Today my mother would have been 80 years old.
I wish she was still around to mark the milestone, but only if she was in a healthy state.
My mother and I were total opposites and we clashed plenty, especially during the time I was my mother’s caregiver. Much of those battles, some humorous, some painful, are captured in a series of essays that I hope to publish later this year. (It’s in the final edit phase now.)
But today is a day of celebration, and even though my mom could drive me crazy, she had many wonderful qualities that she tried to pass on to me. In honor of her 80th, here are 8 ways that I remember my mother and try to carry on her legacy.
- Her sense of humor: Yes, it was corny as could be, but my mother loved to laugh. Even as she faced cancer, she still found ways to sneak in a bit of levity to the situation. We were all better for it. I have a much snarkier, darker sense of humor, but it’s there, and it did help me cope with the difficulties of caregiving.
- Her love of family: Sometimes I found it smothering, but I know my mother truly loved me. In a world where children can be treated so cruelly, I know I’m fortunate to have had good, kind parents. Everyone has their faults, but even when Mom drove me nuts, she was doing it out of a place of love and concern.
- Being a caregiver for my father: I may not have agreed with all of the decisions Mom made for Dad near the end of his life, but she earned the right to call the shots after taking care of him on her own for years. I helped where I could, but Mom was the one hands-on with Dad 24/7, as he lost his grip on reality thanks to dementia. Mom made the grueling Greyhound trips to see Dad at the memory care center, while she nursed a broken shoulder. Six months after his death, Mom was diagnosed with cancer. I think she paid the ultimate price with her health, but I know she would do it all over again.
- Love of nature: My mother loved nature, whether it was animals or scenery. She even loved the blustery mountain winds that whipped around her condo in New Mexico, saying everything had its place. She may have been right, but those winds are brutal! But I do share her love of animals and an appreciation for the natural wonders of our world. I probably don’t stop enough to “smell the roses” but I make sure our birdfeeder stays full, in memory of Mom.
- Appreciation for the little things: Mom could find delight in the smallest things, whether it was a good cup of coffee or a sunny day. It’s easy to take such things for granted, as I often do, but I try to channel Mom a bit and appreciate those small daily doses of wonder.
- An interest in others: Mom loved to talk, but she also loved connecting with others. She didn’t discriminate in who she conversed with, and she certainly didn’t think she was better than others. The interest she showed in the lives of service workers who took care of her while she was at the bank, at the grocery store, or at the salon was admirable. I could tell by their reaction that many people treat service workers as if they were invisible. I’m not the chatty type, but I do make sure to make eye contact, smile and thank the person assisting me, to honor Mom’s legacy.
- Her interest in the world around her: Mom maintained a keen interest in news until she died. She cared about world issues and was troubled by war and famine. She read the newspaper voraciously, and even though rehashing week-old news could test my patience, I admired her vested interest in the world around her. As a journalist, caring about these issues is my job, but it’s also my passion.
- Her love of music: Mom loved the classic country and classic pop music of her youth, which included Elvis, Patsy Cline, Buddy Holly, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson and many more legends. I’ve had a love of music since my youth, and while I enjoy music from many genres, I gravitate towards these classic country artists, as well as some new ones who are channeling their outlaw spirit.
My dad loved books, but he hated bookmarks.
Even though the library included free ones in every book, Dad insisted upon “dog earing” pages. My mother would nag him about it, saying the books were the library’s property and they probably didn’t appreciate him returning books with creased page corners. But Dad continued to do it, and to be fair, I never heard him getting chewed out at the library about it. Certainly he wasn’t the only person who dog eared books.
As I was going through some books and sorting them for donations, I came across one of those library bookmarks. The bookmarks served dual purposes: marking your place in the book and reminding you when the book was due.
The bookmarks, with the sketch of the Downey City Library at the bottom, are so ingrained in my memory, having checked out hundreds of books from the library during my childhood.
The due date on this one was Aug. 29, 1981. I would have just turned 6 the month before. It would’ve almost been time for school to start, as we started just after Labor Day. I would’ve been entering first grade.
What’s even more interesting is that I found the bookmark in an old, worn copy of East and West, a collection of short stories by Somerset Maugham. That book is from the New Orleans Public Library and had a due date of Sept. 2, 1959. (Dad lived for a brief period in the Big Easy.) The next time I visit I may return the book just to see the reaction of the librarian!
