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.