Channeling Mom

My mother died about six weeks ago. I thought in the months after her death that I would be pretty out of kilter. I expected to be a lot more grieved than I actually am. I thought I would spend hours crying over her loss, because I did love her and still feel bonded to her. That I am not is due I suspect to the opportunities we had for closure during her final months. It was certainly not fun to witness her progressive decline every week, but I found some catharsis from the experience nonetheless.

Mostly I accept her passing. I awake in the morning fully aware that she is gone but it does not interfere with my day. Yet I still find myself getting teary from time to time. Christmas found us at my Dad’s apartment. I spent some time going through his huge stack of Christmas and bereavement cards. I took special care to read the notes in the bereavement cards. So many people, many of whom I did not know, were touched by my mother. I had no idea because she rarely strayed outside her comfortable bounds of family. Yet over 85 years even someone whose life struck me as very cloistered developed friends. Tears came to my eyes as I read the heartfelt condolences.

Aside from a lifetime of memories there is not much tangible left to remind myself of her. Almost all of her clothes and jewelry have been given away. My wife got a fair amount of her jewelry. A cookbook of her favorite recipes assembled two decades earlier by two of my sisters survives. I will likely recreate her recipes from time to time. However, the food will not taste the same. For as the preface to her cookbook says, “Of course, when I make this dish, I always add a little dash of…” That in a nutshell was my mother in her favorite role as master chef. Every exquisite yet familiar meal tasted the same yet was subtly different. Perhaps we will have family contests in the years ahead to recreate some of my mother’s many scrumptious dishes. With luck, some of us will come close, but no one will quite recreate the original. We cannot cook a meal with passion. For us, cooking is mostly a means to an end, not an end itself. Since my mother expressed much of her love in her cooking, this is perhaps a truest measure of my loss. It sounds silly but the quality of the food prepared here on earth took a dramatic nosedive with her death.

We tried to create a familiar Christmas meal at my father’s apartment. We had many of the right ingredients. There was a spiral ham, purchased at the local BJs. It was very tasty. Nevertheless, it was missing the cloves that my mother would have pierced into it. My wife made au gratin potatoes that needed a wee bit more time in the oven. They were blander than my mother’s, and did not have that layer of lightly burnt cheese on the top. Salad? My mother would have made a wonderful fruit salad, slicing all the fruit by hand. The rolls came partially cooked from the store. For dessert, we ate Christmas cookies contributed by both my sister and my wife. My mother probably might have made her exquisite Snickerdoodles. For me my mother’s favorite dessert was her Goober Roles. They were something like a cinnamon role, but made with biscuit and slathered with butter, brown sugar, karo syrup, cinnamon and nuts. The syrup invariably stuck to your teeth and the roof of your mouth, but you did not care: they were a sugar, fat and carbohydrate nirvana. You could not stop at just one. In fact, it was hard to stop after a pan-full.

Afterwards I helped clean up in the kitchen. It was quite a mess. Fortunately, my mother had trained me well. For years, she did both the cooking and cleaning up afterwards. Then one day she realized she had eight children: let us do it for a change. Therefore, we did, and to her exacting specifications. Now KP has become something I do on autopilot. I can take the messiest, greasiest pan-strewn kitchen and make it sparkle. Thanks Mom. She (and my father) taught me to stoically accept and take some modest pleasure in the many routine and unexciting chores that invariably populate a family’s life.

One thing my mother would not tolerate was dirt. This surprised me after reading her biography, because she grew up in a cleaning impaired house. She did not get the cleanliness habit until she went to nursing school. There she realized that the world was teaming with microbial life. Much of it, she was convinced, was aimed directly at her family. She got a bit obsessive with her cleaning. Not only did everything have to look clean, it actually had to be clean.

With two weeks off from the press of work, I had no more excuses. Our house is generally picked up. For example, our kitchen usually looks clean. Okay, my daughter may be thoughtless about forgetting to wipe the counter down after making her sandwiches. Occasionally even my wife or I will let a dish sit in the sink after a meal. Moreover, our kitchen table is almost always a semi permanent resting place for all the transient stuff that enters the house. It may be reasonably picked up, but is it clean? Alas, no. It would not meet my mother’s standards.

What it needed was a little Mr. Clean: me. And so yesterday I found myself at 10 AM in the kitchen. My mission: to get the kitchen clean. I could feel my mother watching down on me from the afterlife. “Your kitchen, Mark, is a not really clean.” “Yes Mom, I know. I am sorry.” “There’s no excuse for it. Cleanliness is next to godliness.” “No there isn’t, Mom. And I have two weeks off from work. I have run out of excuses.”

So out came the sponges, detergents and latex gloves. I went to work. I started by pulling out the refrigerator. Just cleaning the refrigerator turned out to be a two-hour project. I removed all the dust bunnies and wiped the wall behind the refrigerator. I threw out dubious food. I wiped down all its interior and exterior surfaces. I got rid of a decade of old photographs and magnets stuck to the door.

This was just the beginning. Abrasive cleansers went on the kitchen counters. They had been wiped numerous times but my discerning eye could still see the dirt ground into their textured surfaces. I scrubbed and scrubbed until it was as white as the model’s teeth on a tube of Pepsodent. Then, I scrubbed and bleached the sink. I wiped the windowsills. I even scrubbed the baseboard. After four hours I stopped. All this work and I was nowhere near being done!

I was exhausted. “Mom, I cannot do this anymore! I don’t have your stamina!” I had grand ideas for the kitchen. I was going to mop the floor. I was going to clean the windows. I was going to scour the oven. I was going to sweep out every cabinet, and remove all the crap in the junk drawer.

Yet I have not given up. For I still hear my Mom’s voice in my head, dreadfully concerned about my filthy kitchen. Tomorrow I will resume my clean kitchen quest. Then I will try to do the same to each room in turn. I will also shampoo the carpets. I will get all the dust bunnies in the corners of every room. I will dust then use Lemon Pledge (my Mom’s favorite) on all the wood furniture.

Then will I stop hearing my mother’s voice in my head? I am not sure. In reality even if I work at this full time, I will be lucky to get a quarter of it done. For the list of things that need cleaning and straightening is truly endless. And if I ever finish, I will have to start all over again. By that time, I am sure the kitchen will be filthy again.

