All Righty, McDity

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

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

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

All righty, McDity.

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

All Righty McDity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All righty, McDity.

Bring on the joy.

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

Love Always, Mom xxxooo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love always, Mom xxxooo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love always, Mom xxxooo

Christmas - Galileo 2

 Christmas 2014 - Card 1Christmas 2014 - Card 2

To Infinity and Beyond!

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

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

 With Love to Infinity and Beyond!

To Infinity and Beyond (3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are we? Where are we going?”

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

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

To Infinity and Beyond!

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.)

 

Don’t Forget Our Secret Handshake

With a partner, hold out your right hands. Overlap your fingertips and wiggle them together for a few seconds.  Stop, make fists, bump your fists together and hold them there.  Thrust your thumbs upward and cross them back and forth like swords four times.  Press the ends of your thumbs together firmly.  Then draw back slightly and give each other a thumbs up.

That was the top secret handshake created by and reserved for Mom and me during our adventure as care receiver and caregiver. It was declassified after her death last December, and is being shared in this column only because you, dear friend, are now a trusted member of our clandestine society.  Your initiation was simple.  Just reading some of the notes she left behind and exploring the explanations with me has drawn you into this exclusive club.  Since my co-conspirator departed with a nagging fear that she would not be remembered, I’m delighted to induct you by ceremoniously quoting a few of her last words.

Don’t forget our secret handshake.Secret Handshake (BW)

Secret societies, including some with secret handshakes, have existed for centuries. Literature and films have memorialized many; some bona fide, others created or dramatized to advance a storyline.  Who can resist the allure and mystery of the Knights of Templar, the Illuminati, the Jedi Order and the Sith, the Dharma Initiative and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen?  As someone of the feminine persuasion, though, I am most enchanted by stories about women of all ages who bond over a common problem, a shared belief system or a collective goal.

In The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, young friends Carmen, Tibby, Bridget and Lena find redemption in a magical pair of thrift store jeans passed from one to another over the course of a summer.  In Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, lifelong friends Teensy, Necie, and Caro help pal Vivi reconcile with her daughter, Sidda.  No matter what the circumstances, the women in these and other mythical societies unfailingly emerge triumphant; having forged strong friendships that last through the ages.

No one ever wrote a bestseller or filmed a blockbuster about them, but my mother actually was part of such a sisterhood. Find a recording of Glenn Miller’s Chattanooga Choo Choo or Kay Kyser’s Jingle Jangle Jingle to set the mood and flash back to 1942.

In March of that year, Mom was a 17-year-old, slender brunette who removed her wire-rimmed glasses for class photos. With high school graduation rapidly approaching, she and several close girlfriends decided to cement their long-time friendship by starting a club.  They knew that the only sure way to hold on to each other after they shed their caps and gowns was to create opportunities to spend time together.  Without dissent, Friday became their sacred meeting night, and a different girl played hostess each week.

Semanons Minutes (BW)In minutes carefully preserved in soft-cover notebooks, they recorded debates about whether to make yellow gingham uniforms, the number of times a member could miss a meeting without a reasonable excuse, and what they should call their group. They bagged the idea of matching dresses, set strict attendance rules, and dissed several foreign-language designations before settling on the Semanons (No Names spelled backward).  The short business meetings of “the Sems” were generally followed by music, dancing, singing and sugary homemade refreshments like Boston cherry cream pie and marshmallow malts.  “A perfectly swell time was had by everyone,” the secretary wrote after a gathering in May 1942.

If the goings-on seem frivolous given the fact that World War II was raging, keep this in mind. In the months before they formed their club, they listened to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech on the radio about the December day that would “live in infamy.”  They watched newsreels of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  They looked on with sadness and confusion as their Japanese-American friends were ushered onto trains bound for internment camps.

Nothing and no one was safe, especially not in their hometown of San Pedro, California. Ships coming and going from the Port of Los Angeles, activity at the Fort MacArthur U.S. Army installation and the ominous presence of artillery embattlements for coastal defense created a distinctly military atmosphere.  If that wasn’t enough, they watched their fathers and brothers enlist, obeyed blackouts and curfews, shuddered at the sound of pre-dawn air raid sirens, adjusted to rationing, and sacrificed their senior yearbook for the war effort.

Their Friday night gatherings helped them hold onto a shred of normalcy in an otherwise unstable world. Joy and laughter were always on their agenda.  Along with the notebooks of minutes, the girls saved dozens of pictures, souvenirs, restaurant menus and live theater programs to commemorate adventures that sometimes stretched from Friday night to Monday morning.  Surely, Big Bear Lake was never the same after they descended upon it to share a rustic cabin, shimmy into long johns and teach themselves to ski.

A line in the minutes of their December 7, 1945, meeting finally paid tribute to the dark days of the war. “On this anniversary of Pearl Harbor, in our first year of peace since 1941, we celebrated club at Mary’s house.”

