Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Tag: death

Death

August 13, 2022, 4:00 a.m.

I’m running.

My purse knocks against my thighs as I sprint toward the bright red ER sign of the hospital.

It’s okay to go, Mom. It’s okay to go.

My mind flashes to a scene in Contact, where Jodie Foster’s character, Ellie Arroway, is on the verge of being launched into space in an extraterrestrial aircraft. When the spaceship begins shaking as it ignites, through her fear, Ellie continues to utter, I’m okay to go.

Even though she doesn’t know what awaits her on the other side, she continues to say these words.

It’s okay to go, Mom. You don’t have to wait for me, is my prayer.

But I’m still running.

I’m running because none of her children are there.

Because my father died alone, without anyone who loved him to hold his hand.

I’m running because my heart is screaming for just one more moment to be with her before she escapes to places where I cannot follow.

Just one more moment.

Just one more moment.

I’m running because Love compels me.

And I will expend every last ounce of my energy to help someone I love.

The ER sign grows larger in my sight and I am breathless already because I’m so anemic. But I keep running, my heart pounding in my chest, fighting the lightheadedness, my lungs seizing.

And part of me wonders if my heart has known for years that this is how it would all unfold.

If my body was simply following the rhythms of my heart.

And now those early morning runs, my feet pounding the sidewalk at 4:00 a.m., have prepared me for this very moment.

To run to my mother at this very hour, when she needs me the most.

Perhaps my heart has felt this moment approaching for years.

***

(It’s dark.)

I haven’t really slept in days.

(It always seems like it’s dark when these things happen.)

My dreams aren’t dreams right now. They are instant replays of the last three days, holding my mother’s hand, watching her heart rate tick up, up, up as her face loses its color, its tone. Her eyes struggling to remain open.

(Labor and Birth.)

The image had been replaying in my mind for hours and hours.

It’s both too early. And too late.

(Dying and Death.)

***

I burst through the doors to the ER and slow to purposeful walk until I reach a set of double doors. I jiggle them. Locked.

A voice comes on over the intercom.

“Can I help you?”

“I need to get in. My mother is dying.”

A pause.

“Do you need help getting there?”

“No,” I say. Then I repeat the number of the hospital room.

The door unlocks.

And I’m hustling now to the end of the hallway toward the first set of elevators. I need to go to the seventh floor. The buttons read 1, 2, and 3. I press 3, going as high as I can go. I ask for more directions, someone at a nurse’s station, a security guard, a custodian.

Every person stops what they are doing and guides me.

Down this hall, to the left.

What floor? Down that hall, take a second left. You’ll find the elevators to the seventh floor.

What room? Those rooms are in the west wing. Hang a right at the Exit sign.

I’m hurrying down the hallway when I see Doug come out of the room, flagging me down. He hugs me tightly.

“She stabilized again,” he says.

I gaze into the room and see that my mother’s bed has been lowered nearly to the floor. Warren is seated on her left, holding her left hand, the softer, unbroken one.

This room at the top of the hospital is dim, barely lit at all. The brightness and bustle of yesterday’s ICU room proclaimed plans and interventions. Real hospital work. But this room lacks any of that. Instead, it has been emptied, drained of all the light and equipment and interruptions. I wade into its stillness, as if it were a pond, the water barely rippling around my movements as I press forward.

She breathes heavily through her mouth. Says nothing.

There aren’t as many tubes and wires connected to her anymore. Just enough to monitor her heart and oxygen. An IV port for medication. Warren tenderly holds her arm where her last IV was threaded by Maria, an excellent nurse on the fourth floor who took the time to warm my mother’s arm with compresses to thread the IV on the first try into her tiny veins. The tape over the IV still bears the nurse’s initials and the date, MR, 8/11.

The monitor shows her vitals in bright green numbers and letters.

“Her heart rate is 155?” I ask Doug.

He nods.

155 is my heart rate when I’ve been running for 30 minutes.

“She’s been holding at that for hours. Until just before I called you. Her vitals started dropping, but she rebounded.”

He pauses and his voice breaks.

“I think she’s waiting for you.”

I swallow.

I look at her chest rising and falling rapidly, how she is still fighting, even here at this late hour.

We could be here for hours, waiting for her body to surrender.

But I am resolved.

I will bear this moment for her. I will be here for her, no matter how long it takes. No matter how hard this gets.

“Mom, it’s Sharon,” I say. “I’m here.”

She breathes heavily, the cool washcloth still folded over her brow. Her eyes are closed.

I have no plan for this moment. I wasn’t committed to being in the room with her when she passed. I’ve allowed myself to accept whatever fate would have for the end of my mother’s life.

Whatever was bound to happen would unfold just as it should be. And it did not need to involve me.

But here I am.

In this room.

And I know that Death is here.

I feel it thick and still in the air around me. It doesn’t spin around us, like a vortex pulling my mother into some other dimension. It drifts and floats, like dust in the air when the light shines through a window. Only there’s nothing to see. You can only feel it, seeping like thick syrup, settling heavily into your ears, your mouth, your nose. So heavy is Death in this room that simply uttering words takes a concentrated effort, not to mention anything meaningful or heartfelt.

I open my mouth to speak and, at first, I choke, the sob caught in my throat.

I push it down and remember.

I will bear it for her.

“I’m going to play some music for you, okay, Mom?” I say calmly, searching for the live version of Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell, just recently performed at the Newport Folk Festival less than a month ago. “I’ll start with the one that you said you loved last night. Remember that? I played it for you and you said, ‘I love it.’ It was a little hard to hear you, but I know you said it. Here it is.”

I let the song play without interruption and we all listen to Joni sing to my mother with her haunting, soulful voice. I hold my mother’s right hand, rubbing her knuckles, her fingers. I say nothing.

But now they only block the sun
They rain and they snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all

“Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell

More tears fall and I wipe them with the back of my hand.

I can tell how loved she is, the ICU nurse on the second floor, Regina, had said as she administered morphine the night before, into the IV that Maria had placed. Two amazing human beings who treated my mother with such compassion.

So many people here with her. You’d be surprised how many people leave this world alone in these rooms.

Have more heart-breaking words ever been said?

The song finishes and soon we are listening to troubles melting like lemon drops, away above the chimney tops, rainbows stretching off into the distance, leading my mother to an unknown land.

I want that so much for her.

Even as my heart cries out for her to stay.

I want for her to wander into a land of rest and peace, where her memories of broken hips and legs and arms and necks, of cancer, of diabetes, of untreatable, chronic pain… Where all these memories become nothing but distant moments in time through which she has persevered. Where she has no need for morphine or demerol or toradol or fentanyl or hydrocodone or any of the other medications that only cut the pain in half.

Tears and more tears. I pull her hand to my wet cheek. Just two days ago, when she could still utter words, I asked her if she was in any pain. She fought to simply whisper the words, “They can never make it pain-free.”

I wish I could have born some of this pain for her.

But I know her better.

She would never have allowed that.

Just as I would never allow my children to bear my pain.

The song finishes again and I look over my shoulder at the heart monitor.

156. 154. 155.

The fog of Death that surrounds us is growing. Why is it getting heavier?

Doug is seated behind me, his head rested against my mid-back, as if literally supporting me so I don’t fall over. Every now and then, I feel him turn to look at the monitors. Warren is gripping my mother’s hand, sometimes pressing it to his face, sometimes lowering to the bed and bending forward over it.

It’s so hard to remain upright. I’m not sure how I could explain to anyone else why, in this moment, simply sitting up and speaking takes unimaginable strength.

But it does.

How many moments has my mother faced that were as heavy as this? What would she do?

And then I know what to play.

The soft notes of the song begin and I’m transported back to those final minutes, laboring with Henry, this song soothing my ears while my screams filled the air and my hips lit on fire. Those last moments just before I hemorrhaged and nearly bled to death on the bed, only minutes after I finally pushed Henry free from me.

“I played this song when I was in labor with Henry,” I say. I pray that she can understand. That she feels my intention. Because I cannot find my words to articulate it in this moment.

What I want to express is that I’ve been here before, in this most sacred of spaces. More sacred than any cathedral or altar. I’ve been here before–But never on this side.

There is a stillness in the air when Life enters this world that I cannot explain to anyone who has not been present for it.

Now, I know that there is also an unexplainable stillness when Life leaves this world.

We all want to bear witness to the beginning of Life. We believe that it is good and holy and pure.

But who wants to bear witness to the end of Life? Even though it is just as sacred?

I will bear it for her, I tell myself.

“Mom,” I hold my voice steady. “I want to tell you that it’s okay to go. You don’t have to stay here for us. We’re all going to be okay.”

I pause and consider what to say next. Doug and Warren are both bent forward, their heads bowed, reverently as I speak, my head lifted, my back straight.

Now, I understand. Why Death is so thick, so heavy.

This room is not empty.

It’s Full.

It’s overflowing with everyone waiting for her.

My father. My mother’s mother. My mother’s father. And on and on. The generations have poured into this room, surrounding her and holding her, just as They held me when I cried out for help in laboring with Henry.

