It’s All About Me, Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

It’s all about me.

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

1 - Mom and Me 19540001

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

Beam Me Up, Scotty!

“Beam me up, Scotty” is an oft-misquoted catch phrase from the grand patriarch of all television and film space odysseys, Star Trek.

Contrary to popular belief, Captain James T. Kirk never issued precisely this command to his Chief Engineer, Montgomery Scott, at any time during the last half century. He came close in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home when he said, “Scotty, beam me up,” but no script contains the exact words in the exact order that fans ‘round the world love to repeat.

Mom loved that hijacked line, too. It was one of the axioms she commemorated for posterity when she dictated some recollections to my sister in her final days. After she passed away, we borrowed the essence of it for her memorial brochure.

The mortuary that handled Mom’s cremation suggested the brochure even though we weren’t planning a service, and we thought, well, why not? However, the samples they provided completely turned us off; they just didn’t reflect Mom’s spirit. I’m sure our faces looked as if we had just sucked lemons when we read standard language like, “Entered into the world on (insert date) and returned to the loving arms of the Heavenly Father on (insert date).” Finally, in a moment of dazzling inspiration, we decided to characterize Mom’s arrival and departure in Star Trek terms.

Beamed Down: December 4, 1924.  Beamed Up: December 9, 2013

She would have loved it.Beam Me Up (5)

Like legions of other Trekkies, Mom used the altered quote, “Beam me up, Scotty,” as a synonym for escape. Who wouldn’t want to be transported from an unfriendly planet to the safety of a powerful starship? From a stressful workplace to a peaceful tropical island? From a miles-long traffic jam to the serenity of home? From a time in your life when insulin shots and a wheelchair are your best friends to a better day when you enjoyed good health?

While many Star Trek innovations like communicators and hand-held electronic tablets have emerged in real life as cell phones and i-Pads, scientists haven’t quite come up with a way to dematerialize matter and rematerialize it somewhere else. I understand that a handful of brilliant Montgomery Scott wannabes are working on it, but it’s not likely to come true in my lifetime.

It certainly didn’t come true in Mom’s. She had to settle for virtual trips through time and space with her Star Trek comrades. Once she had an opportunity to become part of her favorite crew through a green screen technique at a Universal Studios souvenir shop. Years later she enjoyed a museum tour, a make-believe battle with the cybernetic species known as the Borg and lunch in a futuristic Ferengi café – all within the earthbound walls of the now defunct Star Trek exhibit at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel.

Beam Me Up (3)Mom wasn’t really content with fictional interstellar exploration, however. She was the quintessential skywatcher. My niece, Rhianna, and I both have vivid memories of midnight adventures oohing and aahing with Mom as we watched the Perseid and Leonid meteor showers. Most of the family also remembers being with Mom when we excitedly spotted Comet Hale-Bopp hanging over the Pacific Ocean in 1997. Half a dozen years later, while cruising through Alaska’s Inside Passage, I clearly remember rousing her in the middle of the night and pushing her wheelchair to the observation deck to witness the unique spectacle of the Northern Lights.

Memories of her delight in heavenly mysteries are the intangibles Mom bequeathed to us, but she also left behind hard evidence. Ever the organizer, she preserved some of her celestial research in a big, white binder labeled “Things That Interest Me.” The thick scrapbook commemorates her fascination with everything from The Lord of the Rings to Charles Schulz and his immortal Peanuts cartoon strip, but the last section is all about “Outer Space.” It begins with a 2008 article from Parade magazine about the final repair mission of the Hubble Telescope and is followed by Internet printouts of photos snapped by the amazing contraption. Breathtaking galaxies, incredible star formations and other stunning cosmic anomalies constitute a proverbial feast for the eyes. Meanwhile, the cover she chose for the binder erases any doubt about her principal interest. It’s a portrait of the Pillars of Creation inside the Eagle Nebula.

