A Few Less Columns on My Spreadsheets, Revisited

Last September when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I posted an essay in this space about a vivid dream with an important message from my mother. I condensed her rather eloquent advice into something akin to a pop culture metaphor.

“I should have a few less columns on my spreadsheets.”

For those not schooled in the addictive powers of Microsoft Excel, the basic translation is that I should dial down my natural tendency to over-analyze everything. Appropriately, the software reference is also reminiscent of my mother’s characterization of me as “queen of the spreadsheet.” It’s a moniker earned by my penchant for using Excel as a tool to create order out of the inevitable chaos that is life. I had to laugh when, looking

Spreadsheet Queen

The Spreadsheet Queen

through pictures for something to post with this column, I ran across a 2008 photo in my mother’s files of … you guessed it … me working on a spreadsheet. That one was a budget for a family wedding.

In the first few weeks following my cancer diagnosis, I clung to my mother’s posthumous wisdom like a mantra. I didn’t want to research traditional treatments vs. alternate treatments or weigh my options against prognosis charts. I didn’t want to write pro and con lists or forecast outcomes using elaborate software formulas that resemble physics equations. I just wanted to do what my doctors recommended and pray for strength and grace. And I did.

I’m not sorry I took that stance. It was a good approach for someone whose emotions were raw and whose brain was on overload. It got me through the initial shock and the surgery.

However, once I felt more like myself again, I couldn’t suppress my own nature. In fact, I came close to being a complete failure at that resolution. It doesn’t really surprise me. I spent most of my public service career planning, developing, implementing and evaluating programs, and I’ve spent my most satisfying personal hours digging into topics that interest me and writing stories. Why should this experience generate a lesser response?

My first project was to research traditional treatment for Stage 1 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. What I learned led to a couple of tough decisions. With my family’s blessing, I was prepared to reject chemotherapy if recommended. It was not. I was also prepared to reject radiation, which was pushed in a rather uncompromising fashion by a stern cancer radiologist who I’ve come to remember as Dr. Humorless. She wasn’t the reason I rejected radiation, but her demeanor certainly didn’t help sell me on her service. The one traditional treatment my research did convince me to accept is a hormone suppressant since my brand of cancer thrives on estrogen. I may not want to try to kill the beast by radiating every good cell around a few bad ones, but I don’t want to feed it either.

With those decisions made, but still no spreadsheets on my laptop, I turned my attention to reducing the risk of recurrence through nutrition. In the seven weeks since my retirement, I’ve read dozens of articles, watched multiple videos, and referenced some highly rated books on this broad subject. The volume of information is staggering. Unfortunately, some of it is also contradictory or suspect.

Take sugar for example. One claim, backed up by legitimate scientific studies, says sugar encourages cancer cells to grow. When I read that a few weeks ago, I was so shocked that my first impulse was to try to cut sugar out of my diet and write about it in this column. Since then, I’ve found reliable sources – like the Mayo Clinic and the MD Cancer Center – that don’t consider sugar consumption a bonafide risk.

In the end, I decided to trust my oncologist. She says, yes, if you inject pure sugar into the tumor of a lab mouse, the tumor will grow significantly. In real life, for humans, you would have to eat massive amounts of sugar to create the same effect. Instead, she regards sugar as a contributor to obesity, which is a known cancer risk. It’s not necessary to give it up entirely, she says, but Americans in general should eat much, much less. Naturally occurring sugar is not harmful; it’s the added sugars in processed foods that are ubiquitous and risky.

I’ve also read with interest about so-called super foods that combat cancer. There is truth to claims that apples, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables contain nutrients that help prevent or inhibit cancer growth. There is also truth to studies that show the primary benefit of consuming these foods is not to fight cancer, per se, but to promote overall wellness. Cancer, heart disease, diabetes and many other maladies have a tougher time taking control of a healthy body.

Some experts point out that, like sugar, we would have to eat massive quantities of a particular super food to truly make it singly effective against cancer. That’s not to say we shouldn’t consume them. Quite the opposite, in fact. I added pomegranate seeds and Brazil nuts to my shopping list after reading about their potential cancer benefits, but not to the exclusion of many other healthy foods that will help me trim down, bolster my immune system, lower my blood pressure, and generally feel good.

