Bigger than life and in full bloom

It’s mom’s birthday and SIL called to ask me how I’m doing. It’s the first time in 18 years that we aren’t celebrating mom’s birthday and the first time in a decade that my brother and wife aren’t coming to celebrate. We always speculated how many more birthdays there would be. No more, as it turns out. But blessed that we had so many.

She asked me if mom had always been “bigger than life.” It was the first time I had heard anyone else use this phrase to describe mom as I had to myself.

I said, “Yes. And after making the DVD of her life in photos. After reading her high school yearbook. After seeing all the newspaper photos–President of the PTA, President of the Women’s Convocation, Altar Guild Directress, etc.–yes, she was bigger than life. She had adoring fans always.”

My sister-in-law was one of those fans because mom always had an encouraging word.

“I miss that,” she said.

I understand.

Mom was a strong presence to the very end. People loved her.

I took this photo of her just months before she died. She didn’t feel well that day and in preceding candid shots she was frowning, as she is slightly in this photo. But I asked her to turn to me and smile. This photos captures her classic handclasp, her pure gaze, and her heart, making it one of my favorite photos.

Mom had a small Christmas cactus in her apartment. It had never bloomed. A  month or so before mom died I finally repotted it. A few weeks ago I saw that it was gathering buds. On Easter, the day I always bought mom an Easter lily, it was in full bloom, as it is today for her birthday. Happy Birthday mom.


In her shadow

My friend and former sister-in-law came for four days to help me finish with mom’s things. She is organized and could empty a jewelry box, for example, and examine each item and then organize the items into respective piles: to keep, to give away, to keep for a little while. We took mom’s clothes to the mission and in exchange I received a tax receipt, which seemed odd to me, but the lady at the donation box offered and I said okay.

We packed all of mom’s travel and photo albums, travel journals, her high school yearbook, newspaper photos, and random keepsakes of my father’s (like his political science notes from USC 85 years ago) in the cedar chest, along with the wedding dress and shoes from 1935, her skating skirt and two family Bibles that have been stored for years. The items are contained and available later for any grandchildren or great grandchildren who might be interested in the history of Sybil. The antique dishes are on the hutch and other photos are around the house. It feels like a museum.

Before I interred the high school yearbook, I read inscriptions from her friends when she graduated in 1926. “Dear Sybil. I’ll never forget our good time at Balboa?” or, “Dear Sybil. Don’t forget Balboa during Easter vacation. We certainly had a wonderful time,” or “Dear Sybil. Please always remember me and all the fun we have had at rehearsals, etc.–Balboa etc,” or, “Dearest Sybil: Remember the good times we had at Balboa,” or, “Dear Sybil: Here’s to a friend. We’ve had some good times together. Remember Balboa and Venice? Well Sybil, you are a keen kid.”

There were many other inscriptions, but I was curious about the good times at Balboa. Mom revisited her high school memories many times and I kept track of the yearbook, but I never took the time to read it with her. I was jealous of her yearbook. Mine was long gone and I had no memories of people expressing their undying love and respect and ardor, even though I had fun at Balboa, too. But it wasn’t the same. Her life had a class and style to it. She was big–in the sense of attracting people and men (two of her high school pals later became her second and third husbands). As a child I was in her orbit, until I became a teenager and left her orbit, only to return so many years later and to become a moon around her sun, the rock star manager, the caretaker.

When I prepared the DVD of mom’s life to show at the memorial I was struck with the early photos, taken by friends or suitors or family members. But after my father died there are few photos. One of me with my mother when I’m four or five. Some of my brother before dad died. There are a few graduation photos, one of me in a confirmation dress, several school photos, one tiny one of me and my brother with her on a picnic.

There are no family trips, no Christmas photos, no family albums, no holiday get-togethers. Although I know she loved us, the photo and travel albums are pre-family or post-family. The photos pick up again when I started taking pictures, as did my brother when his kids were little. When she moved to Washington and family began to visit, there are numerous photos, especially of the yearly birthday family get-togethers for mom with grandchildren and then later a great grandchild. But as the DVD plays the gaps are obvious.

