The Longest 60 Seconds

Sixty seconds isn’t really a very long time. Not in the entire scheme of things. Sure, it may feel like a long time when you’re on hold on a phone conversation, or you’re waiting for traffic light to change, or if you’re waiting for a loved one at the airport who you haven’t seen in a long time.

Or if you’re sitting in an emergency room cubicle with your husband who’s just been rushed there by ambulance because he passed out at home three times within ten minutes. Fortunately the ambulance drivers had called ahead and the ER staff had a cubicle set up for him with every monitoring device imaginable, as well as IV’s, meds, and a portable defibrillator. And we watched as they wasted no time hooking him up to all of it.

One minute you’re talking to him, and the next you’re watching him as his eyes roll back in his head, and he’s gagging for breath. While his heart monitor suddenly registers nothing. And the ER staff is so busy trying to save him they don’t even have time to ask you to step out of the cubicle into the hall. All you can do is sit there with your daughter, frozen to your chair. Not believing what you’re seeing.

Those sixty seconds become forever. And even longer. All you can do is pray that he’ll survive and be okay. There’s absolutely no time to think; no time to cry; and no time to scream. Time totally stands still as your life with your loved one flashes before your eyes, and you don’t know whether the movie playing in your mind of your life together will have any more scenes in it.

We lived that scenario a little over three years ago. And I would never ever wish that on anyone else. Ever. It’s a time when you have nothing at all to go on except your faith.

It wasn’t the first time I’d gone through heart problems with my husband, but it was definitely the worst; the most serious; the one that was life-threatening…and life changing.

Not even a year after we were married, my husband started experimenting chest pains. Typical of a young man, he ignored them and never mentioned it until one night after returning home from a concert he casually told me what had been going on. Let me just say we were quickly in the local hospital emergency room!

The next day we discovered his aortic heart valve was leaking, which necessitated open heart surgery to replace the valve. I was terrified that I’d be a widow before my first wedding anniversary, and was never so relieved when he came through the surgery with no problems. Bear in mind, this was 32 years ago, and heart surgery was not nearly as common as it is now. And although it’s still a scary prospect, it’s a procedure that’s dramatically advanced since that first surgery.

Natural replacement heart valves don’t last forever, though, and 16 years later the procedure was performed again, replacing the pig valve with a bovine (cow) valve. It was still a bit unnerving, but nothing like that first time. His recovery, fortunately, was much quicker as well.

But that moment in the ER almost ten years later when he literally was dying in front of me and our newly engaged daughter was the worst moment, and the longest 60 seconds, of my life.

There are bits and pieces from that long minute we both remember, although they’re much more vivid to me. But the most memorable, at least to him, was the young doctor who looked straight at him during the ordeal and said, “Mr. Newell, you aren’t going to die on my watch!”

And he didn’t, thank you, Lord!

Although he does joke about it now, and says he should’ve asked her how long her watch was for! But right then, at that moment, no one was laughing.

We came very close to losing him that morning. Closer than I ever want to think about. The ambulance personnel had left their EKG strips in there with him, and when a friend of ours who had been on the rescue squad for many years saw them and read them, she told us how close it had really been.

Another 60 seconds and it could’ve been a different story.

The very next day we walked out of the hospital, Ben with a newly implanted pacemaker, and me with a very grateful heart and a huge answered prayer. Thankfully God still had plans for my husband. Plans for him to be able to walk our daughter down the aisle at her wedding the following year. Plans for him to meet his first granddaughter who arrived a year after that wedding.

And I am convinced there are many more plans we don’t even know about.

Sixty seconds can be just a short stretch of time, but it can also be the longest day of your life.

Sixty seconds can be a life-changing experience. You just don’t know when it will happen.

Saying Goodbye to Herbie

I grew up an only child. Not by my parents’ choice, but it’s just how it was. We lived just outside the town limits of my little hometown, with not a lot of neighbors, especially ones with children my age, nearby.

I had the opportunity to play with other kids, at church, or when my mom would have lunch with some of her friends who had children close to my age, but a lot of the first years of my life was spent doing things with my mother. She was a stay at home mom, like most of the mothers were then, so we spent a lot of time together, playing, reading, and of course her letting me “help” her in the kitchen. Which is a whole other story, for another day!

And like many children who grew up without brothers or sisters, I missed out on having that special person close to my age to play with, to share stories with, and of course to blame when something went wrong!

