Sow a thought, and you reap an act;
Sow an act, and you reap a habit;
Sow a habit, and you reap a character;
Sow a character, and you reap a destiny.
~ 19th Century English Proverb ~
Try to be mindful, and let things take their natural course.
Then your mind will become still in any surroundings,
like a clear forest pool.
All kinds of wonderful, rare animals
will come to drink at the pool,
and you will clearly see the nature of all things.
~ Achann Chah ~
February 29, 1988. An oddity, Leap Year. It comes every four years, then departs without a trace. Not for me. The pain of that day is seared in my memory. That’s the day that cancer took my Mom, when she was 59 years old. That’s the day that I lost a part of me forever.
The obituary page…so impersonal. Facts: names, dates, places, times. Nothing, yet supposedly everything. How can Mom be a statistic in black and white to them, her whole life listed in capsule form? Yet they know nothing of her, nothing at all.
Mom. Quitting school at 16 in order to bring home money for the family. Falling in love with a sailor in his dress blues, marrying him at 18, and working at 41 years of life together. Two daughters, a business, long days. Always saving for a rainy day, postponing trips “until we are retired.”
Memories. A cool hand on my forehead whenever I had a fever (it comes full circle, Mom; I did the same for you at the end). My favorite meal. Unending words of encouragement and support. Holding my hand tightly whenever I crossed the road on my way to school. Sitting together on a swing under the tree, having morning coffee together. (I didn’t even like coffee, but I liked the time with you.) Going shopping and having lunch together. A blinding smile that lit up the Academy of Music: “My daughter, the Doctor.” Waking up in the hospital after all four of my surgeries, and seeing you at the bottom of the bed, waiting. Trips to Europe, and cruises with my own cabin. Christmas Eve, filled with Italian dinners and hours of opening presents.
Alex. The child against the odds, as I had been for you. My Alex, your third grandson, who you greeted every morning for 16 months as if he were a king. You showered him with the same love you had given me. Now, he asks who you are in family pictures. His beloved Mimi. He was barely 2 ½ when you left. How can I be a Mother to him, as you were to me, when you’re not here to guide me?
June, 1987. Cancer. Dr. Friedman’s office: lumpectomy or mastectomy? Point-blank: “Theresa, what would you do?” As if any of us can outsmart cancer. But I know better. I know how poor a woman’s chances really are. 1-800-4-CANCER. Very supportive, very optimistic, very wrong.
Chemotherapy. Six long months of pills and injections; you were node-positive. The cancer cells will die (so will you). Doesn’t chemotherapy kill the healthy cells, too? You told me losing your hair hurt more than the nausea and vomiting, and I believed you. The wig was rejected, a turban grudgingly accepted.
Change. You’re different, Mom. You’re giving up. You talk less, you care less, you take longer to heal. You’re too sick to tell jokes or have a beer or yell at Dad or give advice. I don’t know you, and I’m impatient because I want the real you back. I’m selfish, and I feel guilty for thinking you should be better.
Super Bowl Sunday, January, 1988. I am depressed. You’re too sick to come to the annual party (you started this tradition, Mom; you have to be here!). The doorbell rings, and you’re at my front door in a long, navy blue bathrobe, turban on your head, bedroom slippers, and your stomach swollen like when I was 9 months pregnant. But you’re here, and my smile lights up the foyer (you always said I was pretty when I smiled). Later, I realized that my house was the last place you would visit before your final trip to the hospital.
February 1, 1988. The first day of the last month of your life. First, removal of several liters of fluid from your stomach, then surgery to implant a porta-cath, followed shortly by exploratory surgery. “Did it turn out all right, Theresa?” “Yes, Mom, it’s okay.” Really? No. Half of your liver is gone, the cancer is strangling your intestines, spreading throughout your body cavity. Six months of chemotherapy. For what? To make the time you had left more miserable?
Roller coaster. The doctors have elected me as the family spokesperson, the person to hear the news and disseminate it to the rest. I cringe every time I turn the corner in the hallway of the hospital, and hear the latest test results. Where there’s life, there’s hope, daughter Theresa says. Mom’s spirit will beat this. But Dr. Theresa knows there’s no chance of recovery. A constant battle; which person do I believe?