What is also obvious is the shaping of my life around the shape of mom’s life. Instead of revisiting my own memories of high school, college, early marriage, and the events of my life, it’s been all about preserving and storing the events and memories of mom’s life so that someone may see her history one day.

Where my history fits, I’m not sure. A kind friend wrote to me on a condolence card and said, “yes, your mother was amazing. Now you go be amazing. As you choose.”

I don’t know about amazing, but clearly I need to find a way to reshape my life–into my life.

“I’m a sailor. I sail. I sail now.” Bob Wiley to Dr. Leo Marvin

Did you ever see the movie, “What about Bob?” I saw it eight times, more than any other movie I’ve ever watched. Richard Dryfuss played Dr. Leo Marvin, the psychiatrist who went nuts. At moments he reminded me of my second husband. The movie is absurd slapstick, not usually my genre, but this one I loved.

There are a number of famous lines in the movie. One is when Bob, played by Bill Murray, an obsessive compulsive who stalks Dr. Leo but has the support of Dr. Leo’s family, is sailing–tied to the mast because he is so afraid. But then he is excited that he is overcoming his fear–sort of. He yells to Dr. Leo on the dock, “Look, I sail. I sail now.” Dr. Leo, through gritted teeth says, “Keep sailing, Bob.”

I wasn’t tied to the mast this weekend when DH and I went sailing in the San Juan Islands with a friend.  But there were moments I thought, “Look mom, dad. I sail. I sail now.” They would have smiled and told me to keep sailing, but not through gritted teeth. They loved to sail, but when my dad died she sold the sailboat and never sailed again, except for cruising on large ships. She took a freighter around the world once for four months. She loved being on the water and told me that sailing was in my blood.

We left Bellingham Saturday about 3:30 and sailed for two hours at about 7 knots. When the boat heeled over, the skipper gave me the pitch about “the boat can’t turn over,” and I believed him–mostly.  He said it would take a 30 mph gale to roll the boat. Precisely, I thought. About then I wanted to tie myself to the mast. No, not really. I wasn’t worried. Our skipper is a coast guard captain and a sailing instructor and has been sailing for 50 years.

And DH sailed for the first 35 years of his life–racing to Tahiti, Hawaii and other places as an adult. Then he bought an orchard in the middle of Washington and until Saturday hadn’t sailed in 30 years. Although it’s clearly in his blood, and he knew exactly what he was doing, I was glad that he was getting his sea legs back with someone who knew the area before we go out on our planned sailboat charter this fall.

At Cypress Island we anchored in a small lagoon for the night. My appetite had returned as we sailed that afternoon so the barbecued steaks and wine tasted great. Over dinner we talked about many things–grief a main topic. Our hosts second wife left him for a woman more than ten years ago. It wasn’t so much her leaving him for another woman that upset him, though–it was the loss of a long-term relationship and the realization that he was repeating patterns.

Through counseling, journaling and introspection, he journeyed through his grief and wrote a book (unpublished) about loss and grief and fear. I will read the book in part as an editor and in part because I’m curious.

Before bed we saw the full moon reflecting off the water. Another gift of the journey. We went to bed and DH promptly fell asleep and I listened to the sounds of someone else getting a good night’s sleep. But eventually the gentle rocking of the boat and the warm down comforter sent me to sleep.

In the morning, we drank tea and ate cereal and I photographed the early morning sunrise. A seal fed nearby. It was still, no wind yet, and cold. I huddled under a blanket on deck and watched DH and the skipper add new rope to the pontoons. A seagull landed on a rocky outcropping. A boat sailed in the distance.

Before long we were underway, sailing two hours back to the harbor. My dear husband was at the helm and was clearly a happy man. As for me…I think mom was right. It’s in the blood.  Now what to do about being land-locked? Nothing else to do but plant the garden. Peas, potatoes, onions and lettuce are in.

