Today is October 20th. It is my mom’s 68th birthday. We mostly celebrated yesterday after church. Nothing huge…we kept things light and cheery with cupcakes, ice cream, and hiding each other’s shoes in the freezer. The Happy Birthday song somehow morphed into “I’ll Fly Away,” and I was struck again by the loveliness of my children’s voices blending in harmony. Mom loved it. Then we raided Dad’s tomato plants for what very well may be the last green tomatoes of the year. I guess I’ll be frying in the next few days.
Today was a Monday, but I only taught a half-day today because I had a funeral to go to. My friend Susan passed away a few days ago after battling cancer.
Susan attended the church I grew up in. Once I moved back to Birmingham and started a family of my own, we ended up at the same church again. She’s one of those people I remember at various events over my whole life, and in every memory, she is smiling and organizing and bringing people together.
My favorite memory of Susan happened one year ago this week. It was the day before Halloween, and even though my kids had been begging me to buy pumpkins for weeks, I had put it off. When we finally went to the store, they were sold out. We tried four different stores…no pumpkins. My kids were so sad. They were saying, “It’s OK, Mom. We know you’ve been busy,” but they were devastated. Designing and carving pumpkins then toasting the seeds is a tradition in our house. We tell the same jokes each year. We laugh every year as Henry fights his gag reflex every time he smells pumpkin. Then we go outside to “oooh” and “aaah” at the pretty designs flickering in the darkness.
But last year, it looked like we would have no pumpkins. I was sad, and I posted on facebook about how guilty I felt that my busy-ness at work meant no jack-o-lanterns for my kids. Within a few minutes, I received a private message from Susan. It said:
“Kelly, we are still in Houston at MD Anderson getting tests run and seeing doctors to plan the best attack strategy to beat this cancer. Looks like we will be here several more days. I have four pumpkins on my front porch just sitting there, and I want your kids to have them. Get Clint to drive over in the morning. I’ll let my neighbors know he’s coming so they don’t call the police. Love you!”
That’s Susan. Sick, scared, and in the midst of the biggest fight of her life, she helped others.
She was a force for good. I can’t believe she’s gone.
I left her funeral with eyes so red I looked like a cheesy movie vampire and a fierce headache. I should have chugged a quart of water and gone to a yoga class. Instead, I ordered 800 calories of frozen frappachino deliciousness with a side of Advil and headed to my mom’s.
Mom and I have a dirty little secret — we love to review funerals.
OK, maybe “love” is too strong a word. And perhaps it’s more of a “retelling” than a “review” per se. But for some odd reason, for as long as I can remember, after almost every funeral either one of us has ever attended, Mom and I cozy up for a long conversation where we discuss the best parts — the parts where the speaker really captured the person’s heart, the music that really captured the moment, and the prayers that truly comforted.
Of course, we have been known to find some things we didn’t like as well. Mom has said on more than one occasion, “Don’t you let anyone say something like that at my funeral, Kelly! Write that down so you don’t forget.”
When she tells me to write it down, she isn’t kidding, and as a result of years of such post-funeral chats, I have a folder of notes and instructions. Mom has basically planned her own funeral.
This is a blessing. When a family member goes on hospice, one of the things the nurses do is encourage you to find out your loved one’s wishes. Well, Mom has been telling me hers for three decades.
Still, there are a few final details we need to discuss. And interestingly, now that Mom’s death is no longer an abstract thing that will happen some time in the distant future, now that it seems closer and more real, it has been harder to have those “when it is time” kinds of conversations.
So on this day, we curled up in her bed and talked about our friend Susan — her life, her final days, and her funeral. The church had been packed, and people from the various walks of her life had all come together to sing and pray and cry and laugh. Mom said, “That’s how it should be. That’s what I want.”
On that afternoon, Susan gave us one final gift — the opportunity and encouragement to have a special conversation. I told Mom about Susan’s final days. My friends who were with her said that she would wake at times and speak of a beautiful sky, of music just for her, and of seeing her mother who was beckoning her to come.
My mom’s eyes widened at that. A few years ago, when she was with her own mother in the final hours before she died, my mom held Grandmom’s hand and told her that it was okay for her to go. Mom encouraged Grandmom to listen to the music and to look for Grandad who was there waiting and calling for her. She used words very similar to what Susan had described.
