Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Beauty, Grace, Unconditional Love
Remembering My Mom on the Anniversary of Her Birth
May 14, 1947

Valarie, Kari, Seana, and Mike in Palm Springs, June 1991

Sixty-one years ago today my Mom was born in Victorville, California. This post commemorates her birth. She's been gone from our lives for almost seven months. Her radiance, beauty, and grace live on in the memories of her family and friends. Each day is a new step toward reconciling our lives to her loss.

My Mom and I had a remarkably close relationship. I clung to her emotionally from a very early age. My Dad summed up the connection she and I shared when he observed once how my mood, communication, energy changed in my Mom's absence. I felt absolutely comfortable with her. I was able to talk with her about everything. Nothing was off bounds. And she listened. Never interrupting until she saw a point of entry into the conversation. She was the most non-judgmental persons I have ever known, something at least one of my friends observed recently. Even my Aunt Robyn commented on it when we talked about my Mom together the other day.

One of my greatest fears when I was eight or nine, was that my Mom would die. I remember lying in bed at night worrying about losing her. It terrified me to think of life without her. Forty years has given me a very little bit of perspective on life. I'm not exactly terrified by her loss, but there are times when I feel tremendously lonely without her. And I'm saddened that she's not a phone call or an four or so hour flight away. Now that I think of it, perhaps it is terrifying to consider that she's so far away. The extent of her absence actually leaves me a little breathless.

I've gotten into the habit of telling telemarketers who call that she's traveling. I'm never specific about where it is she's gone, or when she'll return (invariably, the caller will ask when they might reach her.) I imagine she's in Shangri-La—a beautiful and remote place where there's no phone or internet service. It helps. And, in difficult moments of longing for her return, I try to recall her voice, her gentle touch, her calming presence.

For the past eight months I've lived at least part-time in her home. It was the one place I always felt safe and secure. I remember coming home for Mother's Day visits, her birthday, Grandma's birthday, and the holidays. She'd marvel at how my room here looked as though a tornado had blown through it. But, I know she loved having me sleeping in the room nearby aware that our paths would cross in the morning, that we'd go out together for coffee at Starbucks, and sit together in the evening watching her favorite television shows while I rubbed her feet. She loved that. There's no end to the memories of her that keep surfacing and warming my heart.

When I was in the fourth grade one of my favorite things to do was go to my our little grade school library. I visited it every day after school, admiring all the colorful spines peeking from the bookshelves and thumbing through picture books. As I lumber more deliberately into middle age, and as my memories of those long ago afternoon library visits become more remote, the experience of one book remains with me.

The book jacket featured a picture of President and Mrs. Kennedy seated in a shiny black convertible waving to an unseen crowd. I’m sure there were others in the picture, perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Connelly, the first couple’s hosts during their visit to Dallas. I assume at least a few heads of the people in the crowd were also visible in the photo. But I noticed only the woman wearing a pretty hat, holding a bouquet of roses, and smiling, waving a white-gloved hand at the crowd. The man beside her—dressed in a suit and tie—looked strong and handsome. He too waved and smiled, his eyes squinting in the sunlight.

Of course, I didn’t know who they were, didn’t know the meaning of the words radiant, bouquet, or limousine. I had no idea of the calamity waiting for them just moments after their smiling faces were captured for eternity in that photographic frame.

I opened the book and read a little about the couple, but didn’t understand the meaning of the word “assassinated.” So, I took the book home and asked my Mom what it meant. She explained that the man, our President, had been killed, and that his killer was called an assassin. She explained that the President wasn’t alive anymore and that he’d gone to heaven. I couldn’t quite understand how half of the smiling couple could be dead, gone forever—he was, after all, still right there on the book cover, so strong and so present.

More than 35 years later, I can’t say my comprehension of death has advanced much from the confusion I experienced after hearing my Mom’s very sensible, or so it seems in today, explanation of what happened to President Kennedy almost 45 years ago. Life—and death—is a puzzle for me still.

In November of last year, after a short illness, my Mom left us to be with God. And, I struggle everyday to reconcile the loss, to wrap my mind around the finality of her death. Even though I know she’s in heaven, and that one day we will be reunited, her physical absence from my life is something I cannot fathom. I can’t deny it, but neither can I understand it.

