Day 9 – Out with the Old, In with the New

My mom wasn’t much of a housekeeper. Truth be told, I struggle with keeping a clean house myself. My brother and I didn’t have many chores growing up. I had to load and unload the dishwasher, and I vacuumed and dusted for a few pennies, but I always liked dusting. I still love the actual act of dusting and polishing wooden furniture (not that you would know it from the current condition of my home).

I was in my 20s the first time I ever saw someone wipe down the inside of their sink after washing the dishes. Sure, we cleaned the sinks in our house, but it was part of a weekly “heavy duty” cleaning – not something we did every time we used the sink!

My mom and dad were both pack rats. There were parts of the house that could have been featured on an episode of Hoarders. Both grew up in the aftermath of the Great Depression, and neither threw away something that they might need or that “might be worth some money someday.”

I searched Mom’s apartment for some important documents while she was in the nursing home. I never found what I was looking for, but I found drawer after drawer stuffed with the gifts that I had purchased or made for her in the past decade, many with tags still attached. She was “saving them for a special occasion,” I am sure.

I haven’t cleaned out Mom’s apartment yet. I’m dreading the task. I think the long Thanksgiving weekend is probably the time to dive in and get it done. First, I’ve had to learn to let go. Mom and Dad had an auction sale when they sold the family home more than a decade ago. They moved from a 3-4 bedroom house (depending on how you counted) with a full basement, garage and two sheds to a 2-bedroom apartment. Every nook and cranny was filled. I ended up with at least a truckload of furnishings during that move.

They moved into an even smaller place a few years later and I again was elected (by default) to take possession of the “family heirlooms” – mostly broken furniture and wedding presents that Mom had never used because she was “saving them for something special.” I never used them either, for the most part.

I’m enrolled in a program with a life coach, and serendipitously, October was all about organizing. I learned to winnow the mounds of stuff that I have accumulated over 30+ years of adulthood by asking 1) does it serve me, 2) do I love it, and 3) is it outdated or broken? I was shocked by the realization of how much “stuff” I was holding onto because it was important to someone else. The local Goodwill store was the recipient of multiple loads of bric-a-brac, furniture and books.

My mom crocheted hundreds of doilies. I have them all over my house and I still had boxes and boxes of them left when she died. At her funeral we laid them out in stacks on a table and invited guests to take them to remember her. I felt a catch in my throat “What if it makes me sad that I don’t have these anymore?” Then, I remembered that these doilies had been occupying a corner of my closet for several years in boxes – just like the things that Mom never, ever used.  It gave me joy to watch friends and relatives sorting through the piles, smiling and admiring Mom’s handiwork.

My coach reminded us that the blanket that Grandma made isn’t Grandma. If it’s worn out and stained and you’re ashamed to have it on display, perhaps it’s time to take a photo and let it go. There are a few things that I will keep from Mom’s house. There are things that I have always found beautiful. They would bring me joy to have, and I would USE them. Those will come home with me. The rest will find new homes. Those things that hold special memories but would never be used will be photographed. I don’t need to fill my home with physical objects to fill it with beautiful memories.

Along with the old “stuff,” I am letting go of old ideas, old resentments and old grudges. Out with the old. Bring in the new. New life, new ideas. I’m never going to love cleaning. Perhaps one of those “new ideas” is that hiring a cleaning service would be a good investment – it will give me more time to blog.


Day 8 – Sometimes You Just Have to Feel It

Sometimes the lesson is simply indescribable. You just have to feel it. Any attempt to find the words to describe those profound, deeply-felt changes will pale in contrast to the realization.

This is as close as I can come: The depth of the feeling of being very sad about a change – like death – is in direct proportion to how hard we resist the change. As long as I dwell in the past, wishing things could have gone differently or that I had said something or did something else, I will continue to feel sadness.

When I accept that Mom is gone, and that it happened just the way that it was always going to happen, the sadness eases. It’s out of my control. It always was.

The words make it sound much simpler than the feelings do. You’ll have to trust me on that one.

Day 7 – The Keeper of Secrets

The word “secret” has so many nuanced meanings. Some secrets are precious – the “secret recipe,” for example. Then there is “The Secret,” the power of intention that some believe can make a strawberry ice cream cone appear without them lifting a finger to help themselves. Other secrets are neutral. I hold a lot of confidential information for my clients. The “secrets” aren’t necessarily dark or ominous – they simply aren’t anyone else’s business.