I asked Mom, “How did you know what to say to Grandmom that night? How did you know how to describe it?”
Mom shrugged lightly and said, “I don’t really know. I just opened my mouth, not knowing what to say, and those words came out.”
We looked at each other and smiled. “The Holy Spirit is good like that,” she told me. “He’ll take care of us.”
I left Mom’s before dinner because I needed to take my oldest child shoe shopping. She is going to her first high school semi-formal Friday night. Last weekend, in the most efficient shopping trip ever, she found an adorable cocktail dress in 14 minutes flat. It was Macy’s One Day Sale, and she tends to shop on the clearance rack anyway so the dress she picked cost $5.99. No lie. She has the most amazing shopping luck of anyone I’ve ever met. “If my dress cost less than $10, we can splurge a little on shoes, right?” she asked with a grin. That’s my girl.
She and I had talked about Susan off and on throughout the evening. As we walked into the grocery store before heading home, Kadie tugged my arm and pointed to the pumpkin display.
“We should buy our pumpkins tonight, Mom,” she said. “Mrs. Susan would approve.”
Day 7 (Tues 9/16):
Today was Henry’s day to spend with Mom, and it was less than the ideal day I had hoped for them.
Today was a day of “almosts.”
We had a good day with her anyway. We ate and talked and rested. After hearing about the adventures of Anne from Lillian, Henry also chose to watch Anne of Green Gables. He fell out of his chair laughing when Anne calls Rachel Lynde “fat and devoid of imagination.” Mom’s eyes were closed, but she heard him laughing and smiled.
But I’m almost ready to cry. Almost.
I don’t get this way often, but I did today. I’m discouraged with work. I’m discouraged with the mortgage. I’m discouraged with Mom’s health. I know it’s me. My theory is that if everything around you is crumbling, making you mad, driving you crazy, etc…you gotta look for the common denominator. We call it the “Liz Taylor effect” at our house. If you get divorced once, it very well might have been the other person’s fault. But when you get divorced eight times, you gotta start thinking it might be you.
I took a moment to adjust my attitude before heading back inside and went for a quick walk down the street where I grew up. I thought about the times I’d spent the night, eaten a meal, babysat, fed a pet, watered plants, and gotten mail in those houses. I thought about block parties, fireworks, trick or treating, bike races, talent shows, spotlight tag at dusk, lemonade stands, and backyard camp outs on my street.
What an awesome neighborhood to grow up in.
The next morning driving to school, I was still thinking about that great street. Curious, I asked the twins what their memories were of Papa and Di’s house.
Their answers came flying rapid-fire: Mickey Mouse pancakes. Spend the nights. Cooking with Papa. The time Henry barfed in bed. Gardening with Papa. Laughing at the dinner table. The time Papa taught them to gamble. The fishing tournaments. Papa’s division lessons. How Papa used to hide their shoes in the freezer. The ice-down-the-pants game. Getting tickled and laughing so hard you pee in your pants.
“How would you describe Papa?” I asked.
Henry’s answer was instantaneous. “Hysterically mischievous without a derringer.”
“Do you have a vocab test today?”
He looked surprised at my powers of deduction. “As a matter of fact, I do!”
Throughout their list, I had had trouble understanding them because they were laughing so hard they couldn’t catch their breath.
But they hadn’t mentioned Mom. Not once. I wasn’t sure what to think about that.
“So how would you describe Di?” I asked.
Their laughter faded to smiles, and in unison, they said, “Calm.”
In my Mothers of Multiples group, I’ve heard countless stories of “twin speak” — of moments where twins finish each other’s sentences, feel each other’s emotions, sense each other’s needs even when they are apart.
My twins do not do that.
My twins are as different as night and day. One is a green-eyed brunette girl who worries and plans and feels she has to be perfect. The other is a blond-headed, blue-eyed boy who personifies “go with the flow.” They are each other’s biggest fans, but they have different talents, different personalities, different preferences.
But in this, there is unison.
For them, Di is calm and restful. In the midst of family functions, Di has always been a peaceful respite.
I remember my niece Ellie at the age of four finishing her Thanksgiving dinner, getting up from her chair, and pulling Di’s wheelchair away from the table (while Di was mid-bite) saying, “Eating time is over! Now Di and I will play.” For my nephew Henley who was fairly non-verbal when he was young, Di would play puzzles and trains for hours. For my three kids, it was the same. As long as her arms had strength, she would hold them, rock them, talk and read to them. Her hospital bed was a place of refuge. My mom was born to be a grandmother. And while there is so much she couldn’t do, this she could.
