Remembering…to let go

It’s hard to remember what it was like. The photos mostly portray the good times with family, when we were laughing, being together. Sometimes we would laugh at mom because she didn’t want her photo taken and she would say, More? When are we going to be finished? because the flash hurt her eyes. But I’m so glad I insisted.

Earlier, of course, I wasn’t there to take the photo. I wonder who the photographer was.

The photos not only portray happy times, but they remind me what was also true, the aging, especially in the last couple of years. It’s easy to forget because now I see a younger woman when I think of her.

But I have to remind myself that mom was so tired, so frail, so determined not to need more care that it made it harder to care for her.

I forget how humiliated she was recently by the the bathroom accidents. That seemed to be the worst of all the indignities she had to face.

I forget about the TIAs, the mini-strokes, that left her speechless and the caregivers flummoxed, and her throwing her hearing aides against the mirror. I used to take her to the hospital and they would do tests and then next morning she would be fine or sent to rehab. I learned just to keep her at home and she would come out of it.

I forget (as she did) about the falls that sent her to the hospital in the night. The eight-inch tear down her arm that left the bathroom looking like “there was a double-murder” according to the then manager. Other cuts and tears needed home health nurses to do wound care for weeks and weeks.

I forget about the time the caregiver walked in and found her on the floor, her head wedged between an end table, unconcious. I forget about the time she fell and was like a beached turtle until someone found her.

I forget about the lymphoma surgeries and her saying then, six years ago, that she didn’t want radiation because she was an old woman and ready to go. But then she had radiation and lost 15 pounds and then fell and broke her tailbone and ended up back in the hospital and spent three weeks in respite care telling us she wanted to die. That’s when she pleaded with me not to grieve for her when she was gone.

I forget about all the times I hired caregivers and she would try to fire them, but eventually gave in. We settled on a minimum, but for a couple of years they stayed into the night because of our fear that she would fall and be left alone.

After we moved her a year and a half ago, she got better, which seems impossible. But recently she began to fall again. She started training the new managers to pick her up, rather than to call the EMTs and make her wait on the floor.

I forget how frustrating it was to have her call me and ask a question and then not be able to hear the answer. She was barely able to hear my brother and couldn’t hear my sister-in-law at all (higher ranges were hard), except for the last conversation with him she heard well, convincing him she was going to live to 103. When sitting next to her on her sofa I would have to face her and yell for her to hear me. But then other times I could talk from across the room.

I forget that she couldn’t hear music, one of her great loves.

I forget how difficult it was for her to simply get through her daily routine. In our last conversation she said, “You just don’t understand what it is to be this age.” I think I said, “You don’t understand what it’s like to care for someone your age,” a comment I will regret. But I was trying to convince her that she needed more care, that I was worried she would fall in the night and be alone. But then she would remind me that she had her link to life button, a tool I had to coerce her to wear when she first began to fall. “Promise me, you won’t worry,” she would say. And I replied with an internal HA!

I forget, which makes it more painful, so I must remember.

Yesterday I had a continuation of a vision I had several months ago. In the earlier vision I saw my dad greeting my mother. He was young and handsome, the way he’ll always stay. My mother, though, was now young and beautiful, in a filmy gown. Her face was turned away from me, her hair cut in the 20s style. My dad was reaching out his hand to her. She put her hand in his.

In the new vision, she turns and they both look at me. It’s as if they wave and mom says, Martha, we’re going now. You go live your life and be happy. You’ve worked hard. Now live your best life. They are busy moving on to a new life, as if he had been waiting for her. It was as if she was saying, Our journey is complete, sweetie. Now move on.

I know I must. Continuing to grieve deeply for a very old woman who was ready to go seems almost sacrilegious. But I won’t, as one person reminded me, apologize for my tears. I will miss her. But in the missing, I will try to remember, not just the good times, but the hard times, so I will more easily let her go.