Warren Hospital. Your window on the 2nd floor…it’s easy to find from outside. It’s the one with hundreds of cards taped to the window and walls. Doris, the nurse’s aide who helps you sip iced tea, says she’s never seen this many cards for a patient. It’s the room with 29 days of non-stop flower arrangements, brightening those dreary February days, helping to mask the ever-present smell of cancer.
Hospital furniture. Adjustable bed and wheelchair. IV tubes, blood transfusions, catheter, oxygen, stomach tube, intestinal feeding tube. A water mattress to cool your body temperature, a fan blowing on your elevated legs (blood clots, remember?). A washcloth on your forehead, Depend undergarments (full circle), hospital robes, blood pressure cuffs, electronic IVs. Beep, beep, beeping…STOP! I want to rip them all out, this is barbaric. I want to end your suffering (or is it mine?) with an overdose of morphine. I ask Dr. Friedman for extra morphine. “Theresa, you don’t know what you’re saying.” Or do you?
Doctor’s words of wisdom: your mother will not leave the hospital…I almost cried when I opened her up and saw the extent of her cancer…if only we could get back some of her spirit, she might have a fighting chance…it would be merciful if a blood clot loosened; it would be quick…should we write a “Do Not Resuscitate” order?…you may have to make the decision to stop feeding her (starve her???)…give her as much morphine as she wants…there are good ways and bad ways to die, and your mother has shown more courage and dignity in her death than I’ve ever seen…I’m sorry, I wish there was more that I could do.
You knew, didn’t you, Mom? You told the nurses you didn’t want this to take too long, that your family was suffering too much. At your request, a priest administered Last Rites…we had no idea. “Are you mad at me, Theresa, for refusing more chemo?” “No, Mom, (choke) I’d do the same thing.” You told us where all of your jewelry was, and what clothes to have Dad wear at your viewing and funeral. You wanted to be in a pink or blue nightgown. Pink? I never saw you in pink. We got you blue, Mom, and the saleslady at Sigal’s offered her deepest sympathies.
Saturday, February 27th. It snowed, so Steve drove Alex and me. You were delirious, but you were coherent enough to want to see Alex. Yes. “Dee dee (your pet name for him).” Alex was afraid of you and the tubes, but your frightened look makes me keep him there awhile longer. You fought the morphine to stay awake, and wanted us all by the bed. Peach schnapps? Okay, Mom, we’ll make sure everyone is offered it at the house. You waited until we left to close your eyes, taking one last long look at your family. You slept peacefully, and Dad didn’t even try to wake you to say good-bye.
Sunday, February 28th. The hospital called us…were we coming? Of course; Dad hadn’t missed a day. The hospital bed was lowered (don’t the blood clots matter any more?) and someone had placed your rosary in your hand. Your breathing was ragged, the machines pumping and beeping, the flowers the only bright spot in the room. June, your favorite nurse, cried in my arms in the hall. She told me that this was how it ended. This is how it ends? All those years of joy and sorrow, hopes and dreams…they just stop? (Is this really happening? I’ll wake up from this nightmare soon, and everything will be all right.) They said hearing is the last sense to go, so I held your lavender rose close and said good-bye, thanking you, loving you, telling you it was all right for you to go. The nurses came at the end of their shift to say good-bye, forming a circle of love around your bed. You continued to touch people, Mom, even at your worst. If only they had known you at your best!
Monday morning, 3am. The phone call. Good. It is done. No more suffering. So many details and decisions, so many people with so many kind words and so much food. Steve makes the trip to the hospital to take down all of the cards. Your room was empty when he got there. The bed was stripped of you, as was my life.
Tuesday, the viewing. Wednesday, the funeral. Numbness. Would you believe we’re trying to comfort others in their grief? A woman kneeled with her head in my lap, her tears soaking my dress. (Or were they my tears? No matter.) It’s not really you in that casket, Mom. You’re in a far better place. We got you slippers because your feet were always cold, and I put on your glasses so you could see. The funeral director is amazed at the number of floral tributes; they circled the room many times. Soon, they would grace the rooms of those back in the hospital, and the nurse’s station as well. By Wednesday evening, all is over. My new life without you has just begun.
March, 1989. A year has passed one day at a time. My frequent bouts of grief have given way to less frequent bouts, but when they come, they are just as deep and painful. The thing I miss most is talking to you every day at lunch time (how long will it be before I no longer catch myself reaching for the phone to tell you something important?). This is all so unbelievable; you’re just away on vacation and you’ll be back again, soon. I still get angry when I see older couples holding hands, and I put up a Christmas tree even though I didn’t have the heart for it. I did it for Alex, and for you. I am his mother, as you were mine. That’s what mothers do. I couldn’t go into a Hallmark store at Mother’s Day; maybe someday I’ll be able to pass the cards without crying.