Maybe this is why when Mom got a new hospital bed from hospice last month, Henry decided he wants the old one as his permanent bed at the new house.
Well, that and the fact that the remotes and rails on the bed remind him of a MarioKart racer.
I’m glad to know their memories are happy ones. It almost makes everything OK.
You call me out upon the waters,
The great unknown, where feet may fail.
And there I find You in the mystery;
In oceans deep,
My faith will stand.
Your grace abounds in deepest waters.
Your sovereign hand
Will be my guide.
Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me,
You’ve never failed, and You won’t start now.
So I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves.
When oceans rise,
My soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine.
Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders.
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me.
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander,
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior.
I will call upon Your name.
Keep my eyes above the waves.
My soul will rest in Your embrace.
I am Yours, and You are mine.
When I decided to take leave, I immediately started planning for each child to have a day off to do something special with their Di. Each child was instructed to come up with two plans — one for if Di felt good enough to play, and one for if she was having a “slow day” — because we weren’t going to postpone or reschedule. The kids got excited and consulted with Di to make plans.
Today was Lillian’s day. She had choir before school and then some academics she was nervous about missing so I checked her out at 11. Our first stops were to pick up food — lunch at a cafe and cupcakes at our favorite bakery — red velvet for Di and caramel for Papa.
While waiting in line, we saw a kind couple I knew from church when I was young. The woman has MS like my mom, but she looked great and was still walking steadily with her cane, exactly like I remembered her even though it has been over 15 years since we saw each other last. Her eyes lit up when she saw me, and as she hugged me she asked, “How is your sweet mama?”
I grew up surrounded by a community of women. When I was very young, Mom was legally blind. After Mom’s vision came back, she started losing the ability to walk. She went from using a cane to a walker to a wheelchair. But I can’t remember a single time I was ever told no, that I couldn’t do something or participate in an activity due to my mom’s illness. Instead, for my whole life, neighbors and friends stepped in to help. They drove, signed, advised, cooked, cleaned, sewed, and helped in a million other ways. Friends brought Mom to eat lunch with me at school, to have conferences with my teachers, and to cheer for me at every performance. They dropped me off and picked me up from lessons, meetings, and rehearsals. I think there were a few years when I may have slept at my cousin’s house next door as often as at home. My brother’s mother-in-law helped me get dressed for my wedding portrait. My aunt held my hand as the doctor told me my routine labor and delivery was no longer routine and that we had to go to surgery immediately. My mother-in-law massaged my swollen postpartum legs and washed my hair and made me cheese soup. As I think back over milestones in my life, I was always cared for — thanks to a circle of women who mothered me when my Mom couldn’t.
But here we are again — “How is your sweet mama?”
I hate this part. The part where I have to say it. It’s not that I don’t want to talk about it. And it’s not like I’m in denial. I’m not. But when people think of my mom, when they ask about her, they are always smiling. That’s what she does to people. And then I have to tell them.
So, on this day, I smiled and put my hand on her arm. “She’s good, really. She went on hospice last month, but she’s happy.”
Her smile faltered. Her eyes got a bit teary. “Well,” she said, and she was quiet for a bit, just patting my hand. Then, “Of course she is. Dianne doesn’t know any other way to be.”
We talked health and kids and got caught up as we waited. “I knew your mom when she was your age,” she told Lillian. “She looked just like you.” Then cupcakes in hand, we started to leave, and she hugged me one last time. “Give that hug to your mother, Kelly,” she said. “She’s very special.”
At Mom’s, Lillian and I ate our lunches on TV trays beside the hospital bed so we could chat. Mom wasn’t feeling very well this day so we’d need to go with Plan B. I was proud of Lillian. She was disappointed, but she said, “That’s OK, Di. I can take care of you.” For the rest of the afternoon, Nurse Lillian took Di’s blood pressure and recorded the numbers. She also recorded urine output, every sip of water Di drank, and the exact time she got choked.
