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FOR EVERYONE, THERE IS A SEASON
Saying good bye to Mom - March 17, 2003
(her 82nd Birthday)
PART 1. My View PART 2. Memorial Circle PART 3. Ashes
Favorite photo - mom in Durango home, September 1991
Part 1. PERFECT TIMING - the view from Idaho
Last summer I was finally able to release some of my guilt and resentment regarding mom living so many years in a locked "memory unit", where, since her neighborhood was taken from her, she paced relentlessly down halls, while her mind roamed back to favorite old times growing up in Kankakee, Illinois, through the bitter disappointments of life. She slipped out real doors at any opportunity-- becoming a "professional liability". Felt guilty for not staying home full time and trying to keep my free spirited, nature loving mom out of professional care centers; many of my friends had moved their parents into their own homes.
Slowly I turned things over to "a higher power"; had too. What was best for mom in her last years was definitely a question too big for me. Mom seemed miserable and frustrated for decades--my view; however, my brothers saw a mother who could walk for miles and still smile! For years I wrestled, alone (I felt) with: Should mom remain in the midwest near her busy sons and grandchildren? Or, should she be moved west near me, because I'm a hospice volunteer who "might help", who has "no life", time to visit? Month after month I already often visited my yoga teacher in a care center I was growing quite fond of! Maybe mom could make the move and I'd visit both! I was making things worse, trying to dialog with brothers on the subject. Friends and strangers helped me sort through these questions best. Still guilt ate away. Sometimes I rationalized I spent time with other peoples' parents, the way others spent time with mine. One night in the hot tub I recognized I felt so alienated from my own blood family that they weren't even on my list of enemies for God to bless! Changed that.
Then it became: How to "get me"/my ego out of the way so "Thy Will [could] Be Done" (my favorite prayer)? Have at it, God. Relaxed a little. If the sibs weren't communicating, God was still there, with mom, with me and with each of them.
At the end of February brother Stuart emailed that mom was in the hospital with pneumonia. As a sometime hospice person, I knew, pneumonia was once known as death's friend. Even with modern medicine, pneumonia, is serious. Soon, however, Stu soon reported mom was out of the hospital, walking, and a few days later, eating and smiling, in a recovery home.
FRIDAY MARCH 14. Last winter I stayed home Fridays. Awoke slowly, took tea up to the yoga room; sat on the floor, read, organized, checked email. When food sounded interesting later, cooked leisurely brunch.
That morning brother Stuart emailed from an unfamiliar address to say mom had just collapsed and died. Personally, I could understand why he was emailing, not phoning. I was overwhelmed with awe that this was a morning I was home, rather than out trying to convince folks to relax and breathe at the fitness club! Slowly the message soaked into my groggy consciousness. Reality seeped through fine cracks in the hard clay of my mind, sending flickers of lightning to my core. Simultaneously I was both jolted by this long anticipated occurrence, and flooded with relief that mom had died suddenly, without undergoing hospitalization, broken bones, tubes, medication and operations, like ever so many elders. Although many families find these drawn out experiences grant them blessed time together, I just couldn't see shrunken mom undergoing something like hip replacement! She wudda hated that. I began replying to Stu's email, stream of conscious... thoughts about scattering ashes in the desert. I could imagine mom's spirit heading for the canyons of Utah... free at last, after years and years of frustration.
[Recently someone recommended: "Have you ever just let the pen write". I thought of my mammoth website of rambling essays! Better yet came the thought to keep my mouth shut. I live to write--my catnip, addiction; words tumble effortlessly (perhaps carelessly). True enough, I've never felt pen or keyboard take charge. Flunked metaphysics. Happy just letting thoughts roll out this way.]
Concurrently I knew this was mom's answer--she didn't want to be moved to Idaho, a plan Stuart and I discussed for this spring. At some point another bolt struck deeply--the "selfish" reason why I most dreaded mom's death: for years I've believed mom's death would bring about the final time to see my estranged brothers. Mom was my only link to the distant brothers who, after all these years, I haven't yet been able to let go of wanting to know and be known by.
While I sat dazed, Stu phoned, from the nursing home, where he was sitting with mom's body. Again I thanked God for being home this morning. (No doubt She nodded: but of course!) I was deeply touched to be linked by phone as well as spirit to mom, and Stu. I would loved to have been with her at her death. However, I was not. [Bless Dannion Brinkley for involving me in hospice! My thoughts went directly to his description of the Light. Go towards the light, mom, follow that love!] I was ecstatic that Stuart was with her while her body was still warm. "Her spirit is right there", I said tearily to Stuart. Stu fought and maintained control. For the first time in my adult life, I felt the brother 2 years younger was glad I was on the other end of the line. Now, that's a blessing! I can hear everything in a voice, thank you God. I heard his suggestion to come to MN, but I was "already on the plane".
Stu mentioned his plan to have mom embalmed "for the children's sake"; he wondered about the cemetery where dad was buried in Illinois. Thanks to evangelists teaching me why men need to lead, I was content to not to question but follow. I went ahead and rambled about how I'd been writing, imagining scattering mom's ashes in the canyons of Utah she loved. Stuart's voice shifted and he suddenly revealed he was going to be in New Mexico at the end of the month. Once again, sensed Divine planning at work! Swallowed my old why don't the brothers ever visit when they're vacationing in the west reaction and no doubt exclaimed, "Really?!" Stuart immediately replied he thought he could get to the Durango cabin to scatter ashes! (Evidently he's was considering cremation also!) However could mom "have known" Stuart was gonna be in the southwest!!! [Later I was to learn a second brother would be in Utah the same week!] "Bet I could meet you", I hazarded. Stu's "I'd like that", was again long awaited music to my ears.
