Coming Up for Air

It has been months – MONTHS – since I have written a post for this blog.  I could tell you that I was busy with selling my mom’s house, and with our move, and with the holidays, and with life.

Which I was.

But that’s not the reason I didn’t write.  The truth is, somewhere around the one-year mark, the wind went completely out of my sails.

I’m not sure what happened, exactly.  True, the house took much longer to pack up than I had anticipated, and the process proved to be akin to torture.  We were exhausted and pushed to our limit with the emotional strain of sorting out what articles of Mom’s life would stay with us, go to another family member, or go away forever.

The sale itself also took longer than I had hoped, by far.  It was disheartening that people would walk through my mother’s home over and over, and after we had come to the painful decision to sell it, no one wanted it.  We dropped the price several times, and finally accepted an offer below what our bottom line had been.  But, it was done, and the man who bought the house was a kind one, full of humor at the closing.  Mom would have liked him, I think.

Somewhere in there was our first Christmas without her, and the first anniversary of her death, December 31.  And then what would have been her 61st birthday just three days later.  All of these milestones passed with us living in our home with no furniture to speak of, our belongings packed in storage except for what we could fit in suitcases.

We were also house-hunting furiously, but as hard as we tried, we could not find our new “home”.  So, we settled on a cute rental and decided to stop looking for a while.  That was a good choice, because I have realized that I actually had no idea what I wanted to do next.

That could be what happened.  I might have run out the sense of purpose I had been existing on for the four years prior.  My purpose had been to keep my mother alive.  And then it had been to make her last years great and memorable to the best of my ability.  And then it had been to support her during her passing.  And then it had been to make her life and her passing mean something by writing about it.  And then it had been to honor Mom’s wishes as I navigated the unbelievable amount of paperwork and stress that comes from being the executor of an estate.  And then it had been to help my children understand what had happened.

Maybe I realized that I didn’t understand what had happened, either.  The world was upside down, sideways – wrong.  And I lost all will to share, to write, to do anything but get up in the morning, make it through the day, and go to bed.

The world is still wrong, but we are settling in to our new normal.  We love decorating our cute little (really little – tiny) place, and we are making a roadmap for our future.  I am excited to write again and look at what lies ahead for us.  I have come back from sabbatical to jump into my midwifery practice again, and that is glorious.  Welcoming new life into my hands is the best feeling in the world, I promise you.

There is still a whole pile of estate stuff to do (I hope it’s done someday), but it’s manageable now that the house part is over.  There is a light at the end of that tunnel, at least. (people, make your arrangements, and use an attorney – it is SO HARD for people after you are gone if it’s not done right.)

And please remind me to redo mine when this is all over.  I have two more kids than I had last time I did up my paperwork.

So, I am coming up for air, as the title says.  Air is good, light is good, life is good.  I wonder what is coming up next on our little yellow-brick road?  We shall see.

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Oregon, More Baldness and a Raccoon

Mom grew up in a small town called Payette, on the border between Oregon and Idaho, on the Idaho side.  As a child, she would frequently travel with her family to the Oregon coast, where, in good times, they would rent a house on Depoe Bay.

In the year after Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, there was so much going on that we didn’t really have time to think.  She underwent aggressive chemotherapy in advance of her double mastectomy, to shrink the cancer down enough to even do the surgery, as it had invaded the skin of the breast.  As a side-effect of the chemo, she was hospitalized for multiple pulmonary emboli, as well as some other fun stuff, such as pneumonia, kidney stones, and life-threatening leukopenia (very low white blood cell count).  Add to that the fact that I was starting up my new practice in Colorado after our sudden move to care for her (and the accompanying lack of income), and there wasn’t much time to think about anything else.

But after that first intense year, her cancer was knocked down to almost nothing, and Mom was feeling pretty good.  My practice was starting to grow, and I felt some freedom with funds, so I began to think about how we could make good use of this time with her.  I had a gap in client due dates in October of 2012, and I decided to book ten days in a beach house on the Oregon coast.  The trip would be a total of three weeks, including a long stay in Mom’s childhood stomping grounds in Idaho.