Laughter, sailing and peas

DH’s nephew and wife came for a visit Tuesday. The sun came out. It wasn’t windy. We sat on the patio and drank beer and ate chips. And I laughed. Because they didn’t know mom, there was no sadness attached to their visit. Nephew is hilarious and irreverent and he and his wife play off each other similar to DH and I. It was refreshing.

Later we ate crab, artichoke, asparagus and corn that they had purchased at Pike Place Market in Seattle. We ended up in a food coma, but it was worth it. Later we lounged with loose belts watching the Mariners while they played word games on their Iphones–reminiscent of son and girlfriend a few days before playing chess and scrabble on their Iphones. I’m convinced more than ever that I need–yes, need–an Iphone. DH has one he will upgrade and I will get my own.

They left yesterday and for the first time in weeks I felt as if I was functioning at the new normal–well, whatever that is. I’m not sure what it means yet not to have to run to mom’s, do errands, take her to the doctor, and make sure she is okay. I did run my own errands, which took up the afternoon, and I still have her things to sort, but there is a vague relief, a sense that mom wants me to be happy and move forward–because that’s what she has done. Other times, I long to run to her place and feel needed.

While nephew was here we got a call from a new friend who has a 43-foot sailboat. He asked if we wanted to go on a test cruise this weekend out of Bellingham. He is sailing to Alaska soon to deliver his boat to a charter customer, but his wife isn’t available this weekend to do the test run. Thus, we will go.

It will be the first time in more than a decade I don’t have to run through the caregiving hoops to make sure mom will be fine while I’m gone. Last time we went away, mom ended up in the hospital with congestive heart failure. We went from the freeway to the hospital. DH and I have taken several trips in the past five years, but I had to make sure everything was in place before we left. It feels odd not to have to do that. It also feels odd that she won’t be checking on us, praying for us as we travel the pass, making sure we are home and then curious as to how our trip went.

A few days ago I found a 2004 journal entry:

7/14/04 – [Brother] said mom has a year or two if she decides she wants to be here.  Much less if not. Sort of what I’ve been sensing. He said it was just a feeling. It’s really hard to imagine her being here longer, but it’s possible. Mixed feelings, of course. I want to hold on to her, but I also want to experience life without her. Once she’s gone I know I’ll ask myself why. But she not’s enjoying this much anymore.

I am grateful for those extra seven years, those many conversations, her prayers and queries, all of it.  There were many fine moments we will treasure.

I also realize that I’m tired. Even for a short weekend, I’m ready to sit on a sailboat and do nothing but watch the guys check out the boat, knowing that I won’t get a call in the night. Even though I rarely got calls in the night in the last year, I was always on alert.

After nephew and his wife left the clouds came again with a chilling breeze. Today I planted two rows of Walla Walla sweet onions with my hood up on my sweatshirt. I’m expecting three pounders like last year. Later today I’ll plant sugar snap peas and Friday I’ll plant red potatoes.

Memorials are for everyone

I’ve attended memorials, celebrations of life, or funerals throughout my life. But it didn’t start well. I wasn’t present at my dad’s funeral and burial because I was “too young,” if there is such a thing. But neither was my brother, who was six.

Much later, I hid in the back seat of the car when a neighbor friend died of cancer when I was 15. I didn’t go to my grandmother’s funeral, a fact I regret. But I did attend my father-in-law’s funeral when I was 20, but I have no memory of any of it.

It wasn’t until much later–in the past decade–that I have attended funerals/memorials/celebrations in any meaningful way. A couple of them were tragic. An 18-year-old who committed suicide. A young mother killed when an out-of-control sports car hit their motor home. And then a few for older people who died after a long life.

But I had never organized a memorial before. It felt awkward. No family members helped me decide what to do, except for son’s girlfriend who created the program. And then when it was over my son told me about the aspects he didn’t like. It felt like criticism, but I know he had a right to his feelings and perceptions about it.

