Angels Along the Way

I pull out a slip from my briefcase.  It’s a charge slip, from what, I don’t remember.  Unfolding it unlocks the memories – the cab ride, the conversation, the unexpected kindness.  The date on the slip is February 5th, 2011.  I flew on the first trip out of Seattle to get to Denver to be with mom – and to help Rob & Lori get some free time.  I couldn’t leave on the 4th, I had to wait until Saturday morning.  Rob called that Friday afternoon and said he thought my timing was good – that mom’s passing would be soon.  I felt it, too.  As much as I didn’t want to go, I knew I had to.  I was afraid, but that was exactly why I had to do it. 

Upon landing, I turned on my phone and called Rob’s house to say I’d be there soon.  He asked if I’d gotten his message, but no, in my hurry to connect, I’d called him first.  He told me there was no rush now – mom had passed away about an hour before.  I stood in the aisle way and let the tears fall.  It was what I expected, but to get so close to making it there and not being able to be with her was disappointing.  I wanted to be with her, as I had been with dad, to hold her hand as she passed.

In the terminal, I went the shuttle counter.  They said it would be an hour before they left.  I couldn’t stand that – after leaving at the crack of dawn, I now stood idle while my mom was awaiting her final journey.  I told them to cancel my seat and went to hail a cab.  I knew it would be a lot more expensive but that wasn’t really on my mind. 

I was on the phone with my brother when I got in.  The driver, Clyde, politely asked how I was doing after I was off the phone. I told him it had been a rough morning.  Without pushing, he began talking to me, quietly, compassionately, letting me know he understood I was in pain.  His kindness throughout that trip to Littleton was like a much needed balm for my soul.  He let me talk, he consoled and shared his thoughts all without judgment or opinion.  When I arrived at Rob’s house, I felt as though I had unburdened myself and felt lighter.  I’ve never hugged a cab driver before, but Clyde was like an angel who let me rest on him while we made the trip to mom’s side.

I spent the next hour with mom, mostly by myself, smoothing her forehead, touching her hair, letting her know I was there after all.  I hoped she knew I tried to make it.  She was peaceful and was where she wanted to be – with dad.  I talked to her and told her I would miss her – words that barely scratched the surface of my meaning, but still – it had to be said.  As I sat by her side, it dawned on me.  February 5th.  Nine months exactly after dad’s death.  The time for a life to begin was the time it took for mom’s to wind down.  Somehow, the symmetry and the balance appealed to me and I knew it would have pleased her, too.

Not everything in this life gets wrapped up neatly.  We don’t get to choose our timing or how we pass, but for mom, she had the best outcome possible.  She didn’t suffer, her decline was fast, and she was where she was loved.  Every one of her children came to spend time with her and people she knew made a point of calling, writing, or coming by.  She was loved to the very end.  All these were gifts we shared and while I may not have been able to be at her side at the exact moment, I was there, in the air to meet her.  And through the chance encounter with someone who knew how to listen, I was able to achieve the peace I needed to say goodbye.

From that slip of paper, a flood of memories and feelings….the urgency of the journey, the kindness of another human when I needed it most, and the memory of holding my mother’s hand for the last time.  Small scraps of the past, carefully tucked away, marking our most important memories along the way.

T. Swift

I never thought I’d equate my mother with Taylor Swift. I do now – and it haunts me.

Before I went to Denver to be with mom for the last time in 2011, I’d listened to a lot of T. Swift’s latest CD and her songs were stuck in my head. As my plane landed, I learned mom had died only minutes before my arrival. In a daze, I made it to my brother’s house  and went upstairs to be with her. I knelt by her bedside and cried, my heart breaking with the realization she was gone. The words to the song “Last Kiss” came to my mind and played as background music as I said goodbye to mom and kissed her cheek.

Hearing that song now, I am back in that moment, holding mom’s hand, sitting on the floor and thinking about how it was a last kiss – not as Taylor intended it, but poignant and real and a part of life nonetheless. The part that feels the most true is “all that I know is I don’t know how to be something you miss…” which isn’t exactly right, but evokes what I was feeling – struggling to adapt to a world that didn’t include mom.

And I don’t know how – it doesn’t feel like I’ll ever really learn. So I wear her rings and I wear her clothes and I hear that song, remembering the loss, remembering the sadness and think about how small things, unbidden, can have a much bigger impact than expected. And the music of young heartbreak touched me where I hurt most and put my pain to song, helping me sing through it.

Always Something There to Remind Me

Companion Star

I became an orphan at 52 years old. That is how it feels losing both of my parents in the past year. They were the pillars of our family shelter and they are suddenly gone. It feels like I’ve lost my moorings and am adrift. The curious thing is that I didn’t really lean on them for much, but knowing they were there was all I needed to feel safe. I am a capable person; don’t get me wrong. I know I can take care of myself and my family. I just liked knowing they were always there, in my corner, ready to help. Now I look for them and see the empty space they leave behind and it is huge. It’s more than an empty space; it feels to me like a black hole. A vast, dark place that might consume you.