So along came Herbie. Now I have no idea where Herbie came from, or even where the name came from. But Herbie quickly became my very best friend in the world. And obviously Herbie moved in with us at some point.

We’d play dolls together, and have tea parties. We’d build things with blocks, and sometimes Herbie would knock them over, and then my friend would really get scolded by me. Which meant Herbie would have to pick them up and rebuild our creation as I directed where every block was to be put!

My mother had to set a place at the table for Herbie as well. In fact, one time my dad accidentally sat on Herbie when we all sat down to eat, and poor Herbie was quite upset! Now Herbie didn’t eat what we ate, but there was certainly imaginary food for Herbie on those plates, because I’d have to fuss at my friend to make sure that plate was cleaned, or else no dessert! And I meant it, too!

Of course Herbie went almost everywhere I did, and several times when we went shopping, Herbie would almost get stepped on by one of the salespeople in the department store, and I’d have to set them straight, so it wouldn’t happen again. After all, Herbie could’ve gotten hurt.

Herbie even slept with me, and when I had to have a stuffed toy to sleep with, well, you guessed it…so did Herbie! Of course, when my mother read me a story, Herbie had to have one too, and of course Mom had to sing each of us a different lullaby every night before we could go to sleep.

Herbie didn’t stay around forever though. Once I started school my friend just sort of faded away, replaced by school friends and cousins. Gradually the memory of Herbie was sort of lost, at least to me.

But my mother remembered it all, and told me stories about Herbie and me on many different occasions. She even wondered if my daughter Ashley, also an only child, would have a friend like Herbie. (She didn’t; Herbie was one of a kind.)

Because, you see, Herbie was my imaginary friend, who lived for several years in my child’s very active imagination. I don’t know what my friend looked like. I don’t even know if Herbie was a boy or a girl. I guess I never even told my mother, or else it really wasn’t important to me, because at that age, a friend is a friend, and it really didn’t matter.

Children are quite imaginative. They can create the most wonderful stories, because children aren’t limited by conventional adult thought processes. To them, unicorns really do exist. Animals can talk, and we can carry on conversations with them. Birds can swim, and fish can fly. You really can catch a falling star and put it in your pocket. And dreams really do come true.
As I got older, the imaginative side of me faded, and went dormant. The animals stopped talking, the stars stayed in the sky. And my dreams were but a distant memory.

Like I had done many years before, I had said goodbye to Herbie.

But I know Herbie is still around. The Herbies of the world don’t ever really go away. We just stop paying attention to them, stop talking to them. We ignore them until they go away and find someone else who’ll appreciate them, who’ll nourish them and keep them alive.

Although I said goodbye to Herbie years ago, I’m sure my friend is still around, and most likely still living somewhere in my hometown, probably still in the attic at my mother’s former house, and hopefully Herbie has already befriended the kids who live there now.

And one day, I hope my friend is able to find me once again and come back for a visit. We’ll have a tea party, and talk to the animals, and catch a falling star or two.

I’ll enjoy saying hello to Herbie again.

The Sounds of Christmas

I don’t know about you, but I love the music of Christmas. (Just not played 24 hours a day on so many radio stations starting on Thanksgiving Day! That’s a bit much.)

It seems every musician has their own versions of popular Christmas songs, as ell as some that have been composed over recent years and quickly became well-loved classics. Each year it seems as if I collect a new favorite.

manger-sceneMy mother’s favorite carol was “Silent Night.” To this day I cannot hear that song, or sing it at church, without thinking about her. How she’d often explain how it made her picture the shepherds at the manger that night, seeing baby Jesus for the first time, and the wonder and amazement they felt knowing that tiny child was the savior of the world. She said she could almost feel the quiet of that night, no sound at all, until a tiny baby began to softly cry, then close His eyes to sleep in that heavenly peace.

“Away in a Manger” was also a favorite of hers, and even to this day I can’t help but think about my mom every time I hear those songs. In fact, I can almost still see that old record player we had with her favorite Bing Crosby record spinning around on it at 33 1/3 rpm. We played that record so much it got really scratchy, but it didn’t stop us from enjoying it. (I actually still have that album in storage, but of course nothing to play it on now.)

Mom also loved “The Little Drummer Boy” and taught it to every one of her kindergarten classes. That was when teachers could still talk about Christmas, have class Christmas parties the last day before school was out for the holiday, kids could give their teachers Christmas gifts, and even have Christmas pageants with the children dressed up to recreate that first Christmas.

