For However Long Forever Lasts

Two installments ago I described a letter my mother left for me to read after she was gone.  The two-page missive, handwritten on yellow ruled paper, was still in draft form with some words scratched out, edits squeezed in, and notes in the margin.  She had tucked it into a sheet protector in a three-ring binder that also contained her last wishes.

You may remember that I was disappointed in that letter because it was written 19 years before her death, originally as a thank you for a special gift I assembled on her 70th birthday.  It contained no references to the dozen years we had just spent together.  Indeed, that chapter of our lives was still far in the future and not something we ever would have dreamed would happen.  If Mom’s destiny was to live with anyone, we always assumed it would be my sister, Leslie, a truly unselfish and very capable soul who tirelessly takes care of everyone.  Well, you know what they say about that tricky word – assume.  It can turn out to be the ultimate “gotcha.”

Our “gotcha” began to germinate in 1997 when my husband, Pete, our adult children and I left the rainy Pacific Northwest behind to create a new life in the high desert of Northern Nevada.  Every winter for four years, Mom closed up her trailer on the Oregon Coast to snowbird with us in the land of year-round sunshine.  Sadly, a couple of months before she arrived in 2001, Pete and I separated after 27 years of marriage.  Our daughter and her husband were building a home in a nearby township, so I rented a duplex in the same neighborhood.  My intention was to stay there until I was ready to make more permanent decisions about my future.

Mom couldn’t have been with me for more than a week when my sister called from Oregon with devastating news.  Hurricane force winds and pelting rain had damaged Mom’s trailer beyond repair.  While most of her belongings were intact, she had no home to return to in the spring.

Picture a heartbroken, newly single 47-year-old and an equally heartbroken, financially challenged 77-year-old sitting in the sparsely furnished living room of a rented duplex, staring at each other in shocked silence and wondering what to do next.  Let’s just say, it wasn’t pretty.

What came next was actually rather pretty … most of it anyway.

Mom and I partnered up and forged ahead like all of the other fiercely strong women in our family lineage.  We found a house for sale just a few blocks away that had a good vibe, bought it and stuffed everything we both owned into it.  Over time, we painted the bland gray exterior a cheerful shade of yellow and picked an eye-catching periwinkle as the color for our fancy new door with a beveled glass insert.  We nurtured the old roses in the front, planted young trees in the back and together watched the seasons pass.  Joint vacations, leisurely Sunday drives, newly released films, final episodes of beloved television series and premieres of new favorites added flavor to our routine.

To the untrained eye, that description of our life as mother-daughter roommates probably sounds idyllic.  To be fair, though, it was not without challenges.

When we first moved into our little house, the adjustment was difficult.  She was grieving the loss of her trailer and independence.  I was grieving the loss of my marriage and the promise of independence.  For a while we both walked on eggs, trying not to say anything that might upset the apple cart.  I slipped occasionally and made comments I wanted to take back but couldn’t.  So did Mom.  We put away our belongings with a “this is mine, that’s yours” mentality that resulted in assigned cupboards and drawers in the kitchen and assigned rooms in which to arrange furniture and display mementoes.  That separatist attitude eventually changed, but it was palpable in the beginning.

Caring for Mom when her health began to fail brought even greater challenges.  One of the first consequences was that she had to stop driving.  I suspect she was irritated with me for at least six months for enforcing that.  Meanwhile, I periodically held pity parties mourning my loss of freedom which, of course, were always followed by immediate attacks of guilt.

Overall, though, I think Mom and I did a pretty good job at a difficult task.  Our mutual tenacity and purposeful effort to look for the good in each day made our years together a blessing rather than a curse.

These are the kinds of memories I had expected to read about in Mom’s farewell letter.  I wanted validation that she felt as I did – that our 12 years together had been priceless.  When the letter turned out to be 19 years old, I was crushed.  Today I realize that no validation from Mom – or from anyone else for that matter – was ever really necessary.  Those 12 years were unquestionably priceless.

And so, in the end, was the letter.

That old letter is the only tangible evidence I have of the way Mom viewed me before our circumstances changed; before our respective losses hurled us into co-habitation and before our roles reversed.  Those two pages of unpolished lines are the musings of a mother who expected nothing from her middle child except to share a lifetime of memories, both good and bad, and to laugh together with wild abandon at things few others found funny at all.  I know our last 12 years are worth cherishing.  The letter reminded me that our first 47 were as well.

 And then there is Laurie. What can a mom say to a daughter who writes books? She knows all the words and strings them together in such a way that all the right buttons are pushed and maudlin sentimentality reigns.  My Laurie – I’ve always called you the last of the great romantics, and you are.  We’ve shared much laughter, pain and tears, sadness and love. You and Leslie and I have all shared the same weird sense of humor and need only a glance to send us off to la-la-laughter land. I remember the little girl (big now but still the same) who got really weird and funny when she got tired. Who was always the buffer between older sister and younger brother. Who was always loving and understanding and still is. I know your father was as proud of you as I am.  You kids are the best things that ever happened to me.  Thank you for the 70th BD book.  I will always treasure it. Always – for however long forever lasts.

