Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Letter from a friend

On December 9th, I wrote this to a dear family friend who asked how I was doing:
I decorated the house yesterday and put up our tree. I'm writing cards now and listening to Christmas music on Pandora (every other song makes me think of mom and I cry). The downside of deep-seated tradition is that if something goes awry or a primary player is absent, NOTHING feels the same. I'm trying to let Christmas keep Mom alive in my heart - it was the season that she lived for. Letter writing, craft making, cookie baking, neighbor visiting, gift giving, carol singing, she did it all. And she loved it - she was never begrudging. Christmas feels sad this year (and has for the last several years) but also holy. I'm trying to let my heart stay open and soft and grieve as I need to - it just takes a lot of energy and grace to let myself bleed out emotionally from time to time. 
In response, my friend wrote the following. It has changed my perspective considerably.
I think your approach to grieving over your mom's absence is sensible and sounds normal to me. It's no fun, though. But remember she is right there with you. She'd hug you if she could. Assume she is there with you. Talk to her. I do with my dad. Very occasionally he answers me. Every time I think of your mom and can hear her voice in my memory, I feel as though she is there standing next to me saying that very thing to me. She has not gone very far away. She can see you, hear you, love you. And it is not always going to be one-way. Look for when she tries to communicate with you. It will be quiet and seem very normal, almost so normal it will be a little hard to believe it is not your imagination. But a loving God does not tear loving families apart. God knows what you will find believable and your mom will communicate with you under those circumstances. Do not give up your hope that she is very much still in existence and still loving you, sweetie. She has moved on to her next adventure and is looking for opportunities to communicate with you. 
In the last few weeks, the things that overwhelm me, the big and little memories of Mom that blare "SHE'S GONE," now feel more like little greetings from her. Like reading a beautifully illustrated pop-up book, Christmastime is full of special moments, surprises, and reminders of her. And since reading my friend's reminder, they all bring me joy.

When I made ornaments out of cinnamon and applesauce, I told Mom I missed her and how much I wished she was there with me.

When I visited my favorite antique store yesterday and found tiny Swedish candle holders just like hers, I bought them as tokens of happy Christmases spent with my grandma in Seattle, in the same house where Mom lived when she was in high school and college.

When I listen to Brian Setzer's jazzy version of the Nutcracker Suite, I can visualize Mom tapping her foot and bobbing her head to the rhythm.

When I learned Sunday morning that my dear grandmother (Dad's mom) passed away, my first thought was of Mom, and I asked her to help us grieve and honor her mother-in-law. She would know the right words to say.

Though Christmas this year has a deep ache of absence, there's also plenty of celebration. Tonight, my family will exchange gifts. Dad is home from his month-long cross-country trip, my siblings are a fun crowd to hang out with, our significant others get along well and roll with the punches, and Clive is old enough to tear wrapping paper this year! Tomorrow we will open presents with Hubbins' family at my sister in law's beautiful home - big breakfast, strong coffee, fire place roaring.

I know I will see Mom's smiling face and hear her laughter echo in ours. What a gift.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Giving Thanks

I was informed yesterday that the gravestone has been placed at my mom's burial site. I tried to reassure myself that this doesn't change anything. Her death isn't any more final than it was before. But it was still a reminder and it affected me in a stronger way than I expected.

I saw a photo of the gravestone. Seeing a loved one's date of birth and date of death chiseled into stone is startling. Nothing about a rock and a small hole in the ground have anything to do with my mother. But there was her full name, laid bare, exposed to the elements. Her epitaph says "Beloved wife, mother and friend." It's perfect. And those words ripped my heart out.

In the picture, I could see the sod around the gravestone - it looked like patchwork where it was torn up and replaced. If only my heart was so easily pieced back together.


Today a friend wished me a happy Thanksgiving and said, "All the firsts will be hard." She's right. But the holidays this year aren't really the first. Mom didn't celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas with us last year, either. And it's still hard.


I'm looking forward to seeing my siblings tomorrow, sharing a meal, and taking refuge in each others' company. It will be loud. We will laugh until our sides hurt. Our spouses will roll their eyes. My nephew will entertain us all with his 14-month-old charm and charisma. There is still so much to be grateful for.


