Memories of a Very Important Snow Day

January 10, 1980

He arrived to the birthday party that afternoon in a huge truck that was the color of light brown sugar.  A formidable opponent it was, for the 9 inches of snow that had blanketed Vancouver that day, as it was very tall, sitting on huge tires and had a sturdy black roll bar on the back.  Hopping out of his truck he looked just like an old west cowboy coming off of his horse.  I noticed the way my mom looked at him like he was something special and I wondered what it was about this rugged stranger that appealed to her.  He greeted her with a smile and discrete kiss.  I couldn’t help but stare.  Mom invited him into the house and took his winter coat and cowboy hat.

I stood half-heartedly hiding in the hallway of our little ranch rental home as my mom hung his coat.  “Hi,” I said to the man who stood next to my mom.  My natural curiosity never allowed shyness to win out and this was no exception.  “What’s your name?”

His voice was gentle and kind, and he seemed to be a little nervous as he answered me, “I’m Vance.”

I drew in an excited breath upon learning his name.  “My name is Vicki and it starts with a “V” too!”  I exclaimed!

“That’s what I hear,” he replied with a friendly smile “Nice to meet you, Vicki.”

As I played with my cousins at the birthday party, I kept an inquisitive eye on the man whose name started with a “V” and who so clearly had the interest of my mom.  He had a thick dark head of hair and he wore a long but groomed moustache and beard, both noticeably streaked throughout with gray.  His eyes were dark and warm and behind all the facial hair he had an easy going smile.  He wore an earthen brown suede vest that had a sheep sheer lining, a plaid western cut shirt with pearly buttons, jeans, and well-worn cowboy boots.  His clothes, his truck, his mild and humble manner, everything about him were mysterious to me, and all throughout the party I kept careful track of the attention he gave my mom.

To Be Continued…

Mom With Her Cowboy, Vance.

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She’ll Wear Blue

Entering the auditorium for freshman orientation, the screen at the front of the room reads, “Welcome Class of 2014!”   The year is a little piece of trivia that I had stuffed away in the back of my mind years ago when I finally decided what year she was going to start Kindergarten and haven’t thought a lot of it since.  My first born has an autumn birthday so it was up for debate, but in the end I decided to keep her home for a bonus year and it has proven to be an excellent decision.  Making that decision seems like a lifetime ago and yesterday all at the same time.  How is that possible?  I feel the knot of emotion tighten in my throat and steady myself.  I don’t want to be ‘that mom’ and it would be so easy to ‘get all emotional’ right now.

As we find our seats in the auditorium of the high school, I have that surreal feeling like I am living someone else’s life, because this one, I am certain, could not be mine, given my daughter is still, after all, just a little girl.  Isn’t she?  Yeah, I know…  not really.

Truthfully, over the years I have not given a lot of thought about the day she will graduate from high school.  She has always been fairly ‘easy’.  Nothing has ever really thrown me for a loop with her.  It’s just been an assumption that some day these high school days too would come.  Now, as I listen to the guidance counselor begin his ‘This is how much high school has changed since you were in it you old parents’ spiel, those thoughts of the next four years, those mysterious school years that, like ‘Kindergarten’, are given special names and not just a number, have my heart beating just a little bit faster!  Not because I don’t think she is prepared or capable, on the contrary, I’m proud to say she is a far better student than I was in every way!  No, it is because this man giving his shtick keeps talking about how fast it will go.

I find myself thinking back to when I graduated from high school.  One of my favorite photos of that night is of my father and me.  We are standing together in the stadium, he in his navy blue sport coat and tie, a proud smile and misty eyes, and me, wearing my emerald green graduation robe and mortar board hat, my entire face beaming and in my hands a bag of confetti.  The moment seems like yesterday and then I am pulled back to reality.  The guidance counselor scrolls through his Power Point presentation and the photo in my mind transforms.  This time the picture is still of me, but now I’m the one grinning with pride and misty eyed, and the beaming graduate is now my lovely girl… and thanks to the image on the screen a new piece to the unknown puzzle comes in to view.  She’ll wear blue.

Class of 1990, my how time flies!

My Dream, Our Blessing

We were walking across a bridge in a city I was unfamiliar with.  The structure was dove gray and made of granite, low to the water, and had several graceful arches spanning between the supports that plunged into the water below.  The series of arches were just beneath the roadway they supported, as if the roadway were supported by a series of rainbows anchored by water.  A rail in the same material and color of sturdy, neatly lined balusters marched along the top.  Ornate, black vintage lampposts stood at equal distance apart on the sidewalk lined street and led in each direction to the most distinguishing characteristic of the bridge; the four enormous statues that marked each corner to the entrance.  The boldly elevated statues were of powerful depictions of godlike warriors on horseback, the strength and authority they invoked only punctuated by their rich gold color.

On the grassy banks of the river below, weeping limbs of pink flower studded trees dipped their branches into a peaceful river like the fingers of a curious child.  The reflection of the spring sun shone upon the water like a mirror.  A powdery blue sky with strands of silky clouds hung overhead.

Despite the serene surroundings, up on the bridge, the street was teeming with traffic.  Cars traveling at high speed were weaving in and out of slower moving vehicles with hardly enough space to spare the paint on their bumpers.   Honking horns, revving engines, the vibrations of speed were all around me.  It was frightening and thrilling at the same time.

