I had a dream about mom last night. It’s foggy now because I didn’t write it down, but I awoke with the feel of her about me. It’s the first dream I’ve had about mom since she died. I lay partially awake, shaking off the feeling that a dream sometimes leaves, the sense of trying to determine what’s real and what’s not.

I also woke twice in the night and didn’t know where I was. That could be partially due to the fact that I was sleeping in the spare bedroom. I sometimes sleep alone for a night or two when I’m feeling a need for sleep uninterrupted by either snoring or the dog shuffling about looking for a place to settle because Ben doesn’t want her in the kennel. When I’m in the spare room, we’ve discovered that Taz will sleep next to Ben all night. But when I’m there, she feels displaced, and is a pain in the ass, so I often put her in the kennel anyway.


When I finally woke all the way, I meditated on grief. And felt pissed off. I suddenly realized that I have given so much of my life to the drama of my father’s death, my mother’s inadvertent but unconcious betrayal, my stepfather’s thievery, and then to taking care of mom and all that meant, including the family dramas.

I’ve given enough of my time, my emotions, my tears, my health and my life. I’VE GIVEN ENOUGH.

Grief, go away.

Is that even possible? Am I just desperate to move to the next stage before I’m finished with this one. Wasn’t that exactly how I felt near the end of mom’s life, wanting to move from relentless limbo to the real thing? Then, I knew I would move into an enhanced place of pain. Now I want to be free of pain.

How the hell long am I supposed to be here? Is there some sort of rule? Or, is this just a bottomless pit?

Maybe scattering some of her ashes in the San Juan Islands and grieving the loss of a family that could never be, and grieving the loss of mom, and grieving the loss of a moment that brought it all to the fore for me, was my closure. Maybe that was the moment when that final bit of withering pain wrenched out of my gut and filled my eyes with bitter tears,..maybe that was enough pain.

Without going into denial and stuffing my emotions and doing the opposite of what grief counselors say you need to do, which is process it and talk about it so that it eventually heals and goes away, or, talk about it enough and feel it enough, that I become “accustomed” to the feeling of loss, or “accustomed” to her absence, or “accustomed,” to what living with grief feels like–can I just let it go? Are there rules?

Haven’t I honored mom enough? Honored her memory, honored her by keeping her stuff, honored her by attempting to bring our family together to take care of her remains, honored her in forgiveness, in making sure she was okay through the last decades of her life? Haven’t I given enough?

I’m tired, too, of still taking care of all the details of mom without resolution. While I feel I should be experiencing closure, the remainder of her ashes remain sitting on my shelf. Five pounds of mom’s remains.

My nephews want to have her ashes made into gemstones.  One says we won’t ever be able to get us all together, that a gemstone would be a way to keep her with us. Do I divide the ashes up: 8 oz (which is the amount required for a gemstone) of mom to Australia? 8 oz of mom to Seattle? 8 oz of mom to Southern California? 8 oz to my brother? 8 oz to my sister-in-law? Is that what I’m supposed to do?

Or maybe I just ship them off to my brother and he can divide them up as he sees fit and tell me when to show up in Glendale to inter the remainder of the remains?

Would that free me of this feeling I have that I haven’t finished my job of taking care of mom?

There just comes a point when you say, enough. It’s enough.

Time will tell if I’m in denial.


An evening tide

Sailing satisfied my soul.  Except for the hard work part of sailing, it felt natural and easy. I was not fearful, but had what I heard described by the charter outfit, as “relaxed awareness,” — alert, but not tense while sailing. Ben is always relaxed, but was alert to the dangers that were around us, how we could get off course, end up where we shouldn’t be. He also spent the week teaching the three of us the basics of sailing. He came home very tired.

Although I lost my sense of direction once, I never did again the rest of the trip. When I sailed or drove the boat under power, I felt confident as long as Ben was there to remind me if I was off course.

While Ben sailed I would sit on a corner seat in the back of the cockpit, giving me a view and a good vantage point for photos. I was happy there, content. Watching the water go by, the way the sun slid across the water through the clouds, turning the water shades of pure pink on an evening tide, made me smile.

