One Year

Dear Mom,

A year ago today you left us to go be with your beloved pup, who I have to believe was very happy to see you after waiting patiently for so long.

I'm having a glass of wine tonight for/with you, I miss you terribly.

I miss you calling people "turkeys" and I miss talking to you. I can only imagine a discussion with you about the current mayor of Toronto and I'm guessing you'd have some strong feelings about the B.C. man who owns my newspaper, given his side endeavors in the oil/gas industry.

Oh yeah, I got a job...

The local newspaper hired me part-time - no, I don't know what they were smoking - and haven't fired me yet.  :)

I think you'd love it here on Vashon, I am so sad that you never had a chance to spend any time here with us. We have our own opera company. Seriously. This island is nuts but in ways I know you would have appreciated greatly.

The boys are good. You'd be pleased to know that we shipped Z off to Scotland to stay with P and M and the boys for 2 weeks this last summer. I flew him through Iceland. Everyone survived, it was a good thing. P and M are having another baby, by the way. Any day now, actually. I'm already planning a "middle child road trip" for me and E, I suspect he's going to need one.

J is growing but is still smaller than I am, which I hope remains the case. He's doing really well at the new school - they installed a platform swing for him in the classroom and he even gets to go swimming with his class every two weeks.

I will never forget how you pushed him on the swing for hours and hours when we went to Ohio to get Buddy. Or how you hid in the brush with him during the tracking practices.

We kept the plate that you had for him to use at your place. He asks for you pretty regularly and I don't know what to say. I know he wouldn't understand the reality but I don't know how to explain why he can't see you or that we can't go visit any more. I'm at a complete loss. I'm sorry you didn't get to see him again, but the last time the boys came up with me that summer was a nice visit, I hope you remembered that in those last few weeks.

Z is 17 now. Right? It's ridiculous. He's not driving yet, he actually doesn't want to right now. I'm sure that will change before too long, and I'm not feeling the need to push it. Last year was a rough one for him but things are getting back on track now. He got to go to Hawaii last summer too. He misses you. I am so glad that he was able to come with me that weekend to see you - the earthquake weekend, remember? He still laughs about your comment that Japan would be getting all its stuff back.  :)

That's also the weekend that dad had the heart attack. I know you were concerned about him. We were so close to losing him too, but he managed to pull through eventually. He was very sad about you. I thought you should know that.

Richard is doing well. The rowing crews are thriving under his stewardship and making their mark in the region and nationally. He misses you too, and is sad that he didn't get to spend more time with you. We have the harpsichord and he plays it, which I think would make you happy. I am glad that he and I had that last weekend with you, at least.

We have two cats now, Cosmo and Izzie. Don't frown at me, they're awesome, I love them. Yes, I know that means we have more animals than people in the house. Shush. They are hilarious and very cuddly, I know they'd win you over if they had the chance.

Buddy is still insane, enough said. He eats the cats' food whenever he can get away with it, which I'm sure doesn't surprise you.

Carol bought your car and says she loves it, so the little blue Honda will live on in her care. Your sweet upstairs neighbors took the dollhouse for their baby girl. She came to see you the night you passed, I'm not sure you were aware enough to know that she was there, but she was. Carol was too, actually.

When C and P and I were sorting through your place and all of the things (truly, ALL OF THE THINGS... now I know where I get the need to keep everything from), your Diva buddies came over and we had a good toast to you. That's a really great group of ladies, I am thankful you had such good friends to spend time with. They thought the world of you, and I hope they keep going to operas and maybe save a seat for you every now and then.

I miss your smile and your laugh, picking you up at the train station, browsing grocery stores - I suspect that you and I are the only two people who can go to a grocery store to just browse - eating cheeseburgers and fries on the beach at Dundarave, sharing some wine, having adventures.... remember that night I was visiting without the boys and we took the bus downtown to meet P and M for dinner? The craziness of that bus ride was awesome. So was our trip from Philly to Colonial Williamsburg. And the road trip from Vancouver to Houston when I moved and even the trip to Ohio for Buddy, which I couldn't have done without you.

I miss my mom, damn it.  You were my best friend, and the only lifeline I had when things were so awful with B. I know I never said it out loud, but you were pretty much the only person I had in the world other than the kids for so long. You were the only one who would come to stay with us when I was isolated and alone and just trying to get through each day - I know no one else would come because of B, and it meant so much that you did, even though I know it wasn't always very pleasant. You did it for me and I knew that.