Perhaps at some point I will sense my mother’s benevolent smile. Perhaps though her real thoughts from the afterlife are, “No! You got the wrong message! You are remembering as I was long ago. That’s not how I think now! Life is too short to spend it cleaning all the time. Get a life! Go for a walk! Smell some roses!”

But no, I am remembering my mother at my age: age 48. It is 1968 and that is what she was doing. She is waxing kitchen floors. She is bleaching sheets and our underwear. She is darning our socks. She is hustling us off to church. She is making sure our shoes are shined for parochial school.

Maybe this is how I grieve. Maybe, when my house is finally clean to her satisfaction, my grieving will be done. For now, I am not done channeling Mom.

Three Years of Blogging

Time flies when you are having fun! Today I start year four of my blogging adventure. This means that it is time for a metablogging entry again.

In blog time, I am now a great grandfather. I would bet that less than one percent of blogs have lasted three years. One of the few that I can point to is my friend Lisa’s blog, Snarkypants. Lisa is responsible for turning me onto blogging. So if you hate my site, it is all her fault! (Just kidding Lisa!)

One thing I monitor is whether my blog is growing, staying static or losing interest. Overall, it looks like this blog is still garnering more interest. Part of this is explained because I have an additional year of material online. Consequently there are more entries that are searchable. Popular entries a year ago remain popular today, simply because they come up easily in Google searches. (I think my entry on Sharon Mitchell has reached immortality status. It still averages at least half dozen page views a day. My entry on Infidelity also gets many reads.) However, looking at my web logs, newer entries routinely get hits from all sorts of places. Mostly they come from Google, but I am seeing more and more referrals from the blog indexer Technorati.

While no one else likely cares, I find it interesting to compare my SiteMeter statistics from one year ago with today. The current SiteMeter graphic below clearly documents a slow but steady growing interest in this blog. Last year my peak monthly page views was around 3600 (shortly before the election). This year my peak was in April at around 7000 page views. I did not start tracking with SiteMeter until early March 2004, but in 2004 I averaged about 1,760 visits and 2,300 page views a month. Over the last year, I have averaged 2,730 visits per month, or an increase of 55% compared to last year. When looking at page views, I now average 4047 page views a month, an increase of 76%. These are decent growth rates for a backwater blog, particularly since every year there is more indexed content out there competing against my content. It remains unlikely that my blog will ever show up on a recommended blogs list.

A chart showing the current year's visit and page view statistics for Occam's Razor

Of course, I have become a bit disenchanted with SiteMeter statistics. It only measures those arriving here by browser, and then seems to miss many of those too. I know I have a number of people who read my entries using newsreaders and they will never show up in SiteMeter. I see them in my raw web logs. It is almost impossible though to determine which of these are robot search engines and which are actual people reading content. Still, SiteMeter is a metric useful for generalizing trends. Overall, I would guess my actual visits and page views from real people are about twice what SiteMeter reports.

One trend I have noticed is that I am getting more comments. The number of comments is still anemic compared to most people’s blogs. Nevertheless, it is still a trend. A little SQL on the comments table returned the following data. I am getting more comments and longer, more thoughtful comments when I get them.

Year  # of Comments   # of Bytes of Comments
2005  	104  		70010
2004 	80 		47177
2003 	57 		31597
2002 	3 		1934

As for blogging itself, it remains a fun but time-consuming hobby. However, it is getting more difficult to think up good original content. I often have to poke myself to create entries. I often rattle my brain for something interesting to expound upon. I continue to find political entries less interesting to write. This is a shame because when I do write about topical politics I get a lot more page requests. It usually takes at least 90 minutes to create an entry, since each entry is edited about four times. In addition, I find no fewer demands on my time. My list of hobbies continues to grow. Alas, the time I have to devote to them does not. However, blogging remains a very high priority for me. I mean here I am in Atlanta on business. What am I doing for fun in the big city? I am writing another time-consuming blog entry.

For me it is worth the inordinate amount of time I spend. As I expounded elsewhere, I find blogging to be therapeutic. I have an escape for the many unusual ideas crossing my mind. From reading the comments, I realize I have compatriots out there. While I am sure there are many people who do not particularly like what I have to say, I get regular appreciative comments. Thank you to those of you who leave me these little pats on the back. Thank you for those who do not agree but still do not mind trading emails on various topics. They inspire me to keep blogging. I do not know how successful I am at prying open minds. I am headstrong enough to actually want to change people’s opinions. It is an impossible metric to measure except anecdotally.

I do hope that overall my entries are well reasoned and if nothing else good for debate or thoughtful discussion. I also hope you enjoy your time here. Next March with two years of SiteMeter statistics, I will metablog again.

Bah! Humbug!

I hope none of my relatives is reading this.

Well, okay, I do not mind if my immediate family is reading this. I make this assumption with every blog entry, even though I suspect only one or two of them bother to check out this blog on even a semi regular basis. I do not diss my siblings and father. I love them in all their uniqueness, brilliance and quirkiness. No, I mean I hope that all those other relatives out there are not reading this. You know, the ones who are tangentially family but you hardly ever go out of your way to meet. In other words, the kind to whom you feel obligated to send Christmas cards.

Our stack of sixty or so Christmas cards went out in today’s mail. In most of them was our obligatory Christmas newsletter. In years past, we attempted to write little notes in each of them. Those days are gone. The list has gotten too large. So to those friends from yesterday that we rarely visit along with the numerous aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces and in laws out there, I don’t mean to be disrespectful but we really do not care about you or your life. However, we feel just enough attached to you through a blood, a legal relationship or a distant past association to send you our Christmas newsletter anyhow. It assuages the feeling of guilt that we have essentially abandoned you from our lives.

We do not write you. Moreover, you do not write us either. We both seem to like it that way. There was a time when email was new, we garnered your email address, and you got ours. We traded a couple emails. Then we both discovered that we really had nothing to say to each other. Maybe it was not quite that. We had things to say, we just could not be bothered to take the time to actually write them down to you personally. Since that time, you have disappeared from our email address list. We still have, however, your snail mail address. As long as we get a card from you, we feel obligated to send one back. We are strange that way.