As I’ve educated myself about sugar, super foods and other nutrition strategies, I’ve simultaneously become very wary of the plethora of videos and articles posted on the Internet by people who introduce themselves as doctors but are actually clever entrepreneurs. All I will recommend, if you are inclined to click on something like “the five foods you should never eat,” is to further research any claims these people make. Almost without exception, they want to sell you something. The Internet is littered with predators out to make a buck.

Inevitably, I suppose, a couple of weeks ago I began to toy with the notion of entering all of my most reliable findings into a spreadsheet to try to isolate the best ways to approach nutrition as a cancer survivor. I could almost hear the sound of a needle scratching across a vinyl record when that idea came to an abrupt halt. It was the moment I noticed that two resources I trusted had completely opposite viewpoints on coffee and caffeine consumption. One recommended restricting caffeine to no more than 50 milligrams per day from coffee or any other source. The other said that caffeinated coffee consumption in normal amounts for Americans (e.g., up to 400 milligrams or four cups per day) is not a concern as long as every cup isn’t loaded with creamer. In fact, the latter resource said, some research indicates coffee consumption might actually be beneficial for cancer patients.

As soon as I saw those completely different schools of thought from two trusted resources, I knew I was done. I suddenly and vividly remembered my dear mother nodding when I said in my dream,

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

This doesn’t mean I will never read another word about nutrition and cancer. What it means is that I’m going to implement the big takeaways from the research I’ve done and otherwise go on with my life. Quite honestly, I have better things to do with whatever time God grants me than obsess about everything I eat. It’s become a source of stress and, guess what, that is also a known cancer risk.

The big takeaways, if you are interested, are what we’ve been told by many respected nutritionists for many years. I don’t claim to be a subject matter expert myself, but it’s hard to argue these points.

  • Eat a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, legumes, nuts and fish. Go heavy on the fruits and vegetables and light on everything else.
  • Use healthy fats like olive oil and coconut oil in your recipes.
  • Stop eating food that isn’t real food. At the top of my personal list are margarine and artificial sweeteners. By definition, margarine is “imitation butter” and an artificial sweetener is a “synthetic sugar substitute.” Imitation and synthetic have no place in a healthy diet. Based on my research, I’m striving to stick with organic butter and sweeteners like raw honey, raw stevia leaves and dark amber maple syrup (formerly known as Grade B). The closer a food is to the way nature produced it, the better.
  • Don’t try to lower your caloric intake by choosing reduced fat foods. What the manufacturers do to these foods to make them taste good with less fat is simply not healthy. Look it up or take my word for it; it’s better to just eat less of the real thing.
  • Limit processed foods, which typically contain large amounts of sodium and added sugar. Your sodium and sugar intake should mostly be from the naturally occurring nutrients in the original food.
  • Avoid foods that include preservatives and chemicals you can’t pronounce. The only things on the ingredient list should be real foods whose names you recognize.
  • Buy certified organic foods. Stop eating pesticides, antibiotics and any food that has been genetically modified.
  • If you need to lose weight, exercise portion control and get your body moving. Don’t rely on diet foods or diet aids.
1 - Mom and Me 19540001

Mom and me shortly after my birth in March 1954.

These are my big takeaways. And I don’t need a spreadsheet to convince me that they are sensible takeaways. If I happen to run across anything else that seems equally sensible, I’ll share it. Otherwise, I’m satisfied with my analysis. I’m not going to over-think this.

If I’ve learned anything from my brush with cancer, it’s that our days are not promised. Time is too precious to spend it doing anything that doesn’t give you joy. It’s not lost on me that my mother gave me her first name as my middle name. It’s a daily reminder of what she always wanted for me. JOY. Thank you, Mom. Message received.

 

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Fat, Fat, the Water Rat

My mother was fond of catch phrases, song lyrics, movie quotes and other familiar axioms from popular culture. Repeating these at apropos moments not only helped define those moments but also cemented memories of similar ones.