I wish you a day of celebration tomorrow, wherever you may be and whoever you share it with.


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

My Inspiration: Martha Stewart. And Yoda

I'm not sure how to describe the last three weeks.

I want to be eloquent and walk you through a chronological process of grief (denial, arguing, bargaining, depression, acceptance). I wish I could write "Ta da! In the course of one essay, Emily's back on her feet and feelin' fine!"

It's been much messier than that. I'm still somewhere in the middle of a tangled mass of emotions, memories, wishes, and gratitude. My emotional landscape looks like Dagobah: swampy, dark, uninviting.

I'm struggling. I'm self medicating with food and I haven't run in weeks.

My home has become a shrine and it's painful. All the photos and artwork from Mom's memorial service are laying around the house, waiting for a place to belong. We moved all the funeral flowers into our garage so the cat doesn't eat them. Wilting bouquets and the sickly sweet scent of lilies greet me every time I go downstairs. I had a collection of Mom's coats hanging in our entryway, waiting to be delivered to the consignment store. I stuffed them all in a bag and moved them out of sight. Songs pop into my head that make me think of her, and a melancholy cloud settles on my psyche.

People keep saying "Let's get together! Let's grab coffee!" and I smile and nod and then hide. I'm tired of being transparent, because I don't feel transcendent anymore. Ironically, I'm also annoyed when people don't ask how I'm doing. The glow of love and support we received the week Mom died has faded. Frustratingly enough, I'm still the headachey, anxious, cranky person I was before. I'm afraid of finality, of dying, of not saying the things I really mean to say to the people who mean the most to me. I worry about losing other family members and visualize tragic accidents. I feel pessimistic, discouraged, and drained.

But I do know this: My path through grief will be one of creativity. It is already littered with fabric scraps, paper clippings, yarn fuzz, and tacky glue. The aching in my heart is only eased by a frenzy of art projects and tactile keepsakes. Maybe they are gifts to offer at the altar of grief. Maybe I'm leaving knickknacks for people to remember me by after I die. Maybe I can sense Mom is close when I'm surrounded by art supplies.

I'll show you what I've been working on soon.

Meanwhile, I'm reminding myself that life goes on, even in swamps. There will still be stories to tell and encounters to report. I'll continue to share them here.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Final Goodbye - Guest Post by Dad

Please welcome guest blogger Erik Johnson, my dad. He offered to share his reflections the morning of our memorial service for Mom, but warned me that it's not a "feel good, inspirational piece." Authenticity matters more to me than chirpy "everything-happens-for-a-reason" sentiments, and Dad doesn't pull any punches. His writing is raw and sincere. I love this post because it speaks of his devotion as a husband and love for my mom. I'm proud to share it with you.
Thursday, September 05, 2013, 7:00 AM

A little over thirty-six years ago I woke up in bed alone like I did today. I puttered around the house alone like I did today. Got dressed and got in my car alone like I will do in four hours. And thirty-six years ago I drove to a restaurant which I will not do today.

Thirty-six years ago with much excitement I told the waitress and some guys sitting at the counter in that restaurant, “I’m getting married today!” I was eager for others to share my joy. I was happy beyond belief and could not keep my happiness a secret.

Turns out that happiness was understated and too restrained. The marriage I was about to enter on August 23, 1977, would become the best marriage on the planet. Vicki and I somehow put together our lives in a such way that it resulted in nearly non-stop bliss. Even allowing for a touch of exaggeration in my overly optimistic, selective, and hyperbolic memory, few would deny, Vicki was the best wife ever.

In four hours I will drive alone to church to attend Vicki’s funeral. She died four days ago. I will not be stopping at any restaurants. I will not be telling any waitresses that I’m bursting with joy. And I will not be looking forward to the day’s events like I did in August of ‘77.

Like our wedding day, I have little responsibilities. Fewer, in fact. My only task back then was to say “I do” and kiss the bride. Today all I have to do is show up. Thirty-six years ago Vicki and her team organized our wedding day in such a way that all she had to do was show up, look beautiful, say “I do,” and kiss the groom. Today a team of helpers and friends, including our five grown children, have organized her funeral in such a way that all Vicki has to do is let us honor her memory. 