They have returned, these People of my Blood.

My heart almost cannot stand it.

I know what to say now. I close my eyes and I speak without any hesitation.

“And Mom…everyone is here with you. It’s not just me and Warren and Doug. Everyone is here. Anna is here. Nate and Lisa are here. Holly and Corey here. Dominic is here. Felicity and Henry are here.”

The words are spilling forth from me, as if she’s relinquished her sword to me and allowing me to fight this last battle for her.

So I will not stop.

I will do this for her.

I will help her over to the Other Side.

I keep listing all our family, as many as I can remember, all her brothers and sisters, their spouses, their children, her cousins, her friends. My shoulders hurt now, physically ache, simply from the action of sitting upright. I can almost feel my mother transferring her burdens, her cares, her wishes, her regrets, her Love, all to my own shoulders.

Perhaps that’s what Death really is.

A great transfer of all the emotions and cares that one person has carried to those they leave behind.

I will bear it for her.

The hospital door opens, but I don’t look at who it is. Words are still pouring out of my mouth, names, reassurances that we’re going to be okay.

“It’s okay to go, Mom. We will all be okay. You can go. Dad is waiting. Your mom is waiting. Your dad is waiting.”

“It’s okay to go, Mom.”

“It’s okay to go.”

I repeat this over and over, my last reassurance to my mother.

That if she would be courageous enough to press on toward the unknown, I would also be courageous and press on here in her place.

I choose to carry this pain of losing her. For the rest of my life.

Because it will free her.

“You gotta go, Sweetie,” Warren says, his voice as broken as his heart. He clutches her hand to his lips and kisses it, his tears freely falling. “I’ll see you there.”

“Mom,” my voice shakes. “There’s not a single person who loves you who can’t be here for you right now. We are all here and we love you so much.”

Doug taps me, but I keep going.

“But we’re going to be okay, Mom. I promise you. It’s okay to go, Mom. It’s okay to go.”

I say it over and over again.

Doug taps me again, but I keep going.

“And the last thing I’ll say, Mom, before you go…” I take a breath. “I just want to thank you for all the I Love You notes that you’d slip into my sandwiches.”

Warren reaches across the bed, over my mother’s body, and grasps my hand.

“She’s gone, Sharon.”

***

It’s true what they say about how a person changes in that first minute after death. In that first minute after death, I surrender to the wave of grief crashing over me and weep over my mother’s arm and hand until I feel her go cold.

But that coldness is all it takes for me to know wholly and thoroughly that the thing that made my mother who she was–a spirit, a soul, an essence–was not her body. She was not just skin and organs and fluids. She was so much more than this body that is now left, apart from her.

I’m the first to stand up.

It’s surprisingly easy to do.

To get to my feet and walk out of this room, knowing that I’m stepping into the shoes that my mother is leaving behind. She would be the one to say the hardest words to the people who need to know.

I feel it already, the passing on of matriarchy.

I will be the Keeper of Family Memory from now on. The one to memorialize what we’ve lost. The one to keep her memory alive by baking her recipes. The one to be a mother to all of us left behind.

And it starts now. With this walk down the hallway, where I will say the hardest words to say in this moment. I will say it.

At the nurse’s station, a young woman is eating what looks like her lunch, a large bowl of noodles, something that requires her to anchor her head over the bowl to not make a mess. 4:30 a.m. I suppose it is lunch for the night nurses.

She sees me and puts down her spoon.

I point to the room behind me.

“She just passed.”

The nurse’s face goes solemn.

“I’ll let the doctor know right away.”

I shake my head.

“There’s no rush.”

***

Dawn is breaking by the time I arrive back at the hotel.

The sunrise, Saturday, August 13th, Indianapolis, IN

I meet my sister in the lobby of the hotel. She is sitting on a bench, tears already running down her red cheeks. I lean down, hold her by the back of her head, and kiss her forehead. She stands to hug me.

Then, I tell her everything, as much as I have the words for. There is too much that I don’t have words for yet, that I don’t fully understand yet, that I will need time to make sense of, that I will need to find the language for. But I say as much as I can and promise to myself that someday I’ll sit down and commit the sacredness of this morning to human memory, that it may never be lost.

But in this moment, what I say over and over again is this:

“I told her we were all there. And we were. We were.”

A Eulogy for My Mother, Cecilia Tjaden-Rush

When I was 25, I asked Mom if she would teach me how to decorate a cake. She said, “Well, sure.” She showed me how to pile the icing on top and level it out, being careful not to pull crumbs up from the side. I made a lot of mistakes. The icing was too thin in some places. Chunks of cake came loose and  polluted the icing. I pointed to a hole that I had somehow made in the cake. She looked at it and said this:

“Oh, that’s just a good place to put a flower.”

She took a tiny, flat metal flower nail and spun it in her fingers as her hands moved swiftly and without any hesitation, creating a flawless rose. She placed it on top of the hole that I had made.

I cannot think of a better metaphor for Mom’s life. A master of turning the holes into something beautiful.

I want to tell you about who my mom was.

Her name was Cecilia. Born May 9, 1954 in Spencer, Iowa to Cyril and Virginia Bundy. She was the second oldest child, the oldest daughter of seven children. She spent her childhood on family farms in Iowa and Minnesota. When she was in high school, she moved to “the Cities,” a.k.a. Minneapolis/ St. Paul, Minnesota. She attended a Christian university, University of Northwestern, for two years. She met my father, Leland Tjaden in August 1974 at Cross of Glory Baptist Church. They were married here, in the same place that I’m standing right now, on September 6, 1975. From 1977-1984, they had four children, Phillip–who has since become Anna–Nate, Sharon, and  Holly. In 1985, they moved to Dayton, Ohio for my father’s job with Supervalu, a grocery store chain in the 1980s. In 1986, my parents adopted Cecilia’s sister’s child, DeAnna–who has since become Dominic– and they raised him as their own. Yes, two of my mother’s children are transgender. And she recognized and loved them as beautiful creations of God. 

In the summer of 1987, my mother received a phone call while she was decorating cakes for other people’s celebrations–her house was on fire. We lost everything. We were homeless. This event changed our lives. It taught me that the worst tragedies in our lives are almost always the times when we see humanity shine. I witnessed and felt the care of others so many times in this period of our lives. Our church sheltered and fed us until we were back on our feet.

Our family often lived paycheck to paycheck. Our furniture came from Rent-a-Center and we were frequent users of layaway. But we always had enough. We may not have had what our friends had, but we never went without what we needed. My mom could feed a family of 7 on $50 a week in the 1990s. Again, it wasn’t necessarily what we wanted to eat. But we never went hungry. 

In 1997, doctors found a slow-growing cancer in my mom’s small intestine. It was called a carcinoid tumor, a cancer that circulates in the blood and disrupts the endocrine system. My father’s response to the news was devastation and sadness. My mother’s response was level-headedness and optimism. This was just a thing that was true about her now and she would do what she needed to do to treat it. But beyond that, it wasn’t going to rob her of her joy and positivity. She believed deeply that God had plans for her and that those plans were ultimately beneficial to all those she loved–even if those plans included her death at an early age.

She kept that same spirit for the next 24 years. 

I want to tell you some things that my mother loved.

Her Myer-Briggs personality type was ISFJ, like me and my dad. “The Protector” personality. 

She loved musicals. The Sound of Music, Oklahoma, Carousel. Anything Rogers and Hammerstein. She could watch Christmas movies anytime of year.  It’s a Wonderful Life. Literally all of the Hallmark Christmas movies ever made. And Lifetime movies. For music, she loved the Carpenters, Anne Murray, Josh Groban. Almost any Christmas song you can think of–she loved it. 

But then there was her other side that loved action movies like Taken, Westerns, suspense, thrillers, and as Warren calls them, “men-bashing” movies, where the husband is the main villain. There was a period of time when Mom loved a TV series called Snapped, which was about wives who completely lost it on their husbands and ruined their cars or poisoned them or something like that. 

She and Warren enjoyed something they called “Chicago Night,” with TV shows about Chicago PD or Chicago hospitals. Things she could watch over and over included Law and Order: SVU, Heartland, Walker, Texas Ranger, and Little House on the Prairie.  

She was patient. She loved jigsaw puzzles, the more pieces the better. She loved crosswords and word puzzles in Penny Press puzzle books, particularly “Escalators” and “Magic Square Anagram” puzzles. 

She was creative. Her passion and profession was decorating cakes and she truly loved the work. She worked at so many bakeries: Stumps, Cub Foods, the Rolling Pin, Cake Box, Ashley’s Pastry Shop, Kroger, and CJ Farms. She and her dear friend, Judy Smith, even ran their own cake decorating business for a period of time called “Classic Wedding Cakes.” I know she’s my mom, but really, her decorated cakes were among the best I’ve ever seen. She had a real talent for it. I remember taking her into a local bakery and she looked in the case at the cakes. When we left, I asked her what she thought. She just shook her head and said very simply, “Nothing special in there.” That was all she said. 