In her posthumous notes to me, delivered on fitting occasions by family co-conspirators, she documented dozens of her favorites. I have used each and every one of them in this column as a means of preserving stories about her and our nine-year relationship as caregiver and care receiver. Just this morning I noticed that one was missing.

Fat, Fat, the Water Rat

I remember Mom reciting this when she was in a self-deprecating mood about her weight, when I was about to indulge in some ill-advised sugary treat, or when one of our pets grew a little too rotund for his or her own good. She wasn’t using it to bully anyone as kids apparently did on the playground once upon a time. It was just the first line to an old song she remembered from her youth; one that she quoted when the circumstances seemed to call for it.

At any rate, the phrase came to mind this morning when thinking about my health. Next week I have to go in for my first routine blood draw to determine if there is any cancerous activity brewing anywhere in my body. I have to admit, it’s nerve-wracking even though the tumor they removed from my breast last fall was very small, and I’ve been on a cancer suppressing drug for the last few months. I keep thinking about the random microscopic cancer cells they found in one of my lymph nodes and try to silence the “what ifs.” It’s much more productive to think about the things I’m doing outside the medical arena to discourage a recurrence.

Which brings me back to Fat, Fat, the Water Rat.

The entire time I was taking care of Mom in our shared home in the Nevada desert, I told myself that I needed to work on weight loss and physical fitness to avoid the many maladies that plagued her. Diabetes runs in our family and is fueled by obesity. Mom was an insulin-dependent diabetic. Heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, kidney disease and osteoarthritis are also caused by or exacerbated by excess weight. Mom was under a doctor’s care for all of these issues.

So, of course, I was keenly aware of the chance I was taking by carrying around much more weight than I should. But there was one risk that escaped me.

Breast cancer.

Did you know that?

I didn’t. Not until I was diagnosed with it.

Mom and Laurie - October 2013

Mom and me in October 2013, about two months before she passed away.

When Mom was alive, I did try to lose weight a few times and a couple of times I was successful. Invariably, though, something always happened to derail my progress. Stress, an injury or an illness (mine or hers) would pop up, and the pounds started coming back. I finally gave up when she was in her last year of life. She was my priority. Period. Then, for the first couple of years after she died, I was too grief-stricken and, coincidentally, under too much pressure at work to even think about self-improvement.

Finally, in January 2017, I took the plunge. I joined a well-respected diet program online, started walking regularly, and by the end of August had lost 44 pounds. That’s when I scheduled my first mammogram in six years, and my life forever changed. At first, it was a whirlwind of tests, surgery, consultations, decisions and overwhelming worry. Worry about my future, our finances, our kids, our grandsons, and how my husband would cope if things got ugly. Eventually, after the initial shock passed, I took matters into my own hands and read everything I could find about traditional treatment and alternatives. That’s when I learned about obesity and breast cancer.

As it turns out, fat cells create estrogen. My particular form of breast cancer – invasive ductal carcinoma – eats estrogen.

If you’re overweight, let that sink in for a moment.

As soon as I read this, I renewed my commitment to weight loss and fitness. I was able to lose another eight pounds before the end of 2017 despite the challenges of recovering from surgery and the temptations of the holidays. I gained a few pounds back the first couple of weeks of January when I continued to snack on high-calorie leftovers and skipped some of my daily walks due to the flu. But, when I uncovered another sobering fact while digging into the role of nutrition in cancer recurrence, I quickly got back on track.

What was the sobering fact?

Sugar – which I love as dearly as it loves my thighs and my belly – is cancer’s friend.

German Nobel Prize winner Dr. Otto Warburg first discovered the connection between sugar and cancer in the early 1920s. After more than 40 years of research and study, he presented findings demonstrating that the fermentation of sugar suppresses oxygen in body cells, which promotes cancer growth. Another study released just last fall by a team of Belgian scientists says the same thing. The best explanation I found is from a New York Daily News article written by Dan Gunderman and published October 18, 2017.