Note 3Note 4

Nothing Left Unsaid

The sympathy card my mother sent to me posthumously, through my sister, sent a wave of cleansing grief deep through my heart and soul.  As quoted in last week’s column, the only original words from my mother, aside from her name and a string of x’s punctuated by one o, were:

All my love to the wordmeister … queen of the spreadsheet

Those 10 words may not seem enough to trigger a flood of overwhelming emotion. For me, though, they were a reminder of everything intimate and personal my mother and I shared. Every pet name, every private joke, every endearment we so often repeated were distilled into that short string of words, scrawled with herculean effort during her last days on Earth.

I learned many months later, after more cards turned up at certain meaningful moments, that Mom conspired with my sister, Leslie, and my niece, Rachel, to emulate a film in which a young widow receives a series of letters from her late husband. “P.S. I Love You” was not my mother’s favorite movie. She preferred science fiction, fantasy and whodunits. However, I’m sure the concept appealed to her because she often worried aloud that she would not be remembered. A few weeks before she died, she asked my sister to jot down a list of her favorite sayings and family nicknames, and she allowed me to shoot a video of her repeating many of the same for posterity.

Since Mom and I were almost inseparable for 12 years, she knew her absence would be particularly difficult for me. My niece later revealed that Mom had sent her on a mission to select just the right cards, and my sister described how she had expended virtually her last ounce of energy secretly signing them. Meanwhile, I had been trying periodically, without success, to persuade Mom to write notes in the Christmas cards I had purchased for family members on her behalf. She just couldn’t muster the strength. In the end, I signed them for her, tucked in the cash she had saved over the preceding 12 months, and composed a personal message commemorating her special relationship with each recipient.

For Mom to conspire with my sister and niece to single me out in such a beautiful, heartfelt way was an honor that I’ll remember until I, too, take my last breath. It doesn’t matter that the handwritten note in each card was brief. It’s absolutely true that the thought is what counts.

One evening, when I was contemplating her precious gesture, I suddenly remembered the “read me after I’m gone” letters I wrote in 1990, 1994, 2003 and 2011. I scolded myself roundly for not thinking to give Mom her set when it became clear that I would outlive her. Surely, I thought, my letters were filled with deep insights laced with my famous maudlin sentimentality, as cited by a long-ago book reviewer. Surely, they would bring a tear even to my usually critical eye.

Like a treasure hunter, I dug into my files and pulled out the letters written to my mother. I opened them carefully, one by one, and was momentarily stunned. The first two obligingly thanked her for being a wonderful parent, but they were primarily vehicles to document some of our favorite axioms.

May 1990

Be good – and if you can’t be good, be careful. And remember, when you’re poor you have to take what you can get! Because life is just a bowl of cherry pits! (Didn’t we have fun!?!)

 

March 1994

Just a short update from my letter of May 1990. Remember these rules of life:

1) Life isn’t always a bowl of cherry pits.

2) Just ’cause your poor, you don’t have to take what you can get.

3) Live long and prosper.

4) I’m the pretty one.

5) You aren’t the only one.

(Because I will always be with you.)

The third and fourth letters were a bit more lengthy and descriptive of our life together. But in the fourth missive, one line spoke volumes. I blinked and read it again.

Nothing left unsaid.

Those three words had come to mean everything to Mom and me. Over the 12 years we lived together, we had more good-bye talks than most people could ever bear. Every time one of her doctors diagnosed a serious new condition or illness, we would fear the end was near. All of the appreciation, love and kinship we felt for one another would spill out and, ultimately, help get us past that fear.Note to Mom (July 2011)

Over time, “nothing left unsaid” became central to our parting ritual whenever I would travel for business or pleasure, or she would leave to spend a few weeks with my siblings in the Pacific Northwest. It’s no wonder I included the line in my last “read me after I’m gone” letter. It’s no wonder that her brief messages in posthumously delivered cards held so much significance for me. We had already said everything. Her messages were like code words that spoke of a companionship so close we sometimes could read each other’s thoughts.

As I ponder those three words, I am reminded of other coded messages I share with loved ones. “Blah blah blah,” I say to my friend, Mary, and she breaks out in laughter as she remembers an irreverent moment while preparing to testify before state lawmakers. “Sisters, sisters,” I sometimes sing to my sister, Leslie, and she finishes with, “there were never such devoted sisters.”  The most precious code in my repertoire is the one I share with my husband, Pete. “11:08,” he writes in a mid-day email at least once a week, and I write back, “Love you, too.”  No, it’s not a time; it was the number of our favorite room at a seaside resort thirty-plus years ago.  Nevertheless, twice a day every day, the clock reminds us of our love for one another.