I miss you, Mom, as a mother, and as a friend. Everyone tells me that I’ve been elected to take your place. Silly people…no one can do that. But your memory lives on in my heart, and those parts of you I passed on to Alex will live on in his children, his children’s children, and beyond. Every time I make seafood on Christmas Eve, read a book you would have enjoyed, give Alex a hug, make potato pancakes for Dad, help someone in need, keep watch over the family, say a prayer of thanksgiving for you…at each of these times, I will celebrate the memory of your being.
I miss you, Mom. But if I look around, you are everywhere, in all things. And most of all, in me. You will be with me always, and I know from a deep, abiding faith that someday, we will be together again. Until then, I will remember you, and keep you alive in my heart. I will live as you would have wanted me to, and I will do my best to remember to treat people with dignity, honor, and truth, as you taught me.
Thank you, Mom, for my life.
Thank You, God, for my mother.
May You grant her everlasting peace.
Meditation Prayer on Love
by Thich Nhat Hanh
It is in everybody’s interest
to do what leads to happiness
and avoid that which leads to suffering.
And because, as we have seen,
our interests are inextricably linked,
we are compelled to accept ethics
as the indispensable interface
between my desire to be happy
~ His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, 1999 ~
While looking for a full-time job after switching careers, I worked per diem in the Pastoral Care Department of a hospital that was designated a Level I Trauma Center. My duties were varied – praying with a patient right before their surgery, comforting a family waiting in the ER for their family member, rushing to any room that was involved in a Code, contacting family members for any patient who was brought in by MedEvac, or even sitting with anyone alone in the ER, looking scared and in pain. That last description was just about everyone.
One night, during a double weekend shift, I approached a group of medical personnel outside of an end room in the ER and asked if I could be of any help. As the attending physician finished signing some paperwork in the chart, one of the nurses asked me if I could notify the woman’s family or pastor that she had expired (hospital-speak for “died”). I took the record, knowing how challenging these in-the-middle-of-the-night phone calls could be.
As I paged through her chart for contact information, I saw that Esther was a widow in her 80s with no children. The name of a Rabbi was listed as her emergency contact, which meant that any siblings were probably gone as well.
She was alone. Totally alone.
I used the phone at the nurse’s station and reached her Rabbi, who said he would be at the hospital within 30 minutes. I went into her room and saw two aides silently cleaning up the evidence of the ER staff’s attempts to save her life – the crash cart, gloves, torn gauze wrappers and the like. As I looked down at the bed, I saw a petite woman with white hair and a delicately contoured face. She must have been quite a beauty when she was younger. Eyes closed, she looked to be at peace.
I watched as the aides straightened the sheet that covered Esther, carefully moving her arms so that they were comfortably placed at her sides. One of the young women stopped when she saw something on the inside of Esther’s forearm – some kind of ink. She reached for a near-by washcloth.
“Wait.” I stepped closer and saw the row of numbers tattooed on Esther’s forearm. “Do you know what this is, what it means?” I asked as I murmured a silent prayer. Both shook their head “no.” I quietly explained: “The numbers mean that Esther was a prisoner in one of the German concentration camps during World War II.”
They looked confused and I realized that maybe they were too young to be familiar with the Holocaust? Hard to believe, but possible. But now was not the time or place for a history lesson. “If you want, I can explain more after her Rabbi gets here. In the meantime, thank you. I’ll stay with Esther.”
As the door closed, I bowed my head. I was in the presence of someone who had faced evil and survived. Esther was one of the more than 400,000 prisoners at one of the 3 Auschwitz concentration camps who had been assigned a serial number for identification. Pictures of the emaciated prisoners when the camps were liberated flashed in my mind, and I wondered how many (if any) of Esther’s family members had been killed in the camps. What Esther had seen and experienced in her time there was beyond my comprehension.
My thoughts became prayers for Esther. This woman had survived the nearly 6 million people who were Jewish victims of the Holocaust. I cringed at the thought of the possibility that she couldn’t have children because of the experiments that had been performed on some of the female prisoners.