In between nursing duties, Lillian and Di watched the first hour of Anne of Green Gables. Mom and I have always loved this series, both the books and the movies, but for some reason, I’ve never shown it to the twins. I knew Lillian would love it, and I was not disappointed. When Anne smashed her slate over Gilbert’s head because he called her “Carrots,” Lillian and Mom just laughed and laughed. Lillian has a temper; she can relate.
Not surprisingly, our afternoon was shared by a community of women who came by throughout the day. Mary was there; she has helped clean our house since I was seven, and she and my mom are thick as thieves. Two different hospice nurses came by — one to give mom a bath and one to check her vitals. “I’ve already done that,” Lillian muttered. “Her blood pressure is 150/80 so she doesn’t need a pill.” Then Linda, Mom’s friend and neighbor for almost 40 years, popped by. She also had three phone calls and two cards, and there was a lasagna in the fridge in a covered dish I’ve never seen before.
Clint texted me late that afternoon to ask when I was coming home.
“Soon, I guess. Is Henry home? Did his class hold their election for student council?”
“Yes and yes.”
“He is not allowing me to disclose the results over the phone.”
I laughed and read the texts out loud. Mom smiled. She was having fun, but she was starting to get tired. “You should go home to see if he won. Call and tell me.”
Lillian was nervous for her brother. She was ready to go. She slid over and wrapped her arms around Di. “Thank you for the best afternoon ever. You were a good patient. I am proud of you.”
Clint and Henry met us in the kitchen at home. Their faces were blank. Then Henry yelled, “I won!” We jumped and hollered and celebrated for 30 whole seconds before my phone rang. It was Mom. She greeted me with, “Well????”
There is a quote in the sequel to Anne of Green Gables where Anne says, “I believe the nicest and sweetest days are not those in which anything very splendid or wonderful or exciting happens, but just those that bring simple little pleasures, following one another softly, like pearls slipping off a string.”
I agree. ♥
Your love is like radiant diamonds
Bursting inside us. We cannot contain.
Your love will surely come find us
Like blazing wildfires, singing Your name.
God of mercy; sweet love of mine,
I have surrendered to Your design.
May this offering stretch across the skies
And these hallelujahs be multiplied.
Day 5 (Sun 9/14):
So glad that it’s Sunday.
For years, I only went to church because I had to. I went out of obligation, fear, and/or guilt. That was exhausting, so then I spent several years not going.
I’m grateful that my church experience nowadays is a blessing, not a burden. It is peace, a time to reflect and renew. It is family and comfort. And it is a chance to get out of my own self for a while and to focus on what really matters.
The morning went perfectly. We were freshly scrubbed, on time, and for once, everyone was wearing tidy clothing that mostly matched. (That’s rare since I let the kids pick out their own clothes on all but the most special of occasions.) We even remembered to bring the cupcakes Kadie made for the youth group bake sale. Small group Bible study was good, and the worship service was even better.
However, to be completely honest, I missed a big part of it. I stepped out to get water fully intending to be gone for just a second…and then ended up chatting in the lobby with dear friends about teaching, family, and the craziness of the daily grind. They asked how my leave was going, and I remember answering, “It’s good. Mom’s good. But I’m still not very good at this hospice and leave thing. I’m not sure I’m doing it right.”
As I was leaving church 45 minutes later, my friend Lisa stopped me. Lisa is fit and petite with pixie cut so cute it makes me covet. She is a sparkly rainbow lightning bolt bottled up in human form. I’ve never met someone so full of energy and spirit and joy, and she makes me smile every time I see her. Today, we were both in a hurry so we only had time for a quick passing hug. But she leaned in and whispered in my ear, “This may sound strange, but God wants me to remind you that you don’t have to be good at it; you just have to do it. Hope you know what that means because I don’t. Ha!” Then she kissed my cheek and left.
See? This is why I go to church. Try being sad after something like that. I dare you. It’s impossible.
A few months ago, I agreed to teach one evening at church for our summer series called “Overflow.” It sounded like a good idea when I agreed to do it back in early spring, but by June, Mom was in rough shape. We weren’t yet on hospice, and I was tired. If the theme had been “Half Drowning” or “Floundering Miserably” I could have easily put together a talk. But not overflow. Not then. I was raw.
So I did what I have done my whole life when confronted with a problem. I asked my parents for advice.
My parents and I go to different churches. In theory, we attend congregations of the same denomination, but my church is more of the hand raising/clapping/contemporary variety while theirs is a bit more traditional. We have wonderful conversations about that…and I mean that in the most entirely truthful/not at all sarcastic way possible.
