Living with Loss # 3

Part One  &  Part Two Here

Part Three

A week later and back on the road, I headed for Wymore in New Blue. Several conversations with the nursing staff throughout the week assured me Mother was doing as well as expected. They had her out of bed and going to meals. She wasn’t eating much, but she was eating. I’d only talked directly to her once and the conversation rambled.

“That big ice storm on the farm, one of the ewes had twins. Your father wrapped the babies in his coat and brought them to up to the house.” Confused by her reference, I didn’t say anything. We didn’t have sheep on the farm. “Little Joe was a baby, so I had bottles.” Oh. The first farm when my father and my brother were still alive. Before me, before any of the rest of us. “I had a new White stove and I’d fixed dinner, so the coals were still hot. He opened the oven door and made a nest out of his coat, put the babies there. He’d go down every couple of hours and milk the ewe. Bring back the milk and we’d feed those babies from the bottles. He took them back down in the morning. Those babies were fine.”

Tell me about the white stove,” I said, thinking color, not brand. “The White had a double oven, new style. Still used wood but it cooked good. I loved that stove. Brand new, but we had to leave it behind when we moved to San Francisco. Too big. But he took my wringer washer apart and we packed dishes inside the tub. We took that.”

I treasured the new stories I heard, even the old ones. “I’m coming up in a couple of days. Michael has music lessons tomorrow.” She said that was fine. And then she hung up the phone, clattering it in the cradle as she tried to replace it. I heard a dial tone.

Light snow melted on the windshield in occasional flakes when I parked at the nursing home. More snow. The almost-February sky sullen in the fading light. When I went inside, I saw Mom just past the nurses’ station, in a wheelchair, facing the closed dining room doors. A few other residents, some in wheelchairs, some sitting on the orange plastic chairs lined up against the wall, waited for the buzzer to announce the last meal of the day.

I came up behind her and leaned around her head to kiss her cheek. “Hi, Ma.”

“Oh, Janet,” she said, and lifted a hand to cup my cheek before pointing to the brown fiber broom closet door some few paces ahead in the wall. “Let’s get out of here.”

And before I could answer, before I could explain it was a closet, her lips began the rhythmic smacking, indicating a Petit Mal seizure coming on. I’d seen those seizures for years. They’d come on in times of stress or sometimes just because. Her hands began twitching. Still leaning over, I gave her one of my hands to grab and laid my other arm over her shoulder to brace her head. Twisting behind me as much as I could, I saw two of the staff. “Help me get her to her room!”

We trundled down the hallway, a nurse pushing the wheelchair, me walking alongside, my hand still clasped by Mom, the aid rushing ahead to open the door and be ready to help at the bedside. We moved her into bed, covered her feet and legs with a blanket, her lips still smacking and her head twitching.

“I’ll call an ambulance,” the nurse said.


I couldn’t send her back to the hospital. I couldn’t! She’d told me she was ready…I had to let it be…I had to trust her. I didn’t know what to do. Either she’d pull out of it or she wouldn’t. The smacking lips quieted. The twitching stopped. The nurse brought a chair to the bed and I sat, holding Mother’s hand. Her breathing ragged and slow. The nurse flipped off the light as she left.

The next hour crept by on silent feet. The wall clock ticked. I prayed. Sometimes silently, “help me help me help me.” I brushed back her bangs, saw again the deep dent in her forehead that had been there since the car accident when Little Joe died. I held her hand. Said, “shhhhhhh….” when she twitched or gurgled. “It’s okay. You can go,” I said over and over. Once I said, “Take Jesus hand…he’s there…” And she whispered the last words I’d hear, “I can’t see him…..” I was drowning in tears. But I wouldn’t sob. When I unclenched my teeth, I said, “Then take Dad’s. He’s waiting….”  What did I know. I didn’t know anything. All I could do was hold her hand, say inane things, wanted to help. A snow gust shook the window. I didn’t know what to do. One hand holding Mom’s hands, the other picked up the phone and called Cliff in Santa Fe. He was still at work.

“Mom’s dying, Cliff…I can’t do this….I don’t know what to do…I can’t help her…I’ve told her it’s okay….I’ve told her to take Dad’s hand…please help me!”