I’m betting that almost everyone reading this column can think of at least one coded message they share with a family member or friend.  And, if you don’t have one, then Mom and I will loan you ours … that is, as long as you promise to have the conversation that makes it true.

Nothing left unsaid.

All My Love to the Wordmeister

When my mother passed away last December, I imagined that I would find a personal letter addressed to me that would neatly sum up our close relationship and enduring love.  I would read it slowly, savor every word, and store it tenderly in a corner of my jewelry box to retrieve and study again and again.  Call it a wish, a dream, a hope or a fantasy.  In reality, it was a reflection of what I had always planned to do for my loved ones.

In fact, I have already done this.  I wrote my first volume of “read me after I’m gone” letters in 1990.  Four years later I wrote another volume, another in 2003 and the most recent in 2011.  Why I thought Mom would do something similar is peculiar.  Everyone has a role in their family.  My father was our resident dreamer.  My older sister is our selfless caretaker.  My younger brother is the consummate musician.  My mother was the keeper of family history.  I am the writer.  Me.  The one a book reviewer once observed could write with “maudlin sentimentality.”  My final words were the ones destined to bring everyone to tears.

Or so I thought.

My quest for a good-bye letter from Mom began the same day she died.  It had been only a short while since the kindly and somber morticians had come to gently remove her body.  My sister, brother and I returned to her room, collectively took a deep breath and reverently slipped a white three-ring binder off the bookshelf next to her bed.

We knew this notebook was the storehouse of information about her final wishes.  Inside we also found three fat sheet protectors stuffed with something special for each of us.  Notes, newspaper and magazine clippings, poems, and other words of wisdom spilled out of the three synthetic treasure chests.  My sister and brother decided to more closely examine their keepsakes in solitude when they returned from Nevada to their respective homes in Oregon and Washington.  A few days later, and with great anticipation, I sat on Mom’s bed and carefully opened a large red envelope and a two-page letter handwritten on yellow ruled paper.

At the risk of sounding disrespectful or ungrateful, I was disappointed.  Inside the red envelope was an unsigned Christmas card with the word “JOY” on the front.  The letter was an even greater letdown.  It was written 19 years earlier after I had presented her with a 70th birthday album filled with snapshots and loving remembrances from family and friends near and far.  It was almost like a thank you letter, still in draft form with words scratched out and edits squeezed in.  The last line read:

 The memories you wrote of are some of my fondest, but I also …

Written sideways in the margin was something akin to a “note to self” about how I had adapted (or rather didn’t adapt) to our new, rainy environment when we moved to Oregon from California in 1966.  Her intent must have been to someday rewrite the letter and include a few favorite memories of raising a daughter she frequently referred to as “the last of the great romantics.”

I read the letter quickly, folded it up and tucked it and the Christmas card back in the sheet protector in the three-ring binder.  I was desperate for solace and the letter just didn’t do the trick.  I had been expecting something much more recent.  Something full of profound thoughts about the last 12 years of our shared life.  Something more in synch with my profound sense of loss.  In hindsight, I know I simply wasn’t ready to appreciate her effort.

InventoryA few weeks later, I began the arduous task of sorting through Mom’s belongings.  Her deep affection for self-sealing plastic bags and three-ring binders is the stuff of family legend, so it was no surprise that my best friend during this process was a big, blue binder labeled “Household Inventory.”  My first strategy was to compare her cache with the lists in the binder.  It quickly became apparent that she had fallen behind in recent years despite occasional help from my sister and me.  Determinedly, I dug in to fill the gaps and organize everything before my sister, brother and their families returned in the spring for a long weekend to choose mementoes.

With every drawer or box I opened, and with every shelf I surveyed, I kept one hopeful eye out for any messages Mom may have hidden away for me.  I found none.  Eventually, I let go of that expectation and, instead, just busied myself cataloguing her belongings.  The result was a series of impressive spreadsheets that could be sorted by the date she acquired an item, by its description, by the name of the person who gave it to her, and more.  One by one, I emailed these archives out so everyone would have the same information I had and the same amount of time to ponder it.  In its own way, it was a comforting task.  I could see Mom smiling down on me, chuckling about my celebrated love affair with spreadsheets.  Since the birth of Microsoft Excel, spreadsheets have been my way of creating order out of virtually every kind of chaos known to mankind.  I couldn’t control Mom’s departure, but at least I could control the aftermath.