Looking west

The garden beckons to me. It’s out there telling me (really) that it’s a safe place for me to go and allow the tears to fall, to grieve and to recover. Not that it hasn’t been safe to allow the tears to fall other places, but I know there will be a time when I still have tears but do not want them to come at unexpected times like yesterday in the stool softener aisle at the grocery store.

I wonder if tears will fertilize the garden soil. I recently read a book by Joan GussowThis Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader. When her husband died in 1997, she put his ashes in the garden. In my case, tears will suffice.

Earlier this year I told a friend who had gardened with me last year that I could no longer garden with her. I had a premonition that I was going to need the garden to myself this spring, rather than a chatty sharing of everything, which didn’t, in the end, work for me. My decision nearly (or probably) ended the friendship. But I had to do it.

The first reason I gave was true: Our garden is a good size for the two of us, with some left to share with our neighbors or the local food bank. I also want to experiment with gardening longer in the year. It’s a part-time job, I explained to my friend, and I need to maximize it to the best of my ability. This year we harvested carrots through the winter that I had planted in August. They were delicious. But after reading Gussow’s book mid-winter, my aspirations extended to onions, potatoes, parsnips, carrots, and kale as long as it lasts through the fall.

I didn’t share the second true reason with my friend and she knew I was holding back. But I couldn’t say, “Mom is going to die and I’m going to need the time in the garden to attend to my grief.” She was the one who said several years ago with good humor, “Well, she has to die some time.” I laughed (sort of) at the time.

People have been wonderfully sympathetic and kind, understanding the grief process, but there are many who say, understandably, that she “lived a long full life.” Got it. She did. I’m glad. Grateful. But I miss her more than I could have imagined. And although life goes on I am going to give myself time to allow the process.

The garden will help with that. Gussow lost her husband of 40 years. When people asked if she missed her husband, she had to admit that she really didn’t. But part of that was because she had so much focus; she had an enormous garden and she taught at a local university. She learned that her happiness had not been dependent upon her husband, but more upon her garden and her other activities. Reviewers have taken issue with her process–but she was honest.

I will miss my mom, always. But I don’t want to grieve indefinitely. I simply know, as Gussow did, that the garden is part of that process. Mom told me not to grieve long for her. But I want to allow whatever healing journey there is: not only of emotions, but of body. Thus the garden.

DH made me a solid cedar bench. I will place it on the north side of the garden. The position of grief. I will plant flowers at the ends, perhaps large sunflowers that will stand sentinel as I sit on a warm day by myself (or with DH) after tending to the garden. Just the thought gives me hope.

Next year, perhaps we’ll place the bench to the west.


101 years on a DVD

I’m making a DVD of mom’s life for her celebration service on the 9th. My cousin made one for my uncle when he died in March of 2003, eight years ago. The DVD was chronological, which is logical, but watching a person go from a baby to age 89 in 30 minutes is a bit shocking and sad. But beautiful, too.

There’s no other way to do it, though, than to place the photos at least somewhat chronologically. I start with mom’s mother holding her as a very tiny baby, fill the middle with numerous random photos, and end with several photos of her in the last few years. Actually I end it with her legacy, her two great grandchildren.

As I scanned the photos I watched as my mother didn’t age, especially between 70 and 90. Even into her 90s she didn’t look more than 75. It was only in the past five years that she began to show her age, but even at 100, she was beautiful. But I watched myself age from long dark brown hair to rinsed shoulder length hair to short gray hair. I’m not sure if it was the natural progression of normal aging, but alongside my mother it simply didn’t seem fair.

I was grateful that through the years, I thought to take many of the photos. If I was in the photo, it’s because I handed the camera to someone else. Family historians have to be bold or they disappear from history.

There’s only one photo of my mother and father and brother and I when I was a baby. Then he was gone. There are no family photos after she married my stepfather. No Christmas photos, no birthday photos, nothing. Just a few random shots, a portrait photo of me and my mother when I was four. Not until my brother married my first husband’s sister in 1968 are there family photos, including my stepfather.