In the distance I see them behind me, a dark haired younger man, dressed casually in light colored khaki pants and a white shirt, with an older, silver haired man in a dark, stately business suit and black overcoat.  Their features and mannerisms were so similar it was instantly clear to me, even from afar, that they were father and son.   Coming closer to me, I could see their identities; it was Randy walking with his father.   They were deep in conversation and I could tell by their matching furrowed brows that there was deep concern and grief between them.

I waved to greet them and as I turned away from them waved again, motioning for Randy to come and join me on the sidewalk.  He did not come.

He stayed behind with his father and I could feel his hesitation to join me.  I continued to walk forward unconcerned.  The men who in appearance seemed to be the characterization of spring and winter, continued to labor in their conversation, it became clear Randy was looking for the blessing of his father.  They were now close enough that I could hear them talking if I listened through the street noise.

“You should go with her.”  His father said to him.  There was authority in his voice, but Randy continued to hold back.

“Are you sure?”  Randy said.  Was he contemplating the timing?  Was he concerned about remaining available to his widowed mother?  Only one year after 9/11, his father’s death was still so raw and the family was still understandably wrought with grief.

As I contemplated these things, his father spoke again.

“Go on!” he said with a full deep billowing voice, “She’s a handful!  But, you can handle it!”  He was almost chuckling and with a big smile he motioned for his son to run toward me, and this time Randy did just that.

When Randy reached my side he took my hand and together we ran headlong toward the other side of the street.  Without worry of any danger or harm we ran through busy hectic lanes of traffic as if we were untouchable by any of the unruly motorists that threatened our safety and safely made it to the other side of the street.  Adrenaline pumping and out of breath, we threw our arms around each other and kissed and laughed.  Stealing a backward glance to where he and his father had been, Randy noticed he was no longer with us on the bridge.

Somewhere around then, I woke up and rolled over grasping for the phone on the nightstand so that I could call my beloved before the dream faded in my sleepy memory.   “I have to tell you about this dream I just had…” I said with sheepish excitement, and I knew everything would be ok.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

After telling Randy about my dream he reminded me about how his father was born and raised in Arlington and the bridges I described in my dream sounded like the bridges in Washington DC, a place I had only been to once on a short trip with my High School marching band at least 15 years prior.  Later when I visited Washington DC, I was amazed to see a bridge that was nearly identical to the one in my dream.   The Memorial Bridge (in the photos below) spans the Potomac River and links Arlington, Virginia to Washington DC and is within minutes of the Pentagon where Randy’s dad was killed as a passenger on board American Airlines flight 77 in the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001.

A view of Memorial Bridge in Washington DC

Memorial Bridge view from the banks of the Potomac River

I also thought it was very cute that when Randy relayed this story to his mother, her remark was, “She must be honest, if she’d tell you he said that!” 🙂

Saying Goodbye

As I made my way past the crowded waiting room, I hoped that I was first to catch the door when the privacy curtain receded.  I had enlisted my husband in my plan.  He would guard the door while I was inside, so that I could steal time alone with her.  Getting time alone with everybody’s favorite patient was challenging, there were always people visiting!  As much as I was thankful for their tangible support, I was growing weary of their constant presence.  I wanted some of those precious and few moments for myself and I didn’t want to have to shoo someone away so that I could get it.

Precious and few.  Those words rang in my head with the urgency of the obnoxious beep a 4 am alarm clock, all too early, and imploring my immediate attention, even in my disoriented state.  There was no way of knowing how long we had with her, but we all must have sensed the critical timing because the visitors were always there.  They came to her bedside in steady stream, like the flow unconscious thought, one blending seamlessly into the next.  Unaware of when they arrived, where they would be on their way to, how long they planned to stay, many with the stunned blank faces of grief.   Friends from church and from her neighborhood, friends who shared her hobbies, friends from work, friends who were like family and friends who were also family.  On the way home from work, after church, before heading to the store, just because they were in the neighborhood… each one stopping for “just a minute.”

I understood why they came.  They were drawn to her light.  They were drawn to her strength and peace.  They were drawn to her hopeful anticipation of heaven.

So many visitors came to see her while she was sick that she was rarely alone.  I was happy that so many people were expressing their love and support of her and the rest of our family, but I would be lying if said I loved having them around all the time.  The truth is, I needed some time alone with her, some time to say our goodbyes, because when all of this was over, all of the visitors would go home to their mother, daughter, son, husband or wife and I would not.  Even though I had my own family, as a daughter, I would be going it alone.  As the clock marched on at merciless pace, I grew anxious. These were my precious and few.

The door opened and as I stepped into her room my husband assumed his post on the other side.  I drew a deep breath.  My mind was full of questions that I had come to attempt to answer.  How do I tell my mother I love her in a way that will satisfy my soul when she is gone?  How do I thank her “from the bottom of my heart?”  How do I say goodbye?

Inside her room it was finally quiet, nothing to distract us, nothing to intrude.

“Hi Mama,” I said, “Hope you don’t mind, I’m stealin’ some alone time.”  She smiled at me with tired eyes, and looking so small and fragile in her hospital bed, as she raised it to a sitting position.  It somehow seemed inappropriate when she spoke with such care for me.

