Life Is Just A Bowl Of …

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

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

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

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

Life isn’t always a bowl of cherry pits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Note (7)

 

Don’t Hang On To The Dogwood Tree

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

By Joan Millard Olson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be a Good Girl

Not every note my mother left me was on paper. Some messages go so far back that they are part of who I am. Over the course of 60-some years, I’m sure that I heard today’s four-word lesson literally tens of thousands of times.

Be a good girl.

That reminder followed me out the door every day when I was a child. Whether I was heading off to school or to a friend’s sleepover or to visit one of my grandmothers, that was Mom’s fundamental rule. Becoming an adult didn’t alter her parting words. Becoming her caregiver didn’t change the ritual either. In her last years, I began to tease her that she had ruined my life with that phrase. What if I had wanted to be a bad girl every once in a while?

Alas, with sugary nicknames like Pollyanna, Goody Two-Shoes and Mary Tyler Moore, it’s no secret that I have, indeed, been a good girl most of my life. When I was about 5 years old I tarnished my reputation by putting gum in my sister’s hair, forcing an unwanted haircut. In high school I got caught parking with my boyfriend on a dark, quiet road and then made things worse by lying about it. But, compared to serious problems like drug addiction, alcohol abuse and criminal mischief, my transgressions were ridiculously tame. Bad … really bad … just wasn’t in my genes.

At times, I’ve wondered why Mom routinely told my sister and me to “be a good girl,” but she peppered her farewells to our little brother with a fairly large repertoire of less constraining phrases like “have a good time” and “if you can’t be good, be careful.” Perhaps being a girl herself, she knew what kind of childish shenanigans or youthful escapades we could engage in and the potentially devastating consequences thereof. I prefer, however, to think it was really because she wanted to continuously instill in us the extraordinary character of the women in our family.

Carrie Elizabeth Heasman Metzger

Good Girl (1)No woman in my family lineage was more amazing than my mother’s mother. In the early 1900s, she toiled tirelessly with her husband to cultivate unforgiving homestead land in Montana. World War I, the military confiscation of horses for the overseas cavalry and the Navy’s strong “invitation” for my grandfather to build warships in Washington’s Puget Sound interfered with their plans. When the war ended, they found themselves living nomadically in the valleys of Northern California, much like the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. Ultimately, they migrated south to the Los Angeles harbor area where my grandfather took up ocean fishing. Soon he wanted their six boys to forgo school and work with him. My grandmother objected, the two separated, and my grandfather was later killed in a violent storm at sea. Shockingly for the times, my grandmother lived openly with another man out of wedlock, helped to take care of his elderly mother, and determinedly continued to raise her children and some of her children’s children. When she died in 1979 at the age of 90, she had 10 children, 25 grandchildren and 56 great-grandchildren. The fact that there was standing room only for her memorial service was a testament to the love she so richly deserved.

Beulah Ann Todd Samsel

Good Girl (8)My father’s mother was equally tenacious, although not as beloved as my maternal grandmother. She had no children except for my father. Her firstborn son tragically died as a toddler of a vitamin deficiency hideously called Black Tongue Disease in 1914. My grandfather was a drinker and, although family references to him were always vague, I suspect he was abusive. Sometime after my grandmother divorced him, he was struck and killed by a truck while walking intoxicated down a country road in Tennessee. Meanwhile, my grandmother was bravely raising my father and working in a café at an aircraft manufacturing plant in El Segundo, California. She somehow also found the wherewithal to take care of her aging mother in her last years. Life wore my grandmother down and, by the time my parents married, she had become a somewhat bitter, critical, meddlesome presence. In hindsight, I know that she was doing her best, in whatever misguided way, to ensure that her son was loved and her grandchildren would someday find a place at God’s knee. Sadly, she denied she even had a family just before she died in a nursing home at the age of 93. That doesn’t change the fact that she was courageous and strong when she most needed to be.

