Living with Loss

Mom

Part One

A snowstorm swept across the window of my mother’s room in the Good Samaritan, a nice room and well tended. Mother had chosen the bed closest to the window so she could watch the storms and the wind and the trains that passed at the bottom of the gentle slope beyond the fence where a plowed field lay. Her father was a depot agent so watching trains made her happy. She’d returned from a two-week stay in the hospital and was curled into her blankets. I lay beside her and curled around her back. We watched the wind batter snow in gusts. I’d planted a miniature lilac bush outside her window earlier in the spring, but it was hidden in the icy squalls.

The Good Samaritan Nursing Home is in small-town Wymore, Nebraska and where my elders go to die. That’s blunt, but it’s the truth. I’d seen it transition from an old time two-story brick structure to a modern one-story residence with gardens. The old structure sagged in decay across the street. Two of my grandfathers died in the old building and my Grandmother Sunderland. Dad died in a hospital bed. Grandpa Sunderland, too. They’d never lived there. I grew up on a Kansas State Line farm some seventeen miles south. Wymore is where we shopped, went to church, and where Mom and Dad retired when they left the farm.  Mom volunteered at the new place after they moved. Several of her friends lived there or worked there. Then Dad died and Mom when to live with my sister north of Seattle. “I never hear the wind up here,” she’d complained more than once.

I live in Kansas City, Missouri some three hours of driving from Wymore. A year before she died, she came to visit and I drove us up to the Wymore church where all the people she knew went. Mom had macular degeneration so when we got out of the car in the church parking lot and walked across the gravel to the front doors, she took my arm and said, “If someone comes up and I can’t see who it is, tell me their name.”

“What if I don’t remember their name,” I said. “I haven’t been here in years!” She drew herself up to her full four-foot eleven and a half-inch height and looked at me as if I were six years old instead of reaching for elder-hood myself. “Just ask them to remind you of their name!”

Everyone was happy to see her and kids who’d grown up in the church stopped to measure their growing height against her tiny frame. Adults bent down to hug her.

That afternoon, driving back to Kansas City, Mom watched the rolling fields of blood-red milo, nearing harvest time. I heard her sigh. She turned from the window and said, “It’s time for me to move to the Good Sam.” And just that quickly, a two-week visit turned into forever.

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Part Two

I watched the snow in an endless cascade across the window as if it had been snowing forever. Mom fell asleep, puffing her little breath puffs from between her lips that told me she was calm. The hospital stay had taken a lot out of her. Out of all of us. I carefully removed my arm from around her and rolled onto my back.

Three weeks ago, when the nursing home staff nurse had called to tell me of another seizure, this one stronger than the usual small ones, this one leaving her unconscious, this one sending her in an ambulance to the emergency room at the Beatrice hospital, my whole body clenched. I’d tossed a few things in a bag, called my son down the street, and started driving. It would take me four hours to reach Beatrice. I saw nothing as I drove except the black asphalt of road: not the wide rolling fields or the wide sky, not the line of windmills I liked seeing, planted in a straight line leading to a small museum at the curve outside Hiawatha. I didn’t notice if it was cloudy or clear. I didn’t stop for the usual break in Seneca. I drove.

By the time I got to the emergency room, she’d moved to Intensive Care. I found her, elevated in a bed in a single room, unconscious, tubes in her nose to help her breathe, tubes in her arms, heart monitor glued to her chest. The room still except for blinking lights and beeping. A doctor, white coat, gentle hands, came in and guided me out of the room. I leaned against the wall. “How is she?” I asked.

“She’s had a bad seizure,” he said. “And she hasn’t regained consciousness. It’s probably time to call the family.” My knees gave way. I slid to the floor, hunched over my bent legs, head resting on my knees. I couldn’t stop the tears. My knees were wet.

The doctor brought a glass of water and waited as I regained some kind of something. Composure it wasn’t but I could stand up. I began calling. My brother first. He was the closest. He’d be here in a couple of hours, maybe three, he said. I called my sisters, two in Oregon, one north of Seattle, one in Hawaii. One by one, they arrived. Jack or I drove to the airport to meet them. Mother had drifted in and out of semi-consciousness from time to time but she still lived. Finally, we were all together again, gathered around her bed. Jeanne, the farthest away, was the last to arrive. She brought sacred ti leaves with her.

