Quiet Sleep and A Sweet Dream

Dream (3)Throughout her adult life, Mom experienced a recurring dream that was poignantly revealing. In the dream she roamed the halls of a school, unable to find her locker or her classroom. She was always lost, always searching, never finding. One hardly needs to consult a dream interpreter to understand the obvious meaning behind her unresolved quest. To think that she was perpetually adrift, unable to find her heart’s desire, was reminiscent of an ancient Greek tragedy.

Toward the end of her life, Mom also suffered from vivid nightmares. Many times I would hear her during the night or during an afternoon nap fighting against someone or something that posed a threat. She could rarely recount the experiences when I woke her, but judging by the flailing and yelling, the danger must have seemed very real. Sometimes she was so enmeshed in these dreams that it was difficult to break the spell. When gently touching her shoulder or softly calling out “Mom” didn’t work, I resorted to shouting her name, “Joy!”

One day just before she was admitted to the home hospice program, she was able to recall a particularly powerful vision. It began harmlessly but ended in disturbing cries that drew me to her bedside. Her story is still clear in my mind.

I was with a bunch of other people by the water. I’m not sure whether it was the ocean or a lake, but there was a pier. I’m pretty sure the people around me were my brothers and sisters. Sam (her late husband, my father) was in the water and he wanted me to get in. He kept laughing and trying to coax me, but I didn’t want to go. Finally, he grabbed me and pulled me in. Everyone was laughing, but I was really mad.

Dream (2)

As with her recurring dream, this one did not require hours of thoughtful analysis. She simply was not ready for the end of this life … or on the flip side … the beginning of a new one. The hospice social worker she shared the story with concurred without hesitation. I was quietly concerned because I knew Mom did not have much time left to prepare. The ethereal boat was going to leave the pier with her aboard regardless of whether she wanted to go. I shuddered to think that she might die flailing and shouting – figuratively if not literally – as though she were in the middle of another bad dream.

The day inevitably came, of course, when she traded her hospital bed for a seat on that ghostly vessel bound for the Other Side. By that time, though, I was no longer worried that she wasn’t ready. Long after she stopped talking to us, my sister and I heard her pose two important questions to no one that we could see. I was alone with Mom for the first question. My sister was alone with her for the second.

Where are we? Where are we going?

Although she displayed some typical signs of near-death anxiety in the days leading up to her departure, Mom was entirely calm and peaceful when she asked these two questions. Her eyes were closed to the mortal world. There was no trepidation in her voice whatsoever.

I can’t think of anything she could have said in her last hours that would have given me more comfort. The answers would be interesting, but the questions are solace enough. Evidently, she went somewhere with someone.

Dream (6)The idea that our loved ones depart on a journey of mystical proportions is not without basis. Religious beliefs aside, it is a fact that the dying use travel as a way of expressing their impending departure without even realizing it. In their 1992 book Final Gifts, hospice nurses Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley documented multiple examples of patients who exhibited near-death awareness in this way. Mom could have been one of their case studies. Out of the blue, about three months before she died, she told me that one day I would come home from work and she would be gone – out the front door, walking and carrying everything she needed in a small bag. I thought she was joking as she so often did, but her voice was somehow different. Faraway. When I questioned her scenario, she was indignant. I let it go, and we didn’t talk about it again.

Today, with about 17 months of bereavement under my belt, I still miss my mother terribly. However, I don’t worry about where she is. I don’t picture her splashing around with my father in a lake or the sea near a pier, nor do I imagine her walking down the sidewalk of our neighborhood with a hobo sack slung over her shoulder. I don’t think of her futilely roaming the halls of a school because I think that, in the end, she finally located the elusive door of her locker or classroom and found paradise inside. No, I have embraced another vision – one that she shared with me on a sunny morning after she awoke from a quiet sleep accompanied by a sweet dream.

I was riding a motorcycle down a winding road with tall trees on both sides. It was getting dark and all I could see clearly was the headlight of the motorcycle on the road as I went around the curves. I don’t know where I was going, but I could feel the wind in my face and I felt free.

Dream (1)That is how I like to think of Mom – on an endless sojourn with no particular destination. I can imagine her long, dark hair blowing in the wind and a beautiful smile on her youthful face. She leans right into one curve, straightens out her bike, and leans left into the next turn. She is free.

And maybe freedom is the real point after all. Not where you are going or how you get there.

When our family gathered to scatter Mom’s ashes at her beloved Oregon Coast, we took some time to play and sing the songs she had requested – Mr. Tambourine Man by Bob Dylan, Tender Years by John Cafferty, Around and Around by John Denver, Always by Irving Berlin. I read a little poem she wrote when she was a child about wanting to be a cowboy. We wrapped the tribute up with a piece by the late British poet laureate John Masefield; a poem Mom had loved since she was old enough to read and appreciate classic prose. I could never deliver it in the resounding, dramatic way she always did, but it was the perfect farewell nevertheless.