Her favorite kind of cake was white cake with buttercream icing. If you were going to buy her a donut, she’d ask for a cake donut. Most people knew her for her decorated sugar Christmas cookies, but if she wanted to bake cookies just for herself, she’d make peanut butter cookies. 

Although she was a fantastic baker, she was not known for her cooking. All five of us kids can remember the countless times that we would protest the “hot dish” that my mom had made for us, a concoction of elbow macaroni, ground beef, stewed tomatoes, onion, and sometimes celery? Actually, she put celery in a lot of things that shouldn’t have put celery. Like her chili. I remember my husband, Doug, taking a bite of her chili and a confused expression came over his face. He looked into his bowl and moved his spoon around. “Is there celery in this?” I said, “Yep.” “Who puts celery in chili?” I just shrugged. My mom leaned heavily on cream of mushroom soup and Lipton onion soup mix for seasoning a dish. One thing that it seemed that no one ever agreed with her on was her love of chicken hearts, livers, and gizzards. I remember a stuffing that my mom made. Holly took one bite of it and just said, “Mom… what did you put in this?” And she said, “You can tell?”

Beyond baking, my mom loved to do so many kinds of crafts. She sewed everything from matching Christmas and Easter dresses for her girls to curtains to handbags and even stuffed animals. There was a period in the 90s when she made–with Nate as her assistant–stuffed bunnies out of muslin cloth and dressed them up in little dresses. She quilted and made a lot of quilts for people, including me. She crocheted so many blankets, especially in her last years, when she volunteered to crochet blankets for people in hospice. In the 1980s, she went through a phase when she made barretts, all decked out in lace and beads. 

As a parent, my mom recognized and valued each of her children for their uniqueness. She saw potential in each one of us, even if we disappointed her. She gave second and third and fourth chances. There was no end to the chances she would give. She was proud of whatever we did, as long as we did it to the best of our ability. She was the Keeper of the Peace in our household, the one that kept the ship sailing, even if we didn’t know the direction that we were going as the Sea of Life tossed us this way and that. 

She was the owner of a perfect laugh and a Minnesota accent. And she always granted the most generous interpretation about others, even when she could have extended judgment.

My mom was an eternal optimist.

When I hugged my mom good-bye as I was leaving after my father’s funeral, I said, “I just want you to be happy for the rest of your days.” It was 2014 and the cancer was mostly asleep inside of her, but it was never too far from my mind.

She looked at me and said, “I will be.” So confidently and assuredly. And I knew she meant it. 

I just couldn’t understand how she could be so optimistic, but she absolutely was. She hadn’t met Warren yet. As far as she knew in that moment, she could have been facing a lonely, financially difficult widowhood. 

And yet she believed that the best was yet to come. 

And by God–she was right.

My father was my mother’s first love, the father of her children, and what I say next does not take away from that cherished truth. Warren was her soulmate. Both children of farmers, lovers of the quiet land. They spent 6 incredible years together. He held her hand as she passed and still looked at her with the same adoring eyes that he had for her throughout their marriage. His last words to her were, “You gotta go, Sweetie. I’ll see you there.”

Warren, what a gift you were to my mother. Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts for being in her life. You will be in our lives forever now. You can’t get rid of us! You are my children’s grandfather and we will visit and care for you just as we would my own mother.

On the night before my mother passed, I read a letter to her that intended to read at her funeral. But she deserved to hear it in this life. I’d like to read that letter now.

Mom,

We met on November 24, 1981 at 3:51 in the morning. It was a Tuesday, just two days before Thanksgiving. I don’t remember it, but now that I have two kids of my own, I know that it’s likely that you’ve never forgotten that morning. You told me after Felicity was born that I had been your hardest birth. That surprised me because I was your third child. You didn’t know why it had been that way. But it was. You and Dad had expected that I would be born before he had to leave for his early morning shift at the bakery. But no. At 1:00 a.m., Dad left for work.

And so, while the world slept and my father went to work, you labored alone in those final hours, which I know from experience are the loneliest, most painful, and most detached hours that you can experience in life. No matter how many people surround you, you are still alone in your pain. 

These are hours when you are certain there is no one in the world who is currently suffering as much as you are. They are hours when you bear the entire weight of humanity, pushing, pulling, and pressing you from all sides. There would be no human life if not for the ability for women to bear this pain. 

I repeat: Life depends on the strength and fortitude of women to bear this pain. 

You bore so much pain in your life. You bore it without most people even knowing, a true testament to your roots and upbringing in rural Iowa and Minnesota, where the simple economics of farm life governed. You cannot reap what you don’t sow. You cannot take if you don’t give.

And so when life gave you pregnancies, it also gave you severe hyperemesis gravidarum. When it gave Dad the opportunity to turn his job into a career, it also gave you an extra 800 miles between you and everyone you loved. When it gave you the stress of raising teenagers, it gave you the stress of raising more teenagers. Sorry about that. That was actually completely unfair. 

Mom, you were the oldest girl in a family of seven children. You talked about how difficult it had been to move from farm life to city life in high school. The teasing hurt you. So you turned to your faith. Your faith taught you that even if others didn’t accept you for who you were, you would always be accepted and loved by God. For you, being God’s child gave you the support and comfort that you needed as you grew up in a culture that you didn’t understand. 

Losing Dad was tough, but why does it feel like it hurts more to lose you?

Maybe it’s because it feels like a world without your mother is a world without the greatest compassion and the most acceptance and unconditional love that you have ever known.

For a long time, I didn’t want to be a mom. Moms were so uncool. So passé. So not who I wanted to become. I wanted to be accomplished and talented and maybe someday well-known. I was going to do much, much harder things than being a mom.

What a fool I was. Such foolish, foolish thoughts. So full of pride. How could I ever think that you weren’t exactly the person that I should aspire to become?

How could I ever think that being a good mom was easy?

Being a good mom has turned out to be literally the hardest thing that I will ever do. And I’m finding now, over and over again, the empathy and the perspective that I need to understand just how difficult it must have been for you to raise 5 of us. 

I’m so sorry, Mom.

Mom, it’s because of you that I’m able to keep the whole thing in perspective.

The world will always find another teacher or writer or employee. But your family will never find another you. 

I know that my heart will always call out for you when I’m hurt.

I know that I will always miss your presence, but I know that I’ll miss it the most at Christmastime. Every time I smell those fragrant pine cones, covered in cinnamon and clove, I can almost hear the scratch of the record player starting up Anne Murray’s Christmas Wishes, the notes of Winter Wonderland blending into Silver Bells.

As deep as my sadness is right now, sadness is not what I want this to be about. 

What I want to talk about is my gratitude—all the reasons that I’m thankful you are and will always be my mother. 

Thank you, from the bottom of my soul, for not just being our mother but living your life for us, as if we were your true calling. We never felt like you had something more important to do. 

Thank you for creating a home in which I always felt that there would always be enough—even when that wasn’t guaranteed.

Your optimism and positivity, which eclipsed all of Dad’s worrying.

All the times you were there when we needed you. In all the ways that we needed you. I don’t ever remember you telling us that you could not be there for us, no matter what the problem was.

For your lifelong examples of what it means to love God and live as a cherished creation of God. Through all of the financial and physical hardships, through Dad’s illness and death, you showed us how to feel grief even as you move forward.

Thank you for all the I Love You notes that you’d slip into my sandwiches and that I’d bite into while I was eating at school.

Thank you for the pair of shorts that you sewed for me late into the night when I told you I got laughed at for wearing the same pair of jeans two days in a row in fifth grade. 

Thank you for disregarding the doctors’ original prognosis in 1998 and going ahead and living your life anyway. You showed me why it was important to you to not allow people to only see CANCER when they see you. Even though cancer could consume your body, you would never give it the victory of consuming your spirit. You kept your identity and your wholeness until the end.

Thank you for teaching me that one of the very best things that you can do in this life is to be kind and generous to others—Because you never know when you will be the one that needs to feel that kindness, especially when you feel like you just cannot go on.

Thank you for filling my memory with positivity, laughter, imagination, and creativity. 

Thank you for my freedom, how you basically dropped me off at college and said, “Have fun!” You gave me the space to take ownership and responsibility for my life.  

Thank you for allowing me to feel a broken heart and giving me the space to learn how to keep on living after rejection and loss.

You were pretty amazing with space. Space to allow me to figure out marriage. Space to figure out how to be a mom. Space to feel my way through the pain of miscarriage. You were always there when I needed you, but you were always sensitive to how space could give me agency and ultimately, more resilience.

Life is funny and awful. Because now that I have all the space, what I wouldn’t give to give it all back just to have you back in my life until I’m much, much older. No matter how old you are, you’re never ready to lose your mother.

One of the first thoughts that I had when you told me in August 2019 that the cancer was back was… “Please don’t leave me alone in this world. I don’t know how to I can be okay in this world without knowing you are in it.”

But you have always been preparing me for this, haven’t you? For years, you have been giving me the space to steer my own life. You have been cheering me on from other states as you’ve gone on to live your life. You’ve encouraged me as I’ve developed my own social support network around me through friends and church. In my mind, I know that I will be okay. I know that I will wake up tomorrow, make the coffee, do all the things, and make it to the end of the day.

