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Moma, the woodpecker. She got her name because she brought her young each spring and taught them to find food at Mom's cabin.

Moma, the woodpecker. She got her name because she brought her young each spring and taught them to find food at Mom’s cabin.

I keep track of sunny days, to take care of the birds. I can’t simply fill the feeder, because of the squirrels. They have figured out how to get the top off the feeder. Those dang squirrels actually climb inside the feeder and munch seeds till they’re full. The reckless climbing in and out tips the hanging feeder and spills its entire contents on the ground in minutes. We are left with a pile of seeds two inches deep that eventually gets rained on and rots in a pile.

Thus I am forced to go out daily and fill only the tray around the outside. I spread handfuls of sunflower seeds directly on the mossy ground, to tempt the squirrels to stay away from the feeder, which holds mostly millet for the finches and chickadees.

Squirrel doing acrobatics to get at the bird seed in the feeder.

Squirrel doing acrobatics to get at the bird seed in the feeder.

Rainy days happen often here in Portland, as I know you’ll assume. The birds are as excited about dry mornings as the people are, and arrive in my backyard in bursts of wings and twitterings. The large clumsy jays swoop in, attempt to perch on the ledge of the feeder, and spill teaspoons of seeds each time they kick off in search of a sturdy branch.

As I scanned the spotless grey blue sky this morning, watching the pink and eggshell splashes growing brighter in the East, I began thinking about my mother, and her birds. She felt an obligation to secure the health of the animals on her mountain. Her kitchen window looked directly onto two separate feeding stations outside. The birds on the mountain became like misbehaved children, begging for breakfast if she didn’t get outside in time. The favourite, Moma the woodpecker, would dive bomb the kitchen window. (She still does this to Jim, who stuffs cookies into the hole in a piece of wood mounted by the back porch, just for this purpose.)

My mother at her kitchen window.

My mother at her kitchen window.

Who will take care of the birds in a world without my mother? Jim has to take care of his business. And he’s encouraged the company of a wild cat, to take care of the mouse population. It has also discouraged the company of birds and squirrels at the cabin.

Arno asked me if I’ve always kept a feeder. I have not. But this morning I realized that sometime during 2012 I began feeding the birds for my mom.

I felt for a moment as though I was channeling her spirit. When I am late to feed them, and I go outside for something else, birds suddenly begin appearing in the trees around me. They hover above me, and perform brave, rapid fly-bys to ensure they have my attention. “Food!” they call to me. “Make seeds happen!”

I’ve got nuthatches, chickadees, Western Scrub Jays, crows (who prefer leftover scraps I throw out), and sometimes surprise visitors like the ruby crowned kinglet and the gorgeous red shafted Northern flicker who, despite her size, can perch gracefully on the feeder ledge, hanging most of her body below and selecting seeds one at a time. The other day, when I tossed out the remains of Tara’s gingerbread house, we were visited by seagulls, who look enormous next to the others.

They aren’t the same birds. These aren’t even wild forest birds. But today, birds are being fed in honor of my mom.

Seagulls perched on the roof of the garage.

Seagulls perched on the roof of the garage.

Hanging beneath the feeder.

Hanging beneath the feeder.


Last night I dreamed of Mom for the third time since she died.

The first time. I dreamt that she was sick but not quite gone. I had a chance to talk to her at the end, while she was lucid, that I didn’t have in real life. By the time I arrived at her place last December, it was too late. She could no longer communicate complicated thoughts, and was down to only a few of the most important words to convey needs. In my dream, she was able to share with me her thoughts about her own death.

I want to know what she thought of it. Of course it doesn’t matter, and maybe if I knew it would be bad, but I still want to know. But there are clues, and they are good. Mom told me about a year before her death, the thing that everyone could agree is ideal to hear. “I am satisfied. I could die happily now,” she said, back when no one (except maybe her?) suspected anything.

Instinctively, I knew she was being literal. In my discomfort, I had laughed. “Ha ha, Mom what the heck are you talking about?”

“I just mean…I realize I have had a good life. I have my dream home. My kids have all grown up into wonderful people. My husband provides everything I need, so I am never hungry and I have beautiful clothes and jewelry, and things for the kitchen and new furniture if I want it. I have reached the goal. So now I can die.”

I spent Thanksgiving with her, and on Friday after, she had me drive her to her friends’ houses so she could say goodbye. She did not say that to me, or to any of them, but I realize now she was making her preparations. She told her friends (and I listened quietly) how she was getting very sick, but that she looked forward with joy to being in Heaven soon. Mom expressed pure conviction that she was going to be accepted with genuine welcome by God and Jesus. I was relieved to see that, because she had spent a significant part of her life doubting Their love for her and doubting her worthiness. She seemed eager to go.