“Sure, honey.  How are you getting along with all of this?” she asked.  “Are you doing all right?  Randy? The kids?  I know this has got to be such a hard time for you…”  Her voice softened with emotion.

With a plan, I pulled a chair away from the side of the bed.

I asked, “Mama, do you think you’d be able to sit up for a little bit, or if you need to you can lie down?”

“I’m fine sitting just like this,” she replied.  “What are we doin’?”

As she patiently waited for my reply, I took the pink basin from her bedside table and walked to the sink in silence.  Standing at the sink, I filled the little pink basin with warm water and I looked at her reflection in the mirror as she lay in the bed behind me.  The woman in the bed, though battle damaged with IV’s, catheters, and bags, was still my beautiful mother.  Her head on the pillow, still capped with wonderfully thick short brown hair, her eyes still blue as sapphires.  A smile was wide on her face and brimming with hope, and I wondered how she sustained it.  Even in her weary body, she sat with poise, straight, with the same beautiful broad shoulders of a swimmer and her hands folded in her lap.   A plush pale blue robe draped over her shoulders and one delicately shaped ankle and stockinged foot extended from under the crisp hospital bed sheet providing her famous “vent” to keep her from getting “bed hot.”  A trait I have also inherited.  With my now full basin of water and a towel, I rejoined her sitting next to her on the bed.  The spicy sweet fragrance that came from her, the mother of my childhood, was the smell of her perfume Youth Dew.  All the essential elements of “her” were still there.

“Vicki,” she said, “are you going to wash my feet?”  How did she know?  It seemed the only fitting way to express the love and gratitude I felt for her presence in my life.

“Yes, if that’s all right with you.” I said in a near whisper, and she bowed her head to say yes.  She moved both of her feet from under the sheet and I slid off her socks.

On my knees before her I began.   The litany of praise for her as my mother, mentor and friend poured from my heart and out my mouth.

The litany of thankfulness for the sacrifices she made to be a stay at home mom instead of putting a career first, to go without a something for her self so that I could have anything from braces to a prom dress.  For all the times she would have liked to spend a week away with my Dad and instead sent me on a school or youth group trip.  I thanked her for sending me to college and seeing to it that I lived in the dorms even though I could have lived at home.  The water and the cloth were now a channel of respect and admiration.

The litany of humility and gratitude for her forgiveness even when I was too stubborn to ask for it, for the times I didn’t respect her as my mother or even as someone who had traveled the road before me, when I was insensitive and selfish.  Even for the time that an 18 year old me I told her I wasn’t going to waste my life staying home with my kids like she did, the cleansing and warm restorative water carried the pain between us away and was replaced with a river of peace.

The litany of praise for the wonderful example she was to me as a mother and grandmother, the beautiful example of what a good marriage can be like, the way she strove to live with Christ as her example.  All gifts that cannot be given without intention and vision, and I wanted her to know, with my basin beside me, that I was aware of that.  I wanted her to know that I admired her authentic faith and her extravagant love.  With my water I wanted to honor her and I knew she understood.

It was a gift to be able to, in my own way, get to say goodbye to her in that sacred moment  that day, even though she was still with us for more than a month.   Watching Cancer scavenge the life out of her physical body was excruciating, but more bearable knowing that nothing between us was left undone.  When the night came for us to sing to her heaven’s lullaby, as she stepped to the other side, I knew that there was nothing left incomplete, nothing that had not been washed clean.

Damn-it-Danny

It’s Retro Week on Facebook this week, so time for me to scan a few baby pictures for the cause.  For those of you who haven’t caved to the masses and are not on Facebook, here’s a little explanation.  On my profile page, I have a small thumbnail photo, usually of yours truly, and mostly recent.  For Retro Week the unofficial mandate asked Facebookers to post a profile picture from the old days.  I had a cute one posted of my husband and I from our earliest days as a couple (and can you believe that picture is almost 20 years old !?),  but everyone had seen that one, so for the fun of joining in the Retro Week hula-hoop-la,  I found myself this morning with photo album in lap, sitting in front of the scanner.

I have very few photos of myself from before 1980.  All of the photos that encompass my first 7 years line just 35 magnetic photo album pages.  I know… Another project!  Hey, started scanning it today!   But anyway… Maybe today with the 5 year anniversary looming just 2 days away, I should have skipped looking and scanning which eventually led to crying.

It’s not that I look back at those years as particularly painful.  Truthfully, I don’t really remember most of them.  It’s not that I resent the life after those days either.  For the most part I had a very happy childhood, surrounded by so many people who loved and cared for me.  I had siblings, friends, family vacations, Easter Egg hunts and over flowing Christmas Stockings.  My memories are that it was as happy if not happier than the life depicted in those 35 pages.  Each picture that flashed up on my computer screen brought back some kind of memory, some from way back and some much newer.

An innocent picture of my brother and I standing in front of Medical Lake in Spokane, WA reminded me of a particularly funny story.  My little brother, whom I called Danny in the old days, was an exuberant and rascally kind of boy.  He had tons of energy, was very curious and never really could leave well enough alone.   I often thought his round blond head was cartoonish.  He reminded me of Dennis the Menace and his antics certainly lived up to that stereotype!