I invited mom’s former managers to conduct the service for mom. They knew her well, loved her and watched over her when they were managers, and knew many of the residents who would attend. He was also an ordained pastor. His wife sang a hymn. My son thought he tried too hard and didn’t like the hymn.

I invited mom’s Episcopal priest to say a few words and she, in turn, invited a couple of other people who knew mom to offer reflections. One woman offered an emotional vision of heaven. It was, in son’s eyes, over-the-top emotional. I, too, was uncomfortable, but decided that maybe someone else needed to hear that vision that day.

The second Episcopal person knew mom for 18 years and offered sweet words about her. But then he said something about his combat experience and I was a little confused. But a friend of mine, also a former Marine, connected with him after the service.

The pastor then shared a homily about Psalm 46. “‘Be still,’ I think she would say to you now,” he offered.

When my brother spoke he said, “Yes, mom, would tell me to ‘be still,’ and then she’d tell me to shave my beard.” That got a laugh. I never remember her saying, ‘be still,’ but she said often, “It will all work out.” Sort of the same thing.

My son liked what my brother shared.

Then it was sharing time for those present. One woman said they used to play cards together. I asked her to tell the rest of the story, which was that mom played by her own rules. The card group finally called her on it and she stopped playing with them.

Another shared a memory from her 100th birthday party when mom was asked, “Who was your favorite president?” and she replied, “I never discuss politics.”

A caregiver who had been with her four years then shared. I cried with her as she talked about mom and her love for her. She said mom taught her much about life and that she became a better person for knowing her. “She helped me as much as I helped her.” She then read a poem, crying as she read.

We honored mom, laughed, cried, and shared the experience with people who had known and loved her.

My son said he wished that it had just been a family event. But it was, I think I said. This event was for the people here who were her “family”–people who saw her every day, who took care of her, who made sure she was getting to meals, to her hair appointments, who took care of the nitty-gritty details of everyday life. They were the people who helped her get to bed at night and cleaned her apartment each week.

The caregivers in our loved ones lives are to be honored and respected for their loss, just as much as those who are blood family. Our loss is deep–but they miss her, too.

Empty nest

Yesterday morning we were preparing to take my brother and SIL to the airport. My coat was in the car and since it had been a cold night, I thought I’d bring it in and put it in the clothes dryer for a few minutes to warm it up.

When everyone was ready (ten minutes had elapsed), I said, “Where’s my coat?” I looked all over the house, exclaiming what a mystery it was that my coat had disappeared. I went out to the car again, looked on the patio, looked in the closet, looked everywhere, and finally grabbed another coat, frustrated with the disappearance of my coat.

I didn’t realize where it was until later that day, when in a quiet moment, I said to myself, “Aha, my coat is in the dryer.”

It would be worrisome, except that I hadn’t slept well, my family was leaving, and we had just finished three intense days of shared memories and shared grief, had a memorial for mom, and had gone through many of mom’s letters, photos and keepsakes, deciding who wanted what. My mind wasn’t totally my own.

But the good in it all is that having my brother and SIL here was perfect. We had the shared experience I needed and hopefully they felt the same. But as a reader pointed out, grieving is most often a solo journey. It was still hard to see them go.

After we dropped them at the airport, DH and I drove through a section of town where the magnolias and dogwoods are blooming. I began to cry (again) because I was suddenly and acutely aware of all the times I had taken mom through those avenues to look at the spring blooms and then later in the autumn, the fall colors, her waving her hands and exclaiming at the beauty.

People say about grief that you have to cycle through a year of seasons and holidays, each event reminding them of their loved one, before it begins to clear. (Earlier at the airport while waiting for brother and SIL to leave, DH said, “What are we going to do Christmas?” I almost kicked him. I was simply trying to make it through the day. He was trying to distract me. But with Christmas? Please.)