Joyce Maxine Metzger Samsel (Joy)

Good Girl (4)Although I didn’t give her enough credit while I was growing up, Mom’s inner strength is solely responsible for our family’s survival. Back when it still wasn’t generally accepted to be a working mother, she kept the books for medical doctors and raised three children while my father traveled the world as a Merchant Marine. She was forced to finally and forever become the head of the household in 1970 when my father had a late-life diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia coupled with bipolar disease. His breakdown while alone and far from home destroyed the family emotionally and financially. Yet, somehow Mom found the will to rise from the ruins and rebuild a stable life for us. At first, I don’t think she believed she could do it. Decision-making was never Mom’s favorite task, but she pulled up her proverbial bootstraps and marched ahead into the unknown. When she passed away in 2013 at the age of 89, she had little to show for her efforts in the way of material possessions, but she enjoyed the priceless devotion of her children and grandchildren.

Betty Joan Millard Olson (Jo-Anne)

Good Girl (5)When I was 20 years old, I was lucky enough to marry into a family with another remarkable maternal presence. She wasn’t my mother by blood, but she became my second mother by heart. She was a traditional housewife in the 1950s and 1960s; raising three children and unexpectedly losing one to a mysterious genetic condition. By the mid-1970s, though, she had evolved into a dynamic, free-spirited woman whose circle of friends ranged from laid-back, mountain-dwelling hippies to driven, progressive yuppies. Breaking free from mid-century expectations was not easy since her husband was the quintessential ruler of the roost with staunchly conservative values. Regardless, she went back to college and earned a master’s degree in religion, converted to Catholicism when she fell in love with Mother Mary, and became a compassionate spiritual counselor. For several years she watched over her elderly, widowed stepmother who, by all accounts, was not a particularly warm and accepting substitute for the mother she had lost as a child. Yet, it was not in her nature to feel anything but love for the tiny, straight-laced, Christian poet we called Grandma Millard. My mother-in-law died of lymphoma in 1988 at the age of 62. It’s hard to believe I knew her only 16 years. Her example of love, kindness, forgiveness and spirituality has followed me every day since we lost her. In difficult situations, I often find myself pondering, “What would Joan do?”

Laurie Joy Samsel Olson

Every one of these women was strong, self-reliant and had a significant influence on my life. Collectively, they were seekers, doers, fighters, achievers, lovers and believers. All were mothers. And all were caregivers.

I look at their lives and their photos and I see … me.

Good Girl (6)Next week I’m turning 61. In July, I will have been married to, acrimoniously divorced from, and happily married again to my high school sweetheart for a grand total of 43 years. The descriptors that fit between those milestones run the gamut from joy to hostility, dependence to self-reliance, forgiveness to contentment. In October, I will have been a grateful mother for 40 years and a doting grandmother for 13 years. Sometime this year, though I’m not sure exactly when, I will pass the 35th anniversary of the day I became a full-time career woman. And in December, I will observe the second anniversary of the day I said good-bye to the woman who cared for me when I came into the world and who I cared for when she made her exit.

My path does not exactly mirror those of Carrie, Beulah, Joy and Joan, but the basic journey shadows theirs in almost storybook fashion. The Brothers Grimm could not have written a better parable about children walking squarely in the footsteps of their forefathers.  I am my grandmothers’ granddaughter. I am my mothers’ daughter.

Maybe that’s why Mom didn’t write down the most important lesson she ever tried to teach me. Maybe … just maybe … she thought I had already learned it. The only thing left to do is pass it on to my daughter, stepdaughter, daughter-in-law, nieces and the great-granddaughters’ who are still just a gleam in my grandsons’ eyes. To all of them … and to all my readers of the feminine persuasion, remember to …

Be a good girl.

Grandma Carrie Metzger (about 1930) at Cabrillo Beach, California.

Grandma Carrie Metzger in 1930 at Cabrillo Beach, California.

It’s All About Me, Revisited

Last fall, I wrote back-to-back columns that used comedian Al Franken’s trademark line – “it’s all about me” – first to describe the world of a dependent care recipient and then to remind caregivers of the need to stop and take care of themselves periodically.

I’m no longer a caregiver, but I’m heeding my own words today. I’m taking the week off from blog writing.