I asked them, “What does “overflow” mean to you?”
Honestly, I expected them to make jokes. Overflow of …vomit…urine…doctors…meds…you name it. But they got serious. No joking. And I was surprised to hear that they had very definite answers.
Mom’s speech was slow and slurred, but I understood every word. “Overflow is using your talents for God. He made you and everyone good at many things. He doesn’t give a person just one gift. But He expects us to use them all. We have to find them and use them to help others.”
Why am I surprised? This is what she does; it’s what she has always done. Mom was a teacher. Before she got sick, she taught first grade in rural Tuscaloosa county in the days before Headstart and mandatory kindergarten. When she couldn’t teach school anymore, she found other ways to use her talent. She made schoolwork fun for my brother and me. Projects were exciting new creative adventures. Reading time was story time. She taught me to love learning. She also tutored neighbors, taught classes at church, and rocked restless babies to sleep. Whether it was music, reading, or Bible stories, my mom was born to teach.
Then my Dad chimed in. “If you are teaching about overflow, you need to talk about grace. It’s there, but you can’t earn it. All you can do is receive it. You should make cupcakes and offer them to anyone who wants one. Point out how no one feels comfortable just reaching out and taking one. Then ask them what they think would happen if you went to the children’s classes and offered them. We adults feel like we have to earn it. But grace doesn’t work like that. It just is.”
Again, why am I surprised? My dad practices what he preaches. No one shows more grace than he does. No one. He is generous, and has always taught me that “sickness is no excuse — everyone has a struggle you know nothing about.” His life is service; many people would have walked away from the demands he shoulders every hour of every day. He not only stayed, but he stayed with a smile…and a hilarious (albeit often inappropriate) commentary just to make people laugh.
They are a good team.
I spent the afternoon dropping children off at a four mile walk with the youth group to raise money to build a freshwater well in Zambia, attending my niece’s Bid Day celebration at her college, picking up my kids and walking the last lap with them, enjoying celebratory popsicles, and folding laundry.
And the whole day, I thought about using talents and receiving grace and the blessing of parents who taught me best by living those lessons out day by day. ♥
My hot and sweaty girls provided the theme song of the day in the car driving home from their service project. This song sounds like my parents:
I’m so tired of talking
About how we are God’s hands and feet.
But it’s easier to say than to be.
We live like angels of apathy who tell ourselves,
“It’s alright. Somebody else will do something.”
Well, I don’t know about you,
But I’m sick and tired of life with no desire.
I don’t want a flame; I want a fire!
I wanna be the one who stands up and says,
“I’m gonna do something.”
Day 4 (Sat 9/13):
Today I slept for a really really long time. So long that members of my family couldn’t find me around the house and finally — finally — thought to look in my bed. Where I still was after 11 solid hours of sleep. Ahhhhhh….
I am a new woman.
Coffee in hand, I got to work on that blasted furniture painting project See? This is why I am not consistently crafty. I like the beginnings and the endings of projects, but I am not patient in the middle. Hmmm.
Around lunch, my day got considerably better because SEC FOOTBALL CAME ON!!! Oh, there are no words to adequately describe what college football is like in my house. It’s a religion, really. Peace be unto you…and Roll Tide.
I grew up in what’s known in my state as a “divided family.” My dad graduated from Auburn, my mom from Alabama. Around here, everyone is expected to pick a side in this rivalry. And in late November, it is hard to remember to love your neighbors if their front door is decked out with the opposing team’s colors.
One of my favorite family stories is of the day my parents came to Birmingham to pick out Mom’s engagement ring. Mom had tickets for the 1970 Alabama vs Southern Cal game at Legion Field, and she and my dad decided to go. At that game, on the day they got her engagement ring and while sitting right smack dab in the middle of the student section, my father cheered — loudly — for Southern Cal.
To do this story justice, you really should see my mom’s face as she tells it. She still rolls her eyes at “that man.”
And to make the story perfect, you should hear my dad chime in from the kitchen. He still says in his thick drawl, “I told your mother I’d wear Communist Red before I’d ever pull for Alabama.”
Then Mom always says, “It’s important to figure out these things about each other before you get married, Kelly. It’s best to know realistically where you each stand on important issues.” Sound marriage advice from a happily married couple of 44 football seasons.
