Prelude: Don’t Hold On To The Dogwood Tree

Last week while writing about the grandmothers and mothers who helped to shape my character, another story emerged from the synopses of their lives. It would seem irreverent to blithely skip past the brief but stunning notations that two of these four, resilient women buried children. Every parent knows there is nothing more tragic or impossible to bear. Those who have experienced it can attest to that truth. Those who have not will agree that losing a child is their greatest fear.

Paul Daniel Samsel

Paul Daniel Samsel January 30, 1914 to October 14, 1914

Paul Daniel Samsel
January 30, 1914 to October 14, 1914

Imagine holding your firstborn baby boy in your arms, smiling down at him with more joy than you ever dreamed one person could feel. It’s January 30, 1914. In Europe, World War I is beginning to brew. In America, Henry Ford starts mass producing cars and Babe Ruth is about to sign his first minor league contract. None of that matters to you. Everyone and everything else in the world could disappear like snowflakes in summertime and you wouldn’t notice. You no longer own your heart. It now resides in that baby boy’s beautiful eyes and in the grasp of his tiny, perfect fingers. The only thing you know is love. Your only expectation is that he will grow and learn and play and ever after be the greatest source of your own rapture.

Less than nine months later you are standing in the surreal landscape of a cemetery, staring at that baby boy’s gravestone. He has died horribly of a mysterious condition that stole his strength and turned his skin dark and scaly. Because it caused hideous lesions to erupt in his tiny mouth, doctors called it Black Tongue Disease. No one would know for decades that it was actually just a niacin deficiency easily addressed with a diet change.

For the rest of your 93 years, you will rarely speak of the little spirit who entered and exited your life in a shockingly short span of time. Oh, you will be a mother again. You will smile, laugh and love again. But shards of your broken heart will forever reside in your firstborn baby boy’s closed eyes.

Marsha Ann Olson

Marsha Ann Olson October 21, 1957 to April 19, 1971

Marsha Ann Olson
October 21, 1957 to April 19, 1971

Now imagine you are a young mother in the late 1950s. Your fourth child has come along unexpectedly but your delight in this happy little girl’s presence is not diminished by the surprise. About a year of normal childhood milestones comes to a screeching halt one day when she is scrambling up the stairs in yet another gleeful attempt to explore the uncharted territory of her siblings’ second-floor bedrooms. In the single tick of a clock, she can’t remember how to climb. Soon, any words she has learned are gone. Her hands are compulsively clenched, often with fists raised as if poised for a boxing match, and her siblings gently hold her arms down for family photos. Seizures grip her without warning. Eye contact is increasingly rare. She understands little except perhaps the fact that she is loved.

At the time, you are a Christian Scientist who puts more faith in God than doctors. Yet, you still consult them. They are clueless. You accept the reality and continue to love your sweet, unusual child with all your heart and soul. Your other children are protective when neighborhood bullies tease her. They periodically sing to her, “I love you a bushel and a peck.” You sometimes buy her little hand bells to see her eyes light up in momentary enchantment. You help her walk and eat, take her to a special school, change her diapers and put her to bed at night for almost 14 years. Then one morning you go into her bedroom and find her precious body lifeless and cold.

Doctors still have no answers for you. They shrug and state the obvious; that she slipped away in her sleep. More than 40 years later, your other children come across a website that indicates she probably suffered from a rare genetic condition first identified as Rett Syndrome by an Austrian doctor in 1954 but not widely recognized until 1983. Even if you had known, what could you have done but exactly what you did when your little girl was mercifully freed from her mortal prison? You would pray, carry on, and plant a dogwood tree in her memory.

Don’t Hang On To The Dogwood Tree

Joan's Original Manuscript

Joan’s Original Manuscript

“Don’t Hang On To The Dogwood Tree” is the title of a story my mother-in-law, Joan Millard Olson, wrote six years after the awful morning she walked into her daughter’s bedroom and had her heart ripped from her chest. As only a bereaved parent could, she describes with painful honesty what it’s like to suddenly lose a child and then be confronted with the need to move forward in life. My mother-in-law has been gone 27 years this May and is hopefully dancing on some ethereal plane with her sweet, unusual daughter. Here on Earth, I am blessed to have her manuscript in my possession. It’s a different kind of “Note From My Mother,” and one I will be most proud to share with you next week.