Vicki and Danny, circa 1977

Our family owned a small Chrysler sailboat and most of our family time in those days was spent sailing on the lakes around Spokane.  I loved that little pale yellow boat.  At 6 years old I was becoming quite a little sailor and could navigate all 15 feet of it through calm water with little help from my father.  I was learning the proper sailing terminology and I could see my father straighten with pride when I referred to the tiller and dagger board or called out, “Jib!”   He was thrilled when the boat would heel to one side and I wasn’t afraid, but instead peals of laughter poured out of me.  Looking at that picture I also remembered how annoyed my father would get with my younger brother Danny.  I don’t really remember any specific incident that Danny did, just that he was always into everything!

I remember one particular day my brother and I sat in the boat as my dad was cranking the boat back onto the trailer at the boat launch.   It was a warm sunny day, and we were leaving early.  Another boater, a woman, was standing waist deep in the water next to us as her boat was easing into the lake.  She was young and beautiful.  To me, with her Farrah Fawcett hair and orange macramé bikini top, she looked like she belonged in the movies.  Maybe it was my stare that prompted her to turn and talk to us.

“Well aren’t you cute!” she said as she turned toward our boat.  She looked at me with the smile of a Charlie’s Angel and asked, “What’s your name, honey?”

“Vicki,” I said as I studied every move she made.  She may as well have been life size Malibu Suntan Barbie and I wanted to be just like her.

“Vicki,” my name rolled over her Lip Smacker-glossed lips as she repeated it and somehow it sounded prettier.  She turned to my brother, who had become slightly bashful and said, “And how ‘bout you, what’s your name?”

This was my brother’s spirited reply: “It’s Damn-it-Danny!”

Laughter sparkled from her like it had just bubbled out of a can of TAB, and with that she turned back to her boat.

Damn-it-Danny…

Lately that nic-name he earned so many years ago seems so fitting.  He just can’t seem to come to terms with the relationship I now have with our father.  He means well, I think.  He and our father appear to have a thriving relationship, while the one I had drown years ago.  He sees that as my fault.  He protects him.  He blames me.  He can’t leave it alone.   He won’t leave it alone.

Damn-it-Danny, leave it alone.

Herding Cats!

It’s Christmas time, so I’ve spent a lot of time in the mall.  This year has been especially fun because I have enjoyed the company of my 2 teenage daughters.  They even got up and came with me on Black Friday.  I thought for sure I’d scare them off with a 4 am departure time, but they were up for it and even seemed excited by the prospect of being out shopping at a time any sane person would be home sleeping in bed!  It was a lot of fun and they brought a new energy to the ghastly early morning hour.  I loved having them along!  As we shopped, and I was continually looking for which way this one went or where that one took off to, it occurred to me that shopping with teenage girls is a bit like herding cats!  I may have an idea of where I’d like to go, but they’ve got a mind of their own!  There’s just no containing them!  Have you ever seen a cat chase a flashlight on a dark wall?  That’s pretty much what watching my teenage girls shop a Hollister store looks like.  Have you ever watched a cat pounce on a kitty toy, or follow a dangling string?  Oh yes, just like them in the accessory aisle of Charlotte Russe, or the Tee Shirt tables at Aeropostale!  Like cats they can squeeze past any obstacle, like for instance, their shopping bag laden mother.  They have extremely keen eyes, and can be very finicky, “I don’t know why, I just like this one better…” and have highly selective hearing, “Yes, dear, but that one is twice the price!”  And where new shoes are concerned?  They always seem to land on their feet!  Yep, I tell you it’s just like herding cats!

I’m Living!

I had this surreal dream once while my mom was dying.  In the dream she was healthy, and pink in the cheeks. The yellow tones of jaundice were nowhere to be found on her face and she was dressed in her everyday clothes, not pajamas.  She was sitting at her kitchen table with one of her brothers, her sister, and one of her sons and they were doing something she absolutely loved to do at family get-togethers:  they were playing a board game.  She was happily laughing, her loud chuckle filling the room, and they were all acting as if there wasn’t a care in the world.  All the while, as they played their game, every wall in the house was engulfed in flames.  Chaos had erupted all around them, stray flames were licking at her feet, but she played on.  As she noticed the flames, she would stamp them out and continue laughing and playing.  With her back to the walls and the others across the table, it felt like the walls were closing in around her, and yet she still chose to play that silly board game.  The dream really spoke to me, and from then on I resolved to be a much more active participant in her living than her dying.

To live while you are dying must feel something like the scene in my dream.  There are only moments left, only so many more times you can extinguish those insistent flames, before the fire will win out.  In my dream my mom was intent on living despite knowing she was unable to defeat the death that had come for her.  It was time for me to help her make that happen.  For weeks she had been talking about her desire to live past Christmas, the problem was, none of us were quite sure how to accomplish the ‘living’ part.  We had gone so quickly from ‘no cancer’ to ‘dying of cancer,’ that we completely skipped the ‘living with cancer’ chapter of the story, and it was clear that if there was going to be anything to write in that chapter, the time was now.   We needed to get on with the living part.

