Aspens Essays

Essays by Aspen

Patient 9363 Was My Mother

posted:06/05/17


It was the holiday season, 2004. Mom had come to visit as she always had for as many
years as I can remember. We tried not to get too busy, as it is so easy to do around that time of
year. Even when the kids were small, they too enjoyed the time that we spent at home as a
family playing one of the games they received as a present or watching a movie, like Benny and
June, that we saved for a special day. As they grew older and were often gone, we relished the
opportunity to re-group and spend a cozy time together. Mom always participated in our little
ways of doing things, including our unusual holiday meals; we are vegetarians and do not
partake of the normal prescribed meals of the season. For instance, our favorite menu for
Christmas dinner is our homemade pizza, made from a delicious whole grain crust and covered
with my special pizza sauce. It is especially fun to make individual pizzas where we can each
decide for ourselves in what extras to indulge. We all loved that pizza and declared it the best
pizza ever until my son got older and decided that Little Caesar’s just might be better. It might
not be a traditional meal but mom had a good appetite, and for a small person she could really
hold her own when it came to eating. We always teased her about that. Our other favorite meal
is our Hanukah dinner, which, unlike pizza, is truly a traditional feast. Boy do we love our
potato latkas, or as mom would say, “I never met a potata I did not like.” We laughed each time
when she predictably would announce, “I don’t know why but I’m going to take one more.”
Whenever mom visited us, she and I would make a point to keep up our exercise, which
usually amounted to taking walks together down our country road. It did not matter if we were
walking in a mall together, around a city block in the Detroit area where mom lived, or out for a
stroll on our bumpy dirt road, you just could not keep up with mom. I can still remember her
short, frequent steps and the way she swung her arms and even wriggled her fingers, to make
sure that everything got exercised. Inevitably, she would collect stones as we walked. She saved
these stones to put on dad’s grave; it was her way of showing that someone was coming by and
remembering him. It puts a smile on my face to remember how she looked as she strode down
that road. When I would go walking or when I was out working on the land, I would put on my
thread worn clothes and dingiest shoes. Not mom. I think that in her last life she was a southern,
country gentleman. Not a southern bell, for it was not as though she put on her swirling skirts,
but she was as clean and tucked in as a person could be, and usually had on a pair of fresh white
shoes that I could swear never got dirty. She would wear a pair of pants, never baggy, buttoned
tightly, and secured with a belt that was also responsible for holding in her nicely tucked shirt. I
always marveled at the tightness around her waist and wondered how she ever ate anything? I
was just the opposite, as I would buy pants a size too large just to ensure comfort. I guess that
was not the only difference between us. So there she would be, with her short fast steps, hands
and arms waving, blinding white gym shoes, nothing out of place, and I am sure she never broke
a sweat. She might as well have carried a flag announcing that she was not really from those
parts, but that was not her intention, it is just how she was. In truth, I never saw my mom dirty.
My children have not had the same experience with their mom. Someday they will probably recollect
about how dirty and muddy I always got. So, I guess cleanliness is not hereditary.
However, my mom’s preference for cleanliness did not mean she was afraid to get her hands
dirty I used to also enjoy watching my mom perform her favorite spring/summer task around
the house: picking up twigs, of which there were plenty. We shared the land with several very
old trees that did not hesitate in shedding twigs and branches of all sizes. She would accumulate
quite a bundle before she tossed it in the ditch across the road and then she would begin again.
However, her all time favorite outdoor activity was berry picking. She might have liked berries
even more than potatoes, and though she would often declare that she was a city girl, you would
never know it by the way that she picked those berries. Not one would be left on the bushes if
she had anything to do with it, especially if they were raspberries.
If picking berries brought out the country girl in mom, then playing games brought out
the kid in her. The children were lucky to have a grandma spry enough to get on the floor with
them for most of their growing up days. Another of our holiday traditions is playing Yahtzee, a
game of chance involving five dice. In Yahtzee, the luckiest roll one can have is five of a kind,
rolling the same number on all five die, that is. This lucky roll is worth 50 points, and naturally,
they are called Yahtzees. Everyone coveted those extra points, but I always thought that the real
fun of rolling one is that it makes you feel like you have been noticed by the universe. There
was one occasion playing Yahtzee with mom that I can still recall as if it were yesterday. Mom
was sitting on the floor just crying with laughter. We all were as we watched her receive her
third Yahtzee of the game. Three bonuses in one game is unheard of, and mom could not
suppress the thrill of being that noticed! Still, although playing Yahtzee with mom was fun,
playing Spy Alley was hilarious. That game required each player to take on a secret nationality
that other players had to discover before it was “too late.” Watching mom trying to be covert was
a show not to be missed. Nuanced behavior just did not come naturally to her. When we pointed
this out, the house once again, rang with her laughter. Mom and I often shared many differences,
but sharing a game night was just plain fun and differences could easily be put aside.
The holidays came and went, and soon we were into the New Year, 2005. Mom had
wanted to be home in time for a New Year’s Eve celebration with one of her friends, and so we
drove her home for the occasion. As usual we called to wish each other a happy New Year, and
spoke many times throughout the week. Tim would often tease me about how I could “feel”
spring in the air, even as early as January, but it was true. The subtle energetics of spring in
waiting wafted around my soul like the steam from a warm cup of tea, playing with the
hopefulness of new life and infinite possibilities for renewal and beauty. However, with that
anticipation also came the awareness that my daughter, Shandra, would graduate from high
school in the coming May. Family life would be changing, as Shandra would go away to a thus
far undetermined college. There would be much to do, including planning an open house and
completing a photo scrapbook filled with memories that someday would be a lovely treasure. I
knew that the coming months would fly by, but in the light of the moment, I was unaware of the
difficult times that lay ahead.
That January mom went to the doctor for her normal three-month check-up. Over the last
25 years, her doctors had been keeping a watch over her. She had Monoclonal Gammopathy, a
disease that can remain benign, but can also develop into leukemia or lymphoma in old age. She
had blood tests that were supposed to detect any changes in the progress of the condition. At this
check up, to her surprise, mom was told she had a fever, and was sent home with the diagnosis of
a flu or virus. Usually it took a lot to keep her down and mom expected that she would be off
enjoying her normal running around in no time. We all talked about how funny it was to show
up at the doctor and be sick without realizing it. A couple of days passed, but mom was feeling
worse, not better. Her fever was persistent and her appetite was slim. Still, it was flu season,
and we re-assured ourselves by remembering that flu could be quite stubborn, so there was no
need to feel unusually alarmed. However, as a couple of days turned into five, then six and then
a week, enough was enough. Mom’s fever was not diminishing, and her appetite and strength
were quickly waning. Tim and I insisted on going for a visit with the intention of taking her to
the emergency room. When we arrived, mom was resistant, even belligerent about going
anywhere. I had never seen her respond so unreasonably before. Finally, it was decided that
Tim would return home and I would stay with her and continue to discern her condition. I
phoned my sister, Renee, and she decided that she would join me at mom’s house on Saturday. I
was relieved to know that support was on the way. Mom was being very stubborn and I was
growing increasingly alarmed. It was not everyday that mom would decline to eat.
Mom had begun her New Year in the usual manner, at least the usual manner since dad
had passed about 13 ½ years earlier, having taken his own life. Dad always said how strong
mom was and he was right about that. Mom, standing about 4’10”, white haired and dignified,
was truly a survivor. Her white hair was indeed her permanent signature. She was probably the
only one among all of her dear friends who never colored her hair. Sometimes, she was aware of
some regret about that decision, but she felt it was just too late to do so. In fact she grayed so
early that I have almost no memory of her without that beautiful, salon styled and hair sprayed,
white hair. Later in life, when shopping together, her white hair made it a much easier job to pick
her out in the store when she wandered off in her own direction—but that is a another story.
For several years before dad’s traumatic death, it became a sort of tradition that he and
mom would come and stay with us for New Years. Dad was not one to go out and celebrate, and
Tim and I were our own style of homebodies, especially having little children, so it was always
fun to have them come our way. Now, with so many years gone by, mom had her own tradition
and usually spent that time with her longtime childhood girlfriends. I deeply appreciate how their
friendships started at about age 12 and continued throughout their lifetimes. In their later years,
many of them were also widowed early, so mom had a group ready to support her in a new life.
They certainly supported each other through many losses. This mighty group of 10-12 woman
experienced and suffered a troubling amount of early losses in their group, with numerous
premature deaths of spouses, as well as, their own battles with breast cancer and other forms of
cancer and illnesses. It seemed that every time I spoke to mom there was another funeral for her
to attend. In many ways, this was a generation of seemingly stoic and private woman. Though
not Gloria Steinman fighting for woman’s lib, they were strong willed and intelligent women
many of whom were quietly committed to the tradition of keeping sorrows and its details in the
family. Their demeanor reflected that they would stay strong and do whatever was needed in
order to carry on with their lives. However, they did carry their sadness with them. At the same
time, their love and devotion to their families permitted them to experience and participate in
many joyful moments. These shared experiences among this unusual group of close friends,
whether spoken of or not, sealed a bond that was created long ago. In their own way, they were
a sisterhood, and with that sisterhood came all the loyalty, pettiness, and love found among all
siblings. I have often felt that theirs was a story that demanded telling and in this small way I
offer a salute to their strength, courage, and perseverance in life. Yes, dad was right; mom was
strong and she did know how to survive—perhaps it was in her blood.
Though she was born in the U.S., her parents, whom I called, Bubbie and Zadie, came
from a small community in Poland or Russia, depending on when one is talking about it. After
their marriage, Zadie came to the U.S., as so many others did, in hopes of finding a better life for
he and his family. However, that hope resulted in 7-10 years of separation during which Bubbie
suffered the loss of her then two-year-old son. Together with her sister, she earned a meager
living selling produce at a fruit and vegetable stand. Beyond that, the details are somewhat fuzzy,
but the truth remains clear: the effects from those long, difficult, and I fear, sometimes bitter
years of survival, were carried with her when she finally arrived in the U.S. While Bubbie
struggled to get by at home, my Zadie set up shop and repaired shoes in Detroit. He respected
his craft and intended for his repairs to last. He and Bubbie lived upstairs above his shop.
Eventually they had three children with my mom, Sylvia, being the youngest sibling. She adored
her two older brothers, the eldest, Izadore or Izzy as we knew him, and Abe the redhead of the
family. As a child, mom was tiny and, though the family was not wealthy, she was always
elegantly dressed in the formal style of the time. When looking back at old pictures, I still think
she looked like a child star. Maybe she could have been.
Speaking mostly Yiddish for her first five years, English was definitely a second
language for her. It still brings a smile to my face when I recall her delightful stories of being
five years old, given a nickel, and then sent down to the corner store to buy groceries. We
always laughed and laughed when we heard this incredulous story, but I am certain that if any
little child could have done so it would have been her.
Small and somewhat shy, mom always did what she needed to do, both as a child then
and later as an adult. She was very inclined to follow the laws of the land set down by her
parents, Jewish traditions, and other societal influences, and she was seldom prone to
introspection. She believed in that authority, seldom if ever questioned its validity, and lived her
life with the utmost honesty and adherence to those doctrines. She did her part and she did her
best, and this was also true of her cherished older brothers. Like so many, mom was not spared
the impact of harsh realities that left their indelible marks and helped to define who she would
become. One such reality that occurred in her early life involved the family coming home to find
all of their belongings on the street. They had been evicted from their meager dwelling above
the shop and were forced to move into the small confines of the shop itself. That incident,
coupled with being a child of the depression, made a great impression on her. However, as I was
happy to learn while reading her childhood diaries, she remained cheerful and optimistic about
her life, even as she learned to be thrifty and to live within her means. She loved learning, was
an excellent student, and later became well respected as a secretary in a law office. Lacking
great expectations of what life should be, it was apparent that mom adapted to her life and her
circumstances. Though sometimes bordering on denial, I believe that this inner force for survival
and the ability to accept life as it came was a great gift to my mom. Throughout her life, she
maintained an unconditional love and fierce loyalty for her own mother, whom could sometimes
be a difficult woman to reckon with, and also for her father, though he was often a silent party in
the family. My mom seemed to simply understand their story and never took for granted the life
that they were trying to improve and build for their family. Later in life, within her own nuclear
family, where it was not unusual for her to be the odd one out, and even in the face of that
diversity and opposition she still persisted with her unconditional love and loyalty. That does not
mean that she did not have her moments or even phases of frustration and despair. With time,
and the adjustments it can bring, she would grow beyond these moments into a place somewhere
between disappointment and acceptance. However, her love for us was never in question.
Frankly, her family was more expansive in their thinking than she was and these conflicting
perspectives were very terrifying to this woman who had always followed the path that had been
laid out for her.