“Scientists explain the customary way non-cancerous cells get energy – through a process called aerobic respiration, where digested food is transformed into energy-filled molecules. The process … requires oxygen and releases carbon dioxide. Cancer cells, however, do not fall in line with that biological process. Instead, cancer cells harness energy from fermenting sugar. This means sugar can ‘awaken’ cancer cells and make them multiply and expand.”

Sugar can awaken cancer cells and make them multiply.

Oh my gosh, this is scary stuff. Sugar is omnipresent in the average American diet. I know it is in mine. Even when diligently dieting last year, I managed to include it in my meal plans and stay within the allotment of points my weight loss program allowed. I knew that sugar is a major contributor to obesity, but I figured it would be OK as long as I kept it under control. “Everything in moderation,” as the saying goes. The fact that I lost weight while consuming modest amounts supported my theory. I didn’t know about the cancer connection.

With these two ghastly realities about fat and sugar fresh in my mind, I’m now working on identifying the foods I should be eating to continue to lose weight and further reduce my risk of cancer recurrence. As you might expect, it’s mostly about fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains and lean meats. There are also some so-called “super foods” that bear consideration. However, I’ll leave the details for another column. Today I just want to spread the word about the two very important things I didn’t know but wish I had.

Fat cells create estrogen. Breast cancer (at least my variety of breast cancer) eats estrogen.

Sugar not only contributes to obesity but can encourage cancer cells to grow.

Laurie - January (2)I thank the good Lord that Mom never had to deal with cancer on top of everything else that plagued her. She was certainly a prime candidate for it, just as I was. Hopefully, I learned about the risks of fat and sugar in time to save myself further health issues in my retirement years. Time will tell. For motivation, I’m going to make a little sign and tape it to my bathroom mirror. Thanks, Mom, for the quote.

Fat, Fat, the Water Rat

Think Beyond Pink

My mother adored autumn. Reminders of her love affair with the seasonal colors are mounted in photo albums and picture frames that still reside in her bedroom in the home we shared. Nothing was more priceless to me in her waning years than her contented smile when I drove her past hillsides and through river canyons exploding with infinite shades of red, orange and gold.

This year, my fourth autumn without Mom, I suddenly noticed that October is no longer reserved for the warm colors she so eagerly anticipated. It’s pink.

This apparently started in 1985 when the American Cancer Society and a major pharmaceutical company teamed up to promote breast cancer screening through mammography. That’s a good thing. Awareness, early detection, prevention. Who could argue with that?

Well, no one. However, the major marketing crusade that has amassed around breast cancer is disconcerting to me. Maybe it’s because I was personally diagnosed two months ago, but I can’t wait until the stores I frequent replace the current plethora of pink products with the greens and reds of premature holiday cheer. In my humble opinion, the common and effective advertising strategy known as branding has transformed breast cancer into something that’s it not.

First, let me assure you that breast cancer is not pink. It’s nothing like the enchanting ribbons that many of us have willingly pinned to our shirts and blouses since they were introduced in 1991. It has no resemblance to the eye-catching pink cleats your favorite football players show off in October games. It’s not a cute slogan on a t-shirt or a reusable shopping bag. It’s not a fanciful character in an animated television commercial.

Breast cancer is a menacing spot on a mammogram that, on an ultrasound screen, turns into a hideous intruder with ugly little tentacles stretching into healthy tissue. It’s a monster that sends you into shock no matter how gently the diagnosis may be communicated. It immediately triggers a deep and life-changing sense of mortality. It’s sends you down a rocky path that you never dreamed … not in a million years … you would have to navigate.

Once the initial shock wears off, breast cancer spawns a new lifestyle. As your calendar fills with medical consultations, tests and surgery, you pause to project how long your accumulated sick leave will last. You look at your bank account to make sure you can meet your health insurance plan’s annual out-of-pocket limit, which you are absolutely sure to reach, probably not just this year but next year as well. You start to fill a big, white, three-ring binder with prior authorization notices, medical bills, pre- and post-surgical instructions, and pathology reports that send you in search of reliable cancer websites for interpretation. There’s a breast cancer manual on your end table and a new file on your computer where you store links to websites, summaries of your research, and questions for your multi-disciplinary team of cancer specialists.

