A Few Less Columns On My Spreadsheet

A little more than four months after my mother died, I had a vivid, intense dream about her.

That characterization appeals to most people, which is why I use it. However, if I’m truthful, from my perspective it was not a dream; it was a visit. I’ve had enough of these kinds of nocturnal journeys after the death of a loved one to know the difference between a misty, rambling, illogical fantasy that is easily forgotten and a genuine encounter filled with stunning detail and brilliant color that is inscribed in memory. This was most decidedly the latter.

Either way you chose to look at it, there was a message in the experience for me. How do I know? My mother said so.

Mom was sitting on her bed surrounded by presents all wrapped in blue paper and ribbons. I asked, “Is it Christmas?” She said, no, it was the Awakening. Since this visit occurred after I went to sleep on Easter Day 2014, the correlation made perfect sense, as did her counsel about love and renewal. Then she said there was a message in the Awakening for me. To paraphrase, she said I shouldn’t be so analytical about everything.

Her advice made me chuckle. The older I have gotten, the more I have approached every significant decision with detailed research, painstaking work to forecast outcomes, and plenty of agonizing internal and external debate. My pro and con lists are on steroids in multi-tab, colored-coded, formula-driven Excel spreadsheets. Mom didn’t call me “the spreadsheet queen” for nothing. In the dream, I asked her …

“You mean I should have a few less columns on my spreadsheets?”

She smiled and said, yes, that’s pretty much what she meant.

Regular readers of this column may recall that my June 18th edition this year was all about reaching a coveted milestone in my recovery from the grief surrounding Mom’s death, the loss of my sweet Springer Spaniel, and career-changing events at my place of employment. In a nutshell, I had finally come to the joyful realization that there was still life ahead for me!

I kept an additional twist to myself but, while writing that column, I understood with a pleasant jolt that I had entered into the Awakening my mother had referenced during our visit in dreamland. I’ve literally been walking through a time of love and renewal these past nine months. I love myself again, I’m optimistic about the future, and I’ve been busy renewing my body by losing weight, getting fit, and catching up on neglected wellness and prevention activities. I feel more like myself – both mentally and physically – than I have in several years. It’s amazing and energizing.

In a movie, this is where you would hear dark, foreboding music. The main character doesn’t hear it. She is blissfully unaware that her life is about to change. All you can do at the theater is cover your eyes and peek through the cracks between your fingers. All you can do right now is read on.

On August 17th, I had my first mammogram since 2011. They called me back the following week, but I wasn’t the least bit worried. “It’s just been a while,” I thought, “and they need more images to compare.” However, after upgraded 3D pictures and an ultrasound, the radiologist looked down at me with her magic techno-wand still in hand and said gently, “You have cancer.” I actually think she said, “a little cancer,” but all I heard was “cancer.”

Everything after that was surreal. I didn’t absorb a thing that was said to me by the appointment scheduler, but I somehow managed to book a biopsy for the next day. I went back to work but couldn’t think, so I confided in two close friends – one in person and the other on the telephone. I met a couple of my cousins for lunch as they were passing through town and, after they swore to keep mum, told them at the end of our meal. I saw my husband at the restaurant, too, but he was lunching with his department director and co-workers, and I didn’t want to distract him. Instead, I broke the news to him and our grown children that night.

Interestingly enough, I didn’t say, “I have cancer,” to any one of these precious people. The radiologist had said it with no reservations. What she saw on the screen was definitive. But I said, “The doctors think I might have breast cancer.” I maintained that stance until the biopsy results came back the next week. Then I had no choice but to say it out loud.

The first night after the radiologist confirmed her diagnosis, I woke up every hour with one thought in my head, “I have cancer.” I imagine it was my unconscious mind working overtime to help my conscious mind believe it. That was essential since everything moves at light speed after a diagnosis like this. I had very little time to wallow in shock, denial and anger. Acceptance had to come quickly so that decisions could be made.

