Remembering Her

I arrived to her room at the hospice house that night holding the innocent, naïve hands of my daughters.  As a family we had decided that maybe it was time for the grandchildren to see her for the last time.  She was declining by the hour at that point and I wanted to make sure that my girls, the oldest of the 9 grandkids, would be able to see her one last time in a way that was recognizable and not frightening.  The last 11 weeks had been so hard on them, especially my first born, who was just old enough to understand the finality of it all.  I knew after our visit tonight, my little girls would enter into a new phase of life, one that knew pain and loss in a new and profound way.  Just when I didn’t think it was possible, I hated cancer a fair measure more.

Hannah held my hand tight, tears welled in her blue eyes but none escaped to her cheeks, and she walked with the stoic grace of a woman much more mature than her 9 years, to the edge of the bed, but it was too late.  The transformation had already begun and their Grandma would never be the same.  I could see it and Hannah could see it.  Hannah laid her body against the side of the bed and stretched her tiny frame as far as she could, wrapping both her arms around the Grandma who had rocked her to sleep so many times.  Rachel timidly came from behind and joined her big sister.  Their brown hair blanketed her bed as they buried their faces in her chest.

She became lucid for a moment, aware of the embrace of her beloved granddaughters and touched their hair.  She spoke, partially profound and partially nonsensical, of her love for them and for Jesus, and for peanut butter and Cinderella.  All the while her body made random twitches that made the scene even more surreal.   A few moments passed and she had drifted back to sleep.  With tears on her chin, Rachel whispered, “Goodbye Grandma.” and my heart broke again into a million pieces.

As we walked to the waiting room I wondered how much my 7 year old would remember about her Grandma.  Would she remember her voice, her laugh, the way she talked with her hands, the certain strut in her walk?  How would I be able to keep these things alive for her when they seemed to already be fading from my own memory?  Even though her body was still with us, the disease and the drugs had stolen her from us by now.  I missed her already.  It was just so wrong that this beautiful woman, grandmother to 9 (at the time and now 12) would not be remembered by most of her grandchildren.

Six years later, I still struggle with this.  I look at my children and see glimmering pieces of her in all of them; Hannah with her walk with that ‘certain strut’ and the same ‘old soul’ maturity beyond her years, Rachel with her ‘swimmer’s body’ and her natural cooking ability and Rylon with his dimples and the way his memory is so keen like hers was.  I tell them stories, the good, the bad and the down right hilarious, but it just doesn’t seem to be enough.  We look at pictures, use the things she gave us and the things she left us, bake her recipes, we even have an old bottle of her perfume.  Something always seems to be missing.  And the stories, the things, the smells don’t quite do her justice.  And then it hits me, “Oh yeah, it’s her…  We can’t recreate her…”

But, we can keep telling the stories.  When I point to my son’s dimple and say, “That’s cute!  Where’d you get that?” he readily knows and giggles back, “Grandma Crum!” and I believe it gives him just a little bit more of the sense of love and pride about from where he came.  It is like a little connection to his past and maybe to his future.  Who knows, maybe one day, as he lovingly rubs his finger into the indent of his own child, he will say, “That’s cute!  Where’d you get that?”

So I’m asking you.  Not because I don’t remember her, but because sometimes I feel like my memory just isn’t quite enough.  Tell me, Tell us, Tell them your stories, so that her legacy of love all the other stuff can live on with them, and so that they can get to know the incredible woman that was their Grandma Crum.

Thank you,

Vicki

The Annual Grandkids Picture 2003

The Annual Grandkids Picture 2003-With Grandpa and Grandma Crum

The Annual Grandkids Picture 2004- Carrying Quilts Made By Grandma Crum

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Excuse Me While I Rant! On 9/11 and Other Numbers

This evening I read a note that Rick Steves posted on his public facebook page.  While I am a huge fan of Rick Steves and respet his work as an Travel Writer and Humanitarian, I think he missed the mark and landed short tonight.  Here is his note as posted on Facebook:

9/11 and Other Numbers (by Rick Steves)

This month we Americans — all 300 million of us — remember the tragic loss of 2,973 lives, when terrorists attacked our nation. In the more than 3,000 days since that terrible event, hardly a day has gone by when 9/11 hasn’t colored our response to what life has dealt us since. We have mourned together the loss of these innocent victims of this horrible act. And we have been reminded of the fragility and preciousness of each of those lives. I think it’s safe to say that the loss of these nearly 3,000 Americans has changed each of us in some way. And our collective response to the tragic event has changed us even more.