Like Mrs. Kennedy’s warmth and radiance staring back at me across time from a library book jacket, my Mom’s bright smile and effervescence fill our lives in pictures displayed in my house and in my Grandma’s home and the homes of my other relatives. Inexplicably, my mind cannot bridge the gap between the photographic image and the reality of her physical absence. It’s something I don’t believe “time will heal.” There’s simply a wrinkle in my mental faculties, an obstacle standing in the way of my understanding what it means for somebody to be physically present one moment and lifeless the next.

My Mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the first days of September. She discussed treatment options with her doctors and, in early October, she learned her only options were palliative—the doctors would do what they could for her pain, but her diagnosis was terminal.

My partner Wes and I migrated west from Washington on Oct. 19. A week later my brother Joey joined us. Quickly, we were able to manage my Mom’s excruciating pain, but at a cost. Under heavy doses of carefully monitored pain medications, she retreated from us mentally very quickly, although not before we were able to thank her for loving and nurturing us, for being our greatest champions, and for never judging us harshly.

Shortly after her diagnosis, my Mom and I talked about the possibility of Wes being her primary care nurse. At first I was hesitant to involve Wes in caring for somebody with whom he had an emotional involvement. But my Mom loved Wes and trusted him to treat her with respect and to honor her wishes for her care.

As it turned out, we all—Wes, Joey, Grandma, myself—acted as my Mom’s primary caregivers. Once, while Wes was away for a short trip home to Tennessee, my Mom looked at me as I prepared her medicines and said, “That’s not how Wes said to do it.” While we all bathed her, fed her, administered her medications, held her hand, and wiped the perspiration from her face and forehead, it was clear whose expertise my Mom valued and who she viewed as being “in charge” of her care.

Wes and Valarie, Alta Loma, California, May 2006

At my Mom’s memorial service on December 29, I didn’t publicly thank Wes for his great personal sacrifice by being with all of us during my Mom’s final weeks. A little more than two years ago, he helped nurse his father through a terminal illness. I know that my Mom’s illness stirred memories for Wes of his Dad’s final days. Still, Wes guided our care of my Mom and made sure that she was treated with dignity and grace in every moment of her final days. When my Mom breathed her last breath at 1:15 AM on November 18, the four of us were beside her reminding her that she wasn’t alone and thanking her for being the keystone in our lives.

I remember telling my Mom as she took her last short breaths not to be afraid because her younger brother David, who left us to be with God when he was only 21, and her grandmother, who we all called Greatie, were there waiting to walk with her in her new life. I also looked across my Mom’s bed at my Grandma and wondered at the depth of loss she must have been feeling at that moment. After all, she had been there when her daughter took her first breath out of the womb and she was sitting beside her now—only 60 years later—holding her hand and stroking her forehead as she took her last breath. I cannot fathom the depths of sorrow my Grandma must have felt at that moment.

Valarie and Grandma, Montclair, California, March 2006

Almost immediately, after a single phone call, my cousins Seana and Kari, my aunt Robyn, and my Uncle Billy were with us. They were always with us, actually, especially during my Mom’s last couple of days. My Mom didn’t want people hovering over her. Everybody who knew my Mom remembers how important privacy was to her. But, I’m convinced that she welcomed all of us around her in those final days. She was deeply unconscious then, but I believe she knew her family needed to be near her, wanted to sit beside her, cry together openly at her side, talk among ourselves in her presence, knowing that, on some level, she was cognizant of the conversations happening around her.

A little over a month later, after the holidays, all of us participated in my Mom’s memorial service. Kari started the service by reading scripture from my Mom’s own bible. Kari looked beautiful and was so poised. My Mom would have been so proud of her. Kari’s eloquent reading of a passage of promise and renewal set the tone for the entire service.

After a PowerPoint slide presentation, which was made possible only after my uncle Billy and my aunt Kerry came to our rescue by inviting my brother and me to spend an entire afternoon at their house scanning pictures after my own computer hard drive crashed, my cousin Seana walked to the podium to read a poem, looked up to the screen at the last picture of my Mom, and said admiringly, “Isn’t Valarie glamorous up there!” I’ll always remember her words as a remark that my Mom would have loved to hear.

Valarie at the Huntington Museum, San Marino, California, May 2002

My Uncle Billy read another bible passage and shared some of his memories of his sister. My brother shared an original prose poem he composed for our Mom. And my Aunt Robyn shared her own and other’s remembrances of my Mom. Jessica Soza, one of Seana's colleagues and an opera and acting student at a local university, performed my Mom's favorite Christmas hymn "O, Holy Night." There's no question that her interpretation would have given my Mom goose bumps. It was a stunning and moving performance.