This means that you will get our holiday newsletter. We will nest it inside our funny but by now expected and somewhat irreverent holiday card. (Of course, we think a card with a cartoon on the card of Santa’s butt crack on it is funny, and so should you.) If we are really organized, which we have not been for about a decade now, we will have had a family picture taken in November and enclose a recent snapshot too. Those days are gone. They are not going to happen again.

However, I do have this blog. Most likely in some previous newsletter along with putting our email address in it, I put the URL to my blog. Perhaps one or two of my relatives took the time to read it. Nevertheless, I bet they did not bookmark it. Leave me a comment if you did. Just as I really do not want to know the intimate little details of your life by reading your blog (which you probably do not have) you do not want to know mine. Not that Occam’s Razor is really a personal blog. It has delusions of grandeur. Regardless, I do not really matter to you so my blog does not matter to you. Unless you are a lot like me, it will not tickle your fancy.

There was a time when our expectations around Christmas were much higher. There were years when we sent presents to our many nieces and nephews. (My siblings were smart enough to know I would not bother to give them anything, since they do not send me anything.) Gradually the nieces and nephews grew old enough where we stopped buying them presents too. We had no idea what they needed and only got clues from pestering their parents. Thank goodness, that phase is behind us.

Yet certain holiday traditions remain sacrosanct. I do not know why we still feel this burden of sending out holiday cards. Our newsletters are dumbed down and happied up too, just like the ones we get. I do not want to hear about their prostate exams so I will not tell them about mine. They do not want to know how much we spend on therapists the last year either. So it is “distill a year into 400 words or less” and keep it rather generic and upbeat. This year was an exception. With an event like my mother’s death there was no way I could not mention it. Next year it will be back to all happy talk.

Of course, if we cared about our distant relations we would probably visit them. Most of them are in Arizona, which is where my wife’s side of the family is located. We were there in 2000 and only went out because my mother in law had come to visit us the year before. We felt guilty about not visiting more often. Since 2000, we have not received any guilt rays from Arizona, perhaps because our presence meant so little the last time. Therefore, we remain happily nested on the east coast, more than a little grateful there are 2500 miles between us.

They are fading away into increasingly distant memories. They are also aging. Little nieces and nephews that were at one time bouncing on our laps or playing with Transformers on the bedroom floors are graduating college. Aunts and in-laws are suffering from the affects of being sixty or seventy something. I find it hard to keep the cast of characters straight in my own mind. Just who is my brother in law married to now? Should I care?

In fact, I do not. These distant relations are consequences of marriage. They are important only in the sense that my wife feels some love or obligation to them. My relationships with them have been largely superficial. If I heard tomorrow that they were run over by a bus, I would not even shed a tear.

Yet somehow, they warrant a holiday card. Others that I spend a whole lot more time with will probably get nothing. I will likely forget to send holiday greetings to the people I work with. My many numerous electronic friends might get an electronic card (very appropriate) if I remember. I probably will not send them any because there are many other holiday activities on my checklist. This year, like every year, they will fall into the second tier that I will not get around to accomplishing. I still have major holiday tasks like buying presents for my own family. Although the holiday lights now adorn parts of our exterior, other time consuming tasks like setting up and decorating the Christmas tree remain to be done. They come with deadlines and firm sanctions for missing them.

I tell myself when it comes to the holidays that I am something of a traditionalist. I do take some pleasure in these holiday traditions. However, I am also a bit put out by them. It is nice to have the house decorated, presents under the tree and freshly baking cookies in the oven. Yet it remains a lot of work. Perhaps I do them out of habit, or of guilt.

I can tell that once our daughter is an adult I will get the pressure from my wife to just skip Christmas altogether. For whatever reason, she does not associate Christmas with pleasurable feelings. Perhaps she has repressed childhood memories of her father saying hurtful things to her. On the other hand, perhaps she remembers many years of meager presents under the tree. For me, the holidays are beginning to feel like a record played one too many times. They are losing their luster.

Perhaps someday, I will celebrate the holidays the way that they are supposed to be celebrated in theory, but so rarely are. Perhaps I will spend them feeding the homeless, helping run a soup kitchen, or visiting old folks in nursing homes. Then perhaps like Charlie Brown I will feel the true spirit of the holidays again.

For now, the psychological pressure to conform to these de facto holiday traditions is too large. However because I care, but also for pragmatic tax reasons, I will make sure some of my favorite charities get sizeable donations before January 1st. It is easier than volunteering.

Yin without Yang

Clearly, it is going to take a while to process all my feelings about my mother’s death. For now, it seems surreal. Even when she and my father lived 600 miles away, even when I did not see them for a year or two, still they were always in my present. Both were an easy phone call or email away. With my Mom’s death all that has changed of course. My father is now a widower. Now he is left to pay the bills and try to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. He remains in decent health. Of course, we, his children, hope for many more years of good health and happiness for him.

At 79, he is not quite the man that he was. We see signs that he is losing some of his independence. He still drives a car, but he drives it locally and only during non rush hours. I am grateful because the drivers in the metropolitan Washington D.C. area are unforgiving to someone with aging reflexes. As a consequence in order to come visit us, someone has to drive him here (about 30 miles each way). Today being Thanksgiving, we provided the dinner. My sister Mary drove him over.

Seeing him come in the door to our house – alone – for me drove home the reality of my mother’s death. Yin was without Yang. Yes, death is a natural experience but this seemed decided unnatural. It was exactly two weeks ago today that my mother died. Even if last Thanksgiving my mother had to be helped bodily into our house, that was more natural than seeing my father come through our door without my mother.

My father remains philosophical and pragmatic. He brought with him a number of my mother’s keepsakes, principally a lot of costume jewelry. My wife got to pick through them and retain any items that she wanted. The book I gave to my mother on famous movies stars back in 1974 was returned too. I guess it was on loan. My father said my mother had enjoyed reading it many times. There are still things for him to sort through. Doubtless, many bills will need to be settled. My mother’s possessions are being farmed out to family if possible. The lesser ones are likely to end up at Goodwill. Then there is the matter of her interment. Her body was cremated but her ashes will go in a nearby cemetery. My father still has to pick out the exact plot. He is still a bit puzzled why I would want to attend this last act.

On the surface, my father seems like himself. We played a game of Scrabble (he won). We went for a Thanksgiving walk, a custom in our family so we do not feel so guilty about the feast to come. His mind is still sharp but our Thanksgiving walk came harder to him. I could hear him breathing heavily as we walked.