Marriages, babies, jobs and relocation eventually forced the girls to let go of their weekly ritual.  Christmas parties became Christmas cards.  Periodic visits became telephone chats.  But they never let go of each other.  Their friendship endured through the years until, one by one, they passed away.  When Mom joined the dearly departed last December, I was able to contact only one original Sem to share the sad news.

Oompa Loompa Girls (BW)

No alliance could ever truly replace the Sems for Mom, but life has a way of carrying us forward to different places and relationships. Mom rode the wave with anticipation and was never averse to forming new sisterhoods.  In particular, the Oompa Loompa Girls always brought a smile to her face.

Oompa Loompas are short, fat beings that work in exchange for chocolate in Willie Wonka’s candy factory. No one remembers exactly when, why or how this came about, but some years ago Mom, my sister, Leslie, and my niece, Rachel, became the Oompa Loompa Girls.  Mom’s tiny Yorkshire Terrier, Lucy (aka Lucerella), was their “plus one.”  It probably happened during some self-deprecating moment when they were simultaneously lamenting their curvy figures and declaring their undying love for chocolate.  I can imagine them all laughing hysterically (or barking as the case may be) and the name stuck.  Every time Mom looked at a picture of their little group, she would declare, “The Oompa Loompa Girls!”  It was the kind of inside joke that tends to make everyone else feel envious of the exclusive camaraderie.

I wasn’t an Oompa Loompa Girl, and I certainly wasn’t a Sem. Deep down I guess I will always be just a little bit jealous of those sisterhoods.  However, as with the vast majority of caregiving relationships, I had my own bond with Mom that ran deeper than we could ever have dreamed.  We didn’t have a name for our partnership, but ours was a “’til death do us part” promise that tested the durability of our connection while also serving to strengthen it.  Phone Upload (1.29.14) 4772Our secret handshake was the symbol of our abiding pledge to one another, which most certainly is the reason she was compelled to commemorate it in one of the cards she left behind for posthumous delivery.

Don’t forget our secret handshake.

As briefly noted at the beginning of this column, Mom had a nagging fear that she would not be remembered. She was concerned that the space she occupied in our home and in the lives of those she loved would become a vacuum quickly swallowed up by new belongings, different priorities, and other liaisons.  All I can say is that, under normal circumstances, a grown daughter could not possibly forget her mother.  Our union, which reached far beyond the scope of a traditional parent/child relationship, will go down in the record books right next to the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and the bestseller that is destined to be written about the Sems.

If you’re listening, Mom, don’t worry. I won’t forget our secret handshake.  More importantly, you will always and forever be in my heart and … well OK … in the hearts of those pesky Oompa Loompa Girls, too.

(This week’s column is lovingly dedicated to my friend, Connie, and her 92-year-old mother who had to bid their final good-bye this past week.)

The Only One

Last week I was proud to use a fragment of the signature line from my mother’s farewell letter to share my heartfelt appreciation and love for my older sister, Leslie.  I may be “the pretty one” Mom was referring to in her parting line, but I will forever think of Leslie when I read it.

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

To the pretty one from the only oneOf course, “the only one” in that line is Mom and, like “the pretty one,” it comes with a story.

Once upon a lifetime ago, Mom was … well … kind of a “woe as me” person.  At least, that’s how she appeared to me.  As I write this, I can hear a mournful, protracted rendition of an old gospel song running through my head.  You know the one.

“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows my sorrow.”

To understand where that kind of anguish could have originated, you need a glimpse of Mom’s world as a young mother.  The seed, to be fair, was probably planted even deeper than that, but this is what occurred in my own lifetime and what I know to be true.

When my sister, brother and I were young, our father would spend months away from home working as an engineer on mammoth ships that transported oil and other commodities to foreign ports.  The ocean called often, and he obediently answered.  He would periodically drop into our lives, bearing hugs and toting presents, and drop out again, leaving tears and loneliness in his wake.

During our father’s absences, Mom was the quintessential single parent, far ahead of her time.  She worked as a bookkeeper in medical offices, kept the cars and household operating relatively smoothly, and raised us with support from our two grandmothers.  It was a heavy load to manage in the era of television role models like Harriet Nelson and Donna Reed who kept the home fires burning while their husbands navigated the halls of business.  When the weight became overwhelming, Mom often would lament,

 “I’m the only one who ever …”

You can fill in the blank with a broad range of grievances from “feeds the dogs” to “cleans the house” and everything in between.  She repeated it so frequently that eventually, and with youthful disdain, we sometimes did fill in the blanks.