I looked forward to our wedding day for eight long months, the time between getting engaged and getting married. I’ve dreaded this day for six long years, the time between getting the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and attending her funeral. Unlike a marriage that begins on a definite date, I never knew when Vicki would take her last breath. We’ve had many close calls and I’ve said goodbye to her on many panicky occasions. As this wicked disease gradually destroyed her mind I experienced many mini faux funerals. She not only kept on breathing after each near death experience, she kept on smiling, humming, singing joyful noises, and jabbering her word salad. She handled this disease better than me.

When her organs started shutting down nine days ago I started a bedside vigil. I loved visiting her during her two years in the nursing home because I loved her. But as her breathing became more labored, her eyes became less focused, and her morphine injections increased I had to fight the urge to flee the horror of saying goodbye for the last time. I somehow overcame my gag reflex, keeping a garbage can close by in case my nausea turned to vomiting. I was determined to resist my death avoidance impulse.

I held her hand on our wedding day thirty-six years ago and during this disease told her over and over, “I will hold your hand till death do us part.” During our courtship she once told me in a poetic and romantic way, “I never knew what hands were for until I held yours in mine.”

When I had to run home to feed Zelda the cat I told our kitty, “If Vicki passes away while I’m here feeding you I will never forgive you.”

I spent Vicki’s last two nights in her room. My sleep was fitful, not only because nurses came in every four hours, not only because her oxygen machine made a racket, and not only because I set my phone alarm to wake me every ninety minutes to tell her I loved her and change the washcloth on her fevered brow, but because I loved hearing her snore. We haven’t shared a bedroom in over five years and hearing again the sound which at one time drove me crazy was now music to my ears. I wanted to cling to every last vestige of life she had.

On Sunday morning I left her room so aids and nurses could attend to her needs. I sat for a short while with a friend who brought me coffee and then returned alone to Vicki’s room. Her breathing was still labored only now intermittent. The space between breaths lengthened. I pulled my chair up close, raised her bed so she was at eye level. I grasped her bird-like hand and told her, “I never knew what hands were for until I held yours in mine.”

Her breathing became less frequent. Her feet were cold. I squeezed her hand tight. She took a breath. I told her for the millionth time, “I love you.” She took a breath. I told her for the millionth time how much her children love her. She took a breath. I told her, “I’ll be good.” She took a breath. I told her with deep sobs how much I’ve missed her for six years and how much I will miss her. She took a breath.

I looked to heaven and said, “Lord Jesus, into your hands I commit her spirit.”

She never took another breath.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Thank you, Roxy

A favorite fellow resident in Mom's nursing home was Roxy. Back in January 2012, I posted a photo of Mom holding her:
Always a pet lover, Mom enjoyed seeing this kitty in the halls when she was still able to take walks.
Roxy didn't forget.

She made several appearance in Mom's room in the last week. When we all visited on Wednesday, Roxy helped herself to the spare bed in Mom's room. She sprawled out and napped as we visited. Hubbins patted her generous tummy and whispered to me, "I think she gets extra treats."
What a great place for a cat to live! The temperature is always warm, there are eager folks around every corner to scratch her belly and under her chin, crocheted afghans and quilts a-plenty to curl up on, and judging by Roxy's size, no shortage of food.

On Sunday, after Mom passed away and we gathered once again at her bedside, Roxy was back.
For the first time in two years, Roxy jumped up on Mom's bed.  She stretched out across the width of the mattress at Mom's feet. She purred and snoozed for hours. She didn't get down until it was time for Mom to leave the room.

It was a special comfort.

Rest in Peace

My dear Mom passed away September 1st, a little after 10:00. It was a beautiful Sunday morning.

On Friday, I spent six wonderful, draining, emotional hours with Mom and Dad in the nursing home. Visitors came and went as Mom slept.
  • The primary Hospice nurse came in the room to answer questions. We asked for signs to look for that she might need more pain killer. She told us candidly that she was amazed Mom had made it through the night (which surprised me, since all the health care staff had been reluctant to say anything indicating a timeline). She cried as she told me and Dad how special Mom was, and how rare it was to get to meet someone like her. She said several times she could tell Mom had Joy, and Loved Life. We nodded in agreement and smiled (I thought, "Oh, if you only knew!"). When she left the room I said to dad with mock irritation, "What?! So Mom is 'head of the class' in her nursing home too? She can't go anywhere without excelling!"

