Christmas 2012

It’s All About Me, Al Franken

Remember the bushy-haired, bespectacled comedian from Saturday Night Live who was certain the world revolved around him? He sat at the sardonic news desk; ever interested in how current events would affect him (dramatic pause), Al Franken.  He declared the 1980s the Al Franken Decade and drolly imparted tips on what viewers could do for him.

Being a care recipient is a little … no a lot … like being Al Franken. Your needs come before anyone else in the family.  Your routine dictates everyone’s schedule.  Your crises, medical or otherwise, each become a crisis for the entire household.  As appealing as it may sound to be the focus of attention, I’m fairly certain most care recipients don’t revel in driving the “Frankenbus.”  The route is fraught with tricky twists and turns that could tip that big, unwieldy thing on its side at any time.  There are no seatbelts, no power steering and, worst of all, no power brakes to bring the crazy ride to a screeching halt.

On dozens of occasions during the years my mother drove that bus, she voiced the concern that she was a burden. One day she would worry that she was tiring me out and ruining my health.  Another day she fretted about keeping me from participating in activities with friends and family outside the four walls of our home.  She apologized repeatedly because we couldn’t go out to eat without sitting in the restaurant parking lot for 15 minutes while she carefully tested her blood sugar and injected insulin to counteract the meal she was about to order.  She was troubled that I was whittling away at my sick leave to take her to medical appointments and missing work to tend to her when she was ailing.  As many times as she verbalized her worries, I’m sure she silently turned the same thoughts over in her head hundreds more.

It's All About Me

Farewell Christmas Card 2013

Our modus operandi was generally to find humor in otherwise dismal situations, so eventually her concerns turned into one of the coded messages I’ve often referenced in these columns. If one of us was fussing about something and began to lose sight of the big picture, the other would interrupt and say,

“It’s all about me, Al Franken.”

 It was always good for a chuckle and a quick reality check. Once in a while, we would add Al’s simple reasoning to this narcissistic phrase.  “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and dog-gone it, people like me.”

Mom commemorated this coded message in the Christmas card my family was entrusted to deliver after she passed away last year. She died just a couple of weeks before the holiday, so there was little decorating or celebrating in our household.  The best gift I received was that card, the first in a secret series of posthumous missives.  Some I’ve already shared with you; others will make appearances as this continuing saga unfolds.

Mom and Me 2003

Vacation – 2003

“It’s all about me, Al Franken,” was not a signal reserved exclusively for Mom’s low moments. She was known in our family as “the only one,” but she was not the only one to periodically feel trapped by our circumstances.  I was never tired of her; just tired and, as the years passed, it began to show.  As Sarah Ban Breathnach wrote in her 1995 daybook, “Simple Abundance,” it is not the temporary pressure of work (or caregiving) that causes burnout.  That, she says, “comes from living unbalanced for years; when what was supposed to be a temporary situation becomes a lifestyle.”

It wasn’t until the last few years of Mom’s life that the feeling of being constantly tired erupted into full-blown caregiver burnout; the kind that Ms. Ban Breathnach calls the “soul snuffer.” Thankfully, I remained fairly skillful at exposing only surface frustrations in Mom’s presence and censoring my deepest feelings of anguish.  As far as I know, she was unaware that occasionally the weight of our arrangement overpowered me, and I would pour my heart out to anyone who would listen in person, on the telephone or in an email.

When I worried, aloud or silently, it was about many of the same things Mom did. The culture at my workplace was genuinely “family first,” but I still felt anxious about my dwindling sick leave and postponed projects.  Sometimes I imagined what it would be like to go on an outing and not have to heft a wheelchair in and out of the trunk and patiently help Mom slowly transfer back and forth.  I wondered how long God expected me to go on, especially since I was approaching my 60s and couldn’t help noticing that the time to pursue my own lingering dreams was slipping away.  Worse yet, I watched my two grandsons’ childhood racing past, and I couldn’t be present for milestones like holiday pageants or Cub Scout ceremonies.