But my heart doesn’t know that. All my heart wants is to stop losing the people that I love.

When I first asked you why you gave me my name, you said I was named after Song of Solomon 2:1, I am the Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the Valley. This didn’t really mean much to me, especially since I was eight years old. 

But what you wrote in my baby book made more sense. 

You wrote “The Rose of Sharon, the beauty of a desert.”

You saw me as a flower in the desert.

I came into your life at a challenging time. You were a stay-at-home mom to two young boys, aged 4 ½ and 2 years. Dad worked early morning hours at the bakery, often six days a week. We know now that Dad struggled with bipolar depression for years, but at the time, you just thought that he was moody and needed help seeing the positive side of life. And that’s what you were there for—to be his partner. To provide balance. From week to week, money was perpetually tight. I don’t remember, but I’m pretty sure you didn’t complain about any of this, ever. That was your life. He was your husband and we were your children and God was God. And you rejoiced and were glad in it.

You saw me as a flower in the desert.

Desert flowers don’t have deep roots, but they do have extensive roots. They spread out far and wide to gather as much nourishment as possible, to prepare for the lack of rain. I really can’t think of a better metaphor for how I’ve lived most of my life. Drink up as much as you can now because the drought is coming. One way or another, it’s coming.

My roots have never been deep. We are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants, uprooted from homes and cultures. Children of rural farmers, isolated for miles on every side. We moved away from all our extended family early in my life. For generations, this was how we lived: stretching out instead of digging down.

There were many seasons in life when you and Dad could not depend on your family because of how far away we lived. So we reached out to the church. And they were our support. They provided structure and guidance. Love and belonging. You showed me how to make a family with those around you. How to help others and how to have the humility to be helped when you needed it. And we often did. We often did.

Thank you for this, Mom. Because now that you and Dad are gone, this is how I will survive. This is how I will bloom and continue to grow in a life where my roots are almost gone. I will reach up and reach out. I will trust that someone will be there because I know the world is full of suffering—and because it is full of suffering, it is also full of empathy. My family that remains. Friends. Always friends. I will reach up and reach out because I need help to face this world without you. 

Dying

Friday, August 12th, 3:30 p.m.

“She’s out of isolation, so you don’t need to bother with a gown or gloves. Whatever it is, it’s not COVID,” the ICU nurse says. I glance at the whiteboard. Nurse: Megan.

Through the window, I see my mother reclined on the hospital bed, her eyes closed, her chest rapidly rising and falling. This labored breathing has been ongoing for days now, her heart rate increasing steadily over the days. 90. 100. 110. 125. 130.

It holds at 140 now.

140 is my heart rate when I’m jogging or doing kickboxing. And there, she lies, reclined on the hospital bed, her body racing as if accelerating toward some unknown destination in the distance. Does she know where she’s going? And when will she arrive?

What’s causing her high heart rate? I had asked the doctor.

It’s the body’s stress response.

To what?

We don’t know.

There would be nothing else to say until more tests were done. More and more tests.

I look at my mother through the door.

She is dying. Surely, they can see that.

Can’t they?

I slide the door of the ICU room open and step inside and rest my eyes on my mother. And the reality of the situation washes over me again, a horrible reminder. Oh, right. It really is as bad as the last time that I was here, just hours ago.

But then, I realize. No.

It’s not as bad as last time.

It’s actually worse.

I want to tell every nurse and doctor and hospital worker, This isn’t what she looks like. She’s really not like this.

In a week, she has transformed from a robust 68-year-old woman into a woman who looks to be in her 80s. Frail.

I place my cup of coffee on the floor beside the chair next to her bed and sit beside her. The welts that have emerged on her face and arms are starting to crust over. The doctors guess that it’s a reaction to antibiotics to treat a UTI, but it’s just a guess.

I slide my hand under hers. It’s not as hot as yesterday, when her fever was 102, but it’s still so warm. Her fingers are swollen. From what? I don’t know. Why is she breathing like this? There are new masses in her lungs, ones that have grown rapidly at some time in the last month, but is that what’s causing her body to run like its out of control?

Her spinal tap is clear. There’s no infection. Her brain is fine. Her heart is fine. Carcinoid cancer is strange. We don’t know everything about it.

“Hi, Mom,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “It’s Sharon.”

I open a document on my phone. It’s a letter that I’ve written to her. I was going to read it at her funeral, but she deserves to hear it while she’s alive. My eyes skate over the first line that I’ve written to steel myself to read it, but I can’t see through the blurry curtain of my tears. They drop freely onto my dress.

That looks so nice on you! she had said, not two months ago. Stitch Fix? I’ve never heard of it!

I look around the room for a box of tissues and see nothing. There are never enough tissues in these rooms. I wipe my face with the back of my free hand as I hold my mother’s hand. Then, I pull a used paper towel from the dispenser in her last hospital room and dab at my face again.

I close the app with the letter to my mother and navigate to a song. Something that has comforted me in the past.

See me someday sleeping softly
Flowers draped across my knees
Hear the cries of friends and family
Missing me
Press on

She’s not gone yet, but I miss her already.

I look down at my mother’s hand.

Just two weeks ago, she responded to my touch. One week ago, she could still acknowledge that I was in the room. Yesterday, with effort, she could say a few words–if they were important. I fed her a small piece of strawberry, and with great effort, she chewed it. Now, when she is aware, her communication has reduced to groans and a look from behind glassy eyes.

In this moment, her eyes are closed. I could almost convince myself that she was sleeping, if she weren’t breathing like she were running a race.

My head drops to her hand and I press it to my cheek, where my tears are now sliding over her knuckles and down her wrists. I turn my head and look up the side of her arm, upward at her as she is reclined in the bed and suddenly she seems as large as she was to me when I was a child. Authoritative. Grand. Only now, silent and suffering.

I want to wake her up, shake her out of this nightmare. I want to curl up in her arms. She was not a mother who would say something like, “Everything’s going to be okay, Sweetie.” Instead, she would say something simpler, like, “Hey, now. What’s wrong?”

Her hand is slick underneath my cheeks, my tears still spilling forth. There is Life there, inside of her, as strong as it has ever been. But not for long. Soon, her hand will turn cold and there will be no warming it up with peach tea or coffee with cream. I can still see the steam rising from her mug as she laughed about my ridiculous guesses for unscrambling words in a puzzle book.

The sadness settling over me is so heavy I cannot even hold myself up and soon, I’m collapsed over the rail of the hospital bed. I’m crawling up the side of the bed now, my face and neck pressed against her arm and hand, gazing up at her. I want her to snap out of this. For her breathing to slow. For her to look over at me and say, “I had the weirdest dream.”

But her face is so thin now. Her face has never been this pale, this thin, this drained of life.

I want to go back. To my beginning. When I was the Protected, and she, the Protector. When it was her tears of joy covering me at my birth, not my tears of sorrow covering her just before her death. How short the years were between those two turning points in our universe. I didn’t always take those years for granted. I cherished them more each time she told us the cancer was back. But how many years had the cancer slept–and I lost sight of my gratitude?

Moments with someone you love become so much more precious when you’re threatened with losing them forever. You find yourself making frequent trips to see them. Cherishing every word they say. Not throwing away their cards. Taking more pictures. More videos.

My mind drifts and I think of the woman who wept upon Jesus’s feet and then wiped away her tears with her hair, just before pouring expensive perfume over his feet.

Why was she crying? Jesus and his disciples believed that it was because she was “a sinful woman” and was plagued with regret.

But no one asked her. They just assumed that she was sad about her sinful life.”

But now I wonder if she knew, in the way that I know now, that Death is at the doorstep. I wonder if she felt the same tight tug at her heart when she looked at Jesus, the tightness that I’m feeling now as I gaze at my mother in these final hours, as if she is being pulled into a thick fog while I am anchored here. Unable to follow, even at a distance.

Even though there was a time when we were so connected that the echoes of our heartbeats rippled throughout the same body. My hiccups were her hiccups, and hers were mine.

Wasn’t there a verse in Isaiah (Was it Isaiah?) that said, Death where is thy sting?

I know where it is. It’s here, in this room. I feel it needling me every time a monitor beeps, announcing some new threshold that my mother has fallen too far below or risen too far above.

The nurse, Megan, quietly enters the room and I don’t even try to hide my tears. What’s the point?

“Here,” she says softly, handing me a hospital washcloth. “This is better.”

I nod, unable to even thank her properly. I push the stiff, paper towels into my purse.

She doesn’t say anything.

There is nothing to say.

Life is filled with bitter music
Breeze that whistles like a song
Death gets swept down like an eagle
Snatch us with our shoes still on

Press on

Behind me, I can hear the soft conversations of nurses in the hallway. I can’t hear the content, but the tone tells me that whatever they’re talking about weighs infinitely less than what is happening in this room.

Do they know? Can they tell what’s happening? Is it obvious to them too?

When do we start using that word, dying? Is it too soon? It doesn’t seem too soon.