Abundant wildlife thrilled us. Dahl porpoise, seals and sea lions, a bald eagle, a golden eagle, herons, deer, and mountain sheep. And ever present sea gulls that show up as if out of thin air whenever there’s something to eat.

I was deeply grateful for Ben’s companionship and a shared joy in sailing. He grew up sailing with his family and had sailed for a number of years as an adult. He spent time racing to Hawaii, and to Tahiti and other islands like Morea. And our sailing partners were used to vacationing in Hawaii, where they swim and snorkel and enjoy being in the water.

The San Juans are different. Colder. No palm trees like in Hawaii. No lolling about in the sunshine, although at Deer Harbor one afternoon we had 70 degree weather and sat in the sun relaxing.

But along with the joy, was also desolation. I was planning to scatter some of mom’s ashes. I didn’t know where, or how, or when. But I knew it was going to happen.

As we sailed and I sat watching the waves, the wind in my face, I thought of a photo I have of mom. She is young and married to my dad. They are on their sailboat and the breeze is blowing her hair and she is smiling.

And so, as we sailed, I grieved the lost years of my family, the years we could have been sailing as a family if my father hadn’t died. I grieved the years my stepfather stole from the family, including our family name, tearing a legacy asunder.

I didn’t share this part of the journey with anyone, but simply embraced the feelings of desolation of part of a singular journey, not allowing them to affect the joy I also felt at being there.

The second night we moored at Fox Cove on Stuart Island, the northern most island in the group. The third day we cruised around the outside of the island. It was sunny and warm and I sat on the bow of the boat as we skirted the U.S. Canadian border in the middle of the Georgia Straits.

I suddenly recognized that this was the spot I had been waiting for.  It was a place mom would have loved, cruising in the open, the sun on the water, the sound of the waves against the bow of the boat.

I collected the small bag of ashes from the cabin, went back to the bow of the boat, talked to mom and released the ashes. It was a solitary endeavor, this scattering.

Then I noticed some ash clinging to a rail on the side of the boat. I laughed and said, “Okay, mom, let’s go for a ride.”

But the attendant sadness also set me apart from the others. The morning after I scattered the ashes, we were moored in Deer Harbor. Ben had awakened me about 3 a.m. to see the stars and a quarter moon–to share a moment. But then, as the morning light came over the harbor, he let me sleep while the three of them enjoyed it together. When I awoke and realized that he hadn’t awakened me to share that moment, I felt inexplicably bereft. He said, “I took a photo.”

When he didn’t wake me I felt as if I had lost something we could not recapture. And even though I later recognized that my reaction was wrapped up in the fact that he had had the family sailing experience, and I had just been grieving the loss of mine, that he had had adventures that I had not shared with him, but hear about, I felt as if those adventures were so common to him, he could share them with anyone. I was left out, without voice to explain or to be understood.

That evening, Ben sailed into the evening light, pink upon the water. I was consoled. Loss and sadness woven into the joys of every day experience. Desolation countered with consolation. What takes life balanced with what gives life.

(See Sleeping with Bread, holding what gives you life, by Dennis Linn.

It’s in my blood.

We are sailing the San Juan Islands for the next week. I told Ben this a.m. that I hoped it didn’t rain (although it looks likely). He said, “Just enjoy whatever comes.” And I said, “I can wish it isn’t raining if I want to.”

But he’s right. To have a good time, I’m going to have to ignore the fact that it’s been warm and sunny in the islands — up until yesterday.

We have our rain gear, a warm cabin to hunker in, my camera for sunrises and sunsets if we aren’t fogged or rained in, and even if we are, I’ll still get good photos. I’m just sure of it.

And at some point I’ll scatter some of mom’s ashes in the wake of the boat. She would love to know we are going–maybe she does. She told me once that sailing was in my blood. We’ll see.


The Mother-in-Law Handbook

I became a mother-in-law without getting to celebrate the wedding. It is the current “cultural phenomena,” as a 30-something friend defined it. Young men and women don’t get married as often as they used to.