My sister, sister-in-law, mom’s best friend Joy, and I arrived to my parent’s house with a plan involving some of mom’s favorite things:  her grandchildren and Christmas shopping!  In her prime, mom practically elevated Christmas shopping to an Olympic level!  She was an avid Black Friday shopper and would go to the ends of the earth for that perfect something she knew her loved one wanted.  When I was in high school I asked for a pair of navy blue penny loafers for Christmas and she delivered, driving some 60 miles to get the only pair left in my size in the region of Nordstrom stores!  She loved to spoil us on Christmas morning, and she was good at it!  Sometimes she even knew what we wanted or needed before we did.

Mom was pretty excited about the shopping excursion.  Her only request was that we not tire her out, so we set a time limit of 3 hours.  My dad was much less excited.  He reminded me of when I was a new mother, preparing to leave my newborn baby with a babysitter for the first time.  He hovered over her and recited every detail of her care, “Did you pack all of her medications?  Do you have The Notebook?  Make sure you put the break on the wheel chair before you set her down into it.  Don’t tire her out, she gets tired real easy.”  He checked and double-checked that all of her necessities had been loaded before he gently and reluctantly placed her in the front seat of my van.  With a firm, “3 hours,” he shut the door.  We were on our way to do what living grandmas do; we were on our way to Christmas shop for the grandkids!

At the shopping mall, I carefully I loaded my precious cargo into the wheel chair, all the while my dad’s voice echoing in my ear, “Make sure you put the break on the wheel chair before you set her down into it.”  It was no small feat, talking him in to this scheme and I wanted it to come off flawlessly.  The only damage done on this day was going to be to dad’s credit card, so with her safely installed in the wheel chair we were off on our Christmas shopping spree.

She was very thoughtful about what she bought each of her 9 grandchildren.  She decided on clothing for each of them, wanting to buy nothing to sentimental.   Gifts of clothing were a grandma specialty of hers, and with glee she had flooded her grandchildren’s closets over the years.  With a smile spread wide on her face she directed each of her ‘elves’ to help her reach the clothing racks.  This time she wanted to choose things that she could see them wear right away.   Cautiously, I wove the wheelchair through the maze of hanging clothes.  It was a bittersweet moment for both of us.  We were finally enjoying something we had loved doing for years and yet trying not to think about how this would be the last year we would Christmas shop together.

After mom finished making her selections, she and I headed to the parking lot while the rest of the group waited in the long checkout line.  We were approaching the 3-hour time limit, and I was determined to follow my dad’s instructions to a ‘T’.  The others would rendezvous with us at the van once the purchases were made.

Outside the air was misty and cold, but neither of us seemed to care as I maneuvered the wheelchair to the outer parking spaces.  The pavement was a little slick and I could feel the wheelchair pick up speed on the gentle slope of the parking lot.   Evidently mom could feel it too, because I heard her say under her breath, “Faster!”  It took me by surprise, and I wasn’t sure I heard her correctly, but then she left me with no question, “Faster!” she commanded in a louder voice.  It reminded me of being a backseat driver as a child!

“Mom, No!  I can’t…” she wouldn’t hear of it, “Faster!” mom insisted, and with excitement my feet picked up the pace.  Soon I was running through the dark and misty parking lot and we were both giggling like children absconding with the forbidden!  The more she commanded, the quicker my steps, the gentle slope almost carrying her away, and then she began again, “Let go!” she urged.

“No,” I said trying to keep the little wheelchair under my control.  “If something happens to you,” I panted as I slowed down, “Dad will be so mad!”

“Faster!” she prodded me, and I picked up the pace!

“Let GO!” she begged.  “Mom, this is dangerous…” I said, my voice trailing off.  “I don’t want…” sensing where I was headed, she cut me off.  “What the worst that can happen?” she appealed, “It could kill me?  I’ll take my chances!”  Excitedly she pleaded, “Let go!

And so I did it.  I gave in to her relentless requests and I let go.   As the rented wheelchair wobbled on the pavement, she arose her tired hands in the air, and with pure delight she exclaimed, “I’M LIVING!”

Ode To Joy

“I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with the roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frost-work, but the solidest thing we know.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

As I read this quote the other day a smile broadened across my face and my across my heart.  The first person I thought about was my mom’s best friend, Joy.  She and my mom met back when they were both the moms of busy young families.  They spent a lot of time shuttling kids to the same school games and church youth group events, and shared a camaraderie when their husbands both worked a similar rotating shift schedule that left them with out their spouses on so many evenings.  Riding the waves of life, they supported each other through the highs and lows of marriage and raising a family.  As their children went off to college, married, and had families of their own, the twosome became closer than ever.  It was that type of family friendship where the wives were friends and soon the husbands were friends, the daughters were friends and the sons were friends.   Their family are the kind of family friends that when you say something like, “Remember the ‘Great Clam Chowder Disaster of 1986’?” everyone laughs and the story telling begins.

During the time that my mom was sick there was a steady stream of visitors that came to her bedside.  Family from near and far, friends old and new, people from church and work, old neighbors and new neighbors, there was almost never a time that there wasn’t a visitor.  She had so many visitors at the hospital that the nurses soon made sure she got the “big” room, complete with sofa and picture window.  It was a comfort to know that so many people were supporting her and supporting the ones she loved.  Many, many of those treasured family and friends ministered to her by sitting at her bedside, preparing meals for her husband, and babysitting her grandchildren so her own children could take some precious and few moments alone with her.  My mom had amazing friends and family who showed their love for her by stepping up to help when we needed them most.  It was a deep comfort to know we were all so cared for.  I am humbled by the love shown to our family when we needed it so much.  It was ministry at its most beautiful.