In those early years I always enjoyed hearing “Silver Bells,” perhaps because I liked the images it created in my mind. People rushing around, dressed in heavy coats, walking past festively decorated store windows, carrying stuffed shopping bags, and walking past Salvation Army bell ringers with their silver bells tinkling away in the chilled frosty air.

snowy-christmasAnd then there’s “White Christmas.” That song was really special to a lot of us kids, because after all, who didn’t love snow back then?! Especially at Christmas time. We’d dream of waking up Christmas Eve or Christmas Day morning and finding the ground covered in snow, and it still coming down. I think we only had that happen a couple of times at Christmas while we were kids, but I have to admit, there’s still enough kid left in me that I’d really like to see it happen this year! But I’m probably still dreaming.

The old songs are wonderful classics that will never go out of style. But there have also been some other Christmas songs that have come out over the past years that have been quickly added to my list of favorites.

Although “Mary Did You Know?” came out years ago, it feels like it’s new every time I hear it. The poignant words, when you really listen to them, and digest them, so clearly detail all of the myriad of emotions Mary must have felt when she was holding her new baby. Joy, mixed with the sorrow of knowing what His future entailed. How she wanted to protect him from all of that! Yet she knew in her heart that God’s plan was so much better than hers….

“The Christmas Shoes” was recorded by the Christian vocal group Newsong in 2000. I still remember hearing it for the first time, the feelings of sadness and hope combined into one huge emotional mess, but at the same time evoking feelings of what true love really is. Christmas and faith…through the eyes of a child. And because so many of my friends have lost loved ones at this holiday season, that song will forever have a special place in my heart.

santa-reading-listThen there’s another song I keep hearing in my heart and in my mind every Christmas season. I’ve written about it before, and how I felt the first time I heard “Grown-up Christmas List” recorded by Amy Grant. That list is still in the forefront of my heart today. If only we could have just a few of the items on that list….

Yes, certain songs, certain Christmas carols, will always bring to mind memories that are beautiful, comforting, and nostalgic, making me wish I could relive certain special Christmases just one more time. But those memories will have to continue to live only in my mind, because I wouldn’t want to miss the joys of Christmas today with the ones I now have around me to love.

In our memories, past Christmases were always happy and joyful, whether they really were or not. Because the very meaning of Christmas is just that. A time of unconditional joy because of the gift of love we were given on that night so long ago.

The musical sounds of this season are special, and unlike any other. They can create emotions and memories inside of us that we didn’t even know were there.

What memories do your favorite Christmas songs bring to mind?

What Do You Do With the Gifts?

The gifts were all beautifully and lovingly wrapped, and placed carefully under the tree, name tags reading “To Mom” with love. You’d had so much fun shopping this year. It seemed like you had no trouble finding gifts for anyone, especially for her. And you couldn’t wait until Christmas morning to see her face when she opened those special gifts you’d gotten for her. It was going to be the best Christmas ever!

But then, the phone call came; or the knock on the door. And all of your Christmas plans were suddenly and irreversibly changed.

Because your world was turned upside down. And instead of merry and joyful, you were sad beyond belief, and plunged into a sea of grief and sorrow that you didn’t know existed. Unfortunately, it did. And now you were living in it, drowning in it.

And all those gifts suddenly became awful reminders that your world would never be the same, and for the next several years, Christmas would no longer be your favorite holiday, but a reminder of the deepest hurt you’ve ever felt.

Instead of having a huge family dinner, with lighted candles and your best china, you’re planning a funeral. Instead of selecting your best holiday attire, you’re searching through your closet for your most somber outfit, and selecting the final outfit that she’ll ever wear.

Christmas? It’s the furthest thing from your mind.

Until you look under the tree and those gifts are staring you in the face. You’d interspersed hers with everyone else’s as you usually did, so it would be more fun handing them out. Now you see each and every one of them as if they were all placed together in one pile. A painful reminder staring you in the face that she’s not going to be opening them. Ever.

So what do you do with the gifts?

That may sound trivial in the overall scheme of events. Some may say it’s a selfish question. Or it may sound like a simple question, one easily answered, but that’s the furthest thing from the truth of that question.

The gifts were bought for her. Wrapped with your love in brightly colored paper; tied with holiday ribbon by your own hands. To be given with love. Now they’re a painful reminder; a stab to the heart when you see them. The act of opening them when they aren’t supposed to be yours, when they were bought as gifts for your loved one, is something you can’t bring yourself to do.

