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)

These Aren’t the Droids You’re Looking For

For the past five months, I’ve written weekly about the catch phrases my mother commemorated in a series of cards she left in the hands of trusted family members for posthumous delivery to me. Most of the axioms were long-standing and oft-repeated with personal meanings for her, for me and for the rest of our family. Today’s headline is quite a departure from that theme.

DroidsYes, the quote is from the 1977 film Star Wars, which was a family favorite long before the first exciting blockbuster became just one in a series of three, then six and soon to be nine episodes. Surprisingly, though, the line did not make it to Mom’s list until 2012, and it wasn’t because Obi-Wan Kenobi so masterfully used it to hoodwink a team of white-clad storm troopers. It was because I practically rolled on the floor laughing when a soap opera actor unexpectedly said it.

During an episode of General Hospital, smarmy Todd Manning (dryly played by Roger Howarth) was arguing over office space with another character. In the middle of the heated exchange, Todd suddenly waved his hand à la Obi-Wan and said …

These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.

His nemesis looked shocked for a moment and the argument resumed. It tickled me so much that I replayed the exchange several times and then saved the recording to watch again later. For the next year or so, either Mom or I would sometimes repeat the intergalactic phrase, but there was no underlying meaning. It was really just about remembering an amusing moment. I’m sure she wrote it in one of her posthumous cards for the same reason. A couple of months ago that changed for me.

My daughter, her two boys and I spent a November afternoon wandering around a Wizard World Comic Con in nearby Reno, Nevada. We met actors featured in a few of our favorite films and television shows, listened to Billy Dee Williams speak about his iconic Star Wars role as Lando Calrissian and browsed through a maze of vendor booths offering everything from tattoos to toys. A poster for sale in one of the stalls stopped me in my tracks. It was essentially a satire of the scenic motivational placards that modern-day managers like to display in their offices to promote teamwork, integrity and belief in success. Truth be told, I have one myself featuring a sailboat against a red sunset with the caption “Opportunity” beneath. The poster at the Comic Con was labeled “Regrets” and pictured a white-clad storm trooper sitting at a table with his head in his hands. The tagline read …

Those were the droids you were looking for.

I laughed heartily, took a picture of it and wondered for a few minutes whether to buy it. I ultimately did not bring it home, but the image was unforgettable. The more I pondered it, the more I realized that it was not just a punchline. For me, it brought the concept of looking for something full circle. So often in life we are presented with an opportunity, dismiss it because we don’t think it is truly what we were looking for, and regret it later. The unexpected is like a seed. Given the right attention, it takes root and bears surprising blessings. I call both of my children surprises (not accidents) for that very reason.

My 12-year cohabitation with my mother, and our eventual relationship as caregiver and care receiver, was an epic surprise. In my September 7, 2014, column titled “For However Long Forever Lasts,” I recounted the events that led to our arrangement. As noted then, we hadn’t planned to live together. We hadn’t planned that I would be the daughter to assume the lead responsibility in her final years. Nevertheless, that’s how life rolled out. I was rewarded with a deeper relationship with my mother than I could have ever imagined. We both learned important lessons from our respective roles, and we parted with few, if any, regrets. It was a blessing that I recognized this unexpected gift when it was given instead of realizing it only in hindsight.

Within that larger gift were many smaller ones.  One of the most extraordinary is that I developed a deep appreciation for fine art.

Droids - HalloweenMom was always a creative soul. As children, my sister, brother and I sported some of the best Halloween costumes in the neighborhood. When I was a teenager, Mom sewed my prom dress and painted cartoon-character posters for my student council campaign that were so clever that classmates stole them off the walls. Throughout my life, I witnessed her talent in mediums that ranged from clay sculpture to macramé and from charcoal drawings to oil paintings. When she retired and moved to the Oregon coast, she happily painted big yellow sunflowers on her old metal shed, hand-painted custom sweatshirts for everyone and fancifully colored Easter eggs each year without fail. Yet, even with that up-close and personal exposure to her creative spirit, I can’t say that I truly appreciated fine art until Mom and I took a four-day vacation to Las Vegas in 2005.

We planned our mini-break to coincide with a concert featuring country singer Kenny Chesney (for me) and an exhibit of classic impressionist paintings (for Mom). The concert was every bit as good as I expected it to be, but the memory has since blended with images from dozens of other shows I’ve attended over the years.  The exhibit, on the other hand, was akin to a Divine experience. Although I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing the paintings myself, I was glad to wheel Mom through the gallery. I didn’t anticipate that gazing at original canvases by the likes of Vincent Van Gogh and Pierre-Auguste Renoir would turn out to be awe-inspiring.