My parents were exceptional at being parents. They were both committed to creating family, whether through their own children or through other people. They knew how to connect and nurture; how to love and support, and how to set the boundaries that gave enough latitude without letting you run amok. They were, in short, the best. I know I was lucky; I saw other parents and mine always came out ahead in comparison. Of course, I am biased, but I know they were that good. Learning to live in a world without them seems like a daunting task, but it’s one I have to get through if I am to try to do the same for my own family.

I’ve gotten to know a lot more about myself through all of this and I’ve gotten to know my brothers and sisters in a new way. I learned that I can overcome my fears to do the right thing, even when I would rather not. I’ve learned that I’m not afraid to look death in the face and stand firm. I can hold a hand and feel love. I have learned that the words “honor thy father and mother” mean more than I thought.

About my siblings, I’ve learned that each one has a unique gift they bring to bear; Jan is the embodiment of peace and joy. Being in her presence, one can truly relax. Kevin is a bottom line, cut to the chase thinker and communicator. His loyalty and love for mom and dad were apparent both in the times he could be present but also in his absences. He reached across the distance to be sure he was there for them when needed. Shawn is a force to be reckoned with. She doesn’t take no for an answer and she is upbeat and cheerful in the face of some challenging moments. Rob – I can’t say enough good about Rob. What he was able to do for mom in her last days was a true gift for all of us. His depth of compassion and devotion was never more apparent than when he was doing mom’s hair. He was so gentle with her and she looked beautiful when he was done. I never knew my brother had that in him.

I know it hasn’t fully hit me what it means to be a 52 year old orphan. It’s uncharted territory and I just have to make my way through. I do know that I won’t be alone. I have some wonderful companions in the journey, and for that I feel blessed. I don’t think I will ever not miss my parents – that is a constant, I’m sure. I will learn to navigate alone and listen to the lessons that they have incorporated in me. In creating family, mom and dad made sure we would never be alone. And a black hole gives birth, poetically, to a companion star on the other side. I will look for that star to guide my way.

My sweet mom

Remembering My Father

“When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” – Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

This quote reflects in a few perfect words all that I have been feeling.  I have felt great sorrow in losing dad.  It was too soon – he had a lot of life left to live.  It was a tough year, watching him go from a robust, healthy man to a cancer patient struggling to make it.  In this sorrow, however, has come profound joy and gratefulness.  I have felt so lucky to be his daughter and to have been loved by him my entire life.  It hit me like a thunderbolt on the way to the hospital that last day.  I was so very fortunate and felt truly blessed.  How can I feel sorrow in the face of all that good luck?

As an educator and a people person, dad taught me many lessons, one of which was to treat people as if you’ll never see them again – that way, you don’t forget to be kind.  I learned that lesson when I was about 10 years old and our dog, Murphy, died.  I felt guilty because I had lied to stay home sick from school that day.  I thought Murphy’s death was my punishment for being a liar.  Dad’s lesson to me was one that has stuck with me.  He reassured me that I didn’t cause Murphy’s death and told me that we should always be kind to people when we see them, because we never know when it will be the last time.  Because of this philosophy, dad had a gift for making people feel special.

Dad was the king of giving nicknames.  To him, I was his Erin Lynn, Bonks, and later on, Madame Executive.  To me, he was Dad, papa-san, and the Big Guy.  He never failed to greet people warmly, with his great low voice asking how the pride of Cle Elum, or Woodway High School, or wherever was.  His memory of the little details of people’s lives was legendary. It was one of his many gifts.

Watching him live his life, it was clear that it was never about words alone for him – it was about actions.  The adage that actions speak louder than words was evident in everything he did.  As kids, we saw him take the high road on many occasions, we saw him give the gift of himself to people from every walk of life, and we saw him living true to his word.  He was who he was and we never doubted that what we saw was the real thing.

Another thing dad taught by doing was how to be a good partner.  His love and admiration for our mom was a wonderful thing to behold.  I’ve heard the saying that the best gift a father can give his children is to love their mother, and he did just that.  The two of them were a true partnership and they set the standard for all of us. 

I hope to take what I learned from dad to heart even more so now.  Hearing from so many people who were touched by dad’s kindness only reinforces for me that life is really about the connections you make with people, not about things or success or money.  I want to become the type of person my dad has been and leave a legacy like his.  If I can do that, I will have lived a successful life.

Thank you, dad, for taking the time to teach me so much by the way you lived your life.  I am so proud to be your daughter.  It has been an amazing adventure and I enjoyed every minute of it.

