The Shoulders of Giants (Once Again…)

On this, the first anniversary of  Dad’s death, I chose to repost something from almost 3 months ago. My feelings stand.


I’ve said it before – at times, my naiveté astounds me.

  • Licensed Professional Counselor – check.
  • Loss & Bereavement Specialty – check.
  • Survived Mom’s death 25 years ago, when she was only 59 years old – check.
  • Working through the grief process (and it is a process) for Dad, who died not quite a year ago at the age of almost 87 years old – check.
  • Prepared for the grief involved in no longer having a parent alive – not even close.

Everyone grieves differently. It depends on your relationship with that person; if you’ve lost someone before; whether their death was far too quick, with no time to say good-by or agonizingly slow, with unbearable suffering; expected or unexpected; natural or by suicide; your age; and, whether you’re male (like to take action) or female (want someone to listen). The list goes on… There’s no set “process,” per se – no time frame or stages that must be followed in the correct order. Some people act like nothing has happened, while others are prostrate with grief. Shock, denial, bargaining, depression, anger with lots of people (including God), until hopefully – finally – some measure of acceptance.

My patients often ask when they will have “closure,” and I answer honestly there is no such thing as closure, only survival. They will survive.

My head knows this. My heart struggles to keep pace.

Mom’s death was 6 months after her breast cancer diagnosis, after having suffered through a modified radical mastectomy, chemotherapy, surgery, and a 29-day hospital stay. The fact that she was only 59 years old and my close friend made her torment agonizing to watch; so much so, that I actually asked her physician if I could end her suffering (and mine) by just letting her drift away with extra morphine. He shot that option down quickly.

Dad’s death at almost 87 years old was sudden. Two weeks before he died, on Father’s Day, we noticed he was slurring his words. We took him to the doctor, got him a bright red 3-wheel walker and made plans to either move him downstairs in his home (one floor, no steps) or to have him move in with my sister. That was all underway when I got the call that Dad passed away. He was walking down his driveway to get his newspaper, a morning ritual, when he collapsed. The neighbor called 911 when she saw him lying there, but he died “instantly.” (Do doctors tell that to everyone to ease their suffering? Just wondering…)

The shock of Mom’s death shook me to my core. Admittedly, after 25 years, I still light a candle every day in her memory. I don’t know how long Dad’s death will sit so fresh and raw; it’s been less than a year.

But this I do know – I was totally unprepared for the separate grief that comes with no longer having a “parental unit.” It’s unique – it’s different – it’s terrible – it’s lonely – it’s frightening.

I feel abandoned, lost, adrift, disoriented, incomplete. There’s no one to watch my back or to be my cheering section or to give me a safe place to fall.

Where is my anchor? Who will advise me, guide me, forgive me, support me, challenge me, love me unconditionally? Who will comfort the little girl in me, the lost child, as only my parents could?

I once told Dad when he was really missing Mom (which was for the entire 25 years) that he and Mom had given me everything I needed to be a success, that I had “stood on the shoulders of giants.” They were my giants.

“If I have seen further…it is by
standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

~ Sir Isaac Newton

He liked the thought of that and remembered with gratitude all those who helped him along the way.

I shared with him something I felt while at the Baccalaureate service the night before my grad school Commencement. While I sat immersed in the joyous music that filled the cathedral, I could almost sense two lines of ancestors standing behind me. They were in pairs, from my shoulders, back and up, until I lost sight of them. Without turning around, I could visualize them. Somehow I knew that one line included Mom, my maternal grandparents and the rest of her family, while the other line was my paternal grandparents…on and on and on. They were all shapes and sizes and colors, all dressed in different clothing that gave a clue to their work, some younger than others, some faces lined while others were smooth. They were all smiling. Generation after generation after generation.

I have been schooled well.

The best psychotherapists are those who have been through pain. Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and author (1932 – 1996), reminds us that “in our own woundedness, we can become a source of life for others.”

Who better to sit with you in the darkness than a wounded healer?