On this day, Dad’s beloved Auburn Tigers had an off-day, so Lillian and I headed to hang out with Mom while Dad worked in the yard. Mom was soooooo much better than the day before! Her coloring was good. Her energy was good. And she drank a whole protein drink. WOO HOO! Small victories.
We talked and chatted…but mostly about football because Lillian was there. Mom likes Mark Richt, but I fear that if he loses to South Carolina today, he’s done. We are surprised Texas A&M is this good without Manziel. We both are enjoying the new SEC Network.
Later, I picked the last of the green tomatoes from Dad’s garden to fry up for supper, then we headed home to watch the Alabama game. Bama beat up on Southern Miss, and Lillian kept a tally of touchdowns. (At the end of each season, we make a donation to the Autism Society based on the number of TDs we’ve scored. If Amari Cooper can stay healthy, it looks like we’ll be happily writing a big fat check this year!) We cooked and counted and cheered. And when the game was over, Mom called and I answered the phone with our traditional game day greeting: “Roll Tide, Mama!” ♥
My mom was a very talented musician in her day. Most people who know her know about her amazing soprano voice. A lot of people know she also played the piano and won many competitions. But what surprises some folks is that Mom was a drummer in high school. She was the only girl in her drum line in the early 1960s and was proud of it. She taught me paraddidles and rudiments on a practice pad, and insisted I use traditional grip. When I got tired of exercises and begged to learn a real song, Mom chose this one as my first (and only, as it turned out, since my skills were less than stellar) drum piece — the Alabama Fight Song. You should have seen her play it, y’all. My mama could wear out a snare and toms.
Yea, Alabama! Drown ’em Tide!
Every Bama man’s behind you;
Hit your stride!
Go teach the Bulldogs to behave,
Send the Yellow Jackets to a watery grave!
And if a man starts to weaken,
That’s a shame!
For Bama’s pluck and grit
Have writ her name in crimson flame!
Fight on, fight on, fight on, men!
Remember the Rose Bowl we’ll win then!
Go, roll to victory,
Hit your stride,
You’re Dixie’s football pride, Crimson Tide!
Day 3 (Fri 9/12):
Today was rough. Her nausea and pain were intense. Lots of medication. No talking. Just being. A big storm came through — terrible lightning and sheets of rain that went on and on. Grey and quiet and hard.
My phone beeped while driving home that evening. At a red light, I read this text from my sister-in-law: “Praying for you tonight. Love you.”
Got home to three bouncy kids, a tired but smiling husband, a clean kitchen, and a hyper puppy. I was just in time, they told me, for a glowstick party in the playroom. Apparently we are celebrating one of the stuffed animal’s birthdays.
Glowsticks and dance music make everything better. Who knew? ♥
Today’s song was one I heard for the first time in 2007 while ordering breakfast at a drive-thru after a long night at the hospital with Mom. It brought me to my knees that morning. Today, it was a comforting soundtrack:
I was sure by now
God You would have reached down
And wiped our tears away
Stepped in and saved the day.
But once again, I say “Amen,” and it’s still raining.
As the thunder rolls,
I barely hear You whisper through the rain,
“I’m with you.”
And as Your mercy falls,
I raise my hands and praise the God who gives
And takes away.
And I’ll praise You in this storm
And I will lift my hands
For You are who You are
No matter where I am.
And every tear I’ve cried
You hold in Your hand.
You never left my side,
And though my heart is torn,
I will praise You in this storm.
I lift my eyes unto the hills
Where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord
The Maker of Heaven and Earth.
Here’s how I spent the second day of my family medical leave to be with my mom:
Day 2 (Thurs 9/11):
It is 9/11, and I am working hard this year to avoid reminders of that day. The images are there in my mind enough as it. I still see the look on my best friend’s pale face as she motioned for me to step outside my classroom for a moment. I still see the anxious looks on my students’ faces as they tried to call their parents — especially those traveling to New York and Washington — and couldn’t get a call through. And I still see those people in that building signaling for help. For today, I am trying hard not to remember.
Instead, I intentionally worked on other things:
Well. My mother has always had interesting timing. I checked the time and put down my keys. Maybe the bus would be a little late. I could probably drive a little faster. This was important. “I know you are,” I said. “Let’s talk about that.”
