Live Long and Prosper

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

Live long and prosper. Live Long (5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smile With Your Bottom Teeth

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

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

Smile with your bottom teeth!Smile - Card

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smile with my bottom teeth.

This Hunt Was Dedicated — Wooo-Hooo!

At the end of September, this column irreverently dedicated the 13th Annual Nevada Day Treasure Hunt to my mother – “irreverently” in tribute to her appreciation for the weird and wonderful, the bright and beautiful.  This epilogue is to report that she would have considered the outcome of the game howl-arious.

A dog found the treasure.  Yes, you read that right.  A big, lovable, Chocolate Lab sniffed out the worn leather pouch that traditionally holds the blue and silver medallion encased in an acrylic square.  The pouch was safely tucked in the middle of a tight cluster of trees beside a creek bordering a fitness trail.  A thin layer of pine needles ensured that no one simply walking past would spot it.  But that didn’t stop Eli, our canine contestant.  He nudged it out of its nest and, carrying the pouch gently in his mouth, trotted proudly back to his human companion.  She and some friends had been trying to decipher the daily riddles that held the secret of the treasure’s whereabouts, but she quite honestly described Eli’s find that day as “dumb luck.”  Fittingly, the game ended on the 13th clue of the 13th hunt.

Third Creek by Fitness TrailNever in the years that our family has sponsored and organized this event have we been so surprised by the win.  We’ve occasionally been taken off guard by a speedy resolution.  One year, on the third in a line-up of 15 clues, a hunter with a hunch found the medallion behind a historical marker commemorating Nevada’s mining history.  Another year a forest ranger suspected it was hidden on a trail near the California-Nevada border and presented it after Clue 5.  On the other end of the spectrum, the 2010 game continued all the way to Clue 14, and we were beginning to Treasure Hunt Hiding Spot 2014think no one would find the pouch staked among sagebrush alongside a gravel road abutting the site of an Old West fort.  Eli’s role in ending this year’s hunt will become part of its down-home folklore.

For more than a decade in Oregon our family played a similar game associated with the Portland Rose Festival.  Some of our most beloved memories are rooted in researching possible solutions to cryptic rhymes, exploring unfamiliar roads and landmarks, and wandering down Treasure Hunt Medallion in Hidingnature trails certain that we were about to spot the coveted prize.  We came “this close” a few times, but we were never lucky enough to actually find it.  Make no mistake, though.  The memories we made were no less precious just because we came up empty-handed.

When we moved away from Portland in 1997, my son suggested that we start a treasure hunt in our new home of Northern Nevada.  We could use our experience to design a truly engaging game that would encourage people to learn Treasure Hunt Medallionabout the state, visit new places, and enjoy each other in the process.

Wouldn’t it be fun, he mused, to be the creators instead of the hunters?

To give credit where it’s due, he was largely responsible for the first couple of hunts.  When the rest of the family climbed on the bandwagon, the Nevada Day Treasure Hunt became our personal, cherished tradition.

Some might argue that, when you stage a community event, it can’t be personal.  On the contrary, it is very much so.  For years we have guarded our family outings with the secrecy of an FBI undercover operation.  The grandchildren were indoctrinated from birth and no longer need reminders to “zip it” when anyone asks what they did over a long, summer weekend.  We kick each other under restaurant tables when one of us absent-mindedly starts a conversation about the hunt in public.  If the topic comes up while visiting on our patio, we go inside the house.  A few local businesses have supported the event over the years, mostly with in-kind services, but our family is solely responsible for the game from start to finish.  We have purposely fronted the $1,000 prize because major cash sponsorships too often come with strings attached.  The smaller the inner circle, the easier it is to preserve the simplicity and integrity of the hunt.