The defining moment of our gallery visit was when I found myself standing breathless in front of Claude Monet’s 1886 Meadow at Giverny. Clearly seeing the dashes and dabs of the artist’s paintbrush and the vibrant color choices that captured the lights and shadows of the landscape was nothing short of surreal. I could picture myself beside him in that meadow, insects buzzing about and a soft breeze rustling through the trees, while he repeatedly touched his brush to his palette and then to the emerging canvas. To this day, I am amazed that a long-dead Frenchman could reach through time, space and the commotion of the Las Vegas Strip to touch my heart in such a profound and lasting way.

The gallery gift shop didn’t have a print of Meadow at Giverny in stock or it would be hanging on my wall right now. No matter. A print would be little more than a two-dimensional souvenir to remind me of a dazzling, once-in-a-lifetime sight. A better souvenir is that the unexpected epiphany I experienced in that indelible moment is a seed that has taken root and blessed me with new vision.

Droids - Old WomanWhen Mom left this world, she left me some of her finest artistic creations. Regardless of the mediums, they all are unique and beautiful. However, I study the paintings with a more keen eye. The subtle differences in color and the variations in brush strokes that she used to capture the contours of a face, the pattern of a housedress or the shadows on a rose petal are a genuine source of amazement. Like Monet, Mom is able to reach out to me through space and time, and I can transport myself to the moment she touched brush to canvas. With this comes an intimacy that ordinary photograph albums and mementoes can never match. Had we not visited the impressionist exhibit during our 2005 mini-break, I doubt I would be enjoying this heightened perspective.

Sometime after Mom died, I began to entertain the idea of trying my own hand at painting. Not long ago I finally surrendered to the cosmic nudge and bought a set of pastels and a drawing pad. I feel destined to dabble if only to better understand the idea of blending colors on paper. A few nights ago, my husband and I watched with interest as the film “The Monuments Men” recounted the Nazi theft and the Allied Forces’ recovery of millions of works of art; perhaps including some of the very paintings Mom and I viewed together. In recent days I’ve found myself surfing the Internet looking for the current resting place of Meadow at Giverny and dreaming of visiting Monet’s home in northern France. Ten years ago I would have scoffed at the notion that fine art would ever ignite my imagination in the way that it has. In a manner of speaking, art appreciation was never a droid I was looking for. I thank my lucky stars that my mind was open to this unexpected development because the seed took root and grew into a beautiful blessing. Indeed …

Those were the droids I was looking for.

Droids - SunflowersOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Love Always, Mom xxxooo

In previous editions of this column, I’ve referenced a certain card delivered to me in June as the last in a series of posthumous “Notes From My Mother.” The prose acknowledged that difficult times lay ahead but encouraged me to draw on my own strength and that of my friends to get through the journey. It was apropos for a card received during the weekend our family scattered Mom’s ashes. I embraced her final handwritten remark, “On second thought, I’ll think about that tomorrow,” as a light-hearted good-bye.

I discovered this past week that it wasn’t the last card after all. In Monday’s mail was a manila envelope addressed in my sister’s hand. In the two minutes it took to drive between the neighborhood mailboxes and my driveway, I had started to wonder whether the contents had something to do with Mom. By the time I turned the key and opened the front door, I dared to hope it was a message from her.

Christmas 2013 (2)The holiday season had so far proven difficult for me. Mom was my Christmas buddy for many more years than the 12 we lived together and, without her, I hadn’t been able to muster much interest in any of the things we enjoyed as a team. She expressed an almost childlike awe about everything from an elegantly wrapped package, to a tree laden with precious memories of Christmases past, to homes that sparkled like the mythical Griswold abode with its 25,000 imported Italian twinkle lights. Everything jolly was multiplied ten-fold when she was involved.

Mom’s pure delight was perfectly symbolized by the dozens of Joy ornaments, holiday pillows, figurines, snow globes, candles and miscellaneous knick-knacks she received over the years from family and friends. No one could resist decorations already personalized with her name. I was the biggest patsy. Every year I would hunt for just the right bit of Joy to add to her collection. I suspected that Christmas 2012 might be her last, so I unboxed every pretty piece she had ever received and arranged them in her room. What could stand on its own was displayed on top of her curio cabinet. What was intended to hang from a tree dangled from the curtain rod or from any other decorative bar I could call into service.