The second dream was the most therapeutic. Mom had already died, but she had come back to help me pack up her belongings from the house. She looked like her real self in my dream, and I didn’t touch her, but we both knew she was only an apparition. I re-lived the traumatic day of when cousin Debbie and I packed up her bedroom, only this time it was not traumatic, just very sad. I asked her the questions that had been burning.

“Mom, why did you save these antique baby clothes? Eight different, empty, antique fake leather coin purses? The empty Eau de Toilette bottle? A block of wood and a carving tool? The embroidered pillow case folded and wrapped and kept in the bottom of a trunk?”

“Is this old magazine important? Why did you keep this newspaper clipping? Where in the WORLD did you put your gold jewelry? We have been looking everywhere!”

And she told stories that were triggered as we worked. She told about being a little girl, about her dreams, her plans for the things she had kept. She told me why she hid them in old travel trunks, buried in the dust of her mountain cabin closet. We smiled and looked at each other and felt a desperate sadness, but still a peace.

I woke up, not remembering a single word she had said in the dream, but still feeling the peace that comes from having 100 questions answered satisfactorily.

My dream last night was …less… than the other two. Mom and I didn’t interact. I knew she was there, like the apparition of her in the second dream. She stood still, beautiful, with her long brown hair falling down her back.

Mom stood off to the side of the activity of my dream, which was in a house, with a family that I wasn’t a part of, but had been welcomed to join. They paid no attention to her at all, and she didn’t do anything but stand to the side. I had my dream without her really. I participated in the dream actions and had the dream conversations, but kept looking over at Mom, who merely stood there, watching. I knew she was Mom, and that she was gone. My level of sadness in the dream was about at the level I manage to keep it in real life these days: as long as I don’t allow myself to think about her, it is a dull ache in my chest and at the back of my mind.

It’s easy to tell that it’s my psyche working through things despite my efforts to resist. I refuse to allow myself to think about her during my waking hours because I would break into pieces and I don’t know how long it would take to get put back together again. So, I guess my heart tries to work it out in the night, when my willpower is not as strong.

tracks in the snow

Arno and I are getting to know each other still. And we will continue to, of course, for years to come. He has seen that deeply personal messages sent originally to him will sometimes end up in a public forum. He said he’s realizing that <in his words> I am a writer, and a writer is going to write.</in his words> And the fact that it ends up posted on the Internet for all the world to see does not cheapen the intimate moments we have shared.

So yesterday at lunch when he told me my last email to him about my mother’s death was so passionate that it made him cry, I told him “Well, I just typed and then clicked Send. But if it’s that good, honey, it will probably end up on my blog.” Well, here is a part of my email to Arno. Only slightly edited.


snow rabbit

I stopped for the night at a hotel in Ritzville. I need to write Mom’s obituary. I was going to do that today, but got interrupted by packing up her things. It was hard, and upset me. Jim feels bad now, and I know he didn’t realize what a difficult thing he was asking of me. I don’t want him to feel bad about it. There is enough pain without adding more.

This morning when I woke up, I heard Mom’s ragged breathing. I had to look over to reassure myself that the hospital bed was gone, and Mom was not there, suffering. I knew I couldn’t bear another night there. I guess we probably all have a limited amount of tolerance for trauma. People who suffer with trauma for extended periods of time must go half crazy and get sick too. In the moments of her death, I thanked Mom for making it so easy on us. The quick journey through her dying was a gift for us and for her. Gramilda (Mom’s mom) said she thinks Mom did that on purpose, to make it easier on us. Ha, I can’t help but think she’s probably right. If Mom could find a way to take care of us while she was dying, I’m sure that’s what she did.

whose little feet made these?

So anyway, I may linger here alongside the freeway and take care of my last critical task. I can send the obit to the paper via email. My car is packed full of her stuff, and I may or may not get to it in a timely manner. Being away from the cabin makes it easier for me to fall into my old pattern of avoidance. I wish that trauma didn’t make me want to run. I went for a walk in the snow today (when I saw all those great tracks and sent you pictures from my phone), and I thought “I just can’t walk far enough.” No amount of running fixes anything. Today the walk didn’t even make me feel better. But being away from the cabin helps. I was still trying to take care of everybody. Maybe they didn’t need it. Maybe they didn’t even want it. But I can’t help but try to shoulder responsibility and boost everyone else’s feelings. It just sucks my energy out. I am not good at moderation. I seem to want to do things fully or not at all.

