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)

 

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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.

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.)

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!

Live Long and Prosper

For at least the last decade, while my co-workers have systematically planned leave that corresponds with Christmas or the New Year, I have booked time off on and around December 4th. Sometimes I’ve just taken that one day; sometimes the entire week in which it falls. It became like a holiday in our household because every year marked another notch on Mom’s lengthening lifeline. It was the one square on the calendar when the tables turned and her trademark birthday salutation circled back to her.

Live long and prosper. Live Long (5)

Virtually no one in the free world needs an explanation of the origins of that line. In fact, it’s safe to say that a dark-haired extraterrestrial, with pointy ears and his right hand raised in a V-shaped salute, just crossed your mind. If you also know when that particular Vulcan first found his way into Earth’s sci-fi history, then you can understand how ingrained this greeting is in our family’s traditions.

It would not be illogical to describe our devotion as genetic since four generations have now eagerly anticipated each new incarnation of the legendary television and film space saga. Likewise, it’s reasonable to presume that one of Mom’s prized possessions – a photo taken at a long ago fan convention – is destined to be handed down again and again. For that galactic portrait, my adult children, Mom and I huddled briefly but proudly with two icons that need no introduction.  An otherworldly hand resting on Mom’s shoulder cemented her connection with the final frontier.

For 21 of the 48 years that Mr. Spock and his cosmic cohorts have been honorary members of our family, choosing birthday gifts for Mom was as easy as waiting for Hallmark to announce its annual Christmas ornament collection. Some faithful Star Trek fan reading this column probably knows that my arithmetic seems a little haywire. The count should be 22 years since Hallmark unveiled this line of collectible ornaments in 1991 and Mom’s last birthday was 2013. Alas, I somehow missed the premiere edition of the Starship Enterprise. I made up for it about eight or nine years later by paying an outrageous amount for a mint condition original on eBay.

Live Long (3)Some years ago, Mom bought a pre-lit, artificial tree especially to display her collection of official Federation ornaments. The three-foot model was overpowered within a few years, so a four-foot facsimile took its place. Even at that, the characters finally had to be arranged in groups beneath the branches for lack of elbow room among the spacecraft above. As the years passed, she delighted in watching her great grandsons push the buttons on the various gadgets and listen to familiar voices say things like, “We are the Borg. Enjoy your holidays. Resistance is futile.”

That particular directive, spoken through a computer chip in a plastic cube, is calling to me as this year’s Christmas season rapidly approaches. Like a challenge, the cybernetic pronouncement is beckoning me back into a bright world of multi-colored lights, green wreaths adorned with red velvet bows, and miniature villages where ice-skaters with eternal smiles forever glide around the perimeter of a mirrored rink. So far, the question I have figuratively shouted back has gone unanswered. Can I truly enjoy the holidays without Mom?

Mom loved Christmas and, for at least a dozen years, about half of the effort I put into the festivities was for her delight. Who could resist the glee of an 80-something great-grandmother as she drank in the magic of a gaily lit neighborhood or shopped for little treasures in the aisles of stores laden with sparkly decorations? Mom and I spent her last 12 birthdays soaking up all that beauty. Our habit was to wander through the glittery holiday shop at our favorite local garden store, eat breakfast at a corner café where the waitresses knew us and drive 30 miles to the nearest large city with more malls, retail strips and restaurants than we could possibly visit in a day.

Live Long (2)As the years passed and Mom’s health declined, the birthday trips narrowed to one or two local stores and perhaps one meal out, then to a stay-at-home day reserved for decorating and watching holiday movies. Last year, during a home visit in late October, a hospice nurse gently encouraged us to move up any special seasonal celebrations to be sure Mom could participate. About a week later, I gave Mom the last set of Star Trek ornaments she would ever receive. With a wide smile on her face, she pressed the button on the character edition to listen to braveLive Long (4) Captain Kirk fight a grotesque reptilian warrior known as the Gorn. Our hero won that battle, but Mom lost hers December 9th, five days after spending her 89th birthday comatose.

Exhaustion, grief, shock and a sense of bewilderment that the world could even go on without my mother’s uniquely charming presence led to the sensible decision not to try to ramp up for Christmas in 16 days. Greeting cards were written, addressed and stamped mostly so I could slip in a letter that shared our sad news. Gifts purchased over the internet while Mom slept away her final days were wrapped and tagged. Money she saved over the course of the year to give to her children and grandchildren was divided up and tucked into special cards I bought on her behalf when hospice first came into the picture. She never had the energy to sign them so I sat quietly and wrote all the things I thought she would want to say to each loved one. Finally, a few days before Christmas, my husband and I wandered through the glittery holiday shop at our favorite local nursery and bought one or two things to dress up the living room ever so slightly. Mr. Spock and his cosmic cohorts stayed in their boxes in a big plastic bin in the garage.

After another trip around the sun, it’s time to ask whether they should sit out this holiday as well. Or is resistance really futile? Should they take their stations and boldly go through the season with me as their new commander?

Perhaps I should start by unboxing the first spacecraft that Mom hung on a Christmas tree 22 years ago. Maybe the familiar voice waiting patiently at the helm of the Galileo will be able to tell me whether to invite his friends to come aboard. All I have to do is push the button.

“Shuttlecraft to Enterprise. Shuttlecraft to Enterprise. Spock here. Happy Holidays. Live long, and prosper.”

Smile With Your Bottom Teeth

In the early 1960s, our family learned a quirky smile from an equally quirky television comedian.  It especially tickled my mother’s funny bone.  She delighted in repeating his directive and then demonstrating the distinctive grin right up until the last weeks of her life.