With my remarkable parents

Race to University Medical Center

The call came from a person I didn’t really know, one afternoon out of the blue.  “You need to get to Tucson; your dad is in the hospital.”  Dad had been in and out of the hospital several times during his chemo treatments.  It was hard on his 83 year old body and his kidneys were scarred.  I knew getting there would not be possible for me, as I was on my own with Adrian.  I said I would see who else could get down there to help mom.  “No,” she said. “You don’t understand.  You all need to get here.  He doesn’t have much longer.”   I couldn’t comprehend the words she was saying.  It didn’t make any sense to me, and I was confused.  I told her I was coming down in 2 weeks time, that it was already planned.  She said again, “You need to come now. He’s dying.”  I told her I would be there.  I didn’t know how, but I would get there.  I still didn’t completely understand, but I went in to action mode and started to make arrangements.

I called my brothers and sisters to let them know.  I contacted work.  I made interim plans for Adrian.  I made a reservation on the first flight out in the morning.  I kept going back over her words and tried to makes sense of it.  He had been fine on Sunday when I talked to him.  He sounded tired, but he was OK.  We talked about the PanCan auction and how I’d spent too much money again.  I told him I wanted to figure out a way to have him continue his treatment up in Seattle so he and mom would have some help nearby.  I had it all planned out.  He said, “You’d be willing to do that for me?”, and I told him I would – I’d thought about it and knew they were struggling by this point.  He said we’d talk more about it when I was visiting in a few weeks.  There was no way I thought he was dying.  I was sure this was an overreaction.

I rushed to the airport that morning and went to buy my ticket at the Southwest counter.  My credit card was declined.  Bank of America had put a hold on my card due to the 2 large charges that were processed from the 2 charity auctions we’d attended over the weekend.  I was irate and paid with my debit card.  It was like a slap in the face – here I was in what felt like a race against time, only to have that happen. 

My flight went through Phoenix on the way there.  It felt like a long lay over, though it probably was less than an hour.  I wanted to be there.  I moved my seat to the most forward row so I could bolt as soon as the doors were open.  My bag was small and at my feet.  I wanted to run once I was off the plane.  I met up with Robin by baggage. We started to head to curb when we saw Shawn.  She was waiting for her checked luggage.  I was stunned. You checked it?  What?  This is race against the clock!  She said she and Jan would follow us – she told us to go now and get to him.

On the way there in the taxi, I told Rob I was worried that we were all over reacting.  I’d called the hospital the night before and the nurse in charge said dad was talking to them and responsive.  It didn’t sound like he was on the verge of anything.  I talked to mom and she said she didn’t know what was happening.  We were thinking ahead to what we needed to do once he was released.  We agreed it was getting to be too much for mom to handle and we had to propose some options. 

Arriving at the hospital, we waited for the elevators.  Again, it felt like it took forever.  We made our way to his room in the ICU.  I saw his oncologist outside his room, and he looked dour, as usual.  I was asking him about dad, and the nurse in the room said, “You need to get in here now.”  Again, I was confused.  The chaplain came out and said to come in.  He’d been sitting with mom, but he said it was important that we come in.  Rob and I went to dad’s bed side and each took a hand.  By now, dad was gasping for breath.  I think he knew we’d arrived because he was more agitated.  Because he did not want any extra measures taken, he had only oxygen, but even with that, breathing was difficult.  I held dad’s hand with one hand and my mom’s with my other.  Dad seemed to listen as Rob and I both told him we loved him, that we were there, and Rob shared how Ryan had pitched a no-hitter the night before.  I told dad we’d take care of mom, and that she would be OK.  Then, he was gone.  It was over in less than 5 minutes from the time we arrived on the floor of the hospital.  Unreal. 

It was haunting.  It felt peaceful, not scary, though.   I thought about how people love being in the room when babies are born, because they experience that singular moment when a new life arrives.  I felt the same way, only at the other end of life.  It felt like a gift to be there with him and to hold his hand while he made his journey.  And, like a baby, dad was stripped of much of his earthly look.  He looked purified and distilled to his true essence.  It felt holy.  I held mom while she cried, and we all held each other up.  We knew that when Jan and Shawn arrived, we’d have to go through it again, for them.  I felt lost in a way that I’d never experienced.  Our big guy was gone and we had to find our way without him. 

It struck me then how truly lucky I’d been to be his daughter all my life.  I knew him for all of my days, and that was something only my siblings could claim.  We were so fortunate to have him in our lives, on our side, and in our hearts.  It was a gift without measure and I didn’t want to ever take it for granted.  Peace came over me then.  No more thinking about plans for his future care, now our focus was on mom and helping her through a difficult transition to widowhood.  In the days that came, we made plans and schedules, we grieved and talked, we cleaned and organized.  But mostly, we held on to each other.  We shared our sadness at a life without our father in it, but reveled in the past and our times with him.  It is a true blessing to have loved a parent without reservation.  I was one of the lucky ones in that regard.  Being my father’s daughter was always a joy.  Racing to his side was almost instinctive.  I had to be there, I knew I could get there, and I made it in time.  Feeling his love through holding his hand, and helping him on his way meant the world to me.  He was one of the first to ever hold my hand as I came in to the world, and holding his as he left it seemed right.