Her time of expansion and collision with those new realities or new ideas began in
October of 1948 at a Halloween party. There she met the young, handsome, and unusually shy
marine who a year later would become her husband. Just nine months past their honeymoon, he
would also become the father of my sister, and then myself, who arrived three years later. Dad
once shared with me that mom’s cherub laugh, petite body, and darling face framed by chestnut
wavy curls could not help but to steal his heart. At other times, when I spoke with him about this
time in his life, he expressed to me his fear of talking to woman, but explained that somehow he
had managed to put that aside when it came to mom. Just as she, who had been proposed to by a
suitor in the law office, put aside that man who was cut from the same cloth as herself, and
reached for the unknown in the man she had met at the Halloween party. I still wonder about
what cosmic force could have been at work, or what playful or perhaps confused cupid, had
pulled together this unlikely twosome? In any case, the spell was cast. That woman who lived
within and enjoyed the status quo, fell in love with that man who had not yet found his niche in
life and would never agree to the status quo, even as he too fell in love with her. I suppose that
was the trick on that fateful Halloween night.
They were married November 6th of the following year, created a family of two little
daughters, and indeed had the ability to put aside some of their intrinsic idiosyncrasies as they
provided a secure, stable, and loving environment for two sisters to grow in. On several
occasions, my sister and I have marveled at the healthy foundation we were given in such a
household, with parents who showed affection and had arguments that were not threatening or
severe, and who were always there for us. We lived in that home for 18 years until each of us
went off to college. Mom remained in that home for a total of 45 years.
As my sister and I grew older, it became increasingly apparent that our parent’s
differences had surfaced in a more serious and painful manner. Mom was frightened by dad’s
need for something else, which manifested his unusual, from her perspective, new age thinking.
Dad was ahead of his time, and he desperately craved to be understood by his wife. This gap
only widened even as the love and inexplicable bond remained, and a path of tragic
consequences began to settle into place. That devastating event came to pass on October 7th
1991. Dad’s massive heart attack in the previous June caused extensive damage to his heart
muscle, as well as to his psyche, and served to amplify the turmoil of his circumstances. His
broken heart resulted in a painful and soul stealing depression that was addressed with Prozac,
which itself proved to be a frightening and agitating experience for him. On one occasion he
even flushed it down the toilet. Unfortunately he tried it again, and Prozac, coupled with
seemingly insurmountable circumstances, led dad to his final desperate act. Mom found him
lying on the bed with a gunshot wound in his heart. In this painful and shocking way, she lost
the marine that had truly been the love of her life.
Still, dad’s words rang true. Mom was strong and she survived. What else was there for
her to do? The family gathered together, details were arranged, and a funeral was held and then
followed by a week of sitting shiv-ah, a Jewish mourning tradition in which friends and family
gather to pay their respects and support the immediate family of the deceased. The family was
supplied with generous gifts of delicious meals arriving two to three times daily throughout the
entire week. Nuts and dried fruits, meat, cheese, and vegetable platters, and an assortment of
dessert pastries provided more than enough to satisfy our diminished appetites. As is often the
case with funerals, it was a sad irony that had this gathering not been for such a dreadful and
excruciating purpose, it would have been a joyful reunion of old, sometimes long lost friends and
family members sharing and reliving special moments. We had more than one stranger knock on
our door inquiring about dad. These people who were strangers to us normally saw dad on his
daily walk or bicycle ride, or even grew acquainted with him during his routine break at a local
coffee shop, and they missed him. We felt so honored, as dad himself would have been, to learn
that he had been so noticed and appreciated.
The end of this week of mourning brought with it an ambivalence in me, as we packed up
our belongings to return home to a life that would never be normal again. Mom stayed where
she was: in her home. She stayed alone in that house that was still so full of life and memories,
suffering and loss, and a suffocating energy that made each visit I made there for the next six
years nearly unbearable. The gnawing presence of death and how it had occurred never vacated
the premises. Mom was strong willed and she pushed forward in life, and at the same time she
continued to live with the insidious shadows of all that had happened . She needed to move out
and leave the phantoms behind, and yet she was not ready. My sister and I had countless
discussions about how much to push her, and we often pleaded with her to either move closer to
us or explore other options. Try as we did, however, we could not move that mountain. Yet,
when the time was suddenly right ,mom summoned up her courage and through sheer force of
will, she got the job done.
Resistant as mom was to leaving her home, she was absolutely appalled at the idea of
selling it and getting less for it than her neighbors, who were getting top dollar for their remodeled
and more manicured homes. Her house had not been kept up. Though always clean
and comfortable, there were a number of aspects in ill repair and it was going to stay that way.
Mom was in no position financially, or so she thought, to change that. However, she did have
one elderly gentleman, Henry, who mowed her lawn and acted as a handyman for small matters.
I had seen Henry once or twice, but other then a simple greeting we never really spoke. He
seemed quiet and proud of his work and he simply went about his business. They developed
what could be called a symbiotic partnership, and I am not certain that each of them did not feel
that they were simply assisting the other. It was fun to watch this pair negotiate their differences
and find solutions over matters of what seemed to me to be of little consequence, but they were
both stubborn. It was a business relationship based on mutual need with elements of frustration,
as well as, compassion. I was delighted by this odd pairing of individuals. However, due to
Henry’s age and failing health the arrangement would soon come to an end. I believe that mom
felt a lacking in the spot that he filled, but she would never say so.
In any case, not long after his departure mom recognized that it was time to take action
and she began looking into options. On some occasions, when she shared rides to the Lansing
area with Renee’s mother-in-law Jeanne, also a widow, they would venture out and explore
condos in the area. At a later date, Jeanne finally surrendered to her family’s bidding and
purchased one such condominium. Not mom however; she simply could not, or would not leave
the place where so many of her childhood friends still remained, along with her big brother Abe,
sister-in-law Wilma, and brother-in-law Stu, my dad’s younger brother. In fact, she chose to
settle in an apartment in the very same complex as good old uncle Stu and soon they would be
neighbors. In the meantime the house still had not yet been put up for sale, nor had it been
cleared of the abundant possessions that filled the basement, shelves, closets, and various other
nooks and crannies where they were usually left untouched. When we were growing up, mom
always had her unenforced rule that we were not to bring anyone downstairs. During the
numerous occasions on which that command was broken, we could hear her moaning, “you
didn’t take them down in the basement did you?” There was no denying it: we had been caught.
Our basement was unfinished. It had a cement floor that dad even painted on one occasion when
he must have been seized by a grand ambition. He was not a handyman in the usual sense of the
word, but he did take on that project. I do not remember what his reasoning was, but a fresh coat
of paint did little to relieve the clutter.
To put it kindly, Mom was a saver. I would not go so far as to call her a hoarder, but a
saver fits the bill. When I was in my early twenties, I began wearing a plaid button down and
snugly fitted shirt-dress that mom had warn at the very same age! I found it in our basement.
As one came down the stairs, on the left, a washer/dryer and a wash-tub that often overflowed
through the floor drain could be seen. On a table, leaning up against the stairway wall, was an
assortment of paper and plastic bags, dish-washing soaps, rags, and many other laundry room
items of questionable utility were piled high in disarray. My favorite was the pantry off in the
corner, which my sister and I frequently raided when we were home visiting from college on a
weekend. We could always find a healthy stock of toilet paper, canned goods, cleaning supplies,
and a collage of other treasures. Those, along with our favorite fresh fruits, sweet treats such as
Andi’s mints and hard candies. Renee especially appreciated the canned Tuna and lox that mom
made sure to keep in stock.
The remainder of the basement was dedicated to a vast assortment of both consequential
and inconsequential items, though they were often difficult to separate. There was an old
refrigerator that stored our beverages. I could always find Vernor’s Ginger Ale there when I
needed to. It was great for nausea and ice cream floats too! A clothesline could be found
hanging across the width of the basement and sagging under the weight of an assortment of
garments ranging from the aforementioned plaid dress and garment bags sealed tight to hide their
secret apparel. Against the back wall was everything necessary for repotting plants, one of dad’s
passions, and all the way in the back corner was his tool niche where, since his death, saws, drill
bits, and an assortment of old nails now lay rusting and unused. The remaining floor space was
occupied by overflowing boxes, stacked chairs, extra family china, old books, artwork, record
collections, and school work dating back to our elementary years and hers too! However, it was
not only the basement that had to be dealt with before the big move. Upstairs storage areas
included the infamous den closet filled with an assortment of stationary more than any ten people
could use in a lifetime. The living room breakfront was filled with a random selection of