There are photos of mom with her first grandbaby in 1969 and later photos of her with both my brother’s boys. Much later my son was born and there are photos with him each Christmas after she moved  to Washington, photos at his graduation, at my graduation from college in 2004, at my brother’s remarriage in 2003 and my remarriage in 2006, and then with the new great grandbaby, in 2005, and photos of her talking on Skype to her other great grandchild in Australia in 2009 when he was two and again in 2010 when he was three.

Each time the family would come we would line up on the couch and take a group photo, except for this December when they came to visit. It’s as if we all knew that we didn’t want the “last photo.”

By the time I finished scanning photos I felt as if I had been emotionally bludgeoned. A friend expected me at 1 p.m. so that I could learn how to make a movie for a DVD. When I arrived he served me my second whiskey and coke in my life, which I sipped while we explored how to use the iMovie program on my computer. The drink was just enough to warm me, but not enough to thwart my movie-making.

We focused on technology, the placement of the photos, the transitions, the editing. He said, “This is healing for you.” And I agreed. His cousin was staying with them and she looked at photos of mom, and like people always do, exclaimed over her beauty, even at 100. I was proud of my mom. When I left later, she thanked me for sharing the photos with her. My pleasure, I said.

By dinnertime, my friend’s wife had returned from a trip to Seattle and we ordered Chinese takeout and DH came over with the dog and we had wine and egg rolls and we talked for an hour before heading home. I was exhausted but satisfied.

Tomorrow we will put the music in place, sure to make us all cry, but it’s there to celebrate this woman who was our mom, grandmother, and greatgrandmother.

And now I know how to make family history movies for other people.

Guilty perspective

I awoke yesterday morning feeling guilty. It was as if, as a friend suggested, I was watching the same rerun of the Lucy show, over and over in my mind, but this rerun wasn’t funny. Guilt is like that, a story we tell ourselves. Sometimes guilt is appropriate, for which we must ask forgiveness. And that I did many times when I lost patience with mom. Her response was, “I’d lose patience, too, if I had to take care of me.” And we would laugh.

People tell me, oh, what a good daughter you were and I think, If you only knew the truth. The truth, of course, is that I was a good daughter with humanity written all over it.

I could have been more patient, but I wasn’t. I could have eaten with her more often, gone over on Sundays more often, sat with her longer, taken her to lunch more often, I could have… fill in the blanks.

It’s never enough. My friend who went to visit her mother every day in a nursing home for several years felt guilty when her mother died, which at the time I thought was inexplicable. But now I understand. When it’s all over and there’s no more to do, it’s easy to think of all the ways you could have done more, forgetting to appreciate all that you did do.

After I aroused myself out of my fog of guilt, I decided to go over to her building in the morning with some thank you cards I had for the managers and a few other people. I learned that mom reminded K, the manager, of her grandmother, which was one reason they connected the way they did. They were kindred spirits from the beginning. I was grateful. Both she and her husband loved mom and watched out for her. Especially K took it hard when mom died, which is tough in her profession. It’s sort of like being a doctor–you can’t get too attached. But you do.

I talked to mom’s hairdresser, who told me a story about how mom used to fold the towel to put behind her head when she washed her hair. She said those in the shop talk about Sybil every day and miss her. The manicurist came in and we talked and I told her in passing that I was feeling guilty. She said, “Oh, no…..” and right about then mom’s morning caregiver who had been with mom the longest, came in and didn’t exactly scold me but reminded me of all I did for her over the years. She said, “There are many people here whose children never come to see them….you have no idea.” When I talked to the managers later they said the same thing…that they have to call the children and say, “your parent needs you,” and even then they don’t want to come. They said that when some people die the children will come and collect a few things and leave the rest for the managers and staff to take care of. Perspective.