We made it through the avenues and then past mom’s building (yes, that’s the route DH took). I felt bereft and rung out. Then at our mailbox there was a letter from a cousin on my dad’s side. It was a lovely letter. He apologized for the late arrival of their condolences (can they ever be late?) and I wrote him back and assured him the timing was perfect.

“Mom was of the same generation,” he said–except that his mother, my aunt, is an is and not a was. She’s 95, and I called her after reading his letter. Talking to her is a comfort.

“”They seem to live forever. So when the day comes it is a mixed blessing. But also a relief from sharing their pain, the worry, and their desire to move on. They lived through many lives. Their friends long since gone. It’s finally their time. We should rejoice at their departure, but she is still your mother and that is always difficult.”

“I know you will miss your mother. Maybe not now, for now it is relief. A big weight has been lifted from your shoulders. And sorrow, for now she is gone.”

His words brought clarity and a moment of relief. But relief–a feeling I thought I would have–is not how I would describe this experience. I miss her with a sorrow akin to the empty nest. When my only child left home, it was a grief like now. Except that I still get to call him and visit him.

I started paying bills and getting our tax information gathered together (since there’s one week until the deadline). And then my cell phone rang. It was Sunday afternoon, about three, about the time mom would be through with her lunch, and in between a nap and supper. I immediately thought she was calling. It was my brother calling me from Seattle on their layover, asking me how I was doing. I started to cry. Again.

I assume it will be that way for a while yet. The thunder storms coming and going until they give way to the spring showers. The garden still beckons. One day soon it will no longer be cold and windy.

Shared experience

I’ve been puzzling over my sense of aloneness. People have been more than kind. Cards have arrived, even from mom’s former oncologist who hadn’t seen her in five years. I also understand that grief is a solitary endeavor, that no one can truly enter into another person’s loss. Even among family members, there’s a multitude of perspectives.

I was also feeling inexplicably anxious about my brother and sister-in-law coming in two days. There are the obvious reasons–they will be seeing mom’s things for the first time in my house, we will decide who wants what and do a memorial on Saturday, all of which is enough to make anyone anxious. But it was more than all of that.

It was the sense that I am on the outside of the grieving process that my brother and sister-in-law are sharing together. It’s supposed to be this way. There’s nothing wrong, but I felt left out, confused and anxious.

And then, through a conversation with a friend about my discombobulated thoughts, I had an aha.

When my father died I was a baby and my brother was six. He remembered our father. They used to throw the baseball around. They ran the train under the Christmas tree. There was relationship beyond babyhood, which is where I lived when my father died. My brother’s grief was real and palpable, something to which my mother could attend. I was just a baby, apparently with “no memory.”

When I became a midwife, I encouraged my clients to acknowledge a baby’s ability to hear, process, and understand on some level, to not assume that they are unable to comprehend. When a child has lost a parent, no matter the age, it is important to acknowledge that loss.

We were not allowed to attend the funeral and my stepfather was determined to erase the memory of our father. He was never mentioned. We moved in with a man who was the exact opposite of a loving father and my brother’s awareness of that was more acute than mine in the beginning. Mom attended to my brother’s grief because he “remembered.” I have memories of her saying that. They had a shared experience that I could not enter.

Mom was not aware of my grief until I described it to her as an adult, when I finally understood that I had been living with buried grief my entire life. I, too, had lost a loving father who was replaced by a predator.

As I revisited those childhood feelings of being left out of their shared experience, my mind cleared. It was as if my right-brain processing was given a boost to the left. As in most cases, the process today is informed by the process in the past. I was alone then. I am not alone now. My brother wasn’t responsible then to share the grief. My mother was. Now that she is gone? He is still not responsible.

But talking to him, sharing my grief with him now, even in small ways, is helpful. I’m no longer a baby, just someone grieving a loss, complicated in part by past losses. But simpler now. I’m not anxious about their visit, but looking forward to a shared experience.