Every time I lapsed into self-pity about our circumstances, I would inevitably feel guilty for my selfishness. My paternal grandmother’s admonishment, “Don’t be ugly,” would drift through my head and I would, indeed, feel ugly all the way through.  My sister, my daughter and my closest friends would reassure me that it was natural to feel frustrated when holding down a full-time job, caring for someone who was completely dependent on others, and trying to capture a moment now and then with the rest of my family.  At the time, their kind words didn’t make me feel any less ugly, but as with so many things in life, the image in the rearview mirror is crystal clear.  Just looking at the photos posted with this column — from 2003, 2008 and 2012 — I can see the physical changes in both Mom and me, and I can truly understand the multiplying pressures of our years-long journey.

New House - 2008

New House – 2008

Indeed, caregiving and care receiving is a journey … and it’s not for the fainthearted. It is the most advanced course of study anyone will ever take on earth, regardless of whether you are the one providing care or the one receiving it.  The highest level of trust, commitment, patience, compassion, love and forgiveness are prerequisites for both parties.  How else could one get through the ugly moments and gladly return to the arduous path?

Somewhere in Mom’s last year of life, I realized that our time together was growing short. My periodic pity parties came to a halt.  I knew what I had always known — that the only way I was ever going to be released from my caregiving obligations was to lose Mom.  The finality of that solution was no longer an abstract idea in some distant, foggy future.  Suddenly I felt like Diana Prince spinning into Wonder Woman or Popeye consuming a can of fortifying spinach in one gulp.  I heard myself saying repeatedly, “I would take care of Mom forever if she would just stay.”  And I meant it.  The price of freedom was far too high.

In the end, there was no way to pause the journey or avoid the divergence of our paths. Mom was headed to an ethereal destination, and my name was not on the guest list.  Instead, I was advancing toward a new beginning here on mortal ground.  Our separation was inevitable and heart-wrenching.

So many months later, I am no longer constantly tired, my accrued sick leave is growing, and I have the freedom to go just about anywhere I please, anytime I please. Yes, it’s nice, but I would give it all up if I could have Mom back here with me.  As I write this, I can hear her whispering the double-edged truth … that today and every day … whether I like it or not, it is now …

“… all about me, Al Franken.”

Al Franken left Saturday Night Live and went on to become a U.S. Senator from Minnesota. I probably will not pursue politics (the thought makes me shudder) but I am confident that I can do anything I want.  I can become the person I was always meant to be because, just like Al Franken, I am “good enough, I’m smart enough, and dog-gone it, people like me.”  More than that, I’ve got my invincible gold bracelets, my can of body-building spinach and Mom’s enduring love in my heart.  Nothing is more powerful than that.

This Hunt Is Dedicated

Last week when you read “the only one,” you were no doubt left with the impression that my mother’s principal attribute was a deep sense of responsibility tempered with a splash of endearing vulnerability.

Perhaps some of you, though, caught the passing reference to her ability to poke fun at herself (and others) with a “woe is me” gesture reminiscent of French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt or her finger-to-thumb symbol of tiny violins playing a tragic song. Happily, my mother’s great appreciation for the weird and wonderful perfectly balanced her more serious qualities.

The note Mom left behind that inspired this column is not actually one she left for me. Every year for 13 years, our family has sponsored and organized the Nevada Day Treasure Hunt, a popular event held in honor of statehood day, October 31st.  We choose a spot to hide a commemorative medallion and write 15 clues that are published online and in the capital city newspaper until someone solves the riddles and retrieves the prize.  Mom was president of our organization’s board of directors and traditionally wrote the first clue.  While preparing for this year’s hunt, my son found a slip of paper that was Mom’s unfinished working draft in 2012.

To the heroism of the military men and women — past present and future – this treasure hunt is respectfully dedicated. Don’t be the last —- —-, the shadowy past, unknown future and present.