Before mom’s diagnosis I had no idea how draining caring for a patient could be.   At a time when I was being pushed past any preconceived ideas of my own emotional limits, I was also feeling inadequate about caring for her in a very practical way.   Early on it became evident it would take a monumental effort to remember all the many details of her care!   With every hospital stay there seemed to be another name to add to the ever-expanding list of care providers.  There was an endless revolving list of her current medications and another list nearly as long of ones she had reactions to.  It seemed redundant to maintain a list of the specific procedures and tests she had undergone at the hospital where she was a patient, but often times nurses and doctors were not aware of recent changes from one shift to another and important pieces of information would get left out.   I began compiling a notebook that functioned as a running document of her care.  I felt like it was the one thing I could do.  Organization was a skill my mom prided herself in and it felt like a way I could help her maintain her dignity at a time that her dignity was being stripped away.  It was nice to see the flash of pride appear on her face when the paramedic came to the house or the nurse at the hospital was admitting her and we would present them with precise notes about her condition.  “The Notebook” as we referred to it, was a love letter of sorts to this meticulously organized woman began by me, her not so organized daughter.

Physically, she was becoming increasingly fragile, and her stamina was very low even when she was having a “good” day.  Her diminished physical capacity made it absolutely necessary to help her with everything from the mundane to the most private tasks.  Soon her house was fitted with an arsenal of equipment for helping her do everything from walking to bathing.   New devices appeared in the kitchen for feeding her and in the bathroom for caring for her Jejunostomy.  All of these changes were happening rapidly and with every new piece of gear it felt like a stronghold lost.  A walker, a shower chair, an IV pole, a bag for her waste… every few days a new introduction and each introduction meant another casualty of capability.  The home makeover was another step in the march toward the inevitable, but with each step we were blessed with the unwavering presence of Joy.

I do not recall anyone ever asking Joy to be so involved in caring for my mother.  I don’t think it was even necessary.  She was just being Joy, my mom’s best friend.  Joy knew the details of The Notebook as well as, if not better, than the rest of us. No one had to point out the subtleties of the placement of a pain patch or tell her which pillow configuration mom preferred on that particular day.   As each new change came and each new apparatus appeared in the house, Joy learned to master it.  If there were a need for a meal to be delivered, or an appointment to be accompanied, or a craving to be satisfied, Joy would find a way to satisfy the need.  Joy was my mom’s hospital advocate on countless nights, while I took the evening to take care of my young family and get some much-needed sleep.  When there was a new turn for the worse, Joy would lovingly sit me down and tell me about it.  Together we took the painful step forward.  Joy was my partner in the awkward three-legged-race called ‘loss’.   Without her constancy and love, the suffering of our entire family would have been so much greater.

Her presence in the midst of my personal grief is a gift for which I can never adequately express my gratitude, and that is where the real beauty in what Joy did is.   All those late nights spent next to my mom’s bed so that my dad could take a shift at work.   All the nights the phone rang after midnight, followed by a hurried rush to the hospital when Joy still had to be at work in the morning.  All the times she was the one in the bathroom helping to change the Jejunostomy bag because I could not bring myself to do it.   All the times she met me in the hallway of the hospital to be the one to break the bad news so my mom or dad would not have to.  She wasn’t there for her moment of recognition.  She was there for love.

So again I think about the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with the roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frost-work, but the solidest thing we know.”
 and my thoughts turn to Joy, and I offer up a prayer of thanks.

Love you Joy!  Happy Thanksgiving!  Have a blessed day!

Love, Vicki

Coming Undone

“Honey, what do you think I should do?”  The beautiful blue eyes that I had looked to thousands of times for support were now turned to me.  She was asking me to answer the impossible and I felt like I was failing her.  I sat quietly for a moment, my insides shivering as if I were outside in the chill of that November Monday morning just outside the hospital doors.  I was so weary.  Cancer.  Cancer, Cancer, Cancer!  A merciless and cruel killer it is.  Already pushed to a state of physical and emotional exhaustion, I could not imagine why anyone would voluntarily draw out this torture?  Watching her die so painfully, it seemed senseless to want to prolong the inevitable, and yet that was exactly what she was proposing.

Earlier that morning her doctor came to her room with a new plan.  Chemotherapy turned out to be an absolute catastrophe, resulting in the complete shut down of my mom’s colon.  This meant that everything that made it past her lips and into her stomach now had nowhere to go.  Because of this massive shut down, she was unable to eat or drink anything.   A tube attached to a pump had been fed up her nose and then down to her stomach in an attempt to keep her gut vacuumed out.   Maintaining pain was a nearly futile effort even though narcotic pain patches covered her back like a quilt.  Her body was failing quickly and prior to this meeting with her doctor we had been prepared by other hospital staff that we would be taking her home to die.  Hospice had been contacted, and it was evident that they did not expect her to live beyond the week.