On this ninth anniversary of 9/11, as I remember our loss, I challenge myself to consider other human tragedies that have occurred since then — the loss of lives, the causes, the grief, and how they might have been avoided or minimized. I meditate on proportionality; on our response to each of these tragedies — and on how the desperation and suffering of the poor, dark, and dirty, uncovered by news media, plays out in our hearts.

In 2004, more 4,000 people — mostly civilians — died during the Second Battle of Fallujah in Iraq.

Each year since 2001, between 11,000 and 17,000 Americans have died in alcohol-caused car accidents.

Every day, more than 25,000 poor children die from diseases rich children don’t get.

Every year since 2001, an average of 30,000 Americans — most of them innocent victims — have been killed by firearms.

Since 2007, Mexico has lost more than 22,000 people to the war on drugs.

In 2010, an earthquake in Haiti killed nearly 230,000 people. In 2005 and 2008, earthquakes in northern Pakistan and China’s Sichuan Province took approximately 75,000 and 70,000 lives, respectively. These earthquakes likely would have caused far less death and destruction in lands with First World building codes.

In 2004, an estimated 230,000 people perished in the Indian Ocean tsunami. In 2008, more than 130,000 people died when a cyclone swept through Myanmar.

Since 2003, about 300,000 have been killed in Darfur.

Imagine the horror in little Honduras when Hurricane Mitch struck 12 years ago. Approximately 20% of that nation’s 7 million people were left homeless, while 70% of the country’s transportation infrastructure was demolished. Mudslides killed more than 6,000 people. In a horrifying instant that few of us here in the US even noticed, a land with 3% of our population lost more than double the people we did on 9/11.

As we remember 9/11, some might think it wrong to ponder how and why we pay attention to human tragedy near and far. I’ve been thinking about how good and caring people notice suffering selectively — by proximity or race or religion and how and why we respond to some and not to others.

I think of who the innocent victims were in New York on 9/11 and how their loved ones have grieved. Then I think of the loved ones who survived each of the other tragedies listed…and how they grieved. A New York office worker crushed in concrete…a Honduran family drowned in mud…an Iraqi child riddled with shrapnel…a Californian widow joining Mothers against Drunk Driving.

On this anniversary of 9/11 (as I try to ignore the sick media circus of Quran-burning threats), I think of those who lost loved ones on that terrible day. And I also can’t help but think of a million poor Afghan refugees barefoot and cold in tents just over the Pakistan border as another winter sets in — collateral suffering with barely an army blanket of compassion tossed their way. It’s a thoughtful time…I hope.

This was my response as posted in his Facebook comments:

Tsunami, Earthquake, even dare I say Drunken Driving… these things are not events that happen because of the hatred of one person toward another. Natural disaster and poor judgment are not the same as premeditated murder. My father in law was on board flight 77. Someone deliberately plunged the aircraft he was on into the Pentagon. Proportionately we may have not suffered the quantity of loss as other tragedies, but to say we suffer more or less than another is, well for lack of a better word, hurtful. I don’t know that personal loss can or should be compared. I lost my mother to cancer. 11 weeks and she was gone. It was every bit as devastating and painful, but completely different. I hope for peace. I hope for cultural understanding. I hope for compassion for all who have grief and are suffering at the hand of terrorism. At this 9 year mark I hope we as Americans can move forward by eliminating fear mongering and imperialism and realize that while we suffer from the heinous loss of 9/11, our loss is not ranked on a scale of 1-10 among the other horrible loss of our fellow humankind, it is not harder or easier than theirs, it is instead something that makes us one and the same. We all share in the human experience and create community when we “get to carry each other.” There is nothing wrong with acknowledging a day where Americans suffered as our citizens were murdered, but in turn we need to also give the same to others who have suffered and not put our loss on a pedestal and question why it could have happened to us. It happens to all of us.

Thanks for letting me let off a little steam!  After all, we’re all in this together!

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.