Christmas 2013 (3)A year later, just 16 days before Santa made his rounds, Mom indeed made her departure. It was a no-brainer that we didn’t trim the tree or deck the halls. We were exhausted, numb and not in the mood to celebrate. I thought this year would be better. I wanted it to be anyway. So I kicked off the season by persuading my husband, daughter and visiting cousins to attend the annual open house at a local nursery where guests are welcome to stroll through a wonderland of themed trees while they snack on decadent desserts and sip hot apple cider. Mom always loved visiting the shop, and I was determined to carry on the tradition. Almost as soon as we arrived, I spotted an especially beautiful, hand-painted Joy ornament and purchased it with a lump in my throat. I considered the act a turning point and was sure the holidays would miraculously roll out in a normal, familiar fashion. I was wrong.

As co-workers happily decorated the office and friends talked excitedly about their holiday plans, I noticed that grief was creeping back into my consciousness. I didn’t feel apathetic about the holiday. Rather, I felt lost and unsure what I should do about decorating the house, writing a Christmas letter, sending cards or any of the merry things I was used to doing with Mom by my side. My indecision began to stir up the misplaced anger that I thought was behind me and, deep down, I knew I was over-analyzing customs that should just make me happy. The upshot was that I felt paralyzed and desperately wanted to ask Mom for her advice.

“What should I do, Mom? What would you want me to do?”

As if on cue, the card arrived. Written by Linda Staten for Hallmark, it began with motherly accolades about joyful times and proud moments, dreams for my future and confidence that I could handle any challenge. The prose inside concluded with an invitation to continue to turn to Mom for help and encouragement. In an introductory letter, my sister marveled about Mom’s foresight in choosing the final card. It was written in the present tense. She didn’t want me to think of her as part of my past but as a continuing presence in my life. My sister added that, by the time Mom signed the card, she had only the strength to write a single line. I read it through the tears welling up in my eyes.

Love always, Mom xxxooo

I laid the card and letter down on the counter and looked around the living room. The artificial, pre-lit tree Mom and I had purchased several years before stood in the window but was sparsely decorated with only those ornaments I thought could survive the curiosity of a playful kitty with no prior Christmas experience. On another wall, my husband’s stocking and mine hung rather forlornly from a couple of guitar hooks. Nothing else in the room hinted that the most magical day of the year was approaching. My collection of nativity scenes, scads of stuffed and ceramic Santas, dozens of miscellaneous snowmen and angels, and my mismatched but treasured miniature village were still packed securely in their boxes as they had been for two years. All of Mom’s favorite holiday decorations were likewise tucked away. And, yes, for readers of the “Live Long and Prosper” edition of this column a few weeks back, the Galileo with Mr. Spock at the helm had not seen the light of day. It finally dawned on me that, if I didn’t escape my own inertia, the holiday would come and go with none of the beauty and warmth that I’ve always considered the one redeeming element of our long, frosty winters. In my head, I heard Mom say:

“Don’t overthink this. You don’t have to take everything out. Start slow. Keep it simple. This year just put out whatever makes you happy.”

Christmas 2014 (2)I ventured into the garage and began peering into dusty boxes and Rubbermaid crates stuffed with Christmas cheer. I paroled about a half-dozen Santas – some mine, some Mom’s. I set up the miniature village but decided to let the crowds of little people, trees and streetlights sit this year out. Nearby, I positioned a three-foot Santa and a twinkling replica of a Victorian Gaslamp. On top of the entertainment center I carefully arranged three candles in glittery holders, an equally glittery deer, a tall angel and a wooden nativity carved within the letters J-O-Y. By the time I reached the dining room, my creativity had kicked into full gear. Out of reach for an inquisitive kitty, I turned the light fixture over the table into a pseudo centerpiece that incorporated the hand-painted Joy ornament I found at the nursery’s open house.

Although I did try to focus on decorations that wouldn’t tempt the cat, I didn’t overthink the project. I kept it simple, and I made sure every choice made me happy. The result was beautiful. Yet, something was missing. Try as I might, I could not seem to find a light string with sockets that would accommodate the plug for the 22-year-old Galileo. The tree, a garland, everything electrical was much too new. The thought of breaking out Mom’s entire collection of Star Trek ornaments and her dated four-foot display tree made me cringe. I knew I wasn’t ready for that. Days went by with no solution.

Finally, just hours before this column was scheduled to go live, the answer suddenly came to me. I walked over to a vintage string of red poinsettia lights that I had found among Mom’s cache and had artfully draped over a wrought iron wall sculpture near the foyer. I held my breath as I replaced one of the lights with the plug that would activate the shuttlecraft. It was a match! I pushed the button and heard Mr. Spock’s familiar greeting.