Until then, I will leave you with one particularly poignant line from her story that, curiously, she red-lined. Why she wanted to delete it, I can’t say. Perhaps she thought it unoriginal or too esoteric. I, however, find it achingly hopeful in its eloquent simplicity.

The broken heart is the open heart.

Marsha and Joan in a rare moment of connection.

Marsha and Joan in a rare moment of connection.

Be a Good Girl

Not every note my mother left me was on paper. Some messages go so far back that they are part of who I am. Over the course of 60-some years, I’m sure that I heard today’s four-word lesson literally tens of thousands of times.

Be a good girl.

That reminder followed me out the door every day when I was a child. Whether I was heading off to school or to a friend’s sleepover or to visit one of my grandmothers, that was Mom’s fundamental rule. Becoming an adult didn’t alter her parting words. Becoming her caregiver didn’t change the ritual either. In her last years, I began to tease her that she had ruined my life with that phrase. What if I had wanted to be a bad girl every once in a while?

Alas, with sugary nicknames like Pollyanna, Goody Two-Shoes and Mary Tyler Moore, it’s no secret that I have, indeed, been a good girl most of my life. When I was about 5 years old I tarnished my reputation by putting gum in my sister’s hair, forcing an unwanted haircut. In high school I got caught parking with my boyfriend on a dark, quiet road and then made things worse by lying about it. But, compared to serious problems like drug addiction, alcohol abuse and criminal mischief, my transgressions were ridiculously tame. Bad … really bad … just wasn’t in my genes.

At times, I’ve wondered why Mom routinely told my sister and me to “be a good girl,” but she peppered her farewells to our little brother with a fairly large repertoire of less constraining phrases like “have a good time” and “if you can’t be good, be careful.” Perhaps being a girl herself, she knew what kind of childish shenanigans or youthful escapades we could engage in and the potentially devastating consequences thereof. I prefer, however, to think it was really because she wanted to continuously instill in us the extraordinary character of the women in our family.

Carrie Elizabeth Heasman Metzger

Good Girl (1)No woman in my family lineage was more amazing than my mother’s mother. In the early 1900s, she toiled tirelessly with her husband to cultivate unforgiving homestead land in Montana. World War I, the military confiscation of horses for the overseas cavalry and the Navy’s strong “invitation” for my grandfather to build warships in Washington’s Puget Sound interfered with their plans. When the war ended, they found themselves living nomadically in the valleys of Northern California, much like the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. Ultimately, they migrated south to the Los Angeles harbor area where my grandfather took up ocean fishing. Soon he wanted their six boys to forgo school and work with him. My grandmother objected, the two separated, and my grandfather was later killed in a violent storm at sea. Shockingly for the times, my grandmother lived openly with another man out of wedlock, helped to take care of his elderly mother, and determinedly continued to raise her children and some of her children’s children. When she died in 1979 at the age of 90, she had 10 children, 25 grandchildren and 56 great-grandchildren. The fact that there was standing room only for her memorial service was a testament to the love she so richly deserved.

Beulah Ann Todd Samsel

Good Girl (8)My father’s mother was equally tenacious, although not as beloved as my maternal grandmother. She had no children except for my father. Her firstborn son tragically died as a toddler of a vitamin deficiency hideously called Black Tongue Disease in 1914. My grandfather was a drinker and, although family references to him were always vague, I suspect he was abusive. Sometime after my grandmother divorced him, he was struck and killed by a truck while walking intoxicated down a country road in Tennessee. Meanwhile, my grandmother was bravely raising my father and working in a café at an aircraft manufacturing plant in El Segundo, California. She somehow also found the wherewithal to take care of her aging mother in her last years. Life wore my grandmother down and, by the time my parents married, she had become a somewhat bitter, critical, meddlesome presence. In hindsight, I know that she was doing her best, in whatever misguided way, to ensure that her son was loved and her grandchildren would someday find a place at God’s knee. Sadly, she denied she even had a family just before she died in a nursing home at the age of 93. That doesn’t change the fact that she was courageous and strong when she most needed to be.