With Hope

I’ll say more about this day later.  For now, I’m taking the little guy out for some spoiling!  But I wanted to share this song called ‘With Hope’ by Steven Curtis Chapman that we played at my mom’s memorial service.   There’s a place, by God’s grace, where we’ll see her face again, and today, she’d want me to remember that!   Here are the lyrics and a youtube link if you’d like to hear it…

With Hope
This is not at all how
We thought it was supposed to be
We had so many plans for you
We had so many dreams
And now you’ve gone away
And left us with the memories of your smile
And nothing we can say
And nothing we can do
Can take away the pain
The pain of losing you, but …

We can cry with hope
We can say goodbye with hope
‘Cause we know our goodbye is not the end, oh no
And we can grieve with hope
‘Cause we believe with hope
(There’s a place by God’s grace)
There’s a place where we’ll see your face again
We’ll see your face again

And never have I known
Anything so hard to understand
And never have I questioned more
The wisdom of God’s plan
But through the cloud of tears
I see the Father smile and say well done
And I imagine you
Where you wanted most to be
Seeing all your dreams come true
‘Cause now you’re home
And now you’re free, and …

We can cry with hope
We can say goodbye with hope
‘Cause we know our goodbye is not the end, oh no
And we can grieve with hope
‘Cause we believe with hope
(There’s a place by God’s grace)
There’s a place where we’ll see your face again
We’ll see your face again

We have this hope as an anchor
‘Cause we believe that everything
God promised us is true, so …

We wait with hope
And we ache with hope
We hold on with hope
We let go with hope

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pcYRr1dk7wA

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.

5 Years Ago Today…

October 25, 2009

5 years ago today…

I have heard it said that the healing comes when you tell your story, and so it is for purely selfish reasons that I am telling mine.  Healing… what is that anyway? It’s such a neat and tidy word, and really I hate using it.  After 5 years it sure looks a lot different than I thought it would, but then again I guess that when wounds heal the big ones often leave scars.

Life was pretty blurry in the weeks heading up to the day I refer to in my mind as Black Monday.  The Saturday night before, my not quite 3 months old son had just slept through his first full night.  Being sleep deprived was only part of it, I also did not want to admit to the post partum depression that had wrapped its tentacle around me and had stolen me to a dark depth.  After all I had just given birth to a beautifully perfect son, I had 2 great daughters, and a wonderful husband who loved me very much.  I was living a real live Cinderella story.  I was supposed to be happy and I was worried about that.

I had spent the weekend being the nurse to my husband who had just had a minor surgery.  My two older daughters were at my mother’s house so that I could take care of my ‘boys’.   We watched the 2nd game of the World Series that day.  There was magic happening at Fenway Park and the entire country was under the spell.   The Boston Red Sox were well on their way to making World Series history and breaking the famed “Curse of the Bambino”.  They were looking for a miracle, and by the time I went to bed that night I would be too.

At some point in the weekend my dad brought the girls home.  I called my mom to thank her for having them and she reported to me that she had been so sick during their visit that it was a relief to have them there to help her out.  I remember worrying about this because she had been sick a lot lately and that just wasn’t like her.  There had been a lot of discussion about her frequent stomach pain and nausea and what she should do about it.  She had been tested up one side and down the other, poked, scoped, and scanned.  Nothing was showing up and we were all getting concerned.

Later that evening my mom called to tell me that she was going to go to the Emergency Room.  Her thinking was that if she went to the ER with a presenting persistent pain, the doctors there wouldn’t let her go until they figured out what the problem was.  She was desperate and had to find the answer.  When I hung up the phone, even though it was getting late, I set about the house cleaning.  I had this intuitive feeling that I needed to get a good cleaning in because I might not have the opportunity to get it done again for a while.  I was almost done vacuuming and was planning on calling it a night when the phone rang again.  It was my dad.  He seemed calm and said they were going to be doing some further tests on my mom and that they would be keeping her all night.  I asked him if he wanted me to come to the hospital and keep him company.  He said no and we hung up.  Before I could get the vacuum put away the phone rang again.  This time it was my mom.  She spoke quickly and urgently in a hushed voice.  She said, “Please come now, there are spots on my liver.”   I told her I was on my way.