Instead, it seems too late for someone to be notifying me. Instead, it seems that I was meant to figure this out on my own. It seems that we are in the wrong place here. ICUs are meant for people to get better. Why is she here anyway? Shouldn’t we be in hospice? Why are we pumping high-flow oxygen into her nostrils and administering potassium?

Why did we do a biopsy? Will the results read as clearly as a pregnancy test? Dying or Not Dying? When are the results supposed to come back? After she’s dead? Why are we still testing?

The sobs overwhelm me and I find myself praying not only to God, but also my father. My grandmother. Any ancestors who will hear me.

Please. She needs someone to guide her. She needs help to find her way forward. I cannot stand to watch her suffer like this another day.

I love her too much to allow this to go on.

There is a doctor’s knock at the door. They all knock the same–an interrupting, quick signal that you are next in line. But I cannot even lift myself to acknowledge the sound. If this doctor’s time is money, they’ll need to pay the price for now. And I will come away from this moment knowing that I owe them nothing. I will not shield them from my pain or my grief. They should know the weight of what is happening here, how the gravity of this moment warps time, slows it down, so that every moment is lived painfully and with the greatest effort imaginable.

They should feel it, if even to a small degree, in the way that I’m feeling it now.

My mother is dying.

Whoever is about to sit with me and talk with me already knows that, too.

***

He’s very kind, this doctor in his late 30s. He uses phrases like, “How are you feeling about her condition?” And “Yes, I agree that it’s time to modify her goals.”

When I ask if we can help her pass without suffering, he says, “We absolutely can.”

Then, a new flood of tears arrives as phrases that should be uttered twenty years from now are spoken today.

We can move her to a private, quiet room. Make her comfortable. Give her morphine for pain. Give her anti-anxiety medication.

How long will it take, we ask as a family.

Could be 30 minutes. A few hours. Or days.

More tears.

I’m hoping for a few hours. Time to say what we want to say to her. To pray. To read to her.

But the thought of wandering for days in this Space Between Worlds…

The thought is crushing.

But I know that I will bear it, no matter how long.

I will bear it for her.

***

The night nurse comes, Regina. I believe she is the Holy Spirit, the Great Comforter, incarnate. She can’t be older than 35, but she speaks as someone who has traveled this road of Death many times. She props her hands on her hips like she’s telling us the specials on tonight’s menu.

“I want to be clear about what we’re doing tonight. We’re going to do a terminal wean. We’ll do everything to make her comfortable and relieve her pain.”

It’s not insensitive the way that she says any of this. Instead, it instantly puts me at peace. What we are doing is not unusual or awful. We are only getting out of the way of Death. We are simply fulfilling my mother’s wishes, even though it means that she’s leaving us behind.

We read last minute messages from friends and family who want to say goodbye. We hold the phone up to her ear to allow family who can’t make it to talk to her. My mother says nothing. She cannot talk. All she can do now is groan, and only when absolutely necessary. She breathes heavily through her nose and mouth, which quickly dries out her lips. The tone in her jaw is gone. She cannot keep her mouth closed. Every time Warren carefully applies Chapstick to her lips, tears sting my eyes.

Can she still hear? I wonder. While half of me is glad that we are talking to my mother as if she can still hear us, the other half of me remains skeptical and wonders if this is all a show to make ourselves feel better.

Her brain is fine, the doctors had said.

As I sit on my mom’s left, my daughter, Felicity, walks in, tears slowly careening down her nine-year-old cheeks. She has been pinballing between entering the ICU room and remaining in the hallway.

Anything you want to do is fine, I assured her. Only do what you want to do.

She sits on my lap, facing away from me. She’s too tall for me to hold her like a baby anymore, so I do the next best thing and bear-hug her from behind.

Felicity gazes over at her grandmother and places her hand on top of hers.

My mother groans.

My chest tightens and I swallow.

“She can hear you, baby girl. She knows it’s you.”

Felicity leaves her hand there as her little body shakes in my lap. I know in this moment, my mother hates that she’s making Felicity sad. She hates that she can no longer mask the fact that she’s dying. She wouldn’t want to scare Felicity. She would despise the fact that the only sound she could make to comfort Felicity was a monotone groan. She would encourage Felicity to not let her condition make her sad. She might even tell Felicity what she had said so many times before, “I’m getting better and better every day, Felicity. Don’t worry about me.”

Without warning, Felicity jumps to her feet and moves to the other side of the bed.

“Can I hug her?” she asks.

“Yes. As tightly as you want.”

She leans across the bed and rests upon my mother and pushes out her shaky words.

“I love you, Grandma.”

Warren helps Regina remove my mother’s neck brace, which had been supporting her nearly healed neck after her most recent fall.

They remove the arm brace, which had been keeping her broken right arm in place.

Regina pulls away the tubing that forces high-flow oxygen from my mother’s nostrils.

A lump rises in my throat as a thought occurs to me.

We are removing all her armor now, letting it fall away, leaving her vulnerable. We all understand that she can’t be any more broken than she is now. Nor, are we are protecting her anymore. We’ve wandered off the road to recovery long ago. Now, we’re on a different path, each of us recognizing it at different times, as if we are each acquiring a new language at different speeds. I’ve been able to read the signposts for weeks, but I know that others have only been able to read them for days.

We are handing Mom over to a Thing that we have all feared, no matter what our faith teaches us. No matter how many cheery faces have told us confidently that there’s Heaven waiting for us on the other side, none of us have seen this destination, nor have we traveled there. Perhaps someday I will find comfort in the thought of Heaven. But not today. Because my mother’s path to get there is covered in thorns, ripping at her mercilessly even as she barrels blindly forward.

She will travel this last path alone, exhausting every weapon and tool that she used in this life. She will do this alone, just as she did when she gave birth four times. Just as she did when she fought through unbearable pain when she broke her back in 2007–and all the years of pain that followed. Just as she has fought this cancer for 24 years.

Like every other time before, she would do this last battle all by herself.

No man has ever come close to demonstrating the strength that my mother has.

Not even close.

She is the only person I’ve known who has chosen over and over again to walk into the shadows of Pain and Loss.

And still found the Light inside of it.

And then held that Light up for all to see.

Warrior isn’t the title that she has earned.

She is the Hero.

Maybe that’s why her body is still wielding its sword, slashing at shadows.

We can’t tell her to stop fighting.

But at least we can take away her pain while she fights.

On Rising Again: A Remembrance of Alyssa

Alyssa,

We were cousins who grew up states apart, seeing each other sometimes in the summer. You were two years older than me, always finding out things before I did. Always reaching milestones before me. We survived the traumatic hairstyles of the early 1990s, which inevitably led to us inhaling whole cans of Aquanet over the years.

True warriors, right?

But I didn’t know you like your family knew you. I only have a few memories that still remain sharp, even today.

Here is my favorite one.

In the summer of 2000, my friend and I were driving from Ohio to California, as a celebration of finishing high school. Our first stop was Minnetonka, MN, where we stayed with Grandma Bundy. Our second stop was Sioux Falls, SD, where you had just moved. My friend and I met you at the hair salon where you had just started working. Grinning from ear to ear, you greeted me like an old friend and insisted that we try out this burger place that you loved.

Over burgers and fries and sodas, we talked. You were 20 years old. I was 18. You seemed so much cooler, so much more grown-up than me. Your life was taking off, and it was exciting. You had an apartment of your own. A full-time job. You were the one calling the shots, and you reveled in your freedom.

While we sat there, a song came on that made you howl.

Yes, howl.

You threw your head back, laughing, saying, I LOVE THIS SONG! And right there in the middle of the restaurant, you belted it out, wiggling in your seat, arms and hips twisting in opposition.

I did not know the song. But you knew it word for word.

The best thing about being a woman
Is the prerogative to have a little fun and
Oh-OH-oh-oh, Go totally crazy, Forget I’m a lady
Men’s shirts, short skirts, Oh-OH-oh-oh,
Really go wild, yeah, Doin’ it in style, Oh-OH-oh-oh,
Get in the action, Feel the attraction, Color my hair, Do what I dare
Oh-OH-oh-oh
I want to be free yeah, to feel the way I feel
Man! I feel like a woman!

Young. Wild. Free.

I think that is how I will remember you best.

***

Although we didn’t really talk much over the years, I heard updates from my mom. You got a new job. You started a new business. You got married. You became a stepmom. Life was no longer Young and Wild and Free.

Yes, Life had taken off. But instead of riding a rocket to the stars, you found yourself navigating life in a hot air balloon. Fueled by your energy and drive to keep rising. Tethered by so many ropes. Carrying a basket holding all those you loved. You traveled a bit. Then, came back down. Then traveled more. Then, back down. Up and down. Over and over. Your will, the fuel that kept you going.

Did you ever have the chance to ride in a hot air balloon? It seems like it would be just the kind of adventure that you’d like.

Years ago, I went hot air ballooning on my honeymoon. There was a lot about the trip that surprised me, but the most surprising thing was this:

The pilot didn’t have a fixed landing site.