I had arrived to the hospital that morning with my ‘game-face’ on and was ready.  Well, as ready as one can be…  Hearing the doctor propose a new course of action was completely unexpected.  The suggestion was for my mom to undergo a surgical procedure called a Jejunostomy.   Please pardon my very inadequate description, but essentially a Jejunostomy is when an opening is made and a bag is surgically placed at the place at the end of the stomach and before the colon so that when food or drink enters the body, it can only go as far as the stomach before it exits into the bag.  The function of food would now mostly be for pleasure since it would not enter the colon anymore and not be delivering any significant nutrition.  To solve the problem of not receiving enough nutrition, my mom would be administered a 12 hour round of TPN once every 24 hours.  TPN, which stands for Total Parenteral Nutrition, is basically a specialized liquid concoction of everything a person needs nutritionally that can be ‘fed’ to that person intravenously.   The TPN I.V. bag is inserted into a dispensing machine that is small enough to fit into a backpack.  Cancer is a little bit like that game on the midway at the fair called “Wack-A-Mole.”   As soon as you hit one of the moles, another pesky mole is popping up across the field!

This proposal fanned a flicker of hope in my mom that had been all but extinguished over the previous weekend.  She really hated that she was dying during the holidays and longed to be able to spend one last Christmas with her family.  While the doctor laid out the plan, which included the prospect of living for “many months” with the treatment that was no more inconvenient than “carrying a small backpack with you 12 hours on and 12 hours off” the room fell silent.  I could see there were visions dancing in my mom’s head and the cynic in me wasn’t buying it.  Not even for a minute.  I could feel the shaking inside me intensify as this doctor continued to pitch her proposal.  I looked to my dad and could see that he was buying the hope this doctor was selling.  As I looked around the room at the faces of her loved ones, I felt alone in my pessimism.

I felt guilty for not buying in to this doctor’s latest plan, and I tried to avoid looking at my mother’s hopeful face.  To my relief, she turned to my dad, “Sweetheart, what do you think?” she asked quietly.  My dad nodded his head with a supportive, “Yes.”

That is when her gaze came to rest upon me. “Honey, what do you think I should do?”

To say I cracked is an understatement.  I completely came undone! Weeks of raw emotion were so close to the surface my own breath was all that was covering them. Out of the pain of watching the vicious beast ravage her body, out of the turmoil of knowing she was leaving, out of the pure agony of it being powerless to stop it, I spoke.

“Why?”  I said in a not so subtle tone and immediately stared at the floor.   My heart felt as hard as the tile floor.  “Why do you want to prolong this?”  My breaking voice was nearing a hiss.  It was difficult to contain the pain and anger shuddering through me.  Would she understand I was saying this out of love for her?  Her merciless suffering!  As much as I tried, I could not soften my voice as I spoke.  I continued to shudder and felt my adrenaline pulsing through me.  I could not look up for fear that in the moment that I looked at her, watching her live would be worse than watching her die.  I knew my reaction was a brutal blow.  Desperately trying to escape the pain, I ran from her hospital room.

How could I?  What kind of worthless daughter was I?  How could I say that to my dying mother?  I could hardly stand to be in my own skin!  My mental state was deteriorating quickly.  I was on the verge of a total breakdown.  In my emotionally impaired state I could only think of one thing that would repair it.   As I climbed into the driver’s seat of my minivan, I knew I had to escape.  With an irrational plan to walk up to the ticket counter at the nearest airport, credit card in hand, to buy a ticket to get me as far away from ‘real’ life as possible, I started the engine of the car.  If she was going to prolong the agony I wasn’t going to stick around to watch.  Turning to look for traffic behind me as I prepared to back out of my parking space, I saw the little navy blue base to my infant son’s car seat, and knew I needed help.

For a split second the chaos inside me relented.  Somewhere deep inside me I knew.  It was what that little navy blue car seat base was telling me.  I could no sooner leave my little newborn son or my two daughters behind and run from the pain of grief than my mom could leave me behind and run from the pain of cancer.  That was why she was willing to prolong the agony!  That was why when given the opportunity to live for even a few more weeks she was willing to do it.  She would do it for me, for her child and for the others she so intensely loved.  I pulled back into the parking space and turned the engine off.  My shaking hand searched the inside of my purse for the cell phone that was the lifeline to my husband.

I wish I could say that with that revelation I jumped out of the car and ran back to her room and buried my sorry face in her lap.  I guess I am a lot harder headed than that.  It took me a while to really be able to articulate that moment in the car and in the meantime I continued to act out in my anguish.  By the days end, it was my patient and loving husband who put it to me this way, “Honey, one of us needs an antidepressant.  So, if you aren’t going to take one, I am.”

The next day I went to her, to my momma, who had always loved me no matter what.  I did bury my head in her lap.  She stroked my hair with the same hand that had comforted, guided, disciplined, and loved me for my whole life.  In that most intimate unspoken language between a mother and her child I told her how I loved her and begged her forgiveness through my tears, and she forgave me and said, “I love you, too.”

My mom with me, her first born.

The Rain Came Down…

Have you ever been angry with God?  I’m talking about that really gritty, dirty, I am so pissed off at you and the only thing that is going to make me feel better is to chew you up and spit you out kind of angry!?  Have you ever been cognizant of that kind of anger toward God?  I have.