I wasn’t conscious of the staff reaction to this growing gathering. They came and went, checked machines, adjusted the flow or one tube or another, left us alone. Jeanne placed the ti leaves around Mother, circling her in a giant lei like a tiny jewel set in white sheets. We held hands. We sang. Our voices rose and fell, quiet harmony in a quiet room. We told her we understood. We said it was okay to go.

And then we held vigil. Waiting. No idea how much time passed. Mom’s hand twitched on the covers, opening and closing her fingers. Someone went to get carry-out and brought it back. Maybe she smelled the food, who knows, but we heard her clear her throat and her eyes opened.

We laughed about that later. How with all her kids home, she had to do something and that something was usually food. Little by little, she came back to us. In a couple of days, they moved her into a room with an extra bed so one of us could always be there. Usually, we were two or three. Jack had to go back to work, and Jeanne to Hawaii. Jolene stayed for a few days then went back to work. That left Julia and Judy and me. Mom got progressively stronger, still weak, but she could finally get rid of the bed pan. One morning, as she sat hunched on the portable pot they’d brought to her bedside, she looked up. “Am I having another baby?” We laughed. No, Ma. You’re not. “Well, good,” she said. And soon, Judy and Julia left.

Now she was back in her bed at The Good Sam. I felt her stir beside me. I heard her smack her lips, a sometimes sign of a Petit Mal seizure, but no, her mouth was dry. I got up and brought water.

I went around her bed to the window side and sat on the edge, facing her, to help her drink from the straw. She drank and pushed the straw out of her mouth. She sighed a sigh all the way to her toes, which wasn’t that far. But I saw her brow furrow as she recognized the room. “I’m still here?” Yeah. You’re still here.

I set the glass on the window sill and leaned over her, brushed my hand across her lovely white hair. What prompted my question, I don’t know, but unplanned, I asked, “Mom, are you ready to go?’

She smiled a half-smile. “Oh, my yes. They’ll be people to laugh at my jokes on the other side.” One of her frustrations at the nursing home was that so few of the other residents understood her wry humor. I stroked her head. I’d started crying again and my nose was running. Lifting my arm from her head, I swiped my sweatshirt arm below my nose.

She glanced up. “How old are you? Forty?” No. I’m almost sixty I reminded her. “And I never taught you not to wipe your nose on your sleeve?” I laughed. “Yeah, Ma. You did.” At least her kids understood her humor.

I had to go home. I’d been sleeping the last couple of nights at the little roadside strip motel, old enough that I remembered it from my childhood going to church years, and I needed clothes. My cousin had brought a couple of changes to the hospital for me, but even they were dirty. I told her I’d be back soon. She nodded. “I’ll be okay here,” she said.

I got behind the wheel of Dad’s old blue Pontiac. I’d had it for years since my brother gave it to me when I moved to Santa Fe. I’d renamed it Old Blue. After five years in New Mexico, it had moved me back to Kansas. Mom loved riding in it when she’d come to visit. She’d pat the dash. It was the car that moved her to The Good Sam. The car we took when we went shopping. She’d paid for a new paint job and it looked the same beautiful sky blue as it had always been. I drove, back onto Highway 36, back toward St. Joe and home. I was still crying.

As I started up the long rise to the blinking light at the Beattie corner, an old truck stopped at the sign on the right. The truck reminded me of my uncle’s Chevrolet Apache. I grinned. I sworn that if I ever bought a pickup, it would be an Apache.Twenty-five yards ahead, the truck pulled onto the highway. An old man’s head framed by the truck’s side window, a dog beyond him. The man was looking in the opposite direction. Not at me in a car hurtling toward him.

I slammed on the brakes, jerked the wheel hard left, some part of my car shuddered against his front fender. When the car stopped, I was in the far left ditch and the truck had spun corner to corner. Shattered glass lay across my lap. The passenger side window gone. Traffic at a standstill. In the distance, I heard a siren. I wondered if I’d blacked out for a bit, but I could stand after I pushed open the car door. I braced myself on the trunk and walked around the back, worried about the old man and the dog. I saw someone helping him out of the truck. Somehow, we’d all survived. Except for Old Blue, deeply scored on the passenger side. I was losing Mom and now I’d lost Dad’s car.

Police arrived; a tow truck; I still had my phone and called an aunt in Marysville. The police took me there. I seemed to be functioning if rattled. I sat on my aunt’s sofa and called the insurance company. My uncle took me to a local used car lot, Route 36. “I know the perfect car,” the dealer said. “A Chevy. We just got it in. Owned by an old lady. Not many miles.” It was dark blue. I signed papers. I had a New Blue. I drove to where the tow truck parked Dad’s car and cleaned out the glove box and the trunk and the papers scattered in the back seat. I patted the dash and said good-bye. By evening, I was headed home again. But I cried as I passed the Beattie corner.