And those are just the impersonal lifestyle changes. The personal impacts are even more distressing.

Your cancer becomes a recurrent topic with family and friends. While you want and need to talk about it, you realize that you can’t let it invade every moment of your own life and the lives of your loved ones. You spend long hours awake at night because something about the cancer constantly interferes, whether it be post-surgical discomfort, fear of pending test results, anxiety about projects you want to complete at home or at work before some aspect of treatment knocks you flat, or simply wondering whether you have any other nasty, little cancer cells taking root somewhere else in your body. Even the newsfeed and pop-up ads on your social media account are constant reminders of your diagnosis because all that internet research you’ve done has turned your smart phone into a tattle-tale.

Last but not least, breast cancer demands a grave internal debate, and sometimes a tough conversation with family, about quality of life. Certainly, every one of us has had at least one hypothetical discussion about what we would or wouldn’t do if faced with a potentially life-ending disease or debilitating injury. Breast cancer makes any theoretical answers seem irrelevant. Suddenly you really do have to decide whether you want the aggressive treatments that sometimes pose greater risks to your body and your health than the cancer. You have to weigh whether you want to improve your odds of surviving 10 or 15 years by a few percentage points in exchange for short-term, or perhaps long-term, misery. Or are you more drawn to the least disruptive traditional therapy coupled with alternative approaches like nutrition and immune therapy?

Your conclusions depend on your cancer pathology, years of data about the experiences of millions of women, and your personal feelings about how you want to spend your life. Trust me, these are tough choices and no one … absolutely no one … can make them for you.

That’s what breast cancer is. It’s not a pink ribbon. It’s not a badge of honor. It’s a horrible diagnosis that changes your life. And, if you don’t have the financial and insurance resources that I am blessed to have, multiply everything I’ve said by the tens of thousands of dollars that cancer costs in terms of lost income and medical expenses.

I hope that the frightening details of my first two months as a member of the breast cancer club will fade over time, but there are moments burned in memory that will be impossible to forget. One of them is a conversation with a sympathetic co-worker who said, “I bet you wish your Mom was here.” I shook my head and responded softly as I turned to walk away, “No, I don’t. This would break her heart.”

No, breast cancer is definitely not pink. Pink is a little girl’s princess costume for trick or treating. Pink is a spray of roses in your wedding bouquet or in a crystal vase on your anniversary. Pink is the shade of your favorite lipstick and nail polish.

Breast cancer is a dark scourge that breaks your mother’s heart, if you are lucky enough to still have her around. It steps on the hearts of everyone else who loves you, too. It disrupts lives. It drains your material resources, alters relationships, and makes you physically sick even if you felt fine before the diagnosis.

Physically sick. That’s an apt description of how the all-consuming October crusade built around breast cancer makes me feel. Contrary to the original, altruistic purpose of the pink ribbons and the designation of a month to raise awareness, breast cancer is now a branded, marketable product. It kills more women than any other cancer, with the exception of lung cancer, but there is almost a fanciful aura around it that makes it seem like the trendy “disease du jour.” It is exploited as a money-maker by opportunists whose concern is less about breast cancer and more about selling their wares to good-hearted consumers. Worst of all, in an effort to capture the imagination of younger audiences, hip advertisers have come up with questionable slogans like “Save the Hooters” and “Save Second Base” that some say inappropriately sexualize the fight.

As a newly diagnosed breast cancer patient, I know I’m at a vulnerable juncture, and I could be over-reacting. Yet, something deep down inside tells me I’m not. The corruption of breast cancer awareness is real. For now, though, all I ask is that the next time you think of breast cancer, think beyond pink. Think ugly. Think devastating and life-changing. Once that is embedded in your mind, think hope. Think cure. That’s truly where the pink should lead us anyway.