surprising oddities such as, plastic cups for a picnic, a small framed picture, an old remote
control or a cute little trinket. Collectively, these items evoked lovely memories together with all
the other little collectibles that needed a place to be. There were also the bedroom closets filled
with shoe boxes that seemed to multiply every time you looked their way, and drawers filled with
lingerie, sweaters and shirts of all varieties that five sisters would have found plenty. Mom was
not greedy, nor was she a frequent shopper, but she simply never outgrew or abandoned her
clothing.My sister, Renee, and I did our best to help mom sort through her belongings. And sort
we did. We had large plastic garbage bags set aside to receive the appropriate particulars, be
they, re-cycle, give away, throw away, or keeper items. However, remarkably, throw away that
had finally made it to the garbage seemed to have a way of being miraculously resurrected and
re-settled in a new more subtle location. Mom’s eagle eye was present as every possession
passed under her scrutiny before being sent on to its final destination. Tiresome and tedious as
this was, we tried to stay true to our mission of helping mom get through this chore. Yet, it was
she that was truly miraculous. Looking back, I am not sure how she did it, but indeed she
conquered the upstairs and the basement too. Mom managed to find the right home, person, and
organization for almost everything as she painstakingly went through box after box in every inch
of the basement. She arranged pick-ups from Goodwill, family, and friends, and even made
deliveries herself when necessary. At last, all that remained was for the house to go on the
market, and this turned out to be the easy part. In the end, the house sold in one week. It was
time for mom to take her leave.
Finally, moving day arrived, though truthfully it is now a blurred memory. I believe it
was in the autumn close to my husband Tim’s birthday. I do remember the surreal flurry of
boxes, bags, old furniture, clothing and all her selected remaining “keeper” items, all being
uprooted and delivered to the new apartment. Each of us said goodbye to our old home and I
was trying not to be overwhelmed by a flood of emotions that threatened to sweep me away. A
dull sadness combined with relief, as well as anticipation about mom’s new beginning would
have to suffice to mark that moment in our lives.
The new apartment was on Middlebelt and 12 Mile Road in Farmington Hills. Growing
up I found it quite funny how so many streets and cities were given names that overstated a
hopefulness for what they might offer. There are no hills in Farmington, it is flat like most of the
Detroit suburbs, but did not seem to bother mom. Her apartment was modest and did not have a
basement. The belongings she brought along all fit nicely into the space, including a cozy corner
in the guest room/den that was designated for Pete the parrot. Dad came home with Pete
sometime about twenty years prior to that day. After dad’s death, Pete became mom’s passion
and she diligently took on that duty as she looked after him. It was fun to watch her carefully
prepare his food, combining dad’s choice parrot mix with apples and bananas that she patiently
cut small, topping it all with whole unshelled peanuts. Pete loved peanuts and it was every
child’s delight to reward him with such a treat, though mom did tightly monitor how many he
received. Over time, she felt great tenderness for him and bravely began to put her hand in the
cage to stroke him. Sometimes he would tolerate her touch, but on other occasions she ended up
nursing a nice triangular-shaped bite. Still, that never stopped her. She certainly had
perseverance, and she grew very attached to Pete and benefited greatly from his companionship.
It was not until about seven years later, one year after mom’s death, that Pete surprised us
all by revealing his true identity. We could not keep Pete with us because Tim had an allergy to
feathers and in our small home with cats and dogs we sadly did not have a spot for him. Our
solution was to give him to our friend, Ulyana, who had always been intrigued with the thought
of having a parrot in her life. It was in her care that he shocked us all by laying not only one egg,
but two! I will never forget that phone call from Ulyana. We all laughed hysterically in
disbelief. After 30 years Pete was finally identified as female. This news came as a hilarious
delight to me, as I especially loved to imagine mom and dad also having a good chuckle over the
matter. Though Ulyana briefly considered changing Pete’s name to reflect her new gender,
Ulyana decided that Pete would do just fine. Indeed that beautiful parrot will always remain Pete
to me.
It did not take long for mom’s belongings to infuse her new home with a comforting
familiarity. It was a soothing presence, minus the burdened weight and suffocating feeling that
had remained in our old home on Pearson Street, since dad’s death. In some ways, my childhood
home began to feel like a dream, though the pull I felt when I would occasionally drive by in the
coming years remained real and tangible. It felt good to watch mom begin to adjust to her new
surroundings and to the sense of a fresh start. Visits with her became much more enjoyable and
our good-byes considerably easier. Mom was famous for remembering something or having just
one more question, coincidentally exactly at the moment of our departure. That remained true
and became a little joke between us. I think it is quite possible that I may have inherited that trait
from her and sometimes practice it with my own children. I am sure they have noticed how that
happens with phone calls and with emails when I often send a follow-up note stating the subject
as, one more thought. I like to think that someday they will have a good chuckle over this. Who
knows, maybe they already do? Good-byes are never easy.
Mom’s new life in her apartment included visits with her neighbor, Uncle Stu, and easier
access to her girlfriends who had long ago left Oak Park to live in the further away suburbs.
Uncle Abe and Aunt Wilma were now only ten minutes away. There were weekly lunches and
movie dates, mahjong games that resembled those from her younger days, walks in the mall with a
little shopping thrown in, and even a few bus tours for seniors. She really enjoyed the once a
year trip to a Casino where they were each given $15 to play the slots. That was all she would
ever gamble away. However, sometimes she ended up with more in her pocket than when she
started. That was her big gambling experience. All in all, it seemed like she had made the right
move. I remember one time when we were washing dishes together I commented on how well
she seemed to be adjusting. She looked at me and surprised us both by agreeing that, yes she had,
and indeed she was perplexed as to why that would be true. It was one of those rare moments
where mom did not hesitate to offer an affirmative direct reply about what she was thinking or
feeling. I was delighted by her quick and uncensored agreement because I knew it reflected a
healthy truth, even if the reason for it remained a mystery to her.
Still, it was not all rosy. Mom did experience what she called “feeling blue” and many
lonely days. I could hear that in her voice the moment we spoke, and would try to coax her into
conversations, as she often remained very quiet about her experience with dad’s death. She
usually did not have too much to say, and when I suggested therapy, she was not interested.
Even now, I can still see the look on her face expressing a pain that she did not want to explore
or even acknowledge too deeply. Regardless of what the experts might say, there is really no
single way to grieve and so I would finally release and defer to her wishes. For some, it is
probably easier to move on and allow the newness in their lives to slowly soften the pain. That
seemed to be mom’s way and she had the right to be who she was and experience it her way.
As with many of her friends, winters were with hardest. There were shortened days that
restricted her normal activities as neither she nor most of her friends dared to drive after dark.
Even a day filled with sharing an early meal and movie with friends still found her home before
sunset. She went through many novels of which she could not resist sharing even the smallest
detail with me. I think she enjoyed making me sit at her request and listen. She also watched
many TV dramas, and could not go to bed without reading the newspaper and listening to the
news far more than it is healthy for any one person to hear. Repeated stories of misfortune and
despair could intensify the blues for anyone. When spring came around, I am sure that she felt
like a little bird set free. She still was not a big driver and generally traveled within her 3-4 mile
radius, but that seemed to cover what she needed. Going further often meant a visit to the
Lansing area where she either traveled by bus or, as we preferred, we would pick her up and
bring her home for a visit. The rhythms and schedules of life took hold as they will. Mom
learned to live her life as an independent woman capable of taking care of most of her needs and
to roll with the punches when she had too.
Many of us enter the new year with undeniable hope and some anticipation about what
the year could bring forth. We never expected that this ordinary passage would instead turn our
lives upside down. That phone conversation with mom, when she explained that she did not
even know she was sick when she went to the doctor, had turned into something other than
funny. Renee and I were both concerned and perplexed to see mom so ill. We had never seen
her that way, but we comforted ourselves with the assumption that it was simply a persistent case
of the flu. We continued trying to think of foods she might tolerate; soups, cottage cheese, and
dry toast were at the top of the list. It was disturbing to watch her try to eat without much
success. She was much happier lying down on the living room couch. Days continued on like
this with a persistent high fever and mom’s discomfort growing. We called her doctor,who
remained steadfast in his initial diagnosis, adding that she was an “older woman” and needed
time to recover. Mom was only 79 years old and was usually full of life. He was well past
retirement age! We made sure that at least one of us stayed close to her side and more often it
was both of us. Finally, on a Sunday, which was day nine of this dreadful experience, we called
the emergency room. They too proclaimed that it was probably just the flu and once again
attributed the persistence of the illness to age. I wondered when age 79 became so old! We did
not believe that her age was the cause of her persistent symptoms. Mom had a high fever, was