It’s now been a month since that first mammogram – the day a routine wellness check morphed into a life-altering medical condition. I’ve done a little reading on the internet to better understand breast cancer; being careful to avoid anything about prognosis and risks. I’ve gotten words of wisdom from two very close friends who are breast cancer survivors and suggestions from a few friends stricken with other varieties of this dreaded menace. The Cancer Resource Center associated with our local hospital gave me a wonderful book that literally answers a hundred questions, of which I have read about a dozen. My surgeon patiently presented every option; repeating information whenever necessary during our 30-minute encounter. Yesterday I took an hour or so and got a handle on the expenses associated with the diagnostics and surgery.

During this process I have not constructed one single spreadsheet. I have not designed formulas that estimate costs within a fraction of a cent or that compare the benefits of this treatment vs. that. I have not ranked my choices with a DEF CON color coding system or created tabs that categorize options and establish priority. There isn’t even a rudimentary pro and con list on my home desk. This time – this life-changing time – I am listening to the sage advice of my dearly departed mother and am not being so analytical about the situation and my choices. Instead of …

“a few less columns on my spreadsheet”

… there will be no spreadsheet at all. There will be only prayer for strength and grace, coupled with hopeful trust that the good Lord will help me see the blessings in this experience and make it count for something in my life and perhaps in the lives of others.

My lumpectomy with sentinel node biopsy (the most common choice of women in similar circumstances) is scheduled for Friday, September 22nd. I will let you know what happens as soon as I am able.

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Make the Most of Your Time

A New Chapter

Through the years, I have come to regard life as poetry. Between each hopeful sunrise and blushing sunset, the universe expertly weaves a melodic sonnet that perfectly reflects the infinite beauty of all that surrounds us and flows through us.

The prerequisite for this harmonic perspective, I believe, is an awareness of life’s poetic moments. When recognized, such a moment can teach a lesson, validate a decision and even serve as a compass. The most powerful experiences can affect you forever, as was the recent case when I was decluttering my bookshelf and found an unfamiliar hardback called My Time by Abigail Trafford.

Thinking the book was a potential candidate for the donation box I was filling, I wondered, “Hmmm. What’s this one about? I don’t remember reading it. Where did I get it?” I slipped it off the shelf, opened the front cover and saw familiar handwriting. The inscription from Christmas 2004 read …

Make the most of your time. Mom xxxooo.

My Time Message

I drew a quick breath and read the book jacket. It said, in part, “This generation (ages 55 to 75) is the first to experience the period of personal renaissance in between middle and old age. (The author) skillfully guides us through the obstacles of My Time and shows us how to reinvent ourselves in these bonus decades.”

Immediately, I felt the power of the moment. I had stumbled upon a posthumous note from my mother! No, it was not one that she wrote during the last weeks of her life and entrusted a family member to deliver at an opportune time (as were most of the notes that have fueled this column). This note was more profound, more ethereal than that. Written more than a dozen years ago, the message waited patiently inside that important book until I was ready to embrace it.

And, indeed, I was ready. The timing was so precise, so perfect that it left me awestruck. Clearly, it was synchronicity at its best.

Mom’s death in December 2013, in the very room where I now write these words, affected me deeply. Early on, I didn’t know how I could carry on without her. Even when the feeling passed that I may as well have died, too, it took many agonizing months to reach that place of “the new normal,” which in recent years has become the coveted nirvana for anyone suffering a loss.

Piled atop my grief about Mom were the passing of my sweet, old Springer Spaniel in September 2016 and a problematic shift in leadership and organizational culture at my longtime workplace. There was little I could do about the sorrow surrounding Katie’s death except wait for time to work it’s magic. At the office, I took the advice I had always given others. If you are unhappy, it’s up to you to make a change.