Although I was shaky, decided to drive downtown to fetch an interlibrary loan. On the way back, stopped to walk along the river, recalling it's the old friend who listens, and it'd been months since I'd been there. Hadn't been walking long when I began telling mom how proud I was of her for getting out of her body and confused mind. [How's that for ego!] Way to go, Mom, Good Job! (I'd doubted she could move on--oh, ye of little faith!) Guess she showed me!! Right on! Knowing mom'd been confused for years, and that, according to The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying souls wander around for something like 49 days, I cheered her on, called on the masters--guides, guardians, angels (well, did my nonprofessional best.) Walked obliviously past the wonders of spring by the river, soaking up essence, not detail. Don't ask what I saw: spring.
Came home clearer; began canceling plans for the next few days--classes, potlucks. The open house that was not falling into place--no wonder! Sent emails, left phone messages, including one for mom's remaining sister in CA. Went ahead and sent in deposit for June yoga workshop in California, knowing at last I wouldn't worry about mom while traveling.
As I pulled out the travel pack I'd just repaired again pondered Divine Timing. March--no where to go (but inner journeying). No workshop had sounded right... Mexico--been there. In between times, seasons. Couldn't figure out why I hadn't felt like going to Oregon for Easter--now I knew. Mom's Death was The Big Event. Mom's Perfect Time. Nothing more momentous on the calendar than a potluck (extremely important, of course, but not in the Big Picture I was suddenly a part of).
Looking back, I saw more and more the small ways in which Divine Oneness prepared me to lose the final parent. At the end of February I drove down the street to see the UU's production of Thorton Wilder's "Our Town". I was deeply moved, again, by the depiction of how those who stay behind grieve, but those who leave, move on. After looking for a black dress for years, last fall I'd found one. (Not that I felt I required to wear black... not this free spirit! Always a choice.)
Packed winter clothes and black dress in repaired pack, along with a folder of mom's writings I'd saved for this. Since I waited to learn when the brothers could get to Minneapolis to do a memorial, and am a rookie at airline reservations, at the last minute on Saturday I paid top dollar for a ticket and drove straight to the airport. Jet fuel on me, I mumbled, as I sat with folks with discount and free tickets. Although I no longer recall all my seatmates--one was man from India moving family from San Jose to MN, they were delightful. Only one mom; I was grateful to fly on a full Saturday night plane, and shocked that Stuart was willing to meet me at what turned out, after delays, to be after midnight. He seemed almost eager and grateful to fetch me; said he'd had a nap before coming all the way across town to the airport!
Surprise! After packing for winter in Minneapolis, leaving spring in Boise, "frigid" Minneapolis' snow banks were melting back in an unusual balmy streak. Overdressed again!
SUNDAY MARCH 16th. Faced a bit of a dilemma the next morning. Didn't want to be a demanding guest in my brother's home which had no plans for Sunday church. However, of all times, mom's death, I craved timeless words, being with a community of faith--holy time. Car-less, I pressed for the nearest services. (One of the blessings of not feeling family support has been becoming a religious nut!) Guided part way by Stuart with baby in stroller, I walked, then dashed down the hill, to the Basilica, arriving rather late. Hard not to panic when God is the most important thing in my life and mom just left this earth. My someone to lean on is spiritual community--any. Family has no idea how important spirituality is to me--I'm just the odd one who dresses funny and has no kids.
The service was so beautiful, I did little but stifle sobs. When the "priest" (the same one I heard 2 falls before) said something about the word of God taking our breath away, I'd heard just what I needed. Yes, God had taken mom's breath from her, as he/she does all of us in our own time. The traditional choir was heavenly; I wiped and wiped tears. A (no doubt) Irish tenor, sang a gorgeous aria; after the service, he sang Danny Boy in honor of St Patrick's Day, which would also be mom's birthday, and the full moon. Whow.
Lit a 6 day votive candle for the mom and the family that doesn't come to church with me, walked around the Basilica, until I was composed enough to sweat back up the unseasonably warm Minneapolis hillside.
Although I wanted to return for compline, the afternoon ended up completely filled with emptying mom's room in the nursing home. Something I could help Stuart do and no one else would or could. Although Stu had located the Alzheimer's unit were mom spent her last years, in desperation, I'd felt it was a good choice when I'd visited fall of 2000. Our confused but still opinionated midwestern mom, had been cared for by a staff of tender blue black Nigerian angels! God's magnificent sense of humor....
I remembered one angel clearly. Now we kept looking at each other until on one of the trips back and forth to the pair of vehicles we were loading, we re-introduced ourselves. "I'm really going to miss your mother", Florence said, "She was my best dance partner". Ahh--no finer tribute. This, from the woman who cared for my mom while I "did my own thing" Out West! Maybe I'll end up dancing with someone else's mom the way Florence danced with ours. Her own elderly mother, we learned, had wandered from home in Nigeria months before and not been found.
Not long after I began sorting clothes and magazines into "give away" and "throw away" stacks, we realized that couldn't be done in an Alzheimer's unit. "I don't think that's mom's", Stuart began saying more and more frequently, when I asked if it would be ok to put something in a giveaway bag. On one visit to the room Florence solved the mystery: "That's Alberta's", she said warmly, recognizing a sweater. "I'll get it back to her. That's Alberta's too." Of course. Who knows the world of fellow Alzheimerees! Eventually we left all the bags of useful clothing, including a huge collection of single shoes, for Florence, only taking what we were sure was mom's and couldn't be used in the unit. One of our few sources of humor during the moving ordeal was calling out "Bingo" when we found a matching shoe!