  • A former in-home caregiver, Cheryl, came and sang to Mom (In the Garden, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Sweet By and By). She had the boldest faith of any of us, and as she wiped Moms face, told her firmly, "It's almost time to see Jesus!" We had all been too shy and doubtful to say something so absolute, wondering silently to ourselves if such a place as heaven could really exist, and whether we will have any faith left to speak of without Mom's example. But of course, coming from a Bible-believing sister, these were words of comfort for Mom. 

  • My mother-in-law came and sat with us for a few hours. She used to work in the very same nursing home, in the special care unit for Alzheimer's patients. She said she loved working there, and for years afterward, whenever she saw a grey-haired person in a wheelchair, her heart would flutter. She told us how strong mom looked, and how beautiful. It was so comforting to have her there. 

  • Mom's room on Friday was like the eye of a storm: serene and powerful. Outside her door was chaos and confusion (figuratively and literally), but being in her presence, on the very border between life and death, nothing else mattered. We all gravitated toward the head of her bed, cooling her face with a washcloth, holding her hand, stroking her arm as it lay on top of the sheet, speaking our love and concern (my dad asked multiple times, "How are you doing, Sweetie?" as calmly and naturally as if she was just under the weather with a cold). She was the epicenter of our concern, and all the ripples of influence and importance originated with her. 

  • There was one close call Friday evening when Dad and I were sure she was within an hour or less of her last breath. All the tears and panic resurfaced and the losses of the last six years surged through our memories with a sense of urgency. This is it. Dad phoned all my siblings to update them and give them another chance to say goodbye if they wanted. I asked him if he wanted some time alone with her. When he said yes I couldn't bring myself to leave the room right away, and stood at the edge of the small sink in her room to wipe my eyes and blow my nose. From the mirror above the sink, I could see mom and dad's faces. It was the same scene I'd observed all evening, but the reflected image seemed surreal. Mom's face was still relaxed, mouth open, eyes closed. But seeing her reflection, her face directed toward Dad's, I was struck by the look of love on her face. Her head was titled as if she were listening intently, commiserating, empathizing (one of her greatest strengths). Dad wept. I forced myself to leave the room and allow them this one last intimacy. 

  • I was only in the lobby for a minute or two before Dad texted me, Come back, Emily. "It must really be the end," I thought, and walked as fast as I could back down the hall to her room. My next thought was, "Either this is the bitter end, or there's been a flash of lightening and a miracle, and Mom will be standing full-bodied and healthy at Dad's side." Neither scenario was true. She was unchanged; dad was wiping his face with Kleenex. 
I left the nursing home around 8:30pm, went home and slept like a rock. Dad spent a quiet Saturday alone with Mom, which he said was very peaceful. Olivia and I spent a little time together, relaxing as much as we could in the relative calm.

Sunday morning, I got a slow start to the day and planned on bringing Dad lunch at the nursing home. After showering, I went outside to my little garden and picked flowers for Mom: sunflowers, roses, and zinnias. At 10:20, Dad called. I could tell from his tear-filled voice. He simply said, "Hi, Emily. It's over." I said I loved him and that I'd be right there.

I felt relief. Her suffering was over. The haze of morphine and dementia was also over. I got in my car and sobbed, "Thank you," overwhelmed with gratitude for Mom and that Dad was with her, and that the waiting was over. I got to the nursing home in less than 10 minutes (even though every other driver on the road seemed determined to go 20 mph). In the hall, a nurse made eye contact and said "Your Dad is in the room." I smiled. I knew. He wouldn't be anywhere else. I came through the door and hugged him hard.

The day before, I didn't think Mom could look any less like herself. She had become so frail, so brittle-looking, so distant even while sleeping. But there was no comparison Sunday morning. The nurses had repositioned her and there were no wrinkles in her bedding. Her skin was whiter. She was gone. I stroked her hair and kissed her still-warm forehead. The struggle was over. The uncertainty about how much time we had left was gone. The ache was deep but so was the reassurance that I had said to Mom everything I needed to and supported Dad in the best way I knew how. It was enough, and it was good.