At our table, he was sometimes the odd man out. Had my mother been with us, there would have at least been someone his own age with whom to discuss things. We tried to keep him engaged but a lot of the conversation simply was not relevant to him. Discussions about TV shows like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer has no relevance in his life. So quite often, he was left alone in his own thoughts. Nevertheless, he seems philosophical about this time of his life. He seems to understand that his time too is nearing an end, and the world belongs to newer generations.

I am glad he has his retirement community. Too much time with my family would probably be a tedious experience for him. However, at Riderwood he has plenty of people in his own age group with whom to chat. These connections are perhaps the most meaningful experience in his life in more than twenty years. Many of the residents at Riderwood also grew up in this area. Consequently, there are endless stories to plumb with residents about the way Washington D.C. used to be sixty or seventy years or so years ago, when he was a young lad.

I hope that he has the time for a late life renaissance. Since he is unencumbered, perhaps he will take Elder Hostel vacations again. Perhaps he will visit distant relatives at times of his own choosing. On the other hand, perhaps he will simply stay at Riderwood where he is so happy, and enjoy time with family when we are in his neighborhood.

Since husbands tend to die before their wives, we are also wondering whether he might start dating again. Riderwood has many widows. A courteous gentleman like himself should be in high demand. Time will probably tell us whether he will even entertain female prospects. None of us wants to see him lonely. Fortunately, he does not appear to be the least bit lonely. He makes his own social life.

I may be projecting, but being spouseless after fifty-five years must be difficult on many levels. The void must be difficult to fully accept and work through. So we watch him with some wariness, sanguine that his last years are likely to be happy ones, but wary nonetheless. Since we live locally, my sister and I are also feeling our way through this change. How can we best support my father during his last years? Right now, we do not know the answers. We want to give him the space he deserves as a grown up in full control of his faculties, but we also want to be ready to step in when needed.

Yes, it does feel surreal. It feels surreal to play Scrabble with my father, to have his mind still so sharp, yet to have my mother irrevocably exiled from our lives. In a way, my mother still lives on. In my desk drawer are two cassettes of conversations with my mother taken some three year ago when she was of sound mind and body. I have yet to transcribe the oral history that I took. I need to. However, right now I cannot work up the courage to listen to the tapes. Her passing is still too near. I too need a little distance in order to gain perspective.

While I mostly feel fine, I sometimes wonder if I am like a soldier suffering from shell shock. Perhaps rather than being at the end of my grieving process, I am just at its beginning.

Addicted to Cute

Some creatures are just obscenely cute. They can give the unwary a heart attack at a hundred paces. Such is the case with Tai Shan, the four-month-old baby panda unveiled for public observation for the first time yesterday here in Washington, D.C.

Image provided by the Washington Post

Reputedly, it costs ten million dollars a year to host their parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian at the National Zoo. Tai Shan’s parents arrived in 2000 for a ten-year visit. For years, we panda obsessed Washingtonians have waited in vain for a little cub. We knew not to get our hopes up. Our last pair of panda, Ling Ling and Sing Sing, often disappointed. That Ling Ling got pregnant at all was due to extreme artificial insemination. However, none of her six pregnancies succeeded in producing a healthy cub. It seems Sing Sing just was not interested in sex. In addition, Ling Ling was a hopeless klutz in mothering business. Yet hope springs eternal. If the Red Sox can win the World Series, surely we Washingtonians could someday enjoy a baby panda. After five years, this new set of pandas at last delivered the goods: one incredibly adorable, precocious, innocent and utterly harmless baby cub. Washington’s panda fever, always near a critical level, burst into full Scarlet Fever.

Until yesterday, most panda fanatics had to contend themselves with newspaper images of Tai Shan. Those who needed more, like my wife, spent hours each evening watching his every move on the Animal Planet Panda Cam. The pictures streamed across the internet were grainy (and for some bizarre reason, only available in black and white). There seemed to be no action on the Panda Cam by little Tia Shan that would not elicit oohs, ahs and sighs from my beloved.

If you are wondering if you can still grab a ten minute observation ticket to view little Butterstick (as many call him, since he was the size of a stick of butter when he was born), it’s too late. It took about two hours for the National Zoo to release all of its 13,000 baby panda viewing tickets. While the tickets were free, a few entrepreneurs managed to make some quick bucks by auctioning off their tickets on eBay. One female poster on Craigslist a few days ago promised sexual delights in exchange for a ticket to view the panda cub. This took prostitution to a new and hitherto unknown level. (I have no idea whether she succeeded. The ad is no longer there.)

Tia Shan is not likely to go anywhere for years, but he is likely to keep growing. In three years when he has reached his full size, he will be just another cute panda. Adult pandas are fun to look at too, but baby pandas are exponentially more fun. So now is the time when serious panda fanatics (about half of the Washington D.C. metropolitan area) must view Tia Shan while he is still small and squeaky. After all, what other animal has such big eyes, or at least gives the appearance of having big eyes by having their eyes surrounded by so much black fur? If his small size were not enough, he is just learning to amble. Every step elicits maternal or paternal feelings. Moreover, when he talks he sounds like a chipmunk.

If it were just baby pandas around my house then perhaps the cuteness would be endurable. Lately though it has been all baby animals all the time. My wife spends much of her free time hanging out on the Live Journal community called Baaaaaby Animals. Looking at baby animals on the Internet has become something of an obsession for her. If I did not live with her, I would think the rest of her life must really suck. However, once you have the baaaaaby animal addiction, it seems there is no way to stop it. Most evenings I hear her cooing or sighing over the latest pictures that users have posted of their childish critters. Currently she is fixated on baaaaaby bunnies. The species does not really matter to her. I have heard her coo over baby rhinoceros. “Baby anything is cute,” she tells me, as she quickly scrolls down to the next picture.

It makes me wonder if maybe we should have had a second child. Perhaps a couple more years changing poopy diapers and dealing with childhood temper tantrums would have killed this new maternal craving. Alas, it is physically impossible for her to reproduce at this point. So perhaps those maternal feelings must be expressed through the endless stream of pet pictures on Baaaaaby Animals.