If you run a search for the late Soupy Sales on the internet today, most biographies celebrate his trademark pie in the face or allege that some of the puns on his lunchtime kids’ show were not suitable for his viewing audience.  I only vaguely remember the pies.  The racy jokes, if any, must have whooshed completely over my 6-year-old head.  To my frustration, I had a harder time finding something that documented the things I do remember about him.  One was his wacky side-to-side dance that he dubbed the Soupy Shuffle.  A half-century later, I’ve seen hip-hop dancers do something similar called the Slide Side.  I wonder if they know they inherited that move from a once beloved television buffoon who regularly advised us to:

Smile with your bottom teeth!Smile - Card

Who really knows why Soupy wanted anyone to jut out their lower jaw and simultaneously try to turn up the corners of their mouth to show happiness.  As today’s feature photo (taken 13 months ago) illustrates, the result doesn’t even look much like a smile.  I can imagine, though, that he conceived it for the same, simple reason we complied – the pure, unadulterated joy of being silly.  For me, that’s certainly how it started.  I can’t speak for my sister and brother, but I gradually came to view the bottom-teeth smile as a symbol of the conscious choice to be glad in the face of disappointment, defeat and virtually any formidable challenge.  It was fitting that, in one of her posthumously delivered farewell cards, Mom wrote those words down to help me remember a tried and true weapon against melancholy and apprehension.  In the past week or so, I’ve surely needed that reminder.  In the next few weeks, I will need it even more.

This coming Thursday, November 27th, is Thanksgiving.  For the first time in my 60 years, Mom won’t be part of that cherished family holiday.  The sun will rise on her 90th birthday on December 4th, but she won’t be here to mark it.  Five days after that, it will be 12 months since she passed away.

Bereavement counselors commonly caution that the first anniversary of a death is likely to regenerate the grief that you thought was passing.  I’m here to tell Smile - The Girlsyou; that is absolutely true.  My preoccupation with Mom’s final weeks actually began in mid-September.  It was then I started pinpointing days that held certain significance.  The last day Mom left the house – for a podiatry appointment followed by a spontaneous lunch out at our favorite Mexican restaurant.  The day I knew it was time to call my sister and brother to tell them the end was near.  The weekend family from the Pacific Northwest traveled to Nevada for one last reunion.  An early Thanksgiving feast to ensure Mom could enjoy her favorite foods one last time on her mother’s China.  Her last birthday, celebrated with a single, flickering candle in a cup of chocolate-vanilla swirl pudding and three of us singing as she lay comatose.  The icy cold morning when she took her last breath.

The last, the last, the last.  It seems like an eternity ago … and like yesterday.

I sometimes wonder whether those closing images will ever fade.  Will I always be able to hear the doctor say, “Well, she doesn’t have six months,” as he paused Smile - Musicnear our front door after making a house call for a hospice assessment?  Will I always have a vivid memory of Mom’s poignant observation after most of the family musicians gathered in the living room to play all her favorite tunes once more?  “Did you feel like you were at your own wake,” I asked when I helped her into bed that night.  “Yes, I kinda did.”  Will there Smile - GHever come a day when I am able to erase the December 2, 2013, recording of General Hospital, when I talked my barely conscious Mom through the moment she’d long been waiting for – Robin’s surprise return from the dead at husband Patrick’s wedding?  And, finally, will I ever stop second-guessing how my sister, brother and I handled those last few days and nights punctuated with frequent doses of liquid pain and anti-anxiety medications?  Lord, did we do a good job of walking Mom home?

From experience, I know that most of these heart-wrenching memories of our parting days will soften.  After a quarter century, I can still conjure up images of my mother-in-law’s final weeks as she wound down a six-year battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  Likewise, I clearly remember the shocking phone call two months later when my father died unexpectedly during an orthopedic surgery.  And, in the still of the night, I can relive certain meaningful moments when taking care of my father-in-law as he slowly succumbed to congestive heart failure less than four years after that.

About once a year – not always in the right month – I remember their passing and am unfailingly amazed that so much time has passed since we last breathed the same air.  I’ve noticed, though, that the exact days of their departures escape me now, and instead I am more likely to think of them on the joyful days that their mothers first held them in their arms.  March 9, 1926.  October 9, 1916.  September 13, 1923.  Those were good times on Mother Earth.  Perhaps the one saving grace to come from their loss is the knowledge that many beautiful, precious recollections of Mom will eventually dominate the sorrowful ones.  Sealing the deal is that I have more than 20 bonus years of memories with her than with any one of those three dear hearts who, in such rapid succession, beat her to the pearly gates.

Understanding that the future holds more peace is comforting.  But, alas, this season the best I can really do is let the waves of sadness roll over me and Smile - Octcleanse my aching spirit.  I won’t surrender completely to melancholy, but I’m sure Mom would not mind if I sit in her favorite chair and cry for a bit while that year-old episode of our treasured soap opera plays.  She would love it if I continued to browse through photos and videos from our family’s last weekend together – images that clearly show the euphoria generated by more than a dozen hearts filled with abiding love for her.  Before drifting off to sleep at night, I can wrap myself in the warm, down comforter she gave me and pray for solace.  Every moment of every day, I can work on remembering her life rather than her death, and I can write this online column commemorating what a remarkable, priceless, completely unique mother I had.  Most medicinal of all, I can slide to the left, sidle to the right in a zany rendition of the Soupy Shuffle and …

Smile with my bottom teeth.

And The Horse You Rode In On

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

And the horse you rode in on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… and the horse you rode in on.

Tank - 1

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

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