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.

The Club

This afternoon, I attended a funeral service for the mother of a friend of mine, who passed away suddenly last week.

It was the first such service I have attended since Mom’s death, and I was, frankly, quite nervous about going.  Historically, I don’t do well at funerals, anyway, and usually end up sitting in the back, trying not to make a spectacle of myself with my audible sobs.  I usually carry my own cushy tissues so that my nose will be comfy and I won’t hog the box provided by the funeral home.

Today, I navigated the experience much better than expected.  In fact, much better than the last several funerals I’ve attended.  I wonder if it’s because I cry all the time these days anyway?  Maybe pent-up grief isn’t bursting to get out at the moment.  I did cry today, but I wasn’t wrecked for the day, and was able to talk to my friends and be functional.

As I am watching my friend walk through this experience, I imagine that she might be feeling similarly to how I was feeling 8 months ago.  I remember distinctly the first ten days being surreal, and feeling almost as though I had the flu.  I remember how hard it was to grasp the realization that I no longer had a mother.

Disclaimer: I understand that life and relationships are complicated, and this may not be your personal experience.  But, as a rule, there is no love like the love that a mother has for her child.  I am certain that there isn’t a greater pain than losing a child, as the love is so powerful.  But, I have come to believe that losing a mom, while, sadly, not an incredibly unique experience, carries a special kind of pain that bears some deep consideration.

When my mom died, I was not surprised to find that I grieved.  But I was surprised by the void that was left when I realized that she wouldn’t be texting me at two a.m. when I was out delivering a baby to make sure I was safe.  That I didn’t need to poke my head into her room and let her know when I got home.  Honestly, before she died, I found the fact that I had to check in with my mom at the age of 37 a little annoying, but now that I had no one to check in with, it felt very lonely

Because, you see, there is no one that will ever love you as much a mom. We were a part of our moms.  We exist because we grew and were nurtured in our moms’ bodies.  There is evidence that our mothers carry our cells and we may even carry her cells in our bodies for the rest of our lives after she is pregnant with us.  There is no one who will look at you and only see love, and not your flaws (okay, your little baby or toddler might look at you like that, but once they hit a certain age, your perfection will diminish.)

It’s a lonely feeling to realize that the person who cared the most about whether I was safe and whole is not here anymore.

I am not saying this to be a downer, truly, but just to illustrate the significance of this club so many of us are in, or will join at some point. Until I was in this club, I didn’t have any idea what it really meant.  I still might not know, but I’ve had a little bit of time to sit with it now.

Losing a mom is a special loss.  When I lost mine, friends who have been in the club for a while hugged me and looked at me with knowing in their eyes.  This is a loss that we will feel lifelong.  This is a loss that will visit us on holidays and when milestones come and go.  This loss will be felt when we are alone, hurting or scared and need the comfort that only a mother can give us.

Today, I hugged my friend and looked at her with this knowing in my eyes. Tonight, I am going to think about her and wish for her comfort as she settles into this new life.

And I am going to think about moms.  About their vital contribution to our existence, our formation as humans, in both the physical and emotional sense.  About their love, hugs and snuggles, nagging and pestering.  Their perfection in their imperfection.

And I’ll cry a few more tears, both happy and sad, for all of us in this club.

 

Get in the Picture

When we were planning Mom’s memorial service, we struggled to find pictures of her.

Throughout Mom’s life, she was never comfortable being photographed. There are very few childhood photos of her remaining (she was kind of a chubby kid, she said), and through my whole life, I recall her waving the camera away, saying she was “too fat”, or had “bad hair”, or “I look so bad in pictures!”

And now that she is gone, we only have, maybe, twenty or thirty pictures of her throughout her life.  I dearly hope we find more as we keep going through her things.

My mother was a beautiful woman, but that’s not the point.  She was our mom, and no matter what she looked like to herself or to the outside world, she was beautiful to us.  I’m a tiny bit angry, actually, that her low self-image robbed us of the photographic memories we should be poring over now, and yet, I am leaving a similar void for my own children.

I am not a natural picture-taker to begin with, perhaps because it just wasn’t something that was a big part of our lives when I was a child.  I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t take enough photos of my first two kids when they were babies, and there are nearly no pictures of myself from my twenties.  Now, I am in my late thirties, wondering why on earth I didn’t have more pictures taken when I was young and gorgeous.  Now that I am older, with more lines and sags as the years go by, I constantly have to remind myself: I will never again look as good as I do now – take those pictures!