Clearing out mom's room revealed how very much Stuart had done for mom, cared for her. A beautiful winter coat; lovely, thoughtfully chosen clothes. Quietly Stu would say, I got that for mom, when I asked how he felt about putting something especially nice, or which I recognized, in the thrift shop bag v. taking to his home. I thought it was sad, but telling, that none of our family was interested in any of the things he'd got mom; Stu's new family is modern, unsentimental (unlike him). They never knew our mom. (Naturally everything way too small for this adopted Idaho girl!) Up and down the elevator we went with dollies, moving dresser, bed, tables. After a couple of hours, I could barely walk, my already tender right foot was yowling. Although the end of the world seemed near, I cheered us on to finish, knowing this was harder on Stuart. He was tortured mentally; me physically. Unlike my Stygian experience of emptying mom's Durango house primarily alone, December 1996, it was good to have company this time. (We'd all moved mom at some point, but the brothers had always worked together; I'd never shared the task with family.)
That evening brother Jamie/family flew in; Scott's arrived "by land". Awkward greetings, avoided our common purpose. The brothers have stayed in touch, visited on business trips; I was the stranger who moved west outa college among them. Families stuck together. Having had a short Saturday night, plus the physical and mental strain of clearing out mom's room, I slept well in the quiet basement of Karen and Stu's historic "new"-to-them, 4 story home (counting basement). I returned to the "basement" (play rooms, 2 baths, sauna, computer room, storage rooms). The rest filled the upstairs rooms, putting the new home to what might well be, it's fullest and highest use. I was thoroughly spent, from basilica to alzheimer's unit.
Wait, wait! That was just a fantasy. Although I was absolutely done in, once the brothers arrived, Sunday night had just begun--it was going through Hemphill stuff night once and for all--the only night (maybe forever) we'd be all together! The new mistress of the new house wanted Hemphill things out immediately; her Finnish family stuff was different!! She began hauling out boxes that had been stored in Minneapolis since mom's forced U-Haul move from Durango, October 1996, by Jamie and Stu. Awkwardly we each started asking what things were and if anyone wanted them, picking what interested us. If we'd been organized we would have, from the get go, designated areas for each of us to put what interested us or leave things for each other to see. Too often I found things missing from my little stack, only to have Karen confess she'd put it in the rummage sale pile in the other room! A woman on mission OutaHere.
Out came dad's World War II medals, articles we'd never seen before about parents and grandparents... on and on. Who wants to hold onto military things? (Jamie became steward.) Yup, that's a purple cross, the internet showed. Photos? That would be me, more or less. Gulp.
Sobering that all photos of me, came to me. No one else would ever want them. Gotta throw out those debutante ball photos myself! Who cares this life time? Profound contemplation--one dies alone. Thank you, Buddhism. I want to practice dealing with death every day so I can live fully. (Now the pressure's on for me to deal with what I brought back, and our inheritance responsibly.)
For the first and last time in our lives, boxes from great- and grandparents were opened; we saw things from both sides of the family most of us had never known about. In the end, it was more or less like Howard's End, with the right thing ending up with the right person, undecideds going to a rummage sale. There was no "Later" pile. Despite sputterings from Jeannie and Stu, dispatching with the remains of mom and dad's history seemed to have to be done in one evening. After a day in the Alzheimer's unit, dealing with mom's stuff there, I felt terribly rushed to decide about the rest of her possessions. At one point I snapped that I'd already made more decisions that afternoon than in my whole life; I really need time and space to continue! This was not to be.
In many ways mom taught us to let go of possessions. Funny how she cared so little about stuff, yet collected soooo much!! (We're talking a world class collection of cottage cheese containers, lawn chairs, magazines, contemporary gadgets dealt with some years back, not these last family treasures.) Months later that evening was and continues to be a rather painful recollection.
To our credit, we sibs were on best behavior, perhaps because we're more or less strangers, without much baggage from adult years (sufficient from earlier, of course). Mom and dad both modeled generosity and respect. None of the nasty family hassles outsiders warned of--as if I didn't know my sibs?-- but I was certain would not occur. (Anyone know what happened to grandfather Mann's turquoise belt? Now that I've had time to think, I'd like to get it to southwestern cousins who particularly knew and loved him.)
I was in awe to observe the brothers' marriages in action--wives and kids were right in there going through boxes--who called the shots, when and how. (Never was I to be alone with just brothers.) The marriages appeared to be traditional business contracts. All but the 2 year old handled things respectfully. I can still see the loose garnet beads of a bracelet I remember mom wearing, that he destroyed, and the shrug of his mom's shoulders, who was busy bringing out boxes to sort. Wives were careful to support; still the situation may have been more loaded than they realized. I don't believe any of them had ever met our dad who died in 1977. This was our final parent. The brothers married strong women with large families and clear expectations. Except for mom's 70th birthday, this was only the second Hemphill-focused event wives had experienced. Perhaps the only thing we 4 biologic Hemphills have in common is that we are sentimental. Just how strong the brother's bond to mom was, was to become much clearer the next morning.