The caregiver and I went into the hallway and talked more about mom. She reminded me of the time years ago that she quit, walked out, as in, “I’ve had enough….” I talked to mom about how she was treating R, and begged R not to quit. After that they got along well, and the caregiver said as she tapped her heart, “I have a special place in my heart for Sybil.”

It soothed me to talk to people who knew mom and loved her. All the staff that I have gotten to know have been kind and loving not only to mom, but to me as well, encouraging me in my role as caregiver. Without them it would have been much harder. They became my community as well.

Now that is over. DH and I emptied the last of her things out of her apartment. I gave the key to the managers. I didn’t cry (mainly because I had already cried right before they opened the door.) The manager gave me her email address so we could keep in touch. I will find excuses to go over. Perhaps I’ll start getting regular manicures like mom used to do and sit in the spot where mom used to sit and talk to people who cared for her.

Or, perhaps I’ll start my business I’ve thought about for seven years, “Connecting the Generations,” creating photographic or written journals for people who don’t have children nearby who care to help their parents do what mom and I did for years, her telling stories and me recording them for the family.

Later, DH and I drove to the mountains. Fresh snow sat upon the ridges as the setting sun illuminated hills faintly green. We went to one of our favorite restaurants. We were the only people there and sat by their wood stove and after dinner and they closed up, the owners and our friends, sat with us and we told stories. CJ has parents in their 80s and through the years we have talked about our co-misadventures. She told me about taking a meal to a woman friend who is nearing 100, whose daughter, her caregiver, died last August of complications of diabetes.


Ancestral memory

Reading about the Salem witch trials might seem an odd reading choice while grieving for my mother. But The Heretic’s Daughter is a moving historical fiction narrative told in the voice of 11-year-old, Sarah Carrier, who becomes imprisoned in horrifying conditions with her siblings and her mother, who was accused of witchcraft. It’s as true a story as can be told based on known history and the stories the author, Kathleen Kent, heard growing up about her ancestor, Martha Carrier, the mother in the story.  It’s sad history. But the story informs on many levels, and the mother/daughter relationship touches me.

We had said all we could have said to her of love and sorrow on the evening before. Her last exhausted words to me, spoken as the cells quieted into the evening’s rest, were “There is no death in remembrance. Remember me, Sarah. Remember me, and a part of me will always be with you.”

Remembering mom won’t be hard for me. Our living room is a new configuration now with mom’s hutch and the great-grandmother dishes upon the shelves, placed not how mom had them, but how I have them. Now mine. No longer hers, but still hers, and still my grandmother’s and still my great-grandmother’s. I unpacked a box of cut-glass goblets that were most certainly a wedding present or purchase in 1935, along with Theodore Haviland Limoges France dessert plates and demitasse tea cups and saucers, a set of 11 that I didn’t know she had.

Friends arrived for dinner and I took down some of her dinner plates and bowls from her historic America china that I’ve had in my home ever since mom lived with my son and I 17 years ago. I pulled out her stirling silver flatware. We lit candles and served wine in the goblets and ate dinner on her plates and remembered mom and toasted Sybil. The room was full of love and not just from the four of us. It seemed that our parents and ancestors, all of them gone except for my friend’s mother, were with us in spirit.

The next day I went through more papers and found more of the cards she always kept, including birthday cards my brother and I gave her as children. I found more photos of her, one a beautiful newspaper photo of her in a bowling league. I didn’t even know she bowled.

I keep learning more about my mother. And like Sarah and women throughout history, I will remember my mother. Even without all the accoutrements, she will always be a part of me. But when I eat on her dishes, look at her photos, write on her desk, put my clothes in her dresser, I will also remember.  Throughout history furniture and dishes and other remembrances have been passed on to descendants. As it happens, I am no longer simply “keeper of the stuff,” but a repository for ancestral memory.

A side note: My paternal Porter ancestors were in part responsible for reason returning to Salem Village and persecution and trials ceasing, a fact I am pleased to know.