“Shhhhhhh…” I heard. “You’re doing the right thing. You know what to do. Breathe.” I took a deep breath. My neck relaxed and my jaw unclenched. “Sometimes, it’s hard for someone to leave if a person they love is right there. Your mother loves you.” The tears began again. I clenched my jaw to keep from sobbing. “Just back up. Give her the space she needs…”

“Please pray with me,” I said. And he prayed, my ever-constant protector, the priest in him with the right words, always, for my mother, for me. “Now just back up,” he said. “That’s all you have to do now. Just move your chair back from the bed a little.”

“Okay,” I said and hung up the phone. I pushed back and saw someone in the hallway light, framed in the open door, sitting in a wheelchair. Laverne, Mom’s oldest friend from church. I got up and went to the door.

“How is she?” Laverne asked. “Mom’s dying, Laverne. I’m sorry.”

She nodded and backed up her chair to turn down the hall. At that moment, I heard the wall clock sing. My mother loved birds, had watched them all her life, on the farm, when traveling with Dad, and she had a wall clock of birds, each different one singing on the hour. The Nightingale sang. I turned back to the bed. Mother no longer breathed.

It was just like her to go so quietly, no bother at all. I sat beside her for a while. Just sat. Then I got up, filled her basin with warm water in the bathroom, brought back a towel and washcloth, and I bathed my mother. Gently. No trouble at all. I covered her with a blanket and called the front desk. Two nurses came down and did what they had to do. I sat and waited until the mortician came with a gurney and a big black body bag. I couldn’t watch. I went outside through whipping snow to wait.

Prairie Storms

Tonight, after you died, a nor’easter blew in.
You didn’t know—you’d slipped out
early on a nightingale’s song.
Now I sit in the car, blasted
into childhood, no stop for my fear.

Prairie storms were never unexpected.
Dad stood at the fence, smelled ruin
in the wind’s icy claw. He called us outside
(you tied bandanas over our faces) to secure
barn doors and chicken coop against the fury.

We stamped into the kitchen—popcorn, hot
chocolate—and stood our turn on the floor grate.
I played checkers with Grandpa—worried
my red plastic chip (he always played black)
until he growled, “Can’t get there thinking about it.”

If a door slammed open, Dad took care of it.

No preparation for this storm—didn’t know
it was coming. Snow batters the windshield,
tugs at wiper blades struggling to clear my view.
The nursing home door opens; they wheel you
to the hearse. Someone closes the door.

Remember the year it snowed so much
we couldn’t reach the barn? You and Dad
off in Florida. Kenny Divorak tramped up
the hill. We dug tunnels through soaring drifts
high as the grain bins. We were safe; you were safe.

The hearse pulls away.

Wind blasts my car. I turn up the heater, thaw
my cold feet, think about the calls I must make
from my cousin’s warm kitchen. Can’t
get there thinking about it. I put the car in gear,
inch forward into prairie winter.

Postscript: a happy (almost) ending: I returned to my Kansas City apartment two days later, drained. The apartment in chaos because of a leak in the bedroom ceiling, no bed to go to, so I pulled out a bedroll and lay in on the office floor. While nowhere near finished with grief, exhaustion pulled me into sleep. Just as I drifted off, I felt a touch on my cheek, light as a mother brushing away a sleeping child’s tears. That night, I dreamed I was at a gas station, filling up my car, and at the pump across from me, my mother, getting into a newly gassed up car. Once seated, she looked at me and smiled. She lifted a hand and waved as she drove off. And beside her in the passenger seat, I saw a young boy. Little Joe had come to travel with her. I woke, sobbed and smiled.



Daily Post: Journey

???????Some journeys are made in miles and some in memory. And sometime, both miles and memories make the journey together. This week, during our run-away to the farm days, we made a cemetery journey in miles and memories.

Our family in cemetery life is as scattered as they were in living life. Most, however, are in or near Marshall County so that makes it at least a doable afternoon journey. One set of grandparents lie outside Vermillion, Kansas where as youngsters they grew up and where their parents lie, one set in Frankfort, Kansas, again, where the parents, my great-grandparents, lie. My mother and dad are in Barneston, Nebraska, just over the State Line from Kansas, and my father, John, and his firstborn son, Walter Joe, are buried in Barnes, Kansas which is where we lived as children when our father died.