Then one winter day when Mom had been gone about six weeks, I unexpectedly received a manila envelope in the mail from my sister.  Inside was a card.  The handwriting on the white envelope did not look familiar.  It simply said my name – Laurie – underlined with a little flourish.  I assumed my sister was passing on a sympathy card from a family member or friend.  “How nice,” I thought.  Then I opened it.  It was, indeed, a sympathy card.  But it was from Mom.

The card was beautifully sentimental with line after line of encouraging, soothing words framed by muted watercolor images of leaves and butterflies.  She signed it:

Mom xxxxo

All my love to the wordmeister … queen of the spreadsheet

Note 2Her signature and closing thoughts were written with the shaky hand of someone whose time is very short, which is why I did not immediately recognize the writing on the envelope.  A brief note from my sister explained:

Mom loved you so much for taking care of her and being her friend as well as her daughter.  This seems like the perfect time to send this card – you queen of the spreadsheet person.

My wish, my dream, my hope, my fantasy was fulfilled in one powerful rush of emotion and tears.  Mom, the keeper of family history, made Laurie, the writer with a penchant for maudlin sentimentality, break down and sob over a few words of eternal love scratched inside a mass produced Hallmark card delivered at precisely the right moment by the selfless older sister.  You just can’t make up that kind of story.

To Begin at the End

Almost every weekday over the 12 years my mother lived with me, my morning routine included preparing a brief note to greet her when she rose to start her day.  The notes served more than one purpose.  Sometimes I included a reminder of something she needed to do (call Jesse, it’s his birthday) or a heads up about my work schedule for the day (staff meeting this morning).  Occasionally I added a bit of interesting information (guess who will be on Dancing with the Stars this season) or a quick news flash (thunderstorms predicted today).  But always, always the notes were a simple vehicle to share a smile and tell her that I loved her.

Accounting for days when I may have been away on business or on vacation, a conservative estimate would be 3,000 notes.  My mother saved hundreds of them, torn from the pages of dozens of those small spiral notepads that invariably leave a ragged edge on one side despite your best efforts to rip along the perforation.  She tucked away some of the notepads, too, which in later years also contained messages to the caregivers who arrived at the house shortly after I left and locked up just before I came home.  Flipping through these snapshots of our daily life, I can easily see the ebb and flow of her life … and mine.

To begin the story where it ends, the last note I left for my mother summed up exactly how I felt almost every day of those 12 precious years.  It was Tuesday, November 5, 2013.

“Mornin’ Mom!”  Beneath my traditional salutation were a pair of happy eyes with arched brows, a little pug nose and a wide open smile.  The speech bubble declared, “Counting my blessings today and YOUNote 1 are an important one!”  I added, “See you Wednesday night,” because I was leaving on an overnight business trip.  “Love, love, love!  LJ xo”

That was the last time I ever left Mom for more than the 30 minutes needed to run to the market for a few groceries or to pick up a prescription.  Exactly five weeks later she took her last breaths in her bedroom, surrounded by the things she treasured and in the care of people she loved.

The end met her heart’s desire.  In the 16 years leading up to her retirement in 1987, she worked as a bookkeeper and then as a licensed administrator in nursing homes.  Her worst fear was to become incapacitated, be forced to give up most or all of her belongings, and spend her remaining time being turned, bathed, fed and medicated by strangers who might be kind but had no memory of her youthful beauty and quirky sense of humor.

The end met my heart’s desire as well, which was to fulfill her heart’s desire.

No matter how you slice it, though, the end was still the end.  It didn’t matter that scores of elephant figurines looked on from her curio cabinet, or that her favorite Star Trek characters watched from commemorative photos and plates mounted on the wall, or that long perished friends and family stood sentinel in frames.  She still died.  My mother – my beautiful, funny mother – still died.  And I still cried.

Writing about heartache, loss, hopes, dreams, beliefs and love has long been my passion.  I consider the ability to put words together in a reasonably engaging fashion a gift.  I’ve used it for a multitude of purposes over the years including a respectable first career in journalism, two self-published books with small but appreciative audiences, and a handful of soulful song lyrics.  The litmus test for my creations was always Mom’s reaction.  Much as you would expect, she loved just about everything I ever wrote.  On Christmas, her birthday or Mother’s Day, she typically opened my cards last because she inevitably was consumed with emotion and tears over the sentiments I added inside.

Naturally, when she died, I assumed that one day I would write something immortalizing our relationship.  When I discovered that she had saved so many of my notes, I came to the conclusion that I would use them to write a collection of essays, a book or a blog I would call “Notes To My Mother.”  The tables turned when she was gone and notes from my mother began to surface.  If you stay tuned, I’ll share them with you and reflect for a bit on how each one has inspired, comforted or moved me.  Because, now, with about nine months of shocked denial, misdirected anger and reluctant acceptance under my belt, I’m ready to give birth to this weekly online column … aptly titled, of course, “Notes From My Mother.”