A transfer to a different job in the same state department helped for a while. In fact, voluntarily moving into a position with much less responsibility gave me time to focus on myself for the first time in a decade. I joined Weight Watchers and began to take long, purposeful walks in the evenings after dinner. The pounds I had accumulated through years of stress eating and a sedentary lifestyle began to melt away, and the solitary walks gave me time to think. It was on one of those walks that I suddenly realized I had finally passed a previously elusive milestone. There actually was going to be life after Mom for me! It took more than three years, and I honestly didn’t see it coming, but I had finally arrived at the summit of my long journey. It was such a surprise, such a defining moment, that I almost expect to see an “X” marking the spot on Ryegrass Road in our neighborhood.

Around that time, some disconcerting issues at the office led me to another realization. A different job, on what was essentially the same organizational chart, was never going to restore the joy I once took in my work. After much soul searching, I decided to leave public service as soon as I could develop a viable plan. The biggest obstacle, of course, was my budget. Retiring before age 65 meant a financial sacrifice. I went on the hunt for a low stress, private sector job to supplement my pension. The day after I picked up an application for a position that fit my criteria, I found the book. That moment … that indescribably poetic moment … changed everything; most importantly my attitude. I threw the job application in the trash, stopped planning an escape and started planning a life.

My Time

Just 15 pages into My Time, I began taking notes on post-its and pasting them like tabs so I could easily return to certain passages. Information about the landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development, directed by Dr. George Valliant, captured my attention like nothing else had in a very long while. I could see myself in the stage called Generativity, which typically involves giving back, and in the stage called Keeper of the Meaning, which involves tying the past to the future.

Both personally and professionally, I highly value the future as well as the past. I’ve often said that raising two children who I regard as superlative adults is the single most important thing I have ever done or will do on this planet. And, as a leader, mentoring my staff and preparing them for their turn at the helm is consistently at the top of my priority list. Equally important is passing on family history at home and imparting lessons learned at the office.

Until I saw myself in Abigail Trafford’s book, I didn’t regard my interest in heritage and legacy as anything other than a personal passion. Now I understand that it’s part of life; part of being human. It’s an especially great motivator in one’s later years when most of us begin to truly grasp the reality that our time here is limited.

My Time didn’t change my mind about retirement. What My Time did was inject excitement into the possibilities of life after retirement. I am blessed with a well-developed sense of Generativity. I am the Keeper of the Meaning; that’s so me. Doggone-it, I still have something to give! What an incredible awakening! Between now and the end of the calendar year when I step out of public service, I intend to transform these cherished gifts into my new life’s work. I intend to dream and hope and create. I intend to take risks. I intend to live.

Sometimes I wonder why Mom gave me Abigail Trafford’s book. Here is what I know. At Christmastime 2004, Mom was in the midst of a health crisis. We had lived together for three years, I was taking her to see specialists of all kinds, and she was enduring a laundry list of tests to determine the cause of her distressing symptoms. We wouldn’t know for two more months what the problem was and how to address it. Once we did, her health improved, and she lived another nine years. But on Christmas Day 2004, when she gave me that book, she probably thought she didn’t have much time left herself. I imagine she looked back on her life, regretted the things she didn’t do, and wanted me to live with enthusiasm after she was gone. Mom didn’t talk much about her deepest, most personal thoughts, but gestures like this one were worth a thousand words.

I know I never read My Time until now. Not only was I busy taking care of Mom, but it just wouldn’t have interested me. When I unwrapped that Christmas gift a dozen or so years ago, I had just hit my 50s, still had a long career in public service ahead and was still zealous about my work. How grateful I am that I kept the book all these years. How poetic that I randomly picked it up at a major crossroads in my life. How I appreciate Mom for somehow nudging me from the other side …

Make the most of your time.

I will, Mom. I promise you. Your baby girl isn’t ready to settle into a rocking chair just yet. To borrow a popular quote attributed to writer Hunter S. Thompson, I don’t intend to arrive quietly at my final destination. I will “skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a Ride’!”

Dream (8)

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.

Dead Cabinet (9)

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.