Though physically and emotionally exhausted, slept uneasily that second night in the basement. This time in the computer room, away from the epicenter of the sorting through family history. The thought that I'd rather be run over my a truck than go through this again ran around endlessly. Tried, but failed, to get ahold of my mind. Several loud cracks in the dark, like splitting glass, caused my gut to knot. I was happy there were few family squabbles over goods and pleased at the way on occasion several of us were firm with each other or a spouse. But I was deeply upset at being rushed to dispose of everything immediately. Karen was on the phone to the ARC the next day. Hard on me, partly because I could see how hard it was on Stuart. Not my business, others' marriages, but disposal of my ancestors possessions? Is my roll as eldest to be silent, steam rolled, brushed away? This gathering tapped a hornet's nest of personal issues. Sense there's a roll to reclaim somehow in our material amassing, people disposing society. This didn't seem the time to go berserk out of the blue but it did occur to me to do so! My other voice said: go home to your monastery, live simply, be still.
I saw a side of my brothers' lives that made me delirious not to have chosen to play marriage and children Hemphill style, particularly the upward mobility game. I'm not sure just when the swell of compassion, for both self and family, began. It gained momentum as I considered responsibility for multiple sets of children, tvs, fine homes and vehicles; private schools and communities, socially correct vacations and associates. Looked like the American Nightmare to me--lives out of control, not in the hands of God. Began feeling grateful that I only have to be concerned with embarrassing myself. Grateful for the spiritual roots I'm growing in Idaho (of all places!).
Bless Family for doing the family thing. The brothers seem much more involved with their children than our dad was, who worked day and night to give us everything and then was dead by my age this year. I yearn to have friendships with the brothers--to deeply share the meaning of mom's life and death and our family story with. It wasn't clear to me how much comfort their marriages were in this time. An avalanche of tender subjects covered my restless heart and shoulders as I tossed and turned, waiting for morning in the dark basement, to see how we'd say good bye to mom.
Part 2. Our MEMORIAL CIRCLE
MONDAY MARCH 17th. In the morning I was defensive, on guard, when Jamie teased me about something "trivial". Maybe the reality that mom had died, hadn't hit the brothers yet. I, however, was like a raw nerve. I simply couldn't take unskillful attempts at humor, no matter how well meant, from the brothers who hadn't answered letters or emails for decades (my view only). Tears began which more or less didn't stop for the rest of the morning. It's one thing saying good bye to the final parent with whom I had less than an ideal relationship; it felt even worse, not having the love and support of siblings to help do so.
It turned out we four "only children" (mom once called us that) were going to be doing mom's final goodbye "ourselves", at a nearby funeral home. Stu decided mom wouldn't want a church funeral--no familiar church or friends around.
While Stu and I headed to the funeral home early, mercifully Stu's wife took charge of the 2 year old. Wore my thrift shop black dress and mom's squash blossom necklace. We sat with mom's body in a half open casket, talked quietly and closely. I was (of course?) shocked by the body. The first thing that flashed through my mind was how mom's head position and composure was exactly that of a favorite black and white portrait of an old black woman I'd first seen in an exhibit in Seattle! I loved the regal pose of the dignified black elder. (When the very same photo showed up in the Humane Society thrift shop in Bend last year, I recognized it immediately, was tempted to buy, but came to senses!) Here was that same pose on my own mom, haunting, but not altogether "mom".
The half hour spent with Stu was definitely the most intimate time we'd ever spent together, might ever spend. Stu choked up, but never lost it--ever the in control attorney, I guess. Childhood memories mixed with practical logistics for the morning. Recently I remembered evenings at Washington Grade School when there were cake walks and we never won? "Fun Frolics", Stu stated without missing a beat, bringing back a name I hadn't heard since the 50s!. Wow, I said delighted. We talked about mom; it was a relief to me when Stu acknowledged how judgmental mom could be of others. Amen. Felt connected and appreciated by Stu.
He seemed to want to moderate the memorial circle. As eldest, I thought I might be looked to at some point; not that I noticed. Again, thanks to time with evangelists, I understood Stu's/men's need to lead, mine to follow with support. No problem. This felt like the first time I was around for family matters, rather than getting wind of rumors later.
Family by family, brothers-wives-kids arrived, dressed spiffily in a black theme. At one point it occurred to me I had the world's thinnest family. Jamie's 5'-10" Kathy still wears her pre-marriage size 6s, her rounder early teens boosted. You can almost see the halo on the youngest girl--funny how grace works. Scott too can probably put his hands around his wife's waist; they're both athletes. Their 3 boys scrapped among each other. Scott looked most shaken. I was to learn a lot about this most remote sibling.
Stu's new young wife, Karen, could be on a magazine cover wearing a high cut hip swimsuit--long beautiful legs and blond hair. Probably an empath like me, she joined me crying when she came in. Stu's grade schoolers (1st marriage) giggled and clung to each other, oblivious to the situation. Could be wrong, but I think the memorial was wasted on kids. Stu and Karen's high energy baby was the star of the show, racing around, screaming when fetched. His reluctant Idaho aunt did not approve of course, but she knew God was in charge.
Stu made appropriate comments to open the circle, playing Chopin and another favorite classical piece on the CD he'd brought along. Independently each of us had traveled with favorite CDs for the occasion, music being such strong expression of family and memory. Next Stu asked if I could read the poem I'd found in a collection of mom's favorite songs, articles and poems. I was "doing fairly ok" until I went to open my mouth. Suddenly the old familiar experience of being unable to speak when I'm choked up struck. Could only sob. Fortunately I was given time. Knew it wasn't going to get any easier. No amount of reminding myself to breathe and recalling that clinging to the dead doesn't benefit anyone, helped. Eventually I read line by line, getting somewhat surer, the perfect poem in mom's difficult handwriting.
