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

Love Always, Mom xxxooo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love always, Mom xxxooo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love always, Mom xxxooo

Christmas - Galileo 2

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To Infinity and Beyond – Part Two

Last week’s column ended with the image of my mother’s soul drifting up from her breathless body and perching on the foot of the hospital bed that served as her last resting place on Earth.  Like Buzz Lightyear from the 1995 animated film Toy Story, she opened her angel wings, raised her arms, flexed her knees and took a leap of faith. As she flew to an immortal destination, she shouted joyfully …

To Infinity and Beyond!

Even though my mother did not embrace religion or consciously accept the idea of life after death, this picture is plausible to me because of the extraordinary visions and ghostly encounters she experienced from time to time. Such tales became almost commonplace after she moved from Oregon to live with me in Nevada. Years before she started her final decline, Mom saw people and heard voices that no one else could see or hear. She evidently had a head start on the phenomena that the authors of the book Final Gifts, Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley, consider “the most prevalent theme in Nearing Death Awareness.”

To my occasional surprise, I was swept effortlessly into some of the visions. One of the most memorable involved Mom’s Yorkshire Terrier, Lucy, who died in 2007 after enduring a lifetime of health issues 20141213_201623stemming from a liver defect. Mom spent thousands of dollars over the years to make the little dog’s life as happy and as long as possible. When they finally had to say good-bye, she never stopped missing the tiny companion who she considered her true soul mate.

“I can feel Lucy snuggle up to me on the bed at night. Remember how she used to sleep curled up by the back of my neck? In the morning I feel her jump off the bed.”

I never questioned her story, but imagine my surprise when I was presented with proof. A few days before Mom passed away, she was sleeping in the hospital bed rented for us by the hospice program. I was resting on her double bed across the room. I was fully awake when I suddenly felt the spring of a small animal jumping off the bed. Our petite rescue dog, Rosie, had died about eight months prior and our cat was nowhere to be seen.

Our cat. Adopting him was a difficult decision, to say the least. Mom had periodically wished for a kitten. I love cats as well but declined to give in because we live in a rural area where curious felines who escape the safety of home can easily become a tasty dinner for prowling coyotes. One morning, several months before Mom died, she remarked:

“A white cat jumped across the foot of my bed.”

It was the kind of comment that doesn’t really stay with you but your brain nevertheless stores for future reference. A couple of months later I felt compelled to begin a serious hunt for cats available for adoption. All of the little sweethearts I visited in shelters and read about on websites deserved a forever home but none of them seemed right for our family. One night, after weeks of searching, I finally felt a spark when I saw a four-month old abandoned fellow online. The next day I blew off work and lunch with a friend to get to the adoption event 40 miles away before someone else fell in love with him. Much later I remembered Mom’s clearly precognitive remark.

Smokey is our mostly white Siamese mix.

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 Mom saw people, too. It almost became routine for her to ask whether someone had been in her bedroom early on any given morning. Sometimes she was certain my husband had been standing in her doorway. Once she reported a woman and a little girl by her bedside. She thought the woman might have looked like me, but she didn’t recognize the child. In any case, my answer was always, no, we hadn’t come into her room earlier. The incident most clear in my mind is the day she stated:

“You came into my room this morning in that white robe you always wear.”

“Mom,” I gently replied, if you saw someone in a white robe today or any other day, it wasn’t me. I don’t own a white robe … just the fuzzy, purple one you bought me for Christmas a few years ago.”

“Oh.”

If the paranormal spooks you, it’s easy and perhaps soothing to chalk these experiences up to the visions of a half-asleep, chronically ill woman whose mind was beginning to wander. However, she wasn’t half-asleep when most or all of these visions occurred, and she never suffered from dementia or confusion. She was as much awake and alert as you and I are right now. It should also count for something that, during the last few years of Mom’s life, I saw my share of sideways images of people who disappeared when I looked straight toward them and felt a hand upon my back when no one was near.

The most incredible story I can share, though, is Mom’s repeated claim:

“I can hear the man singing.”

I wish I could remember the first time she said it, but I know it was at least a year before she died; possibly earlier than that. Mom swore she could hear a men’s choir … and later just one man … singing. At first I thought she was imagining this while the rhythmic pumping of the oxygen condenser by her bed lulled her to sleep. When she told me she heard the choir one afternoon while wide awake in her recliner in the living room – and with the oxygen condenser sitting silent on the other side of the house – I took more notice.