Dead Cabinet (10)

 

 

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

 

Somebody’d Better Do Something About It

James Garner first set eyes on her during a muddy brawl in the main street of the fictional frontier town of Calendar, Colorado. Later, he caught her peeking between handfuls of long, wet hair whilst perched in a tree wearing nothing but her drawers. Finally, he threw a pitcher of water on the flaming bustle of her dress when she tried to serve freshly baked dinner biscuits.

This all happened on the same day, and it all happened to Joan Hackett when she was playing accident-prone Prudy Perkins opposite Garner’s unflappable Jason McCullough in the 1969 Old West parody Support Your Local Sheriff. With the back of her dress burned away and flour handprints on her face, she clenched a fist and declared in utter frustration …

I’m sick and tired of these stupid things that have been happenin’ to me, and somebody’d better do something about it soon!

My mother loved that line. Repeating it took the edge off when the universe dished out some ridiculous happenstance beyond her control. Believe me, in her 89 years, Mom had ample opportunities to quote Ms. Hackett.

Somebody Better (2)Probably the worst foible of her senior years happened before Mom set up housekeeping with me in Nevada. She was walking her tiny Yorkshire Terrier on the gravel road in front of her old trailer on the Oregon Coast. Somehow wiry, little Lucy got away, and Mom instinctively ran after her on gravel that was wet from the persistent seaside drizzle. Before she knew what was happening, she slipped and fell hard on her right side. To this day, I can’t tell you how she managed to get herself and her diminutive dog back inside the trailer with a broken shoulder. She recovered without undue drama but duly spoiled and pampered by my protective sister who lived a couple of hours away.

Thankfully, Mom didn’t fall frequently during her 12 years with me in Nevada. There were several near misses but only two incidents that actually put her on the floor. One I wrote about in the column, “Love Always, Mom – Part Two.” Immediately after injecting insulin into her tummy to counteract the lunch she was about to eat, Mom OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAslipped to the unforgiving tile when her combination walker and portable bench rolled out from under her. It was a simple case of not properly setting the brake before sitting. My daughter was nearby and helped break Mom’s impact, but she couldn’t manage to help her stand. Except for an instant of panic when I got the initial call at work, it was all rather ordinary. Mom ate her lunch while propped up with pillows against a kitchen cabinet, I came home and, when our group effort to get her back on her feet failed, we sedately summoned the paramedics. She was bruised but not seriously injured.

The second incident occurred in the living room a few weeks later. My husband and I were sitting on the sofa when Mom backed her walker up to her recliner to watch the news before dinner. She was not in our line of sight, so we were both surprised a moment later when she said evenly, “Laurie, can I get some help?” She had missed the chair by a fraction of an inch and slid quietly to the carpet. After previously watching the paramedics help her to her feet, my husband and I were able to use the same technique to hoist her into the chair. A moment later, the two of them were casually watching the news while I finished preparing dinner.

My heart went out to Mom when she began having “accidents.” To put it delicately, she had recurring digestive problems and sometimes just couldn’t move quickly enough to reach the refuge of her bathroom. Adult diapers, bed pads and rubber gloves became staples in our household. Once I remember being late to work on a critical day involving the State Legislature and our departmental budget. Shortly after I called in, our director dialed me back. I apologized about my tardiness and matter-of-factly explained that I was “cleaning up poop.” Bless his kind soul. All he said was, “Oh,” and began to pick my brain about an issue within my scope of work. Naturally, Mom was mortified that she couldn’t always control her bodily functions but, as long as I was nonplussed, she remained calm, too.