Dad told me that a friend of his brought him coffee an hour or so earlier, and they sat in the courtyard outside the dining hall. After half an hour or so, Dad said he wanted to go back and visit Mom again and his friend left. Dad noticed right away that Mom's breathing was different; the pauses were longer between breaths. He checked her feet, they were cool and her legs were mottled. He cried with her and said his goodbyes again. He held her hand and prayed, "Lord, into your hands I commit her spirit." And she didn't breathe again. It was finished.

Thursday morning, September 5th, we'll honor Mom with a memorial service and celebration of her life. I'm looking forward to being surrounded by people who love her. The service details have been in place since the end of April, so there's been very little planning or decision making necessary (thank goodness). We've collected photos and Mom's pen and ink artwork and calligraphy to display. All five kids are writing a letter to her in place of a eulogy.

It's going to be a day full of meaning and love, just like her life.

Saturday, August 31, 2013


Alzheimer's Disease has now impeded Mom's ability to swallow. She has been unable to eat or drink since the beginning of the week. Hospice said she is in her final days and hours.

My heart is breaking and tears come even more easily than usual. I catch myself in moments of irritability, another tell-tale sign I'm avoiding negative emotions.  But I'm also bouyed by love and gratitude. So many people have offered to help, to pray, to be close, to listen. Right now, I don't feel like I need any extra attention. I will in a few weeks. When the holy spotlight of final moments with mom is replaced by lonliness and missing her and struggling to live with questions like "WHY?" then I'm going to need an army of support.

But for now, Mom is sleeping soundly, my immediate family is close and my husband is ready to drop everything and come to my side. And that is enough.

It's been a full week.
  • Dad has been at the nursing home since Tuesday evening, when one of the nurses called to tell him Mom was unresponsive and couldnt swallow. I visited for a couple of hours, held Mom's hand, swabbed her dry lips with a tiny sponge, and sang (her eyes popped open for a moment during "There's Just Something About That Name," the same song she sang to seven-year-old me at bedtime). 
  • Wednesday afternoon, all five kids crowded into the poorly ventilated, hot little room, and wept together. We spoke words of love to Mom, held on to each other for Dear Life, and bowed our weepy heads when the Hospice Chaplain said a prayer over Mom. I told Mom we were proud to be her children, we loved her, and we didn't want her to be in pain or trapped inside her own body anymore.
  • On Thursday, the Threshold Singers came and sat at the foot of her bed and sang for 30 minutes. The two middle aged women sang like mothers: gentle and soothing. The songs were unfamiliar but sweet and each simple line was about love, good memories, and safe journeys. They filled the room with melody and harmony. That night I joined Dad again in Mom's room, one of us on either side of her bed, chatting casually as if life as we know it was not ending before our very eyes, our conversation puncutated by Mom's labored breaths and our own sudden tears. 
I'll visit again today, and every day that I can. I'll cry until there are no tears left, and I'll remember every lesson she ever taught me about being kind and good and loving.

Things I'm thankful for and don't want to forget:
  • The nurses who have been so good to Mom. Several of them have come into her room just to say hi and check on all of us. They have each said how special Mom has been to them. 
  • Roxy, the big calico who lives in the nursing home. She visited several times and purred and rubbed against our ankles.
  • Cooler weather this week. It's been humid, but not as hot.
  • Co-workers and employer who grieve with me and understand when I leave early to be with Mom.
  • Siblings who live close enough to come at a moment's notice. There's not a bad apple in the bunch. It's so comforting to be uninhibited enough to sob in front of each other, to know how much we are each individually loved and cherished by our parents, and to tell Mom she taught us how to take care of each other.
  • My Dad. His demonstration of love to mom is beyond my ability to describe. On Wednesday, he said, "Vicki, I held your hand on the day I married you, and I will hold your hand on the day death seperates us."

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Art Therapy

Collage is another way I sort my emotions into a manageable form. Using magazine clippings to illustrate lessons was a popular activity during my home school years (I remember there was always a huge pile of magazines in our activity closet when I was growing up, gleaned from the library's free table - most were cut up beyond recognition).