As an adult, I get it.  Her marriage was hardly the stuff of romance novels.  She had no consistent partner to depend on and no real balance in her life.  The latter was true even when our father was home.  He didn’t know how he fit in to the family between voyages, and she didn’t know how to temporarily create a place for him.  The stress mounted when our father tried to transition from a sailor’s life to a shore job.  He was seriously injured on his first day and spent months in a body cast.  His lengthy recuperation and loss of income threw even more responsibility onto Mom’s plate.

As I said, as an adult I get it.  As a child I did not.  I loved my mother with all my heart but, while growing up, the opinion I formed of her was tainted by the burden she carried.  I came to view her as something of a martyr.  By the time my sister and I reached our teens, we were bold enough to threaten carving “I’m the only one” on her tombstone whenever she dared recite it.

Thank goodness that our irreverence gradually changed the flavor of that tiresome phrase.  It evolved from a symbol of self-pity, to a vehicle to tease her, and finally to a term of endearment.  Even Mom eventually began poking fun at herself.  Sometimes she would throw the back of her hand up to her forehead in dramatic fashion to mimic an exaggerated stage gesture of the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt.  Later, her favorite way to lighten up pity parties (her own or someone else’s) was to rub her thumb and index finger together and say in a high voice, “I can hear the tiny violins playing.”

When I began to take on my own adult responsibilities, the periodic crying jags and bouts of depression I had witnessed as a child started to make sense to me.   However, because I had a front row seat to some of her most vulnerable moments when I was at an impressionable age, the perception that she was fragile and perhaps a bit unstable was difficult to erase.  It wasn’t until we moved in together, and then began our long partnership as caregiver and care recipient, that I finally saw her in a completely different light.  She was far from fainthearted.  On the contrary, she was remarkably strong to have served as the head of household in a generation of June Cleavers.

It took nine years for Mom’s heart to fail after her health began to seriously decline.  Her list of diagnoses included kidney, heart, thyroid and acid reflux disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and osteoarthritis.  Her list of medications was so long that I had to create one of my legendary spreadsheets to keep track of prescribing doctors, doses and special instructions.  In addition, Mom was dependent on a rather rigid meal regimen and four daily insulin shots to control her diabetes, was constantly tethered to an oxygen machine, and frequently suffered from diarrhea, bladder infections and external yeast infections.

The osteoarthritis probably affected her quality of life more than anything else.  It ravaged virtually all of her major joints and eventually robbed her of the ability to walk more than a few steps.  She graduated from a small aluminum walker, to a snazzy Cadillac model with a basket and seat, to a wheelchair.  Since anti-inflammatory medications are processed through the kidneys, she was limited to less effective narcotics to manage the debilitating pain.

I lived through all of that with her.  Yet, seeing it in print is incredibly powerful and only serves to reinforce the point of today’s installment.  Mom was a soldier with amazing courage and strength.  Dutifully, she pricked her tender fingertips four times a day to test her blood sugar, dialed up insulin shots, repeatedly drove tiny needles into her bruised tummy, and ate the mostly well-balanced but sometimes monotonous meals I served her.  She shook dozens of drugs out of her pill case twice a day and counted them to make sure none were missing.  Her life was entirely organized around her medical needs and, quite frankly, she hated it.  Yet, she paid the price day after day because it bought her more time to enjoy her family, her dogs and the birds that visited the garden outside her window.  With each sunrise, she could read another chapter in the book by her bedside, check one more movie off her must-see list, cheer on her favorite football team or identify an obscure answer for a crossword puzzle.  She rarely had time to complain; every moment was precious.

After wasting so much of my own time being unfairly critical of my mother, it was a blessing to have the opportunity for a wake-up call of epic proportions.  I firmly believe that things happen for a reason.  Mom coming to live with me was serendipitous and undoubtedly opened the door to lessons we both needed to learn. For me, none was more profound than the gift of seeing my mother as the remarkable person she truly was.

“The only one” is a nickname that my mother most certainly earned through the hardships I’ve recounted here.  However, in closing, I must add that she was also MY only one.  She was my Momma — the only one who knew and loved me from before the day I was born.  Other kindhearted adults drifted in and out of my life as circumstances changed, but she was the only one whoMom at Reunion 2007 was always there for me.  She was the only one who could calm my fears with a gentle hug, heal my wounds with a magic kiss, listen assiduously to my changing hopes and dreams, and inspire me to be strong even as she was slipping away from me.

It’s been 10 months since Mom left the shackles of earthly life behind, and I am slowly transforming her bedroom into my own peaceful sanctuary.  One of the things I will never remove from the wall is an award that the family presented to her at a reunion in 2007.  We all laughed when we handed her the “I’m the Only One” award.  It was not a joke that we added,

“The only mother and grandmother the Samsel clan would ever want to have.”

To The Pretty One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas 1960 -- Still holding me.

Christmas 1960 — Still holding me.

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

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

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

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

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

“To The Pretty One.”

Leslie 2014

Leslie 2014