not eating, had nausea, was pale and weak, and looked worse than we had ever seen her. We
decided that if she did not improve by Monday, we would take her to the hospital, and so we did.
After being at mom’s for several days, I had to return home to my family. It was Renee’s turn to
stay, and so I very reluctantly left. Of course it was wonderful to see Tim and the kids, but I
could not shake the lingering feeling of concern. I called first thing in the morning and we
decided that Renee would bring mom in to emergency. Enough was enough, and I was on my
way again. I felt so helpless not being there, and when I arrived I found them in a temporary
room with mom sitting uncomfortably in a chair. She was very weak and it was very difficult
for her to remain upright, and though there was a bed in the room it was not available to her. It
felt like a nightmare and it was sometime before she was admitted to a room where she was
given a bed at last. It was awful to see her suffer and to so quickly become a patient. Already,
she seemed to be losing her identity as a human being who had a story and a once healthy life. I
am sure she was more comfortable resting in bed and that was what we had to settle for in in the
moment. I did not realize at the time however that that was the only relief we would get.
Naively, we hoped for answers and solutions to her problem in a timely manner.
From here it is not possible to give a day to day description of all the events that went on
during the four weeks of mom’s hospitalization, leading up to her death. The complete
chronological order of events has become a blur and so I will not attempt to provide a full
account of it. Instead, I will share the umbrella image and effects of the traumatic series of tragic
blunders and miscommunications that occurred and remain frozen in my memory. It is difficult
to thaw the numbing freeze that occurs when one is involved in a trauma of any kind, particularly
one that seems so unnecessary and at odds with what our common sense, logic, and love, tells us
is true about compassionate and reasonable behavior. I suppose this is what post-traumatic stress
is all about; the human psyche is very gentle and can bruise easily.
Mom’s doctor, the one probably past due for retirement and the one she saw every three
months for a blood test checking her sedrate count (sedimentation rate), was a blessing and a
curse. I will remind you that she had this test because of the diagnosis she received at least 20
years earlier, of Monoclonal Gammopathy, a disease that can be a precursor for diseases like
leukemia and lymphoma. When doing my research, I found this to be common knowledge. So,
it was very natural and felt like good sense, to ask the doctor to take this into consideration.
However, when I did so I was told rather flatly that this simply was not involved with my
mother’s condition.
Mom was a traditional woman. She did not question the authority of her doctor. She
loved and trusted him, and seemed certain that he would take care of her. This doctor, who I will
refer as Dr. S., could be thought of as old school. He was kind to my mother and they were of
the same generation. When he entered the room, he went to her bedside and held her hand. He
did this on several occasions and it was beautiful non-verbal communication. It was obvious that
it meant a lot to my mom, and it did to me too. It made us feel safe and like someone was really
going to look into this and do all he could do. That is where the blessing ended. He was also
stubborn and did not want anyone questioning his business. This became even clearer as days
went by, and Renee and I urgently searched for anything that could help diagnose her illness. I
suppose, naively, we had hoped this would be well received. However, Dr. S. was tired, and
probably sincerely frustrated that our mom was not getting better. He simply would not tolerate
us questioning him and he announced so with such a red faced rage that I had to ask him to step
into the hall so it would not upset our mother. He told us in no uncertain terms that we should
stop our stupid research and an assortment of other things that thankfully I can no longer
remember.
One by one the specialists started appearing. Doctors from oncology and hematology,
gastroenterology and cardiology, infectious disease and radiology, and more. Each department
seemed to have six partners, so one never knew which Dr. would show up or who was actually
covering for another doctor that was not available, and each had their own opinion and, of
course, their own ego. They seemed to be in competition with the other specialties and would
immediately undo whatever orders the other department had given. I never failed to question
them about Monoclonal Gammopathy, which was the only thing that made sense to me, and yet
the only single thing they could agree on was to assure me that it was not the culprit. Dr. S. was
not doing his job. He seemed to believe she was dying of old age and did not come up with a
plan. Nor did he try to arrange for communication between the doctors and the different
specialties. I can only assume that he thought holding mom’s hand was enough.
One can never imagine what factors can complicate a situation and initiate the series of
events that insidiously lead to someone’s demise. When mom was first assigned her room, I
noticed a computer on a stand stationed right outside the door. That computer brought a
continual stream of activity directly outside her room, as nurses and doctors alike both entered
and accessed information about their patients. My first thought was concern for the noise and if
that would disturb mom. I wish that were the only concern. Who could have imagined that such
a computer would become the nemesis that stood in the way of correct diagnoses of my mom’s
illness, robbing her of the chance to receive the proper and necessary treatment for extending her
life, or at least the grace of a death with fewer traumas and more dignity. Had she lived, what
she experienced could have been called a comedy of errors. However, I’m afraid that instead, it
was a tragic nightmare. Though this computer was undoubtedly intended to serve as a vehicle
for better communication about patient care, sadly in our case, it seemed to have the opposite
effect, as it was the only communication that was occurring between the doctors.
Instead of communicating in person about the complexities of each case, the doctors
would quickly read an updated version about their patient and about our mom. As time went by
it became evident that they did not find it necessary to speak to each other at all. They seemed to
think that the computer was sufficient. They neglected to consider all the deficiencies of a
computer. For example, a computer does not have insight or wisdom, nor can it give feedback
about the individual nature of an illness or the personal qualities of an individual. It does not
brainstorm or problem solve about a given situation. It does not ask questions or expand upon a
person’s theory and thoughts. A computer lacks empathy and it does not have a heart. Most
importantly, it cannot participate in the synergistic effect that occurs when humans collaborate to
share both their knowledge and their wisdom. We needed cooperation. We needed doctors to
take 15 minutes of their time to communicate about mom’s deteriorating situation. They refused
our request to meet by indicating that they received everything they needed from each other by
checking the computer. I do not know how many doctors or nurses were checking that computer
about mom, but I do know that it did not work.
Computers can do many things, but they cannot do everything. They cannot recognize
or notice the little daily occurrences that can subtly accumulate in a detrimental manner. In our
case, one thing that the computer did not appear to comprehend was that our mom was growing
weaker and weaker due to starvation. Each time a doctor entered the room we voiced our
concern about her nausea and how she could not eat. We were simply told to keep trying. We
were to encourage mom to have just “one more spoonful” of yogurt or broth. It was pitiful.
Mom was in so much discomfort from fevers, medications, side effects, and mistakes. She could
not bear to eat and she was suffering. It felt like every request that we made was an additional
harassment to her. This continued for three weeks until finally a lab technician, who put in the
lines for IV feeding, stopped in to see mom. He took one look at her and then literally stormed
out of the room. I could see him on the phone in the hall furiously talking to someone. I could
not hear what was said, but his face revealed fear and shock. He was clearly appalled at this
oversight, and soon after he returned to remedy the situation. Many other things were not
remedied. Like mom’s hands and arms that were black and blue from multiple lab orders for
blood work. The computer failed to tell the doctors that she was having blood drawn so
frequently in the same day that there were not any places left to draw. It did not suggest to them
to communicate and combine their lab orders to save mom’s fragile skin from the injury of being
stuck and re-stuck time and again. Every time I tried to convey this to anyone I was answered
only with a shrug.
The drama continued and everyday mom looked worse until eventually she could not
even talk. I was lucky one day when I told her that I loved her and she was able to look at me
forlornly and say “ditto.” Ditto never sounded more beautiful. The fight to save mom
continued. Renee and I kept up our changing of the guard routine, and we kept careful notes
about what had occurred while we attended to mom. Doctor’s names and their specialties were
recorded, as were medication changes, comments that were made, procedures and tests that were
scheduled. We were exhausted and in great despair, and we did our best to comfort one another.
It was a dismal time, with no answers forthcoming, and still the doctors refused to consider her
history of Monoclonal Gammopathy. Finally, around three weeks into this trauma, one of the
hematologist began to consider that lymphoma could be the illness that was plaguing mom. A
bone marrow test was ordered. Though I was happy to think that we might finally receive some
desperately needed information, I was also horrified that mom, in such a weakened condition,
had to endure yet another painful insult. When the lab crew entered the room I stood by mom
and directed my thoughts towards supporting her. She was compliant. She did not seem
resentful or bitter about her condition. She still trusted her doctors and accepted what they gave
her. When it was over I asked if the test was very hard on her and she indicated that it was not. I