Labor and delivery

Note: I refer to my sisters-in-law in some of my posts. Although I have not described them previously I will do so because they come up in this post and others. I married the brother of SIL#1 and then she married my brother when we were all very young. She and I became close friends. She was mother to brother’s children, my mother’s grandchildren. We all divorced, I before my brother and SIL#1. My brother later married SIL#2. She and mom didn’t have the closest relationship, but mom remembered her with love and often thought about her because every day she used an afghan SIL#2 crocheted for her. SIL#3 is my brother’s third wife and his soulmate. My mom loved her DILs, as I love my SILs. That said….

When I was a midwife, I would describe labor to women who were to give birth for the first time. But there really wasn’t any way to do it justice.

“It’s excruciating, but the pain will pass and then you’ll have your baby in your arms,” just didn’t seem to cut it. Especially because many women don’t have that kind of birth.

“You’ll feel like you’ll want to castrate your husband,” isn’t very helpful, either.

“When you are pushing it will be the hardest work you’ll ever do, but it’s soooo rewarding in the end,” is met with blank stares.

Mostly I tried to educate about the process and to instill confidence that they would have the support they needed when the time came. And that they could do it.

Like labor, no one could describe to me what it would be like to lose my mom and go through the steps in the aftermath of her passing. The past few days have been difficult. A family member tells me her grief is internal and that she can only share it with those who loved my mom. Some of my grief is like that, raw and unexpected, catching me off guard.

But I find that sharing the story with others is part of what keeps me going. How do I describe or educate someone about what it’s like to lose a loved one and go on doing what you need to do. I could say, “It may be the hardest work you’ll ever do, but you’ll have the support you need when the time comes,” and let it go at that. But it’s as if I need to find a way to take the emotional pain and give it an active structure, to describe it as best I can, hopefully to transform the suffering into some kind of creative expression that will lead to living life more joyfully…and perhaps help others do the same.

Like labor, though, it’s difficult to describe and every experience is different. But each story informs.


The birth and death analogies break down at a certain point. Birth brings a living breathing baby into our arms. Death takes a living breathing person from our arms, and even though they may pass to a new life, we aren’t with them. As mom used to say, “It’s a mystery.”

Yesterday I went through mom’s clothes and packed them up, thankfully with help from a friend, who acted as midwife to me. She had been through the labor of sorting through her mother’s clothes–and she did it by herself, even though her siblings were in town.

Going through the clothes is difficult because each item carries with it a memory, a scent, an image of mom. She had her blouses for years; the pink one with the scalloped collar was the one she wore the last three birthdays and is the one I’ll save. But there are so many others that she wore over the years, nice blouses that she picked out or SIL#1 bought for her, sometimes many at a time, giving mom options. SIL#1 seemed to have the knack for picking the style mom wore: tunic-style, long sleeves, open collar, polyester or silk, in bright colors. Mom also wore vests to keep her back warm, preferably with pockets to hold her keys and a piece of kleenex. SIL#3 bought mom a beautiful deep turquoise vest for her for Christmas along with matching silver and turquoise earrings.

I went through her boxes of jewelry and found a couple of vintage items that I never thought I would wear, but might. The earrings and other jewelry I will save for SILs and I to go through.  I put on a necklace that wasn’t exactly vintage–more hippie (and one I never saw mom wear)–and got a compliment when we went to lunch. I wanted to say, “Oh, it was my mother’s, and she just died, and we were going through her stuff, and I picked this one, and, and…” I spared her the details and ordered lunch.

We packed the clothes in boxes and I was to deliver them to the mission, along with the blouses in the back seat of the car. I put the first box, containing her polyester pants in the donation bin (where mom had wanted them to go) but I stopped there. Instead of putting the remaining two boxes in the bin, I opened a sealed box and pulled a sweater to my face. It smelled of mom and there was a kleenex in the pocket. I wept.

I brought the clothes to the house at my friend’s earlier suggestion. She said it took her months to dispose of her mom’s clothes and for me to take my time. It also occurred to me that SILs might like something else of mom’s, even though I set aside a few items I thought they would like.