Joyce Maxine Metzger Samsel (Joy)

Good Girl (4)Although I didn’t give her enough credit while I was growing up, Mom’s inner strength is solely responsible for our family’s survival. Back when it still wasn’t generally accepted to be a working mother, she kept the books for medical doctors and raised three children while my father traveled the world as a Merchant Marine. She was forced to finally and forever become the head of the household in 1970 when my father had a late-life diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia coupled with bipolar disease. His breakdown while alone and far from home destroyed the family emotionally and financially. Yet, somehow Mom found the will to rise from the ruins and rebuild a stable life for us. At first, I don’t think she believed she could do it. Decision-making was never Mom’s favorite task, but she pulled up her proverbial bootstraps and marched ahead into the unknown. When she passed away in 2013 at the age of 89, she had little to show for her efforts in the way of material possessions, but she enjoyed the priceless devotion of her children and grandchildren.

Betty Joan Millard Olson (Jo-Anne)

Good Girl (5)When I was 20 years old, I was lucky enough to marry into a family with another remarkable maternal presence. She wasn’t my mother by blood, but she became my second mother by heart. She was a traditional housewife in the 1950s and 1960s; raising three children and unexpectedly losing one to a mysterious genetic condition. By the mid-1970s, though, she had evolved into a dynamic, free-spirited woman whose circle of friends ranged from laid-back, mountain-dwelling hippies to driven, progressive yuppies. Breaking free from mid-century expectations was not easy since her husband was the quintessential ruler of the roost with staunchly conservative values. Regardless, she went back to college and earned a master’s degree in religion, converted to Catholicism when she fell in love with Mother Mary, and became a compassionate spiritual counselor. For several years she watched over her elderly, widowed stepmother who, by all accounts, was not a particularly warm and accepting substitute for the mother she had lost as a child. Yet, it was not in her nature to feel anything but love for the tiny, straight-laced, Christian poet we called Grandma Millard. My mother-in-law died of lymphoma in 1988 at the age of 62. It’s hard to believe I knew her only 16 years. Her example of love, kindness, forgiveness and spirituality has followed me every day since we lost her. In difficult situations, I often find myself pondering, “What would Joan do?”

Laurie Joy Samsel Olson

Every one of these women was strong, self-reliant and had a significant influence on my life. Collectively, they were seekers, doers, fighters, achievers, lovers and believers. All were mothers. And all were caregivers.

I look at their lives and their photos and I see … me.

Good Girl (6)Next week I’m turning 61. In July, I will have been married to, acrimoniously divorced from, and happily married again to my high school sweetheart for a grand total of 43 years. The descriptors that fit between those milestones run the gamut from joy to hostility, dependence to self-reliance, forgiveness to contentment. In October, I will have been a grateful mother for 40 years and a doting grandmother for 13 years. Sometime this year, though I’m not sure exactly when, I will pass the 35th anniversary of the day I became a full-time career woman. And in December, I will observe the second anniversary of the day I said good-bye to the woman who cared for me when I came into the world and who I cared for when she made her exit.

My path does not exactly mirror those of Carrie, Beulah, Joy and Joan, but the basic journey shadows theirs in almost storybook fashion. The Brothers Grimm could not have written a better parable about children walking squarely in the footsteps of their forefathers.  I am my grandmothers’ granddaughter. I am my mothers’ daughter.

Maybe that’s why Mom didn’t write down the most important lesson she ever tried to teach me. Maybe … just maybe … she thought I had already learned it. The only thing left to do is pass it on to my daughter, stepdaughter, daughter-in-law, nieces and the great-granddaughters’ who are still just a gleam in my grandsons’ eyes. To all of them … and to all my readers of the feminine persuasion, remember to …

Be a good girl.

Grandma Carrie Metzger (about 1930) at Cabrillo Beach, California.

Grandma Carrie Metzger in 1930 at Cabrillo Beach, California.

It’s All About Me, Revisited

Last fall, I wrote back-to-back columns that used comedian Al Franken’s trademark line – “it’s all about me” – first to describe the world of a dependent care recipient and then to remind caregivers of the need to stop and take care of themselves periodically.

I’m no longer a caregiver, but I’m heeding my own words today. I’m taking the week off from blog writing.