Thank-you, mom.

My heart is sad tonight.

A year. Before this I could say that you were still here x months ago, which let me feel connected. But now it's been a year, farther away from when you were still here. I know this is all psychological, but it just feels worse.

I hope P and M have a girl...

We have not taken you up to the Bow Glacier yet. That's in the works for next summer, when we're all in better shape, and when I say "all" I mean mostly me. Also that's when P and M said they could come back for a visit and make the climb as well. ps. thanks for asking us to climb a damned ice mountain to scatter your ashes.

Anyway, I should probably stop rambling here soon.

I keep trying to write your story on the blog but every time I try, I just cry a lot. Maybe it's too soon, I don't know.

I have no idea what to think about the realities of the afterlife or lack thereof, my brain tells me one thing but it feels better to believe another. I like to think you are walking with Orion through the woods, watching birds and humming your favorite piece of classical music.

And that you're reading this.

Love you, mama.

Not Ready

I don't know if I can adequately describe everything that I was feeling or that was in my head for those first few days after The Phone Call.

There was an awful lot of crying. Sobbing, actually, which is quite different than standard, everyday tears. Gives me what I can only assume are migraines - I am not prone to them under normal circumstances but crying a lot pretty much always induces the worst headaches I ever experience. And this one was a whopper.

I know how old mom was. But this reality was just not something I was prepared for. At all. Both my parents were always so ... them... and active and engaged... I had simply decided that they would both be sticking around for a couple more decades. Period. I wasn't allowing for any other possibility. That's not to say that I didn't think about it every now and then, but as I mentioned before, those thoughts were always pushed back in to the "yes, that would be horrible but it's just not going to happen" closet of my brain. So basically I was in denial even before anything happened.

Elisabeth Kubler Ross can bite me.

I guess that being their daughter, having those parents, has been such a big part of my identity, at least my self-indentity for a long time. I couldn't imagine any part of that being lost.

This was my mom. My literal connection to this planet, the reason I am here at all.

And one of the best friends I'd ever had.

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I don't think I was ever really conscious of that until much more recently.

My mom and I had our ups and downs as I assume most mother-daughter relationships do, but mostly ups. And the "downs" were never very serious. For the most part, I loved all of the time we ever spent together. I loved going to visit her, both before and after I had my own kids, and always loved it when she came to to visit me/us.

We had adventures, my mom and I.

For as long as I can remember, my mom has listened to nothing but classical music and opera. That includes when she could only have been in her 30's, because that's all I can remember hearing when she would put music on. Apparently she had a little thing for Johnny Cash, but, I don't remember her ever playing anything of his.

So imagine my surprise when she wanted to come with me to a David Bowie concert in 1987 - the Glass Spider tour. I'd already seen him in '83 with a friend but he was coming back through town and mom wanted to see him. So we went. I am not 100% certain, but I am pretty sure that was the only rock concert my mom ever attended in her entire life.

I moved back home for a couple of years while I was planning a return to school to get a Masters degree. I was working full time, but living with my mom to save money - I paid rent, but nothing like what I would have had to otherwise. I think many people would have found that difficult after being on their own for 6 years already, but I think mom had a harder time adjusting to a grown-up me living with her than I had being back under her roof.

When it was time for me to move to Houston - where I'd chosen to do my graduate studies - mom decided to come along for the ride. I was driving from Vancouver, BC to Houston, TX with whatever was going to fit in my little Mazda 323. This was back in 1991 when Cops and America's Most Wanted were just hitting their stride, and I was not excited about the prospect of making the journey alone. None of my friends could get the time off of work to come along, and since I was driving and keeping my car with me, any companion would have had to fly one-way back.

Mom really wanted to come. She got all of her maps and guide books out and plotted our course. She was not a huge fan of driving so I did all of it, but at least I had company - I was 26 so she would have been 54. We stayed in Missoula, MT, Casper, WY, Pueblo, CO, Wichita Falls, TX,  then we arrived in Houston. Along the way we fell in love with the other-worldly beauty of Bozeman; marveled at the vast and rugged emptiness of WY (seriously, we didn't see a single human in Wyoming until we actually got to Casper - which was half way through the state); wondered why we thought driving through Denver was a good idea; enjoyed a spectacular thunderstorm from a distance in Pueblo; regretted that the only bit of New Mexico we would see was the top corner we cut across on the way in to Texas; concluded with similar horror that the reason bugs were no longer hitting the windshield in Texas was because they were too damn big to fly and were WALKING on the road instead - which also explained the crunching noise; decided armadillos were probably cute but since all we had to go on were dead ones, we couldn't be sure; the soft-serve we had at a Dairy Queen somewhere in the Panhandle on a brutally hot day (it was August) after a long drive in a car without A/C was, in fact, the best we'd ever had; and had we known that the hotel we chose in Wichita Falls was where many of the participants in the Hotter'n Hell 100 were also staying, we probably would have gone somewhere else.