Sea Fever

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by, and the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking, and a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking. I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied. And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying, and the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying. I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life, to the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife. And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover, and quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

On this Mother’s Day 2015, my long trick writing Notes From My Mother has come to a natural end. I have shared all of the posthumous notes Mom left me and have posted some additional stories that fit in nicely with the theme. As of today, I am going to suspend my weekly entries in order to follow my maternal muse down a different path of remembrance. If you look back at my October 2014 column titled “Don’t Forget Our Secret Handshake,” you’ll get a clue about what is to come. I expect to check in periodically while my sister and I work our way through this other exciting project. For now, I thank you for reading these stories about my beautiful, funny, sometimes weird, always wonderful mother. And I wish you all – wherever you are – quiet sleep and a sweet dream.

Dream (8)

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Prelude: Don’t Hold On To The Dogwood Tree

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

Paul Daniel Samsel

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

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

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

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

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

Marsha Ann Olson

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Hang On To The Dogwood Tree

Joan's Original Manuscript

Joan’s Original Manuscript

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

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

The broken heart is the open heart.

Marsha and Joan in a rare moment of connection.

Marsha and Joan in a rare moment of connection.

All Righty, McDity

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

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

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

All righty, McDity.

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

All Righty McDity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All righty, McDity.

Bring on the joy.

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

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!

Remember the first time deluded Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear popped open his terillium-carbonic wings, raised his arms, flexed his knees and took a leap of faith to prove to Andy’s other toys that he could fly? It was 1995 and my 70-year-old mother immediately fell under the animated astronaut’s spell. No matter that his first flight was a miracle involving a strategically placed rubber ball, a plastic car on a bright orange race track and a motorized model airplane. He flew!

Buzz’s unflappable belief in himself – despite the fact that he was just a mass-produced plaything – appealed to Mom’s affinity for the underdog.  His empowering declaration – shouted as he jumped from Andy’s bedpost – became her chosen way of expressing abiding love for her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.  She wrote it in dozens of birthday and Christmas cards over the years … and in one of the precious notes she left behind for me when she passed away.

 With Love to Infinity and Beyond!

To Infinity and Beyond (3)

This Tuesday, December 9, 2014, Mom will have been gone for a year. With every fiber of my being, I dread the sunrise on that day. A little past 9 a.m. the Earth will have completed a full orbit since I last saw my sweet mother alive. 12 months. 52 weeks. 365 days. 28,880 breaths. Any way you choose to count, it is a long, long, long time.

And yet I know, with the faith of a thousand virtuous hearts, that these tallies are nothing more than mortal measurements. Time is a human illusion. Soul lives on to Infinity. Love transcends the Great Beyond.

Those are my beliefs. Mom, on the other hand, was never certain about the hereafter. She wasn’t an atheist or an agnostic. She was exposed to different faiths throughout her life and sporadically tried to understand and practice the tenets. When she was a child, she won a small Bible in a contest that involved memorizing scripture. As a young mother, she intermittently took my sister, brother and me to Baptist and then to Presbyterian worship services and ensured that we were all blessed in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. On Easter Sunday, whether at church or at home, she took great joy in singing Christ Arose with enthusiasm and vigor.

Mom disassociated herself from the church when our kind but passive minister offered no consolation after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 and could not muster any tangible help in the face of my father’s mental breakdown in 1971. Shortly after the latter disappointment, Mom took a job with an order of Episcopalian priests and monks who carried out their mission through a printing press and nursing home. She undoubtedly picked up some spiritual knowledge during the 15 years she was employed by them, but she remained on the fringe as far as the religion itself was concerned.

Finally, in the last months and weeks of her life, she was forced to come to grips with the fact that her oft repeated affirmation, “I’m going to live forever,” was not true … at least not from a mortal standpoint. My sister, brother and I have divergent beliefs, but we all took our turns reassuring her that there is more to existence than what we can see and touch on Earth. Religious doctrines aside, I find it a little sad that she could not at least embrace that general point of view … especially since it seemed to me that she had one foot in this world and one in the next for quite some time. You can believe that or not, but there was sufficient evidence for me to trust what I saw and heard.

In the book Final Gifts by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley, an entire chapter is devoted to stories of people near the end of life who begin to talk about taking a trip or making a change.  Their conversations are symbolic.  “Travel,” the authors say, “is a clear metaphor often used to describe this need to go forth – to die.”  If I hadn’t read the book, I may have missed the hidden meaning of a rather odd conversation I had with Mom about a month before she was approved for hospice care.

