.”

For first-time visitors to this webpage and as a refresher for repeat readers, the words set inside quotation marks are coded messages.  Essentially, they are my family’s encrypted versions of “I love you.”  Like any good catch phrase, there are stories behind these two.  This week I’ll tell you about “the pretty one.”

“The pretty one” is rooted in a tiny little comment I once made to a friendly stranger.  While our family was vacationing in Palm Springs in the late 1950s, someone sitting poolside admired my sister, Leslie, for her intelligence.  As any jealous, bratty little sister might do, I interrupted to sing my own praises.  “And I’m the pretty one,” I said smugly.

That vainly precocious remark drew immediate laughter and a lifetime of teasing.  I know when my mother or other family members have repeated it, they have done so with fond amusement.  The sad thing is that, deep down, I actually believed it for years.  My dark-haired, slightly plump sister was the smart one.  I was the pretty one with blond hair and a slim build.

My sister held me up from the beginning, as seen in this 1954 photo for a 1955 calendar.

My sister held me up from the beginning, as seen in this 1954 photo for a 1955 calendar.

In reality, Leslie and I are both smart, but for the record, she is far prettier than I ever was.  I came to this belated conclusion several years ago while browsing through family snapshots and portraits.  It isn’t because recent images document that I am no longer blond and slim, and she now wears clothes that are smaller than mine.  It isn’t because she won a baby pageant long before I arrived.  It’s because in every photo of my sister, her genuine inner beauty shines through on her kind face.  She has a pureness about her that is rare.

Our paternal grandmother used to say, with a slight Texan accent, “Don’t be ugly.”  She meant, “Don’t be mean.”  Well, my sister could never be “ugly” if she tried … on the inside or the outside.  To finally, fully understand this beautiful truth, and to profoundly appreciate her presence in my life, is as powerful as it is humbling.

As noted in last week’s installment, Leslie was the daughter who was seemingly destined to take care of our mother in her last years.  Destiny laughed in our faces, but she was always just a telephone call away.  Whenever I was frustrated, tired, confused, scared, feeling sorry for myself, or otherwise in dismay about the sometimes leaden weight on my shoulders, normally all I had to do was talk to her to regain balance.  When that didn’t quite do the trick, she was knocking on my door within 24 to 48 hours.

Over the years, she sacrificed hundreds of hours of sick leave and vacation time to travel from Oregon to Nevada and camp out in our guest room for a few days, a week or longer so I could have an occasional break.  She took charge the moment she walked inside; determined to minister to every adult, child, dog or cat within her loving reach.  I practically melted into her arms with each hello and, of course, Mom was always overjoyed to see her O.D.D. (Older Darling Daughter).

Together the two of them would check things off the “honey do” list Mom assembled between visits.  Whether it was a special shopping trip, adding information to the family tree books or whipping up a mouth-watering new recipe from a magazine, they accomplished things that I typically did not have the time or energy to tackle.  I often told Mom, with a good-natured chuckle, that I felt like the proverbial custodial parent because the non-custodial parent racks up points for doing the fun stuff.

Christmas 1960 -- Still holding me.

Christmas 1960 — Still holding me.

Yes, the three of us made an unbeatable team.  We were blessed with support from other family and friends, and I will mention them as this story unfolds from week to week, but today is all about my sister’s unselfish devotion to Mom and to me.  My ardent prayer is that every primary caregiver everywhere has someone like her on their side.  She was there through the good and the bad, until the end.

There are certain pivotal moments in our lives that we can never forget.  Willingly or unwillingly, we relive them as if they happened yesterday.  For me, one of those moments was Mom’s final breath.  The funny thing is, I didn’t actually see it.  I knew Mom’s breathing had become more ragged that icy December morning as she lay immobile in her hospice bed.  Regardless, it took me by surprise when she suddenly drew a deep, shuddering breath, exhaled loudly and then was utterly still.  Hastily, I beckoned Leslie into the bedroom.  Neither of us moved a muscle or breathed ourselves until Mom’s breathing suddenly resumed.  I stepped into the hallway and turned on my cell phone to anxiously try to call our brother back from an errand.  It was in that instant Leslie ended up being the one sitting at our mother’s bedside when she finally did take her last, trembling breath.

No one would blame me if I said I felt guilty, cheated or disappointed that, after caring for Mom so many years, I should miss those last few seconds.  On the contrary, I find it poetic that Mom’s firstborn was alone with her.  The pure, unrehearsed beauty in it breaks my heart.

The family gathered at the Oregon Coast six months later to share memories, sing songs, and set Mom free at one of her favorite spots.  At dusk, I realized I had forgotten to scatter the pale pink petals I had collected from Mom’s Nevada rosebush.  Leslie and I drove alone to the seashore, walked barefoot out to the waves, and gently let the water and wind carry the petals away.  I stepped back a ways and, without her noticing, took several of the most precious photographs one could hope for on such a solemn day.  They capture my pretty sister in the fading light saying good-bye to our sweet mother on a serene beach with a company of seagulls on patrol.

If you haven’t already come to this conclusion, the title of today’s installment is not just a reference to my mother’s coded message at the end of her farewell letter.  It is my heartfelt dedication of this essay to my sister … our mother’s Older Darling Daughter … and my hero.

“To The Pretty One.”

Leslie 2014

Leslie 2014