Sunday, July 27, 2014

Lessons of Love

While it has felt more like we are celebrating my mother’s life than mourning her death for the past ten days, there are often these sharp flashes of realization that pierce me as I grow to accept that both of my parents are no longer here to guide and console me.  I feel like I’ve been handed a torch, and it’s my turn now to pass it on to my child and some day, to her children.

 This morning, following my usual routine for the first time in over a week, I drove to pick up some hay at the farm where I go each Sunday.  While I was driving, waves of emotion swept through me. I have these moments when I feel simply raw. It’s the rawness of having your skin torn off, exposing what’s underneath, trying to hide it but not being able to all the time. I have no band-with for selfish people right now. As unexpectedly caring and loving as some of our friends have been, others do not seem to be able to be present with us right now now or set aside their own issues about death long enough to reach out to us. There are those who will stop by to give me hug or bring dinner. And those who can’t find the time. It clarifies relationships, making some stronger and letting others go by the wayside.

We held a memorial service for my mom at the nursing home on Thursday and had a small gathering of friends and neighbors here at our place yesterday to celebrate Nana’s life. The memorial service at the nursing home was very comforting for us and for the people who work and live there.  I was surprised to discover friendships that my mom had made with some of the residents that I did not know about before. For the people who work there and spent five years caring for my mom everyday, there was a much needed closure.  Too often, they told me, the residents, die and it feels like someone that they’ve known very intimately just disappears without any acknowledgement that they were here. My husband and daughter and I realized that everyone at the nursing home had really become part of our family, and that we wanted to continue to spend time with them, bringing the dog to visit, helping push the ice cream cart on Saturdays to give the residents a special treat. We were so lucky to have them all in our lives for so many years.

At our house, we have many photos of my mom, especially with our daughter, who was her only grandchild. One of our neighbors told her that she looked exactly like her grandma. “Thank you so much!” she replied. It made my heart soar with love for my child.  I think back on how difficult and contentious her relationship was with her grandmother in the last year that we all lived together here in our house.  Dementia, paranoia and old war memories had been turning my mother into a frightening shrew, and my poor thirteen year old child was confused and terrified by what was happening. Overcoming her fear of hospitals, she rose up out of her own personal problems when her grandma was admitted to the geriatric psych ward.  I know that “her precious girl” was what really kept my mother going and thriving for the past five years, and the love and admiration that grandma and grandchild had for each other shone like a beacon for all to see.

I think that Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who lived over a thousand years ago, was a pretty smart guy when he said,  “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” Without hesitation, this strong young woman sat holding my mother’s hand and hugging her as Nana took her last breath. It was a defining moment for both my daughter and me, as the tiller of the mothership was handed down to me.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Joining Papa

I tried to prepare myself for the phone call. I knew it was coming.  At eight o’clock on Thursday night, exactly one month from my mom’s 100th birthday, the nurse from the home where Nana spent the past five years told me that my mom was “unresponsive” and the doctor wanted to send her to the hospital. “Shall I call the ambulance?” I didn’t know. I truly didn’t know what to do. My husband made the decision and told them yes.  I’m so glad he did.

As we were driving to the hospital, which is an hour and a half away from our house, the doctor in the Emergency Room called us on the cell phone.  He said that my mom’s heart rate was 20 and if she were younger, he would go into surgery and put in a pace-maker but at her age, there was no way that she could live through that. He was giving her oxygen and morphine so she would feel no pain.  My husband, my daughter and I began to pray that Nana would be able to wait until we got there. And she did, because she was just that strong.

While my daughter held her hand and my husband put his arms around her, I bent down to tell my mother that we were here with her and that we loved her so much. Then, I said what I knew I had to say.  “Papa wants you to join him, Mom. It’s time for you to go now.” A half hour later, as we were still hugging her and I was kissing her cheek, she took her last breath. 

The Emergency Room doctor had waited an extra hour after his shift so he could stay with us. He took my hand in both of his and told me that it was wonderful for everyone working there to see our family and feel the love.  He said that too often he must stay with the patient who is there all alone so someone will be there for that person’s passing from this world.  Then, he and all the nurses came around and hugged us. 

I felt empty and hollow as we drove home. During the night, I woke up every couple of hours and thought, “My mom is no longer on this earth.” It wasn’t a bad or scary thing to think, it was just adjusting to the new reality.  In the morning, my husband found himself immediately confronted with a difficult business situation. He said to me as I drank my coffee that he kept hearing Nana’s voice telling him, “Don’t let anyone push you around.”  I laughed, wondering if from now on, she was going to be in our heads all the time, putting in her two cents worth.  She would like that.

This is my favorite photo of my mother.  How elegant and graceful she always was. Opinionated, never afraid of anyone or anything, especially not death. She was my harshest critic and my biggest fan, and I deeply miss her.   But now, we will celebrate this remarkable woman, not grieve, for she lived and loved with all her heart and soul.

I’ve created a website in her honor.  Here is the link to it:

Monday, July 14, 2014

To Sashay Back and Forth in Time

I’ve started talking to my father as I stand by the barn, looking up at the grove of cedar trees. My dad has been gone twenty-five years now, but I feel his spirit with me very strong recently.  I think he’s trying to let me know that it’s okay for my mom to go now.  I’m sensing that it is nearing the time when she will be able to be with him again.   Almost each day now, I spend some quiet moments imagining what it might feel like to be in my mom’s place.  She is almost blind, very deaf and so fragile after the hundred years of joy and hardship that she’s had on this earth. How does it feel to sit in her comfy armchair most of the day and just wait for what will happen next, drifting near and far from what is to what was?