To Infinity and Beyond (5)It was mid-September and she had just visited her friendly, young podiatrist for a toenail clipping. Although I had taken the afternoon off work so she could spend it any way she wanted, she couldn’t think of a thing that interested her. Once upon a time she had enjoyed tooling around in her wheelchair, looking at the next big thing on every merchant’s shelf.  Now the exertion was too much for her weary bones. There were no shops she wanted to visit, no joyride she wanted to take. She mentioned that, next time we were out, we should make plans to eat at our favorite Mexican restaurant. I asked, “Why not right now?” She smiled and nodded in agreement. A few moments later, she suddenly said in a faraway voice,

“One of these days you’re going to come home and I’m going to be gone. You probably won’t even notice until midnight.”

“Well, Mom,” I replied, “I hope that’s how it happens. I hope you just slip away in your sleep. But I will probably notice before midnight. I always check on you when I get home from work.”

“What are you talking about?” she asked with a trace of irritation. “That’s not what I mean. I’m going away. I’m going to walk out the front door and just keep going.” After a short pause, she added, “I think I can fit everything I need into a small bag.”

I was puzzled but decided to let it go. I could see that she was completely serious and not in the mood to be questioned. We went to the restaurant and enjoyed what would be her last meal out on her last foray from the house. Later that night while lying in bed, I remembered the chapter in Callanan’s and Kelley’s book.  Ah ha.  Somewhere inside, Mom knew she was about to embark on the journey of a lifetime.

That conversation wasn’t the only indicator that Mom had an inexplicable ethereal connection. For a couple of years, in fact, she had periodically made comments about people and animals only she could see or voices only she could hear. Next week, in Part Two of this column, I will share some of the amazing stories that would certainly have made me a believer in the afterlife if I was not already. For now, I will focus on the common experiences that Callanan and Kelley consider proof that “death is not lonely.” Deceased loved ones or some other spiritual beings always serve as “companions on our journey.”

I ascribed to this theory long before Final Gifts ever found its way into my hands. My grandmother saw her deceased brother, Will, just before she passed in 1979. My husband’s grandmother saw unidentified family members in the days leading up to her death in 1984. My father-in-law had only a few days left when I heard him alone in his bedroom asking someone, “I know who that is, but who is that over there?” Based on those experiences, Mom and I made a pact. If she began seeing the dearly departed, she promised to tell me. I was curious to know who would come for her and, besides, I might want to say hello to them, too.

Apparently, Mom did see someone … or perhaps more than one someone … near the end. Unfortunately, she was unable to communicate that to me, and by then I was too immersed in the physical demands of her final care to recognize what was transpiring.

To Infinity and Beyond (4)One day after falling into the deep, unshakable slumber of the dying, she suddenly and very clearly asked, “Where are we?” Foolishly, I said we were at our home and quoted the house number, street and city. In that moment, I wanted her to know she was not in a hospital or care facility but in her own room. In hindsight, I realize that isn’t what she was wondering about, and I kick myself for not asking, “Where do you think we are?”

Another day my sister was sitting at Mom’s bedside when she asked, “Where are we going?” I don’t know how my sister responded or whether she said anything at all. In a conversation later, though, we agreed that Mom wasn’t speaking to her.

“Where are we? Where are we going?”

Knowing that she asked those two simple questions as she was slipping away is like a gift because it speaks to my unwavering conviction that death is a journey for our souls. The fact that Mom directed the questions to no one the rest of us could see adds to the bank of evidence I’ve witnessed with my own eyes and ears over my lifetime. It also has allowed me to enjoy a rather fanciful adaptation of her departure.

As her heart wound down and her breath slowed to a halt, I can imagine Mom’s soul drifting up and perching on the foot of the bed. Just like Buzz Lightyear’s miraculous vault in 1995, she opened her angel wings, raised her arms, flexed her knees and took a leap of faith. She flew! In my mind I can hear the echo of her triumphant shout …

To Infinity and Beyond!

To The Pretty One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas 1960 -- Still holding me.

Christmas 1960 — Still holding me.

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

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

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

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

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

“To The Pretty One.”

Leslie 2014

Leslie 2014

For However Long Forever Lasts

Two installments ago I described a letter my mother left for me to read after she was gone.  The two-page missive, handwritten on yellow ruled paper, was still in draft form with some words scratched out, edits squeezed in, and notes in the margin.  She had tucked it into a sheet protector in a three-ring binder that also contained her last wishes.

