Monday, December 8, 2008

December 26, 2004: A tribute to my mother

Poinsettias: these are the hardest thing for me about the holiday season. You see, my mother died suddenly on December 26, 1992. Her service, held several days later, was in the family church which was packed to the gills with people who loved and miss her. It was also packed with Poinsettias. And so, while I always dedicate one to her memory in my church at Christmas time, I usually shy away from Poinsettias. I was having a hard time getting into the Christmas decorating spirit this year. Actually, it's been that way for the last several years. I struggle with having to recreate a new tradition: what I had built as tradition with my wasband and in-laws in our family home over twenty plus years is done. True, I no longer have to do the more stressful parts of the holiday (like shopping for loads of in-laws and for a husband that was very hard to please, and dealing with family dinners that, often as not, turned into drama laden scenes at the family table with just a little too much alcohol consumed) but I also miss what had become tradition. New traditions include use of an artificial tree which I am able to put up by myself, or with the help of my son, which replaces the family tree hunt and evening of decorating together. I also get to decorate the outside of my sweet little cottage with gingerbread lights. In fact last year I was in line at the hardware store with my cart chock full of lights and the guy in line in front of me turned around and said "somebody's husband is not going to be happy with your purchase." I responded, without thinking "Well, I don't have to worry because I no longer have a husband, but you are right, he would not have been happy with me at all. That is why I no longer have him!" (Did I say that out loud?) The guy turned away, not knowing what to say.

So, back to Poinsettias. Last week I was explaining why I have a hard time with Poinsettias in particular, and Christmas in general. When I got home, I was barely out of my work shoes when the doorbell rang. There stood my lovely cross street neighbors and in their arms a beautiful Poinsettia and a thank you note for something I had done for them. I think it was God saying "All is well. You can face the Poinsettias and move on." So now I have this lovely plant as centerpiece to my table and I am starting to get the Christmas things out. When you lose somebody you love you wrestle with the pain of the loss and the fear that you will forget that person if you ever get over the pain. I think of my dear sweet mum with every glimpse of that plant. On Christmas Eve I will sob in church as we sing "Angels We Have Heard on High." And yet, I am grateful that I have those memories, as bittersweet as they are. And so, in honor of my mum and the Christmas season I post this piece I wrote four years ago on December 26.

December 26, 2004
Twelve years (now 16) from the day Mom died. Twelve prickly, empty, sad December 26ths. I am always glad to get through this day. It hangs over Christmas in a way Mom never would have wanted it to. Christmases were made for Mom. She died with Christmas cookie dough clandestinely squirreled away in her mouth: the green corn flakes and marshmallow wreath ones with Red Hot berries that Grandma Louise brought into our young lives, years and years before. Baking cookies that helped Mom keep her loving memories of her own mother alive in our memories too. (When she met up with her Mother, was her soul's tongue still green and did they giggle and dance about the Christmas cookies?) When I arrive in the aftermath of the failed CPR attempts by the EMTs to the quiet agonizing shell of the condominium, the kitchen is still mid-recipe. My tears mix in with the soapy dish water as I struggle with wanting to leave the kitchen as I found it forever after that, but know that the parade of caring, loving friends will be starting to arrive and Mom would have wanted the kitchen to look clean for company. Twelve years later and I still cannot enjoy those cookies or eat Red Hots without my eyes watering over from more than the spicy cinnamon burn on my tongue.

Several people have told me that the night before, Christmas night, she danced and laughed and sparkled at the Clark family Christmas dinner. There are pictures from that evening. She is so full of life. Dad and Julie have commented that she seemed especially animated, as if somewhere in her she knew that she had to squeeze every joyous, energetic sparkle out of herself with a knowledge that her life was fleeting. Part of me refuses to believe that. I, and my family, Mark and Andy, and Tom and his family, were to have met up on the 27th to celebrate a belated Harwood family Christmas. Mom would have reserved part of herself to make it to that if she had known. But I am at peace knowing that her last night was blissful. I think she was hugely joyful to have had opportunities in that last night to hold and coo over Sarajane, her precious six-month old Granddaughter. Mom could not contain, nor did she want to, her joy over her grandchildren. And to have a granddaughter to add to her fold, along with her two grandsons, completed her joy.