I've carried this into my adult life as an inexpensive and flexible art form. Sometimes I use text, other times only images. Some of my collages are prescriptive (a visual to-do list, or reminder of goals), others descriptive (trying to capture how I feel in the moment).

I highly recommend that you find an unwanted magazine, a pair of scissors and a glue stick. Go wild.
Mom and Memory 1/18/2012

Storm-chaser 7/24/2010

Identity 7/24/2010

New Years' Resolution 2013

Happiness is... 6/30/2013

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Constructive Coping Cont'd: What Seedlings Do for My Soul

Recently, I shared some of my coping mechanisms for dealing with grief and anxiety. Thank you for your feedback, I appreciate the comments.

This spring, I noticed another pattern in my behavior. When I'm feeling down, I go to the local nursery. Mom loved gardening, so part of my attraction is the connection to her. But there's also an association to growth and fresh perspective.

I go alone and quietly browse. I walk down every aisle as if I'm in a mandala garden or hedge maze, observing all manner of leaf, bud, stem, and tendril. The earthy smells of peat moss and cedar are alluring. I feel the velvet leaves of woolly lamb's ear and rub the leaves of tomato starts. The scent on my fingers reminds me of the hot sandy soil on the only side of our house where tomatoes would grow when I was a kid.

Greenhouses intrigue me: even on cloudy Northwest Washington spring days, the air is warm and humid. Rain on a fiberglass roof is one of my favorite sounds. 

A money-saving trick I learned from Mom years ago is to find the nursery's sale rack. The plants here are inevitably overgrown and root-bound, usually shelved in the back and out of sight. But I know from experience that in a bigger pot with rich soil and a good pruning, even the most pitiful plants will make a comeback.

Around June, the roses get really showy. Such color! What fragrance! The beautiful blooms and foliage are breathtaking. I picture my someday-garden with a hedge of roses. I've saved the Jackson and Perkins catalogs my grandmother gave me, with her handwritten notes in the margins.  

Growing things in my own garden is therapeutic, too. It's exhilarating to see a boring brown seed magically sprout greenery.

My container garden on the back porch has been especially lush this year since I discovered Jiffy Pots and grew seedlings on the kitchen window sill when it was still too cold to plant anything outside. 

I grew nasturtiums, sweet peas, zinnias, sunflowers, and pole beans from seed. They are all blooming now. The daily practice of watering and watching their growth has been such fun.

I dream about having a yard someday, big enough for a compost pile and a chicken coop. Nothing centers me like the metaphorical significance of fertilizer.

When I'm working with plants, life seems hopeful. I know I'll have to be vigilant in caring for my garden: plenty of water, sunlight, and weed-pulling. But even the most delicate flowers can withstand dry spells with a good root system.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

"How's Your Mom?" Various Answers to a Difficult Question

Lately, when I'm asked how Mom is doing, my answers fall on a spectrum between "no detail" and "lots of detail," depending on how vulnerable I'm willing to be.

She's fine [change the subject].

About the same, no change this week.

[Big sigh] She seems peaceful and comfortable; still in good spirits.

She's minimally responsive: she smiled when I visited her briefly last week, but she can't say more than a few sporadic words.

She was moved into a new room about a month ago, outside of the special care unit. No more locking double doors between her room and the nearest exit. She doesn't have a roommate, so it's quiet and easier to visit. Mom's bed is next to a window; the room is bright with natural light. Her room overlooks a grassy area behind the nursing home and there's an oak tree outside her window. All the colorful artwork we've given her makes the space cheerful.

She's still losing weight. The nurses gave her an air mattress a few weeks ago so she doesn't get bed sores. To keep her from rolling out of bed, there are inflatable guards on either side of her (like bowling alley bumpers). With her sheet and cotton blanket spread over her and both the guards, her body disappears under the bedding. When she moves, her arms and legs look so, so frail.

It's been a month or more since I could help feed her. She having more difficulty chewing and swallowing so her food is ground up ahead of time and fed to her by a nurse. She can't drink from a straw, so even giving her a sip of water is tricky. I keep extra napkins nearby and apologize every time I spill cold water down her chin onto her neck. She giggles.