But feeling self-conscious in front of the camera is a habit that was taught to me from an early age by my mom’s example.  I have likely taught this to my daughters, as well, but I am trying to turn it around.  Thank goodness for the smart-phone that lets me snap picture after picture of my beautiful kids and post them to social media sites and my blogs to hang on to for me.  Sharing these photos of my kids with the world doesn’t do anything to get myself in the picture, though.  I am always comfortably behind the camera, like so many other moms.

My friend Jennifer McLellan, creator of the blog “Plus Size Mommy Memoirs” wrote this post on this subject http://plussizebirth.com/how-to-look-perfect-in-a-picture/ and it kicked off a wonderful thing called the “Capture Motherhood Campaign” . I saw her present on this topic at the Denver MommyCon this past June, and her opening words asking us what our favorite childhood photos are moved to me to tears so instantly and powerfully that I almost had to flee the room.

Of course, our most treasured photos are not the ones of ourselves, but the ones with our loved ones in them.  My most treasured photos are those rare ones that my mom is in with me.  Like this one.

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And this one, from just a couple of years ago, when she was undergoing chemo.

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My heart breaks that there aren’t many more like this, and that there are precious few photos of myself with my oldest children when they were little.  But I make the commitment today to put myself in front of the camera with my kids – or without them, doing things I love to do so that they can have these memories to hold on to someday.

Here’s a little start.

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I should probably lose the shades in future photos – I want my great-grandkids to know what my eyes looked like. 😉

 

 

The Treatment Plan and Baldness

Shortly after my family arrived in Denver and moved in with my mom on January 1st, 2011, she began her treatment plan.  I, and often my sister Bree, accompanied her to her frequent visits with the Kaiser oncologist, during which we sketched out a roadmap of what the next few months would look like.

You’d think if you had that much cancer in your breast, the obvious answer would be to undergo a mastectomy post-haste.  But, because the cancer involved her entire breast, including the skin, the doctor recommended that Mom begin with aggressive chemotherapy to shrink it before we moved on to surgery.

I should touch on the brief  “no chemo” conversation we had.  As I’ve mentioned before, Mom was pretty heavily into natural health, and she had said more than once that if she were to get cancer, she would likely want to go a treatment route other than chemo, as she felt that the chemicals would do so much harm to the healthy parts of her body and immune system, and diminish her quality of life.  The aggressiveness of her cancer, though, left her with few options.  It was pretty clear that if chemo didn’t begin right away, she would likely be dead within months.  And, I have to tell you, we can talk all we want about what we would do in this and that situation, but when death is staring you in the face, it’s so very hard to say no to conventional wisdom.

So, she began two types of chemotherapy, an oral medication that she took at home, and infusions that she would receive at the Kaiser facility downtown.  For the first couple weeks, we were amazed by how good she felt.  I had never before this been up close and personal to a person in chemotherapy, but, based on anecdotes, I had been expecting lots of nausea and vomiting. and extreme fatigue.  I had been anticipating her being bedridden, and having to have IV’s placed for fluids.  But these things did not happen on this first round.

After a time, though, it became apparent that the treatments had a cumulative effect, and that each time she went in for an infusion, she would feel a little sicker and have lower energy.  But, she was still very functional.  At some point, we began to notice that her hair was shedding a little bit, and then more and more, until one day, all that she had were little tufts of hair that were left in odd places around her head.  We wondered why every last hair didn’t just fall out?  Having those odd ones left made the experience all the weirder.

Mom started wearing stocking caps everywhere, including to bed, so it took a little while before my children realized that their grandma had lost her hair.  My son, Hayden, surprised her downstairs in her basement bedroom when she had her cap off one day, and there was an awkward “naked head” moment.  This was so interesting, because I know Mom had no intention of keeping any piece of her experience from the kids, but I think the side of her that was self-conscious about her baldness wanted to keep this part private as long as possible.

As much as Mom had spoken of being one of those courageous women, boldly going about their daily business with their beautiful, bald heads out in the open for the world to see, like a badge of honor, I think the reality was harder to bear then she had realized it would be.  So, she wore hats. And soon got into a program that helps connect people on chemotherapy with donated human-hair wigs.  These masks gave her the nerve to go about in public like a “normal” person, but nothing could really hide the effects that chemo had on her body.

And this was the tip of the iceberg on the chemo roller coaster that was to come.  Mom was so right about the chemicals “poisoning” her body, but they kept the cancer at bay and began to shrink the tumors.  They also almost killed her a couple of times.

The next step would be surgery.