Yes, it is an addiction but a benign one as these things go. Fortunately, so far it has not translated into our house becoming a petting zoo. We are down to one adorable and extremely snuggly nineteen-year-old cat, plus a Betta named Fred the Ferocious Fish, who observes me with a perpetual frown from across the room. While none of us can bear the thought of our cat dying, my wife already has plans for our post cat era. The next pet she has decided will be a baaaaaby bunny.

I just hope they come litter trained.

Eulogy for my mother

My mother’s memorial mass is tomorrow. I prepared the following eulogy when my turn comes to say something after the mass. This is a different perspective of my mother suitable for consumption by our immediate family.

Soon hopefully I will be focusing on other things again. For those of you who are wondering I find myself at peace over her passing. I think most of my grief occurred watching her decline. Now that this is behind us I think I can move on. However, I will certainly never forget my mother, and always hold her close to my heart.

First, I think we should all take a bow for the loving care we gave Mom. We all went beyond the call of duty. Even those of us who do not live locally came frequently. Mary’s tenacity and hard work throughout this whole time was overwhelming. She made Mom’s limited time at Riderwood a rich experience. She kept her mind engaged on projects like decorating the kitchen. She allowed Mom to sample the fullness of life as long as possible. When Mom fell or her conditions worsened, Mary jumped in with both feet and with little notice. She took on a big responsibility and she came through it with flying colors. Thank you, Mary. And thank you sister Teri, for the intensive care you gave Mom during her most critical times, including being with her at the end. Thank you all. A special thank you though also goes to my wife Terri. She visited Mom every Wednesday in Renaissance Gardens, almost without fail. The picture poster board was her idea. She gave Mom the deep, loving and focused attention that she craved. As a fellow Michigander, she was a critical bond to the home and culture that Mom loved. I believe not one wife in a thousand would do what Terri has done. Although I knew she had these traits when I married her, I still feel overwhelmed by her magnanimity and character. I am not sure I could give to my mother in law what she gave to hers. Clearly, I am a husband who is quite blessed. I love you dear.

My most persistent memory of Mom is of a woman always in motion. From before we were up (when she or Dad put on the first pot of Maxwell House coffee) until after we went to bed (when she could be found in the living room darning socks) her hands were usually busy. Even her sleep was restless. I do not know where her energy came from but I found it intimidating. She seemed to never stop doing things for us. She always kept our house immaculate. The furniture was always dusted and buffeted. Our sheets were changed like clockwork every Monday. I have memories of her in Endwell once a week waxing the kitchen floor whether it needed it or not. She never seemed to take a day off. She seemed to work as hard on Sundays as she did during the week.

Mom’s essence, I believe, was to be a doer. She was happy as long as she was doing something. She was usually miserable when she wasn’t doing anything. For example, she did not have to make spaghetti sauce from scratch. It could have easily come out of a jar. She knew what she could cook would be so much tastier than what could be purchased. She was right and we were her beneficiaries. From my perspective, the food she served was uniformly excellent. Often the aromas would fill the house for hours before the meal was served, making me all the hungrier when dinner arrived.

I also remember littler things that showed me that she cared. During my teenage years when I worked evenings at the Winn Dixie, I would get home hungry. But she had saved me a dinner plate, wrapped in aluminum foil, and would pop it in the oven. She knew I preferred her home cooking to anything I could buy so there was never a reason for me to miss an evening meal. Yet this was just one of numerous little things that she would do for me. When I came home from college for the weekend, she volunteered to do my dirty laundry. A few hours later, it arrived all neatly folded and ready for me to take back to the dorm. Little things like this spoke to her magnanimous character.

Mom was the sort of person who made a house a home. While Dad always struck me as the logical center of the family, Mom was its emotional heart. Mom was a woman very much in touch with her feelings. There was little in the way of ambiguity about Mom. You knew how she felt about things because she told you very explicitly and in a tone of voice that eliminated any ambiguity.

A few things about Mom will always puzzle me. One is why she discounted her own intelligence. Here was a woman who had earned a degree in nursing from Catholic University. Her degree was equivalent to Dad’s. She had loads of common sense. Like my wife Terri, she was a whiz at crossword puzzles. When we watched Jeopardy on TV together, I could rarely beat her to the answer. Nevertheless, for some reason she felt she was Dad’s intellectual inferior. She seemed to think that the person with more facts crammed into their brain must have better judgment. I have learned: it ain’t necessarily so.

As you know, shortly before I turned a teen I promoted myself as her favorite son. She would agree to it only in jest. I knew she was too evenhanded to actually pick a favorite. In retrospect, my attempt at humor answered to a deeper need within me. Mom herself has admitted that when I came along she was a bit frayed at the ends. She had three of us boys in diapers at the same time, plus a busy household to manage. Clearly, I wanted a whole lot more mother time than I actually got. A baby cannot understand the burdens of a full time mother with a plethora of children. But oh how I ached for more time with her. One way to get it was to play the favorite son game.

During the last years of her life, and the last couple of months in particular, I found that my mother had few distractions. She now lived close to me, so I could have as much of her attention as I wanted. Those of us who cared for Mom in the nursing home had a tough time of it. Yet it was not all bad. It was a bittersweet experience. To me it was right and appropriate for me to do intimate things like help her to the bathroom or feed her lunch, when she surely did far more for me in countless episodes throughout her life. While extremely difficult at the end, her last months were also a profound growth experience for me. Even in dying, she taught lessons.

From Mom, as well as Dad, I learned doggedness. For both of them marriage was for life, and for better or for worse. I think that perspective is something many of my siblings share. It contributes to so many long-standing marriages in our family.

One area of disagreement between Mom and myself was Catholicism. While it did not agree with me as an adult, I cannot help but have deep respect her profound feelings about her given faith. I know visits from priests and lay ministers comforted her enormously in her last months. Moreover, I am impressed in some ways with the Catholic Church as an institution. When she was in the hospital in Midland after her fall, members of the church stopped by to pray with her and give her Holy Communion. Although I suspect I will never be a Catholic again, I have inherited a feeling of reverence for the sacred from her as well as from Dad. Certainly, Jesus taught us to work toward being good people and to live by high values. She was dutiful in practicing her faith. I will cherish the memory of hearing her and Dad saying their prayers on their knees next to their beds before starting their busy days. I know her faith carried her through times that would have destroyed lesser women. I cannot help but respect that power.