Like my two nephews. They got pregnant, moved in together, raise their children, share a house, work, go on vacation together and that’s that. No one says, “When are you getting married?” Numero Uno in the Mother-in-Law Handbook.

It seems that my son has followed in the cousins’ footsteps, except for the pregnant part, a subject I’ll never broach because it’s Rule #2  in the MIL Handbook.

It all became clear to me when husband and I helped son and GF move into a new apartment last week.

This wasn’t their first apartment. He first lived with her in her small studio. Then they moved into an apartment with a friend. Then they decided they wanted to live alone together and found a much better apartment.

When they first moved in together. I wasn’t that surprised. He’s an adult. I wasn’t going to say, “Welllll, you need to be married first.” [See Rule #1.]

This move was different. It feels more permanent. It’s a better apartment, with large windows overlooking a portion of the downtown Seattle skyline, and out the other windows, trees and sky. It’s not above a busy intersection. It’s quiet. There are screens. And the cats can sit in the window. It’s domestic.

[Never tell son’s GF she is domestic. She will give you the look. I quickly recovered and said, “You are creative?” I think it’s Rule #8.]

[Disclaimer: I love GF. This post is not meant to poke fun at her, or my son, but at me.]

The move went well, although son had hurt his back at work a few weeks earlier and got smashed in the lip by a softball a few days earlier. He was not happy. He and husband loaded the heavy furniture and boxes in our truck and his van. GF stayed behind while we, including two of their friends, moved a load to the new apartment.

I helped with the lighter stuff. And then. Unfortunately. I ran out of things to do. This is really dangerous for a mother-in-law, alone in her DIL’s new apartment. There is a section in the MIL Handbook for Adult Children. MIL’s have to make sure the AC own a copy of the handbook so everyone knows the rules.

This rule says, “Make sure mom is busy with tasks you assign. And, never leave her alone.”

I just wanted to be HELPFUL, which goes along with the above rule for AC.

MIL Rule #4 says: Do not be helpful … unless you are ASKED. Refer to AC section of handbook.

Rule #5. Wait to be ASKED.

Heedless to the rules, because they are so damned confusing, I decided to open THE BOX. I discovered a few bowls into which I put the tomatoes from our garden. I set the bowl on the table alongside the peaches from our trees. I thought how nice that was.

Rule #6. Try not to be too nice. Nice is good. But  not too nice. There’s a fine line to all of this that I wish someone could define!

And then, right as I was folding the packing materials (long underwear and aprons, which I thought was very creative) son with the smashed lip walked in. [Do not tell GF her packing materials are creative.]

“Don’t do that,” he said.  Whoops, where’s the rule book.

“Oh,” I said. “I was just unpacking this one box to get it out-of-the-way. I wasn’t going to do anything else.” I FREAKING PROMISE.

“GF likes to do that,” he said. Firmly.

“Fine,” I said.

We returned to the old apartment and when he went in I heard the end of a conversation with GF. I’m not sure, but I think he told her I had unpacked THE BOX. Perhaps he was letting her know that it wasn’t him who had overstepped. It was mom who had overstepped, but she didn’t mean any harm. Certainly, he must have told her that, too. I was impressed with this sensitivity toward GF, but was embarrassed.

As she and I were taking things down to the truck for the next load, I joked with her a little and said, “I unpacked a box and J scolded me, but I didn’t mean any harm.”  She didn’t say much, except something like, “Yeah, I like to do that.”

Rule #7. Don’t joke with GF about overstepping. It’s not funny. Simply apologize and move on.

Coupled with other telltale signs and conversations, it was clear to me that I had become a mother-in-law. It was all so simple, really.  I didn’t have to buy a new dress I’ll never wear again. We didn’t have to buy a wedding gift, other than the bottle of good wine we gave them to celebrate the new apartment.