Like I Was Never Here

(Three-Year, 36,000 Mile Check-Up)

In the months leading up to her death in December 2013, my mother often said with sad resignation, “It will be like I was never here.” She typically voiced that concern when discussing the inevitable disposal of her cherished belongings – elephant figurines, crystals, teacups, scrapbooks, Star Trek memorabilia and countless other collectibles that represented her personal fascinations. The thought that they would end up in a Goodwill box, and all evidence of her existence would be erased, tormented her.

The truth is that the vast majority of the material possessions she treasured were reverently distributed among immediate family members and a few close friends who wanted keepsakes. Today I’m sure every one of the recipients of these beloved baubles enjoys gazing at them from time to time. I’m equally sure each and every one of them would say they don’t actually need a physical reminder of this precious person we called Mom, Grandma Joy, Auntie Joy or dear friend. The mark she left on our lives is far more powerful and timeless than any memento could ever be.

So why is it that – three years, one month and 20 days later – I cannot get her wistful lament out of my head?

 It will be like I was never here.

This mournful prediction will never be true – at least not in my lifetime or the lifetimes of my children and grandchildren. Mom is with us in our hearts every day. She and I shared the same zany sense of humor and, when I giggle uncontrollably about one outlandish thing or another, she is right there with me. On Saturday nights when the kids and grandkids descend on my house for a weekly meal and family reboot, we sometimes imagine what she might have said about this or that and whether she would have liked a particular dish on the menu. This past Christmas Eve, while everyone was in hysterics over a spirited game of Jenga, my daughter-in-law suddenly saw Mom out of the corner of her eye, standing next to her old chair, wearing a white dress splashed with flowers, watching us. You don’t even have to believe the sighting in order to be warmed by the thought.

So, again, with the connection to Mom still so strong, why can’t I let go of her fear? I suppose, in reality, it has now become my fear. It’s a heavy, burdensome inheritance from the woman who gave me life and who I escorted to the next one.

What if I start to forget the sound of her voice or what her hand in mine felt like or the details of the stories she told and retold? Coincidentally, I have similar fears about my sweet Springer Spaniel, Katie, who died at the end of last summer. I never want to forget how soft her coat was or how her little stub of a tail wagged vigorously when I came home from work or how she always managed to convert a quick pat on the head into a lengthy rub of her hind end.

This is the angst I live with every day. It’s a fear of the growing distance between the time they were here and the time they were not. It’s a separation anxiety not unlike my dog’s recurring panic whenever I had to leave her. Truth be told, it has triggered some rather odd behavior on my part.

Every time my husband empties the dishwasher, I come along behind him and rearrange the coffee mugs so that Mom’s favorites are stored in what was “her corner” of the cupboard. Although the bathroom connected to her bedroom has now become my domain, I haven’t had the fortitude to change the decor or dispose of some of the powders and lotions that were in her medicine box when she departed. There are gouges cut by her wheelchair in the door frame of her toilet room that should probably be repaired. And it was only because of my dog’s end-of-life incontinence that I finally surrendered and steam cleaned the carpet in Mom’s bedroom, erasing evidence of the day she fell asleep in her chair and a nearly full cup of tea slid out of her hands. I actually took a picture of the stain before running the machine over that spot. (OK, two pictures.)

Likewise, I went around the house snapping photos of the dark shadows on walls where my dog loved to cozy up and sleep before I could finally muster the resolve to point a bottle of Formula 409 at those smudges. More than three months had to pass after her death before I could bring myself to remove the reminder for her monthly pain injection from the front of the refrigerator. Even then I didn’t throw it away. It is tucked in a Ziploc bag with the care instructions I always left out for my husband when I had to be away overnight.

So what is it that causes an otherwise normal human being to obsessively preserve evidence that a loved one existed? In this column, I have always tried to refrain from espousing words of wisdom that might label me as an armchair psychologist, so I will carefully answer this question only from my own perspective and through my own soul searching.

Reluctance to dispose of possessions, change routines or redecorate is rooted in the same need that causes a person to spray-paint “Bob was here” on a boulder in the desert. Gravestones are kind of like that. So are those wooden crosses erected on the side of the road in memory of accident victims. Even charitable and advocacy organizations that spring up after a family suffers a tragic loss are tools of the “remember me” trade.