Yes, the lineage is complicated and even more complicated in the reading since it seems I have two fathers in different cemeteries. And I do.

So anyway, as you can imagine, the circuit around all of those takes the better part of a day. We didn’t do all the grandparents this time, only my double set of parents.

Cliff and I drove to Barneston, Nebraska first, as Nebraska is only three-quarters of a mile north of the farm and Barneston just a few miles north of that. When you’re a farmer, or a farmer’s daughter, you learn to make a clean circuit rather than backtrack across the countryside. Barneston has a small town cemetery, as all the family plots are in for that matter. The gravestones are a little haphazard, some date back to the mid 1800s and in one corner, bounded by a fence with bluebird houses on each fencepost, a headstone rock for the Otoe Indians who were native to the area and with whom Grandpa Albert, dad’s dad, traded when he first moved onto the farm. Grandpa liked to tell us kids “Indian Stories” as he called them.

I also noticed that all the decorations (in the country, by people of a certain age, it’s still called Decoration Day), were plastic. No iris yet bloomed, no peonies, both traditional plants in rural cemeteries. I heard my mother’s old lament from past years in my head, “The peonies won’t be ready for Memorial Day this year.” It’s been a cold spring. When young, we had no plastic flowers, only live, cut flowers from the yard, sometimes stuck into quart jars with water. Hence, not having the iris and peonies bloom was a problem. My mother always wrapped her bouquets in aluminum foil to keep them fresh until at least the end of the day.

I put plastic flowers on Mom and Dad’s graves and on Grandpa Albert’s and his wife Susan’s although she died the year before Mom and Dad married and we moved to the farm. I didn’t know her. But I knew Dad’s stories of her.

And then we drove down to Barnes, Kansas. This is a bigger, neater cemetery. There’s a covered graveyard registry with all the names, and corresponding plots, in alphabetical order. Stones lined in rows, all, for the most part standing straight. Some date back to pre-Civil War days. Those are mostly young children. The cemetery in Barnes puts flags by veteran’s graves in little holders branded by the war of the time. Some held the insignia for a Civil War soldier, some for World War I, some for WWII. I didn’t see any for later wars. My father’s flag holder is marked WWII. I’m glad he has a flag. I guess that if Little Joe had lived, he might have been in the Vietnam War.

For whatever reason, a sunnier hill, or less wind, or a bit further south, or fewer cold storms, the peonies and lilacs were in riotous bloom. I planted peony bulbs by my father’s grave once, but you just about have to live in an area to tend graves and make sure the mowers don’t flatten new and tender shoots. We put plastic flowers on John Sunderland and Walter Joe’s graves.

And then we came home. Our backyard was riotous in color in just the few days we’d been gone. Peonies and iris and roses in full bloom. This morning, I cut fresh flowers and took them to church. The photo above is from that cutting. But these aren’t just any peony/iris/flowers. These have a history of journeys too.

The purple iris are Grandpa Joe iris, the grandfather buried in Frankfort whom we didn’t visit this time. Not that I got them from him, rather, Zita, who was a friend of my mother’s up by the farm, dug up rhizomes and gave me several sacks a couple of years ago. But they aren’t just any old iris. These smell like grape pop. I’d searched forever for iris that smelled like grape pop. Impossible to find in a greenhouse; only possible from a farm friend’s old iris bed.

The yellow iris are my Grandmother Sunderland’s iris, the grandmother who is buried in Vermillion. We didn’t visit her either. But my cousin, who had dug up Grandma’s iris back when, dug up these and I planted them. The peonies are also Kansas peonies, dug up by my oldest cousin, Howard, and passed on to me several years back.

Just as my journey back to Kansas was a twisting turning road, the journey these flowers took has a lot of curves even if not as many miles as I traveled. And they are still in pretty good shape. No doubt they will likely outlast my own journey, when you get right down to it.

And travel into another Memorial Day; another journey into stories.