I was mad like that on a Sunday morning in November of 2004.  The numbness following my mom’s Cancer diagnosis was rapidly wearing off.   I was drowning in the wound it left in its wake.  More than once that week I found myself literally shaking my fist at God.  The rain was coming down.

Why her?  Why her when there was so much to live for?  Why her when she was so good?  She and my dad were on the verge of celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary.  My dad was just over a year from retirement.  My mom, who never knew her own grandparents and *could*not*wait* to become a grandparent herself so that she could experience that kind relationship, now had 9 grandkids.  The cruel irony was that the oldest was only 9 and the rest ranged from age 3 months to 7 years.  Most of them would never remember her.   My sister was not married and had never had any children.  The list was long, there was just so much that she would miss!

Oh, I was angry! My straight-laced, “I don’t smoke, drink, or chew or go with boys that do,” church going, God following mother was dying, painfully, of Cancer?  In the 1960s when many of her peers were listening to Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and The Doors while becoming full- fledged hippies, she was asking the neighbor lady for rides to church.  Wasn’t this the same gal whose sister teased her by calling her the ‘polyester sister’?  She didn’t even own a pair of blue jeans until she met my dad in 1979.  She was that straight-laced!

On top of all of this I was really struggling to find a church that felt like “home” for me.  I had grown up in church and had attended the same church for most of my childhood, but no longer felt it was the right fit for me.  Feeling comfortable in a new denomination was challenging.  My husband and my children were feeling at home in our new church but I was at odds with the main thing that made this new home feel different:  The Liturgy.

Growing up in a church that was much less formal, this “Liturgy” thing sometimes seemed stiff and insincere.   Why did they have a pre-planned calendar, why didn’t the pastor just preach on what he felt God inspired to preach about?  While sermons at the church I grew up in were prepared in advance, prayers were freer flowing in nature.  Every moment of the service wasn’t preplanned. The idea that the service could go ‘where the spirit led’ was not out of the ordinary.  Even though it didn’t often happen, if a pastor felt the direction of the service needed to change that could easily happen.   It was orderly, but not overly so, but to call it simple would not be accurate.   There was no elaborate scripting, or what our new church called “Liturgy”.   The spoken words were characteristically extemporaneous.  In my mind the hurdle was Extemporaneous = sincere and somehow more inspired by God = Good, and Liturgical = insincere, stale, uninspired and untimely = Bad.

Entering this church on this particular day I’d had it and my anger was flaring to new heights.  Not only was God not fair, God was insincere.  What sort of “prepackaged” BS did this “Loving Father” have for me today?  I was thankful for the lectionary script.  It made it easier to fake it.  I could participate without feeling and the barricade around my brokenness could remain intact.  I took comfort and a certain amount of pleasure in knowing that the prepackaged lectionary was nearing the end of a 3 year Lectionary cycle.   Nothing new here today, nothing that hadn’t been sitting on that preacher’s shelf for at least the last 3 long years.

Sitting there in the pew wallowing in my cynicism I was hardly listening as the Gospel Scripture from Matthew 5:43-48 was read.  Blah, Blah, Blah, “…for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  The words hit me hard.  I didn’t hear much after that.  Like a stubborn child in the toy department who has just been told no, I was kicking and screaming.  Like the loving parent who has just said no, God picked me up and with a gentle force, carried me away from what I so desperately wanted while I was throwing my tantrum.  It wasn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination.

The floods came up.   My hands balled to fists.  My heart raced.  I wanted to hang on to my anger.  All of the scriptures and songs of promise that had been ingrained in me since birth like,  “I will never leave you or forsake you,” (Hebrews 13:5) and,  “Nothing can separate you from the love of God,” (Romans 8:35-39).  They washed over me like a tidal wave.  Grief came flooding out of me as I sat there in my seat.   None of those familiar verses claimed fairness; instead all of them claimed faithfulness.  The God of the universe, who is faithful and loves me entered my pain and reminded me that God wasn’t going anywhere.  And all that from a moment in the lectionary… huh?  Talk about rockin’ my world!   After that day I was still angry, still bitter, still in such anguish, but I wasn’t alone and I knew this was not a punitive act on God’s part.  It wasn’t a punishment.

I take comfort in knowing even Jesus grappled with these very human emotions.  Fully God and yet fully man.  I can’t even really wrap my brain around that.  Jesus understood why I begged for this to not happen, why I was so very angry.  Knowing He would be betrayed and brutally executed, my Bible says Jesus “fell on His face and prayed.”  That seems to be on the level of pure desperation.   Jesus begged, “Let this cup pass from me…” (Matthew 26:39) When Jesus was dying His extremely painful and brutal death perhaps He was angry or felt betrayed when He cried out in a loud voice,  “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”(Matthey 27:46)

Sometimes on a particularly tough day I still catch myself in a little wave of anger about what feels like the injustice of it all.  When I see someone abuse their body over and over and live to enjoy another day, or I hear of a grandparent who basically ignores their grandchild, or I call my dad and he’s heating up a TV dinner and sitting in front of a Basketball game for the 3rd or 4th time that week I want to recoil and strike out at God.  Yeah, those are the times I have to take a deep breath and remember that day in November 2004.  The rain came down, the floods came up, and wise woman, who built her house on the Rock?  Her house is still standing still.