Man, I’m so glad I went to north Idaho when I did. The whole thing was so much quicker than I ever expected, or was mentally prepared for. But I’m tremendously glad I was there. When she died, it was such a relief to hear her quiet and at rest. Finally. I just wrapped my arms around her and held on to her and cried and cried. I felt greedy for the last bit of her life. Her body was warm, and I remember thinking I wanted to have her warmth, because that was all that was left. I held her until I realized it was my own body still keeping her warm in the cold room.

When I was finally able to leave the room, it was my biggest step toward letting her go. I did not look at her again. I did not watch when they took her away.

Driving away from the mountain, everything I saw was her. It was like the essence of my mother was in the air. Those mountains, the valleys, the river, the town of Bonners Ferry – they are all my mother. All I ever knew of those places is because of her. I was always with her there. I would never have gone there but for her. I know it all so well, and it’s always been flavoured with her perspective, her stories, her spirit and influence, her friends, her dreams, her thoughts.

I think the next time I go back will be another step of letting her go, if I can learn what life is like without her, then go back. If I can look at that part of Idaho in a world without my mother, I can re-frame what I see with new definitions. What will the snowy peaks look like without Mom? The yellow fields of cut hay and wooden fences and horses? They will still have her face and her voice when I stand there. The birds will sing in the trees the way that they do because of her. The squirrels will scold with all their boldness in the world she polished up for them. But how will that world change when she’s not here anymore?

And when I get home, what will my world look like without her? Her artistry is behind my world too. What is the next chapter of my life, where I am the mother now, and I look behind me at Tara instead of in front of me at my Mother? I don’t even want to know. But I guess I will find out.

Mom and me dressed up

My mother’s health failed rapidly, once we finally heard the diagnosis of cancer. And I have had multiple stages of not dealing with any of it gracefully. This is probably because it has come on so fast. Just when I make peace with a stage, we move on to another shocking phase.

In a meeting with her doctor on Monday, he reminded me of the date we first suspected cancer. Not too long ago, Mom had abdominal pain and went for care. A subsequent x-ray included the bottom of one lung. Something abnormal appeared on the lung, so she returned for another x-ray, just of the lungs. This showed masses on both. It was October 19th, 2011.

My sister-in-law is a nurse for a skilled pulmonologist in Boise, so Mom went down there to get some first rate attention. They ran her through a battery of tests, and importantly, a high-contrast CT scan. This showed not only masses of concern in the lungs, but also in the liver. Mom told me that she knew it was cancer, and that it confirmed what she had suspected for years. (She has been having a complex combination of undiagnosed health problems for two years.) A biopsy of the liver confirmed cancer, additional results confirmed cancer of the lungs, and both kidneys. Compared to the x-ray from north Idaho, the lung masses had already doubled in size in about 10 days.

Before Mom had a chance to speak with an oncologist, she reached the limit of her tolerance for the city. She lives in a cabin on the top of a mountain in a very remote part of north Idaho. After two weeks in Boise she could no longer bear it, and begged for her husband to take her home. The day after they arrived home, Tara and I were able to visit for Veteran’s Day weekend. Mom seemed herself, she had decided to fight the disease, even though previously she told us she would refuse treatment. I really wasn’t too upset at that point, because I planned to be by her side till we kicked this thing.

November 14th (exactly one month ago), she talked with an oncologist (cancer specialist) for the first time. She said the doctor wheeled her chair right up so they were knee to knee, the doctor took Mom’s hands and said to her, “You have stage IV cancer. It is very advanced and very aggressive. We do not recommend treatment, but rather, to focus on maintaining a good quality of life for the time you have left.”

Mom called me at work, crying. But she was resolved again to accept her fate and refuse all treatment. And that’s when I became angry. My whole life I have been extremely adept at making things happen. I can fix stuff, I can take care of stuff, I can prevent stuff, and prepare for stuff. I help others, help myself, smooth the way, and tie up loose ends. And here was something I could not help. Not one damn thing I could do. I asked Mom, “Is this the point where I step in and give you a pep talk? Should we get a second opinion, or talk to your herbal health care advisor?” She told me, “No, Sis. I know I am going to die. I am ready to go. I have fought so hard just to live, and now I finally get to relax. This news is a relief to me.”

Angry at life, at disease, at the unfairness of it all. Mom is the healthiest person I know. Never smoked anything her entire life, would have been aghast to consider drug use, and in fact avoided all pills and doctors as much as possible. She grew her gardens, canned food and prepared all meals for all us kids growing up, and for her husbands and herself. She lives on a mountaintop with no smog, no noise or light pollution, breathing fresh air and working hard every day. Mom saved up her money last winter to buy a new chainsaw this summer, and was so thrilled to tell me how great it was to use. She did everything right. She got body slammed by fate anyway.