She was comfortable in the loving partnership she had forged with my father through their forty plus years of marriage. I am sure that evening they unconsciously choreographed a dance of socializing separate from each other and then together, apart and back, apart and back, entertaining all those with whom they shared themselves. Dad commanding attention with his sharing of useful and useless knowledge. As others shared part of themselves with him he would take up any thread out there and add an anecdote that would illustrate the depth of his life experience or range of knowledge. Mom, on the other hand, would engage with whomever she was talking to with genuine interest and amazing glimpses of insight into their world. She would have thrown out little pieces that showed she remembered something special they might have shared with her in the past. And they would have responded with appreciation for her care and interest. Though she had lots to share about herself, she would allow that to take a second seat to the genuine interest she had in the life of those in front of her. She would be filing away in her head ideas of how she could weave what was shared with her into a future action that could help solve a problem or recognize an accomplishment or take care of something else seemingly unrelated but still leaving the world a little better place to be in for somebody. When their satelliting orbits would align and Mom and Dad would end up in the same place in the room, they might jokingly tap on each other’s foibles, but in a caring, accepting way, that showed that they were comfortable and accepting of each other.

Though Mom died at the young age of 59 she was a survivor. Pictures of her younger years show a well-proportioned young woman. However, like most of us, after having children she battled with her weight. I remember a few successful reductions through weight watchers or walk programs with her friends. But most of my teen years she hovered around a size 12 to 16 and I have a feeling she was not overly happy with that but not overly down about it ether. After my sister was born, to as late as when I was in the 8th grade, she experienced several miscarriages. And even though the last pregnancy was very much a surprise and something that must have surely thrown my parents for a major lifestyle reconsideration (their youngest, Julie, being ten years old at the time, and their oldest, Tom, already in High School) I remember my mother being very sad about that loss. But other than those miscarriages, she was basically very healthy.

Until she was about 42. I remember coming home to find Mom ironing madly, very preoccupied, a nervous tension in the house. I thought maybe she and Dad had had a disagreement or something (They were non-fighting parents. Unlike some of my friends’ parents, they did not air their anger in front of their children with mean words, slamming doors or cars screeching out of the driveway. Instead, on the rare occasions when there was tension between them, they avoided each other. Looks were exchanged and upset was shown in eyes and mouth lines, but there was no yelling.) It was a spring weekday but Dad did not go into work. He and Mom went on “an errand.” After they got home they had my sister and me come into the living room. They had discovered a lump in my Mom’s breast. It did not look good. Some tests had been done, phone calls made, and, through the special intervention of my Mom’s cousin’s husband in Seattle, surgery had been scheduled to take place in two days at Swedish Hospital in Seattle. It had been arranged for Dr. Hutchinson (founder of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center) to perform the surgery. In talking with my sister years later about that time, I realize that we all dealt with the news in very different ways. At thirteen years old, when she heard the word “cancer” she automatically assumed that Mom had been given a death sentence. It makes me gulp in sadness to think of what she was thinking and experiencing then. Though on some level I knew that death was a real possible prognosis, I did not allow myself to imagine life without her. I guess you would call it denial. I can remember a few times, in my early experimental drinking that I took part in shortly thereafter, when the alcohol had allowed me to let my guard down. I was devastated and extremely emotional about the whole thing, one time calling the local crisis line to vent my fear and pain, but that was the only time I remember expressing the pain related to potentially losing Mom to cancer. With one day to prepare and tell a few close friends, we went about the business of making plans for surgery and coordinating our trip to Seattle: Dad to go with her, us to come a day later if major surgery and a long recovery was needed.

The few close friends shared the news with the larger circle of friends and community. There were many people who just dropped by for a few soft words and hugs and tears. I spent my time trying to look like I was putting the house in order and mostly hiding in my room. I don’t know where Julie and Tom were and what they were doing. Dad was getting the hugs too. Though he is usually a preoccupied man I had never seen him with this kind of preoccupation. He was short with us: we were all on pins and needles. Dad went over for the surgery while my grandmother stayed with us in Pullman. They didn’t know until they got into the surgery whether the lump was cancerous, what would have to be taken and done. The news was delivered to my father in the waiting room: the lump was cancerous, cells were found in the lymph nodes, the entire breast, lymph nodes and part of the chest cavity would be taken. Additionally, she would need follow up with removal of her ovaries, which were believed to be responsible for producing the type of cancer she had. Later they would decide to give her radiation and chemotherapy treatment, for which she would have to be driven 160 miles round trip from Pullman to Spokane every day for months and months.