I’ve never painted on a rock and thankfully don’t need a tombstone yet. However, when I was 17 years old and heartbreaking circumstances forced my parents to sell our beloved home in rural Oregon, I took a break from cleanup to slyly deposit a tiny reminder that I, Laurie Samsel Olson, had lived there. I put a bobby pin on top of the door frame that separated the kitchen from the den. Such a small act, and I’m sure the hairpin was tossed into the trash sometime in the last 46 years. I want to believe that, when it was found, someone at least thought, “Hmmm. Well, how did that get up there?”

Pragmatic people would no doubt say what I already know intellectually and that I stated early in this column. Physical reminders of a lost loved one are not critical. The mark that they left on our lives is far more powerful and timeless than any memento could ever be.

And yet, letting go of the tangible in deference to the power of the intangible is much easier said than done. I still want to see and touch things that my mother saw and touched. I want to hold my dog’s dirty old collar and know that her DNA is still on it. Somehow, their belongings establish a comforting link between the world they now call home and the world we formerly shared. Today I can’t think of one good reason to sever that strong, psychological tie.

Realistically, I know it will happen. Someday I will redecorate Mom’s bathroom, repair the gouges in the door frame of the toilet room and paint over them, and rearrange the kitchen cupboards. Likewise, I will round-file the instructions for my dog’s care and take her old, lumpy bed out of our home office. I will do these things. Intuitively, I know I will. But I also know that none of that will happen until my heart is absolutely sure that I’ve successfully wrangled with and tamed the plaintive voice in my head that still whispers …

 It will be like I was never here.

No, Mom, that won’t ever be true. No, that will never be the case, my sweet Katie girl. You were here. You will always be here.

(Today’s column is dedicated to my sister-in-law, Lori Samsel, whose mother, Donna Anderson, passed away on Friday, January 27, 2017. She, too, will never be forgotten.)

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Katie and Me – July 2007

 

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

Andrew, I’m Sitting!

Nine years of caregiving for my increasingly dependent mother taught me more about patience, compassion, commitment and unselfishness than any other experience I’m likely to have in this lifetime. No lesson, though, has ever come in more handy than the value of whimsy.

It’s not that I didn’t already have a fairly well-developed imagination. This characteristic seems to come with the territory for storytellers and grandmothers. No, to put my lesson in more precise terms, I graduated from the role of caregiver with a significantly more evolved appreciation for make-believe. Mom was my talented tutor in this accomplishment. Had our daffy stand-up act ever made it to the stage or screen, I’m sure we would have been best friends with the likes of Lucille Ball and Gilda Radner. It’s no surprise that, in one of the cherished notes Mom left behind, she commemorated one of the campy movie quotes that always made us giggle.

Andrew, I’m sitting!

Andrew I'm Sitting

If you’re a fan of the Kurt Russell/Goldie Hawn classic Overboard, you know that Katherine Helmond’s snobbish character used that phrase to alert dutiful butler Rodney McDowell to lift up the folds of her garish evening gown before she primly took a seat. In our family, it’s just one of the lines from the under-rated film that is repeated with predictable regularity, sometimes in unrehearsed unison. Mom found the perfect use for “Andrew, I’m sitting” when she began needing help transferring from her wheelchair to her bed or recliner. It never failed to make the moment less of a chore and more of a comedy sketch.

Tim Conway was another of the esteemed ensemble players in our continuously running parody. His “fall guy” persona gets credit for helping us find a little cheer in “fall patrol,” a critical task when Mom was still able to use her walker but at risk for tumbles.

One day as I followed step by achingly slow step behind her, I said, “I’m going to start calling you Tim.”

“Why would you do that?”

“After Tim Conway’s Old Man character on Carol Burnett.”

She snickered and, as if it was possible, walked even slower. Ever after she was Tim. Sometimes she pushed the envelope by shuffling along with exaggerated lethargy and declaring with mock delight,

“Look, Laurie, I’m running!”