I have sat with people who have lost their child (the worst loss), spouse, parent, sibling, friend, grandparent, married lover, colleague – but never someone who was grieving the loss of both parents as a “unit.” How is that possible?

But now, as is always the case, I will be able to sit with someone who no longer has parents – as one person said to me, “Welcome to the Orphan’s Club” – and empathize with their longing for wholeness.

But a broken heart empties us of all that we might hang on to, often too long, so that it might be filled up with something greater and more wondrous that we could ever imagine or think ourselves deserving of. When I am tired enough of struggling, I will once again accept Your glorious grace. I will once again accept the plans You have for me. I know You understand.

Help me to be Your Counselor, Defender, Teacher, Listener, Instrument, Vessel, Comforter, Starfish Thrower (thank you, Diana), Harvester, Secret Keeper (bless you, T), Heartsong, Wellspring.

“Much is expected from those to whom much has been given.”
~ Luke 12:49

Dad’s favorite saying, as well as the way he always signed off on a letter or in a card – “Keep the Faith.” I’m doing my best, Dad, but I still miss both of you more than I ever thought possible.

Like I said, I have stood on the shoulders of giants – Mom and Dad the biggest and most important of all. They lifted me up so I could soar.

Your Circles of Grace – those Circles of Compassion – widen.

My thanks.

The Last Good-bye

Ira Byock, M.D., a nationally recognized authority in end-of-life care, says there are only four things left to say that matter most at life’s end (indeed, while living as well):

Please forgive me.
I forgive you.
Thank you.
I love you.

These words have the power to transform relationships, whether to heal connections at the end of life, or during day-to-day living.

As you know from several of my earlier posts (Dancing with Chopin, You are My Sunshine), my past work in Hospice was a profoundly moving part of my life journey, a vocation to which I hope to return.

I was called to a nursing home to be with with Mary and her family as she entered the final stage of life known as “active dying.” It was only a matter of a few days. Cancer had ravaged her middle-aged body to the point that she looked much older than her years. Mary was kept sedated most of the time because of the constant pain, only occasionally coming out of it to become partially aware of her surroundings.

Mary was a widow with two children, both in their mid-thirties – a daughter who lived in North Carolina and a son who lived at home to care for his surviving parent. Mother and daughter had a falling out some years ago, and their relationship was strained at best. Mother and son were close, and Tom was always at his mother’s bedside. The most time away was perhaps 5 minutes for a bathroom and coffee break. Without a family of his own, Tom was devoted to his mother. The staff told me that for the past 6 weeks, he had never missed an 18 hour day at his mother’s bedside; they often had to force him to go home for some rest.

As hours stretched into days, Mary’s coma deepened and her body temperature rose, her moments of lucidity few and far between. The attending physician noted that Mary’s core temperature was 108 degrees; he had never seen a person live with a temperature that high. For days, I watched Tom talk to his mother, telling her how much he loved her and how he knew she could beat this cancer. Mary’s doctors had explained to Tom that her organs were shutting down – her death was imminent; his head understood the facts, but his heart could not – would not – accept them. She was suffering and I found myself wondering why she was hanging on to life when she was in so much pain.

I gestured for Tom to join me in the hall.

“You need to tell your mother that it is alright for her to go,” I counseled gently. “That you’ll be okay here without her…”

He pulled back, shocked and a little angry. I was asking him to give his mother permission to die; the person he loved more than anyone in the world, the person he needed more than anyone in the world. It went against every feeling of normalcy, safety and love that coursed through him. He couldn’t find words.

“Your mother is suffering. I know you want her to be with you forever, but her body just can’t do it anymore. She needs to hear that you’ll be okay after she’s gone.” I paused. “Does your sister know just how sick your mother is?”

Tom explained that he had called her 2 weeks ago, but heard nothing since. She wasn’t even planning to come to see their mother one last time.

So that was the reason Mary struggled to stay; she needed to hear from her children – both of them – that they would be okay. Only then could she drift away, finally at peace.

“Tom – please give me your sister’s phone number. It’s essential that your mother hear her daughter’s voice. Would you like me to call her?”