When Mom died a week and a half ago, her secrets died with her. At 50 years of age, I realize how little I know about my mother’s years before me. I know a few select stories, of course – the ones that she told regularly. Those are committed to memory, some word for word. There are other stories that died with her – good and bad. I now have to make peace with the things that I will never know. There are curious, half-formed memories from childhood that will now never be explained.

When I was a young girl, my questions were met with “we’ll talk about that when you are older.” As I grew into adulthood, the deflection became, “I’d rather talk about you,” or “I need to go to the store.” I didn’t press for answers because I didn’t want to upset Mom. Making Mom cry was something I tried to avoid at all costs. I love(d) my Mom.

Ready or not, I have a new position in life. I am the oldest female. I have become the reluctant matriarch, for want of a better word. Like my mom, there are things I don’t talk about – things that are a part of me and that have shaped me and thus have shaped the lives of my children.

Without living parents to think about, I have the freedom to bring “secrets” into the daylight where they can fade without worrying about hurting feelings. No, I won’t be writing a salacious “tell all.” My life hasn’t been “that” interesting.

I do believe, however, that it is time to write my own “book of secrets.” My secret recipes. My secret thoughts. My private past. Someday when I am gone, one of my children may wonder what experiences shaped me. I can only tell them my side of the story, or at least my memory of it.  My story would never be a bestseller.  Indeed, it would probably be boring to even my own children.  Still, one day they may have questions about what experiences made me into who I am.

I haven’t cleaned out Mom’s apartment yet, but I’ve been through enough of her things to know that there probably isn’t a “book of secrets” waiting to be discovered. It’s a shame, but at the same time, it is also a relief. I can live my life authentically. I can choose not to wear the title of the “keeper of secrets.” I control the narrative. I can tell my story without being a victim of anything or anyone in my past. I can choose not to die with my words still in me.

Day 5 – Be Authentic

I learned many lessons during Day 4, but I didn’t write about them. I was in a dark mood. I didn’t feel like doing anything except knitting and wasting time on social media, so I didn’t.

I spent a few minutes reviewing some of the comments that readers have left on my previous blog posts. One of the comments that I received recently made note of the observation that although there have been very difficult times in the past year or so, my posts have been (mostly) positive. That is by design, but I realize that perhaps that isn’t the for the greatest good.

I write as a way to cope with my emotions. Being sad, depressed or lonely feels bad. Being angry and anxious feels bad. For me, and I believe for many others, emotions each have a physical sensation that feels “good,” “bad,” or “neutral.”

These past months have been extraordinarily difficult. There have been many days during which I have lashed out at people who care the most about me. There have been days that I have cried and days that I have shirked responsibilities. I have made nasty comments under my breath and though unkind thoughts.

I will be the first to admit that I am extraordinarily imperfect. I strive to be positive and to show kindness. Some days I fail. Some days I am a miserable person to be around.

There would be something wrong with me if I only felt happiness while my mother was dying. I experienced sadness, rage, confusion and frustration on a daily basis. I had some really bad days.

I wrote in a journal daily. I let the feelings out. I didn’t keep them inside, and by letting them out in the light, I was able to deal with them. Writing about the negative emotions felt like opening the curtains on a dark room and throwing open the windows to allow the clean air to come in.

Many problems don’t look so big or so scary when you put them on a piece of paper.

I started writing in a new journal 3 days before Mom was hospitalized in August. I chose a book with black paper because I felt like even a grocery list could look elegant written in white ink on black paper. I filled every page of that book. Today I filled the last page. I’ve never been so relieved to finish filling a journal and being able to move on. Instead of a black book with black pages and a black cover, I’m next writing in a beautiful book wit a purple cover embellished with beautiful colors. The pages are ivory and they have lines so that my writing doesn’t end up all crooked.

I hope that the sadness and anger that sometimes filled those black pages becomes a thing of the past as I move out of this dark chapter in my life.

Death visits us all. My experience is not special or unique. Losing a parent is the “natural order” of things. Although I won’t allow myself to wallow in grief, the words of a dear friend remind me to be kind to myself. “You are never truly prepared to say goodbye to your mother, no matter hard you try.” He was right.

I’m not feeling very happy or positive today. I’m also not feeling very negative today. I’m pretty close to “neutral” on the emotional spectrum, and I think that’s a pretty good place to be at this stage in the grieving game.

Spread kindness, sprinkle joy. Be authentic.

Day 3 in the Life of a Motherless Mother – Being Present

When someone you love has a terminal illness, life necessarily revolves around their needs. When clothing gets lost in the nursing home laundry, new clothing must be purchased. Who’s visiting today? Do we need to change the hearing aid batteries? What little thing can we do to provide comfort or give her a glimpse of joy?