Of course, right now the loss of Mom is too near and tender. It will take some time for me to gain some perspective on the meaning of not having her in my life. Right now, my mind is clouded with distressing images of her during her last few months. Yet I believe that as time passes these images will fade. Instead, I will remember the essence of my mother. The images that will persist will be those of my Mom humming to herself in the kitchen while she made another meal, or tending to her flowerbed on her knees. She took great pleasure in simple things. This is perhaps the most profound lesson that she taught me, and one I have yet to fully absorb.

While Mom is not here in the flesh, she is definitely here in spirit. She will always be in our hearts. So much of the person I became can be traced directly to Mom. So in a way I am the walking embodiment of Mom, as we all are. Because while we live, she still lives on. So I cannot grieve too much today because she is not just all around me, she is a part of me. She is not gone. She is in the air. She is in each breath I take. She is in every step I take. She is integrated inside me. Knowing this I can accept her passing. I am relieved that her suffering is at an end. I believe her spirit is still around, unfettered and free at last.

Update 6/26/2011. I continue to be surprised, more than five years after her death, how many page views this post received, usually several dozen or more a day. I assume many of you reading this have lost your mother as well, and perhaps are working on a eulogy for her too. Please feel free to use this as a template and change words as necessary to fit your own mother. Of course, something that comes straight from the heart will usually resonate the most. My heart goes out to anyone who is going through the loss of a parent. Please know that grief is a process you will get through, and that grieving is actually both good and necessary.

If you want to see a picture of my mother and learn more about her and how she raised us, click here.

85 Years and 8 Months

My mother died this morning at 7:42 a.m. She died at Renaissance Gardens, a nursing home at Riderwood, a retirement community in Silver Spring, Maryland. While she died peacefully, her condition (Progressive Supranuclear Palsy) made her last few months quite unpleasant. While we are of course grieved to have her gone from this life, we are also relieved that she is no longer in pain or distress.

A picture of my mother, taken in Christmas 2004.

She was born in the midst of the Great Depression in Bay City, Michigan. Her parents, poor Polish immigrants, somehow raised twelve children while eking out a living that kept the family in poverty for most of her childhood. Since she grew up in adversity, she knew adversity. It shaped her entire outlook on life. Despite being in a desperately poor family, she was able to latch on to the American Dream somehow. Partially because there was a war on, and partially because her older sister Essie and her husband found the money, she went to nursing school in Washington, D.C. There at Catholic University she met a tall, blond and skinny man six years her junior named Jim.

While she never expected to be married, Jim was persuasive. They were married on June 21st, 1950 in Bay City, Michigan. Over the course of their 55-year marriage, they raised eight children. I am one of them. An engineer’s salary greatly exceeded her father’s salary as a butcher, but my siblings and I still lived a fairly Spartan and no-frills existence. Somehow, Mom and Dad raised eight of us. We absorbed their work and education ethics. Among my eight siblings, three have PhDs and three others (including myself) have graduate degrees. My marriage of twenty years is in the middle of the pack. My sister Doris celebrated thirty years of marriage this summer. My parents can also count nine grandchildren to their credit.

My mother was a submissive mouse of a woman to her husband and was too shy to make many friends. She was only truly comfortable with her own sisters. She seemed a tyrant to us children growing up. We do not hold that against her. She was playing from the same script she learned at her mother’s knees. While my Dad was invariably calm and logical, my mother was the full of emotion. To call her a tyrant though is to paint too broad a brush. She was also a mother who gave of herself to an almost dysfunctional degree. She would take no day off. Even on vacations, she was making meals and washing clothes. Despite eight of us to care for our house was always immaculate. She changed our bed sheets weekly. There was never a trace of dust on the furniture. The dining room floor was waxed weekly, whether it needed it or not. (Much later in life, she realized that Mop-N-Glow was good enough.)

She filled our tummies with delicious and healthy foods that had most of us salivating for more. She expressed her passion mostly in her cooking. Many dishes, such as spaghetti sauce, she made from scratch. Her pressure cooker steaming away and the percolator filling the house with aromas of Maxwell House are memories none of us could possibly forget. The yellow cakes with chocolate frosting that she made for my father seemed as numerous as stars in the sky. Whether cooking, cleaning or just fussing she was always in motion. She expressed her love through action.

Yet she discounted her own abilities. Despite having earned a B.S. degree in nursing, working as a teacher for a number of years, operating as scrub and psychiatric nurses, she considered herself stupid. She idolized my father’s intellect and generally allowed him to make the important decisions. She grew up steeped in the mysticism of Catholicism. My father also felt similar devotional inclinations. Our childhood years were full of devout and some might argue dysfunctional Catholicism. Daily rosaries, weekly masses and periodic trips to the confessional were an accepted part of growing up, as were parochial schools, when they could afford it. Every morning before they started the day they prayed together at the side of their bed. We knew our mortal from our venial sins. We were always looking over our shoulders wondering if God was frowning at us for our latest minor transgressions.

After her children had flown the coup, my mother was a bit lost. She never returned to work so instead invested more energy being the good submissive wife who catered to my father. Too much togetherness between them was probably not healthy. However, they had their values and there was no changing them. Marriage meant forever because God himself had joined them. Both played their marriage script, often sniping at each other in a tired passive-aggressive fashion, to the bitter end.

As my mother declined, their roles reversed, much to my mother’s horror. All she knew how to do was to give. It was infuriating to her not to be able to give, but to have others take care of her. Every little decline added to her unhappy state. My father floundered a bit in his new caretaker role. My family stepped in to support him. Our family (principally my sister Mary) saw the obvious. When it was clear they could not manage a house together anymore, we worked through the logistics of moving them from Michigan to Maryland.

It was family in the end that I think brought home to my mother the realization that she was indeed not just loved, but cherished. For my sister Mary and me, who live locally, caring for her meant a lot of grunt work. For me it was weekly visits. Mary did the same but supplemented it with so much more. Every day was a challenge for her to make my mother’s declining life have some meaning. Others visited when they could, which was surprisingly often, considering it meant plane rides.