Beam Me Up (2)Until I was preparing to write this column, I never paid much attention to the details of Mom’s enchantment with those far away images. Now I know that the Eagle Nebula is essentially a cluster of gas and dust, that the Pillars of Creation are giving birth to stars, and that the phenomena is situated near the constellation that is Mom’s astrological sign – Sagittarius the Archer. Interestingly, some astrologers say that people born under this sign enjoy experiences that are beyond the physically familiar and are eager to explore new dimensions of thought. Whether Mom was aware of that last piece of trivia is unknown but, for me, it opens another window into the soul of the person who was my own Pillar of Creation.

While poking around on the Internet, I was sad to discover that the Pillars of Creation that Mom so loved no longer exist. They were destroyed 6,000 years ago by a supernova, but the shockwave hasn’t reached Earth as yet. We are basically seeing ghosts carried on beams of light over the vast expanse of space.

Learning about the Pillars’ demise is a little like finding out that “Beam me up, Scotty” is not actually a true line from Mom’s beloved space franchise. Yet, I somehow find both realities rather poetic.

Mom’s physical body is gone but her spirit continues to light my way like a heavenly beacon. The letter, cards and notes she left behind for me have served as a loving foundation to document priceless memories about living with her, caring for her during her last years and loving her for a lifetime. As I said to her grandchildren and great grandchildren in last week’s column, she will never truly be gone as long as we keep her in our thoughts, our conversations and our hearts.

As for the errant line from Star Trek, I take comfort in what Captain Kirk and other crewmates often did say when they were ready to return to the safety of their interplanetary home on the starship Enterprise. By the time she passed away five days after her 89th birthday, Mom was exhausted and no longer able to move or talk. Her physical resources were completely used up. In Star Trek jargon, her Dilithium Crystals were depleted. I’d like to think that, when she finally departed, someone somewhere issued the simple but beautiful command that restored her weary soul.

Energize!

Today I’ll borrow one more line from Star Trek in salute to Mom. In the words of 20th Century whale biologist Dr. Gillian Taylor when she had to say good-bye to Captain Kirk at the end of The Voyage Home, “See you around the galaxy.”

Beam Me Up (1)

Somebody’d Better Do Something About It

James Garner first set eyes on her during a muddy brawl in the main street of the fictional frontier town of Calendar, Colorado. Later, he caught her peeking between handfuls of long, wet hair whilst perched in a tree wearing nothing but her drawers. Finally, he threw a pitcher of water on the flaming bustle of her dress when she tried to serve freshly baked dinner biscuits.

This all happened on the same day, and it all happened to Joan Hackett when she was playing accident-prone Prudy Perkins opposite Garner’s unflappable Jason McCullough in the 1969 Old West parody Support Your Local Sheriff. With the back of her dress burned away and flour handprints on her face, she clenched a fist and declared in utter frustration …

I’m sick and tired of these stupid things that have been happenin’ to me, and somebody’d better do something about it soon!

My mother loved that line. Repeating it took the edge off when the universe dished out some ridiculous happenstance beyond her control. Believe me, in her 89 years, Mom had ample opportunities to quote Ms. Hackett.

Somebody Better (2)Probably the worst foible of her senior years happened before Mom set up housekeeping with me in Nevada. She was walking her tiny Yorkshire Terrier on the gravel road in front of her old trailer on the Oregon Coast. Somehow wiry, little Lucy got away, and Mom instinctively ran after her on gravel that was wet from the persistent seaside drizzle. Before she knew what was happening, she slipped and fell hard on her right side. To this day, I can’t tell you how she managed to get herself and her diminutive dog back inside the trailer with a broken shoulder. She recovered without undue drama but duly spoiled and pampered by my protective sister who lived a couple of hours away.

Thankfully, Mom didn’t fall frequently during her 12 years with me in Nevada. There were several near misses but only two incidents that actually put her on the floor. One I wrote about in the column, “Love Always, Mom – Part Two.” Immediately after injecting insulin into her tummy to counteract the lunch she was about to eat, Mom OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAslipped to the unforgiving tile when her combination walker and portable bench rolled out from under her. It was a simple case of not properly setting the brake before sitting. My daughter was nearby and helped break Mom’s impact, but she couldn’t manage to help her stand. Except for an instant of panic when I got the initial call at work, it was all rather ordinary. Mom ate her lunch while propped up with pillows against a kitchen cabinet, I came home and, when our group effort to get her back on her feet failed, we sedately summoned the paramedics. She was bruised but not seriously injured.