Yes, the game is personal for us.  It was even more so this year because it was the first since my mother — the kids’ beloved Grandma Joy — passed away.  As described in my September column, “This Hunt Is Dedicated,” she was the custodian of the opening clue, and her enthusiasm when we unearthed quirky details about Nevada’s past (or present) was contagious.  She never really could walk trails with us, but she delighted in coming along for the ride to scope out the general area around potential hiding places.  In truth, this year’s hunt was not the first we had to organize without her.  Her contribution in 2013 was limited to modest cheerleading; she was enrolled in a home hospice program the week after the medallion was found.

LucyOn a recent Saturday night, the family gathered around the dining room table to enjoy buttery squares of freshly baked cornbread and steaming bowls of homemade beef stew, which I learned to make under Mom’s tutelage.  The conversation turned to the recently ended treasure hunt and what she may have thought of Eli’s triumph.  She loved animals of all sizes, shapes and species … more than she loved most people.  She was rarely, if ever, without a dog by her side, on her lap or snuggled up beside her in bed.  She considered her Yorkshire Terrier, Lucy, who died in 2007 to be her true soulmate, and animal rescue organizations were her charity of choice.  To me, even her cheers sounded like the yelp of a happy dog or the spirited howl of a wolf.  We have no doubt Mom would have taken great pleasure in this particular shaggy-dog story.

After dinner, my son read aloud a selection of comments from the social media page we established for the hunt.  Some were intriguing posts from hunters comparing notes with each other or sharing suggestions with us.  Some were petulant but harmless comments added by unsuccessful hunters expressing their frustration with the outcome.  To our dismay, there were also over-the-top tirades published by angry competitors whose online road rage was startling.  They cruelly cursed everyone and everything for their loss except the plain fact that they did not correctly decipher the clues.  We pondered whether these attacks are evidence that the hunt has grown beyond our capacity as a family to continue in the same simple manner of the past 13 years.  Attracting a grim, hardcore fringe is a sign of the times, it seems.

Our story hour ended on a decidedly positive note when my son read a long, humorous, inspiring tale submitted privately to him by a family that drove, hiked, explored and otherwise scoured nearly all of the seven counties that comprise the broad search area.  Their description of midnight research sessions, determined excursions to places near and far, and toting a tired daughter piggy-back reminded us of well us.  Though they didn’t find the medallion, they said the things they learned about Nevada and the memories they made are worth far more than the cash prize.  Aaaah.  Such a sweet amen.

Wouldn’t it be fun, my son mused, to be hunters again?

As mentioned in some previous columns, Mom harbored a long-standing fear that she would not be remembered.  Unique hits on the Treasure Hunt’s main webpage and our social media page indicate that upwards of 20,000 people participated in or at least followed the hunt this year.  With those statistics, being forgotten is not an issue.  Mom would be both humbled and pleased, I’m sure.  But, trust me, I knew my weird and wonderful, bright and beautiful mother.  The smile spreading across her face and the gleam in her eye would be more for the goofy Chocolate Lab named Eli than for anyone or anything else.  I can imagine her raising a fist in the air, as she so often did when rooting for her favorite football team, and howling, “Wooo-Hooo!  Go, you little devil, go!”

There once was a doggy named Eli

Who could follow a trail with an eagle eye

But it was his nose

That outsmarted the pros

All hail to that four-legged furry guy

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.)

Accept Gifts Graciously

Just before my 9th birthday in 1963, my father paused his maritime career and took what he referred to as a “shore job.”  He often recalled, with a wink and a smile, that a comment I made led to this regrettable decision.  I barely remember it, but I did look up at him one day while he was between voyages and innocently asked, “Why don’t you come home at night like other daddies?”

The decision was regrettable because, within a few hours of clocking in on his first day at a dog food plant, he was seriously injured in a freak accident. He and a co-worker were moving a large, heavy meat cutting machine that suddenly tipped over, trapping him underneath and breaking multiple bones.  We were told he would have died instantly had he not thrust out his arm and, with superhuman effort, kept the contraption from crushing his chest.  For weeks he was hospitalized; immobilized with one leg in traction.  My birthday was celebrated at his bedside.