Had Esther ever lost hope? Had she ever given up? What helped her survive each day in a hell of mankind’s making? Did faith give her courage and strength and determination? I would never know.
The door opened and a nurse said I was needed in another room. I told her I would contact the chaplain-on-call, as I preferred to stay with Esther.
“Who’s coming to pick up the body?”
“Okay, then come with me. No one will disturb her.”
I reached for my pager. “I’ll call the chaplain, and he’ll help you. I’m obligated to stay with Esther.”
The nurse, her face a cross between annoyed and confused, left.
When a Jewish person dies, out of respect, they are not to be left alone. By staying, I would offer Esther’s soul comfort until her Rabbi came. She had been alone enough. She had seen and experienced horrific death and destruction; perhaps now, I could offer her one small kindness.
I prayed Psalm 23 aloud.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
As I slowly covered Esther’s face, I smiled at its inherent dignity.
Thank you, Esther, for the essence that is you. I am deeply sorry for the tears you’ve shed during your life and for all the pain. May your death be a threshold to all that is good. In the “world-to-come,” may you have love, happiness, joy, community and kindness. No more darkness, only light. May you be wrapped in Circles of Grace. May God command His angels to guard you in all your ways.
I turned as the door opened. “Rabbi Levine?”
“Yes, and you must be Theresa?” We shook hands as I offered him my condolences.
“Thank you for staying,” the Rabbi offered quietly. “Esther has been alone for a long time.”
“No thanks are needed, Rabbi. It is a privilege and an honor.” I walked toward the door, my time here done. I took one last look at the bed. Rest in Peace.
Sacred Ground. Honoring the strength of the human spirit.
At the same time, remembering man’s inhumanity to man and pledging as an individual to never forget. To never allow history to repeat it. Ever. Esther – this I promise you.
“I am only one; but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something;
I will not refuse to do something I can do.”
― Helen Keller
Esther – May your soul shine with everlasting light.
Pick your battles.
Count to five before you speak.
Look beyond what you see.
Rescue an animal.
Keep your word.
Choose your words with care.
Dance to your own music.
Listen with your heart.
Honor your family.
Respect your elders.
Remember where you came from.
Root for the underdog.
Keep the faith.
Look people in the eye.
Mean what you say.
Be a good example.
Color outside the lines.
Purple glitter makes everything better.
Feed the birds.
Remember that squirrels like birdseed, too.
Talk to animals.
Be true to yourself.
Visit other countries.
Try your best.
Put in an honest day’s work.
Hold fast to your beliefs.
Patience really is a virtue.
Nothing is random.
Follow your moral compass.
Never give up.
Ask for advice.
Reach out to others.
We’re all in this together.
Admit when you’re wrong.
Offer a firm handshake.
Laugh with gusto.
All things in moderation.
Good will always triumph over evil.
Life isn’t fair, but that’s okay.
Give good hugs.
Don’t lose hope.
Seek the truth.
There is meaning in suffering.
Listen to the birds each morning.
Don’t forget the sunsets.
Surround yourself with color.
Hunt the Northern Lights.
Water your flowers.
Plant a tree.
It will be okay.
Every ending is another beginning.
Write real thank you notes.
It’s okay to say no.
Sing to babies.
Remember those who have gone before you.
Take your hat off inside.
Offer your help.
Say thank you.
Don’t take it personally.
There are many levels of love.
Don’t hold grudges.
Be a gentleman and a gentle man.
Avoid toxic people.
Look to the stars.
Lose yourself in the clouds.
Stop for all rainbows.
Take the road less travelled.
Remember that Mom loves you.
You are my greatest blessing.
by Mary Anne Radmacher
extended from my hands
to circle around me.
no harm to others
an embrace of healing.
my highest effort
to the world of my day
that it may be better
at the end
than when I
first touched it.
June 29, 2012: Remembrance of Dad
I held your hand in the driveway, right where you fell.
The same hand that had once changed my diapers, given me a bottle, taught me how to ride a bike and drive a car, that fed me my first (and last) piece of liver, that cut my hair into a pixie, that held onto me when I crossed a road, that gave me away in marriage, that slipped me money at the beginning of every month, that signed the checks for oh-so-many years of education, that taught me the importance of giving…
I held your hand in the driveway, right where you fell. In disbelief.
That Friday morning, ready to leave for work, the phone rang. Dad probably couldn’t wait until my Bluetooth call while I was on my way to work; he must have had something important to tell me that happened on this date, from the calendar he kept with all family events (big and little) catalogued.