It was especially important for me and other caregivers to keep a cool head when she crashed. If you know anyone who is diabetic, you know that crashing is the frightening result of abnormally low blood sugar. The person gets shaky, breaks into a cold sweat, has heart palpitations and can become confused or anxious. The trick is to ingest some form of concentrated sugar as quickly as possible. Glucose tablets, candy and orange juice were our counter-agents of choice. As years passed and we gained experience with this phenomenon, Mom’s crashes occurred less frequently and were easily resolved. However, in the beginning, we weren’t always prepared for this unexpected and unnerving development. Once after a cardiology appointment, she crashed while I was helping her into the car. The only thing I could think to do was high-tail it to the nearest fast food drive-through and buy her a chocolate milkshake. She spilled some of it on the seat and was horrified because I had just paid a pretty penny to get the old sedan detailed inside and out. “Oh well,” I said. “What are you gonna do? Battle scars.”

Somebody Better (3)The thing is, stupid stuff happens to everyone. Admittedly, some of us are more prone to accidents than others. When I was growing up, I earned an embarrassing but deserved reputation as a sloppy eater. Virtually every time I put on a new outfit, I ended up spilling food on it. For an elementary school open house and spaghetti feed, my sister reluctantly loaned me her pretty, yellow party dress and … you guessed it … I came home with tomato sauce splashed down the front. In addition, I’m terribly inept with kitchen knives. My husband is convinced that someday I’m going to end up in the emergency room with a severed finger on ice. Whenever I chop carrots for stew, there is nothing he can do but cringe and look away.

Likewise, when young, beautiful Joan Hackett blustered that “somebody’d better do something about it soon,” she had to know deep down that no one could really prevent “stupid things” from happening to her. Still, you certainly didn’t see her laying low after the bustle burning incident. She got up every day, got dressed and determinedly went about her business in that uncivilized, gold rush town. At the end of the film, one last “stupid thing” resulted in a desperate attempt to stay astride a bucking horse. James Garner assumed his best business-as-usual stance and calmly called out, “Jump, Miss Prudy! Jump!” She leaped off the spooked horse and found herself in the arms of her devilishly handsome beau.

If all’s well that ends well for a headstrong, twitter-pated frontier gal and a reluctant hero whose trademark retort was “basically, I’m on my way to Australia,” then it can also end well for every accident-prone, modern-day Prudy who slips and falls, misses the toilet, spills food or slices fingers. All you have to do is stay calm and carry on. Mom believed it. I believe it. I hope Russell Wilson believes it, too.

Wait. Huh? I can see the double-takes and puzzled stares, and can almost hear a rewind sound effect – something akin to a phonograph needle scraping across an old record. Who is Russell Wilson and what is he doing in Mom’s story?

Mom was an avid football fan and, along with my husband, followed the highs and lows of the Seattle Seahawks. She passed away just two months before the Hawks finally won their first Superbowl in 2014. Last week, they had a chance to take home another Vince Lombardi trophy. In the waning moments of the game, the Hawks were poised to score. Quarterback Russell Wilson threw a pass on the one yard line and the ball was intercepted by a rookie who saved the day for the Patriots. Although I’m a relatively new football fan, I was as shocked and exasperated as any 12th man in the country. I must have sputtered “stupid” two dozen times. Today I’m happy to say that I have regained my Garner-esque composure, and I remember that stupid things just happen to everyone now and then. You can’t stop it. The only thing I can do is pull up my Joan Hackett under-drawers and make an offer to beleaguered Mr. Wilson. On behalf of my wise mother, I’d like to loan you one of her favorite movie quotes.

I’m sick and tired of these stupid things that have been happenin’ to me, and somebody’d better do something about it soon!

These Aren’t the Droids You’re Looking For – Part Two

After last week’s piece about embracing the unexpected, it occurred to me that the most important relationship in my life fit the same bill. Amid blurred images of droids and storm troopers, quests and regrets, the face of my own hero emerged. He has never brandished a light saber. Never piloted a speeding spacecraft through an asteroid belt. Never saved a galaxy. But he rescued me.