Last Sunday afternoon, after happily polishing off my weekly post, I was outside repotting a thriving Christmas cactus. While walking back to the house, I unceremoniously tripped and fell on the brick patio. My beautiful, new, green ceramic pot went flying and, of course, broke when it landed on the unforgiving surface. Meanwhile, I went down hard on my right knee and then found myself nose-to-nose with a rather inhospitable octagonal block.

Let’s just say, the brick won our little skirmish.

A week later, my nose is improving but my knee is not. Sitting at the computer increases the pain. So, after wrestling with my inner sense of responsibility over a self-imposed deadline, I’m taking my own advice about self-care. I’ll check in again soon with another Note From My Mother, but today I think my Momma would approve of my decision to invoke Al Franken’s declaration …

It’s all about me.

Have a wonderful day and week, everyone, and may you all win any battles you might have with gravity and hard surfaces.

1 - Mom and Me 19540001

Mom was my caregiver long before I was hers. Here we are shortly after I arrived March 28, 1954. (And get a load of that early television and that funky lamp in the background! Wish I had both of them now!)

Here Are My Accolades

My mother took her first breath in a small, white houseboat floating in the cool waters of Potato Slough on the California River Delta on December 4, 1924. She took her last roughly 200 miles northeast in the big, brown home we shared in the dry desert of Northern Nevada on December 9, 2013.

Nothing of global importance happened on either of those days. No wars were declared or peace treaties signed. No major scientific discoveries were announced or natural disasters reported. There wasn’t even a full moon. Yet, those two days are of supreme importance to me. They marked the beginning and the end of a life that affected me more than any other has or will.

Between those two Decembers, Mom lived 89 years. But, in her mind, she was ageless. She used to tell the grandchildren that she was in Ford Theater when President Abraham Lincoln was shot in 1865 and, while they were young and impressionable, they believed her. She used to lament to me that she was nothing more than an 18-year-old trapped in an aging body and, the older I got, the more I understood how she felt. She professed to everyone that she was going to live forever, and we all wished it could be so.

When I began writing this column last August, the primary purpose was to share the words of wisdom Mom left behind for me in a priceless series of cards and notes she entrusted with family members to deliver posthumously. Week after week, I’ve taken the quotes and catch phrases she preserved for posterity and turned them into stories about her, about caring for her, and about losing her. I would like to believe that, in some small way, these columns have served to support her wistful dream of everlasting life. As my gifted British friend, Chris Bannister, wrote in his lovely song Everybody Knows, what we leave behind is our best hope for immortality.

Everybody knows that nothing lasts for long except the sky. We can’t live forever but we try … by leaving something beautiful behind.

The something beautiful in those lyrics need not be a classic novel, a life-saving vaccine or a celebrated work of art. Exceptional experiences like those happen to so few. What every one of us is able to leave behind, though, is the unique way in which we’ve touched others. Most of the time, we aren’t even aware that the ripples of our lives circle out farther, ever farther, and gently collide with other lives. The impact may be no more than a tap, but it can alter a course, transform a life or simply create a precious memory that makes us smile or provides comfort in times of sorrow.

Here - Mom With StudebakerFor me, the ultimate example of this phenomenon was embodied in a condolence letter that arrived about a month and a half after Mom died. It was from her old friend “Little Mary” who took the opportunity to share a story that brought my mother’s vibrant youth to life. I paraphrased the tale when I wrote about Mom’s free-spirited nature last fall in the column This Hunt Is Dedicated. While driving a carload of friends from San Pedro to the opera in nearby Los Angeles, the rather unreliable coupe broke down and blocked the Red Car trolley. Mom hopped out in the rain, Little Mary wrote. “She lifted the hood and with her comb she tapped something, got back in the car and we drove off. The passengers in the Red Car applauded wildly. I’ve never heard the name Joyce that that video didn’t play in my head!”

Here - Mary's LetterThe tap that started the car on that otherwise forgotten day stayed with Little Mary for more than 60 years. Her condolence letter was the ripple that brought the story full circle. When it showed up in my mailbox, the colorful anecdote tapped me with a lovely reminder that the sum of my mother’s life was not wrapped up in her last years of ill health and dependence. It was as though Little Mary was the unsuspecting guardian of a secret that was long ago destined to comfort me in the wake of my mother’s passing.