In fact, it was impossible to do so because the trajectory of the balloon shifts as the air currents change. At one altitude, the wind may take the balloon east. At a lower altitude, it may shift west. And so safely landing the balloon requires that the pilot be able to make adjustments and readjustments to the landing process, depending on the air currents and the landscape.

Is there a better metaphor for how many of us live life?

Hard to think of one.

You faced a lot of shifting currents as your life took off. Through the ups and downs, the surprises, the detours, and the unexpected mid-flight landings…

You kept rising.

For that is the true Measure of a Life.

It’s not about how high you rise or how far you travel.

It’s about how many times you get back off the ground.

And it’s about the people you carry and how much you lift them.

That’s what makes the loss of you difficult. You lifted so many others with you.

***

You shared memes on Facebook about raising teenagers. You seemed to be carrying a lot on your shoulders. One of the last memes that you shared was this:

That line haunts me.

We are almost there.

There.

***

How could any of us have seen this coming?

How could we imagine a future in which you died so suddenly?

Here one minute. Gone the next.

Your sister reminded us in her first post after your death that, Life is a vapor (James 4:14).

Yes. It truly is.

Even to live 80 years. A vapor.

In the millions of years that life has churned on and on and on.

A vapor.

And yet, what we do matters.

How we live our lives matters.

And when the atmosphere finally swallows the vapor that is our Life, this thing that we so painstakingly lived day after day, all the energy that we poured into our goals, getting up each morning, drinking the coffee, doing the things, making decisions, dealing with the outcomes of the decisions that we made and those that we didn’t, may we all have the perspective to hold to this Truth: All that we did mattered.

Every damn moment of it mattered.

But rest assured, no one does Life perfectly.

The true impact of our lives is measured in how we used that time. Whether we chose Love. Or not.

It’s measured by how often we chose forgiveness over grudges, mercy over vengeance, compassion over resentment, empathy over judgment, inclusion over exclusion, gratitude over envy, contentment over greed.

And so, Alyssa, when you lifted others with your sheer willpower, it mattered.

When you made space in your life for people you loved, it mattered.

When you listened to someone who was hurting, it mattered.

When you apologized for something that you had done wrong, it mattered.

And every time that you gave Love to someone, it mattered.

Love is the whole point.

It’s all that has ever mattered.

***

A final clear memory that I have of you happened during the summer when your family of six came to visit my family of seven. (How did we fit thirteen people in our tiny 1,000 square foot house? One of life’s great mysteries.) I think you may have been twelve. I can’t remember for sure.

One of the ways that we got everyone out of the house was a trip to Eastwood Lake, a fifteen-minute drive from our house.

We went canoeing.

And as a stepmom to teenagers, I’m sure you can appreciate the recollection of what happened next.

With the surface of the water so still, your father rested the oars against the sides of the canoe and closed his eyes.

Then, to the horror of my siblings, he started singing.

I’ve got peace, like a river

I’ve got peace, like a river

I’ve got peace like a river in my soul…

He didn’t have a bad voice. That wasn’t the issue. It was just Parents are so embarrassing. And what if other people hear him and look at us? What would we even do? Is he ever going to stop? How many verses are in this song?

But after it became clear that your dad was invested in this moment, you threw caution to the wind.

You sang with him.

I’ve got love like an ocean.

I’ve got love like an ocean.

I’ve got love like an ocean in my soul…

Looking back now, it was the right thing to do.

To be present and support those we love is always the right choice.

***

I believe in a God that sees through us, from top to bottom and beginning to end. I believe in a God who sees all our flaws, our mistakes, our failures, our weaknesses, and our sins. And knows the difference between them.

But I also believe in a God who sees our intentions, our motivations, our faith, our courage, all the things we’ve done right, all the love we gave, and all the goodness we shared.

And finally, I believe in a God that gathers us in and brings us Home.

May you rest forever in the spirit that you lived.

Rising again.

Young. Wild. Free.

Home.

***

If you’d like to help Alyssa’s family in their time of need, you can donate here.

Alyssa and her siblings: two younger brothers and her younger sister.
Some of the people you loved most: Your siblings. (2009)

5 Years

Dad and Sharon 1982

“I Will Be Blessed” by Ben Howard

 

Heaven is a place we hold.
Heaven is the arms that hold us
Long before we go
If you’re there
When the world comes to gather me in
I will be blessed

 

Funerals

The last post that I wrote was over three months ago.

I’ve started a few posts, but haven’t been able to finish them.

Partly because I haven’t really had an hour to breathe since mid-February.

Partly because I have nothing to say.

Partly because I have so much to say that I don’t know where to start.

Truth be told, this time of year always gets me a little down. Every year since my dad passed away in June 2014, a general malaise and “I’m-so-done-with-this-whole-life” attitude sets in around Memorial Day and doesn’t lift until mid-June (which, sadly, is always when Father’s Day happens).

There are still a few hundred others things I should be doing right now (and as I type this, I’m falling further and further behind), but I am utterly burned out, and WHATEVER, I need to do this.

In the mood for some rambling?

Here we go.

***

Three months. Three funerals.  

One, a lifelong friend who has known me since I was 8. Her death, expected, but still difficult.

One, an acquaintance, whom I had only met only a few times. Husband of my colleague. Father of four. His death, sudden and unexpected, the last page of his story, ending in mid-sentence. Tragic, confusing, and unbelievable.

One, someone whom I have never met, but whose words created a new space for me in the Christian faith. Writer. Theologian. Mother of two young ones. Her death, also unexpected, tragic, confusing, and unbelievable.

The lifelong friend that I lost was the mother of a close friend, the kind of person who knew everything and anything about how you grew up, who you were, and what kind of person you are still becoming. Her funeral was the only one that I had any time to process, a full “luxurious” nine hours to speak at the funeral, cry, and rest with a coffee cup in hand while hearing and telling stories. (Thank you, babysitters.)

And then there were three tornadoes that tore through my hometown, though mercifully not through my neighborhood. On the morning of Tuesday, May 29th, I got texts and messages and emails, “Are you okay? Let me know.” Our community’s tragedies, front page national news.

This is the tough part of Life.

When you have to keep doing all the responsibilities, all the work, the chores, the parent-teacher conferences, dentist appointments, birthday parties, oil changes, groceriesgroceriesgroceries, not to mention all the future-focused, long-term plans (Should I go back to school? When? Change jobs? When? What kind? Where? How?)

Do all of that, while you’re reminded over and over again that:

It.

Just.

Doesn’t.

Matter.

We will all die.

Our children will die.

The homes that we build and the things that we acquire will blow away, burn, or crumble.

The great achievements that we work toward and glory in will fall into ruin and be forgotten.

Even if what we do amounts to something on this planet, Earth is still in the midst of the Milky Way, which is spinning towards Andromeda, and billions of years from now, all of this will explode in another fiery end.

What does it all mean?

pexels-photo-1205301

Image credit: 01234567890, pexels.com

***

Okay, right, obviously it does matter to my children that I teach them how to love and show kindness. That I live my life in a way that I want them to live.

Of course, yes, that matters.

I guess what I’m wrestling with is the truth that,

the plans and aspirations and goals that I have in my life… aren’t really that important at all.

What does it matter if I never have a boss that can appreciate my competence rather than be threatened by it?

What does it matter if I’m never paid enough for the work that I do?

What does it matter if I never make another creative thing–a book, a post, a video–that other people enjoy?

Why does it matter so much to me that I be productive, that I continue to achieve… because all of things that I’ll make and achieve are really just dust.

Or, more likely, bits of data, easily erased or buried.

It.

Just.

Doesn’t.

Matter.

That truth is the same for all of us.

But perhaps what is different is our conclusions about that truth and how we let it affect our lives.

***

And then there were these words from Nadia Bolz-Weber at Rachel Held Evans’ funeral.

While it was still dark.

***

So I guess there is something that you find at the bottom of the pile of grief, that continues to grow because there’s never time to process it all.

Peace.

There is some measure of peace in knowing that it’s okay.

Whatever I do.

Whatever I don’t do.

Whatever I plan to do, but am never able to accomplish.

It’s okay.

All is well.

On Wonder: A Eulogy to My Physics Teacher, Mrs. Norma Howell

Norma,

I can still see you holding my three-week-old daughter in our living room, rocking in the glider. You offered to stay overnight at our place and help out with the night feedings on occasion, and we gladly took you up on the offer.

You cradled her in your arms, your gaze landing on her tiny face, your hands tracing her tiny hands. You said, “Oh… This is the best.”

“Really?” I asked, thinking of how unbelievably sleep-deprived I was. “The newborn part? Not when they were older?”

“Well…” You paused for a moment, before breaking into a wide grin, “Actually, it was all pretty awesome. But this… I just have such fond memories of my nursing my boys.”

I smiled. You rocked.

“But honestly,” you said. “I really loved it all. Every moment of it. I’d do it all over if I could.”

We talked for a time about your health, as you had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer several years earlier.

“I remember praying to God,” you said, “And I said, ‘Well, if this is my time, then it’s my time…'” Then you broke into that same wide grin, “I thought, ‘But, I sure hope it’s not!’ Turned out it wasn’t yet, and now I’m just grateful for every day I have here.”