I went to the hospital alone that night.  It was now close to midnight and not practical to tote 3 kids and a recovering husband out that cold and foggy October night.   Besides, in the 15 minutes it had taken me to drive to the hospital I had solved the worst-case scenario with one word:  Transplant.  A person can live on a donated liver.  I was her daughter, I’d be a match, I’d donate part of mine, and we’d both live to tell about it.  Solved.  It wouldn’t be easy, certainly inconvenient, but we’d manage.  Everything would be fine… and with that pep talk, I entered the Emergency Room.

I don’t remember how I ended up at her room, but I remember entering the tiny observation room.   She was alone and with her eyes closed.   There were IV bags hanging and machines flashing numbers and wavy lines, and I assumed she was sleeping.  As I walked to her bedside and took her hand, she looked up at me.  In that moment that our eyes met I knew she was trying to tell me something no mother ever wants to tell her adoring child.  She didn’t say anything as I draped my body over her chest and began to cry.  I knew I had just walked in to my worst nightmare.

A few moments of silence went by before we found our way to the difficult conversation we needed to have.  She told me how the doctors had discovered several “spots” on her liver and how no one was being very specific, but every one was acting very urgent.   At some point I became aware of the gentle and steady presence of my dad in the room.  He knew I had kids to get off to school in the morning and an infant to attend to, so he urged me to go home and get some sleep.  They would have some of her test results back by the morning and we would need our rest in order to make decisions regarding her treatment.  Everyone was being very careful not to use the “C” word yet.   I left that night still unsure of exactly what was wrong with her.

On the way home my mind drifted to a memory of a shopping trip I had made a few years earlier.  I was at the mall shopping for a purse at Meier and Frank.  It was a rare shopping trip because I was alone and as I often do when I’m alone, I was people watching as I shopped.   In front of me was a large table full of purses that were neatly set out in rows according to size and color.  Across the table from me, shopping for just the right hand bag was a very stylishly dressed woman who looked to be around her 70s.  She was taking various styles of purses and trying them out in front of a full-length mirror.  Eventually she found a nice one and turned to her shopping partner and asked her what she thought of it.  The other woman wasn’t pleased with the bright color of the red purse and suggested a more practical brown.  Well, this just frustrated this woman and she turned to her friend and said something like, “Mother, we just have different taste in color.  I’m getting the red one!”

It was the word “Mother” that really caught my attention, and I smiled and silently chuckled as I pictured myself in that same situation some day with my own mom, who had me at 19.  I just knew that was going to be us one day.  In my mind was a picture of my mom, who regularly told me (and anyone else she thought should know) that she was going to live to be 100, and me, her geriatric sidekick!  We were well on our way to those days because we already enjoyed each other’s company very much.

I cried myself to sleep that night feeling more afraid than I had ever felt in my entire life.

After a few hours of fitful, tearful sleep I woke to the realization that the night before was not a terrible dream, but in fact an unfolding reality.  In a fog, I sent my daughters off to school, my husband off to work, and took my son with me to the hospital to learn about what the overnight tests revealed about my mom’s health.  I arrived to my mother’s new hospital room, stroller and baby in tow, to find my mom in her hospital bed, surrounded by several people.  Some were new faces, doctors, nurses, and some were familiar, a couple of her friends and one of the church pastors.  It was among this sea of people that the “C” shot was fired.  It was as if her words were shot from a loaded pistol.  “It’s Cancer.  They can’t take it out.  It’s everywhere.”

I wanted to dissolve.  I wanted to push everyone out of the room.  I wanted push the rewind button and search for the moment this dreaded disease invaded her body.  I wanted anything but this moment!   Again the wave of fear gripped me and I felt paralyzed.  This time I didn’t cry.  I sat down at a chair next to her bed and watched as the universe whirled around her.  I was numb.

It wasn’t at all like I thought it would be, to hear those words, “It’s Cancer.”  I thought there would be an immediate mobilization of the troops.   I began to think of questions that there appeared to be no answer to.   The answers were things like, “We’ll know more after a test/surgery/procedure.”  When will she have that test/surgery/procedure?  “In a few days…”  Nothing was immediate…  I kept picturing the ticking time bomb inside her body and wondering when MacGyver was going to show up with his pack of rubber bands and paperclips and save us?  Do these people really know what they are doing?  Why is this going so slow, don’t they know my mother’s life is on the line here?