Despite the lack of A/C and a decent stereo (it was my first car, shut up), it was such a cool trip. Well, except maybe the part where I thought someone had kidnapped mom from a McDonald's parking lot just outside of Boulder...

Ahem. Too much America's Most Wanted

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This couldn't be happening. How could it be happening?

It was too much. I didn't want to lose her. I didn't want the kids to lose her. We all have so much life left and I wanted/needed mom to be a part of it.

I know at the time there wasn't much information to go on. At that point all I knew was that there was a large tumor. And that mom really wasn't interested in chemo.

You don't really need more than that to know what we were facing, though.

And I wasn't ready.

That's all I could say to my love as he held me while I sobbed... "I'm not ready, I'm not ready to let her go... "

"You'll never be ready, love."

Was his gentle whisper back, filled with more truth than anything I've ever heard.

It Started With a Phone Call

Monday September 24th, 2012, finishing up dinner. This moment is now etched in my memory forever.

My cell phone made its "missed call" alert noise.

We have terrible cell signal at the house, so unless I happen to have my phone sitting on my younger son's bedroom window sill, it won't pick up a call. But it does have a fantastic sense of irony and will ALWAYS let me know that someone did call, and that I missed it because it couldn't be bothered to ring.

I got up from the table to look at my phone and see what I'd missed but as soon as I saw the number, I froze. Which is an interesting physiologic situation when you're not having to run for your life from something that is trying to kill you. I know how fight vs flight works, it's just when your situation has no actual or even imagined physical danger/stressors/demands, it's interesting that your body still reacts the same way to fear.

The phone number was my sister's.

All families have their idiosyncrasies. But I'd have to say that the biggest one in mine is our collective dislike of calling each other. Don't get me wrong, I love my family more than anything and I very much enjoy being with them whenever we are together. While I can only speak for myself with any certainty, I believe my siblings feel the same way.

But we never call.

I don't really know how to explain it, either. We just don't and never really have, even though our parents were divorced and all of us live in different places.

There have always been two exceptions to this inexplicable familial phone-shunning: Christmas Day (if we aren't together), and our mom.

We all called mom. And she called us. She was the hub. Our central relay station where we could both provide information and get it. So maybe we all just figured that because we'd talked to mom, we didn't need to call anyone else because we already knew x,y, z? Who knows.

But my sister's phone number was sitting there on my cell phone. So I knew something was wrong. Within about a second I'd already determined that it wasn't Christmas - because you know, it was September - and couldn't think of any other non-worrisome reason she might be calling. I didn't even listen to the voice mail.

With panic rising in my chest I mumbled something to my guys to the effect of "something's going on, I have to call my sister... " and took to the one spot in the house with passable cell signal.

She answered and I asked her what was up.

"When was the last time you heard from mom?"

My suspicion confirmed, both my brain and heart were completely frantic - that was not the opening to a conversation where everything is ok.

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My mom was 75 years old and lived alone in a small condo. My parents divorced when I was a teenager and I have two siblings from that marriage. My mom never had another relationship. Well, unless you count the dog -  you'll understand this better as I tell more of the story. While my sister and I both moved away when we went to college, my brother remained in the same city as mom right up until 2011.

You would not have guessed my mom was in her 70's if you'd met her. I certainly never thought about her as being that old and I know that she didn't see herself as the age she was. Which I think was probably the key. She was also very bright, extremely well read, and still just as sharp as she always had been. She was active - after being diagnosed with severe osteoporosis in her 50's, she was diligent about exercising and walking ALL the time, even after she no longer needed the meds. She traveled, she had a group of friends who were all opera fanatics like she was and with whom she would go out and see operas, plays or movies. She participated in a book club and she loved bird-watching and gardening.

I could talk to her for hours. About everything. She was a history buff, music lover, and a great cook.