After the surgery, we came to Seattle to visit her in her extended hospital stay. Swedish was a big hospital in a big, big town. We were staying with Aunt Rosie and Uncle Bob in Laurelhurst. They tried to keep us busy while Mom and Dad dealt with appointments, check in etc. I don’t think I enjoyed the zoo, swim club or other distractions arranged for us. I can close my eyes and see my mother in the hospital bed. Her usual beautiful hair looking worse for wear as she had to have bed shampoos and it wasn’t in its usual teased up big style. (Though it looked bad then, it was only a preparation for what was to come: to total loss of her hair; the wigs she wore until it grew back. When it grew back it was a completely different color and texture. Much later, one day when she was at the stylist another customer told the hairdresser she wanted to have her own hair look like Mom’s. Mom told this lady it wouldn’t be worth the effort!) In the hospital she was wearing the soft fuzzy peach colored zip up robe with mint green and cream panel in the front with a coordinating nightgown. The nicest looking pajamas I can ever remember her having. The room was filled with flowers from friends and family. Not a bare surface to be had. She already looked thinner and though she tried to smile and be cheerful for us she moved with great pain and her teary eyes argued with the smile plastered on her face.

Dad told me later that in their hours of despair through this thing she had lamented that she wanted to live long enough, to be given enough time, to at least see her youngest child through high school. I cannot imagine the anguish she must have felt realizing that there was a good chance she would not be around to see her children grow up, to know her grandchildren, to help her own mother face her own final days. But she did make it through. Later we would find out that Dr. Hutchinson was often referred to as “The Butcher” which makes sense if you had seen the scars and cavity left on my Mom. The chemotherapy and radiation were hard. We would often hear her retching in the back room, loosing the contents to her stomach, and then dry heaving as the chemicals raced through her system. In fact, for many, many years after, she would automatically feel nauseous in the car coming and going from Spokane, though the trips were for happier things than chemotherapy, like shopping or symphony performances. Somehow, maybe because of the aggressiveness of the treatment (though with today’s advances in treatment it would probably be easier now), she survived past her goal. She not only survived but also thrived. So much so that years later strangers would never know of all that she had been through, unless of course they saw her in a swimsuit or short sleeved shirt in the summer when scar tissue and loss of body could be seen. She did invest in more expensive prostheses, which were not much covered by insurance. These were purchased in Seattle. Clothing, especially swimming suits were very hard to find, and since she spent much of her summer in a swimsuit, cooling at the Baenen’s pool next door and keeping the wet suit on through the hot Pullman evenings, this was a major problem. She had to buy these special swimsuits for the rest of her life as she was never able to have corrective surgery and her mutilation was so extensive. But really, in the winter and later when I had moved away, I would completely forget how sick she had been and how extensive her surgery had been and be shocked to the point of losing my breath when I would see her scarring, so complete was the recovery of her spirit. There was a funny incident when she had come over to Seattle, and I took her, with Andy as a toddler, to “the breast shop” where she needed to order a new prosthesis. The fitting is rather a long tedious process and there was not much to amuse the restless Andy in that shop. While the fitter was busy with Mom she hadn’t noticed that Andy and I had started playing catch with one of their floor models, the only thing I could think to do to keep him from totally melting down. This poor woman was quite undone when she saw what we were doing and politely suggested we go somewhere else and come back after a while when she was finished with Mom. We did and Mom said the woman was especially concerned as the floor model we had found was a quite expensive top of the line one, and though quite expensive, not really designed to withstand a game of catch. We laughed about it in the car going home: and congratulated Andy on his good taste. Mom was never morose or bitter about her “falsey”, just accepted it as part of herself, grateful for the opportunity to be alive still to need one.

She was full of life, wisdom, and hope. She did not dwell on what had happened, though I do know that there was always a little extra stress around the annual follow-ups that she had for the next seven years until she was officially declared cancer free. From then until 1989 she lived an incredible life. After returning to work, she earned increasing responsibility, up to the position of Dean of Women at WSU. She was active in our church, PEO, bridge and book clubs. She traveled for fun. She spent a few summer months with Dad on an author’s fellowship hosted by the Rockefeller foundation on Lake Como Italy (while the Harwood children “held down the fort” in Pullman. I can’t believe that they trusted us and what we got away with. I can’t imagine doing that in today’s world with today’s teenagers, but that’s a different story). Later, she gave up her career and moved further away from her children than was comfortable, to live with Dad in Sudan, then Jordan, then Egypt on agricultural projects, teaching English as a Second Language to contribute locally. In each new country she created a new group of close friends, also ex-pats, so that by the time she returned to Pullman she was loved by many around the country and world. She made the most of each situation, living in strange housing, learning to not only live, but also thrive, on what was available locally, dealing with difficult men in Muslim countries. Julie and I had a wonderful European tour with her and, at the end, got to see how they lived and how she had acclimated in these countries. While on the overseas assignments she wrote wonderful letters, many of which I have saved, shopped for her children, and later grandchildren, with enthusiasm and kept in close touch with her good friends back home.