When my daughter and I saw Nana on Saturday, I told her that a member of my husband’s family whom she loves dearly is going to have a baby.  She was so excited and happy. I also learned from my mom’s roommate that the night before she had one of her nightmares where she started screaming in her sleep. Since I was a little girl, I have had to leap up in the middle of the night to shake her when she begins to wail and bring her back from that world of war and horror that has haunted her since the 1940’s.  Before she moved to the nursing home, I would wake her up from the nightmares and she would insist that there was a woman under her bed, screaming through her pillow. Now, medication usually helps keep the demons away.

This morning, I called to check in with the nurse to see how things were going.  I talked to Cindy, my mom’s favorite, who told me that my mother cheerfully announced to her that Victoria is pregnant. Cindy tried to explain that it wasn’t me, but my mom refused to listen.  And really, what difference does it make if she spends the day happily feeling like she did when I really was about to have her only grandchild?  It was one of the best times in her life, and if she is able to re-live it in her mind right now, so much the better.

As if keying into my thoughts, Clarissa Pinkola Estes posted on FB today about the way that one never stops weaving the story of your life:

“And we take up the fabric and mend the places of mind and heart. body and spirit, where the threads broke from hard life, long use, or from lack of iron when first laid in long ago...

and then too, taking up the needle to strengthen those threads that have held, gone well... tightening down the rows with the comb. If one can, weaving in one more row, pulling down, then maybe again there will be room for one more row again...

and as always, working on the hand knotted fringes that are there to let us sway a little from life lived to best of our abilities... surely we have not just a hard won right to sashay, but a responsibility to sashay sometimes.”

My mom has always loved to sashay, and I am a little uncertain about how to do it here, but I'm going to keep trying.  I feel like I owe her that.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Listening Wind

I am not going to go on vacation this summer.  I really want to, but it’s not in the cards. Between my daughter going off to college in early August and my husband’s work schedule jammed up into the fall, there will be no time for sandy beaches or exotic isles.  But I can still dream and remember ….

The other night, it was really windy, and as the storm blew through, we began playing music that fit the weather.  I put on a Talking Heads song called “Listening Wind” – “the wind in my heart, the gust in my head, drive them away, drive them away…” I thought about a summer many years ago when I went to the Greek Islands, and the southern wind started to blow. It comes across the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa, a desert wind.  I’ve always loved the desert winds. When we lived in California, there were the Santa Ana’s that swept in from the east, causing the air to be electrified and people to go a little bit crazy.

We were on the island of Mykonos, planning to leave for Paros when the winds began to blow. It got so hot at night in our hotel room that we dragged the mattress off the bed and slept out on the terrace under the stars. I loved to lie on the soft white sheets with the white stone of the small private balcony hiding the bed from anyone’s view and the vivid deep blue of the Greek heavens above me. The dawn spread a rose colored glow, and I would open my eyes, sit up and look over the white wall at the turquoise sea.  For three days, we tried to leave and move on with our trip, but the waters were too rough and dangerous for the ferry to operate between the islands. We would get up at dawn, drag the mattress back into our room, pack our bags and trek down to the dock, only to find that once again, the ferry wasn’t running.

On the fourth day, when the sun was rising, we woke and saw the branches rustling on the bushes on the terrace yet again and decided to go back to sleep.  A few hours later, we came downstairs, and the owner of the hotel told us that the ferry to Paros had left on time. “Oh no!” I exclaimed.  “So what?” he replied, shrugging his shoulders. In that moment, I realized that he was so right. We were on vacation. Forget the schedule, lose the watch, let it all go.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Wonder Woman Nana

“Your mother’s soul is deciding whether or not to stay here,” one of my closest friends told me the other day.  It’s 43 days until my mom is 100 years old.  When my daughter and I visited her on Wednesday, I thought it was touch and go if she was going to make it through the end of this week.  We arrived after her first day of physical therapy, and she was totally exhausted. Everything was drained out of her. It scared me since I was the one who insisted that they had to start PT immediately if she was ever going to walk again.  I worried that I was forcing her, causing pain and suffering when it was time for her to go.

The whole slippery slope downward began with my mom’s dentures. Her mouth is shrinking, her teeth don’t fit and after twenty years, they are falling apart.  Two weeks ago, she got some food stuck in her esophagus, and couldn't swallow anything, not even her own saliva.  I made the emergency decision to operate, requiring her to go under full anesthesia in order to clear her passages.  I don’t regret that, but once she returned to the nursing home, she was no longer able to walk.  My mom’s motto is bluntly, “keep walking or you’re dead”.  She has never even had to use a walker, and she travels the halls with the therapy dog and loves to go to the dining room for lunch each day.  Now, we couldn’t coax her to take more than a few steps. She was frightened and in pain.

On Wednesday, for the first time ever,  the spark of life had gone out of my mom’s eyes. She could barely focus to recognize me. There was no fight left in her. Very alarmed, I spoke to the head of nursing, and she recommended that we give it a week to see what would happen. The physical therapist promised me that she would be gentle and assured me that we were on the same page about letting my mom set her own course.  So, there was nothing left for me to do but pray and worry. I’m really good at that. I spent several sleepless nights, covered in a heavy blanket of sadness.

Yesterday, as we have done each Saturday for the past five years, my husband, my daughter, the dog and I went up to see Nana.  She was sitting in the day room, with her hair done and her teeth in, holding court like her usual lovely self.  She was enjoying a bowl of strawberry ice cream. The transformation was truly miraculous. Having her hair curled and styled is absolutely essential, getting dressed in a pretty flowered outfit, being able to smile graciously is critically important to my mother.

Once she got settled in her favorite chair in her own room, she invited Stella, our crazy pup, up onto her lap so she could give and receive doggy kisses.  “I love you, I love you, I love you!” she sang as always does while her face became covered with dog slobber.

Wow, Wonder Woman, you aren’t done yet, and we love you too.