In the months leading up to our trip, she continued to get checkups and scans.  Most of that year, things went fabulously, and we were very optimistic.  Right before we left for our trip, though, a PET scan revealed that her cancer had spread again.  Mom was devastated that she would have to have chemo again, and resisted her doctor’s urging to start treatments before our trip.  After much family discussion, we agreed that a month’s delay in chemo was too much of a gamble with her aggressive cancer, and so she got her first dose right before we hit the road.


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In these two pictures from Payette Lake, you can tell that Mom wasn’t feeling as awesome as she could have been, but she had her hair back, and we were having a great time.  She loved road trips, and she was handling the long hours in the car with no problem, while we talked about anything and everything.  This was about a week into our trip, and the side effects of the chemo hadn’t really started yet.

This was the view from our living room in the beach house:

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Mom could not believe that this whole house was ours for ten days.  Her brother and nephew, as well as one of my sisters and her family, stayed there with us.  We had a glorious time, with Mom leading the way on a tour through all of the places she’d loved as a child:  The Sea Lion Caves, whale watching at Depoe Bay, the Newport bay front and eating at Mo’s.

Soon, though, the chemo started to catch up with us, and Mom’s hair began to fall out again.  And so, one of those precious nights in the beach house was spent in tears, as we all sat in the kitchen and I shaved Mom’s head again.  She was heartbroken to lose her hair again, and we were heartbroken to face the unspoken truth that, despite the optimism we had experienced earlier in the year, the cancer was here to stay.

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In this picture, Mom is holding her grandson, my Emmett, wearing the happy clothes she had purchased in Depoe Bay (she loved color).  You can tell she wasn’t feeling well, and she wore the hat because her hair was gone.  Much of the remaining time in Oregon was spent sitting on this couch, looking at the ocean through the picture window, enjoying the wood-burning fireplace, and practicing visualization exercises for her restored health.

Here’s where the raccoon comes in.  Let me preface this by saying that Mom had a really dark sense of humor, and as horrible as what I am about to tell you is, she thought it was hilarious.  There was a raccoon that lived around the beach house, and we had to lock our trash up in a special box outside so that the darn thing wouldn’t get into it.  Unfortunately, on the evening we shaved Mom’s head, the children took the trash out, and while they did lock the doors on the box, they failed to put the trash bags in the bins, and instead left them on the floor of the box.  When we emerged the next morning to go about our day, we found that said raccoon had stuck its evil little hand under the doors of the box and had ripped open the trash bags.  Our trash was all over the quiet road in front of our house.

Including Mom’s hair.

OMG!  I know, the horror.  Yep, it was pretty much as bad as you think it could possibly have been, crawling around, picking up bits of my mother’s hair from wet Oregon asphalt.

Luckily, we were comforted by the sounds of Mom laughing uproariously in the background as we suffered.

She’s probably laughing right now at the memory as I write this.  I hope she is.

No Words

This post is kind of a non-post, I suppose.  I realized today that it has been two months since I last blogged, and I am writing to let you all know what has been happening in these intervening weeks.

I believe I have mentioned in previous posts that I had begun the process of packing up my mom’s things.  This endeavor evolved into the decision to sell her house.  Being the pragmatic, motivated and energetic person that I normally am, I met with our attorneys and decided that this was the most logical course of action.  Though we are living in said house, and have some emotional attachment, of course, we have moved many times, and I truly thought it would be no big thing.  A month or so, and we’d be out.

That was in August.  We finally finished packing up the house in October.  I cannot even begin to tell you how hard it was to pack up the house of a loved one.  It was all-consuming, drained every ounce of time and energy that all of us had.  We cried every day, we worked from waking to bedtime. Some days, I got a reprieve in the form of seeing my prenatal clients or flying out the door to attend the birth of a baby, but most days… it was just this continuing march through what became near-despair, hoping there was a light at the end of the tunnel.  Forget time for writing, even if I had had the spirit to do so.

Sounds dramatic, right?  Well, the clinical explanation is clear:  I didn’t see my friends enough; I didn’t get enough sunlight; I didn’t get enough exercise; I didn’t eat right.  These things alone can drag you down.  But more than this, the daily question, as we were touching all of Mom’s things, packing away her treasured possessions, changing the quirky things she loved about her home with paint and landscape work – were we doing the right thing?  To sell this house, this place that had held so much love and so many life events.