Last Sunday afternoon, after happily polishing off my weekly post, I was outside repotting a thriving Christmas cactus. While walking back to the house, I unceremoniously tripped and fell on the brick patio. My beautiful, new, green ceramic pot went flying and, of course, broke when it landed on the unforgiving surface. Meanwhile, I went down hard on my right knee and then found myself nose-to-nose with a rather inhospitable octagonal block.

Let’s just say, the brick won our little skirmish.

A week later, my nose is improving but my knee is not. Sitting at the computer increases the pain. So, after wrestling with my inner sense of responsibility over a self-imposed deadline, I’m taking my own advice about self-care. I’ll check in again soon with another Note From My Mother, but today I think my Momma would approve of my decision to invoke Al Franken’s declaration …

It’s all about me.

Have a wonderful day and week, everyone, and may you all win any battles you might have with gravity and hard surfaces.

1 - Mom and Me 19540001

Mom was my caregiver long before I was hers. Here we are shortly after I arrived March 28, 1954. (And get a load of that early television and that funky lamp in the background! Wish I had both of them now!)

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

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

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

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

It was still Pete.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 – Part Two

It seems that the Part Two’s of my weekly column sneak up on me. I don’t go into a writing session knowing that a particular topic is going to require two chapters. Usually the notion evolves as I watch the words fill up the blank pages on my computer screen, and I realize there is more to say than will fit neatly into one edition. This week, though, it came to me in a hospital emergency room on Christmas Day. By the time twilight fell on that most magical of dates, I had found new meaning in the words that formed the basis of last week’s message.

Love Always, Mom xxxooo

I wasn’t at the hospital for myself. My 37-year-old daughter called at about 9 a.m. and asked for help because a gland in her neck was so swollen that it was gagging her. I picked her up and we drove the 20 miles from our one stoplight town to the nearest open medical facility – the lone hospital in our state capital. She completed the required paperwork, and we steeled ourselves for the long wait that is inevitable for patients who aren’t experiencing chest pain or don’t arrive by ambulance. The cheerful registrar switched the waiting room television to a marathon of A Christmas Story, and we settled in to watch Ralphie pursue his dream of owning an official Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock and “this thing which tells time.”

Jenny

Jennifer in the ER – Christmas 2014

Just as we were beginning to feel restless, a woman whose fingertip was on ice in her husband’s pocket and a tow-headed toddler who had been bitten in the face by her grandmother’s dog came through the double doors. Their ghastly calamities curled our toes and made us grateful for our relatively mundane circumstances. A few minutes later, my daughter felt guilty hearing her name called before theirs until a nurse explained that they were on a different treatment track.

Once in the exam room, it was amazing how suddenly our circumstances changed from mundane to alarming. It wasn’t a run-of-the-mill swollen gland – the kind that typically accompanies a cold or an ear infection. It was an acute inflammation of a parotid (salivary) gland, and the doctor was concerned about the same thing my daughter had been worried about – that the severe swelling would soon interfere with her breathing. Almost in the blink of an eye, blood was drawn, an IV was inserted and my daughter was moved to the imaging room for a CT scan with contrast dye. The commotion made her sick to her stomach and, afterward, she just wanted to relax under a warm blanket.

We waited quietly for the results. There was no television in the exam room and not enough bars on our cell phones to make calls. I could only keep the family at home apprised of the goings-on through text messaging and social media. We speculated about what they were doing without us, and my daughter thanked me for giving up the holiday for her.

“Jennifer,” I said to my precious girl, “there is really no one I would rather be spending time with on Christmas Day than you … even if it is in a hospital emergency room.”

It was the truth. I love everyone in my family with all my heart and would go to the ends of the Earth for any one of them. There is something just a little bit different, though, between a mother and daughter. That something different is what I write about every Sunday in this column when I share stories about my mother, our lengthy caregiving relationship and the pain of losing her. This week I’m bringing in another generation; not only because of our Christmas misadventure but because my daughter played a large part in keeping my mother safe at home while I worked. For 8½ years, in fact, she spent more time with Mom than anyone but me.