“Now it’s Christmas,” I announced with childlike joy. In my heart, I knew the solution was a gift from someone dear. It had her autograph all over it.

Love always, Mom xxxooo

Christmas - Galileo 2

 Christmas 2014 - Card 1Christmas 2014 - Card 2

To Infinity and Beyond – Part Two

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

To Infinity and Beyond!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smokey is our mostly white Siamese mix.

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

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

“I can hear the man singing.”

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

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

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

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

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

“No. I don’t think so.”

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

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

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

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

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

With love to infinity and beyond.

To Infinity and Beyond (3)

I’ll Think About That Tomorrow

Dressed in a stylish black mourning gown, Scarlett O’Hara weeps as she closes the ornate door of her empty mansion.  She has just buried her young daughter, made promises at the bedside of her dying sister-in-law, and watched helplessly as her dashing husband disappeared into the morning mist.  Seemingly everything she holds dear is truly Gone with the Wind.  In the throes of this profound loss, she falls back on the mantra that has carried her through life’s most difficult moments.  “I can’t think about that right now.  If I do, I’ll go crazy.”

I’ll think about that tomorrow.

It takes her only seconds to remember what is left in the world that matters, regain her characteristic strength, and end the classic 1939 film on a hopeful note.  “After all,” she says triumphantly, “tomorrow is another day!”

Tomorrow (5)In the 12 years we lived together, Mom and I strived to be like Scarlett.  It was almost second nature for me since Scarlett has long been my favorite fictional heroine.  In one moment, she could be the flirtatious belle of the barbecue and, in the next, the determined head of a family shattered by the death and devastation of the Civil War.  My bookshelf is home to English and non-English versions of this Margaret Mitchell classic and the sequels that followed decades later.  I’ve bravelyTomorrow (3) whittled down my prodigious collection of commemorative plates from 36 to four, but I won’t part with my copy of the typewritten script from the David O. Selznick / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production.  In 1993, when Mom posed for a picture with Dracula at a Universal Studios souvenir store, I had my profile photo-shopped into a provocative still with Rhett Butler.  Even my lively Springer Spaniel, Katie, bears the true first name of this strikingly beautiful, smart protagonist.

Mom and I repeated Scarlett’s “tomorrow” mantra frequently enough that it earned a place in one of Mom’s farewell cards delivered to me posthumously.  Not just any card.  The last one; handed to me by my sister on the day we scattered Mom’s ashes at the Oregon Coast.  Time to move forward, Mom seemed to be saying.

Reading the card again just now, I am pleased to know that Mom saw in me the qualities I try hard to cultivate – optimism, hope, a grateful spirit and the courage to face life-altering challenges.  Serendipitously, I needed to be reminded of that after a rather taxing week, the details of which are better left for exploration in an appropriate column on some future Sunday.  Suffice to say that I am in awe of Mom’s incorporeal ability to support and uplift me from across the great divide.

Tomorrow (2)To be honest (another attribute regular readers of this column know that I value), sometimes I fall from grace and neglect to count my blessings.  Mom did, too.  Indeed, the reason that this weekly discourse is subtitled “Nothing left unsaid” is rooted in worry.  Virtually every time a doctor diagnosed or even suspected a new malady, Mom and I would immediately assume the end was near.  Our indulgence in fear ushered us through an extravagant number of meaningful conversations; hence, there was nothing left unsaid between us.  However, the fear also rendered us the cowards that Julius Caesar spoke of in Shakespeare’s play about the legendary Roman ruler.

“Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.  Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear; seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.”

Mom and I knew that astute passage as well as any royal thespian, but we couldn’t seem to help ourselves.  We sometimes fretted, stewed, fussed and cogitated until we were mired in depression.  I tended to rebound more quickly than Mom, but each time we eventually found our smiles again.

When I felt that familiar, unwelcome anxiety creep into my thoughts this past week, I tried to tamp it down with techniques like deep breathing, prayer, focusing on daily miracles and the many other relaxation tips one finds in the best meditative books money can buy.  That didn’t do the trick, so I stopped worrying about worrying and joked that agonizing over things that may not even happen is in my DNA.