The second incident occurred in the living room a few weeks later. My husband and I were sitting on the sofa when Mom backed her walker up to her recliner to watch the news before dinner. She was not in our line of sight, so we were both surprised a moment later when she said evenly, “Laurie, can I get some help?” She had missed the chair by a fraction of an inch and slid quietly to the carpet. After previously watching the paramedics help her to her feet, my husband and I were able to use the same technique to hoist her into the chair. A moment later, the two of them were casually watching the news while I finished preparing dinner.

My heart went out to Mom when she began having “accidents.” To put it delicately, she had recurring digestive problems and sometimes just couldn’t move quickly enough to reach the refuge of her bathroom. Adult diapers, bed pads and rubber gloves became staples in our household. Once I remember being late to work on a critical day involving the State Legislature and our departmental budget. Shortly after I called in, our director dialed me back. I apologized about my tardiness and matter-of-factly explained that I was “cleaning up poop.” Bless his kind soul. All he said was, “Oh,” and began to pick my brain about an issue within my scope of work. Naturally, Mom was mortified that she couldn’t always control her bodily functions but, as long as I was nonplussed, she remained calm, too.

It was especially important for me and other caregivers to keep a cool head when she crashed. If you know anyone who is diabetic, you know that crashing is the frightening result of abnormally low blood sugar. The person gets shaky, breaks into a cold sweat, has heart palpitations and can become confused or anxious. The trick is to ingest some form of concentrated sugar as quickly as possible. Glucose tablets, candy and orange juice were our counter-agents of choice. As years passed and we gained experience with this phenomenon, Mom’s crashes occurred less frequently and were easily resolved. However, in the beginning, we weren’t always prepared for this unexpected and unnerving development. Once after a cardiology appointment, she crashed while I was helping her into the car. The only thing I could think to do was high-tail it to the nearest fast food drive-through and buy her a chocolate milkshake. She spilled some of it on the seat and was horrified because I had just paid a pretty penny to get the old sedan detailed inside and out. “Oh well,” I said. “What are you gonna do? Battle scars.”

Somebody Better (3)The thing is, stupid stuff happens to everyone. Admittedly, some of us are more prone to accidents than others. When I was growing up, I earned an embarrassing but deserved reputation as a sloppy eater. Virtually every time I put on a new outfit, I ended up spilling food on it. For an elementary school open house and spaghetti feed, my sister reluctantly loaned me her pretty, yellow party dress and … you guessed it … I came home with tomato sauce splashed down the front. In addition, I’m terribly inept with kitchen knives. My husband is convinced that someday I’m going to end up in the emergency room with a severed finger on ice. Whenever I chop carrots for stew, there is nothing he can do but cringe and look away.

Likewise, when young, beautiful Joan Hackett blustered that “somebody’d better do something about it soon,” she had to know deep down that no one could really prevent “stupid things” from happening to her. Still, you certainly didn’t see her laying low after the bustle burning incident. She got up every day, got dressed and determinedly went about her business in that uncivilized, gold rush town. At the end of the film, one last “stupid thing” resulted in a desperate attempt to stay astride a bucking horse. James Garner assumed his best business-as-usual stance and calmly called out, “Jump, Miss Prudy! Jump!” She leaped off the spooked horse and found herself in the arms of her devilishly handsome beau.

If all’s well that ends well for a headstrong, twitter-pated frontier gal and a reluctant hero whose trademark retort was “basically, I’m on my way to Australia,” then it can also end well for every accident-prone, modern-day Prudy who slips and falls, misses the toilet, spills food or slices fingers. All you have to do is stay calm and carry on. Mom believed it. I believe it. I hope Russell Wilson believes it, too.

Wait. Huh? I can see the double-takes and puzzled stares, and can almost hear a rewind sound effect – something akin to a phonograph needle scraping across an old record. Who is Russell Wilson and what is he doing in Mom’s story?