Droids Part 2 - (1)I met my first husband, Pete, in our senior year of high school in 1972. Graduation was only two years past when we tied the knot in a beautiful cliffside ceremony on the Oregon Coast. He was 19; I had recently turned 20. With no responsibilities other than our cat, we were free to travel around the western states in our old Ford van with Pete’s rock band. That is, until I became pregnant once and then a second time. We morphed into parents with light speed and pursued a typical family lifestyle that would never have interested us as teenagers. Ultimately, we learned the universal truth of middle age. The ideals that seem paramount in one’s youth are not necessarily the same ones you value as adults. Sadly, after 27 years of marriage, we separated. Our divorce became final on Christmas Eve 2001.

A half-dozen Christmas Eves later, I became engaged again. The following August, in a historic chapel in one of Nevada’s oldest townships, I once more donned a white lace dress and married the man of my dreams.

It was still Pete.

When our first marriage ended, we went down separate paths in search of something and someone different. In the rearview mirror, we discovered that the life we left behind was the something and that we were the someones. We were the droids we were looking for after all.

It’s a happy ending, yes. But it wasn’t an amicable divorce. The unexpected problems that pulled us apart were gravely serious. Darth Vader and his evil empire had nothing on us. We gave in to the dark side and angrily threw in the towel on our relationship, our home and, well, basically our entire life together. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we hated each other, but we really, really didn’t like each other for at least the first three years after we took off our rings.

It’s often said that things happen for a reason. Not that I was ever glad about our divorce, but I do recognize that it opened doors for me to pursue a few memorable adventures, and it paved the way for the arrangement between Mom and me. Had I not been at loose ends when her mobile home was destroyed in a storm, she might have moved in with my sister in Oregon instead. We may never have grown as close as we did nor learned as much. Blessings come unexpectedly and wear many disguises, and my 12 years with Mom was a blessing of epic proportions. Some blessings aren’t free, however. This one came with a price tag that put limitations on my efforts to find my footing as a single woman. Just as I was about to live independently for the first time in my life, I was back under the same roof with my mother.

All in good time, I wanted to date. Living with Mom then was not very different from living with her while a teenager. She didn’t require care in those days, but I still needed to let her know where I was going, with whom I was keeping company and when I would return. Periodically she hinted that she didn’t like being left behind while I went to such enviable events as an amateur barbershop quartet recital or a deafening motorcycle rally. Guilt became a more reliable companion than any of the men I met. In fact, the best thing I can say about my string of first/last dates was that they provided for amusing conversation when Mom and I drank our coffee on Saturday mornings.

There was the dental supply representative who lied about his relationship status and shrugged it off by saying he “felt” separated. The bass player who thought a deep French kiss was appropriate after one dinner. The former Marine who, between hearty bites of enchiladas, graphically told me about slitting an adversary’s throat behind enemy lines. And the freshman entrepreneur who showed me his entire line of uninspiring bumper decals while sitting in the front seat of his pickup truck. Those were some of the better guys. Most of the truly appalling stories aren’t appropriate for a family column. A friend who enjoyed hearing of my odyssey through singledom is still waiting for my trashy bestseller about the ultimate Mr. Wrong, Mr. Unsuitable, Mr. Offensive and Mr. Are-You-Kidding-Me.

They say that if you kiss enough frogs, you will eventually find a prince. There were no princes among my frogs, but there were a couple of knights – a gentile Texas businessman who treated all the Droids Part 2 (7)women in our family regally and a talented, funny musician who struck up a friendship with us while Mom and I cruised through Alaska’s Inland Passage with my sister and her husband. Mom adored both of these squires, but neither could take Pete’s place in her heart. Despite our troubles, he remained the man of Mom’s dreams for me. He and I had hooked up so young that he became like one of her own kids. They shared a fascination with certain fantasy stories that I could never really wrap my head around, traded detective novels in their own personal paperback exchange, and loved to watch football together. Once Pete arranged a train trip from Portland to Seattle so he and Mom could see Joe Montana quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs against the Seahawks. Our daughter and I went along, but it was more their day than ours.

Eventually, I stopped dating frogs. The gentile Texas businessman and the talented, funny musician drifted out of my life. One day I realized that I was content without a relationship. Another I realized that the truce between Pete and me had slowly blossomed into friendship.