You may remember that I was disappointed in that letter because it was written 19 years before her death, originally as a thank you for a special gift I assembled on her 70th birthday.  It contained no references to the dozen years we had just spent together.  Indeed, that chapter of our lives was still far in the future and not something we ever would have dreamed would happen.  If Mom’s destiny was to live with anyone, we always assumed it would be my sister, Leslie, a truly unselfish and very capable soul who tirelessly takes care of everyone.  Well, you know what they say about that tricky word – assume.  It can turn out to be the ultimate “gotcha.”

Our “gotcha” began to germinate in 1997 when my husband, Pete, our adult children and I left the rainy Pacific Northwest behind to create a new life in the high desert of Northern Nevada.  Every winter for four years, Mom closed up her trailer on the Oregon Coast to snowbird with us in the land of year-round sunshine.  Sadly, a couple of months before she arrived in 2001, Pete and I separated after 27 years of marriage.  Our daughter and her husband were building a home in a nearby township, so I rented a duplex in the same neighborhood.  My intention was to stay there until I was ready to make more permanent decisions about my future.

Mom couldn’t have been with me for more than a week when my sister called from Oregon with devastating news.  Hurricane force winds and pelting rain had damaged Mom’s trailer beyond repair.  While most of her belongings were intact, she had no home to return to in the spring.

Picture a heartbroken, newly single 47-year-old and an equally heartbroken, financially challenged 77-year-old sitting in the sparsely furnished living room of a rented duplex, staring at each other in shocked silence and wondering what to do next.  Let’s just say, it wasn’t pretty.

What came next was actually rather pretty … most of it anyway.

Mom and I partnered up and forged ahead like all of the other fiercely strong women in our family lineage.  We found a house for sale just a few blocks away that had a good vibe, bought it and stuffed everything we both owned into it.  Over time, we painted the bland gray exterior a cheerful shade of yellow and picked an eye-catching periwinkle as the color for our fancy new door with a beveled glass insert.  We nurtured the old roses in the front, planted young trees in the back and together watched the seasons pass.  Joint vacations, leisurely Sunday drives, newly released films, final episodes of beloved television series and premieres of new favorites added flavor to our routine.

To the untrained eye, that description of our life as mother-daughter roommates probably sounds idyllic.  To be fair, though, it was not without challenges.

When we first moved into our little house, the adjustment was difficult.  She was grieving the loss of her trailer and independence.  I was grieving the loss of my marriage and the promise of independence.  For a while we both walked on eggs, trying not to say anything that might upset the apple cart.  I slipped occasionally and made comments I wanted to take back but couldn’t.  So did Mom.  We put away our belongings with a “this is mine, that’s yours” mentality that resulted in assigned cupboards and drawers in the kitchen and assigned rooms in which to arrange furniture and display mementoes.  That separatist attitude eventually changed, but it was palpable in the beginning.

Caring for Mom when her health began to fail brought even greater challenges.  One of the first consequences was that she had to stop driving.  I suspect she was irritated with me for at least six months for enforcing that.  Meanwhile, I periodically held pity parties mourning my loss of freedom which, of course, were always followed by immediate attacks of guilt.

Overall, though, I think Mom and I did a pretty good job at a difficult task.  Our mutual tenacity and purposeful effort to look for the good in each day made our years together a blessing rather than a curse.

These are the kinds of memories I had expected to read about in Mom’s farewell letter.  I wanted validation that she felt as I did – that our 12 years together had been priceless.  When the letter turned out to be 19 years old, I was crushed.  Today I realize that no validation from Mom – or from anyone else for that matter – was ever really necessary.  Those 12 years were unquestionably priceless.

And so, in the end, was the letter.

That old letter is the only tangible evidence I have of the way Mom viewed me before our circumstances changed; before our respective losses hurled us into co-habitation and before our roles reversed.  Those two pages of unpolished lines are the musings of a mother who expected nothing from her middle child except to share a lifetime of memories, both good and bad, and to laugh together with wild abandon at things few others found funny at all.  I know our last 12 years are worth cherishing.  The letter reminded me that our first 47 were as well.

 And then there is Laurie. What can a mom say to a daughter who writes books? She knows all the words and strings them together in such a way that all the right buttons are pushed and maudlin sentimentality reigns.  My Laurie – I’ve always called you the last of the great romantics, and you are.  We’ve shared much laughter, pain and tears, sadness and love. You and Leslie and I have all shared the same weird sense of humor and need only a glance to send us off to la-la-laughter land. I remember the little girl (big now but still the same) who got really weird and funny when she got tired. Who was always the buffer between older sister and younger brother. Who was always loving and understanding and still is. I know your father was as proud of you as I am.  You kids are the best things that ever happened to me.  Thank you for the 70th BD book.  I will always treasure it. Always – for however long forever lasts.

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