think she was too weak to notice. However, I took the first available opportunity to go into the
restroom and collapse against the wall where I sobbed as though I had already lost my mother.
Terrible confusion ensued. The bone marrow test confirmed lymphoma. However, for
reasons I did and still do not understand, it was not clear what kind of lymphoma was involved.
The hematologist said it was a non-aggressive lymphoma and was not convinced that it was
responsible for all of mom’s symptoms. At this point, those symptoms included pulmonary
symptoms, severe stomach pain, possible liver dysfunction, and many other things were under
consideration. We heard things like pancreatic cancer, pancreatitis, hepatitis, pneumonia, and
TB. She had received cat scans and scopes, transfusions and x-rays, and now the hematologist
said he was going to put in another order for an invasive test involving a needle being inserted
into her abdomen to take a biopsy. He did not suggest treatment for the lymphoma. Instead,
mom was prepared for the test that she would have the next day. However, nothing could have
prepared us for what came next.
The next morning arrived and so did an aide with the transport bed ready to transport
mom to an invasive test that I was dreading for her. Mom was a quiet and uncomfortable bundle
as she was transferred from one bed to the other. Still unable to speak, and with her head often
shaking, her face reflected the image of a tired soldier not ready to face another battle. Her spirit
was subdued and little fight remained. I believe she was in a persistent state of shock throughout
her entire hospital experience.
Mom was a woman who was bred to trust the authorities, so what little fight she had left
was directed towards me with an expression or a nod. Every time she heard me questioning the
doctors or the situation she made it very clear that I was not to rock the boat. That was a common
theme throughout our enduring relationship. Even my dear aunt, speaking in a strained and
scared voice, would urge me to “get her out of there,” and that is what I wanted to do. Had mom
agreed, we would have moved her by helicopter to another hospital where we could start over
and be free of our nightmare. Everything in our current situation was heading in the wrong
direction and we needed to get mom out of that current. However our dear mom, suffering as
she was, continued to be of sound mine and it was clear that she would choose to stay put. I am
still haunted by that choice and wonder whether we were correct in respecting it. The hospital
corridors were long and it seemed like an eternity until we arrived outside the door for what we
thought was her expected and scheduled procedure. Dr. H., the radiologist, quickly and with a
great deal of frustration blurted out that “mom’s procedure had not been scheduled by the
hematologist,” so indeed this was not expected as we had thought. Instead, it was very clear that
Dr. H. now regarded us as irritants in her day! We were keeping her from other scheduled
patients. She also said that she did not see anything that indicated the need for this procedure.
All of this needed to be worked out. Mom had already been prepped with steroids, Benadryl,
platelets, and contrast. Now she found herself being ushered and pushed up against the wall,
while the activity of the day was rushing all around and past her, as though she were not there
and a worthy patient. She was simply expected to wait. It was very cold, as hospital corridors
often are, and mom helplessly rested on her bed and shivered. After securing blankets for her I
began making phone calls trying to reach Dr. N. the hematologist, Dr. G. her gastroenterologist,
and Dr. S. her primary care doctor. Dr. N. was out of town so I was told to call Dr. L., his back
up. Dr. L was very unsympathetic and unkind. He said that he would call Dr. N. but we never
heard back from either of them. Dr. G., who earlier in the week told me he did not see the need
for this biopsy, was not willing to commit to the procedure without first talking to Dr. N.. There
was much confusion about who agreed to the need for the test and who did not. When I had seen
Dr. N. on just the previous day, when he decided to schedule the test, he also had said that both
Dr. S. and Dr. G. had agreed to this. As I spoke to Dr. G., my mind and heart were overwhelmed
by his words. Once again, as I read through my notes my head begins to spin. So many phrases
jump out at me such as; “even if it’s pancreatic cancer at her age there would probably be no
treatment,” “the test had a risk of bleeding and could be fatal”, but then added it would probably
be okay since she was given platelets. Dr. L. said he did not know enough about this case, but it
appeared that she did not need the biopsy. Finally the floodgate broke. Throughout the entire
hospital ordeal I remained steady and stoic. I knew that the trauma was becoming frozen within
me but I would have to process it at another time. There was simply too much to do. However,
this was too painful. The floodgate broke and I started crying. Driven by a new flood of rage, I
asked Dr. G. what he would do if it was his mother? He was the doctor and I needed some
answers! I even said that at this point I was ready to sue. I blurted out the most feared threat to
doctors, but I did not truly mean it. I knew it was the one threat that would get their attention
and it did. I went over to mom and told her the risk and asked what she wanted to do. Bravely,
our mom, who was willing to try anything that might save her life, agreed to the test and waited
in her corner until Dr. H. was ready for her. When at last it was her turn she was wheeled off to
her ordeal, and I was greeted by the HR person representing the hospital.
A nicely dressed woman came over to me, introduced herself, and led me off to a room
where we could talk. She told me how sorry she was that my mom was ill and wondered how
she could help. Then she asked many questions, but I knew her main concern. I told her that I
was not planning to sue and that I knew the threat would finally get things moving. I confessed
that I was desperate and I tried to explain what had happened. It was like trying to capture a
panoramic effect with an old fashioned Polaroid. It was just too big. Still, she was nice enough
and managed to do her part in the big hospital machine all the while keeping a smile on her face.
When we parted she insisted on giving me several coupons to the hospital cafeteria. Ironically,
she did not know that being too distressed to eat very much I had already lost 10 pounds. I was
surviving on the mint tea I purchased daily at the Starbucks each day as soon as I entered I the
hospital lobby, and that had become the highlight of my days. We parted ways with her being
assured that there would be no legal proceedings on her watch. I had a mother to wait for and a
trauma in my lap to reckon with.
Dr. G. arrived at mom’s room sometime the next day. He was arrogant, as always, and
triumphantly announced that he had told Dr. H. to order that test. He imagined it to be his idea.
He went on to say how lucky we were that the radiologist was willing to be inconvenienced by
agreeing to see mom. In any case, he believed it was water under the bridge because mom had
received her test. I suppose that in his mind it all had a happy ending and I only wish that were
true.
Somewhere in the middle of all of this, before or after the last procedure, something
wonderful happen. It was about a week before mom passed when Dr. P entered the picture. He
was from hematology and he was a breath of fresh air. To our delight, he had made himself
familiar with mom’s case. He stood by her bed and spoke kindly to her. Then he asked if Renee
and I would be willing to talk with him in a conference room. We were floored and excited over
his desire to speak with us. At least one doctor was willing to take time and dialogue with us
about our mom. Even now I am filled with gratitude for his kindness and compassion. When we
spoke, it was as though he were talking about his own mother. He made it very clear that he
hated to see our mom suffer. In a refreshing and direct manner, he gave us the results from the
bone marrow test in which he had noticed three main problems. The first diagnosis was
Myeloma-a malignant tumor of the bone marrow that was associated with, of course,
Monoclonal Gammopathy. I am sure you can imagine how I felt when I heard that. We had lost
so much time going around in circles as we painfully watched our mom wither before our eyes. I
always had the horrible nagging feeling that we were watching her die an unnecessary death, but
none of the hospital personnel seemed to recognize the errors being made. His second diagnosis
was lymphoma, which he felt was responsible at least for her anemia, low platelets, and fever.
Who was this genius doctor who so easily was able to figure out mom’s puzzle and why had no
one else been able to do so? Finally, his third diagnose was Fibrosis. My notes are not as clear
here, but it appears that he felt fibrosis had to do with the scarring of her marrow. That is the
best I can say, however, and the best news was that he offered a real treatment plan, which he
encouraged us to consider. He was excited and apparently confident enough to offer starting
mom on a low dose of chemo and an antibiotic given through her IV. It was made clear that this
would have to be watched very carefully for allergic reactions and detrimental effects on her
immune system. We left our meeting supported by hope but still filled with questions. Dr. P.
appeared truly genuine in his desire to help mom, but was it too late? Would we do more harm
than good? She was so weak and already seemed lifeless. Was it reasonable for her to go
through such a treatment? We made a list of questions for Dr. S. We wanted to know if he
thought it was just a shot in the dark? We told mom about what Dr. P. had said. We wanted a
team meeting to help us discern what was really possible for her. Sadly, mom continued to
deteriorate so quickly that it became very evident it really was too late for treatment, and I will
never forget the look on her face when she was told that. It was Dr. S. who came in and told her
that they did not have a treatment for her. Mom looked like a naïve and distraught child as she
finally realized that her doctors had let her down. She had so trusted that her doctors would save
her, and now the look of betrayal in her eyes and on her face could not be missed. It was decided
that she would be moved to a room for Hospice Care.
The note taking had ended, as had the shifts that Renee and I were taking to assure that
one of us was always with mom. Now we were both there, together, trying to figure out how to
keep mom comfortable, and trying to wrap our minds around what had happened. How did we