The end of my mother’s life is really but a footnote to a long life that spanned 85 years and 8 months exactly. My mother’s life was about service to family. To her husband and children it was about doing things to place us in a safe and stable family environment. Nevertheless, she also had something of a previous life. She was not married until the ripe age of 30. Before marriage, she was a good but unnoticed woman who won affection by being at her parent’s beck and call. Her acts were quite extraordinary. For example, she cared for her severely mentally ill mother while nursing her colicky first child, my sister Lee Ann. This meant years of constant interruption and almost no sleep. No grunt soldier slogging through the Rhineland worked harder.

Now she is at rest. We know what her life was about, but I sometimes wonder why she went to such extraordinarily lengths for us. For now we do not analyze, we simply mourn her absence. Millions of us die every year, yet each of us has powerful individual life stories. Her life story too is very powerful. Yet to me at least she remains something of an enigma.

I feel that whatever she is supposed to do, her journey is not over. I think she has other lives ahead in other bodies. This life was a lesson for her. If she is granted another one, I hope it is one where she will have some time for reflection and ease. I hope it is one where she no longer basks in someone else’s life, but is one where she becomes the person she was meant to be. That is my hope for her. It is my hope that death for her is not the end. Rather, I hope she is a chrysalis and through her death she is transformed into the beautiful butterfly so hard for any but her family to see. It is this hope that gives me comfort while, understandably, I am feeling for a while adrift without my moorings.

Continue reading “85 Years and 8 Months”

In Life’s Last Throes

It is Thursday evening and I am on the road in Helena, Montana. I arrive back at my hotel after a long day of work. In my email box was an ominous note from my father about my mother: “I cannot say that (her) death is imminent, but it may be… she didn’t respond to anything I said… couldn’t get Mom to close her lips on the straw, or suck.”

Ominous indeed. My wife had paid her a visit the day before. While my Mom was not in great shape, she could at least make something resembling conversation. Until now, I had no reason to think her death might be coming in the next few days or weeks. I figured there were months ahead at least before she died. This suited me. I thought maybe I was ready to let her go, but I was not. Not yet.

I spent my last night in Montana sleeping badly. I anxiously checked my email in the morning before my predawn flight back home. Nothing new. I had a sinking feeling that I would arrive back in Washington to find my wife greeting me in tears and telling me that my mother had died. When I arrived back at Washington Dulles Airport in the middle of the afternoon, I promptly called her. My Dad sent a brief email that made me feel a little hopeful. The cloud of doom lifted, at least for a moment. Nonetheless, the persistent headache that I often get under persistent stress would not go away. I popped two Tylenol.

By evening, another email arrived with the prognosis I had been dreading. “The nurse practitioner thinks Mom may die within a day or a week, though no one is certain.” Elevated pulse. Elevated respiration. Urinary tract infection may have spread to the blood. Since she had ordered no extraordinary means to prolong her life, my father stopped her IV, ended the antibiotic, but agreed to give her oxygen and a liquid morphine to relieve her misery.

No, dammit, I was still not ready. I was not ready for my mother to die. This was too fast. Just two days ago, she could swallow food! How could she be spiraling so quickly toward death?

With the help of more Tylenol plus an accumulated loss of sleep from my trip, I managed to sleep soundly until 5 a.m. or so. That is when the thought resurfaced: my mother is in the last throes of life. I tried to get back to sleep but never fully succeeded. It was morning and the headache was back. It was time to pop some more Tylenol.

My wife had to go to work for a while. We planned to visit my mother afterwards while I took care of things that had to be done, even when loved ones are dying. This included chores like buying groceries. It was after 3 p.m. before we arrived at her nursing home, some 30 miles away. We both steeled ourselves. If my mother had days to live, this might very well be the last time I would see her alive. For now, the thought was too large to get my mind around, but I felt its awful weight anyhow entering the nursing home. My feet felt like lead, but we finally made it to my mother’s room.

My father was there. For some reason, although he has been married to my mother for 55 years, the cloud of doom that hung over my wife and I was not affecting my father. He seemed almost happy. In the hallway out of earshot, he explained. “Your mother has been dying for three years. She will soon be out of her misery and with Our Lord.” For my father, his Catholic faith was an instrumental coping mechanism in what was for me what seems a very bleak time. Still I could not fathom his perspective. Your life partner is almost dead. How can you be so chipper?

My Mom was face up on her bed. Mostly she was asleep, but occasionally her eyes would open and she would observe her world from her narcotic haze. She could neither move her eyes nor turn her head. Her fingers were deadweight in my hands. Her breathing was labored, punctuated by occasional coughs. Mostly there was a vacant look in her eyes, but often they seemed to be able to focus on me.

What can you possibly say to someone who cannot talk back and is in the very last stages of life? Her mouth was dry. We used a sponge to give her moisture. I told her I loved her of course. I told her the whole family sent love. We let her know that other siblings were on the way to see her too. We think she understood, but she could not say anything. She could not even utter a grunt.

An oxygen tube went into her nose. It was tethered to a noisy machine six feet away. There was little to really say or do. All I could do is hold her hand. My wife took the other hand. My wife tried to give her drops of water. She asked my Mom to open her mouth. She could not open her mouth voluntarily.

A nurse practitioner came by to assess her situation. She had not seen my Mom in a few days either. She too was shocked by her rapid deterioration. There was little she could do to add to her comfort. A lip balm went on her chapped lips. She tried to clean out her dry mouth with a rubber sponge soaked in water on a stick.

And so my mother drifted in and out of sleep, sometimes seeming to watch us with half an eye open, her breathing always labored, her pulse always high. We pulled back her blankets because she seemed feverish. We took turns talking to her.

What to do so close to the end? The hardest part for me was simply not dissolving into a veil of tears. My wife seemed to find strength that I did not have. She spoke to my mother of simple and pragmatic things. Although my wife has known my mother less than half the time I have known her, both are very bonded to each other. In some ways, my mother’s passing may be more traumatic to my wife than to me. Both grew up near the same area of Michigan. Both shared similar Midwestern values. Heck, they even look quite a bit alike. My wife has been an angel of mercy to my mother these last several months, visiting at least once a week by herself while I worked. If there were a daughter in law of the year award, she would win it without trouble.