ClueSome words are crossed out on the note. Other lines are incomplete because she was still searching for just the right combination to pay tribute to the over-arching Nevada Day theme that year.  What the note called to mind was that Mom had a definite affinity for the unconventional.  Every year one of us would gently offer her a hand in adjusting her clue so that it met the accepted idea of meter, form and rhyme.  My daughter’s handwriting is also on the little slip of paper because, apparently, she was the one trying to coach Mom that year.  In the end, Mom agreed to cut down the number of lines, but she wouldn’t compromise on anything else.  No matter how many times I’ve read the final version, I can identify no real rhythm or meter and certainly no rhyme.  It is simple, to the point, and free form at its best.

To the heroism of

The military men and women

Past, present, and future

This hunt is respectfully dedicated

Free form was Mom’s personal rebellion against life’s sometimes rigid structure. Every spring and summer, I thank the good Lord for the example she set when I stroll slowly in my rose garden and take in the unique beauty that surrounds me.  I had originally decided to emulate my favorite bouquet de jour and alternate a light yellow variety with ivory, but Mom was horrified.  She yelped something akin to:

 “Why in the world would you want to do anything as boring as that? Plant lots of different colors!”

Because I took her advice, the garden is a rainbow of red, pink, purple, orange, pumpkin, gold, yellow, and white. Some blooms are multi-colored and may start out a cool shade of lemonRose but, as they open, transform into a warm ruby sunset.  My garden is a bold splash of vibrant color in the middle of the dull shades of tan and brown that dominate the high desert.  And so, my friends, was my mother.

Long before I was born, she was wild, free and unconventional. She rode motorcycles when it was still an oddity to see a woman on a bike because, in the 1940s, nice girls didn’t ride.  She ferried her friends around in jalopies with rumble seats and, in a jam, could repair them herself.  After she passed away, an old friend wrote a letter of condolence and reminisced about breaking down in traffic in downtown Los Angeles and holding up the Red Car trolley.  Mom hopped out of her stalled coupe, popped the hood, jimmied something with the long end of a rat-tail comb, hopped back in and fired up the engine.  Everyone on the Red Car cheered.

No matter what life threw at her, she never lost her sense of humor or her zest for life. In the 1960s, I remember her striking a Hollywood glamour pose with a long, shiny, gold cigarette holder perched in her hand.  I can imagine her, at that very moment, altering her voice to imitate film star Gloria Swanson and murmuring, “All right, Mr. De Mille. I’m ready for my close-up.”  In the early 1970s, when seatbelts and vehicle safety were still emerging concepts, my younger brother and I squeezed into the narrow passenger seat of Mom’s 1952 MG so she could happily ferry us 250 miles across Oregon for a summer swimming meet.  No radio; just the songs we sang at the top of our lungs.  No air conditioning; just the wind whistling through the non-existent windows.  It was magical.

TheoFast forward to the 1980s and Mom still knew how to have a good time. She bought a second-hand stuffed gorilla the size of a large child, named him Theo, dressed him in a shirt and pants, and let him routinely ride shotgun as she ran errands around town.  For a local pioneer parade, she decked him out in a fringed vest and cowboy hat and propped him up on the float entered by the nursing home where she worked.  It amazes me that she ever parted with that scruffy old beast.

Around the same time that Mom was audaciously carrying on her friendship with Theo, she also was enjoying her growing brood of grandchildren. With them, she could be as silly as she wanted without raising any eyebrows … not that she cared about such nonsense.  One of my favorite memories from 1984 is my 60-year-old mother leading a giggling band of giddy grandchildren around and around the coffee table in her living room while wearing a multi-colored fright wig.

Mom Wearing Fright WigNine years later, during a group trip to Universal Studios, she was the first in line to have her photo snapped against a green screen, later to be merged with a still from an old film. Others opted for romantic shots with their favorite leading man or asked to be dropped in beside fantasy film characters.  Nothing so demure for Mom; she chose an action scene from Dracula that allowed her to show off her talent for melodrama.

Even after her body gave up on her, she didn’t give up on humor. She was always game for a moment of spontaneous gaiety.