get to this point and what could we have done differently? We still did not know for certain
why our mom was dying. Uncle Stu was also still there, as he had been throughout the entire
ordeal, sitting there now and looking as defeated and helpless as we also felt. When I looked at
him he would shake his head or just say that he could not believe this. Aunt Wilma continued to
call from Florida, as she had everyday. She and Uncle Abe had gone to Florida for their usual
winter stay and Uncle Abe had a bout with his re-occurring leg infection. He was in danger as
well, so it was impossible for them to travel. Each time they called the increased desperation in
their voices was visceral as they tried to comprehend a situation that seemed to have no logical
explanation. There were no more words left to articulate our desperate attempt to save mom’s
life and the enormous systemic failure that instead lead to her premature death. We were all
shell-shocked and we did our best to sustain and support one another. Mom was in hospice and
it was very obvious that she did not have much time left, probably just a day or two. We had to
put our pain on hold and go into automatic functioning so we could still be advocates on her
behalf. The one thing they promised us when mom changed rooms was that she would be kept
comfortable and I was counting on that with all my heart. All my attention and energy was
directed towards making sure that would be true.
At some point in the evening, Renee and I made our way back to mom’s house where we
would try to eat a bite, get ourselves together, and attempt a little sleep. At least that was the
goal. Uncle Stu joined us at the house and I remember being at the sink when the dam broke.
Suddenly I was shaking and sobbing great torrents of grief that would no longer wait to be fully
expressed. This was really happening. Mom, who believed wholeheartedly that her doctors and
the medical system that she had placed her trust in would save her, was now most certainly dying
and we would lose her very soon, perhaps at any moment. There was no good reason for this to
happen, at least not in this way. Many hugs later, and after loving and comforting exchanges, we
did manage to swallow a bit of food and make it off to bed. Pure exhaustion can have its
benefits and slowly I drifted into sleep and received a brief reprieve. However, some short hours
later we were awakened by a phone call from the hospital informing us that they found mom in
the precarious position of hanging half way out of bed. Apparently she had been struggling and
trying to get out. We were beside ourselves. After all that had happened could mom not at least
experience a gentler passing? The hospice nurses said they would keep her comfortable and at
this point that was the only thing that gave us comfort. They said she had been rearranged in
bed, so we went back to sleep, more or less, and arrived at the hospital early in the morning. We
talked to the nurses and we determined that mom was still in great discomfort. I was very
emotional and I asked them to keep their commitment of doing everything they could to keep her
the most comfortable. I was told that they would put in an order for a higher dose of morphine,
but they were uncertain as to how long it would take to be filled. It seemed like forever before
we were told that the order had been filled, however we still had the difficulty of finding a
hospital staff member who was free to deliver the order to mom’s room. During these final
hours of waiting for relief for my mom, I sat by her bed, holding her hand when, despite her
discomfort and despair she could permit it, and we all tried to comfort her in any way we could
imagine might help. Finally, morphine arrived and though she remained restless, it appeared that
her struggle had lessened. In this surreal world of curtains separating us from another family
also preparing for the loss of their loved ones, I heard murmurs and whispers hinting at their
painful reality. Then I heard the last breath of their loved one, and then I heard their tears. A
short while later, both Uncle Stu and my sister Renee had left the room to tend to some matter
that I can no longer recall. During that time, I sat next to mom and watched her labored
breathing, knowing that soon it would cease. Mom took her last breath as naturally, or perhaps
unnaturally, as all those others that had come before, but this time she was truly gone. In that
quiet and lonely time, I sat trying to comprehend the subtle transition from life to death, and I
took some comfort in knowing that her journey of suffering was over, and now she was on her
new journey. She was free.
We lost mom very early on in her illness. She was already so weak that when the
grand-kids and friends came to visit in the hospital, all she could do was to offer a glance in their
directions. She never had a chance to say her good-byes or get her papers and her will in order.
Shortly before losing her speech completely she amazingly summoned up enough energy and
managed to whisper instructions for me to make sure that each of her four grandchildren would
receive a designated amount from the inheritance. Renee and I would of course comply with her
wishes. It was not a surprise to see that mom was loyal to her family until the end. I hope it
brought her some comfort to know that she still had some say in her family’s well being.
I am not a procrastinator. I have been self-employed as a Hypnotherapist and Holistic
Counselor for over 35 years. I have self-published books, taught classes, given countless
presentations, raised a family, and lived a life of organization, intention, enthusiasm, and
inspiration. I enjoy life and I have never shied away from all that it entails. There has never
been a reason to delay anything until now. Mom died almost twelve years ago. Much of what
happened prior to her passing was a mistake. It simply did not have to happen the way it did. I
have never thought of myself as a person who lived life by the demands of strict or impersonal
logic. I like to live in my heart as much as I can, because I believe that is the place that we are
connected to a higher form of love, compassion, and reason. Now, through this tragic loss, I have
found the place that heart and logic come together. I suppose one could call it heart logic. I
believe that where heart and logic come together might be found in the same location that one
could find the overlapping of science and spirituality. It is a place one might call truth. Not the
normal everyday sense of truth that is defined by facts we can argue and debate, or even worse
find ways to fight over. This truth I am referring to originates from an intrinsic wisdom that is
intuitive by nature and experienced in reality. For instance, I believe the experience of kindness
is a basic truth. We have all heard the phrase, perhaps a cliche, “random acts of kindness.”
However, that is precisely the point; we intuitively know what is kind and what is not, and these
acts of kindness touch us in a place that is universally felt. We respond with our hearts and with
our logic because kindness makes sense both to the logical mind and to the heart. So kindness is
one of the things that my logical heart expects to find in the world and certainly in a hospital, a
place intended to care for the vulnerable and the ill.
Now back to my procrastination. I have not wanted to write this essay. Thinking back is
painful. In some ways, it means beginning my healing process anew. Since my mom’s death, I
have found some heart logic over the years—some truths, and some peace. I believe and trust
that mom left this world in trauma and arrived in the next in peace. I believe she has
rediscovered the joy that was often elusive on earth. Feeling this is wonderful, and yet, I cannot
ignore the other things that I feel and know that my heart logic tells me. I also know this: in her
last days, my mom did not experience or receive the benefits that come from heart logic. During
her time in the hospital, she did not experience: common sense wisdom, courtesy, dignity, order,
or compassion. Her care was chaotic and disjointed. It was confusing and debilitating. It
reflected a system that is breaking down and ultimately failing. I do not say this out of spite, or a
desire for revenge against those that I believe failed my mom. I say this out of a desire for
healing, clarity, and truth. The heart’s logic cannot be quieted because it is universal; at some
point in our lives, we all experience it, or the lack of it. That is why I have felt compelled to
document mom’s story. Her story is not an isolated one, but it is one of thousands of stories
reflecting a system that is crying to be repaired. I believe that this repair demands that we
recognize that before my mom was ill, she was a person with a vital life, not a patient. We all
have stories before becoming patients. Stories of wives and husband, mothers and fathers,
stories of heartbreak and injury, of triumphs and joy, stories of overcoming obstacles and
accomplishments, stories of being human. Illness should not steal our value, or demean our
stories. Though it was painful, I chose to tell my mom’s story because I want her to be
remembered as the person she was, not a number on a medical chart, and because I fear that our
present healthcare system has forgotten the difference.
Some might say that I am making too big of a deal out of this idea. One might even ask,
well want do you want? She was a patient. They might even go on to say doctors are busy and
they do not have time to be humane. Let them do their job. That is exactly my point. Had there
not been countless mistakes, serious and life threatening errors in judgment, management, and
technical abilities which contributed greatly to her early and torturous demise, there would be
little need for this to be written. That was not the case. On the other hand, I am certain that had
each member of my mom’s medical team remained humane, and had they maintained their
compassion and been respectful of each individual’s worthiness, sacredness, and right to live and
die with dignity, my mom’s outcome would have been tremendously better. My mother would
have had a chance to say a real goodbye and it is likely she would have lived longer and with
greater quality of life. If hospitals, medical schools, doctors, and all medical professionals are not
encouraged to uphold a higher level of humanity, we will instead remain stalemated in our
medical system, resulting in life threatening consequences. As a society, it is necessary to ask
these important questions. We are said to be one of the richest nations in the world. Is this really
the best we can do? In essence, I ask you, can we really afford for our nation’s medical systems
to lose all heart?