IM000141.JPGFor Pete, becoming friends was not enough. He wanted to reconcile. We clearly loved each other, but I was not convinced reuniting was a good idea. What if things went south again? Like any good hero, Pete wouldn’t give up on his quest to rescue me from my own fears. Then one Saturday afternoon in August 2007 he tagged along to a gathering of folks I call “my John Denver friends.” While sitting at a picnic bench at a Lake Tahoe campground, I looked around at some of the couples listening to a tribute band and realized that many of them were actually “re-couples.” They had parted ways with their previous significant others, were charting unknown waters with new love interests and were not overly concerned that their relationships would capsize. The only thing different about Pete and me was a shared history. That bond, I suddenly understood, was not a debit. It was our greatest asset. I turned to him and said, “OK. I think we should get back together.” Four months and six days later, he proposed by the soft lights of the Christmas tree as Mom, our children and our grandchildren watched through misty eyes. I kept everyone in suspense for an agonizing 30 seconds or so and said yes.

Mom was elated and joked that she wouldn’t have to break in a new son-in-law. The joke was rooted in the truth, though. She never had to wonder whether Pete would love her or want to live in the same household. We were already a family. She never had to worry that he might be resentful of our close relationship as mother/daughter and caregiver/care receiver. His eyes were wide open. He knew Mom and I were a package deal. He wanted to be with both of us.

Droids Part 2 (4)Our wedding the following August was also the wedding of our son, Jesse, and his fiancé, Hydie. Our dearest relatives and friends gathered in the quaint, little Nevada church, and every member of our immediate family had a part. Jesse and Pete served as each other’s best man. Our daughter, Jenny, was matron of honor for both Hydie and me. Our grandson, Skyler, walked me down the aisle. Our younger grandson, Espen, escorted Mom in her wheelchair to the front of the church, and our son-in-law, Chris, took photographs. During the ceremony, Mom read the same Apache prayer that was recited at our first wedding. That day our whole family was reunited – not just Pete and me.

So this is the story of two droids who long ago in a galaxy far, far away parted ways in search of something that didn’t really exist. Two droids who took years to realize that they already had what they were looking for. Since we put our original rings back on our left hands, we haven’t “tried” to make our second marriage work. As Yoda would say, “Do or do not. There is no try.” So we do. You might say the force is with us these days. You might say that our story is a little like the original Star Wars movie. It had a good first run, but it has become the most popular and highest-grossing film in the franchise under its re-release as A New Hope.

Live Long and Prosper

For at least the last decade, while my co-workers have systematically planned leave that corresponds with Christmas or the New Year, I have booked time off on and around December 4th. Sometimes I’ve just taken that one day; sometimes the entire week in which it falls. It became like a holiday in our household because every year marked another notch on Mom’s lengthening lifeline. It was the one square on the calendar when the tables turned and her trademark birthday salutation circled back to her.

Live long and prosper. Live Long (5)

Virtually no one in the free world needs an explanation of the origins of that line. In fact, it’s safe to say that a dark-haired extraterrestrial, with pointy ears and his right hand raised in a V-shaped salute, just crossed your mind. If you also know when that particular Vulcan first found his way into Earth’s sci-fi history, then you can understand how ingrained this greeting is in our family’s traditions.

It would not be illogical to describe our devotion as genetic since four generations have now eagerly anticipated each new incarnation of the legendary television and film space saga. Likewise, it’s reasonable to presume that one of Mom’s prized possessions – a photo taken at a long ago fan convention – is destined to be handed down again and again. For that galactic portrait, my adult children, Mom and I huddled briefly but proudly with two icons that need no introduction.  An otherworldly hand resting on Mom’s shoulder cemented her connection with the final frontier.