Here - Memorial BrochureIn 89 years, Mom touched countless people as she drifted from the harbors and valleys of California, to the mountains and beaches of Oregon, and finally to the high desert of Northern Nevada. Some folks she knew well; others she did not. Either way, it was her Joie de Vivre that most of them remember. As I’ve said previously in this column, she was a fan of the weird and wonderful, the bright and beautiful. She loved to explore, wonder, dream and hope. Most of all, she loved to laugh. So much so that, in an unattributed poem she left with her Last Will and Testament, she told us to “remember me with smiles and laughter” or not at all. We honored that by using the poem in her memorial brochure along with a photo of her smiling gaily.

Sometime in her last year, when it was clear that time was growing short, I asked her what she remembered about helping her older sisters take care of their Here - Mom and Birdie90-year-old mother in her final days. I wasn’t making casual conversation; I was fishing for advice. She thought about it for a minute and said rather sheepishly that her most vivid memory wasn’t of bathing her mother or changing her soiled sheets or engaging in meaningful conversation. Instead, she clearly remembered sitting in the living room of her mother’s home laughing hysterically at a skit on Saturday Night Live. What made her and our equally unconventional relative, Birdie, giggle uncontrollably, she couldn’t say. Based on the month and year, though, I have a pretty fair guess. I can imagine both of them cracking up over the 1978 Christmas message that Gilda Radner’s recurring character, Roseanne Roseannadanna, shared with viewers as part of her trademark rant on the Weekend Update.

Life is just like a fruitcake. When you look at it, it’s rich and sweet with honey and sugar and spice, tastes delicious, makes your mouth water and everything. But if you look at it real close, there’s these weird little green things in it and all that and you don’t know what it is!

I’ve probably never heard a more perfect … and perfectly hilarious … analogy. Life is, indeed, like a fruitcake. But I would venture to say that the weird little green things in it are not necessarily all distasteful. An unexpected turn of events – for instance, living with and taking care of your mother for the last 12 years of her life – could prove to be just as rich and sweet as the honey, sugar and spice.

Today’s column heading is the last line from Mom’s posthumous notes that I have to share with you all. While that puts a punctuation mark on the foundation for these essays, it doesn’t end them. Mom left so many more “notes” for us to explore through things she often said but did not write down, through tape recordings she made more than 20 years before she passed away, and through scrapbooks filled with intriguing memories. My intent is to carry on for as long as the stories find their way from my immortal maternal muse to the keyboard of the computer she and I shared.

Here are your accolades, Mom.

Here - From Card

Here they are – bringing a smile, a tear, a laugh or an insight to every reader who scrolls through these columns. As of this morning, your stories have been viewed 2,162 times by readers in 34 countries. Your body may have returned to ashes, but your spirit is alive and well. Your playful inspiration is the something beautiful you left behind. That and your Joie de Vivre are rippling around the world at this very moment. Someone, somewhere just felt your gentle, joyful tap.

 

(Desiring to give credit where it’s due, I want to note that the poem “Remember Me” may have been written by Laura Ingalls Wilder or by Michael Landon when he wrote the script for a Little House on the Prairie television episode called “Remember Me.” Mom probably heard it on the television show since I know she didn’t read the books. )

Live Long and Prosper, Revisited

Last November, I wrote about Mom’s passion for all things Star Trek and how the epic space franchise played into birthday and Christmas traditions in our household. Mr. Spock’s most famous line, “Live long and prosper,” served as the foundation for the story.

A couple of days ago, the man who embodied Mr. Spock for nearly 50 years permanently beamed off this planet to explore strange, new worlds in ethereal dimensions. Actor, director, photographer, writer, global icon Leonard Nimoy died Friday, February 27, at the age of 83. When his gentle spirit arrived on the other side, I would like to think that Mom was among the crowd of friends waiting to greet him.

Mom always had a soft spot in her heart for the half-human, half-Vulcan who nobly struggled to maintain a logical decorum even in the most challenging situations. One of the quintessential moments for Mr. Spock was written into the television episode called This Side of Paradise, one of Mom’s favorites. It took several, increasingly inflammatory insults by his space cohort, Captain James T. Kirk, to raise his ire and free him from a mind-altering alien spore. “You belong in a circus, Spock, not a starship!” Kirk shouted, “Right next to the dog-faced boy!” It was hard not to feel sorry for Mr. Spock when he was jolted from utopia and compelled to sacrifice romance for duty.