Posted by: Aspen

What Do You Think About Blond?

posted:06/05/17




Dirty blond, lucky blond, dumb blond, oh, if only I were blond. What do you think about when you hear the word or see a blond? Perhaps you do not think anything at all. It’s certainly possible, even easy, to go through life and not even give it a thought. Easy enough for me because I never needed to project all of my hopes and dreams of someday actually having a life, all onto one little blond girl seen on a picture postcard.

There’s a lot of talk these days about taking the time to remember and acknowledge the feeling of gratitude for something in our lives. Therapist, including myself, encourage clients to keep gratitude diaries, to make daily affirmations reflecting gratitude, and to remember to focus our attention on that which is positive and beneficial in our lives. We do that so that we can learn to be happier and to find more peace in life, and gratitude is truly healing. These practices are all well and good, and very definitely necessary. Yet, it is still so easy to take many things for granted. For instance, how many people would you suppose remember to be grateful for having the ability and the freedom to walk along a lakeshore and to make sand castles? That is exactly what the little blond girl on the postcard was doing. She was also enjoying her right to enjoy this time of her life as a child. More significantly, she was experiencing being a little girl child who was allowed to have such a lovely day at the beach.

That postcard was sent to the storyteller who was on the Moth Story Hour, Dori Samadzai Bonner, who is now a grown woman and a writer. As a child she lived in Afghanistan, where she was born, and she was sent that postcard from an aunt now living in America. Dori was 10 years old and living under a Russian occupation.
That little blond instantly became a beacon of hope and the promise of possibilities to the little girl across the world who didn’t know that such a life could exist. Our storyteller’s life had been miserably oppressive and it was on the way towards getting worse. At that time, her brother was allowed to play and have a life, while after school all she could do was cook and clean, and any other things deemed to be done by or to the girls in her society. She and the other girls in her situation did not wear the expression of freedom and joy on their faces as had the little girl, now an icon, on the postcard.

Things were beginning to get desperate in her village. With saddened hearts her parents devised a plan to smuggle her and her brother out of the country. They paid a stranger sent by an organization that took care of such matters. The stranger, after stealing money from the little girl then ultimately abandoned them at the airport. Eventually another stranger appeared, found the children who had been there for hours and had felt very uncertain about their fate. Thankfully, this man did in deed complete his job, and several months later he was able to successfully deliver them to their destination.

In her teens, our brave and bold storyteller did actually arrive in her much dreamed about America. That was almost the end of her very moving story that I have captured here in a nutshell, except for this. It’s what she said at the very end of her story that reminded me of so much. She spoke about how when she arrived she so wanted to “thank America for giving her a sanctuary and a home”. For so many years her life’s breath had come from that little girl on the postcard that had given her the ability to dream. To our storyteller that little girl represented a life that was free.

Why am I re-telling her story? It comes back to gratitude. I have never indulged very much in patriotism or nationalism, which I believe are what give rise to war and the desire to divide and conquer. I would rather embrace and love. I believe that we are all connected and part of a great whole, and that we are all worthy of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s not that I do not love our country because I truly do. Yet, at the same time, when it comes to love, I believe in and strive for a world that has no boundaries. It is strange and paradoxical to be raised in the United States of America. In some ways we have it all. We are called a democracy. These days sometimes that does not seem as evident as we would like, and yet we were raised to believe in what a democratic society can do, and that very belief created within each of us, whether we recognize or not, a standard to rise to. A standard that says we have the right to have a voice, the right to protest an injustice, the right to expect equality, respect, truth and we have the right to expect our government to truly represent “ we the people”. Necessarily, we even have the duty to point out when we, as a nation, have fallen short. That very right and the need to identify and be critical of such failings can also steal the gift of gratitude. It is important to remain clear and true to that which remains positive. Those of us in this nation, who have full bellies, are safe, and not just struggling to survive, have been given the ability and the responsibility to stand up for a better world. In doing so our thinking can become very black and white. We are angry with our government for saying that we are one thing and often acting very differently. We are angry because we have a standard that lives under our skin that is not being met. However, at the same time we are free to stand up because we do have a democracy, deeply faulted as it may be. Most times we can safely gather together in groups, write articles, talk openly in public about our concerns, and we can continue to grow towards that standard for creating a better world. I am deeply grateful for that.
As a little girl I delighted in playing on the beach, dipping my feet in the water, and yes, I was free to dream. Sometimes it takes a good storyteller to reflect a different perspective based on her vastly different circumstances that is sufficient to remind us that nothing is black and white.
My entire perspective has not changed. I still prefer and hope for a world that is not so defined by its borders. As always I will continue to love my neighbors, as well as those I have not met who reside across the globe. I will continue to keep up my standard for loving and respecting all life, and caring for those who are in need. It is crucial that we do not give up our standard for a better world for all to enjoy, and necessary for well being to experience gratitude. Ultimately, I am dearly grateful to America for taking in our storyteller and giving her a chance to create a life. I can also say, “thank-you America”.






Posted by: Aspen

Chewed Up, Spit Out, and Hoping To Fly

posted:06/05/17


So, the truth is often very trite and simple. For example, the expression, “no one promised you a rose garden”, pretty much says it all. After all, in at least some manner of speaking, humans have already lost Eden. At least they think they have but perhaps many have just lost the ability to recognize it. In either case, for all practical purposes, the effect is the same.

There are some that have retained the ability, on a usable level, to recognize the Eden that earth offers. I can be found in that group and have found that sometimes this can feel like a double-edged sword. Knowing the “truth” that life is glorious, brilliant, and loving, and that the existence of earth and all of her inhabitants is breathtaking and impossible to comprehend, can also prepare a bed for deep innocence and some times painful vulnerability. Feeling the juices of a relationship that is majestic and infinite, fluid and tangible, like the way it feels at twilight or after it rains, can fill one with an extraordinary amount of joy and deep belief in the potential for paradise on earth. All at once an intrinsic optimism occurs side by side to it’s nemesis, namely the insidious development of expectations about what life on earth should look like, with standards that even the gods might not meet. It appears that such exalted standards cannot be met, thereby requiring the emergence of inner turmoil to arrive and begin complicating one’s promising vision of life. It is then that we encounter the truly ironic conundrum of life. The punch line being that paradise on earth, or something close to that, is possible and only achievable by maintaining the vision of such standards while not being devoured by them. If that sounds like a demanding order to you I will admit that sometimes the order feels quite tall to me too.