If you haven’t experienced it, you cannot imagine the pain. It’s one thing to not be able to buy gifts for her that first Christmas she’s gone; it’s entirely another to have to do something with gifts already wrapped and tagged.

A friend of mine unfortunately found herself in this situation many years ago. Fortunately her husband stepped in one morning and took the gifts and put them somewhere so she didn’t have to deal with that, as well as everything else. To this day she has no idea what he did with them. Which is probably just as well.

The best advice I can give? Do what feels right for you. Have someone else handle it if you just don’t think you can. There’s no shame in that, and there’s nothing to be embarrassed over.

After all, you have enough on your mind. It’s not about the money, the cost of the gifts. It’s about your emotional well-being, and how you can best begin to heal after a traumatic loss. But it’s unfortunately something that comes up when a loved one passes away this time of year. And I’ve seen nothing written about it; no suggestions of ways to best deal with the situation and the emotions it brings.

There are a few suggestions I can offer that I’ve heard from others who’ve gone through this, instead of returning the gifts, either before or after the holiday.

One family donated the gifts to a local shelter, still wrapped, with the name tag changed to simply read “from [their loved one’s name]”. That way they knew the gifts would be put to good use and brighten someone else’s Christmas, as well as allow their loved one to make a final contribution to a charitable cause.

Another family decided to give each family member one of their loved one’s gifts to open in her memory, and then decide whether to keep it as a memento of her, or give it to someone else who would enjoy or need it. As each person opened the gift, they told a story about what their loved one would have probably said about the gift; and of course that also came with a lot of tears.

One other family said they changed the tags to “from [loved one’s name] all the way from heaven” and hid the non-personal gifts around the house to be found throughout the year. Clothing gifts were donated to charity.

It’s not easy losing a loved one at any time, but during the holiday season that loss is magnified, and any reminders of what has been lost can bring on the sadness and depression at any point. It’s natural. And expected. Leaving their Christmas gifts around can make it worse, but so can the decisions of what to do with them.

Bear in mind what your loved one would want you to do as well, if you can. Sometimes it’s hard to see further than the next few hours, let alone the next few days.

The best advice I can give…do what’s right for you. And don’t let anyone’s criticisms change your actions. Unfortunately one day they may go through this as well, if they haven’t already.

Hang in there. It does get easier over time. Next Christmas will be better. The memories will linger, and although you don’t think so now, they will gradually get easier to remember.

Birthing a Book

A mother usually only carries her baby for no longer than nine months.

I carried one for over five years.

Five long years of starts and stops. Reliving so many painful memories that I thought at times I couldn’t do it. At times I almost gave up, and almost pushed the “delete” button.

I wondered what in the world had ever made me think I could carry this baby to term. Because when I’d begun, I had no idea what was involved. No real idea of what it took to do this project

But I persisted. I wrote; scratched out words and paragraphs; added stories; rearranged chapters; changed names; and finally had it finished.

Or so I thought. Little did I know I’d just begun. Or that that first draft was just that. A first draft, and nothing like the now finished product.

Of course after I finished that first draft, I gave it to my husband and daughter to read, and of course they thought it was great! They had very few suggestions, and urged me to go ahead and publish it.

But I knew it wasn’t time; it wasn’t ready to be born yet, because it wasn’t fully formed. It couldn’t yet breathe on its own. It still needed work.

After letting it “rest” for a while, as I’d been told by other writers to do, I picked it back up, and decided it needed some help. So I re-wrote again, moved parts around, added more stories and more advice, and wondered if I was totally crazy to attempt such a project. Who’d want to read it, anyway?

So I finished it. Again. And once again I took advice from other writers and found a friend who volunteered to read it and edit it for me.

THAT was scary! Someone was going to read it that wasn’t a family member. Someone who’d be brutally honest and tell me if it was good or bad, and show me places I needed to change. Oh. My. Gosh! Was I ready to hear the criticism and negative comments I KNEW I’d get?

I held my breath when I got that first email with her comments. I almost didn’t open it, because I KNEW she’d been sitting at her desk, reading it, and shaking her head at how amateurish, how bad it was.

But surprise! She liked it, and even complimented me on many different passages I’d written. Sure, she also told me what I needed to fix, and why, and she was right. On every point.