Infinity and Beyond - Part 2“Do you recognize the songs?” I asked.

“Sometimes I think so, but I can’t quite understand the words.”

She believed they were possibly old hymns or folk songs; something akin to Danny Boy, but she couldn’t put her finger on it.

“Do you recognize the voice?” I asked another day when she reported hearing just the one man. “Is it John Denver? Is it Eddie Arnold?”

“No. I don’t think so.”

Closer to the end of her life, when she told me she could hear the man singing, I would stand very still or sit next to her on the bed with my eyes closed just listening, listening … hoping I could hear him, too. I never did.

Dreams notwithstanding, almost nothing that can’t be logically explained has occurred in our household since Mom passed away. Like many bereaved daughters and sons might do, I have often walked into her quiet bedroom thinking I would see her sitting in her chair or resting on her bed. I haven’t. I have felt no touches, seen no fleeting images of uninvited guests. Mom has moved on, and she apparently took her spiritual playmates with her.

Where did she go? As noted in last week’s column, I believe that Soul lives on to Infinity and that Love transcends the Great Beyond. Some call what comes next Heaven. Others refer to it the Pearly Gates, Paradise or the Promised Land. Some know the next step in our journey as the Deep Sleep before the Resurrection. Still others favor unique, colorful euphemisms – like my grandmother who called her divine terminal the Peach Orchard.

While I wait to be reunited with Mom in the Kingdom, in Glory or the euphemism I personally prefer – Home – I know I will ever be alert for sweet hellos from the other side. I will listen for Mom’s voice carried softly by the wind, perhaps asking whether I ever bought myself a white robe to match my white kitty. I will rest comfortably on the bed in her quiet room hoping to feel tiny Lucy spring to the floor. I will stand very still and listen for the man singing.

Although I never heard that man while Mom was alive, it’s entirely possible I could hear him now. My brother did a few months back. He heard him singing in the wet, green hills of Southwest Washington … and he heard a woman’s voice singing with him. My brother is certain it was Mom. He couldn’t say what their song was about, but I’m pretty sure I know. Mom was singing of her enduring affection for her family; telling us in death what she so often told us in life …

With love to infinity and beyond.

To Infinity and Beyond (3)

To Infinity and Beyond!

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

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

 With Love to Infinity and Beyond!

To Infinity and Beyond (3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are we? Where are we going?”

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

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

To Infinity and Beyond!

Live Long and Prosper

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

Live long and prosper. Live Long (5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smile With Your Bottom Teeth

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

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

Smile with your bottom teeth!Smile - Card

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smile with my bottom teeth.

I’ll Think About That Tomorrow

Dressed in a stylish black mourning gown, Scarlett O’Hara weeps as she closes the ornate door of her empty mansion.  She has just buried her young daughter, made promises at the bedside of her dying sister-in-law, and watched helplessly as her dashing husband disappeared into the morning mist.  Seemingly everything she holds dear is truly Gone with the Wind.  In the throes of this profound loss, she falls back on the mantra that has carried her through life’s most difficult moments.  “I can’t think about that right now.  If I do, I’ll go crazy.”

I’ll think about that tomorrow.

It takes her only seconds to remember what is left in the world that matters, regain her characteristic strength, and end the classic 1939 film on a hopeful note.  “After all,” she says triumphantly, “tomorrow is another day!”

Tomorrow (5)In the 12 years we lived together, Mom and I strived to be like Scarlett.  It was almost second nature for me since Scarlett has long been my favorite fictional heroine.  In one moment, she could be the flirtatious belle of the barbecue and, in the next, the determined head of a family shattered by the death and devastation of the Civil War.  My bookshelf is home to English and non-English versions of this Margaret Mitchell classic and the sequels that followed decades later.  I’ve bravelyTomorrow (3) whittled down my prodigious collection of commemorative plates from 36 to four, but I won’t part with my copy of the typewritten script from the David O. Selznick / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production.  In 1993, when Mom posed for a picture with Dracula at a Universal Studios souvenir store, I had my profile photo-shopped into a provocative still with Rhett Butler.  Even my lively Springer Spaniel, Katie, bears the true first name of this strikingly beautiful, smart protagonist.