He nodded his head, eyes filled with tears, then turned to go back into his mother’s room. Changing his mind, he instead went through the door marked “exit” and ran out of the building.

While I stood looking at the door, hoping to see Tom, one of Mary’s nurses came by. I told her what happened. She was as surprised as I; Tom was never absent from his mother’s side, let alone in her last few hours. She left to get the daughter’s phone number.

Anna, Mary’s daughter in North Carolina, answered on the second ring. I introduced myself, told her I was at the nursing home with Mary and advised her of the doctor’s prognosis. If Anna wanted to say good-bye, it had to be now. Her answer was crying on the other end of the line, and in her tears, I could hear regret, shock, fear. And love…I could hear love.

I explained that Anna didn’t have time to get here from North Carolina, but that I would hold the phone to Mary’s ear so that her mother could hear her voice. Even in a coma, hearing is the last sense to leave, so I felt certain that whatever Anna wanted to say to her mother, it would be heard and accepted. I told her Mary was suffering and needed Anna’s permission to die.

As I held the phone to Mary’s ear, I could hear Anna’s voice cloaked in tears. As Anna continued, Mary’s eyes remained closed, but her body visibly relaxed. At one point, I saw her lips turn up the tiniest bit, and I knew Anna had been understood. After a few minutes, I softly told Mary that I was taking away the phone. Then I spoke to Anna and described what I had seen, telling her that she had given her mother a wonderful gift and blessing. I thanked her and promised that Tom would call her in a while.

Out in the hallway, there was no sign of Tom. I went to the nurse’s station for his phone number. No answer, so I left a voice mail. Fifteen minutes later, another voice mail, asking that he please return to the nursing home. I went to sit with Mary and noticed that her right hand kept grasping the sheet into a tight knot. As I held her other hand, I explained that Tom had to leave but that he would be back.

Please, I prayed silently, please bring Tom back. In my heart, I begged Tom to return because this time, his mother needed him.

After a half hour passed, I looked up to see Tom in the doorway. He looked exhausted but determined as he entered the room. He leaned over Mary and whispered in her ear, tears streaming down his face as he clutched her hands to his heart. Her agitation disappeared as he continued, his words known only to mother and son. Finally, totally spent, Tom laid his head on their joined hands and closed his eyes.

I leaned against the wall in a shadowed corner of the room, listening to Mary’s breathing grow more labored. The intervals between breaths grew longer, until after one long exhalation, the room stilled, the only sound Tom’s choking sobs. It was over.

As the physician pronounced Mary’s time of death, I reached out to touch Tom’s shoulder in communion with his grief.

An ending and a beginning. Sacred Ground. Holy Words.

Please forgive me.
I forgive you.
Thank you.
I love you.

I offer these words up to my friends and relatives; indeed, to humankind.

But most especially to Mom and Dad, to whom I should have said all of these things while they were alive.

Please do the same, today.

Honor the Circles of Grace all around us.

Today’s Quote/Essay

I Will Not Die an Unlived Life

I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid, more accessible;
to loosen my heart until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance,
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom,
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.

~ Dawna Markova

Tree of Life

Windblown Tree

When working with students, many times on their first visit to my office, they remark about how relaxing it seems. The colorful prints, inspirational wall words, plaques with favorite sayings, bubbling fountain and the hint of aromatherapy are a calculated effort on my part to not only relax the students, but myself. I also use some of these items as therapy aids when appropriate.

One of my favorite pieces is a unique wire sculpture ( ) that I found years ago at a flower show. It is a windblown tree made of twisted wire in a sienna brown finish. Its solid roots are thick and gnarled, leading into a sturdy trunk, filled with branches that are leaning in one direction, as if buffeted by a strong wind.

To me, that sculpture is indeed the “tree of life” we hear so much about in philosophical readings. The image represents the triumph of the human spirit that I see so often when working with clients in the often difficult therapeutic process.

The roots are our foundation – our family background, our experiences, our heritage – the basis of who we are and where we come from.