What was I going to tell Mom?

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Writing 101 Day 4: Living with Loss

MomA snowstorm swept across the window of my mother’s room in the Good Samaritan, a nice room and well tended. Mother had chosen the bed closest to the window so she could watch the storms and the wind and the trains that passed at the bottom of the gentle slope beyond the fence where a plowed field lay. Her father was a depot agent so watching trains made her happy. She’d returned from a two-week stay in the hospital and was curled into her blankets. I lay beside her and curled around her back. We watched the wind batter snow in gusts. I’d planted a miniature lilac bush outside her window earlier in the spring, but it was hidden in the icy squalls.

The Good Samaritan Nursing Home is in small-town Wymore, Nebraska and where my elders go to die. That’s blunt, but it’s the truth. I’d seen it transition to an old time two-story brick structure to a modern one-story residence with gardens. The old structure sagged in decay across the street. My grandfathers died in the old building and my Grandmother Sunderland. Dad died in a hospital bed. Grandpa Sunderland, too. They’d never lived there. I grew up on a Kansas State Line farm some seventeen miles south. Wymore is where we shopped, went to church, and where Mom and Dad retired when they left the farm.  Mom volunteered at the new place after they moved to town. Several of her friends lived there or worked there. Then Dad died and Mom when to live with my sister north of Seattle. “I never hear the wind up here,” she’d complained more than once.

I live in Kansas City, Missouri some three hours of driving from Wymore. A year before she died, she came to visit and I drove us up to the Wymore church where all the people she knew went. Mom had macular degeneration so when we got out of the car in the church parking lot and walked across the gravel to the front doors, she took my arm and said, “If someone comes up and I can’t see who it is, tell me their name.”

“What if I don’t remember their name,” I said. “I haven’t been here in years!” She drew herself up to her full four-foot eleven and a half-inch height and looked at me as if I were six years old instead of reaching for elder-hood myself. “Just ask them to remind you of their name!”

Everyone was happy to see her and kids who’d grown up in the church stopped to measure their growing height against her tiny frame. Adults bent down to hug her.

That afternoon, driving back to Kansas City, Mom watched the rolling fields of blood red milo, nearing harvest time. I heard her sigh. She turned to me and said, “It’s time for me to move to the Good Sam.” And just that quickly, a two-week visit turned into forever.

(to be continued)

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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.

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The Weather Report

The sky casts a sheet-metal pall over the backyard this morning. We knew it would come, this first cold front of the season, but the sudden whirl surprised us, none the less.

A fan of yellow beside the neighbor’s house announces one tree’s leap into autumn.

The news says there’s a foot of snow in Harrison, Nebraska. Likely they weren’t quite ready for that even with a lifetime spent in the upper and unpredictable High Plains. Snow. In early October. A trace, maybe. Yeah, they could expect that. But a foot?

The cold crumpled my shoulders and a musty sigh, mourning my absence, escaped from the storage closet as I pulled out my red fleece shawl, its first morning in nearly eight months since spring came early and warm. A good friend, it comforts my shoulders during morning musings and waits across the chair back, arms wide and welcoming, whenever I return throughout the day.

Last week, we saw the first red splash of maple leaves, a bell-rung harbinger of fall. After a summer of drought, and scarce rain after, the vision signing the normal turn of earth and seasons felt comforting.

Just now, the wind lifts the top oak branches outside my window, a delicate lift like a ballerina’s plié, then drifts off to find some other, more willing tree to trouble. From my childhood’s memory, I hear Joe Kenney, the weatherman in Lincoln, Nebraska say “variable winds,” but I prefer ballerinas, dancing a minuet, played by a harpsichord.

We always know these changes are coming and yet, when they do, we are surprised, and lift our heads like school children, popping up, alarmed. Did we wait too long, too long?

I still have a backyard to clean, the garden needs putting to bed, and the last of the tomatoes picked. After the heat of summer, they picked up troubled heads, unwilling to leave all their promise unfulfilled, and put on more – handfuls of grape tomatoes that reached enough ripeness to use and some hard green tennis balls that may never ripen, even wrapped in newspaper,  relegated to one more batch of fried green tomatoes. My son will be pleased.

The world turns and we with it.

Fall is here.

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