My mother took great pride in her grandchildren. She used to love going to concerts and plays, and when her health declined we began recording parts of performances to share with her. Last night our youngest son’s high school choir put on a performance of Carmina Burana. I took my seat and scanned the program and saw that my son, Matt, had a solo that he had neglected to tell me about.

As Matt made his way from his spot on the risers to his designated spot at the front of the stage, I started to grab for my phone to switch into video cam mode. I thought for a moment and stopped. There was no need for recording. Mom isn’t here now to share this moment later.

I was reminded of a trip to Disney World many years ago. We had purchased a new video camera, and I watched Fantasmic! through a 1.5 inch viewer screen. Instead of witnessing the Disney magic live and in person, I watched it on a tiny screen. I thought then that I would want to watch it again or to share it with my parents who were back home, but I never did. I missed out on the depth of that experience because I was trying to capture it for later – for someone else. It took me another 18 years to learn the lesson that life is for living right here, right now.

Last year my husband and I took a trip to the Grand Canyon. As I saw it for the first time, I looked at my husband and said, “I can’t photograph this. You have to see it to understand.” I lived that moment in full color, letting the canyon overwhelm my senses with the sheer magnitude of nature.

Last night at the concert, tears ran down my face as Matt sang the role of a dying swan lamenting that he was being roasted. There were tears of pride at the fine young man that he has become along with tears of sadness that I won’t be playing back his solo on my iPad in a few days and watching to see a smile on Mom’s face. Along with my tears, there was the realization that I was watching my son and his friends sing – not through a lens or on a screen. For the first time in years, my focus was on the performers and not on capturing the moment for someone else.

I didn’t record Matt’s performance last night. It exists only in my memory. What a gift.

Day 2 in the Life of a Motherless Mother – Loss is Universal – Grief is Indivdual

The writer in me outlined an agenda of all of the “lessons” that life and death would teach me, in order, for the next two weeks. Having buried a husband, my father, and many others close to me, I foolishly thought that I had learned the lessons that death had to teach me. I thought that I knew how to handle grief. Confirmation bias goes out the window when you’re learning about grief all over again.

I went back to work for a few hours yesterday. I had a list of work-related goals that I wanted to accomplish but I kept it short. One, two, three. Done.  I began a blog post about bringing dull and lifeless diamonds back to life by giving them a good cleaning.  I paused the blogging to run an errand out of town.  No big deal.  I was accomplishing tasks right an left.  I got a little cocky.

I decided that my hair needed a trim. I pulled into the parking lot of a “no appointment necessary” establishment. I froze. I realized in just that instant that I couldn’t bear the small talk that a 15-minute haircut involves.  If my hairdresser asked how I was doing, I ran the risk of all of the emotion that I was holding back bubbling out through my tear ducts and making a mess of my shirt. I don’t recall if I actually shed tears in the parking lot, but I put the car into drive and headed back home.

My daughter celebrated her birthday yesterday. “How can we celebrate anything when Mom is gone?” I asked myself. Daughter wanted Mexican food. She wanted to go out – I didn’t think I could bear it, so we compromised and I made Taco Tuesday on a Wednesday. We sang the birthday song from Chi-Chi’s restaurants (how I miss them) and we enjoyed a meal together, minus the teenager who is never home these days.  We had a brief celebration and then I went to the living room to hibernate.

While I pined for Mom, I flipped mindlessly through Facebook and saw again that a high school classmate and her mother were grieving the loss of a brother and son. Another friend was mourning the loss of a beloved pet. Others were passing the anniversary of the death of a parent. I talked to my cousin who lost his father last week. Death will touch us all. Loss is Universal.

My sister-in-law reached out yesterday. We had a brief text exchange. We agreed that losing a mother is different than other losses. It stings.

I didn’t just lose my mother. I lost the person I called upon for advice. I lost the person I called to share my happiness. I’ve lost track of just how many times I have though “I should tell Mom” in just the past five days. Dad wasn’t my “go to” person for the kinds of things that Mom was.

I can honor Mom’s memory by allowing grief to wash over me as it comes. I will further honor her by not allowing myself to be swept away. I have many “lifeguards” who have offered assistance if I should find myself floundering in an ocean of tears.

As Day 2 came to a close, I realized that while my grieving process for Mom is different than any I have gone through before, I am not alone. Nearly all of us will have the experience of grieving a parent. Loss is universal. Grief is individual. No two people will grieve their mother the same way. The loss of a mother will be grieved differently than the loss of a father.  Life marches on.

