Forget Me Not

My husband’s first introduction to members of my extended family was at our high school graduation in 1972. Among others, my Aunt Birdie and my Aunt PeeWee traveled to Oregon from Southern California for the big event.

The two women were as different as night and day. Birdie (who was actually a much older first cousin) was a free-spirited soul who brashly gave 17-year-old Pete a quart of beer as a graduation present. PeeWee (the wife of one of my six uncles) was a faithful Mormon who I’m sure spent the night praying for us when we took off on a co-ed campout.

It wasn’t their disparate personalities that made an indelible mark on Pete, though. Credit that to their nicknames. Birdie was actually Frances. PeeWee was actually Irene. When I began reciting some of the other nicknames of the aunts, uncles and cousins he should someday expect to meet, all he could say was, “It sounds like the seven dwarfs!

OK. I have to admit. The list does sound a bit like Snow White’s whistling troupe of happy jewel miners.

Tuck, Art, Cutie, Rolly, Dopey, Curlie, Ozzie, Buck, Stinky, Snooky, Skippy, Dutch and Micki.

Try applying any sort of logic to match those monikers with Chester, Esta, Carrie, Roland, Helen Mae, Bennie, Raymond, Norman, Keith, Dennis, Tim, Wayne and Karolyn. And those are just the ones I can remember.

Cross my heart. Every one of these nicknames was used regularly; so regularly, in fact, that given names faded into the background. As the youngest of 10 children born over a span of about 20 years, my mother had grown weary of the tradition by the time she was ready to start her own family. She called my father Sam instead of his given name, Earl, but was adamant that none of her three children would ever be referred to by anything other than the names documented on their birth certificates. Although my grandmother’s Indiana upbringing made my name, Laurie, sound like Larie, the family basically complied.

To be fair … and I always like to be fair … Mom wasn’t 100% true to her own rule. She routinely called my brother Jesse Man and My Baby Boy. After we were all grown, she frequently referred to my sister as her O.D.D. (Oldest Darling Daughter) and, when I assumed the role of caregiver, she sometimes called me The Boss. Yet, those references didn’t quite qualify us to hoist a pick ax and sing Heigh-ho, Heigh-ho with the rest of the family prospectors.

Mom’s rejection of colorful nicknames magically disappeared when her own grandchildren and great grandchildren arrived. She didn’t bless every one of them with an alternate title, but she knighted a few with everlasting remembrances. Just before she passed away, she included some on a list of “forget me nots” that she dictated to my sister. The conversation was recounted in a letter my sister sent to me last December.

She wants to make sure Espen doesn’t forget that he is the Espenator or Skyler that he is “My Sweet Boy.” She wants Jesse to remember that he is Mr. Pister.

With Pistol and Trail Blazer

With Pistol and Trail Blazer

My son Jesse was the first grandchild to earn a nickname. Pistol, which later evolved into Mr. Pister, fit the bill because he was born with a gunpowder persona and hasn’t really mellowed in 39 years. Maybe he’ll slow down in another decade or two, but right now there is still too much to do, too much to see and too much to learn.

Sweet Boy Skyler, or sometimes Skyler Dyler depending on Mom’s mood, was not technically her first great grandchild but the first she had the opportunity to truly know. A soft-spoken boy, his tender sensibility was so endearing to Mom that she wanted to protect him from the unforgiving world from the day he was born. She was privileged to be the first person my daughter confided in when a plus sign emerged on her pregnancy stick back in 2002, and she honored that by treasuring every minute she spent with him.

With Sweet Boy Skyler and the Espenator

With Sweet Boy Skyler and the Espenator

Espen came along a couple of years after Skyler and was the polar opposite in terms of both build and personality. While husky, sensitive Skyler was Mom’s sweet boy, daring Espen was her fun, little firecracker. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator and Chris Owens’ Sherminator in the American Pie movies served as the inspiration to turn Espen’s name into the manly designation Espenator.

In her dictated remembrances, Mom didn’t mention the granddaughter she initially wanted us to call Trail Blazer because the Portland Trailblazers won their only national basketball championship just days before she was born in 1977. When my husband and I balked, Mom later attempted to nickname her J.J. because we had christened her Jennifer Joy. The fact that we vetoed Trail Blazer and J.J. didn’t mean the stories were forgotten, however. In fact, they are legendary. My daughter heard them so often that, when she reached the age when kids typically want to establish their own identity, she wished we had listened to Mom and given her a more unusual name.