For 21 of the 48 years that Mr. Spock and his cosmic cohorts have been honorary members of our family, choosing birthday gifts for Mom was as easy as waiting for Hallmark to announce its annual Christmas ornament collection. Some faithful Star Trek fan reading this column probably knows that my arithmetic seems a little haywire. The count should be 22 years since Hallmark unveiled this line of collectible ornaments in 1991 and Mom’s last birthday was 2013. Alas, I somehow missed the premiere edition of the Starship Enterprise. I made up for it about eight or nine years later by paying an outrageous amount for a mint condition original on eBay.

Live Long (3)Some years ago, Mom bought a pre-lit, artificial tree especially to display her collection of official Federation ornaments. The three-foot model was overpowered within a few years, so a four-foot facsimile took its place. Even at that, the characters finally had to be arranged in groups beneath the branches for lack of elbow room among the spacecraft above. As the years passed, she delighted in watching her great grandsons push the buttons on the various gadgets and listen to familiar voices say things like, “We are the Borg. Enjoy your holidays. Resistance is futile.”

That particular directive, spoken through a computer chip in a plastic cube, is calling to me as this year’s Christmas season rapidly approaches. Like a challenge, the cybernetic pronouncement is beckoning me back into a bright world of multi-colored lights, green wreaths adorned with red velvet bows, and miniature villages where ice-skaters with eternal smiles forever glide around the perimeter of a mirrored rink. So far, the question I have figuratively shouted back has gone unanswered. Can I truly enjoy the holidays without Mom?

Mom loved Christmas and, for at least a dozen years, about half of the effort I put into the festivities was for her delight. Who could resist the glee of an 80-something great-grandmother as she drank in the magic of a gaily lit neighborhood or shopped for little treasures in the aisles of stores laden with sparkly decorations? Mom and I spent her last 12 birthdays soaking up all that beauty. Our habit was to wander through the glittery holiday shop at our favorite local garden store, eat breakfast at a corner café where the waitresses knew us and drive 30 miles to the nearest large city with more malls, retail strips and restaurants than we could possibly visit in a day.

Live Long (2)As the years passed and Mom’s health declined, the birthday trips narrowed to one or two local stores and perhaps one meal out, then to a stay-at-home day reserved for decorating and watching holiday movies. Last year, during a home visit in late October, a hospice nurse gently encouraged us to move up any special seasonal celebrations to be sure Mom could participate. About a week later, I gave Mom the last set of Star Trek ornaments she would ever receive. With a wide smile on her face, she pressed the button on the character edition to listen to braveLive Long (4) Captain Kirk fight a grotesque reptilian warrior known as the Gorn. Our hero won that battle, but Mom lost hers December 9th, five days after spending her 89th birthday comatose.

Exhaustion, grief, shock and a sense of bewilderment that the world could even go on without my mother’s uniquely charming presence led to the sensible decision not to try to ramp up for Christmas in 16 days. Greeting cards were written, addressed and stamped mostly so I could slip in a letter that shared our sad news. Gifts purchased over the internet while Mom slept away her final days were wrapped and tagged. Money she saved over the course of the year to give to her children and grandchildren was divided up and tucked into special cards I bought on her behalf when hospice first came into the picture. She never had the energy to sign them so I sat quietly and wrote all the things I thought she would want to say to each loved one. Finally, a few days before Christmas, my husband and I wandered through the glittery holiday shop at our favorite local nursery and bought one or two things to dress up the living room ever so slightly. Mr. Spock and his cosmic cohorts stayed in their boxes in a big plastic bin in the garage.

After another trip around the sun, it’s time to ask whether they should sit out this holiday as well. Or is resistance really futile? Should they take their stations and boldly go through the season with me as their new commander?

Perhaps I should start by unboxing the first spacecraft that Mom hung on a Christmas tree 22 years ago. Maybe the familiar voice waiting patiently at the helm of the Galileo will be able to tell me whether to invite his friends to come aboard. All I have to do is push the button.

“Shuttlecraft to Enterprise. Shuttlecraft to Enterprise. Spock here. Happy Holidays. Live long, and prosper.”