Mom was an avid football fan and, along with my husband, followed the highs and lows of the Seattle Seahawks. She passed away just two months before the Hawks finally won their first Superbowl in 2014. Last week, they had a chance to take home another Vince Lombardi trophy. In the waning moments of the game, the Hawks were poised to score. Quarterback Russell Wilson threw a pass on the one yard line and the ball was intercepted by a rookie who saved the day for the Patriots. Although I’m a relatively new football fan, I was as shocked and exasperated as any 12th man in the country. I must have sputtered “stupid” two dozen times. Today I’m happy to say that I have regained my Garner-esque composure, and I remember that stupid things just happen to everyone now and then. You can’t stop it. The only thing I can do is pull up my Joan Hackett under-drawers and make an offer to beleaguered Mr. Wilson. On behalf of my wise mother, I’d like to loan you one of her favorite movie quotes.

I’m sick and tired of these stupid things that have been happenin’ to me, and somebody’d better do something about it soon!

Everybody Remember Where We Parked

Since Star Trek premiered close to a half-century ago, entire books have been written about all the insightful lessons embodied in the stories. With apologies to Dave Marinaccio and others who have penned these entertaining volumes, my mother needed only five words to convey the most important Star Trek takeaway for our family.

You may remember these words from what was unquestionably the most fun cinematic version of the epic franchise – Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. When the crew traveled back in time to save the world and landed their spaceship smack dab in the middle of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, Captain Kirk called out to his somewhat discombobulated shipmates …

Everybody remember where we parked!

Activation of a cloaking device made the pirated Klingon Bird-of-Prey invisible to everyone including our heroes. Yet, they still managed to find it again after wandering all over the city from Chinatown to Sausalito to Alameda. More than that, they fulfilled their daring mission to retrieve two humpback whales and successfully time-warped back home.

Home. No matter where you roam or what adventures await, the prime directive is to remember where you came from and how to get back there. It may be the old family farm, the city where you grew up, or it may just be found in the warm embrace of people you love. However you define it, home is the one thing we all long for and cherish.

Home (3)My mother knew the value of home even though a permanent abode eluded her throughout her 89 years. The youngest of 10 children, she was born on a small, wooden ark anchored in Potato Slough in the Sacramento River Delta in 1924. Her parents had attempted to homestead in Montana during one of the last government giveaways of agricultural land but ended up on the West Coast after the life-altering events of World War I. The Grapes of Wrath could have easily been their own story as they fished the abundant waterways and picked produce in the fertile California fields to keep food on the table.

In 1928, they migrated south to the harbor town of San Pedro where my grandfather established himself as an ocean fisherman. Despite his efforts, they barely stayed one step ahead of the landlord, moving from one rental home to another in rapid succession. Mom remembered watching shoes of all sizes, colors and styles as pedestrians walked past one odd place constructed on a downslope, causing the windows to be level with the sidewalk. In her favorite house, she had a bedroom no bigger than a closet, but she loved it because she didn’t have to share with an older sister who, legend has it, pinched her while she slept.

Home (7)In 1944, when Mom was a 20-year-old labor union secretary, she managed to convince the State of California that she was actually 21 so she could help her widowed mother buy a tiny, newly-built tract house on a busy street that ran along an ocean cliff. The lot was on a corner adjacent to an empty military field, which allowed a view of water and sky if you looked southwest from the living room window. That little house, with its towering palm trees and backyard picket fence, served as the stable family home that everyone in my mother’s sprawling family longed for and returned to during the 35 years my grandmother lived there. To this day, even I think of it as my original nesting place.

Two years after the oceanside cottage became the family’s belated homestead, my mother and father married in a small ceremony in a chapel called the Wee Kirk o’ the Heather at Forest Lawn. Young and filled with wanderlust, they lived for a time in “the room” constructed inside my grandmother’s garage, later rented their own apartments and houses, and finally began to buy and sell homes.