With Rhianna Danna and Lucas the Enforcer

With Rhianna Danna and Lucas the Enforcer

With her last days closing in around her, Mom’s fuzzy thoughts also floated past the granddaughter who actually did win a nickname. My sister’s dear Rhianna became Rhianna Danna in homage to Gilda Radner’s Saturday Night Live character Roseanne Roseannadanna. Whether her nickname is on the “forget me not” list doesn’t matter, though. It’s not likely she will ever stop cherishing her grandmother’s pet name for her and the special love that is always behind such endearments.

To Mom’s other grandchildren – Rachel, Lucas, Cary and Eddie – Grandma Joy may not have given you (or tried to give you) nicknames but you have titles nonetheless.

Rachel, you were the amazing first of seven grandchildren. Like the Knight of Templar, you are privileged to safeguard the oldest memories of your Grandma Joy. You are one of the original Oompa Loompa Girls and the Princess of Quite a Lot. You know your grandmother passed her crown as Queen of Everything to you. Wear it proudly.

Lucas, with you Grandma Joy got her wish that a child would be named after a member of the 1977 Trailblazer championship team. The late Maurice Lucas was the power forward, and his fierce play earned him the nickname The Enforcer. Remember this as you power through the life changes you’re undertaking. Maurice Lucas led his team to victory. You can, too.

With Cary the Fearless

With Cary the Fearless

Cary, your Grandma Joy was thrilled when your parents named you after her mother, Carrie Elizabeth Heasman. Your fearless pursuit of a career in music is reminiscent of her courageous spirit. More than a hundred years ago, she followed your Great Grandpop, Noble Cleveland Metzger, from Indiana to the untamed landscape of Montana where they claimed a homestead on some of the last free land ever offered by the United States government. Though it didn’t work out exactly as envisioned, it was a bold move. You embody that same, brave, pioneering character.

Eddie, the youngest of the seven, you were named for rocker Eddie Van Halen. On the off-chance that wouldn’t impress you later on, your Grandma Joy and several other family members engaged in an impromptu brainstorming session at a beachside restaurant one day. Their efforts to remember every famous Eddie in recent history was so hysterical that anyone who wasn’t there (like me) wishes he or she was. Somewhere there is a framed list of all the names tossed about that day. Eddie Albert, Eddie Arnold, Eddie Money, Eddie Murphy, Eddie Rabbitt, Eddie Rickenbacker. The list goes on. You probably have that memento. If you do, keep it. It will always be a fond reminder of one of your Grandma Joy’s favorite stories. You were still just a “baby bump,” but you were the star of the show.

Mom didn’t leave one of her trademark catch phrases for me to use as the foundation for this story. She just wanted her grandchildren and great grandchildren to remember her. That was the reason behind the “forget me not” list that she dictated to my sister. In the absence of a quote from Mom, I will borrow one from Morrie Schwartz. My favorite author, Mitch Albom, shared his words in the powerful book Tuesdays with Morrie.

Death ends a life, not a relationship.

Remember this, Rachel the Queen of Everything, Jesse the Pistol, Jennifer the Trail Blazer, Dear Rhianna Danna, Lucas the Enforcer, Cary the Fearless, Eddie the Star of the Show, Sweet Boy Skyler Dyler, and Espen the Espenator. Grandma Joy will never really die as long as the nine of you keep her alive in your thoughts, in your conversations and in your hearts.

With Eddie the Star of the Show

With Eddie the Star of the Show

With Rachel the Queen of Everything

With Rachel the Queen of Everything

 

Somebody’d Better Do Something About It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody Remember Where We Parked

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

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

Everybody remember where we parked!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody remember where we parked!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home (2)

 

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

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

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

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

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

It was still Pete.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These Aren’t the Droids You’re Looking For

For the past five months, I’ve written weekly about the catch phrases my mother commemorated in a series of cards she left in the hands of trusted family members for posthumous delivery to me. Most of the axioms were long-standing and oft-repeated with personal meanings for her, for me and for the rest of our family. Today’s headline is quite a departure from that theme.

DroidsYes, the quote is from the 1977 film Star Wars, which was a family favorite long before the first exciting blockbuster became just one in a series of three, then six and soon to be nine episodes. Surprisingly, though, the line did not make it to Mom’s list until 2012, and it wasn’t because Obi-Wan Kenobi so masterfully used it to hoodwink a team of white-clad storm troopers. It was because I practically rolled on the floor laughing when a soap opera actor unexpectedly said it.