The trunk is our self, determined, always reaching up toward the light as we continue to grow, to heal, to seek.

The branches are our life journey, each twist and turn a major decision, whether good or not-so-good, that takes us off in another direction. Some branches are shorter than others, some more twisted, some joining or grafting together to lend strength, others growing in a convoluted route that seems impossible to follow, without a clear beginning or defined end.

It sounds like life, doesn’t it?

Whenever I offer my interpretation of its symbolism, people usually groan when I mention the branches being a map of their decisions. They’re probably remembering the ones that still loom as regrets; the ones, in hindsight, they wish they’d never made at all. But without those questionable decisions, our tree wouldn’t be as full, as beautiful or as complete.

That fullness affords us with hard-earned wisdom that we can pass on to others in need. That fullness gives us the power and stamina needed to withstand what ever life hands us – the gale force winds, the torrential rains, the searing sunshine and drought, the changing of the seasons. Yet that same fullness is flexible enough to lean with the forces of nature, yet not be uprooted.

Each season brings its own joy. Spring, with its beautiful blossoms that burst forth from tiny buds. Summer, with its sunshine and warmth. Autumn, with its colorful palette of bronze and gold, orange and scarlet. Winter, with the gentle touch of drifting snowflakes and a veneer of ice that glimmers like diamonds when brushed by the sun, its starkness a beautiful simplicity.

At any one time, the same tree might provide beauty, shade, food, heat, light, exercise, furniture. A nesting place, a perch, a house, a climb, a landmark, a place to lean on or hide. A groundedness, a permanence, a sense of time passing and history. A quiet purpose, a meaning, a truth.

We can count on the tree, just like we can count on ourselves. We are the tree, still standing, still growing, still providing, still seeking. We are beautiful, we are natural, we are a gift.

A Tree of Life.

Katrina’s Circles of Grace


Cast of Characters:

Katrina: hurricane that hit the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005 causing more than $100 million in damage and taking almost 2,000 lives
Luc: evacuee at Houma Terrebonne Civic Center, Houma, Louisiana
Theresa: Luc’s deceased Godmother
Teresa: volunteer social worker
St. Therese: “Little Flower”
Theresa: me

On September 11, 2005, I flew into Baton Rouge, Louisiana for my first Red Cross volunteer deployment as a mental health professional. Those of us who offered to go were given 48 hours notice prior to our departure and were warned that this location would present “hardships” to the volunteers. After having watched the television coverage of Katrina and what looked like a third world country, I was certain that no hardship I experienced could touch that of the people in the ravaged Gulf Coast.

I was assigned to the Houma Terrebonne Civic Center in Houma, Louisiana (slightly south-west of New Orleans), where 3 mental health volunteers (a social worker, a marriage & family therapist, and I) provided services to the fluctuating 800-1,200 Katrina victims who were housed there. We three were also responsible for the mental health of all the Red Cross workers in the staff shelter where we stayed (160 of us), along with the National Guard unit stationed at the Civic Center.

The evacuees at the Civic Center were primarily from the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, those folks who didn’t have the money or transportation needed to evacuate. Many of them somehow got through the water that flooded the Lower 9th Ward when the levies broke, got onto the overpass, waited in the Superdome, then were brought to Houma. These were the poorest of the poor. They ranged in age from 1 month old to around 95 years old, with perhaps 20 Caucasian, 6 Asian, the rest African-American.

The Houma Terrebonne Civic Center, normally home to cultural and athletic events, graduations, trade shows, and concerts, now housed the evacuees
in an area of 37,000 square feet of open floor space (Hall A & Hall B, below right). It was a sea of cots, blankets, pillows, clothing and people with very little room to move around. Houma Terrebonne Civic Center

Although hard to imagine, when volunteering for two weeks for this many evacuees as one of three mental health professionals, you got to know the names of a lot of the people who were staying there.  I circulated around Halls A & B all day, talking with people, getting them clothing, answering questions, hearing their stories and doing my best to keep them calm.  It was common to hear “Miss Theresa” as I walked through, always polite, always scared. The hours spent and the subsequent emotional rollercoaster took their toll on even the most seasoned of volunteers.