I am living with her and her husband now. Her husband has been traumatized and – a very traditional man – is learning how to do things for himself for the first time since he was in his twenties. He is not up to assisting with caregiving, but is proud about having learned to make coffee and wash the dishes. He can keep the fire going. I leave him to that, but I can’t help but get irritated that he requires as much time and attention from me as Mom does. He is completely out of his element, in pain, lost, and scared. His helplessness bothers me. It’s another example of my failure to do this gracefully.

My mother requires constant attention now, all night long. I am so tired. My back is killing me from all the lifting. And I’m still not dealing with it as I suppose I should. Mom’s twin brother is here to help, thank the gods. My cousin is coming to help. Another strong woman – hallelujah! Despite the offers of help, I hate having so many people around me. I am not a social person. I particularly despise having witnesses to my shortcomings. I am not a nurse, and it’s not even something I’m good at. It’s the one area of life I’ve always been quick to admit I am not cut out for. But, here I am: full time nurse. Feeding Mom water with an eye dropper, applying chapstick, wiping her mouth, changing her when she wets herself, listening to her gasping breaths and trying to guess what it means. Pain? Constricted windpipes? More awake than a little while ago? Need something? Hungry? Roll over? She can’t talk, so it’s all guessing. And again, I get frustrated and angry at my own incompetence. Me. The woman who can do anything. But I feel like I can’t do this.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. You, and Hospice too, everyone says, “Oh, you can do this. You know her better than we do. You’ll do just fine. Everything you’re feeling is OK!” I just want to smack them. I know I have PERMISSION to be frustrated and angry. Well, DUH. My mom is dying. But I am not good at being incompetent. That’s what it is: a control freak who is in a non-controllable situation. I’ll get through it and soar again, even if the journey is not pretty. I always get through catastrophes. I am, after all, my mother’s daughter.

Mom and I at a favourite Bonners Ferry, Idaho cafe two years ago.

My mother is dying of cancer. From the looks of things, combined with my extreme lack of experience with cancer, or of death, I think she has anywhere from a few days to a few weeks left. Or maybe a month, but I hope not, because this is no life.

I wish I had written sooner. I wanted to record my feelings as I went through this, so it might be of some help for me when I grieve in the future. But it is very hard for me to write about my denial, and then shock, and then determination, and then despair.

She’s my mom! My pretty Momma. The woman who was always there is now mostly gone, though some of her is still here, like when she was fighting me just now. I’m trying to get her into the bathtub, because it’s the first time I’ve seen her stand in 24 hours. But she won’t go. And what power she yet yields! It makes me smile.

And so yes, the despair is gone and now I have an immense sadness, and an awed sense of beauty and love.

I am so very lucky and grateful to have spent Veteran’s day weekend with her, and then Thanksgiving. It was shocking to see the vast changes from the middle of November to the end of November. During Thanksgiving she asked me to help her write her living will. She has a terrible fear that she will be taken to the hospital, because she does not want to die in a hospital. So, I was sitting beside her on the couch, the Friday after Thanksgiving, and she was asking me to read and explain things to her. She made a few notes to herself, so she could go ask her doctor about them. Her pen hovered above the paper for a moment, and she made a curve in the air with her finger, then turned to me, “Sis, how do I make a question mark?”

Mom's question mark on the living will

It’s the loss of her clear thinking that I did not expect, and that I have the hardest time dealing with. My mother, who has written long, detailed letters her entire life, couldn’t remember how to make a question mark. During that late November week, she had frequent periods where she would fade out, and fade back in with conversation from a different topic. But I could talk myself into believing it was because of her fatigue, or the pain meds. I talked with her on the phone December 3rd. She drifted and stopped talking a couple times, but it was still very easy to communicate with her.

But now, she speaks only a few words a day. Maybe she’ll say “no” or “water,” but that’s about it. And as vastly helpful as those few words are, I sense they will not be around much longer. I remind myself to transition to non-verbal communication.

She hears just fine, though sentences are often too confusing for her to understand. But simple ideas get through. “My beautiful Momma,” I said to her, as I stroked her hair, and though her eyes had been closed, she smiled. It was so wonderful to connect.

P.S. My mother and her husband Jim do not have health insurance, and she’s too young for Medicare. I made a website to solicit donations. There is also a prize for one person, whose name I will draw from the donators. So, even if you don’t know us, maybe you’d like to have a little holiday fun for a good cause. Please see the website.

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