PRAYER of a CAMPER
(Found in mom's handwriting in an old collection of poems and songs, handwritten and typed, some identified with authors, though not this one.) This rendition edited somewhat by Jeannie. [August 2004 rec'd email from Girl Scouting daughter in NJ who also found Prayer of Camper in her mother's papers. It was attributed to Irene Mott, wife of diplomat to India, Vivian Bose, ~1940. Mott wrote childrens book on India and published in in Parade Magazine, April 1940]
God of the hills, grant me strength to go back to the cities without faltering:
Strength to do my daily task without tiring, and with enthusiasm;
Strength to help my neighbor, who has no hills to remember.
God of the lake, grant me thy peace and restfulness:
Peace, to bring into a world of hurry and confusion;
Restfulness, to bring to the tired ones I shall meet every day;
Contentment, to do small things, with a freedom from bitterness;
Self control, for the unexpected emergency.
Patience, for the wearisome task.
God of the Desert Canyons, warm my heart; bake courage into my bones:
Carve deep clefts within my soul:
To hear through crowded places, the hush of the nighttime;
To let in shafts of sunlight to brighten the cheerless corners of a long winter.
God of the Stars and Moon, may I take back the gift of friendship, of life for all:
Fill me with awe and compassion;
Fill me with a great tenderness for the needy person, at every turn.
Grant that in all my perplexities and everyday decisions,
I may keep an open mind, like the spacious night sky.
God of the Wilderness, with thy pure wind from the northland, drive away my pettiness.
With harsh winds of the winter, drive away selfishness and hypocrisy.
Fill me with the breadth and depths and heights of the wilds.
When pine trees are dark against the skyline,
Help me recall the humbleness of the hills, who in their mightiness know it not.
May I live the truth thou hast taught me, in every thought, word, and deed.
At some point Jamie put his arm on my shoulder, which meant more to me than anything else--a Hemphill reaching out. Kathy stood behind him (I think), making it unclear to me whether I could do the same for him--was there room for me? I took comfort hearing Peace Like a River, my favorite hymn, DJ-ed by Stu at the CD player.
Scott wailed the most, letting it all hang out--for a Hemphill. I was stunned and fascinated to see this "cold, distant" brother's, about whom I knew nothing emotional, grief for mom. My Secret World for sure. Somehow, over the last couple of days, as he and family had been on the road at a family wedding, he'd managed to write a letter to mom, which he choked through reading. Whow. A mother, a brother, a relationship I hadn't known. Amazing. Terrific. He chose Massenet's "Meditation from Thaïs". (Later I wondered why I, "the writer", hadn't turned to writing?)
March 17, 2003
“Hello Scott, it’s Mom.” Oh how I long to hear those words again. As the warm tears rolled down my cheeks on Friday night, I thought about what Mom’s voice meant to me. While her voice has been lost to us recently, I can still hear it clearly in my memory. It means many things to me, from encouragement to discussion, from help to ideas, from scolding to praising. It was fitting that her death occurred on a day when I was involved in helping Cub Scouts become Boy Scouts. She lit the Scouting flame in me, fed it the fuel that it needed and helped me to get a great experience from my Scouting journey. I am honored now to have the opportunity to pass along some of Mom’s passion to new generations of Scouts. And Friday was a good day too for the University of Illinois, one of Mom’s passions, as they played a great game of basketball in the Big Ten tournament.
I awoke early Saturday morning before dawn to the springtime voice of a Cardinal and instantly thought of Mom. For many years I have heard her voice in many places, from camping to forests to birds and animals. Mom taught all of us an appreciation of nature and for me, I hear her teaching and her excitement and her passion whenever I have the opportunity to walk or hike or camp or enjoy a campfire. I hear her voice asking me to go with her to see a Snowy Owl in the middle of a snow-less Jacksonville winter and her excitement as we spotted it alone in a farmer’s field just off of the road. And I hear it again as we watched Bald Eagles soaring overhead near Lake Chatauqua. I hear her voice suggesting an English class research paper on Isak Dinesen, the Dutch author who would become the subject of the Robert Redford/Meryl Streep movie “Out of Africa.” When the movie came out, I remember telling my post-college friends that I knew all about Dinesen because I had done a research paper on her 6 years ago in high school—thanks to Mom’s thinking.
I hear Mom’s voice waking me at 1AM in the morning to tell me that Dad had finally died. She was calm and reassuring even though we both hurt deeply inside. I hear Mom asking me, “so do you think you want to marry Jane?” It was just the gentle prodding that I needed to make the most important decision at that point in my life.
I will never forget, at least until I get Alzheimer’s, Mom’s voice as she announced her permanent move to Durango. At 65, she picked up and left many long-time friends to go where her soul felt more comfortable. One circle of friends was distanced, but not broken, and a new circle of friends was formed. The voice that I would hear occasionally in a call or a letter was now busy scheduling trips to the desert, to the canyonlands, to special places and times. Oh how proud I was to tell our friends that my Mom, at 65, had up and moved West to be in the mountains she loved—and oh, by the way, had taken up kayaking!
I will hear her voice as long as I live. I will sense her presence in many places and in many things. So as she heads to Tolkien’s Undying Lands, I hope that her spirit has re-captured her voice so that she can say hello to Dad, and our granddads and grandmothers, too. She will be a welcome addition to any campfire and any discussion. And Mom, please look up our friend Robert Kuntz when you arrive. He would love to discuss canyons and deserts and talk about why they were so important to you and to him. Someday I will join the conversation too!
Good bye Mom.
A Favorite Memory
I remember taking Mom camping to Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan a few years ago. After setting up camp and pitching the tent for Jane and the kids, we set up a tent for Mom. Later that day Mom wanted to take a nap and asked if Utah, our Yellow Lab, could be her tent mate. I said of course she could. I really am not sure who was the most excited, Utah or Mom! I still have the mental picture of Utah’s head sticking out of the tent, so excited to have company and a roof over her head.