Mom looked at my keys. “Go get my grandbabies. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
I’m torn. We need to have this conversation, but…
“I mean it, Kelly. Go get the kids. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I kissed her forehead. “I love you.”
“Not as much as I love you. And no arguments from you about that. Because it is the truth.”
I looked back. It had been a great day, but she was tired. Her eyes were already closing.
Tomorrow, we talk.
Tomorrow, I will pay more attention to today. ♥
My kids have been singing a newly released song for days. I woke up this morning with it in my mind, and I’ve been singing it all day long. The lyrics are fabulous, but you really should listen to it:
Bring your tired; bring your shame.
Bring your guilt; bring your pain.
Don’t you know that’s not your name?
You will always be much more to me.
Bring your doubts; bring your fears.
Bring your hurt; bring your tears.
There’ll be no condemnation here.
You are holy, righteous, and redeemed.
Every day I wrestle with the voices
That keep telling me I’m not right,
But that’s alright
‘Cause I hear a voice, and He calls me redeemed
When others say I’ll never be enough.
And greater is the One living inside of me
Than he who is living in the world.
Mom went on hospice last month.
It’s strange to say that. She’s been living with MS for forty years now. It’s strange to be making the shift from “What’s the next thing we can try?” to “What things should we now taper off?”
She was on hospice once before — two years ago. None of us really viewed it as end of life care, though, because we knew that the feeding tube was an option. And sure enough, Mom chose to get a feeding tube, and within a couple of months, she was so much stronger that she came off hospice.
But this time seems different somehow.
So, after talking with her amazing nurses and caseworkers, I decided to take a brief Family Medical Leave in order to hang out with her for a few days. The planning and paperwork were extensive, but each time I almost talked myself out of it (“This is too much work. I don’t really need to take leave. If I am just more efficient, surely I can carve out more time for Mom and still work full-time and do everything else.”), someone stepped up with a word of encouragement and/or a solution that smoothed out an obstacle for me. Before I knew it, the plans were made, and the first day of leave arrived. I decided to document this time. I think one day I might want to look back on it. So here’s what I did.
Leave Day 1 (Wed 9/10):
I had every intention of doing something “meaningful” today. After all, wasn’t that the point of taking leave? To have meaningful time with Mom? But as often happens, “life” got in the way. Here was my day instead…
“I just burned my lunch. What are you doing?”
“Well, I was sleeping until you woke me up. What’s the dog doing? Are you bored yet?”
Made plans to be with her most of the day tomorrow.
So, today I successfully managed not to think about anything big or meaningful. Feeling a little like I wasted a day. Fighting back a bit of panic at the thought that this is all the time I get and it is running out. I should try harder to accomplish more tomorrow.
As I went through my day today, one particular song kept running through my mind as a theme song of sorts. I love these lyrics:
Be still, there is a healer.
His love is deeper than the sea.
His mercy, it is unfailing.
His arms are a fortress for the weak.
Let faith arise.
Let faith arise.
I lift my hands to believe again.
You are my refuge; You are my strength.
As I pour out my heart, these things I remember.
You are faithful, God, forever.
I seem to mark milestones by houses, dogs, and the progression of my mom’s MS. Graduations, my wedding, and my children’s births were big events as well, of course, but somehow, for me, the phases of my life are intricately connected to which city I lived in, which dog I had, and whether my mom used a cane or walker or wheelchair at the time.
When I was a child in Texas, we had Midnight, a black lab. That’s when Mom got sick, so we moved to Alabama to be near family, and we got Buck, a dalmatian.
Grad school was my first time to move away from my parents and live by myself, so my then-boyfriend-now-husband Clint bought me a beagle from a farmer in Royston, Georgia. I named that dog Roosevelt and brought him home to Alabama the next weekend to meet my family.
When I was growing up, our pets all lived outside so I wasn’t sure how my parents would handle a dog in the house, but Mom and Roosevelt hit it off instantly. As they nuzzled on her bed, she rubbed his ears and said, “He smells like cedar. What a good dog.” Even though he was constantly under my feet, he managed to follow my mom around without bumping into her cane or walker once. She let him lick her straw after finishing the high calorie nutrition drink she took three times a day since she wasn’t eating much, and for the rest of his life, the sound of a straw slurping the remnants of a beverage sent him into paroxysms of joy. They napped together, chatted together, and sang Mahalia Jackson songs together. “O Holy Night” was their favorite.