Norma and Felicity

Norma and Felicity: October 2013

After the initial shock that you had recently passed wore off, I combed over my memories of you. Things you had said to me first as a student, and then later as a kind of occasional life mentor. And I arrived at a common refrain:

I’m sorry I couldn’t see what you were trying to show me.

I remember all those times when I was your student and I was working through physics problems. Rather than teaching the laws of physics deductively without fully understanding their application, you used a clever, inductive reasoning approach to help students discover the laws for themselves.

I didn’t realize how clever of a method it was. I just knew it was making me think. A lot. And because I didn’t trust my own logic and judgment, it made me nervous.

When I’d come to you with a set of questions or completed problems, ready for you to approve so I could move on to the next module, I remember thinking…

I hope I got the answers right.

I hope I don’t look stupid in front of you.

I hope I don’t let you down.

I remember you gently asking me to consider, once again, what was the difference between acceleration and velocity.

You knew how to talk to a fragile overachiever like me. You didn’t tell me I was wrong. You just asked me to “tighten up” my understanding.

You were also merciful to the class as a whole. I remember a time when our entire class failed a quiz. You stood at the room, your right hand clutching the frayed edges of notebook paper, and you said somberly, “Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The bad news is…everyone failed.”

A brief moment passed to let that information sink in.

“The good news,” you continued cheerfully, “is that you can take a second quiz to replace that awful grade!”

For you, there was never failure. There were just more opportunities to try again.

For you, it was never about arriving at a destination.

It was always about the journey.

***

I wish I could have seen it that way. I wish you could have brainwashed me completely into seeing the world as full of wonder and possibilities.

It makes me sad to admit it, but I held myself back in your class.

I wish I could have let go of my fear of getting a bad grade in order to really embrace the deeper mysteries that this universe holds.

But I was young and insecure. I defined myself by what I achieved. And if I didn’t achieve, who was I? What did I have to define myself?

And so, I wouldn’t allow myself to imagine a future in which I was uncertain of whether or not I would succeed. I wouldn’t take the risk of pursuing a career in science or math. Because I was convinced that eventually, people would realize that I was an impostor. It would all catch up with me and I would fail.

So instead, I would carve out a path on which I wouldn’t fail.

Because, after all, what was worse than failing?

I was young. I was insecure.

***

After high school, I stayed in touched with you because your son married my good friend, Linda. I saw you over the years at get-togethers at your house or Linda’s house, and each time, you were the same: smiling, laughing, joyful.

You still peppered your speech with intonation and emphasis that made a lot of what you were saying into either Great News! or A Good Joke!

You were always interested in what I had to say, no matter what I talked about. You were that way with everyone, I think, and it’s why people loved you. You cared about what people said. You didn’t just listen–you heard people. Maybe this was because you found joy, real joy, in the happiness of others.

This is partly what made you such a great teacher: You were able to see me as a whole, complicated, unique person, someone more than just the scared-of-math-and-science teenage girl sitting on the left side of your class from August 1999 to May 2000.

But your willingness to being authentic with me also helped me see you as a whole, complicated, unique person.

Reciprocity like that is rare. And it is powerful.

***

Last night, I had a dream. It was one of those recurring dreams that you feel like you’ve had hundreds of times before (and it’s a mystery to you why you’ve always forgotten about it in your waking life).

I was walking a perfectly paved path, high in the most beautiful, lush mountains I’ve ever seen. But it wasn’t cold. Even the highest peaks had no snow. As I walked that path, I was completely free of any responsibility that I’ve ever had. I was so untethered, I felt like I was floating.

I was so, so full of joy.

And the music. If I knew how to compose music, I could have written out all of the notes when I woke up this morning. But that memory is fading.

What stays with me from this dream is my certainty that I was coming back.

I had been there before. Many times.

And I was home among something beautiful and wild that had missed me as much as I had missed it. And my joy was coming from the realization that I had been away for so long on a journey that had taken me everywhere but here. That everything I needed to do and everything that people needed from me was completely finished.

But it was the journey that made my coming home so joyful. For how can you be as joyful to see something that you never left?

It was all those moments spent with my own students, from countries far and wide, who first awakened my own curiosity in other ways of seeing the world. The same ones who helped me open my mind to the fact that (shockingly) there were so many ways of seeing and living in the same world.

It was all the times I thought well, this well definitely be the thing that breaks me… and then it wasn’t.

It was all the happiness, the stories, the hugs, the missed chances, the blatant mistakes, the fights, the kisses, the stress, the doubts, and all the uncertainty of the journey…

That made coming home so joyful.

***

What happens when we die?

I used to be so certain of the answer to that.

I used to be so well-educated on all things spiritual, particularly in my senior year of high school. I had answers, and those answers were supported by carefully selected Bible verses.

But I’m being a lot more honest with myself these days.

And I’m willing to say, I don’t know.

What happens when we die? 

During my morning runs this week, I thought about this over and over again.

If we are more than body, what happens to us? Where do we go? Do we travel to some higher dimension that we can’t possibly imagine with our three-dimensional brain? Will I return to this heaven in the mountains, some strange place that calls to me for reasons I don’t understand? Do we review our lives in retrospect, weighing everything we’ve done? Do we wait between worlds until we feel ready to move on? Are we re-united with the ones we’ve lost? Or do we lose all sense of self and join a larger, higher consciousness? And what would that even be like?

I thought a lot as I ran.

And then clarity hit me.

I was finally doing the thing that you were trying to teach me.

I was wondering.

I was in wonder.

I was allowing myself to not have the answers. To allow myself to live in the space of uncertainty. And I was doing it without thinking of myself as a failure.

Isn’t that what you were trying to teach us the whole time?

To wonder? To think?

To allow yourself to not have the answers, but by God, to think about it.

Sometimes, clarity hits you in odd ways.

Sometimes, it comes to you as you think about a loved one passing.

Sometimes, it seems almost supernatural.

Because when I slowed to a walk during one of my morning runs, I looked over at the sign for the apartment complex down the street. Lots of things around here are named “Normandy.” Normandy United Methodist Church. Normandy Elementary. Normandy Ridge Road.

But in that moment, the sign of the apartment complex was partially covered.

And all I saw was,

Norma.

It was my honor to have met you in life. I hope we meet again, if that’s what happens when we die.

If you see my dad (You can’t miss him. He’s about 6′ 3″, mostly bald, and he’ll be wearing a short-sleeved dress shirt, tucked into his swim trunks, which he calls his wrestling todds), please tell him that I’d give anything to listen to one of his annoying political rants, even if it meant hearing the words Make America Great Again hundreds of times–as long as he makes me his Famous Thresherman’s Breakfast when he’s done.

With gratitude,

Sharon

PoP # 14: “Daystar”

Four years later. Still hard.

Dad and Sharon 1982

My father and me (at 15 months), 1982

One of my father’s favorite songs was, “Daystar.”

He particularly loved it as sung by our small church’s music minister, Darrell Sproles.

Lily of the Valley,
Let your sweet aroma fill my life
Rose of Sharon show me
How to grow in beauty in God’s sight
Fairest of ten thousand
Make me a reflection of your light
Daystar shine down on me
Let your love shine through me in the night

When it was sung at his funeral in June 2014, it meant a lot to me that my name was in the first few lines.

If I could talk to him now, what would I say?

After I’m sorry for ever causing you pain and I love you,

I probably would tell him that his grandchildren would have loved to have known him.

He always had a very tender way with kids aged 2-5.

Love you, Dad.

Miss you.

Three Years Gone, Dreaming of my Dad

Maybe it started when I fell while I was running.

That was June 1st.

5:30 a.m.

Maybe that’s when this rough patch started.

While jogging in the dark, my foot must have caught on a piece of raised sidewalk and I fell forward and hit the concrete just as a minivan was passing me.

Left knee, right knee, left hand, right hand. I saved my face. (At least physically.)

The minivan kept going.

For a moment, I just lay there against the concrete, gauging my pain.

I hurt. But I didn’t think I had broken anything. I couldn’t see how badly I was scraped up, but I felt it mostly on the outer edge of my left hand and my right thumb, which was warm and wet. Blood, for sure.

What else to do but keep jogging home with bleeding hands?

***

I’ve only had a few dreams of my dad since he passed away three years ago, but they’ve always come around this time of year.

In the first dream, I walked into a convenience store and was looking for a jug of milk to buy. (Who knows why. I hate drinking milk.) After I pulled it out of the refrigerator case, I saw four men sitting at a small booth, playing a card game. All their heads were lowered, studying their cards.

I walked over and even though I couldn’t see their faces, I just knew that one of them was my dad. I don’t remember what I said to him, but we talked like we always did — our eyes looking at other things, words passing between us that didn’t really resemble anything like what we really wanted to say.

Like, I miss you.

Like, I love you.

Still, whatever we said was comfortable and familiar enough to make us feel like all was well.

It was then that I realized that my ride was leaving.

“I have to go, Dad.”

“Don’t leave,” he told me, still not looking up. Still staring through his cards.