But what to say? Eventually I found my courage to say what I felt had to be said. While she could not speak, I knew she knew that she was rapidly dying. “Mom, I love you,” I told her. “I love you more than I can tell you. I cannot begin to tell you just how much you mean to me. I am so sorry to see you suffer like this. I know the last months in the nursing home have been very hard for you. But for me they have been a precious time. Because I have had the time to be with you. Because I have had the opportunity to take care of you for a while, like you cared for me. Because I have enjoyed our time together so much, and feel it is a blessing to have had this time with you at this stage in your life.” She was looking intently. I could tell she understood me, but had no means to say something in return. Nevertheless, I articulated it. “And I know how much you love me too, Mom.”

She drifted in and out of sleep. As a deeper sleep caught up with her, I gently slipped my hand out of hers. I kissed her on the forehead. “Be at peace,” I said, tears welling up. My wife did the same thing. We hugged each other on the way out. It was not until we were in the parking lot that I started bawling like a baby.

I have a feeling I will be crying a lot more before this is over. For the moment, she clings to life. However, her hours are now numbered.

At this point, I just want her out of her suffering. I hope whatever Supreme Being that may or may not be out there is merciful and swift. She has suffered enough. Please let whatever merciful uberforce is out there bring her back to the source so that she is free again. I hope, pray even, that she does indeed have a soul, and this life is but one lesson in an eternal life. I hope she learned important lessons in this challenging life. Perhaps she will be reincarnated. Perhaps she will begin a new and more hopeful life after a period of reflection in another dimension.

Although I still feel some horror in witnessing the process of dying firsthand, I am also not quite so afraid of it. For in the end death is simply an ultimate peace, and she has earned her rest many times. Her misery will soon be over. In addition, those of us who mourn her passing can begin to grapple with dealing with the rest of our lives without her. Of course, she will always live on in our hearts. In that sense, she is already immortal.

Rest in peace, my beloved mother.

Rocky Mountain High

I am sitting in my room at a Hampton Inn in Helena, Montana. Helena is not your typical destination for either business or pleasure, particularly at the end of October. Perhaps this is because Helena (like most of Montana) can be a challenge to even get to, since it seems too remote from most of the rest of the lower forty-eight.

To get to Helena by air usually requires transferring planes in Salt Lake City. Salt Lake City is one of the more spectacular airports to fly into. When flying in from the east it means descending rather sharply over some very craggy and often snowy jagged mountains. The Great Salt Lake is impossible to miss since you usually fly right over it from the north. With so many mountains in the way, pilots must turn one hundred and eighty degrees before landing from the south. Book a window seat.

You reach Helena via Concourse E, a busy hub full of commuter jets. These are the kinds of jets that require most passengers to stoop while standing in the cabin. If you do not you risk head injury. Montana is about an hour from Salt Lake City by air. A night flight to Helena reveals little but an inky blackness outside the window. Then Helena appears like an oasis of light.

I am here until Friday. I expected Helena to be a bit detached from the real world. I expected (shudder) dial up access to the Internet, if that was even available. My fears were unfounded. The Hampton Inn here has high-speed internet access, as do most of the hotels in the city. You will find most of the chains here that appear elsewhere.

Montana is “Big Sky Country”. You certainly get that sense when visiting Helena. For those of us who live on the East Coast, Montana seems almost pristine. If Helena were Northern Virginia, its surrounding real estate would quickly be turned into numerous, ugly and poorly planned subdivisions. For now Helena seems to have achieved some balance between the needs of a growing population and the palpable feeling of wildness that is here.

Montana is a state of big vistas. Its grandeur is impossible to miss. Montana feels limitless. Its relative remoteness, something of a hindrance in the past, is also its biggest asset. For now the growth of cities like Helena, the state capital, seems modest compared to the frenetic growth where I live. Yet it is still worrisome, even if cities like Helena are proactively purchasing land to ensure its most pristine areas are never encroached on by development. Happily, the federal government does its part. Large parts of this part of the state are part of national forests.

My reason for being here on business starts tomorrow. Today was my chance to experience the natural wonder of Montana. Since 2003 when my family and I peeked into Montana from Yellowstone National Park, I have been intrigued by Montana. I remain no less enamored now with a closer exposure. Wendy, a fellow USGS employee, flew in a day early to experience Montana with me. Dave, one of my employees who work out here, acted as our guide to natural wonder. This meant hiking.

I love hiking but I am out of practice. Dave took us up many a winding, steeply ascending gravel road to the end of a trail that begins in a city park eight miles away. For four and a half hours, we hiked over many a meadow, and scaled two peaks, including Mount Helena itself. Hiking in November in Montana can be chancy. Precipitation was expected, but we also had to deal with howling winds that threatened to toss us down the side of the mountain. The temperatures began in the low 30s and gradually ascended into the forties. Precipitation did arrive, first as flurries, which was followed by periods of spattering rain, often mixed with sunshine.

This climb turned out to be a bit too ambitious for me. Even with good hiking shoes, this was a challenging hike, with the descents proving more painful to my legs than the ascents. My legs and feet were up to the challenge, but just barely. Descending Mount Helena was particularly difficult. My right legs felt like gelatin. There was no lack of dangerous gravel, treacherous slopes and large, sharp rocks to make the hiking challenging.

Yet the views were spectacular. There is little that can compare with such a direct experience with nature. While I am now popping ibuprofen to deal with the inflammation in my leg, I do not begrudge the pain. I am just grateful I had the time and the experience to get my own Rocky Mountain High.

The rest of my week will be full of business. It is unlikely that I will get to experience too much more of Montana’s natural side. Nevertheless, I hope for at least one clear night before I leave. I want the opportunity to drive my rental car out of the city to a very dark spot, turn off the lights, and revel in the tapestry of the stars in a way that is impossible out east. In Montana, nature is impossible to wholly escape. It is a shame that in so many other parts of the country, it is hard to feel its majesty.

No time for reflection

Life is keeping me very busy this week. My team is in town. That means long days in a conference room. It also means that my routine is disrupted. I have almost no time to read the news, or pick up a book, or even surf the web. Even finding time to take a shower is challenging!

Perhaps this is the way life is supposed to be. Perhaps we are not meant to have time for regular reflection. All I know is that while I am fortunate to lead such a terrific team of people, I will still be glad for the meetings to be over tomorrow. I need a breather!

When I recover my breath in a day or so I will be back.