Three months after we got married, Clint and I got our harrier hound Gracie. I had driven mom to the hair salon for her appointment and then, bored while waiting, had wandered next door to the pet supply store to browse. It was a adoption day from the local humane society, and I instantly locked eyes with a two-year old hound whose last puppy had just been adopted. I meandered about the store, but kept coming back to the dog. She watched me until I left. While pushing mom’s wheelchair to the car, I mentioned the dog. “I want to see,” she said.
Against my better judgment, we went. “Do you want to meet her?” the volunteer asked as she opened the cage door. Gracie calmly walked out…and proceeded to climb right into my mother’s wheelchair. “What a good dog,” my mom crooned as she petted. “Kelly, you need this dog.”
No, I didn’t. I was a newly-married first year teacher at a boarding school. I already had a neurotic beagle, and my musician husband and I both worked long hours. I did not need another dog, I said…and Mom and Gracie looked at me disapprovingly from the wheelchair.
Fifty dollars later, the dog was mine. And for the next fifteen years, every time they saw each other, Gracie greeted my mother by trying her best to gently climb into the wheelchair. When she was too old to climb and Mom was too frail to have a dog in her lap, Gracie would lean against the wheel and prop her head up on the tire so Mom could rub her ears.
My mom has been living with MS for 40 years. We’ve gotten accustomed to viewing each new challenge as an obstacle to be dealt with and overcome. But system by system, her body is now growing tired. Last week as I checked her blood pressure and told her it was once again close to 200/100, she sighed a bit. “I didn’t need one more thing, you know,” she said. “This skating on thin ice business is getting old.”
We lost Roosevelt the beagle at age 10, a week after we brought the twins home from the hospital. Gracie, the harrier hound, passed away last summer at the age of 17. And this week, we adopted a puppy — a boxer/lab/American bulldog mix my children have named Collins Joy. We brought her home Saturday and took her to meet my mom Sunday.
I lifted our new dog onto mom’s hospital bed and sat down beside them to supervise. There is a lot of stuff there – tubes and gear, monitors and such. Collins sniffed and gently inched toward Mom’s hand. Mom reached out with one finger that seemed to be working right that day and patted. Finally she looked at me. “That’s a good dog,” she said slowly (the only way she can talk now).
And in that moment, I realize how often I have done this…brought my newest idea, my newest accomplishment, our newest addition to her. To show her and to see her eyes evaluate, think it through, and instantly love. Where else do I get this? This not-quite-approval but more-of-a-blessing. This validation of innate rightness. This confirmation that I’m ok, that this is a good idea, and that I can do this. I know I won’t have this forever. So I find myself memorizing this moment, the serious and confident look on her face…the sureness in her voice. “Yes, Kelly,” she repeats, “this is a very good dog.”
The puppy sighed and curled closer. She rested her head on Mom’s numb legs to get closer to that petting finger. Lulled by the soft hum of the food pump gently moving calories into Mom’s feeding tube, they dozed.
“Thunderstorms, red flags, and one child with a fever of 104.5. All in all, a great day…no lie.”
This is the iPhoto caption for this picture, the only picture I snapped all day. It was the first day of our second family vacation…ever. My middle child had a high fever, but we figured you can be sick at the beach as easily as at home. A storm was coming, but it wasn’t here yet. So went out to build a sandcastle. (It was lovely, but I forgot to take a picture.) We also got to see a lifeguard pull an unfortunate wave-jumper out of the white-capped ocean. (I didn’t take a picture of that either. It wasn’t the poor woman’s finest moment, and my mama raised me better than that.)
My family struggles with all the normal craziness — two jobs, three kids, family, deadlines, and calendars. We have some additional challenges, too — like living at a boarding school, my mother’s MS, and unexpected twins.
To deal with the chaos, I make lists. Then I make lists of my lists. Then I add things I’ve already done to my lists just for the thrill of marking them off. To be honest, the vast majority of the pieces of my life were not on my to-do list.
Gradually, I am learning that the biggest blessings come from the unexpected, the unscripted. Sure, we could have waited for the perfect day to go to the beach…but that sandcastle would not have gotten built.
(By the way, five minutes after I took the picture above, the most intense lightning bolt I’ve ever seen spilt the sky, and we dashed inside.)