Simply acknowledging my intrinsic nature helped relieve some of the stress but, as it turns out, my wisecrack wasn’t really a laughing matter.  The notion that worrying is hereditary actually is more fact than fiction.  Studies have shown that a gene known as COMT predisposes us to be either warriors or worriers.  Warriors are stimulated to action by battle or, more commonly in everyday life, by a great challenge.  On the down side, they don’t do as well as worriers when it comes to routine productivity.  Conversely, while worriers may excel on a day-to-day basis, they are more likely to suffer a meltdown under high stress.  A casual observation made by some of my female co-workers this past week – that women worry and men don’t – may also be true.  The COMT gene controls estrogen, and worriers typically have higher estrogen levels.  Hmmmm.

If you think I’m gas-lighting you (to borrow a colorful phrase from Mom’s vernacular), google “warriors vs. worriers.”  You’ll find some intriguing information posted by the likes of the New York Times, the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine and Andrew J. Shatté, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer of meQuilibrium.  Trust me.  As I browsed through the material, my eyebrows arched like Scarlett when she comes upon a fascinating idea.

Fascinating is also an apt description of my experience writing this column.  I didn’t intend it to be therapeutic but, so far, it has been just that.  By writing about the trials and tribulations of caregiving, as well as the joy of living and laughing with my mother, I am steadily working through the indescribable pain of losing her and am also ensuring that our family’s memories of her are forever catalogued.  I hope that, at the same time, I am touching and helping others who are caring for or grieving for a loved one.  This week, though, I sense a subtle shift.  Today’s column is not about the past; it’s about the future.  Tomorrow (1)My future.  It’s about the need to effectively cope with whatever may come, and it’s about letting go of fear.

As I said earlier, I am in awe that Mom is still able to reach out and walk with me through uncertainty.  Her final farewell card reminded me of my own tenacity and strength of spirit, which I will draw upon as life marches forward.  Her final words, scrawled beneath the prose of Dierdra Joi Zollar, reaffirmed that worrying today never solved a single one of tomorrow’s problems.

Mom, I hear you loud and clear.  Instead of fretting when something is weighing too heavy on me, I will summon my inner Scarlett.  I’ll flounce the skirt of my make-believe green velvet portiere dress, defiantly lift my chin, and willfully declare,

On second thought, I’ll think about it tomorrow.

This Hunt Was Dedicated — Wooo-Hooo!

At the end of September, this column irreverently dedicated the 13th Annual Nevada Day Treasure Hunt to my mother – “irreverently” in tribute to her appreciation for the weird and wonderful, the bright and beautiful.  This epilogue is to report that she would have considered the outcome of the game howl-arious.

A dog found the treasure.  Yes, you read that right.  A big, lovable, Chocolate Lab sniffed out the worn leather pouch that traditionally holds the blue and silver medallion encased in an acrylic square.  The pouch was safely tucked in the middle of a tight cluster of trees beside a creek bordering a fitness trail.  A thin layer of pine needles ensured that no one simply walking past would spot it.  But that didn’t stop Eli, our canine contestant.  He nudged it out of its nest and, carrying the pouch gently in his mouth, trotted proudly back to his human companion.  She and some friends had been trying to decipher the daily riddles that held the secret of the treasure’s whereabouts, but she quite honestly described Eli’s find that day as “dumb luck.”  Fittingly, the game ended on the 13th clue of the 13th hunt.

Third Creek by Fitness TrailNever in the years that our family has sponsored and organized this event have we been so surprised by the win.  We’ve occasionally been taken off guard by a speedy resolution.  One year, on the third in a line-up of 15 clues, a hunter with a hunch found the medallion behind a historical marker commemorating Nevada’s mining history.  Another year a forest ranger suspected it was hidden on a trail near the California-Nevada border and presented it after Clue 5.  On the other end of the spectrum, the 2010 game continued all the way to Clue 14, and we were beginning to Treasure Hunt Hiding Spot 2014think no one would find the pouch staked among sagebrush alongside a gravel road abutting the site of an Old West fort.  Eli’s role in ending this year’s hunt will become part of its down-home folklore.

For more than a decade in Oregon our family played a similar game associated with the Portland Rose Festival.  Some of our most beloved memories are rooted in researching possible solutions to cryptic rhymes, exploring unfamiliar roads and landmarks, and wandering down Treasure Hunt Medallion in Hidingnature trails certain that we were about to spot the coveted prize.  We came “this close” a few times, but we were never lucky enough to actually find it.  Make no mistake, though.  The memories we made were no less precious just because we came up empty-handed.

When we moved away from Portland in 1997, my son suggested that we start a treasure hunt in our new home of Northern Nevada.  We could use our experience to design a truly engaging game that would encourage people to learn Treasure Hunt Medallionabout the state, visit new places, and enjoy each other in the process.