Sorting through Dad’s book collection was the ideal task to mark Father’s Day.
Photo by Lillian Nelson/Freeimages
In recent years, a growing movement has embraced the concept of dying at home, versus a hospital or nursing home. In general, I support the idea, after my father had a difficult death in a skilled nursing facility while I was 1,300 miles away. But having experienced the challenges of being a primary caregiver for my mother, who died at home, I also understand just how traumatic such a death can be for family members. The latter is a viewpoint that is not often discussed.
Ann Brenoff, who covers aging topics for Huffington Post, interviewed me last week to discuss the potential consequences for the family caregiver when a loved one chooses to die at home. The article, When Loved Ones Die At Home, Family Caregivers Pay The Price, offers an important perspective on the subject. The article references my 2015 essay, Why dying at home is not all it’s cracked up to be. Brenoff discusses how financial concerns are behind the government’s desire for people to die at home. While it’s cheaper for people to die at home, caregivers pay the ultimate price.
In many cases, family caregivers shoulder the burden of care duties. Some have to quit their jobs or reduce work hours, impacting their financial status. Chronic stress can affect their own health. The emotional toll can be devastating.
To achieve a good death at home standard, we must offer greater support to family caregivers.
There are pros and cons to everything, including dying at home. The more we learn about each other’s caregiving experiences, the better informed we will be when we face a family health crisis or end-of-life care situation.
It’s hard to believe it has been two years since my mother died. The world seems like such a different place, even though two years is but a speck over the course of history.
While merely coincidence, Mom’s death seemed to send the universe into a chaotic spiral. I feel like I’m living in perpetual survival mode, just like I did when I was a caregiver. Mom’s eternal optimism would have been sorely tested over the last year or so.
The grief is less oppressive and not as constant at this point, but it continues to lurk in the dark alleys of my mind, popping out like a villain in a movie from time to time. The “should’ve, would’ve, could’ve” mantra hasn’t been silenced quite yet, but I’ve been able to turn down the volume on the second-guessing for the most part.
Just like in this photo of Mom, I will spend the day writing. She always loved this photo, which appeared in the yearbook. Mom took her education seriously, which wasn’t always a given for farm families when crops could trump classes. I inherited a similar love of learning from both of my parents, which is a precious gift that I use every day.
Mom and I at the library, before taking a stroll through the park.
Happy Mother’s Day to all of the wonderful, patient and loving mothers out there, both living and departed.
Even though it is easy to roll one’s eyes at this “Hallmark holiday,” it is a good opportunity to remember those who have cared for you and those you love. Mothering comes in many forms, from traditional to caregiving to caring for pets. A simple thank you, a sympathetic ear, a helping hand, all of these go a long way to honoring the mother(-s) in your lives.
Mother’s Day is extra difficult for me because once I get past today, the anniversary of my mom’s death looms on May 21. It’s a double gut-punch of a month now.
I’ll remember Mom today by doing some birdwatching in the backyard (our birdfeeder has become quite the hotspot) and taking a walk to appreciate other wonders of nature that my mother loved. One of Mom’s best qualities was always “stopping to smell the roses.” She appreciated every flower, every bird, all of nature’s offerings. It’s a good reminder for me to take time to enjoy nature as well and seek a healthier balance between work and other demands of modern life.
My dad would have turned 85 on Monday. It’s been several years now since his death, and the milestones are starting to become less likely to imagine.
My father has one sister who has lived into her 80s, but most of his family died in their 70s or younger. His immediate family survived the brutalities of WWII so they’re a hardy bunch for sure. Dad made it to 79, and was just 4 months shy of his 80th birthday.
But it’s difficult to imagine my dad at 85. A smoker since his teens, who was diagnosed with COPD and emphysema, those conditions would likely have taken a great toll on him by now, and perhaps he’d be tied to an oxygen machine. He definitely would have hated that. And would he have become so frail as to need a wheelchair? That’s another thing he would’ve loathed. The man loved to walk in a long, fast, striding gait. This was a major problem when he developed dementia, because of his tendency to wander.
So all in all, I’m at peace with the fact that Dad’s not around to be an octogenarian. If I’ve learned anything over the last several years, life isn’t about reaching a certain age but the quality of your day-to-day living.
Since Dad’s birthday is close to Easter this year, I thought it was appropriate to include the one Easter photo I have of us together.