This was also the camping trip when I finally understood that Mom was truly on the descent into another world upon packing up her ten and finding all sorts of missing camping items. And her early morning walks with the campground host, also her age, prompted them to finally stop by and gently ask me if I “knew about Mom’s condition?” I answered that I did sort of understand, but explained that Mom would make these truly believable statements like “I’ll just stay here and rest while you go to the beach.” I was slowly learning that Mom may have meant to sit still while we were to the beach, but that there was a little man in her brain telling her to get up and walk around.
Jamie broke down also; he'd brought the Illinois State song... By the rivers gently flowing, Illinois, Illinois.... His comments, like Stu's weren't written, organized. Later he shared more thoughts:
Scott, glad you all made it safely [home]. Buy me a CD, too, if you find the site and the music that you heard. On the topic of music, Kevin was superb. My emotions were raging. He stood playing in front of the coffin I could not bear to look at; I could not take my eyes and ears off of his sublime performance. Tell him again (and again in five and ten years from now, when he will know more about what he did) how deeply he moved us all. Ode to Joy and Happy Birthday; only a (grand)child's simple love could have determined how perfect that would be. Scott & Jane you must be so proud.
Scott, your remarks resonated in me deeply. I tried several times over the preceding days to collect my thoughts, write them down, but just couldn't. Though your experiences were your own, they triggered many memories for me of the loving, caring, curious, and usually knowing mother we all knew from our separate and sometimes shared perspective. Hopefully, months from now, the
words will come to me, and I can share them then. What you said was true, heartfelt and courageous. [Jamie]
Live fiddle by Scott and Jane's Kevin, age ll, introduced by Jane: Ode to Joy; and Happy Birthday
Perhaps because of some things Stu and I talked of before everyone came, Stu closing thoughts challenged us to learn to connect. I'd mentioned how rarely our parents saw their families, the strained relationship between mom and her remaining sister. I said a silent Amen, brothers and sisters, to have heard That Truth aloud. We sat there, 4 lone islands, in a sea of grief. For me it was perhaps especially surreal that I scarcely knew these adult men. After decades of writing "Love to see y'all; please come visit", on birthday and Christmas cards, I'd got the picture finally. My attempts in recent years to land on doorsteps had been uncomfortable to disastrous. On some level I felt this hour saying goodbye to our last parent would probably be as close as we'd ever get, physically and emotionally.
As Stu, Scott and Jamie shared, I was struck by their focus on mom as a learner and reader (perhaps it was just one brother hearing a good idea...). Yes, mom read. She presented history class papers--which, with my terror of public speaking, impressed me as something I could never do.
However what I recalled most vividly about mom was not mentioned by the brothers. It was in the poem I'd struggled to read: "Fill me with a great tenderness for the needy at every turn". Mom's highest teaching to me, was (to use a Buddhist term) her endless friendliness to strangers, a source of vast embarrassment, as friendliness often is to children. Her kindness to the black woman who made oatmeal cookies with raisins, and Bud, who worked around the house; to Judy Calvin's family, and to other disenfranchised people as we grew up; to many Girl Scouts, were tattooed on my young mind. Mom wouldn't go to church with us, but her random acts of kindness made a permanent impression on me, as strong as the book before her thick glasses was to my brothers. At her best, mom was entirely color and class blind, heart wide open. Confusion and fear slowly took over more and more of her life, as time went on, but even in the care center, we saw those same bursts of kindness on occasion. (It's taken decades to straighten out my confusion over the family stew of criticism and kindness. I'm only now deeply appreciating our parents gifts of kindness and generosity.)
Then the circle was over and I'd lost my chance to share mom's greatest teaching to me aloud. (I was hoping, assuming, we 4 sibs might slip off for a celebratory or symbolic drink together. How wrong I was.)
Scott lined us up in the funeral home while the director snapped what turned out to be blurry photos with his digital. Throughout the circle I was puzzled and uneasy that the funeral home director sat in the back of the room the entire time. For all it cost, couldn't understand how much it would take to pay him to go away, good man he no doubt was! (Don't recall funeral director lurking at hospice patient Doris' viewing, the only other dead body I've seen--I think!)
Again and again I thought--you only do funerals 'cause you gotta. Grueling.
Off to a trendy nearby restaurant to "feed the kids". I was uneasy that "the kids" seemed to be the excuse for everything. Mom's death eclipsed my usual interest in food. A sister-in-law commented that I order a hamburger--wasn't I vegetarian? (Since when?) I was tempted to swat back with "I live in Idaho!" Instead I tried to explain that hamburgers are a comfort food. Many, many winter evenings dad grilled one large hamburger patty in the livingroom fireplace. She ordered something socially acceptable, then ate huge cookies. The kids sat at the adjacent table; I admired with horror the way Jane managed the boys' fights. Didn't much enjoy self; best we could do, I guess, in this modern world, where we were removed from community and neighborhood, from neighbors coming by with hotdishes.
A few hours later, after playing with the kids in the park, Scott and family packed their gear and dog back into the van, off to Chicago. I snapped a roll of film at the door. Jamie took his family to the airport; he planned to spend another day talking finances with Stuart. Jamie and I spent another night. Don't seem to remember that evening other than relocating to the 3rd floor bedroom Scott and Jane left. Slept well. Liked the feeling of completion, having mom in God's arms, her stuff more or less dealt with. Now I've got my homework; the brothers have theirs. May all beings know peace.