Daddy - Broken Leg - 1963When my father was finally released, he came home in a full body cast and with an arsenal of medical equipment. A hospital bed equipped with a trapeze bar took over one corner of the living room, and a pair of wooden crutches leaned against the wall nearby.  Parked in the covered breezeway between the garage and the house was a long, flat gurney outfitted with over-sized rubber-rimmed wheels for manual propulsion.

Mom was not employed outside the home at the time of the accident but, as soon as the shock subsided, she began applying for bookkeeping jobs in medical offices around the area. She was quickly hired by a team of orthopedic surgeons, and my paternal grandmother began to spend weekdays at our house in the San Fernando Valley so she could look after my father, sister, brother and me.  Most weekends, she returned to her tiny apartment in downtown Los Angeles.

One Friday evening, without any forethought, I asked if I could spend the weekend with my grandmother. She was 75, decidedly puritanical and not inclined to engage in active pastimes that would interest a fourth-grader.  Nevertheless, the two of us got along quite well in those days.  Within minutes Mom was washing my hair over the kitchen sink and telling me to be a good girl.  She handed me a one dollar bill (about $7.50 today) to pay for a treat or a toy in case we went shopping.  At first, I politely declined.  “You don’t have to do that,” I said.  More than 50 years later, I still recall her reply.

 “Learn to accept gifts graciously.”

During that weekend, my grandmother and I rode the original Angels Flight rail cars up and down the steep incline between Olive and Hill streets, listened to evangelist Dr. John McGee preachGrandma Samsel and Kids - Easter 1962 (2) at the colossal Church of the Open Door, and sang hymns in a nearby park with a few of her friends. At one point, we wandered through a cluttered five and dime where I picked out a thick coloring book and proudly paid for it with the gift from my mother.

My memory may be fuzzy on some childhood moments, but the lesson involving the one dollar bill is vivid. It was a singular comment made by an ordinary mother to her young daughter; not taken from a book of etiquette or borrowed from an illustrious poet.  She never said it again.  She never wrote it down.  Yet, it was so powerful a message that it is permanently etched on my heart.  Mom’s words have reminded me to practice being gracious many times over the last five decades.  However, it wasn’t until preparing for this week’s column that I suddenly saw it as a piece of advice that could have helped me through the sometimes grueling years as her caregiver.

In a past column, I described how Mom earned the nickname “The Only One” by periodically lamenting about shouldering more than her share of the responsibilities in our family. The rather unflattering moniker grew into a term of endearment over the years but, speaking as a recent graduate of the caregiver corps, I think it should have been an accolade from the beginning.  Imagine a 39-year-old with three children ranging in age from 4 to 11, a seriously injured husband facing a lengthy rehabilitation, and a household budget blown to smithereens.  Pulling the family through that dark period probably ticked off three of the four requirements for sainthood … and we weren’t even Catholic.

To be fair, though, Mom could not have brought us through it alone. Gracious acceptance of her mother-in-law’s generous gift of weekday homemaking was critically important.

Grandma Samsel and Jesse - 1963In a plot twist worthy of M. Night Shyamalan, the partnership prevailed despite the fact that Mom and my grandmother were never particularly fond of one another. Their relationship was guarded at best.  As the story goes, my grandmother never thought any woman could live up to the high standards she set for her only son.  My mother, in turn, viewed her as a Class-A critic and meddler.  Regardless, they managed to set aside their differences to achieve a common goal.  The two of them orchestrated a relatively uncomplicated tag team to ensure that the four people they both loved most – my father, sister, brother and I – had everything we needed … and more.

Clean clothes drying on an outdoor line, the aroma of freshly-baked apple pie, southern truisms repeated with a lingering Texas drawl, and black-and-white episodes of the inaugural season of General Hospital became staples of weekdays with our grandmother.  When Mom returned home from work in the evening, she was greeted with a warm dinner and a mostly contented family.  Weekends were spent swimming in our backyard pool, enacting Wagon Train on the wheeled gurney that was supposed to be parked in the breezeway, and playing with the puppies that came along after our Collie had an unchaperoned visit with the neighbor’s German Shepherd.  My sister, brother and I were not necessarily oblivious to the hardship that had befallen our family, but the blow was softened significantly because of the commitment Mom and our grandmother made to each other.