During an episode of General Hospital, smarmy Todd Manning (dryly played by Roger Howarth) was arguing over office space with another character. In the middle of the heated exchange, Todd suddenly waved his hand à la Obi-Wan and said …

These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.

His nemesis looked shocked for a moment and the argument resumed. It tickled me so much that I replayed the exchange several times and then saved the recording to watch again later. For the next year or so, either Mom or I would sometimes repeat the intergalactic phrase, but there was no underlying meaning. It was really just about remembering an amusing moment. I’m sure she wrote it in one of her posthumous cards for the same reason. A couple of months ago that changed for me.

My daughter, her two boys and I spent a November afternoon wandering around a Wizard World Comic Con in nearby Reno, Nevada. We met actors featured in a few of our favorite films and television shows, listened to Billy Dee Williams speak about his iconic Star Wars role as Lando Calrissian and browsed through a maze of vendor booths offering everything from tattoos to toys. A poster for sale in one of the stalls stopped me in my tracks. It was essentially a satire of the scenic motivational placards that modern-day managers like to display in their offices to promote teamwork, integrity and belief in success. Truth be told, I have one myself featuring a sailboat against a red sunset with the caption “Opportunity” beneath. The poster at the Comic Con was labeled “Regrets” and pictured a white-clad storm trooper sitting at a table with his head in his hands. The tagline read …

Those were the droids you were looking for.

I laughed heartily, took a picture of it and wondered for a few minutes whether to buy it. I ultimately did not bring it home, but the image was unforgettable. The more I pondered it, the more I realized that it was not just a punchline. For me, it brought the concept of looking for something full circle. So often in life we are presented with an opportunity, dismiss it because we don’t think it is truly what we were looking for, and regret it later. The unexpected is like a seed. Given the right attention, it takes root and bears surprising blessings. I call both of my children surprises (not accidents) for that very reason.

My 12-year cohabitation with my mother, and our eventual relationship as caregiver and care receiver, was an epic surprise. In my September 7, 2014, column titled “For However Long Forever Lasts,” I recounted the events that led to our arrangement. As noted then, we hadn’t planned to live together. We hadn’t planned that I would be the daughter to assume the lead responsibility in her final years. Nevertheless, that’s how life rolled out. I was rewarded with a deeper relationship with my mother than I could have ever imagined. We both learned important lessons from our respective roles, and we parted with few, if any, regrets. It was a blessing that I recognized this unexpected gift when it was given instead of realizing it only in hindsight.

Within that larger gift were many smaller ones.  One of the most extraordinary is that I developed a deep appreciation for fine art.

Droids - HalloweenMom was always a creative soul. As children, my sister, brother and I sported some of the best Halloween costumes in the neighborhood. When I was a teenager, Mom sewed my prom dress and painted cartoon-character posters for my student council campaign that were so clever that classmates stole them off the walls. Throughout my life, I witnessed her talent in mediums that ranged from clay sculpture to macramé and from charcoal drawings to oil paintings. When she retired and moved to the Oregon coast, she happily painted big yellow sunflowers on her old metal shed, hand-painted custom sweatshirts for everyone and fancifully colored Easter eggs each year without fail. Yet, even with that up-close and personal exposure to her creative spirit, I can’t say that I truly appreciated fine art until Mom and I took a four-day vacation to Las Vegas in 2005.

We planned our mini-break to coincide with a concert featuring country singer Kenny Chesney (for me) and an exhibit of classic impressionist paintings (for Mom). The concert was every bit as good as I expected it to be, but the memory has since blended with images from dozens of other shows I’ve attended over the years.  The exhibit, on the other hand, was akin to a Divine experience. Although I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing the paintings myself, I was glad to wheel Mom through the gallery. I didn’t anticipate that gazing at original canvases by the likes of Vincent Van Gogh and Pierre-Auguste Renoir would turn out to be awe-inspiring.

The defining moment of our gallery visit was when I found myself standing breathless in front of Claude Monet’s 1886 Meadow at Giverny. Clearly seeing the dashes and dabs of the artist’s paintbrush and the vibrant color choices that captured the lights and shadows of the landscape was nothing short of surreal. I could picture myself beside him in that meadow, insects buzzing about and a soft breeze rustling through the trees, while he repeatedly touched his brush to his palette and then to the emerging canvas. To this day, I am amazed that a long-dead Frenchman could reach through time, space and the commotion of the Las Vegas Strip to touch my heart in such a profound and lasting way.