She still loves to have her hair touched. When I visited last week, I combed her hair. Without moving her head from the pillow, I pulled gently through tangles, moving her hair away from her neck so she wouldn't feel so hot. I kissed her forehead. I blotted her collar bone with a wet paper towel, dabbing at dried ice cream or pudding from an earlier meal. I held her hand. She flinched and twitched often (some kind of tic that began early in her diagnosis). It's hard to tell if skin to skin contact is soothing or startling (or neither).

This stage of Alzheimer's, the bed-ridden, hanging-by-a-thread stage, seems to be lasting a long time. I agonize over saying goodbye after every visit, wondering if it will be my last. I hold her eye contact if I can, and repeat "I love you," hoping she'll say it in return. She doesn't. I know that doesn't mean she doesn't love me, but I miss hearing her say it. I wonder if she recognizes me, or thinks I'm a nurse who's really clingy and won't leave the room after making my rounds.

It's hard to be patient. I'm no longer wishing for recovery. We passed the point of no return years ago. But I know I take it for granted that I can swing by the nursing home, visit for 30 minutes (long, painful, tearful minutes when the only voice I hear is mine) and then leave her world and reenter my own. Visiting is never a neighborly chat over the garden fence; I brace myself to see a very old woman who vaguely resembles my mother.

I feel very superstitious. If Mom comes to my mind in a strong way, I wonder if she's breathing her last breath. But I know more than likely, there will still be multiple visits as her body slowly, slowly, slowly succumbs.

It's not her time yet. I don't believe she's suffering, I don't think she's in pain, but I also don't think she's aware of the sun rising on another beautiful summer morning. It's hard to imagine that she's happy or content. She's not dead but it's hard to call her current existence "living." She still has visible reactions to voices, faces, words and sensations.

What constitutes LIFE?

It's all sacred. An infant is no less precious when all it can do is eat, sleep, cry, repeat. The difference, I suppose, is that a baby is relying on instinct until learning begins (fine motor skills, language, reasoning, spatial manipulation, etc.) Pregnant mothers love their sons and daughters long before they hold them in their arms.

And I will love my mom long after I can hold her in mine.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Summer Reading

Did you ever participate in a reading program when you were a kid? Every summer I can remember, my local library chose a theme and encouraged kids of all ages to read to their hearts’ content. As if owning a library card wasn't thrilling enough, I also got star charts, certificates of completion, and lots of praise from my librarian friends (thank you Kevin, Bonnie, and Jeannie). As a 17 and 18 year old, when I worked for my local library, I helped set up the displays to entice young readers to pick up the latest glossy picture book or newest young-adult fiction. I loved that job (thank you Kevin, Bonnie, and Jeannie).

This summer, I’m creating my own summer reading program. I’ve accumulated some great books over the last year and haven’t read more than two of them. You may have noticed I haven’t blogged about reading in ages.
So! To motivate myself, I designed a little book report template. I'll use it to share my reading progress on the blog. Here’s what is in my to-read pile this year (this will take me longer than the summer, I’m sure). 

I’ll share a book I finished recently in my next post to get the ball rolling. Oh, and new rule: no more book purchases until I make some headway. Seriously.

What’s on your summer reading list?

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Mom's Recipes

As long as I can remember, Mom had a small, white plastic basket above the fridge where she kept her recipes. She would jot down meal ideas from cookbooks she checked out from the library or found in magazines. She and her friends would swap easy dinners on recipe cards she illustrated with pen and ink drawings and calligraphy.

I'm saving all of them.

I didn't realize until I started sorting the recipes that this collection began before I was born. There is one recipe ("Graham Cracker Squares") written on the back of a classroom pass from the high school where Mom worked when she and Dad were first married. Some recipes are so faded, yellowed with age, or stained from food spills, they're almost unreadable. There are recipes in my handwriting and others in my sister's. It's a family history of meal planning and desserts.

I'm scanning everything so I can compile them digitally.

My parents were health-conscious and didn't buy a lot of processed food, especially in the early years of raising a family. This is reflected in the recipes Mom saved. I've found low-calorie recipes for salad dressing and side dishes. Most of the desserts include oatmeal and wheat germ.