Something very important. My sister’s voice – hysterical, sobbing – “Dad’s dead.”
I calmly called Michael, who told me to wait until he got home from the office; he didn’t trust me to drive. On our way there – on our way “home” – I knew it would take at least an hour – I prayed that you would still be there when I got to the house.
How could I have prayed for what I saw when I arrived? The State Trooper was just leaving as I flew out of the passenger seat and ran across the lawn – the same lawn that you mowed on your John Deere, a special handle screwed into its casing so you could drive your grandsons around with you 30 years ago – to the figure half-hidden by the hedge, covered with a thin white blanket.
I heard someone wail in anguish and didn’t know it was me – your baby of 58 years.
Where was the dignity in this? Dad – my father – a World War II veteran – lying in his driveway, in the sunshine. (Thank goodness for your being covered; lupus doesn’t like sunshine, remember?)
I held your hand in the driveway.
It was right where I had seen Mom standing at your side, oh-so-many years ago after she died, as Steve, Alex and I pulled out of your driveway; by the flowering tree Mom loved that nestled the bird feeders you kept filled for the songbirds and squirrels.
The diamonds in Mom’s ring sparkled in the sunshine as my fingers entwined with yours, your strong hands, nails neatly trimmed, relaxed…at peace. My tears fell onto our hands, a baptism, a cleansing of our relationship, joined with Mom in a bond not unlike diamonds that would only strengthen with the weight of time passed.
There was a dignity in this, of a sort…a communion, a joining, rather than a separation… A quietness…a birth…an arrival upon the heels of a departure.
You were already being greeted by the God whom you so loved, along with Grammie and Grandpop, who sang the words of Matthew 3:17: “This is My Son, in Whom I am well pleased.”
A trembling voice echoed off the walls of my broken heart: “This is my Father, in Whom I am well pleased.”
Related Post: Remembrance
Solvitur ambulando . . . It is solved by walking . . .
~ St. Augustine ~
LABYRINTH OF MY HEART
A pilgrim, I stand at the entrance of this Sacred Path,
this Path of Prayer,
this Journey to the Center of Being.
I know not what to expect, but am assured that
walking forward will bring me closer to You.
I cannot see my way to the center;
the path twists and turns with no seeming direction.
One foot in front of the other,
one step at a time,
patient trust that You will show me the Way.
Walking the path without a map,
feeling myself empty in the quiet,
letting go of the control that I seem to need
so very much outside this circle,
releasing the chains as I move on.
Walking the curved path dulls my outside awareness,
while inside glistens with claritas and focus.
My heartbeat slows to a soothing rhythm,
lulling me to a place of peace
as I drink in this well for my spirit.
I hesitate, then stop, dropping to my knees,
resistant to the Way that lies before me.
You and Your Blessed Mother, one on each side of me,
lean down and whisper,
“Come with us, little one. Come.”
I shake my head no as my chin sinks to my chest,
a cloud of unknowing fogging my heart and my head.
“Don’t ask me to do this,” I beg, frozen, huddled
and twisted about my Being.
For I know if I move forward
I will be forever changed.
I will hand over myself
to journey to a place unknown.
I am comfortable where I remain.
Yet I stand up, shaking, knowing that
I will take this further journey.
The next step is commitment, a marriage,
a promise, a vow.
I will go but You must lead me.
What I lose, I may gain ten-fold;
what paralyzes me may set me free.
If I move on, I let go.
Total, fearless surrender.
Truth. Discovery. Light.
In the center – a communion of all
the tears, loss and desolation into
a treasury of sorts of all that is good;
into a community of love that surpasses
Sitting in the quiet, the whisper of spirit
on my face as I gain strength
for what is Being asked of me.
Be still and know that I am. Be still and know.
Be still. Be.
Centered, in the womb
of this mystical union between heaven and earth,
I receive the blessings of awareness and wholeness
as I return to the collective memory of my soul.
As above, so below.
I struggle to rise, then I am lifted unaware.
Empowered as the path unwinds
beneath my sure-footed steps,
its rhythms beckoning me, calling me
on my journey back to a life renewed.
My leaving becomes an arriving as I dance
in the shimmering light that is Grace.
Bringer of Light. Seeker of Truth.
Bearer of this Sacred Heart.
You are their Light. Shine.