I kissed him on the head, complete with his bald spot, and I told him that I would come back.

“It will be too long. I don’t want to be alone,” he said.

“I swear, I’m coming back, Dad.”

He didn’t lift his head. He just sat there, sad and withdrawn, just as he did for the last few years of his life. Completely alone, even in the midst of company.

I kissed his head again and walked toward the door.

When I got to the door, I turned around and told him, “This is where we can meet, okay? This is where we can find each other. I’ll come back. I promise.”

I woke up feeling empty.

I’ve never been able to get back to that convenience store.

***

A few nights ago, as the anniversary of his death approached again, I dreamed again of my father.

It was a scene I’ve lived a thousand times before — riding in the car next to my dad, his left hand balanced casually on the steering wheel, his elbow resting on the edge of his open window. He was talking a mile a minute about everything and anything, the way he did when he descended into periods of mania. At first, it was normal. Just dad talking and talking and talking while I was looking out the window.

Then, it started to snow. And snow. And snow.

The drifts piled up around the car as we drove. But then he veered into the parking lot of the K-Mart in the town where I grew up. He started driving in a circle, talking faster and faster, the tires kicking up snow around us. I told him to slow down, but he wouldn’t. As the car picked up speed, we spiraled once, twice, three times, four times.

With each pass, I tried to keep my eyes on a fixed point outside of the car. The McDonald’s. The apartment building. The ATM. Anything that would keep me anchored to reality.

Maybe, if I could keep my eyes on something, I could slow us down.

Maybe, this time, I could be the one to anchor both of us.

Maybe, this time, I could keep the world from spinning, keep him from sliding into depression, keep him from falling and breaking his neck.

But we kept spinning and spinning and spinning.

In my dream, I started screaming.

And then I was beside my mother, and we were looking at a calendar. She wrote down her birthday, May 9th. But then she crossed out the 9th and wrote in dark letters, May 10th and underlined it.

“What year?” I asked.

She wrote “1” and “9” very easily, but then struggled to write the next number. It came out looking like a gigantic “9” and then a “0.”

“1990?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Sure. It all kind of blends together.”

And somehow, I understood that we were deciding when we would go back in time.

We were trying to get back to a time when Dad was Dad.

***

I woke up a few hours later and went for a morning run in the dark.

Because I’m a glutton for punishment? Maybe.

I prefer to say it’s because I refuse to be beaten by a bad experience (although, there are plenty of times when I am).

It was beautiful that morning. The moon was full and still high in the sky at 5:00 a.m. I watched the sidewalk much more carefully than before and walked for a few minutes before I started jogging.

full moon

The Head and the Heart played on my Pandora station.

Darling, this is when I met you.
For the third time not the last
Not the last time we are learning
Who we are and what we were.

You are in the seat, beside me.

You are in my dreams at night.

Turns out,

it’s easier to run with bleeding hands than it is to run with tears.

***

I’m like a lot of people — I only want to believe that dreams mean something when they’re good.

I don’t want to believe that the bad dreams mean anything more than the emotions that I’m working my way through when I have them.

But still.

But still.

Why are American Women Dying in Childbirth?

 

American women are more likely to die from complications in pregnancy and childbirth compared to women in any other developed country.

It’s true.

But why?

***

At 1:27 p.m. on February 2, 2017, I gave birth to an 8 lb. 10 oz. boy.

Because there was meconium in my amniotic fluid, a NICU team was paged to be present at the birth to make sure that the baby’s lungs were clear.

Those first minutes after birth were very blurry. There was just too much going on to fully appreciate everything that was happening. From my perspective as the birthing mother, I remember my son turning his head upward and looking me in the eyes (that really happened). I remember seeing that he was a boy. (A boy!?! Really!?! What?!?!)

I remember dropping my head back against the bed and crying in relief that it was over. I remember thinking, “Well, that’s the last time I’m doing that.”

I was euphoric and so, so grateful. We had made it. We had survived that. Both of us. That was what I was thinking.

I did not know that I was hemorrhaging. 

This is the thing about hemorrhaging: It happens so fast.

It happens while mothers are crying from happiness that their baby is alive and breathing. It happens while they’re trying to get a good look at their baby’s face. It happens silently as the room’s atmosphere turns from the intensity and suspense of the pushing phase into joy and excitement of the delivery phase.

No woman wants to believe that it’s going to happen to her. I had none of the risk factors associated with postpartum hemorrhage.

But it still happened to me.

While we were celebrating and crying and basking in the joy of the birth, my midwife was tracking my blood loss. I remember looking down and seeing her furrowed brow every time more blood poured out of me. But I didn’t think anything terrible was happening. I was flooded with joy and gratitude that labor was over.

But in the first ten minutes after birth, more and more nurses entered the room and the treatments started. My midwife told me each treatment that she was doing to stop the bleeding. By this time, I had lost about 1200 mL of blood, about 2.5 pints of blood. In other words, I had lost about 25% of the blood in my entire pregnant body.

Surviving postpartum hemorrhage requires a medical professional who quickly realizes what is happening and starts treatment immediately.

In my case, the midwife tried a shot of Pitocin. When that didn’t work, she gave me Cytotec. When that didn’t work, she gave me IV Pitocin. She kept massaging my uterus. She was on her last treatment before starting a blood transfusion: a shot of methergine.

That’s how close we were to a true emergency.

screenshot_20170207-165547

My heart rate during labor. You can see exactly when the hemorrhage begins and how my body responded.

 

Hemorrhage is one of the leading causes of death in childbirth.

Causes of Death in Childbirth

Still.

Let me be clear: postpartum hemorrhage isn’t caused by a lack of care. This would probably have happened to me if I had given birth anywhere else.

But women die from hemorrhage when doctors and nurses don’t quickly recognize the amount of blood loss and begin treatment. Some states, like California, have codified and implemented standardized procedures and training for nurses and doctors so that teams can quickly and efficiently follow protocol to prevent postpartum hemorrhages from killing mothers. Instead of “eye-balling” how much blood a mother loses during delivery, nurses were taught how to collect and measure postpartum blood loss to help them quickly identify hemorrhage.

“Hospitals that adopted the toolkit saw a 21 percent decrease in near deaths from maternal bleeding in the first year; hospitals that didn’t use the protocol had a 1.2 percent reduction.”

But not all states have such standardized protocol.

***

A joint investigation by NPR and ProPublica found that more women are dying of complications related to pregnancy and childbirth compared to any other developed country.

In every 100,000 births in the United States, 26 women die. In other developed countries, the numbers range between 5 and 9 births. And those numbers have climbed from 17 to 26 deaths from 2000-2015.

Seriously.

Seriously.

It seems unimaginable. Really? In the United States? But we have so much technology. We have some of the best hospitals in the world.

Maternal Mortality

What the hell is going on?!?

There were several major findings from this investigation.

  1. The U.S. is spending more money on research, equipment, and training for improving infant outcomes. Think of how much progress we have made in helping premature babies and treating newborns born with previously fatal deformities and diseases.
  2. Decreased education and training about caring for birthing mothers, for both doctors and nurses. This leads to a lack of knowledge that is passed on to the mother when she is discharged from the hospital.
  3. Lack of standardized best practices for caring for birthing mothers among the states. Unlike other developed countries, there is no nationwide effort for reducing the maternal death rate in the United States. Responsibility has been left to individual states to decide if and how they investigate maternal deaths.

America has not conquered maternal mortality. We like to think that because we have advanced technology and highly trained medical professionals that tragedies like a woman dying in childbirth just simply don’t happen anymore.

At least not nearly as much as it used to.

It’s a kind of hubris, really. To think that we have mastered childbirth. We have tamed it and told it who’s boss. In fact, we’re so good at childbirth that we should just focus most of our attention on the infants. They’re the ones that are the most vulnerable, right?

But the truth is…

“In recent decades, under the assumption that it had conquered maternal mortality, the American medical system has focused more on fetal and infant safety and survival than on the mother’s health and well-being.”

~Nina Martin & Renee Montagne, “The Last Person You’d Expect to Die in Childbirth”

***

If there was one major takeaway from this report that I want to share with everyone it’s this:

Women still die in childbirth. 

Giving birth in the United States does not guarantee that both mother and baby make it out alive.

I completely agree with the report’s observations that labor and birth put women in the most vulnerable position in their entire lives. They don’t know what’s going on. They’re immersed in the pain and process of labor. Birthing women depend on everyone around them, doctors and nurses alike, to notice the signs that an emergency is unfolding.

If you or someone you know will be giving birth in the United States in the near future, I strongly encourage you to read ProPublica’s full investigative report on this topic.

This is not a political issue. ProPublica is an independent organization that is not funded by political donations.

This is a human issue.

American women are not immune to maternal mortality.

For the women who die every year from pregnancy and childbirth from preventable or treatable conditions, let’s raise our awareness of this problem and insist that we study this at the national level, not just the state level.

We can do better than this.

The death of a new mother is not like any other sudden death. It blasts a hole in the universe.

~Nina Martin and Renee Montagne, “The Last Person You’d Expect to Die in Childbirth

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