One day, one of the women from the Southern Baptist Convention responsible for meals took me by the arm and brought me to the loading dock, put a heaping plate of food on top of the cases of canned corn and said firmly, “You need to eat something, and take a rest.” I sat on another pile of canned goods and thankfully ate, my mind blank. It wasn’t long before I heard a quiet “Miss Theresa.” I turned to see one of the evacuees standing near-by.

“There’s a man who sleeps next to me that I’m worried about. He cries an awful lot and last night was mumbling about not having a reason to live.”

I stood up. “Where is he? Take me to him.”

We walked through the arena to the far right corner, where a man was seated on the floor, looking down. I thanked the young man and introduced myself to Luc and asked if I could join him. His dark eyes met mine, intelligent and filled with pain, as he nodded his assent.

“Tell me how I can help.”

With that, Luc’s words poured out. In the mass exodus from New Orleans, Luc had been separated from his two brothers. He spent a few days in the Superdome, where the situation had steadily deteriorated with no electricity, suffocating heat, gangs running around in packs, women giving birth on the floor. Tears ran down Luc’s face as he described the primitive conditions, which he finally escaped by leaving.

From a list kept on a legal pad by an unknown official, he was told his brothers had gone to Texas. Luc took one of the same busses outside the Superdome that took Louisiana evacuees to Texas, only to be told that his brothers had been seen in the Houma Terrebonne Civic Center. So, he turned around and came back to Louisiana. The Civic Center, struggling to keep track of the comings and goings of all people who streamed through, had no record of his brothers having been here. Exhausted (only sleeping a few hours in the past few days), having failed to find his brothers – the only family he had left – and having lost all of his belongings, Luc was ready to give up. He was not only thinking about suicide, he already had a plan and the means to carry it out. It was simply a matter of doing it.

Concerned about Luc’s safety, I asked if he would consider spending the night in our “medical wing,” which was actually a narrow hallway outside the arena event area. It housed 2 rows of beds with people who were being monitored by volunteer medical people who staffed our makeshift infirmary and pharmacy. He agreed.

As we walked out, I noticed how tall and muscled Luc was, his gait almost panther-like. A handsome face, even with his two front teeth missing. A boxer? Construction worker? Tracker? Prisoner? I had no idea, only that he was a man in deep emotional pain who was all out of hope.

Luc was assigned to a bed at the far end of the hall and given something to help him sleep. As he settled in for the night, having promised that he would not take any action of self-harm, Luc looked up at me, his eyelids already drooping from the medication.

“My Godmother’s name was Theresa. I think she must be looking out for me, by sending you here.” I smiled. “Will you be here in the morning when I wake up?” he asked quietly, so fragile a feeling in so strong a body.

“Yes, Luc, I promise,” already trying to figure out the logistics in my head.

Early the next morning found me seated on a stool next to Luc’s bed in the medical hallway, its 10 beds slowly coming to life. I heard a woman’s soft Southern drawl from behind me.

“Look up, Miss Theresa. You look so sad. Always remember to look up; God is there.” Tamika, staying with her father-in-law whose high blood pressure was almost under control, smiled and pointed up. Support from someone I was supposed to help, coming from the most unlikely of places. I smiled and nodded at her reminder that all would be well with Luc, if I only had faith.

Later that day, I told Brother Seraphim, one of the Franciscans who provided pastoral care at the Civic Center, about Luc’s despair and hopelessness and asked him for his prayers. Hands joined with Luc and me, Brother Seraphim prayed that St. Therese, the Little Flower, help Luc to find his brothers. Head bowed, thinking of St. Therese, Luc’s godmother Theresa and myself, I couldn’t help but feel goosebumps – or “God bumps,” as I call them, trusting in the knowledge that our prayers would be answered.

Throughout that day and evening, Luc’s mood improved as he interacted with others in the medical hall. He even found a ride to a near-by Wal Mart that re-opened. Sleep, prayer, support and good food all brought him comfort and hope.