Here’s the thing. Yesterday I was bit by a bat! No, really, I am not joking. I was happily outside and barefooted carrying on with my gardening like it was any other Memorial Day weekend when I felt the bite and thought it was a garter snake. I don’t live in rattlesnake country anymore so I knew that I was not in danger. I spun around only to find a bat laying in the grass and looking up at me. It was early in the afternoon, the sun was shining, and somehow this bat was not hanging upside down and fast asleep, as it should have been. That presented a misfortune for both of us. I ended up in the ER receiving my first 4 injections and the bat ended up in a container. I was deeply saddened at the prospect of having to take this poor bat to the health department for evaluation and insisted that we punch air holes in its prison. I didn’t want it to suffocate in the process of waiting for its demise. I was quite tortured about being responsible for another’s dramatic circumstances and quickly becoming obsessed with its quality of life prior to it’s death. I was also feeling the effects of those injections and was exhausted. I tend to respond poorly to many medical treatments. My cohort in this story lived another day and a half and is now in the lab. There are many cultures that honor the teachings that we as humans can receive from the rest of the animal kingdom. Some believe that if you are bit by an animal and survive that you will then receive their “medicine”. I believe this and I already know and honor this bat medicine. Some say the bat is about the soul’s journey and transformation. Some refer to the bat as the symbol for re-birth and renewal. It is also suggested to be necessary to die the “shaman’s death” so that parts of ourselves that are no longer a benefit can die and be transformed. I have thanked this little being and I am committed to using its medicine in a positive way.

It’s not just that, not just my encounter with a bat that continues to evoke both change and turmoil. I could name many things. I am still recovering from Lyme Disease. I experienced my tick encounter back in 2004 so it has been ten years. There are residual effects that in some way have injured my spirit and my brain. It can be hard to think and learn new things at times. That’s not so bad. There are times I would rather unlearn some of the things steadfastly and so easily engrained. What’s worse, much worse, is when I can’t feel my regular level of joy or my highly enthusiastic spirit. That’s when I feel at a loss. Others usually cannot notice this change and perhaps they might even welcome less enthusiasm from me. For some people I imagine that less can still be more. However, once knowing more within myself it can be hard to settle for less.

This is not meant to be about my personal trials and tribulations for the purpose of whining or receiving comments of regret. These personal stories are about normal and understandable occurrences in life of which we all have our fair share. They are sometimes hard to take and can be jarring, but they are comprehendible. They are within the realm of what makes sense in nature and in a mortal world. They are not insults or perversions to our human spirit. They are simply a part of life. There can be illness and losses in paradise, and lyme parasites. And yes, there are bats.

Paradise is not so strict as to disallow personal strife or illness, but paradise does insist upon honesty, love, integrity, honor, truth, dignity, hope, and all of those values of which every life form should expect to be, to give, and to receive. These standards are not too high, they are vital and necessary to a sustainable and life enhancing world. That is what this is really about. I am expressing what can happen to an optimistic spirit that is dually naïve and empathic, and expects that the progression of the human spirit should prevail. Wouldn’t that be the true selected evolution for our species? It is about a person who sees great inconsistencies, hypocrisies, injustice, cruelties, and greed, a dishonoring of life, and a lust for power. I can imagine that there are many people who feel like they have been chewed up and spit out by such a world. Yet, I also see a world that has not lost hope even as so many around them have sold their souls and seemingly have lost their vision of love. I do not know what those sellers and abusers of souls get in return that could seem so valuable.

I do know this. I choose to continue to hope to fly. That is what the bat has given me. This is my medicine that does not allow one to be unchanging or clinging and bound only to the ground. To be a bat one must hope to fly where there are no limits and only infinite possibilities for love to thrive. I understand now that bat has always been with me and I am thankful!

Posted by: Aspen

Spirit and Bone

posted:06/05/17

First I must make it perfectly clear. I am not a paleontologist, anthropologist, archeologist, theologian, or a scholar. Nor am I an advocate of disrupting the earth by digging into her body only to disturb the resting-place of ancient bones. While I am aware that valuable information can be gathered from such activities I do have grave misgivings about them and feel that we must be very careful and respectful at all times. This disclaimer serves to illustrate the surprise, not quite epiphany that I experienced recently as I watched a National Geographic Special.

My watching of this special happened simply by the flipping of the channels as my husband and I hoped to relax and watch something for a little while before going to bed. Generally we are not very hopeful of finding anything on our very few channels, we do not have cable or any paid for television, so our quick flip was not expected to offer any favors. Coming upon a nature or science special of any kind on PBS is always enticing so, of course, we gave it fair viewing.

I wish I could say that while watching the show I did experience an epiphany, but that simply would not be a true and accurate report. An epiphany could be defined as an insight or clarity, a new and deeper understanding of something not previously known, or perhaps a joyful and spiritual moment of relationship with a higher body of wisdom. The experience of an epiphany could be illustrated by a comical cartoon picture of a light bulb suddenly lighting up to signify a new and more complete level of awareness. A more dignified description might even refer to it as a prophetic moment. However said, that was not my experience at all. Instead, what I felt was a deep, moving, unyielding, and not quite formed question. A nagging to be quenched question that was known somewhere within me but just out of reach. While it was not clear enough to actually grasp, it remained present enough so as to not be shaken off and easily forgotten. In essence, a great field of innocent wondering lingered, esoteric in nature and creating a sense of deep anticipation about a new level of heightened understanding coming to the surface. Consequently, I was prompted to write this account in hopes of finding more clarity. I wanted a clear question to show itself with a meaningful response to decipher that would ultimately take me further along on my spiritual journey. I have found that putting pen to paper, while entering a relaxed state to facilitate a sincere and open heart, would generally reward me with the esoteric insights that tend to enrich life. That is precisely what I am anticipating now!

A brief summary of the TV special that caught my attention amounts to the recent discovery and uncovering of the burial grounds for an unknown ancient people. Beyond this concise and surface description was the very striking manner in which the bodies had been arranged at the time of burial, and the reaction to this by the individuals who had found them and bore witness to this. What stayed with me was the abundance of love and thought that went into these burials. This was particularly evident at one grave in which a mother and her three children were so tenderly arranged to hold each other as they journeyed beyond this life. A variety of items, also found at the grave, were placed ceremonially around their remains. Equally tender was the gentle approach taken by each person involved in the “awakening” of this site as they continued with their work. Gingerly, with great trepidation, respect, and compassion, the scientists and technicians alike were visibly moved and deeply touched by the scene of those lost people who had been so clearly loved, honored, and missed. This was a population with no apparent weapons and an ample supply of love and sophistication.

As I witnessed the power of this scene and how it effected all of those involved in that dig I felt as though something sacred was occurring. At this point, I am hoping that eyes are not rolling as my readers think to themselves that I am getting carried away and perhaps even inventing the significance of this event. After all, it was just a digging up of old bones. However that was not my experience. I became a witness and participant in the viewing. What I felt was precisely that it was not just a show about a “dig” for artifacts. That might be how it began but somewhere along the line there was a shift to something far more grand. It was not merely a dig that could result in insights about ancient people that might help to inform us, the current Homosapiens, about our circumstances now on earth. More remarkable, it manifested an energy and created an emotional and spiritual relationship between modern humans and the remains of what we call the past. This happened not as an obvious conclusion that one might expect after a day of routine fossil hunting, but more through the insidious nature of that which is ethereal , as love and spirit, that slowly permeates one’s heart and psyche before one even realizes that this alchemy has occurred. As smoke might rise from a once dormant volcano where it first simmered long before it was known, so too the spirits had risen from “dead” bones to be felt, even if not known. That was my experience felt at a level beyond the intellect. Instead, it was a mysteriously woven connection between the infinite parts of myself and the infinite nature of all that is. Ancient bones were revealed and touched the eternal core of all whom encountered that moment.

It appears to me that the great separation of that which is termed “life” and that determined to be “death” became less clarified and harder to define. Can one’s heart and soul be so affected simply by studying the arrangement of dead bones from long ago? Is something dead only because we, in our collective decisiveness, cannot understand its life qualities? Many indigenous societies believe that there is a spirit living in all things. It is easy for many people to consider the possibility of trees and plants possibly possessing a spirit, however, I ask you now to consider what some native people participating in a sweat lodge ceremony refer to as “the rock people”. Do we rely solely on our current scientific notions of what qualifies as life, such as; breath, motion, and growth (I am certain I knew this better once in some biology class), even as our perimeters of knowledge are based on a very short span of time? In our brief lifetimes, can we really define the existence of that which remains hundreds and even thousands of years longer than ourselves? Perhaps the lone rock is as the mountain, moving and growing. Then what of our bones, drained of blood and life support as they are, do they remain connected to the human spirit or eternal life force enough so as to evoke empathy, love, and compassion from those who come to view them? Finally, I must ask are not the essences of love, compassion, and empathy eternal components of a force that cannot be seen, known, or comprehended and yet deeply felt in the joining of spirit and bone?

The feeling that had merged within my soul has now emerged in the language of words. The sought after and lingering question appeared and unveiled itself to be multiple questions. The answers of which can be found waiting in each of our hearts, and yes in fact, an epiphany did initiate this journey. Not an epiphany in the form of a light bulb suddenly illuminating, but in a lovely flow of insurgent awareness that invaded the illusion of separateness and demanded immediate awareness, expansion, and exploration.
Posted by: Aspen