TUESDAY MARCH 18th. Taped and labeled boxes for the airport and Idaho. Stuart, Jamie and I speaker phoned mom's financial advisor in Durango regarding the relationship between mom and dad's wills. Interesting how investment banker Jamie "just happens" to be between contracts. He has extraordinary business sense.
I did a bit of 2 year old monitoring so Karen could run errands. At some point Stuart appeared before me with a pair of oriental book ends from dad's twin's estate. The uncomfortable subject of Aunt Mary's estate had not come up, other than to see the formal rooms of the new house filled with antiques from her home. Several times I'd emailed Stuart and the brothers of my interest in a couple of items from Aunt Mary's--ginger jar, kwan yin. No response--not an unusual family pattern. Suddenly about a week ahead of time, an email announced the estate was being packed up. For months I'd had plans to visit the east coast (and look up the last 2 Hemphill cousins). (It was not until later Jamie told me Stuart alone inherited Aunt Mary's home and contents.)
The bookends appeared heavy and breakable. I plunged--"Is there a Kwan Yin?" Stu looked blank. "The Japanese goddess of compassion", I explained, "Aunt Mary had several, according to [estate] photos". Shortly he handed me a metal Kwan Yin. "That's her!" I exclaimed, tearing up. Again. "May I have her? She's metal, won't break." He nodded. It was a small gesture to have received from a huge estate, but it was perfect, exactly what I needed--Compassion. I was deeply touched.
The visit to Minneapolis above all was about learning compassion for a family that appeared to have forgot me. When I saw the brothers' hectic lives first hand, their tense faces, slumped shoulders, stiff backs, traditional marriages, I'd grown in compassion. It's been hard to care about family that doesn't keep in touch, that I know so little about. I might get a dear friends holiday letter or thank you; I might not. When I saw the brothers' confusion and grief over mom, I softened. I felt the stress in Scott's spine at our uncomfortable hug goodbye. I'm not to know this brother, his world, this life time, though they vacation nearby. At our memorial circle I saw a glimpse of how my former environmental buddy Scott's using mom's passion for nature in scouting. I hadn't realized that. Mom would be pleased.
Jamie and I had time to talk finances, his area of expertise and comfort, my arena of ignorance and need. I'd rather talk hearts, but that's harder with family--gotta use x-ray vision for that. It was good. We saw Stu's den. I saw the check to mom I'd set on to him, sitting on a sill. I may have seen the unopened yoga for relaxation DVD I'd sent, some time after Christmas.
Stuart and Jamie both took me to the airport; our good byes felt real, warm. Thank you Buddha for teaching non attachment. Stu's absolutely right--we didn't learn how to connect. The way I'd put it straight on--we didn't learn to love--ourselves or others. We wouldn't turn our backs on each other if we had. Jamie and Stu have been in counseling; Scott turned to classic spirits; I've struggled along the spiritual path for nearly 2 decades, before finding the short path from head to heart. Atoning for the sins of my past, I seek refuge in churches and meditation rooms, learning about self, practicing forgiveness and compassion for all beings.
Kwan Yin and mom's silver necklace set off security. The man rooting through the bag commented, "My wife's going through this with her mom". The kindness of strangers--what would I do without it!
The sunset over Phoenix was extraordinary--the whole world glowed! Couldn't stay in my seat! Oooing and ahhing, I leaned over my bored military seat mate at the window, her nose in a romance. Probably much like my mom would have, got my retired engineer CA aisle seat mate who was missing his wife so much, involved in the show. Perhaps the military woman was cool because I came close to eating her sack dinner! (No in flight meals, ya know.) When I boarded the plane I'd had to climb over the older man into the middle seat. We thought the bag sitting in the window seat had been left behind. We wondered what to do. I was inspecting what turned out to be the owner's supper, when the woman returned from the bathroom!
In the waiting area for the leg to Boise, when a gray haired woman asked if she'd taken my seat, for the first time since moving to Idaho, I was flooded with fondness for Wide-a-ho. (Of course she hadn't!) Looking over the sage and gray practical clothes of my fellow passengers to Boise, I thought, maybe Idaho is my home, after all. Gulp. A friendly woman in a cape chatted easily as we late night flyers dragged bags onto the uncrowded plane. Then we sat in Phoenix, on the plane, for an hour, while broad shouldered mechanics walked sideways down the aisle, again and again, troubleshooting. Tried laying on right, left, right side, over seat belt blades.
Finally, Boise. Exhausted, I lugged bags to car, grateful to pay the daily fee. Home, older and wiser, on my own, in a profoundly new way.
The following week I learned to mention mom's death carefully, how difficult it was for people to be reminded of death, particularly those with parents still living. I was not prepared to be primarily asked how old mom was and why she died. I sensed outrage that anyone should die; how few of us consider death natural. I didn't understand why people felt sorry--was it for me, mom, or themselves? Some people avoided me. Some understood; no special words were required.
The veil seemed thin; synchronicities occurred, intuition seemed clear.
I was pretty certain I'd long ago grieved the loss of the mother I'd known. Still I'm aware a mother's death is a milestone, the effects of which are revealed in time. How urgent feels the need to clean up my own life so I can live fully and die right!