Mom and Jesse - 1963 (2)If this story was a made-for-television movie, it would conclude with Mom and my grandmother becoming best of friends through shared adversity. Real-life isn’t always punctuated by Hallmark moments, though.  The two of them remained wary of one another for the rest of their days.  That in no way devalues their temporary alliance.

Photos of Mom from this difficult chapter of our lives provide a hint of the exhaustion she could not entirely escape. I can only imagine what would have become of her, and those of us who were depending on her, had she not joined forces with a rather unlikely partner and followed the same, simple rule she passed on to me.

Learn to accept gifts graciously.

It’s All About Me – Part Two

Last week, bushy-haired 1980s comedian Al Franken paved the way for a brutally honest depiction of life for an over-extended caregiver. This week, white-haired 60-ish Dorothy Zbornak makes an appearance to put her Midas touch on the “It’s All About Me” story.

Rewind to 1989 when television’s Golden Girl Dorothy (played by the late Bea Arthur) desperately tries to find a medical reason that she is persistently tired and suffers from recurring flu-like symptoms. In the second part of the episode “Sick and Tired,” she finally connects with progressive Dr. Chang (portrayed by Keone Young) who diagnoses Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.  Dorothy is comforted that her months-long struggle with the elusive symptoms is the result of a genuine illness, even though there is no treatment.  Dr. Chang calmly advises:

“Try to adapt to it. Rest when you need to. Eat well.  Eliminate stress if you can.  Right now there is no cure and no one thing that relieves the symptoms in everyone.”

Dr. Chang is a fictional character, but art often imitates life and his lines in the script ring true for me. It’s not just because I have had periodic run-ins with Chronic Fatigue (and Immune Deficiency) Syndrome since 1994. I’m also sure that, had I visited his television-studio office while taking care of my mother, he would have offered similar counsel to try to curb the burnout I experienced during her final years.

If you are a caregiver … or anyone who is hanging on for dear life to the knotted end of a frayed rope … go back and read Dr. Chang’s guidance again. Write it on your heart. I certainly wish I had stumbled upon a rerun of that episode on some late-night cable channel a few years back. My life as a caregiver was practically the antithesis of his vision.

Since late 20th Century pop culture is today’s story-telling vehicle, let’s assume for a minute that I could take a Quantum Leap á la Sam Beckett and put right what once went wrong. What would I do differently?  What would I do more often?

Sitting on top of the “do differently” list is my stubborn refusal of offers from friends to sit with Mom or run errands. “Thanks but we’re doing OK” was my standard answer to the sweetest suggestions from the sweetest people.  I never doubted their ability to help.  I just didn’t want to impose on them, show weakness, relinquish control or somehow displease Mom by altering her routine.  I couldn’t see that saying “yes” would not have produced any of those results and that “yes” actually would have been the strong answer.  People who offer to help mean it; they want the opportunity to do a good deed for someone they hold dear.  People who accept help are buying time; the most precious and sought-after commodity on earth.

It's All About Me - Part 2On the “do more often” list, I would take the principle of accepting help a step further and ask friends or family to lend a hand periodically. The only two people who managed to effectively shoulder past my resistance to their good intentions were my sister, Leslie, and my daughter, Jennifer.  They each have stubborn streaks at least as wide and deep as mine.  It was not unusual to find the roses trimmed, the furniture dusted or the floors cleaned anytime one or both of them were around.  It took several years, but I finally accepted the fact that they were always going to turn a deaf ear to my refusals of help.  Eventually, on occasion, I took the initiative and sought out their assistance.  Asking for help.  What a concept.  It’s not a cardinal sin or a punishable crime.  It’s smart.