Day 1 in the life of a motherless mother. Seek Beauty.

We buried my mother yesterday. She died on a Friday and we buried her on the following Monday. There was no real time for grief between death and burial. As the oldest child – the only child living in the U.S. – the responsibility to make arrangements fell squarely on my shoulders.

There was shopping for suitable clothing for burial to be done, clergy to be found, scriptures to be selected. Although Mom had “pre-planned” the service, there was still a 2 hour appointment at the funeral home.

there were phone calls to be made and announcements to be written. Worst of all were the fires that needed to be put out and the ruffled feathers that needed to be soothed.

Death brings out the worst in some of us.

I spent Sunday night doing difficult work – consciously working through anger and resentments and letting them go. I learned that forgiveness TRULY is for the forgiver and not for the perceived transgressor. I entered the funeral home on Monday with only love and sadness in my heart.

I didn’t arrange a meal, but my cousin surprised us all with a trip to Denny’s, where we enjoyed fellowship and more than a laugh or two.

Today, though, it is my first day back to “normal” without my mom. Tuesday is always my “day off.” That doesn’t stop me from fielding a handful of phone calls and responding to emails, and today is no exception.

As with most days, I had a to-do-list. Mine was pretty simple: run, cry and get a massage. I managed two out of three. I decided that calling to make a massage appointment would take too many spoons, so I let myself off the hook on that one.

Grief is a funny thing. I can be laughing one moment and then something that Mom would say or do hits me in the gut. Something will happen and I think, “I should call Mom.” I think of all of the days when I forgot to call her, or when I was tired and thought to myself, “I’ll call in the morning.”

I remind myself that forgiving myself is possibly more important than forgiving others.

I ticked “cry” off of my list early and often. “Run” was harder. I donned my cold-weather running gear quite early in the day, but I found other tasks to put off the run. I revised my monthly Amazon subscriptions (twice), I rearranged some flowers that I brought home from the funeral. I made tea, ate a snack and played with the dogs.

finally, I kicked myself out the door. I wore a heavy fleece jacket over my long-sleeved technical shirt and a baby-alpaca cap on my head. I drove to the park where my favorite trail “lives” and I checked Facebook and Instagram for “likes” while willing myself to get out of the car and run.

I took a deep breath and opened the car door. I shed the cap and the sweater, knowing I would be too warm after a mile or so. I queued up my playlist and started my GPS watch. I think I made it 200 or 300 yards before the cold wind cut through and chilled me to the bone. Teeth chattering, I turned tail to call it quits. On the (short) trip back to the car a small voice spoke. “You have a jacket and a cap. Use them.” I did just that.

I paused the GPS and I pulled on the warmer clothing. Returning to the trail, I set off at a slow, steady pace. I paid attention to my breath and to the path. Fallen leaves covered hidden roots and rocks. Running safely became an exercise in being present. I did look around me and saw the brilliant hues of autumn. As I emerged from the first loop to the second (of three), I saw bluest skies in the clearing. As I ran through the meadow I skipped over puddles from the previous days’ downpours.

I stopped time and again to take photos to attempt to capture the moments of sheer awe at the world I have the privilege to run through on my two feet. I exited the second loop to make my way to the third loop and found what is normally a trail to be a six-inch deep pond / stream. I decided “let’s not get crazy now,” and decided that multiple loops around the “middle” loop would do.

I looped the “middle” loop three times, all in the same direction. Each trip round the loop I discovered something I hadn’t noticed before. On the first trip it was the view of the fields and trees across the clearing. On the second trip it was the low-hanging branch that I could reach up and touch. On the third trip, it was the prints of an unknown creature in the mud beside my own footprint.

Although I did, indeed, become quite warm in my cap and jacket, I made it 3.5 miles. I got to check “run” off of my mental list. As I guided my car through the twists and the turns of the parking lot to return home, I saw a brilliant crimson tree with the sunlight shining through its leaves. It was so beautiful that it took my breath away. I stopped the car to snap a photo which, of course, didn’t do it justice.

I returned home and inhaled the heady fragrance of a yellow rose the size of a peach. I sought out color and fragrance and sound that gave me glimpses of joy, and that joy brought me comfort. #Comfortandjoy was the hashtag I adopted for an abandoned attempt at building a MLM empire. It’s become my new theme for living through grief.

Today’s lesson was evident – seek beauty. It is everywhere. Enjoy it with every breath. Seek out beauty and find joy. In them, find comfort.

They call it the present because today is a gift.