Picture an 80-something woman riding in a wheelchair in a home improvement warehouse picking out accessories for our newly redecorated living room. Boxes of this and that completely cover her lap and the footrests of her chair, and plastic bags hang from the handles in back.  There is absolutely no more room for one more thing, but she still wants the blood-red lampshade over there on that shelf.  Moments later, she’s wearing it on her head, smiling from ear to ear as we make a spectacle of ourselves on the way to the checkout counter.

I hope I never lose the appreciation for the weird and wonderful, and for the bright and beautiful, that Mom instilled in me. Shortly after she died, my slightly serious brother asked my slightly silly sister and me, “Do you think you got your wild and crazy side from Mom, or do you think she got it from you?”  My sister and I answered practically in unison, “No.  We definitely got it from her.”

The 13th Annual Nevada Day Treasure Hunt begins on Monday, October 6th.  To say the least, it has been bittersweet working on this year’s clues without her unconventional contributions.  As our family prepares to hide the medallion and kick off the search, we wonder how it will all turn out in her absence.

The 2014 hunt is respectfully irreverently dedicated to her colorful memory.

To the bizarre this is dedicated

To humor and glee it is predicated

Here’s to Mom, our inspiration

And this last line doesn’t rhyme or fit the meter … because she would hate that

Mom and Dracula 1995

The Only One

Last week I was proud to use a fragment of the signature line from my mother’s farewell letter to share my heartfelt appreciation and love for my older sister, Leslie.  I may be “the pretty one” Mom was referring to in her parting line, but I will forever think of Leslie when I read it.

All my love always to “the pretty one” from “the only one.”

To the pretty one from the only oneOf course, “the only one” in that line is Mom and, like “the pretty one,” it comes with a story.

Once upon a lifetime ago, Mom was … well … kind of a “woe as me” person.  At least, that’s how she appeared to me.  As I write this, I can hear a mournful, protracted rendition of an old gospel song running through my head.  You know the one.

“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows my sorrow.”

To understand where that kind of anguish could have originated, you need a glimpse of Mom’s world as a young mother.  The seed, to be fair, was probably planted even deeper than that, but this is what occurred in my own lifetime and what I know to be true.

When my sister, brother and I were young, our father would spend months away from home working as an engineer on mammoth ships that transported oil and other commodities to foreign ports.  The ocean called often, and he obediently answered.  He would periodically drop into our lives, bearing hugs and toting presents, and drop out again, leaving tears and loneliness in his wake.

During our father’s absences, Mom was the quintessential single parent, far ahead of her time.  She worked as a bookkeeper in medical offices, kept the cars and household operating relatively smoothly, and raised us with support from our two grandmothers.  It was a heavy load to manage in the era of television role models like Harriet Nelson and Donna Reed who kept the home fires burning while their husbands navigated the halls of business.  When the weight became overwhelming, Mom often would lament,

 “I’m the only one who ever …”

You can fill in the blank with a broad range of grievances from “feeds the dogs” to “cleans the house” and everything in between.  She repeated it so frequently that eventually, and with youthful disdain, we sometimes did fill in the blanks.

As an adult, I get it.  Her marriage was hardly the stuff of romance novels.  She had no consistent partner to depend on and no real balance in her life.  The latter was true even when our father was home.  He didn’t know how he fit in to the family between voyages, and she didn’t know how to temporarily create a place for him.  The stress mounted when our father tried to transition from a sailor’s life to a shore job.  He was seriously injured on his first day and spent months in a body cast.  His lengthy recuperation and loss of income threw even more responsibility onto Mom’s plate.

As I said, as an adult I get it.  As a child I did not.  I loved my mother with all my heart but, while growing up, the opinion I formed of her was tainted by the burden she carried.  I came to view her as something of a martyr.  By the time my sister and I reached our teens, we were bold enough to threaten carving “I’m the only one” on her tombstone whenever she dared recite it.