The arrangement with Jennifer couldn’t have been more perfect. In the beginning, it was convenient for her because her children were really just babies. She could make a little money as Mom’s caregiver, drive only a few short blocks between our homes and bring the children with her. It was equally beneficial for Mom. Grandmother and granddaughter got along famously, and Mom had a front row seat to her great grandsons’ childhoods. The work itself was not taxing for Jennifer. In those days, preparing meals, stand-by bath assistance and laundry were about the only tasks on her list.

As the years passed and Mom’s health slowly declined, the caregiving arrangement elevated from convenient for the two of them to critical for me. There was no one I trusted more completely than my own daughter to take good care of Mom and have free reign in my home at the same time. It was not only trust that gave me confidence, though. By nature, Jennifer is very pragmatic and cool-headed. Those characteristics came in handy on more than one occasion. The most memorable was the day she called me at work and casually made small talk for a few moments before calmly saying, “Grandma and I need your advice about something.” I responded somewhat distractedly, “Uh-huh. What is that?” When she said, “Well, Grandma fell and …,” I didn’t even let her finish her sentence. I’m normally fairly good in a crisis myself but this was one of my worst fears – that Mom would fall and break a hip. “She fell?” I shrieked.

Jenny and Mom

Jennifer and Mom – October 2013

Jennifer’s unshakable composure as she related the incident was palpable, and I felt my panic dissipate with the steadiness of her tone. As Mom’s doctors had predicted, the best thing we could hope for if she lost her balance was that someone nearby could help break her fall. That’s exactly what Jennifer did. As a result, Mom was not seriously injured; just bruised. However, she was unable to get up even with Jennifer’s help. The most concerning thing was that she had taken her insulin shot immediately before falling and was now supposed to be eating lunch to counteract the dose. We strategized to avoid a diabetic crash; I hung up the phone and started home.  By the time I arrived, Mom was peacefully finishing her lunch while propped up against a kitchen cabinet with a pillow behind her. The three of us tried unsuccessfully to get her back on her feet before calling the local paramedics for assistance. Within 10 minutes, she was resting in her recliner in the living room watching television as if nothing had happened. I was never so grateful for Jennifer’s “all in a day’s work” attitude.

Years continued to pass, the children started school, and I became increasingly dependent on Jennifer to help keep the household running smoothly. She prepared shopping lists when we were low on Mom’s favorite foods, scheduled and trained secondary caregivers, looked after the dogs and sometimes took Mom to a medical appointment if I had trouble arranging the time off work. On many occasions, she matter-of-factly handled situations and messes that would repulse people with weaker constitutions. Between chores, she and Mom talked about their favorite fantasy books, watched forensic crime shows on television, poured over family photo albums and talked about the old days. I sometimes found myself envious of their easy relationship.

At least once or twice over the years, Jennifer thought she might like to do something with her life besides care for her grandmother, but she was determined to see things through to the end. By the time Mom made her final departure in December 2013, Jennifer knew she had been incredibly fortunate to know her grandmother more intimately than most grandchildren could ever hope to imagine. Likewise, Mom was well aware how fortunate she had been to spend her waning years in the care of someone who loved her unconditionally.

Unconditional love was also present in the hospital emergency room this past Christmas Day … that and an enormous sense of relief when the test results showed Jennifer did not have an abscess that needed to be drained on the spot. She was released with a strong antibiotic and instructions to apply an ice pack every couple of hours. On our way home, we agreed that Christmas Day had not only been all right but would most surely become the stuff of family legend.

Back at her house, with the rest of the family gathered around, I handed Jennifer her traditional gift from me – a red-nosed Rudolph for her collection. This year, I had also found a greeting card with the most famous reindeer of all on the cover. What a jolly coincidence that it read: “Hope your Christmas is so merry it’ll go down in history.” After adding, “To my Jenny, the best daughter in history,” I signed off with almost exactly the same words my mother had written to me …

I love you always, Mom xo

(And I do, Jennifer Joy. I do.)

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Jennifer and Me – Thanksgiving 2006