"Live Long and Prosper"

Mom’s soft spot grew to embrace the real Leonard Nimoy when she, my two children and I had our photo taken with him at a jam-packed fan convention in Sacramento in 2006. Event staff were tasked with quickly herding dozens of people in and out of the banquet room where Mr. Nimoy and his Star Trek co-star William Shatner stood in front of a gold backdrop, smiling on cue through flash after flash. In the few minutes we shared with the two men, we at least were able to thank them for three generations of unparalleled entertainment. Mr. Shatner was suffering from a cold that day and, understandably I suppose, was not particularly engaging. Mr. Nimoy, though, treated Mom like a person instead of a prop. Unhurried, warm and welcoming, he leaned in toward her wheelchair and rested a friendly hand on her shoulder for the souvenir shot. She often recounted how special this simple, sensitive act made her feel.

I’m sure that brief moment did not impact Mr. Nimoy in the meaningful way that it did Mom. After decades of photo shoots, the parade of fans he touched must have been a blur. However, when I read the last comment he posted on Twitter four days before he died, I was amazed by the way his powerful words seemed to reflect on moments just like that one.

A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP.

Preserved in memory. Through this weekly column, I am the guardian of my mother’s memory and the storyteller entrusted with commemorating her life and experiences. Today I am also privileged to be one of the many guardians of Mr. Nimoy’s memory by chronicling his small act of human kindness toward my mother.

I can’t help but be reminded of Admiral James T. Kirk’s eulogy when Mr. Spock died at the conclusion of the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. “Of all the souls I’ve encountered in my travels,” Kirk said, “his was the most human.”

Kirk’s voice broke during that monologue. Poignantly, he struggled to keep it together to appropriately honor his friend. Today, in real life, there are millions around the world struggling to do the same as they remember Mr. Nimoy. He was truly our friend, if only through television, film and photo opps. If he could speak to us, perhaps he would repeat the dying words of Mr. Spock as he slowly succumbed to radiation poisoning after saving the ship and all hands on board.

Don’t grieve, Admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one. I have been and always shall be your friend. Live long and prosper.

One of Mom's favorite axioms, commemorated in a posthumous note.

Mom’s favorite signature line, commemorated in a posthumous note.

Beam Me Up, Scotty!

“Beam me up, Scotty” is an oft-misquoted catch phrase from the grand patriarch of all television and film space odysseys, Star Trek.

Contrary to popular belief, Captain James T. Kirk never issued precisely this command to his Chief Engineer, Montgomery Scott, at any time during the last half century. He came close in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home when he said, “Scotty, beam me up,” but no script contains the exact words in the exact order that fans ‘round the world love to repeat.

Mom loved that hijacked line, too. It was one of the axioms she commemorated for posterity when she dictated some recollections to my sister in her final days. After she passed away, we borrowed the essence of it for her memorial brochure.

The mortuary that handled Mom’s cremation suggested the brochure even though we weren’t planning a service, and we thought, well, why not? However, the samples they provided completely turned us off; they just didn’t reflect Mom’s spirit. I’m sure our faces looked as if we had just sucked lemons when we read standard language like, “Entered into the world on (insert date) and returned to the loving arms of the Heavenly Father on (insert date).” Finally, in a moment of dazzling inspiration, we decided to characterize Mom’s arrival and departure in Star Trek terms.

Beamed Down: December 4, 1924.  Beamed Up: December 9, 2013

She would have loved it.Beam Me Up (5)

Like legions of other Trekkies, Mom used the altered quote, “Beam me up, Scotty,” as a synonym for escape. Who wouldn’t want to be transported from an unfriendly planet to the safety of a powerful starship? From a stressful workplace to a peaceful tropical island? From a miles-long traffic jam to the serenity of home? From a time in your life when insulin shots and a wheelchair are your best friends to a better day when you enjoyed good health?