When saying my good-nights, the medical hall was always last in my routine before I left for the evening. When I came to Luc, he was smiling, one hand behind his back. “I have something for you,” he said shyly. In his hand, he held a small box labeled, New: Red Velvet Mini Cake. “You can’t come to Louisiana and not try our Red Velvet Cake. My Godmother always made it for me; it’s my favorite.”

I smiled as I accepted Luc’s gift, unable to speak for the tears in my eyes. This man, with nothing but the clothes on his back, in the midst of his despair and loneliness, thought of someone else and found a way to say thank you. He touched my heart with a gift straight from his heart.

A man with nothing, yet who had everything.

The next morning, I was met at the back entrance by a volunteer social worker from Illinois named Teresa (what else?), jumping up and down with excitement. Having heard about Luc yesterday, she contacted some friends at a central office with computer capability and asked them to track down any information on Lucs’ brothers. Overnight, they located them in another shelter. Lucs’ brothers were alive and well in Alabama!

Teresa and I waited impatiently outside the men’s shower room for Luc to finish. Word spread rapidly through the small staff, and we couldn’t wait to tell Luc the good news. When he came out, we were smiling ear-to-ear as we told him we had a surprise. We walked into the infirmary, which was one of only three places in the entire building that had a semi-private phone. In the last few days, phone service had improved, and the medical staff was able to call in medication orders, supplies, etc. That line to the outside world was a lifesaver.

Teresa led Luc to the phone and told him to call the number written on the paper and identify himself. Dazed, Luc sat down and followed her directions. The entire infirmary staff – doctor, nurse, pharmacist, techs, Brother Seraphim, Teresa, the other 2 mental health volunteers and myself -stood silent and unobtrusive as we watched Luc speak softly into the phone. We couldn’t hear him, but his expressions told the story. Dazed – polite – patient – confused – a hesitant smile – a big smile – disbelief – sobs that shook his big shoulders – and at last, tears of joy. Luc sat, head in his hand, phone pressed against his ear, crying and talking to each of his brothers.

The only other sound in the infirmary was the rest of us quietly crying and blowing our noses.

In the midst of widespread death, destruction and crime, in the midst of hopelessness, helplessness and loss, came love and community and joy. Strangers who became extended family, interconnected in that moment in a way that could neither have been imagined nor predicted nor explained.

Katrina, Luc, Brother Seraphim, St. Therese, Godmother Theresa, Teresa and another Theresa; from Pennsylvania and Illinois to Texas, Alabama and Louisiana.

Circles of Grace.

Thank you, God, for this privilege. Thank you, Luc, for the gifts of you and my Red Velvet Cake; I still have the box that it came in.

I wish you blessings, good health, happiness, love and family all the days of your life. I hope one day – somewhere, somehow – to meet again.

Sacred Ground. Holiness and Angels Unaware.

My blessings to all who were effected by Hurricane Katrina.

You Are Enough

You Are Enough

 ~ Rev. Dr. Kenneth W. Collier ~


You are enough.

 You are a beautiful human being.
You have a personality, a humanity, a way of being
that is yours and no one else’s,
and that makes you precious and loved and loveable.

You are enough.

 You are something of unique and inestimable value.
Within your own heart there is a sparkling,
twinkling light of worth, dignity, beauty, and love.

You are enough.

 You do not need to become someone else.
You do not need to imitate this person or that one,
no matter how famous, talented or privileged
they may happen to be.
You do not need this person’s intelligence or
that person’s talent or another person’s wealth.
And you do not need any other person to become like you.

There is only one thing that you need.

You need yourself.
You need to become yourself.
You need to imitate yourself.
You need to love yourself.

You are enough.


Remembrance II


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.”


Remembrance (1989)



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.tear

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.

cala liliesl


At Times My Naivete Astounds Me

At times, my naiveté astounds me.

At some point in my adult life, I actually believed (note the past tense) the following:

1) That I had to be perfect.