The gallery gift shop didn’t have a print of Meadow at Giverny in stock or it would be hanging on my wall right now. No matter. A print would be little more than a two-dimensional souvenir to remind me of a dazzling, once-in-a-lifetime sight. A better souvenir is that the unexpected epiphany I experienced in that indelible moment is a seed that has taken root and blessed me with new vision.

Droids - Old WomanWhen Mom left this world, she left me some of her finest artistic creations. Regardless of the mediums, they all are unique and beautiful. However, I study the paintings with a more keen eye. The subtle differences in color and the variations in brush strokes that she used to capture the contours of a face, the pattern of a housedress or the shadows on a rose petal are a genuine source of amazement. Like Monet, Mom is able to reach out to me through space and time, and I can transport myself to the moment she touched brush to canvas. With this comes an intimacy that ordinary photograph albums and mementoes can never match. Had we not visited the impressionist exhibit during our 2005 mini-break, I doubt I would be enjoying this heightened perspective.

Sometime after Mom died, I began to entertain the idea of trying my own hand at painting. Not long ago I finally surrendered to the cosmic nudge and bought a set of pastels and a drawing pad. I feel destined to dabble if only to better understand the idea of blending colors on paper. A few nights ago, my husband and I watched with interest as the film “The Monuments Men” recounted the Nazi theft and the Allied Forces’ recovery of millions of works of art; perhaps including some of the very paintings Mom and I viewed together. In recent days I’ve found myself surfing the Internet looking for the current resting place of Meadow at Giverny and dreaming of visiting Monet’s home in northern France. Ten years ago I would have scoffed at the notion that fine art would ever ignite my imagination in the way that it has. In a manner of speaking, art appreciation was never a droid I was looking for. I thank my lucky stars that my mind was open to this unexpected development because the seed took root and grew into a beautiful blessing. Indeed …

Those were the droids I was looking for.

Droids - SunflowersOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Andrew, I’m Sitting!

Nine years of caregiving for my increasingly dependent mother taught me more about patience, compassion, commitment and unselfishness than any other experience I’m likely to have in this lifetime. No lesson, though, has ever come in more handy than the value of whimsy.

It’s not that I didn’t already have a fairly well-developed imagination. This characteristic seems to come with the territory for storytellers and grandmothers. No, to put my lesson in more precise terms, I graduated from the role of caregiver with a significantly more evolved appreciation for make-believe. Mom was my talented tutor in this accomplishment. Had our daffy stand-up act ever made it to the stage or screen, I’m sure we would have been best friends with the likes of Lucille Ball and Gilda Radner. It’s no surprise that, in one of the cherished notes Mom left behind, she commemorated one of the campy movie quotes that always made us giggle.

Andrew, I’m sitting!

Andrew I'm Sitting

If you’re a fan of the Kurt Russell/Goldie Hawn classic Overboard, you know that Katherine Helmond’s snobbish character used that phrase to alert dutiful butler Rodney McDowell to lift up the folds of her garish evening gown before she primly took a seat. In our family, it’s just one of the lines from the under-rated film that is repeated with predictable regularity, sometimes in unrehearsed unison. Mom found the perfect use for “Andrew, I’m sitting” when she began needing help transferring from her wheelchair to her bed or recliner. It never failed to make the moment less of a chore and more of a comedy sketch.

Tim Conway was another of the esteemed ensemble players in our continuously running parody. His “fall guy” persona gets credit for helping us find a little cheer in “fall patrol,” a critical task when Mom was still able to use her walker but at risk for tumbles.

One day as I followed step by achingly slow step behind her, I said, “I’m going to start calling you Tim.”

“Why would you do that?”

“After Tim Conway’s Old Man character on Carol Burnett.”

She snickered and, as if it was possible, walked even slower. Ever after she was Tim. Sometimes she pushed the envelope by shuffling along with exaggerated lethargy and declaring with mock delight,

“Look, Laurie, I’m running!”