While many Star Trek innovations like communicators and hand-held electronic tablets have emerged in real life as cell phones and i-Pads, scientists haven’t quite come up with a way to dematerialize matter and rematerialize it somewhere else. I understand that a handful of brilliant Montgomery Scott wannabes are working on it, but it’s not likely to come true in my lifetime.

It certainly didn’t come true in Mom’s. She had to settle for virtual trips through time and space with her Star Trek comrades. Once she had an opportunity to become part of her favorite crew through a green screen technique at a Universal Studios souvenir shop. Years later she enjoyed a museum tour, a make-believe battle with the cybernetic species known as the Borg and lunch in a futuristic Ferengi café – all within the earthbound walls of the now defunct Star Trek exhibit at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel.

Beam Me Up (3)Mom wasn’t really content with fictional interstellar exploration, however. She was the quintessential skywatcher. My niece, Rhianna, and I both have vivid memories of midnight adventures oohing and aahing with Mom as we watched the Perseid and Leonid meteor showers. Most of the family also remembers being with Mom when we excitedly spotted Comet Hale-Bopp hanging over the Pacific Ocean in 1997. Half a dozen years later, while cruising through Alaska’s Inside Passage, I clearly remember rousing her in the middle of the night and pushing her wheelchair to the observation deck to witness the unique spectacle of the Northern Lights.

Memories of her delight in heavenly mysteries are the intangibles Mom bequeathed to us, but she also left behind hard evidence. Ever the organizer, she preserved some of her celestial research in a big, white binder labeled “Things That Interest Me.” The thick scrapbook commemorates her fascination with everything from The Lord of the Rings to Charles Schulz and his immortal Peanuts cartoon strip, but the last section is all about “Outer Space.” It begins with a 2008 article from Parade magazine about the final repair mission of the Hubble Telescope and is followed by Internet printouts of photos snapped by the amazing contraption. Breathtaking galaxies, incredible star formations and other stunning cosmic anomalies constitute a proverbial feast for the eyes. Meanwhile, the cover she chose for the binder erases any doubt about her principal interest. It’s a portrait of the Pillars of Creation inside the Eagle Nebula.

Beam Me Up (2)Until I was preparing to write this column, I never paid much attention to the details of Mom’s enchantment with those far away images. Now I know that the Eagle Nebula is essentially a cluster of gas and dust, that the Pillars of Creation are giving birth to stars, and that the phenomena is situated near the constellation that is Mom’s astrological sign – Sagittarius the Archer. Interestingly, some astrologers say that people born under this sign enjoy experiences that are beyond the physically familiar and are eager to explore new dimensions of thought. Whether Mom was aware of that last piece of trivia is unknown but, for me, it opens another window into the soul of the person who was my own Pillar of Creation.

While poking around on the Internet, I was sad to discover that the Pillars of Creation that Mom so loved no longer exist. They were destroyed 6,000 years ago by a supernova, but the shockwave hasn’t reached Earth as yet. We are basically seeing ghosts carried on beams of light over the vast expanse of space.

Learning about the Pillars’ demise is a little like finding out that “Beam me up, Scotty” is not actually a true line from Mom’s beloved space franchise. Yet, I somehow find both realities rather poetic.

Mom’s physical body is gone but her spirit continues to light my way like a heavenly beacon. The letter, cards and notes she left behind for me have served as a loving foundation to document priceless memories about living with her, caring for her during her last years and loving her for a lifetime. As I said to her grandchildren and great grandchildren in last week’s column, she will never truly be gone as long as we keep her in our thoughts, our conversations and our hearts.

As for the errant line from Star Trek, I take comfort in what Captain Kirk and other crewmates often did say when they were ready to return to the safety of their interplanetary home on the starship Enterprise. By the time she passed away five days after her 89th birthday, Mom was exhausted and no longer able to move or talk. Her physical resources were completely used up. In Star Trek jargon, her Dilithium Crystals were depleted. I’d like to think that, when she finally departed, someone somewhere issued the simple but beautiful command that restored her weary soul.

Energize!

Today I’ll borrow one more line from Star Trek in salute to Mom. In the words of 20th Century whale biologist Dr. Gillian Taylor when she had to say good-bye to Captain Kirk at the end of The Voyage Home, “See you around the galaxy.”

Beam Me Up (1)

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!