Mom and I repeated Scarlett’s “tomorrow” mantra frequently enough that it earned a place in one of Mom’s farewell cards delivered to me posthumously.  Not just any card.  The last one; handed to me by my sister on the day we scattered Mom’s ashes at the Oregon Coast.  Time to move forward, Mom seemed to be saying.

Reading the card again just now, I am pleased to know that Mom saw in me the qualities I try hard to cultivate – optimism, hope, a grateful spirit and the courage to face life-altering challenges.  Serendipitously, I needed to be reminded of that after a rather taxing week, the details of which are better left for exploration in an appropriate column on some future Sunday.  Suffice to say that I am in awe of Mom’s incorporeal ability to support and uplift me from across the great divide.

Tomorrow (2)To be honest (another attribute regular readers of this column know that I value), sometimes I fall from grace and neglect to count my blessings.  Mom did, too.  Indeed, the reason that this weekly discourse is subtitled “Nothing left unsaid” is rooted in worry.  Virtually every time a doctor diagnosed or even suspected a new malady, Mom and I would immediately assume the end was near.  Our indulgence in fear ushered us through an extravagant number of meaningful conversations; hence, there was nothing left unsaid between us.  However, the fear also rendered us the cowards that Julius Caesar spoke of in Shakespeare’s play about the legendary Roman ruler.

“Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.  Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear; seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.”

Mom and I knew that astute passage as well as any royal thespian, but we couldn’t seem to help ourselves.  We sometimes fretted, stewed, fussed and cogitated until we were mired in depression.  I tended to rebound more quickly than Mom, but each time we eventually found our smiles again.

When I felt that familiar, unwelcome anxiety creep into my thoughts this past week, I tried to tamp it down with techniques like deep breathing, prayer, focusing on daily miracles and the many other relaxation tips one finds in the best meditative books money can buy.  That didn’t do the trick, so I stopped worrying about worrying and joked that agonizing over things that may not even happen is in my DNA.

Simply acknowledging my intrinsic nature helped relieve some of the stress but, as it turns out, my wisecrack wasn’t really a laughing matter.  The notion that worrying is hereditary actually is more fact than fiction.  Studies have shown that a gene known as COMT predisposes us to be either warriors or worriers.  Warriors are stimulated to action by battle or, more commonly in everyday life, by a great challenge.  On the down side, they don’t do as well as worriers when it comes to routine productivity.  Conversely, while worriers may excel on a day-to-day basis, they are more likely to suffer a meltdown under high stress.  A casual observation made by some of my female co-workers this past week – that women worry and men don’t – may also be true.  The COMT gene controls estrogen, and worriers typically have higher estrogen levels.  Hmmmm.

If you think I’m gas-lighting you (to borrow a colorful phrase from Mom’s vernacular), google “warriors vs. worriers.”  You’ll find some intriguing information posted by the likes of the New York Times, the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine and Andrew J. Shatté, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer of meQuilibrium.  Trust me.  As I browsed through the material, my eyebrows arched like Scarlett when she comes upon a fascinating idea.

Fascinating is also an apt description of my experience writing this column.  I didn’t intend it to be therapeutic but, so far, it has been just that.  By writing about the trials and tribulations of caregiving, as well as the joy of living and laughing with my mother, I am steadily working through the indescribable pain of losing her and am also ensuring that our family’s memories of her are forever catalogued.  I hope that, at the same time, I am touching and helping others who are caring for or grieving for a loved one.  This week, though, I sense a subtle shift.  Today’s column is not about the past; it’s about the future.  Tomorrow (1)My future.  It’s about the need to effectively cope with whatever may come, and it’s about letting go of fear.

As I said earlier, I am in awe that Mom is still able to reach out and walk with me through uncertainty.  Her final farewell card reminded me of my own tenacity and strength of spirit, which I will draw upon as life marches forward.  Her final words, scrawled beneath the prose of Dierdra Joi Zollar, reaffirmed that worrying today never solved a single one of tomorrow’s problems.

Mom, I hear you loud and clear.  Instead of fretting when something is weighing too heavy on me, I will summon my inner Scarlett.  I’ll flounce the skirt of my make-believe green velvet portiere dress, defiantly lift my chin, and willfully declare,

On second thought, I’ll think about it tomorrow.