Characters from the animated Disney film Fantasia guest starred once on the short walk from the front door of our little yellow house to the passenger door of my little white Corolla. At that point, Mom was still able to walk while leaning just on my arm, but a couple of missteps that day reminded of her tripping the light fantastic. We dissolved in belly laughs when she compared our accidental dance to the troupe of tutu-clad hippos pirouetting around prima ballerina Hyacinth in a Romanesque garden.

Laurie the Pirate WenchSwashbuckling marauders also played occasional bit parts in our life after Johnny Depp first began sailing the Caribbean Sea as swaggering Captain Jack Sparrow. Along with the rest of the fanciful world, aarghavast and me hearties found a place in our vocabulary now and then. Our own unique slice of pirate-mania was born unexpectedly in the waiting room of a local podiatrist. We were filling out new patient paperwork and, as was our custom, I read off the questions while Mom provided the answers. Because her hearing was starting to fail, I was accustomed to repeating some queries more distinctly.

“Do you have tired feet?” I asked.

“What was that?”

“Do – you – have – tired – feet?”

“Do I have pirate feet?!”

Somehow we managed to finish the form and see the doctor, but our loopy exchange is the only thing we remembered from that introductory visit. We recalled it often, fondly and with devilish laughter until the day Mom couldn’t laugh any longer.

If that conversation left a bizarre impression on those within earshot, then the infamous brain tumor incident must have completely floored the unsuspecting ear, nose and throat specialist who made this diagnosis. It was about nine years before Mom made her final exit and fairly early in our efforts to uncover what had suddenly subverted her imperfect but stable health. Doctors of every major biological system tested her for a seemingly infinite list of possible causes. For years Mom had randomly blamed illusive health symptoms on a phantom brain tumor so, while waiting in the specialist’s office for the results of a CT scan, she said it again.

“I probably have a brain tumor.”

Just at that moment, the doctor walked in and said, “You have a brain tumor.” The fact that we burst out laughing required a little explanation followed by a lot of humble reserve.

About a week later we drove 40 miles to see a neurosurgeon. By then, we were sincerely reserved and wondering what impact this grim diagnosis would have on our lives. We were as unsuspecting as the ear, nose and throat specialist when the neurosurgeon walked in the exam room and chuckled. He took one look at the scan and said, “You don’t need surgery. This is an asymptomatic tumor sitting on top of the protective lining of your brain.” If he didn’t also say, “Get outta here,” then he certainly implied it.

After that, Mom never flippantly blamed anything on a brain tumor. However, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s fish-out-of-water detective from Kindergarten Cop occasionally made a cameo appearance in our lives.

“It’s not a brain tumor,” someone in the family was sure to say while mustering their best Austrian accent.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you don’t believe that repeating film quotes constitutes an appropriate response to the serious matters of caregiving and care receiving, I urge you to pause and think again, my pretty. You’ll believe in more than that should you ever find yourself cast in either of those roles. In the meantime, don’t make me call the flying monkeys!

All jokes aside, incorporating some of our favorite lines into our caregiving routine was certainly a harmless stress reliever. In fact, the most often used quotes have now become so embedded in my memory that there is no escape.  Thank goodness for that … because they now serve as the priceless lifeline that makes me smile even when the vacuum of Mom’s absence is so intense that it feels like a tangible foe.

“All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare wrote, “and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.”

Katherine’s snooty socialite, Tim’s Old Man, Hyacinth the Hippo, Johnny’s miscreant buccaneer and Arnold’s bewildered gumshoe all had a turn as Mom’s understudy in the theater of life. She may have taken her final curtain call, but I still have our imaginary cast of comical characters to help me through the occasional gloomy mood. On those melancholy days, if I listen with my heart, I can still hear Mom mischievously declare that she is running or that she has pirate feet or that, for heaven’s sake …

Andrew, I’m sitting!

I grab that lifeline.  And I smile.

(Feature photo: Virginia City, Nevada, 2005. Brother Jesse, Mom, me and sister Leslie.)

All Righty, McDity

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

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

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

All righty, McDity.

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

All Righty McDity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All righty, McDity.

Bring on the joy.

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

Love Always, Mom – Part Two

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

Love Always, Mom xxxooo

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

Jenny

Jennifer in the ER – Christmas 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenny and Mom

Jennifer and Mom – October 2013

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

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

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

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

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

I love you always, Mom xo

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

IM000866.JPG

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

 Christmas 2014 - Card 1Christmas 2014 - Card 2

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.

Phone Upload (1.29.14) 2984

 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)