Wouldn’t it be fun, he mused, to be the creators instead of the hunters?

To give credit where it’s due, he was largely responsible for the first couple of hunts.  When the rest of the family climbed on the bandwagon, the Nevada Day Treasure Hunt became our personal, cherished tradition.

Some might argue that, when you stage a community event, it can’t be personal.  On the contrary, it is very much so.  For years we have guarded our family outings with the secrecy of an FBI undercover operation.  The grandchildren were indoctrinated from birth and no longer need reminders to “zip it” when anyone asks what they did over a long, summer weekend.  We kick each other under restaurant tables when one of us absent-mindedly starts a conversation about the hunt in public.  If the topic comes up while visiting on our patio, we go inside the house.  A few local businesses have supported the event over the years, mostly with in-kind services, but our family is solely responsible for the game from start to finish.  We have purposely fronted the $1,000 prize because major cash sponsorships too often come with strings attached.  The smaller the inner circle, the easier it is to preserve the simplicity and integrity of the hunt.

Yes, the game is personal for us.  It was even more so this year because it was the first since my mother — the kids’ beloved Grandma Joy — passed away.  As described in my September column, “This Hunt Is Dedicated,” she was the custodian of the opening clue, and her enthusiasm when we unearthed quirky details about Nevada’s past (or present) was contagious.  She never really could walk trails with us, but she delighted in coming along for the ride to scope out the general area around potential hiding places.  In truth, this year’s hunt was not the first we had to organize without her.  Her contribution in 2013 was limited to modest cheerleading; she was enrolled in a home hospice program the week after the medallion was found.

LucyOn a recent Saturday night, the family gathered around the dining room table to enjoy buttery squares of freshly baked cornbread and steaming bowls of homemade beef stew, which I learned to make under Mom’s tutelage.  The conversation turned to the recently ended treasure hunt and what she may have thought of Eli’s triumph.  She loved animals of all sizes, shapes and species … more than she loved most people.  She was rarely, if ever, without a dog by her side, on her lap or snuggled up beside her in bed.  She considered her Yorkshire Terrier, Lucy, who died in 2007 to be her true soulmate, and animal rescue organizations were her charity of choice.  To me, even her cheers sounded like the yelp of a happy dog or the spirited howl of a wolf.  We have no doubt Mom would have taken great pleasure in this particular shaggy-dog story.

After dinner, my son read aloud a selection of comments from the social media page we established for the hunt.  Some were intriguing posts from hunters comparing notes with each other or sharing suggestions with us.  Some were petulant but harmless comments added by unsuccessful hunters expressing their frustration with the outcome.  To our dismay, there were also over-the-top tirades published by angry competitors whose online road rage was startling.  They cruelly cursed everyone and everything for their loss except the plain fact that they did not correctly decipher the clues.  We pondered whether these attacks are evidence that the hunt has grown beyond our capacity as a family to continue in the same simple manner of the past 13 years.  Attracting a grim, hardcore fringe is a sign of the times, it seems.

Our story hour ended on a decidedly positive note when my son read a long, humorous, inspiring tale submitted privately to him by a family that drove, hiked, explored and otherwise scoured nearly all of the seven counties that comprise the broad search area.  Their description of midnight research sessions, determined excursions to places near and far, and toting a tired daughter piggy-back reminded us of well us.  Though they didn’t find the medallion, they said the things they learned about Nevada and the memories they made are worth far more than the cash prize.  Aaaah.  Such a sweet amen.

Wouldn’t it be fun, my son mused, to be hunters again?

As mentioned in some previous columns, Mom harbored a long-standing fear that she would not be remembered.  Unique hits on the Treasure Hunt’s main webpage and our social media page indicate that upwards of 20,000 people participated in or at least followed the hunt this year.  With those statistics, being forgotten is not an issue.  Mom would be both humbled and pleased, I’m sure.  But, trust me, I knew my weird and wonderful, bright and beautiful mother.  The smile spreading across her face and the gleam in her eye would be more for the goofy Chocolate Lab named Eli than for anyone or anything else.  I can imagine her raising a fist in the air, as she so often did when rooting for her favorite football team, and howling, “Wooo-Hooo!  Go, you little devil, go!”

There once was a doggy named Eli

Who could follow a trail with an eagle eye

But it was his nose

That outsmarted the pros

All hail to that four-legged furry guy

And The Horse You Rode In On

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

And the horse you rode in on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… and the horse you rode in on.

Tank - 1

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

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