Part 3. ASHES - Colorado
FRIDAY MARCH 28th. Ten days later I drove Southwest to meet Stuart and family in Durango. He'd be flying west with mom's ashes. One of my first nights back home, all night I couldn't shake the haunting memory of mom in the casket. Every time I shut my eyes, the image was there. Other dreams were laced with appearances of old friends, especially childhood faces. Names came back, out of nowhere. Dreaded piano lessons with Miss Nelms, earlier I think they'd been with Miss Coultas! I didn't practice then or now. These were held in big old homes on State Street. Mom once said one had bullets from Civil War(?) time. Edgar Lee Master's widow lived in town. I recalled Win and Joann Carpenter, Christian Scientists, probably from California, who lived across the street; odd people, mom always said noted. Sherwood Eddy was a Jacksonville name too. Memories of growing up in Illinois drifted by. The China doll buried on the shady side of our wonderful old 1880s house on the corner of Lockwood is always there. The bedroom on that same side of the house where I'd chosen a purple flowered wallpaper and had a real bed. The family doctor, Louise Newman. Dancing to the Polyvetskian Dances in Mrs. Bruner's modern dance class where I talked too much....
By the time Stuart's family and I drove to mom's cabin, light snow had begun falling through the morning sunlight. It was beautiful in the lodgepole pines. Stuart's family waited alternately in their heated van and in the cabin, while Stuart and I opened the ashes. With a lid left from mom's notorious collection of things that don't match, I scattered ashes off the back porch where she began so many letters I'm sitting on the cabin porch watching Stellars jays eat sunflower seeds....
We walked the ridge of the property. Stu and I each had a copy of the Prayer of a Camper. I read and sniveled while Stu scattered ashes along the deer trails back towards the cabin. We felt Mom would be pleased and we felt better.
Cabin - front porch
Leaving the family to eat together in peace—ha, ha, a 2 year old—that evening, while I went off to see "Ram Dass: Fierce Grace" (no one else interested in Ram Dass!) What a teacher! I was profoundly touched by the authenticity and humor Ram Dass radiates. To use the evangelical term--honesty and compassion "break" me upon. Thank you filmmaker Mickey Lemle. Between the power of the film and my raw emotion from mom’s death and confusion and grief about family and life, “obliterated” was the only word that came to mind--I was utterly spent.
Fell asleep on motel suite floor again. In the morning, packed and joined Stuart for a last sibling connection.
Onward, across southern Utah, through country mom enjoyed on many Audubon and Archeological Society field trips, which I too enjoyed during and long after living in Colorado (13 years!). Down McElmo Canyon. Crossing the White River plateau, the urge to make camp under the first cloudless sunny skies of the journey, pulled me over early, into piñon-juniper overlooking hogbacks and anticlines. What a gorgeous view back east towards old friends: Hovenweep, Sleeping Ute, Mesa Verde, all the way to the LaPlatas!
One wing of this trip (centered on Mom) was promised desert “down” time, to read, write, ponder and be. 24 hrs in one place--Bliss! The night was so cold that at first I was grateful I no longer made spring campouts with the old gang. Brrr! But when I got up and saw the desert stars, I remembered why I went. Whow. Returned to spacious desert dreams awed. The next day I leisurely made and sipped tea; read and wrote. Sitting on a mat, laptop on camp chair, I composed a gratefulness list—so many people responsible for helping me through mom’s transition. Many blessings in the midst of this season of change and stress. Switched to editing mom’s Prayer of a Camper (ever so satisfying, tweeking that prayer). This put me in the mood to scatter pine nuts into the breeze, off the cliffs, in honor of mom, my personal canyon good bye. Ashes not necessary.
Walkin' Jim Stolz lyrics (from tapes I picked up in Durango) kept wafting by. Mom'd love 'em:
Come walk the open mesa;
Come taste of the desert sand;
Come roam the canyon narrows;
and feel for the age of the land.
I walk with the Old Ones.
Their spirit still roam through these hills.
I can hear it again on the desert wind
and the songs, they echo here still.
There are those who roamed here before us.
The old ones they left us no name.
They lived and they loved like the sunset they died
And the spirit still roams here untamed.
Walk softly--ahead there is magic.
Listen for the songs in the air.
Watch for the signs that they'll give you.
And know that the old ones are there.
Spent several more days and nights in the Southwest, enjoying old country, new sites and old friends, before heading back to Idaho. Mom's love of camping and canyon country that she shared with so many, is definitely part of the daughter who moved West.
Thank You, Divine Oneness:
For this long, safe drive. For this gorgeous campsite view over the canyon country mom loved: Hovenweep, Canyonlands, Mesa Verde, all the way back to the LaPlatas. Good to be back. For the bees of McElmo Canyon and the honey man in Mancos.
Thank you for the sunshine, the breeze, the cloudless day, after weeks of gray and the stormy drive here. For another good stay in the ponderosa on the way to Price. For the awesomely starry in Utah night. For warm nights with Stu's family at the best western. For being able to be with Stuart to spread mom's ashes. Thank you for his expressions of gratefulness.
For bringing Fierce Grace to my attention in Durango. For Lemle's labor of love!
Help me learn to share spiritual moments with family--my love of church community, Ram Dass' wisdom. Help me not judge family choices, to forgive myself and others. Grant me compassion and more compassion for all.
Thank you for our parents enormous generosity. For gently teaching me to give.
Thank you for this little blue car--the VW incarnated--with room under it to go down rough roads to peace and quiet and divine views.
Thank you for all those who walk so patiently with me. For Boise neighbors. For Audrey, Sue, Evette and Ina listening, supporting and sharing, and for Cynthia's honest. For Susan being there. Bless them.
Thank you for Stu and Jamie's business abilities and willingness to trustee. Thank you for Scott's love of nature and scouting, his unabashed emotions, enthusiasm for mom; for taking her for walks and never seeing her illness.
Thank you God, and mom, for leaving us the Poem of a Camper!!!!