And, I’m just sure she likes me. Son likes me, too. I’ve been careful not to overstep or to meddle. I’ve been careful to let GF know that she is first in his life and that’s the way it should be. She is a beautiful person and I love her. And, she tells me son and I have a good relationship, which I find comforting to know that is her perspective.

But most important. I’m glad for my son that he has found a woman he loves and who loves him. That should be all I need to know. The rest will unfold. I’m just sure of it.

But in the meantime, if anyone has a copy of the MIL Handbook (not just one I made up on the fly) I’d love to borrow it.

A Grief Observed

Husband says, “Your posts have been sad.”

I say, “Well, it’s sad.”

“It’s time to move on,” some say. Or, “It’s your turn,” I’m told.

And I say, I am moving on, dancing the dance of grief and life changing and orbits shifting.

When I used to write about mom each day, I would tell husband, “This is what happened. I’m not making it up. Really.” Some days I thought, they are going to think I’m an evil woman for the thoughts I have about my dear sweet mom, and then someone would write and say, thank you for being real and telling the truth and please keep writing.

And so, I would keep writing. The truth of what happened that day either in reality or in my thoughts, but often both.

There is no longer the drama and pathos of a living and breathing 100-year-old woman. The star, the sun, blew out. The flame quenched. Body departed. Spirit fled.

It has been replaced with the drama and pathos of missing. I write now, as I did then, about what is happening to me. I wrote then about caretaking a 100-year-old woman.  I write now about how much I miss her because grief and missing don’t just up and end one day when you reach the six-month or eight-month or for some people the eight-year mark.

Grief becomes part of life. I always missed having my father in my life. It never went away. Now I miss my mom. But life does go on. I laugh with husband, and play with the dog, and enjoy the weather, and take photos, and watch movies, and write, and see friends and barbecue and water my plants and organize my house, and go sailing.

And grieve.

I write about grief more than I write about watering my plants, or playing with the dog, because it’s more interesting. I’m beginning to stand outside it and observe it as from a distance, with interest. So, this is grief, I say. This is the true grief I longed to replace anticipated grief? This is what I wanted? Well, no, but it was inevitable.

Not all grief is the same, either. Losing a parent is different than losing a child, or losing a beloved spouse. But in every situation if we can stand outside the grief just for a moment and observe it, and watch how things change — it becomes interesting and not so hard to bare. It’s not denial, obviously, because I still lay my head against the wall and weep as the slippers recently discovered go to the box for Goodwill. But then, life goes on. Again. It always does, if we allow it.

There are the dilemmas tied to grief. First, it’s what to do about the funeral or cremation; ie. the body. Then it’s the apartment or house that has to be cleaned. Then disposing of clothes that you know you must take to the mission because that’s what the loved one wanted. Then the furniture and dishes to be dealt with. And the special keepsakes and letters you find buried in the most unusual places. The photos that make you wonder who will ever look at them again. The decision about who wants what, and then the possessiveness takes over, and then the opposite, please take this stuff off my hands.

And then it’s the ashes on the shelf that beckon one into some kind of decision.

There they are, sitting in a box on the shelf, not bothering anyone. And you feel, in the complication of grief, that you must make a decision, because if you make a decision, you feel like you don’t have to just sit with the grief and feel it. There’s something to be done to distract you besides standing outside it and observing it.

And so, in my grief observed, I also need to control. So, I wrote an email to the family: brother, nephews and son.

Let’s all go to the Oregon Coast, I proposed, and scatter her ashes in a place she loved, instead of opening a grave in the middle of Los Angeles. My brother called to tell me he wants to do both. I understand, I said.

But it all seems complicated and I’m not sure how to get our far-flung family to gather to memorialize mom, grandma and GG, unless a miracle occurs, or…I let go of control and let it happen in its own time.

I wanted to find a way to bring us together. It’s part of the process of grief to gather together and tell stories and laugh and cry with others and enjoy the moment and have closure. It has not happened in our family, and it makes me sad.

But it’s not my job.

I will do what I can. Husband and I will go sailing next week for a week and take a small bag of mom’s ashes and scatter them in her memory. Son and girlfriend may share that part of the journey with us, an afternoon of sailing with us in the San Juan Islands, a journey mom would rejoice to know we are taking.