Eventually she and Dad had moved back to Pullman and designed and built their Priest Lake home. In the summer of 1989 it was just ready to be moved into and that summer my father retired from WSU. Late that summer was the much planned for wedding of Julie to Mark Clark. There was so much excitement. Mark was a local; the son of a good friend of Mom’s who was also active in the same PEO group, and a previous bridge group as she. The day before the wedding, as we were sitting around watching Julie and Mark open presents she mentioned something about her jaw aching, feeling funny. Both my Dad and I told her she was probably just overly tense as her brother, John, and his wife, Janet, as well as other out of town guests were arriving later that day. That was all that was said about that. The wedding was beautiful and fun. There was a disconcerting aftermath in which a few people who had attended, including me, and worst of all Julie on her honeymoon, came down with a very bad case of what seemed to be food poisoning, but because it hit so few people we were never sure. After Julie returned from the honeymoon the day after her wedding to get a special shot from our family Dr. (me too) and slept it off for a day, she resumed the honeymoon, only to have her new husband have to leave table mid-romantic dinner to be violently ill, apparently a delayed reaction to the same thing that had hit us. While all this was going on Mom was growing more and more physically uncomfortable. After the wedding guests (and bride) had all left town Mom and Dad went up to Priest Lake. However Mom thought she was having a gall stone attack (something she had had a few years earlier) and asked him to return to Pullman. By the time she got to her Dr. there her heart was in near arrest and she was life-flighted back up to Spokane. Julie and Mark were just finishing their honeymoon with a planned stop at the Priest Lake cabin and when they didn’t find Mom and Dad there made calls and were able to get to the Spokane hospital soon after Mom had arrived. I was called at work in Bellevue and told I should get to Spokane as soon as possible: that there was a good chance that Mom would not make it through that night. With Mark’s help (my Mark’s help) I got to the airport and could assume Andy, who was about a year old, would be in good hands, and got to the hospital in just a few hours. The news from the Drs was bad but Mom seemed not so bad. While all the reports were that her heart was very badly and permanently damaged she was once again resilient. And over the next three years she gradually gained her strength. There were side effects from the medicine, including losing her sense of taste, fatigue and a fear of going to sleep at night, a fear that she might not wake up, but overall she gradually seemed to become her old self, though thinner and actually looking very good.

In June of 1992 she danced with joy and was filled with plans with the arrival of her first granddaughter, and also the first grandchild that would live locally, close to her, so she could be an even bigger part of her life. Again, appearing to recover to the point where we forgot of her fragile health. So though I guess we knew her heart was damaged, her recovered spirit had us all fooled. And when she died so suddenly on December 26, after a night of dancing and laughter, a night of cuddling her treasured granddaughter, the wrapping and planning and cooking for her Christmas reunion with the rest of us, it was a shock that she left us so quickly. And now I have to tell of the most unselfish thing that was done that day: when Dad came in from the garage and found her out on the Kitchen floor; when he called 911 and began CPR; when he called Julie after the EMTs got there; when Julie came over and went with him to the hospital; when she watched them work on Mom for quite a while; Julie said to Dad and to the emergency room personnel “let her go. It would be too hard for her to have to recover from this.” It would have been so hard for her to have to recover again and to live with that damaged heart. Julie’s unselfish act, to ask that Mom be set free, knowing that the gift was for Mom despite what the loss would be for all the rest of us, is something I can barely fathom, so immense was her sacrifice.
Twelve years later I still miss her. Like her recovery from her cancer and initial heart attack, I mostly have recovered from her death. In some ways I have been resilient, as she was, seeming to have fully recovered. But on days like this, it is like seeing her scarred chest and arms after being unaware of her trials for so long. I am caught by surprise by my own scarring from her death. I can only hope to be half as resilient from my own set backs and to live a full and contributory life to the point that others would not be aware of what trials I might have endured. Thank you Mom for showing me that it is possible. I miss you.

1 comment:

U Can Still Play in the Rain said...

wow Jennifer, that was amazing. Thank you for posting that loving story about your mom.
Amy(Jill's cousin)