We moved about every five years during my childhood. My earliest memories are of a place with a million-dollar view of Long Beach harbor about six miles up the road from my grandmother’s house. The next stop was 47 miles north on a half-acre in the San Fernando Valley where we had a pool, a tennis court and a neighbor who did movie and television stunt work for the likes of Jane Fonda and Ken Berry. A thousand-mile trek north, to a white rambler on seven acres of forested hillside, promised to be our last move. It wasn’t. My father’s late-life diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia coupled with bipolar disorder squelched those dreams.

Home (8)After that devastating development, Mom would pack and unpack four more times before retiring to the Oregon Coast in 1987. The longest stretch she lived anywhere was the aging, pink trailer she bought a quarter-mile from the sand in Rockaway Beach. She was one year shy of paying it off when it was damaged beyond repair in a 2001 storm. Shortly thereafter, she and I took up residence in a little, yellow house in a northern Nevada subdivision.

Looking back on Mom’s transient life, it’s easy to understand why her photo albums, scrapbooks, family history project and mementoes were so important to her. She passionately guarded virtually everything she owned. The memories associated with each cherished belonging kept her connected with her roots and essentially comprised her home.

Meanwhile, I am my mother’s daughter. It’s eerie how much my adult life has mirrored hers in terms of moving here and there. My husband and I mostly raised our children in a thousand-square-foot, sky blue Cape Cod in Southeast Portland, but those 10 years hardly makes us candidates for the Guinness Book of World Records. We hope our current resting place, where we’ve been miraculously growing trees and roses in the desert sand for the last six years, will be our last stop. In fact, when we moved here in 2008 with Mom, we all hoped it would be our last stop.

Home (1)Shortly after all the boxes were unpacked and cupboards were arranged, we put our heads together on a project that commemorated home. We each chose three pictures of the dwellings we remember most fondly, framed them, and hung the collage in the front entryway next to a painting that says, “Home is where your story begins.” Mom has been gone for more than a year now, but the display still calls out loud and clear …

Everybody remember where we parked!

Ironically, Mom didn’t remember to commemorate this catch phrase in any of the cards she left behind for me when she made her final voyage home. She did, however, include it when she dictated some remembrances to my sister during her last days. When I received Mom’s final posthumous card shortly before Christmas last year, my sister sent along her typed notes from that conversation. And there it was on a list of Mom’s oft-repeated quotes.

As I write this, I think of all the places and things that mean home to me.

My grandmother’s house where my cousins, siblings and I drove pedal cars around the network of concrete backyard pathways and took turns jumping off the front porch down to the carefully manicured lawn.

The big, white house on the Oregon hillside that my family dubbed The Funny Farm on Crawdad Creek after an unfamiliar water-dwelling creature snapped my curious brother’s finger.

The little blue house where my husband and I raised our children.

The little yellow house where Mom and I blended our lives for better or worse.

Home also dwells in my mother’s bedroom. When she died, I became the curator of her photo albums, scrapbooks, family history records and many of the mementoes from her parents’ childhoods and her childhood. Her bedroom is slowly becoming a family history museum of sorts. Anytime I want, I can walk into the sunlight that pours through the prisms Mom hung in her windows and delight in the rainbows she loved to see painted on her walls. I can browse all the memories displayed in cabinets and arranged neatly on shelves, and take a wondrous voyage through time and space to the places in my heart that I call home.

Mom, I promise. I will always remember where we parked.

Home (2)

 

[Feature Photo: Cousin Raymond Musso, Grandpa Noble Metzger, Mother Joy Metzger, Aunt Irene (Pee-Wee) Metzger, Aunt Carrie (Cutie) Metzger, Cousin Francis (Birdie) Musso and Uncle Joe Musso.]

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

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

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

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

It was still Pete.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Righty, McDity

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

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

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

All righty, McDity.

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

All Righty McDity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All righty, McDity.

Bring on the joy.

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

Love Always, Mom – Part Two

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

Love Always, Mom xxxooo

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

Jenny

Jennifer in the ER – Christmas 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenny and Mom

Jennifer and Mom – October 2013

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

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

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

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

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

I love you always, Mom xo

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

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Jennifer and Me – Thanksgiving 2006