– When I finally realized that no one was perfect and that I set myself up for failure, the feeling was liberating.

2) That the word “ambulance” was spelled left to right, just like every other word in the English language.

– I was home from college, watching a 4th of July Parade with Mom, when I first noticed that “ambulance” was spelled backwards on its front.
– Incidentally, Mom had to explain why it was like that to me.

3) That I would lose the 35 pounds I gained while pregnant with my son as soon as I left the delivery/recovery room.

– The first tip-off was when I put my legs over the side of the bed and noticed that my ankles were still swollen like balloons.

4) That having a child would not disrupt the lives of 2 working parents; things would go on, as usual.

– Really! I thought – how hard can this be? It’ll just be something else to be added on to a busy day.
– The first year of my son’s life is hard to remember; it was almost like I was in a fog (or shock).

5) That the “terrible 2’s” would disappear on my son’s 3rd birthday.

– My sister’s answer to my shock that they kept going – no parent who’d already been through this had the heart to mention it to a new parent.

6) That men and women, on the exact same diet, will lose the same amount of weight in the same amount of time.

– Ladies, unite! This is so not fair.

7) Life is fair.

– See 6) above.
– Life is not fair. Period. So move on.

8) That everyone in this country graduates from high school.

– It wasn’t until I entered community mental health that I met generations of families who never graduated from high school.

9) That there was very little poverty in the USA.

– It wasn’t until my second Red Cross deployment after Katrina, when I was in western Louisiana, that I saw unbelievable poverty, which was present before the hurricane’s damage.

10) That all men are created equal.

– After all, if it’s in our Declaration of Independence, it must be true, right?
– Forget the all men part – we don’t even have gender equality!

11) That all politicians tell the truth.

– I’ve never heard anyone actually answer a question that was asked of them.

12) That someone with a reasonable IQ would be able to figure out how to use the iPhone 5.

– I wish my trusty “Teach Yourself Visually the iPhone 5” book came in an abbreviated pocket edition.
– A banner day: when a few of my freshmen guys were trying to show me how to use it, and all of a sudden, some words and numbers came up on the screen – I asked them what that was, and they responded, “It’s a phone call – answer it.”

13) That I would never consider such a thing as plastic surgery.

– When I walked past a mirror and thought I was my mother (no offense, Mom), the thought of a face lift made perfect sense.
– Can’t I achieve the same result with plain old tape?

14) That in my lifetime, I would be able to figure out which line has the shortest check out in a grocery, department or any type store.

– Suggestions welcome; I still can’t seem to get it right.

15) That someday I would actually fit in my old clothes that are 2 sizes smaller.

– Really? How about donating them to a Dress for Success Program, where they’ll be put to good use.

16) That there is no such thing as Age Discrimination.

– False. They forget about the work ethic, life experience, work even when you’re sick and a “past its expiration date” uterus in some of us.

17) That all parents of toddlers flying on an airplane know to keep their child from kicking the back of my seat for 9 hours straight.

– It’s a good thing weapons are not allowed on airplanes, because road rage is no longer the only type out there.
– Remember Steven Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who quit over the intercom, grabbed 2 beers and exited the plane via sliding down a deployed evacuation slide? Everybody can get testy when confined to an airplane!

18) That the term “hook up” refers to getting your camper attached to your truck before you head out to the lake for a relaxing weekend.

– My college students (teaching me once again; see 12) above) helped me to understand they may head to the lake with a friend, but a trailer has nothing to do with it.

19) That everyone politely says “excuse me” when they accidentally bump into you.

– Have you ever been to NYC? And, it’s not always accidental.

20) That every man from the ages of 15 – 95 knows the Etiquette of Wearing a Hat.

– When did people forget or stop teaching hat etiquette for men???
– According to Emily Post and my parents, hats (including baseball caps) come OFF when a man is in someone’s house, at a table for a meal, in church (unless required), at a movie or an indoor performance, in public buildings such as a library, school or courthouse, during the National Anthem and when the Flag of the USA passes by, as in a parade.

Like I said, at times, my naiveté astounds me.