Then, I will let go and allow. Mom’s ashes will sit on my shelf, not bothering me or anyone else, because mom is gone, except for the missing she leaves behind and me learning to let go of control I never had and being intrigued with the letting go of it. Someone will eventually make a decision. Nephew will come home from Australia. Brother will call and say, “Can you come on these dates?” and we will say “yes, of course.”

Yesterday I imagined mom’s apartment where she lived before she died. I had not done this before. I saw her hutch and where it sat against the wall and how the great grandmother dishes were arranged, and now where the hutch sits in my house. Her dresser and what was on it, or in it–and now. Her cherry writing desk that she never used, but I am using. The dining room table, and where it sat against the wall next to the air conditioner/heater that didn’t always heat or cool correctly and where I sat to pay her bills, or where she occasionally sat to sign a card I had purchased for her to give. Her end tables and the photos and small books she kept there, including, C.S. Lewis’s “A Grief Observed.” Her love seat, where she always sat to watch the Mariners or Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune, or where I would sit next to her and talk and where she would pat my leg and say, “It will work out,” words I can hear her say about her ashes .. and my grief.

The dance of healing

Today marks the six-month anniversary of mom’s death. It’s still fresh, this grief. Surprisingly. Shockingly. A few days ago I found a pair of slippers under the bathroom sink that she used when she came to the house. When I found them, I leaned against the wall and wept. It happens. A photo. A memory. The loss of orbit. The loss of community and family.

This morning I began copying some of my previous blog posts into chronological format in Word. I had done it before, but apparently had not saved the document after January’s posts were saved. I’m not sure why I picked today to begin again, but I did. That’s when I recognized the six-month mark.

I began copying and pasting at Feb. 2, the last month of mom’s life. As I copied I began to reread each post. They are filled with premonition, coupled with denial and uncertainty.  I had received so many mixed messages for so long that I wasn’t sure which direction we were going. Another year or two of life? Her 102nd birthday to celebrate?  Or, imminent demise.

She had rebounded so many times, and it appeared that she was rebounding from a November diagnosis of congestive heart failure and a hospice prediction that she had just months to live and the “family should come now to see her.”  But then in early January she was dismissed from hospice and was doing well.  A still small voice told me to wait…to not worry about where she was to live, or who was to take care of her in the night.  But if she lived another year, I reasoned from past experience, she would need more care–and had needed more care for a while.

The last day I saw her we argued about her refusal to consider a group home. “I’m fine right here, honey. They take such good care  of me.” “Not in the night,” I said. “I have to link to life,” she said. We were at an excruciating impasse. Except we weren’t. She won.

It was also the day also she spoke lucid words of closure. I knew it at the time, but in my denial, thought, She’ll be here. I can’t spend every minute thinking she’s going to die. I had done that for years, not wanting to leave town because I was afraid she’d die without me. And so, I didn’t talk to her for two days, thinking there was more time to hold her warm hands, to pluck her “feathers,” tidy her apartment, and pay her bills, and wait until it was time for hospice to be brought back in, and the family would gather and tenderly tell her of our love.

But then, there was no more time.

From Grasshopper Lessons, Feb. 18, 2011, 13 days before mom died.

…I welcome the experience of embracing true grief, not just anticipated grief. I welcome the experience of being a woman in the world without her mother, knowing the hard places defined by so many other women I know who have lost their mothers. I also believe mom has the same desire to be free, although holding on for unknown reasons.

“…It’s been a mutual taking and a mutual giving–and as a result, a mutual captivity. Sometimes it sounds like a sick dance, but within the choreograph is the dance of healing.”

And so, I dance. Not so lightly on my feet, but I dance the dance of healing, moving forward, experiencing a true grief that I had no premonition about. It was just words then, born out of desperation for resolution, closure, denouement, the end of the story. But, of course, the story never ends. Now we are just in another phase of the story, in a different kind of captivity, dancing the dance.