Valarie, Peggy, and Robyn, Pasadena, California, May 2006

Our pianist, the very talented John Snyder, concluded the service with one of my Mom’s favorite pieces of classical music, Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” With less than a full day to practice, he played it perfectly. Robyn was surprised and said to excitedly, “Did you know that was your Mom’s favorite piece of music!”

In the weeks after my Mom left us, as we marched with reluctant determination through the holiday season, and, later, as we prepared the memorial service program, I had hardly anytime to reflect on what I would say about my Mom during the service. Afterwards I regretted not sharing more about the tremendous impact she had, still has, on my life.

My Mom was a very young mother. I came along when she was only 17. She had a lot of help from my Grandma raising my brother and me. My Mom’s youth and almost everything else about our lives seemed different from the way I saw other families.

While other parents had small family cars, anonymous looking sedans, for instance, my Dad drove a GTO. My parents played their LPs loudly so that the entire neighborhood seemed to float on the lyrics of James Taylor, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Elton John, and Jethro Tull.

My Dad was in the Air Force, but in his off hours he sported floppy hair and a mustache. My Mom made beaded necklaces that everybody—Joey, my Dad, our neighbors wore proudly. I remember wondering why we couldn’t be like everybody else around us. Now, I’m so grateful for the unusual style of “normal” my Mom cultivated around us.

In the past few months, since she left us, I’ve heard all kinds of stories about my Mom from friends and family, little memories that have floated to the surface. A few months ago Wes and I visited with our friends, neighbors from many years ago, Janie and Mary Robinson. Janie remembered that she and her sisters used to run to the window when they heard my Mom leaving our house just to see what she was wearing. My Mom had a reputation for being very stylish, and her closets were always full of beautiful clothes and shoes.

If you knew my Mom, then you also knew that she had flair for decorating. Her home was always a special sanctuary of comfort and serenity. Nobody wielded a paintbrush with more assurance and confidence than my Mom. She had a steady hand and an impeccable eye for mixing colors, fabrics, and furnishings. And she loved sharing her design expertise with friends, who seemed always to solicit her opinion and advise.

I loved and admired my Mom’s sense of adventure and fearlessness. She and Grandma came to Washington several times after I moved here in 1991. While others might have been fearful of some of the fringe neighborhoods where I’ve lived, my Mom marched right into action, finding the nearest 7-11 and making friends with anybody she might meet on the way.

One year, my friends let Grandma, Mom, and I use their apartment in New York City, right across the street from Central Park, for a long weekend. I woke up early and went for a run in the park. When I got back and was crossing the street, I happened to see my Mom emerging from the park as well. I asked her where she’d been and she said: “I just walked over to Jerry Seinfeld’s building.” “How in the world did you know what direction to walk in,” I asked. “I just looked at the tops of the buildings through the trees and found it that way,” she replied.

Finally, I feel so honored to have been blessed by my Mom’s great generosity. I’ve been blessed to hear about her generosity of spirit and resources from so many people in her life. She knew just when to give a note of encouragement or a bouquet of flowers to cheer a friend. She shared her joyfulness and enthusiasm with everybody.

And she loved my brother and me unconditionally, which isn’t to say she didn’t set us straight when she felt we needed it. But, she always did it with tenderness and care. I don’t remember her ever saying a cruel thing to me. She was encouraging, nurturing, loving, compassionate, understanding, and a terrific sounding board. She was my oldest and dearest friend.

I’m comforted knowing that she’s free from pain and fear. My Grandma and friends—especially Ada, Eunice, and Paul, each of whom called almost daily in the first weeks after my Mom left us—have given me so much perspective on loss and shared their wisdom and faith with me in ways that have given me tremendous comfort. Grandma and Ada remind me that my Mom is in a place where spring is eternal.

My Mom loved spring’s abundant flowering trees and beautiful blooms. I know that she’s surrounded now by peonies, irises, alliums, yarrow, and savoring the fragrance of jasmine and honeysuckle. And I know she would want me to celebrate God’s beauty in the world, admiring and appreciating it for her. Spring has opened its big green hands for you, Mom. I hope you will enjoy it.

Valarie, Joey, and Mike, Oceanside, California, circa 1990