To me, she was the same, she never aged, at least not as far as her personality went. Physically, yes, though not drastically. Her eyes were giving her the most trouble. She had cataracts and was also diagnosed with a type of glaucoma so the immediate concern was for her sight. She was good about seeing her doctor regularly so I never really worried about anything else. Especially while my brother and his family were still in the area.

When they moved two years ago, other worries started to creep-in when I allowed them. Every now and then I'd remember that she was, in fact, in her 70's, and there was no longer any family near her - I had awful visions of something happening while mom was alone at home and I would purposely shut-down those kinds of thoughts quickly.

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"When was the last time you heard from mom?"

With those words echoing in my head I realized that it had been a couple of weeks. Last I'd spoken to her she was about to go visit my brother and his family, but I had not heard from her since she'd returned.

Of course my immediate thought was she's missing, no one can reach her, they're sending the police to her place to check on her... the images in my head were unpleasant to say the least.

"She's in the ER at the hospital... " And then she laid it all out. For several weeks my mom had apparently been having some pain and other difficulties that weren't resolving on their own - and were getting worse as the days went by. That morning it was so bad that her doctor saw her urgently and subsequently sent my mom to the ER for a CT scan of her abdomen, concerned about the possibility of a bowel obstruction.

At 75, there are a few things that can cause bowel obstructions. But I know what the most common cause is.

"She has a tumor the size of a baseball in her colon - there may be other organs involved, but they don't know yet...."

And there it was.

The rest of the conversation played-out with me asking a lot of questions (earlier in my adult life I was a nurse), my sister answering them, my not liking the answers and arguing with her. Not the best way to deal with this news nor for trying to cope with what we were facing, but, also not entirely surprising given our personalities and the history of our sisterhood. Love each other as we do, we also have a tendency to clash.

In my defense all I can say is that I just wanted to make sure mom was being taken care of the best way possible and that she was at least going to be comfortable. I was a 4 hour drive and one border crossing away, and my younger son's severe autism makes unanticipated travel almost impossible. So I knew I wasn't going to be able to get up there right away.

My sister told me she was going to be on a plane the next morning so I didn't need to worry about going at the moment (mind you, not having to go ASAP did not mean that I did not want to go ASAP). She gave me the number to the hospital so that I could call mom - at that point she'd been told they didn't have a bed so they were just going to keep her in the ER all night. Hence a certain amount of my displeasure.

Then we hung-up.

As I sat on my son's bed sobbing, the phone rang.

It was mom. At least it was a call from her home number. Confused, I answered - and it was mom. I decided that it wasn't necessarily going to help her to hear me crying so I did my best to sound as normal as possible.

"How are you?" She asked me, after I said hello, as though this were just any other conversation we'd ever had.

Um.....

This struck me as both awesome and ridiculous all at once and all I could do was laugh. I told her I was ok, but was more concerned about her. Also, what was up with her being at home and not at the hospital?

She told me that they'd let her go since they didn't have a bed but also decided she'd be ok until she came back for surgery on Friday. So one of her good friends who had been with her most of the day, had come to pick her up and take her home.

She sounded like she was trying hard not to be upset/scared. Which almost put me over the edge because I just wanted to go there and hug her. I held it together and once we'd been over the details of what led up to this and what was happening from here, including her mentioning that she wasn't really interested in chemo, we moved on to talk about the boys and the things they were up to.

I wanted her to smile. So I told her a story about Josh (see the blog next door!) stripping down to go jump on the trampoline. Which made her laugh. I had her talk to my oldest, I knew he was upset and wanted him to hear her voice.

Toward the end of the call, she was sounding like her usual self. As we were getting ready to hang up, she said, "well, at least now I know what's going to get me".

That was very much a mom thing to say. Which made me smile briefly through the tears that had started again.

And didn't really stop for 3 days.

This is Not the Blog I Wanted it to be

I wanted to write this as a real-time journal. I thought it would help me and perhaps others in similar circumstances, to talk through it, ask questions, work through emotions, and just put down on figurative paper, life, as it was happening and eventually, ending.

What I didn't expect was that "eventually" happened in a matter of weeks, not months or years.

So the story I will tell you is now a retrospective. It's about family. It's about losing a parent or parents, as was almost the case. It's about love, memories, life, coping, looking forward while leaning back, getting down to business, growing up, and grief. It's about laughing in the face of a monster. It's about George - the beast who snuck up on and killed my mother. But mostly it's about my mom. A lady whose quiet strength, grace, and humor while being ravaged by a brutal disease amazed me. 

I just hope I can do justice to this and to her, looking back instead of in the moment.