In October, we got our reprieve.  We took our annual trip to a beach house in Lincoln City, OR, to celebrate Mom’s life.  I have a post in progress about this trip.  When we left for Oregon, we joyfully (well, maybe not joyfully, but with so much relief to be done!) put her house on the market and drove away, counting on, in this hot market, being under contract when we returned in three weeks.

Ha, ha.  Just kidding – we are back in Colorado now, and back in the house. No one is interested, so far, in undertaking the updating that needs to be done.  We live in an affluent area where people kind of expect to have it perfect when they move in.  We are moving the price all around and doing more work on it, and struggling with the same questions.  Are we doing the right thing?  Should we just price it low to sell and move on?  Or should we keep it?  Around and around in circles.  Oddly, this is the most stressful period I’ve experienced in years, even in comparison to Mom’s death. What makes it so?  I think there are just too many choices before me, too many decisions that rest upon me.  Though I know I am so lucky to have these choices, I can’t help but think how much easier it might be to just have one option.

Perhaps the difference is that death doesn’t leave us a whole lot of options.  We simply have to ride the train to its inevitable end the very best way we can.

The Stuff that Makes Up Our Lives

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Today is the seven month anniversary of my mom’s death, and I finally worked up the nerve to start going through her things just this week.

I don’t think I’m one of those people who leaves a “shrine” up for a lost loved one, but it’s kind of happened as a consequence of my avoidance behavior.  I have snapped at anyone who wants to mess with Mom’s room or her stuff until I can “find the time” to take care of it.

But, it’s not that there’s not time.  There has been plenty of time, clearly. It’s just that whenever I looked through the glass doors of her room at the Tibetan prayer flags hanging over her bead and her cute little pug figures, I just couldn’t do it.

This was a room where a human being slept and dreamed and read and wrote in her journal.  Where she wept and feared in privacy after a day of putting on a strong face.  Where her dogs all piled in bed with her, where artwork by the hands of her grandchildren and a framed, autographed picture of her eternal crush, Kevin Bacon, still hang on the walls.

Truthfully, Mom hadn’t slept in this room for several months before she passed.  At some point, she had become too ill to be down in her apartment alone, so we moved her up to the main level and set up a hospital bed in the family room.  We put some shelves up on the wall for her knick knacks and some pictures, and brought one of her bookshelves up so that she could have her precious books and journals nearby.  We kept her bedroom ready for when she would be well enough to move back downstairs.

But, she never was able to move back downstairs.  So, her room stands much as it did a year ago, probably.  It has some boxes piled in it now, of papers and other products of us trying to make sense of all of the estate business.  There are a couple of laundry baskets full of Christmas presents that Mom received but never used, as her steep decline started on Christmas Day, and she died on New Year’s Eve.  There are some birthday presents in there, too, given early, as she would have turned sixty on January 3.  These gifts mostly consist of comfort items, such as warm blankets, fuzzy socks, rice bags, and comfy pajamas, and books and journals.  We often gave her inspirational books to help her keep up the fight.  This time, I had given her a book called, “Dying to be Me”, about a woman who had a near-death experience due to cancer, and had returned to health.  It sits in the basket, new and unread.

I decided, this week, to at least go through and start sorting her things into categories so that my sister, Bree, and I can look at everything together and decide what to do with it all.  It seems barbaric to give away these things, these items that Mom liked and loved and used.  Sure, we will keep the things that hold sentimental value for us or that we knew were particularly special to Mom, but we simply can’t hang on to everything.  I wonder who will use these things when we give them away?  Who will enjoy all of her Denise Austin DVD’s, her weird snowman cookie jar and her vast collection of self-help books?  Not to mention all of the pug stuff. The woman loved pugs.

It also makes me wonder the same things about my own “stuff”.  I look around at all of the things that I have collected over my life, and I wonder what people would do with it if I wasn’t here.  How would people know what was precious and what was just “stuff?” I have the strong desire to sort everything and purge the non-essential things.  These things just create clutter, literally and figuratively, making it harder to see what’s important underneath.

I think, when I go, I might just want to have a wall full of artwork from my grandkids on my walls, a cushy bed that I slept in, with my books and journals alongside it.

Oh, and don’t forget that my autographed copies of the Outlander books are precious, kids.