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)

Life Is Just A Bowl Of …

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

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

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

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

Life isn’t always a bowl of cherry pits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Note (7)

 

Don’t Hang On To The Dogwood Tree

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

By Joan Millard Olson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prelude: Don’t Hold On To The Dogwood Tree

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

Paul Daniel Samsel

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

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

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

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

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

Marsha Ann Olson

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Hang On To The Dogwood Tree

Joan's Original Manuscript

Joan’s Original Manuscript

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

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

The broken heart is the open heart.

Marsha and Joan in a rare moment of connection.

Marsha and Joan in a rare moment of connection.

All Righty, McDity

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

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

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

All righty, McDity.

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

All Righty McDity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All righty, McDity.

Bring on the joy.

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

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.”