The ironic thing is that Mom was not a great cook. It wasn't for lack of creativity or skill; she and Dad raised five kids on a single income. Mom home schooled all of us during the years Dad was a pastor. Meals had to be easy, quick to prepare, and inexpensive. We ate Chili and Rice Casserole weekly, at least. The few times I remember Mom experimenting with something new, somebody complained. I remember a lot of bean soups, unseasoned cod, overcooked broccoli, and cabbage dishes.

But the other thing I remember about meal time as a kid was Dad's praise of Mom's time, effort, ingenuity, and skill. He would thank her after every meal. Sometimes he'd say, "Let's all clap for Mommy!" and we would join in the applause. He'd quote Proverbs 31 at the dinner table, "We rise up and call you blessed!" and lead us in a standing ovation for Mom. She would blush every time and say, "Aw, thank you."

To my dad, it wasn't about the spectrum of flavors or gourmet selection (he doesn't even have a sense of smell). The important thing was Mom's investment in her family. And I have the hand-written evidence of all her love and meal planning.

Thursday, June 20, 2013


I turned 32 on Sunday. I've been thinking about what I want as the distinguishing features of my life this year.

So many people I know are experiencing various kinds of pain: cancer, depression, Alzheimer's, loss of a loved one; the list goes on. These are reminders to me to learn from every experience. To be content. To live every day with exuberance. To express love to the people in my life.

These words have been ringing in my ears this week and last night I put them on paper:

Thank you for reading my blog. I appreciate you. Wherever you find yourself on life's spectrum (from the ridiculous to the sublime), my wish for you is a strong sense of peace and deep significance. You are loved. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Running Update June 2013

I am so proud of my progress as a runner.

From my running diary, which I started in August 2008:

I remember how triumphant that felt. I was amazed I could do it. I smiled all day and announced my accomplishment to anyone who would listen. 

Spring of 2009 I made more progress.

  • "Learned to breathe" meant that I figured out how to pace myself: inhale for a count of three steps, exhale for three steps (I blogged about that here). 
  • "Didn't kill husband." In other words, I didn't have the physical strength to take him down after (un)helpful comments like "Pain is just weakness leaving the body!" (more about being a cranky running partner here).

But it was slow going.

June 2009:

HMW = half mile warm up (walking)
HMC = half mile cool down
My notes-to-self were always written immediately after running and were full of whatever emotion was evoked that day.

6/30/09: "TOUGH run. Blech. Must drink more water."

7/8/09: "I walked 1/8 mile, choking back tears and panic. Stupid, stupid, stupid."

I don't think we ran at all in 2010. I joined the gym (which I compared to a sweat shop in this post).

Hubbins and I ran a few times together in 2011. That fall, I enrolled in Fit School for Women and got serious. In the winter, I ran with a headlamp for the first time. Something clicked for me in that group. The camaraderie of women made all the difference. In December I ran my first 5k

I blogged about running a lot in 2012.

I enrolled in Bellingham Fit again this year. I'm almost halfway through the marathon training program, and my longest distance to date is 12 miles. I can hardly believe it. I am so proud of my progress and grateful for the friends I've made.

Tip: a good way to maintain your pace is to
run with people who are shorter than you.

I'm challenged every time I run and still feel like a beginner. But it is so encouraging to see how far I've come. 

This week my feet and left knee are hurting, so I'm going to concentrate on my form and recovery instead of increasing my mileage. Running three times a week before work really helps the long Saturday runs feel smoother.

Avoiding plantar fasciitis 
Thanks for your concern, Rajah. Quit drinking my ice water.

Thank you Hubbins for believing I could run, even when I didn't want to hear it and hated you for expecting me to keep up. 

Thank you Carol Frazey for making running a social activity and incorporating laughter into every workout.

Thank you Diane, Nancy, Tina, Mayumi, Chris, Jenn, Penny, Kelly, Elizabeth, Theresa and Donna for distracting me with friendship so I forget we're exercising as we get to know each other. I can't wait to see what we accomplish this summer!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Dear Emily, 1983: A Letter from Dad on my Second Birthday


Happy Father's Day, Dad. It's been fun to share the festivities this weekend. I love you and am so thankful to have you as my Daddy.