Characters from the animated Disney film Fantasia guest starred once on the short walk from the front door of our little yellow house to the passenger door of my little white Corolla. At that point, Mom was still able to walk while leaning just on my arm, but a couple of missteps that day reminded of her tripping the light fantastic. We dissolved in belly laughs when she compared our accidental dance to the troupe of tutu-clad hippos pirouetting around prima ballerina Hyacinth in a Romanesque garden.

Laurie the Pirate WenchSwashbuckling marauders also played occasional bit parts in our life after Johnny Depp first began sailing the Caribbean Sea as swaggering Captain Jack Sparrow. Along with the rest of the fanciful world, aarghavast and me hearties found a place in our vocabulary now and then. Our own unique slice of pirate-mania was born unexpectedly in the waiting room of a local podiatrist. We were filling out new patient paperwork and, as was our custom, I read off the questions while Mom provided the answers. Because her hearing was starting to fail, I was accustomed to repeating some queries more distinctly.

“Do you have tired feet?” I asked.

“What was that?”

“Do – you – have – tired – feet?”

“Do I have pirate feet?!”

Somehow we managed to finish the form and see the doctor, but our loopy exchange is the only thing we remembered from that introductory visit. We recalled it often, fondly and with devilish laughter until the day Mom couldn’t laugh any longer.

If that conversation left a bizarre impression on those within earshot, then the infamous brain tumor incident must have completely floored the unsuspecting ear, nose and throat specialist who made this diagnosis. It was about nine years before Mom made her final exit and fairly early in our efforts to uncover what had suddenly subverted her imperfect but stable health. Doctors of every major biological system tested her for a seemingly infinite list of possible causes. For years Mom had randomly blamed illusive health symptoms on a phantom brain tumor so, while waiting in the specialist’s office for the results of a CT scan, she said it again.

“I probably have a brain tumor.”

Just at that moment, the doctor walked in and said, “You have a brain tumor.” The fact that we burst out laughing required a little explanation followed by a lot of humble reserve.

About a week later we drove 40 miles to see a neurosurgeon. By then, we were sincerely reserved and wondering what impact this grim diagnosis would have on our lives. We were as unsuspecting as the ear, nose and throat specialist when the neurosurgeon walked in the exam room and chuckled. He took one look at the scan and said, “You don’t need surgery. This is an asymptomatic tumor sitting on top of the protective lining of your brain.” If he didn’t also say, “Get outta here,” then he certainly implied it.

After that, Mom never flippantly blamed anything on a brain tumor. However, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s fish-out-of-water detective from Kindergarten Cop occasionally made a cameo appearance in our lives.

“It’s not a brain tumor,” someone in the family was sure to say while mustering their best Austrian accent.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you don’t believe that repeating film quotes constitutes an appropriate response to the serious matters of caregiving and care receiving, I urge you to pause and think again, my pretty. You’ll believe in more than that should you ever find yourself cast in either of those roles. In the meantime, don’t make me call the flying monkeys!

All jokes aside, incorporating some of our favorite lines into our caregiving routine was certainly a harmless stress reliever. In fact, the most often used quotes have now become so embedded in my memory that there is no escape.  Thank goodness for that … because they now serve as the priceless lifeline that makes me smile even when the vacuum of Mom’s absence is so intense that it feels like a tangible foe.

“All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare wrote, “and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.”

Katherine’s snooty socialite, Tim’s Old Man, Hyacinth the Hippo, Johnny’s miscreant buccaneer and Arnold’s bewildered gumshoe all had a turn as Mom’s understudy in the theater of life. She may have taken her final curtain call, but I still have our imaginary cast of comical characters to help me through the occasional gloomy mood. On those melancholy days, if I listen with my heart, I can still hear Mom mischievously declare that she is running or that she has pirate feet or that, for heaven’s sake …

Andrew, I’m sitting!

I grab that lifeline.  And I smile.

(Feature photo: Virginia City, Nevada, 2005. Brother Jesse, Mom, me and sister Leslie.)

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.)