Back on the “do differently” list, you would find me making better choices about multi-tasking. Some of the worst experiences I had while taking care of Mom involved outings that required divided attention.  One holiday season when she was still capable of staying home alone for a few hours, I decided to take my two young grandsons out to buy gifts for their parents.  Mom loved shopping and wanted to go along.  Instead of promising to take her another day, I acquiesced and soon found myself trying to navigate a wheelchair across a busy parking lot while holding tightly onto two little boys.  Inside the first … and last … department store we visited, everyone wanted to go in different directions.  It’s often said that it’s much better to do one thing at a time and do it well, than to do two or more things poorly.  I’m here to tell you; that adage is hackneyed but true.

To wrap up this imaginary leap through the quantum accelerator, I would add three simple things to the “do more often” list – time alone, choosing what’s important, and sleep.

One summer afternoon, when I felt as though I was about to fly out of my skin from pent-up stress, I asked my department director to approve a last-minute leave request. He did and, when I left the house the following morning, I didn’t do one errand for anyone else.  I strolled lazily through my favorite garden nursery, shopped leisurely for clothes and looked at shiny cars for sale.  Whether I actually bought anything, I don’t recall.  What I do remember is that, by the time I returned home, I was as refreshed as if I’d been floating on a mountain lake somewhere far away.  I should have taken the hint and scheduled more “it’s all about me” days.

As a manager, I encourage my staff to continuously organize and reorganize their work in accordance with what is most important. It’s a puzzlement that I had trouble remembering to do that very thing during the years I cared for Mom.  Most days it wasn’t too difficult to ignore recurring clouds of pet hair in the corners of the hallway or a pesky cobweb hanging out of reach from the vaulted living room ceiling.  However, I couldn’t let go of the idea that the house needed to be spick and span when out-of-town family came to visit.  My furious, late-night cleaning jags were legendary. I’ll never understand why I thought it was a higher priority to exhaust myself with white-glove minutiae than just relax and enjoy the visits.

9091164-R1-045-21Last but not least, to put the most important thing right that once went wrong, I would take every opportunity … no, I would make opportunities … to get more sleep.  Increasingly as the years passed, I would find myself nodding off while watching television with Mom.  Sometimes, but not often enough, I gave in to it and actually napped. To no one’s surprise, my inattention never triggered the untimely demise of a beloved sitcom character or allowed a pathetic dance team to take home the Mirror Ball Trophy.  Looking back, I can also see that a short slumber when Mom was napping wouldry=400[1] have had a greater return on investment than catching up on chores.  I tried to get by on too little sleep all those years and it exacted a toll both physically and mentally.  It’s taken more than 10 months to finally feel rested and, with apologies to Reader’s Digest, sleep is really the best medicine.  Laughter comes in second.

So this is the list I brought back from my quantum leap. While it’s not technically a “note from my mother,” it’s a very important lesson learned from caring for her.  And it’s a “note to self” that I intend to practice even though my caregiving days are behind me.

Accept help. Ask for help.  Do one thing at a time and do it well.  Schedule “me” days.  Prioritize.  Sleep.

As Dr. Chang told Dorothy some 25 years ago, there is no one thing that works for everyone. My list may help you hang on to the knotted end of your frayed rope, but you may think of other strategies that will help you scramble back up that ragged rope to the safety of a solid platform.  Whatever your approach may be, remember this.

Care receivers are expected and allowed to be Al Franken every day. Their needs are paramount, and rightfully so.  This will never change.  What can and should change is the misguided notion that the caregiver must wait for some distant, bittersweet day when it will be their turn to rest, to sleep, to dream.  It’s a perspective that, perhaps not surprisingly, is mostly held by those dedicated, exhausted individuals who are assisting a loved one day in and day out.  If you are one of these weary souls, give yourself the opportunity to slow down and carve out some time to call your own.  Look in the mirror and tell yourself that at least for this hour or this day:

“It’s all about me, Al Franken.”