I don’t really remember the rest of that day.  I know that the words, “Terminal” and “Hospice,” were used, but by that point I was unable to comprehend what those things meant for me.  When I left the hospital that day I felt angry that the rest of the world hadn’t ground to a halt because my mom lay in a hospital bed, a victim in the War on Cancer.  In fact life didn’t slow down and it certainly didn’t stop.   By Wednesday, October 27, 2004 the Boston Red Sox had won the World Series shutting the Cardinals out in 4 games.  I was praying for my miracle too.

Canning

Four years ago when we were moving here I made a rash decision.  You see that is easy to do when you are having a moving sale on your driveway while the moving truck is being packed on the street.  Suddenly when you are faced with packing up all your worldly goods to ship them 2000 miles a lot of things seem to loose their value.  That was the story with all of my canning supplies.  I don’t even remember what I got for them, but in an instant when the woman with her curious and critical yard sale eye looked them over and asked, “Are these for sale?”  I said, “Sure!” and just like that, years of collecting and planning was loaded in to her trunk!

When I chose a stove for our new home, I thought about that rash decision and decided I must not have really wanted to pursue canning anymore and chose a ceramic cook top.  For the most part I like it.  I have vacillated on the gas vs. electric debate and on this particular day I must have been feeling electric.  Over the years there has only been one thing the stovetop has left me wanting for, to be able to can.

Growing up I thought my mom was “Super Mom.”  Her home was kept neat as a pin, she never missed any activity we were in, she volunteered countless hours at school, planned summer camps for the Girl Scouts, chaperoned youth group trips, made a home cooked meal every night… I’m getting exhausted with just making the list and she was the mother of 4 kids 2 ½ years apart!  At some point in the summer, usually after camp and before school started, the fruits would arrive.  I remember peaches and pears hiding out in boxes waiting for just the right firmness and in a flurry she would begin.  Sometime the process would be days on end and sometimes spaced out, it was up to the fruit.

Our families galley style kitchen would be over taken with jars and bands, sinks full of floating peaches, or a pot on the stove with a food mill on top, and always was the presence of a very large dark blue enamelware pot.  The canner would steam away on the stove and fill the air with a thick humidity that was so out of the ordinary in our Northwest home.   When she was done the counters would show like stained glass.  Each fruit like a color of an artist palate glowing from within the shiny clear jars.   I remember watching her carefully tip jars of jam to watch the consistency and listen for the ping that would signal that the lids had properly sealed.  I remember thinking it was a lot of work for something you could just go buy at the grocery store!

A month ago I went back to my mom’s home to gather some of her belongings to take home with me.  One of the things I wanted to have was her canning book.  Reading it has been something like looking through a journal and a diary.  A lot of facts and a lot of feeling!  I have really enjoyed it and it has reignited the desire to can for my own family.  Boy was I wrong as a kid!  After years of searching I have found that NOTHING compares to my mom’s home canning!  (Although Hood Crest out of Hood River, OR comes very close!)  So that meant that my dilemma needed solving and my budget doesn’t allow for replacing my stovetop!

In my quest for finding a solution I ran across a comment someone posted about the Masterbuilt Turk’N’Surf.  This appliance is a turkey fryer that can also double as a crab pot.  The person commenting said that they used it for canning and it worked for them.  It is electric, which means I can use it indoors.  I’d consider that a plus, not canning outdoors in the Midwest = much less humidity!  I decided to give it a try and ordered one.   On Labor Day we took the kids to Stone’s Apple-Barn and armed with my Turk’N’Surf and 40 pounds of apples I set out to see what I could do.   It worked great and there was even the benefit of not having a canner on the stovetop, so I could use all of the burners for cooking!  Here are some pictures of my mom’s book and the canning results:

My Mom's Canning Cook Book.

My Mom's Canning Cook Book.

Some of Mom's Notes...

Some of Mom's Notes...

The Turk'N'Surf- LOVED IT!

The Turk'N'Surf- LOVED IT!

16 Quarts of Apple Sauce = Love in a Canning Jar!

16 Quarts of Apple Sauce = Love in a Canning Jar!