Today we move mom’s furniture, rearranging our home to accommodate the hutch, the sofa, the desk, the table. How it’s going to fit, I don’t know. My friend, the midwife, will help again. Another friend’s sons will help DH carry the big stuff and their family will take mom’s bed. I called other friends to come offer support. I’ll be glad when this step is done.

Attending to ritual

It’s been two weeks. DH went with me yesterday to get the ashes, a responsibility I didn’t want to undertake by myself. I’m capable and not afraid to take on hard emotional tasks, but that was one task I was avoiding. DH carried the cloth bag containing the black plastic box of ashes to the car. On the way I took it from him, the bag heavy in my hands, much the way my heart felt. I shifted it back to him, remarking on her weight. He placed the bag on the back seat of the car.

We didn’t say much on the way home. I watched the light changing on the hills and pointed to a Great Blue Heron stalking lunch in the Yakima River, but otherwise we were quiet. He reached over and held my cold hands, much the way mom used to do to warm them.

I meant to go alone the day before to retrieve her remains and pick up her death certificate, but DH was working on a bedroom remodel project we had put off for two years, ever since we painted the main part of the house in preparation for mom’s 100th birthday. We finished just in time for family to arrive, but never got back to the bedroom project. DH meant to start on the 5th, but then mom died and plans changed.

Instead, the day after mom’s death, DH worked on other projects while a friend and I went to mom’s to look at her furniture to decide what I would bring home. I wanted support when I looked at her space without her for the first time and focusing on the furniture with a friend helped. It was a first step in discovering that most everything she owned was destined for my house. If a family member wants to claim a piece, (I’m hoping my brother will claim her table and chairs as we do not have room for them) they are welcome to do so. But grandsons want small treasures to remember their grandmother. Brother and wife will decide when they arrive.

Her loveseat sofa, upon which she sat for the past 20 years, sat in our living room as I was growing up. My brother and I hid the monopoly game under it when we were young. I will set the sofa against a wall in our new bedroom, next to her antique secretary desk, one of two antiques she owned. The other antique is a 70-year-old hutch she has had since her marriage in 1935.  I will bring it to the house and put it in our living room, and upon it will continue to sit  my grandmother’s pressed glass side dish and cut glass candy dish, along with my great grandmother’s antique hob nail pitcher, platter, handblown goblets, and a blue Carnival glass berry set. For now I will keep them as a grouping on the hutch–maybe not in the same configuration as mom had them–but they will be visible.

For years I attended to the dishes on the hutch, dusting the shelves, gently moving the dishes as she watched from the loveseat. Every year or so I would polish the silver tea set that belonged to my stepfather’s mother. But it wasn’t until mom’s death that I really understood how it was that I was no longer simply keeping her stuff for her, but now I’m keeping several generations of stuff–for the next generation. How far it passes remains to be seen, but I do not take the responsibility lightly. Great grandmother to grandmother to mother to daughter. I have no daughter, but perhaps a granddaughter or my great niece, will one day be the recipients of the family heirlooms.

I never would have guessed that I would attend to ritual in the way that I am: the Ash Wednesday service, arranging to have a portion of ash set aside to scatter at sea, setting up an altar of sorts of photos of my mother with the cards and flowers we have received, setting aside the pink blouse she wore for her last three milestone birthdays, and finding ways to display and honor her things in ways I had not imagined.

The small rituals honor her memory and the memory of previous generations of women. It brings me comfort. I hope I let mom know how much I valued her things. I always asked her questions about all of it and she had written down what dish belonged to whom on a piece of paper in her small distinct script.

The ashes, however, will not be placed on the hutch next to the cut glass candy dish. They will be placed in the earth next to my father. While waiting for burial they will remain on a closet shelf where I put them when we arrived home yesterday. The ashes are a remembrance of the container in which she lived her life, but do not bring me comfort.