Thank goodness that our irreverence gradually changed the flavor of that tiresome phrase.  It evolved from a symbol of self-pity, to a vehicle to tease her, and finally to a term of endearment.  Even Mom eventually began poking fun at herself.  Sometimes she would throw the back of her hand up to her forehead in dramatic fashion to mimic an exaggerated stage gesture of the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt.  Later, her favorite way to lighten up pity parties (her own or someone else’s) was to rub her thumb and index finger together and say in a high voice, “I can hear the tiny violins playing.”

When I began to take on my own adult responsibilities, the periodic crying jags and bouts of depression I had witnessed as a child started to make sense to me.   However, because I had a front row seat to some of her most vulnerable moments when I was at an impressionable age, the perception that she was fragile and perhaps a bit unstable was difficult to erase.  It wasn’t until we moved in together, and then began our long partnership as caregiver and care recipient, that I finally saw her in a completely different light.  She was far from fainthearted.  On the contrary, she was remarkably strong to have served as the head of household in a generation of June Cleavers.

It took nine years for Mom’s heart to fail after her health began to seriously decline.  Her list of diagnoses included kidney, heart, thyroid and acid reflux disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and osteoarthritis.  Her list of medications was so long that I had to create one of my legendary spreadsheets to keep track of prescribing doctors, doses and special instructions.  In addition, Mom was dependent on a rather rigid meal regimen and four daily insulin shots to control her diabetes, was constantly tethered to an oxygen machine, and frequently suffered from diarrhea, bladder infections and external yeast infections.

The osteoarthritis probably affected her quality of life more than anything else.  It ravaged virtually all of her major joints and eventually robbed her of the ability to walk more than a few steps.  She graduated from a small aluminum walker, to a snazzy Cadillac model with a basket and seat, to a wheelchair.  Since anti-inflammatory medications are processed through the kidneys, she was limited to less effective narcotics to manage the debilitating pain.

I lived through all of that with her.  Yet, seeing it in print is incredibly powerful and only serves to reinforce the point of today’s installment.  Mom was a soldier with amazing courage and strength.  Dutifully, she pricked her tender fingertips four times a day to test her blood sugar, dialed up insulin shots, repeatedly drove tiny needles into her bruised tummy, and ate the mostly well-balanced but sometimes monotonous meals I served her.  She shook dozens of drugs out of her pill case twice a day and counted them to make sure none were missing.  Her life was entirely organized around her medical needs and, quite frankly, she hated it.  Yet, she paid the price day after day because it bought her more time to enjoy her family, her dogs and the birds that visited the garden outside her window.  With each sunrise, she could read another chapter in the book by her bedside, check one more movie off her must-see list, cheer on her favorite football team or identify an obscure answer for a crossword puzzle.  She rarely had time to complain; every moment was precious.

After wasting so much of my own time being unfairly critical of my mother, it was a blessing to have the opportunity for a wake-up call of epic proportions.  I firmly believe that things happen for a reason.  Mom coming to live with me was serendipitous and undoubtedly opened the door to lessons we both needed to learn. For me, none was more profound than the gift of seeing my mother as the remarkable person she truly was.

“The only one” is a nickname that my mother most certainly earned through the hardships I’ve recounted here.  However, in closing, I must add that she was also MY only one.  She was my Momma — the only one who knew and loved me from before the day I was born.  Other kindhearted adults drifted in and out of my life as circumstances changed, but she was the only one whoMom at Reunion 2007 was always there for me.  She was the only one who could calm my fears with a gentle hug, heal my wounds with a magic kiss, listen assiduously to my changing hopes and dreams, and inspire me to be strong even as she was slipping away from me.

It’s been 10 months since Mom left the shackles of earthly life behind, and I am slowly transforming her bedroom into my own peaceful sanctuary.  One of the things I will never remove from the wall is an award that the family presented to her at a reunion in 2007.  We all laughed when we handed her the “I’m the Only One” award.  It was not a joke that we added,

“The only mother and grandmother the Samsel clan would ever want to have.”

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.”