So I bravely once again went chapter by chapter, rewriting, and reorganizing.
That, I have to tell you, was not easy. At times I felt like I couldn’t do it, but I was encouraged by my husband and other friends, so I did.

And finally, I was done. I ran it through several spell checking programs, grammar and punctuation programs, until I knew I had to stop before I messed things up.

It was time to give birth. I’d talked to several publishers over the last few months, and selected the one I wanted. Now, let me say this; sending off that manuscript, along with the photo I wanted to use for my cover, was difficult. Scary, in fact.

What was I doing????

Then, a few days later, I received an email with the initial draft of the cover. Already. I cannot tell you how I felt seeing the title and then my name on a book cover. I almost cried.

I only hope my mother would have been happy with it. And I so wish she could see it.

Then a few days later I received the actual book layout. Another “wow” moment. It’s one thing to write it, to see the proposed cover, but another to see the manuscript actually laid out for publication. And to suddenly realize “I did this!” This is actually what it’s going to look like.

That was nothing compared to how I felt when I saw the final cover design. Front AND back. The detail was amazing. The front cover background reminded me of my grandmother’s lace tablecloth I use on special occasions. And the back…you’ll have to buy the book to see the detail for yourself.

But the final and most amazing part of this process was getting the author’s proof copy in my hand and actually holding the finished product. A five year journey culminated in a real book…with my name on it as the author, and my picture on the back cover.

All I could say was, “That’s me. It’s really me. I did it. I wrote a book and it’s being published. I’m a real author.”

book-announcementAnd now, it’s finally available for purchase. You can buy my book and read my story and enjoy poignant moments from my mother’s life; encouragement for getting through the tough times of dealing with parental aging; and receive inspiration and yes, even hope, in the knowledge that even though we eventually lose our loved ones, we continue on, and we survive.

My book has been born. My five year dream realized. What an awesome gift!

You may purchase my book directly from my publisher, Easter Press, as well as on Amazon.

I hope you enjoy. Please feel free to contact me and share your thoughts and stories as well.

Thank you Mom, for being who you were, and for inspiring me to write about the things held deep in my heart.

December 10, 2016

The Mystery of Santa Claus

This was originally published in December, 2015, but I wanted to share it once again. Because the mystery of Santa Claus is still with us!

A big part of Christmas when I was growing up, like most of my friends in my hometown, was wondering what Santa Claus was going to bring us.

Sure, we all knew the real meaning of Christmas, because back then there were nativity scenes everywhere, not just at the churches, and no one complained at all. Almost of us went to church regularly with our families, and participated in Sunday School Christmas pageants as well, so we were quite familiar with the reason for the season.

But that didn’t stop us from believing in Santa Claus, and knowing that when we got up Christmas morning, he’d have been there and left presents for us under the tree! And we couldn’t wait to see what he’d brought!

I don’t remember the first time I saw Santa and told him what I wanted for Christmas, but I did find this photo several years ago, and that may well have been At Wannamakers 4 yr oldmy first visit to see the man in the red suit. It was taken at Wanamaker’s Department Store in Philadelphia, most likely in 1954 or 1955. As you can see, I was all dressed up for this special visit, in a new hat and coat my mother had probably bought for me just for this important occasion! It wasn’t real commonplace back then to take pictures of kids with Santa Claus, so this picture is even more special, and the only one I’ve found of me with him.

And from the look on my face, I can’t tell if I was excited to give him my Christmas list, or just wondering who in the world this person in that furry red suit was, and why I was there!

Back in the 1950s Santa Claus was everywhere. We never questioned why. Because he was Santa, and he was, well, a bit magical. And we never questioned how he could be in two or even three places in town at one time; we never even thought about it. He just could. We never noticed that his beard didn’t look that real, and how it didn’t feel like our own hair, and how it didn’t even look like it was actually growing on his face.

Just like we never thought about how truly impossible it was for a sled to fly through the air pulled by reindeer, who certainly can’t fly, and even if they could, they could never pull a sled all across the world in just one night while their driver had them stop at each house, go down a chimney that he certainly wouldn’t fit in, and leave a bunch of toys under someone’s Christmas tree. All those toys would never even all fit in that sled! But we didn’t stop to think about any of that.

P1070253Of course we all left milk and cookies out for him. And we expectantly checked the next morning to see if they’d been eaten. Of course, all that was left were crumbs, and a few dregs of milk in the bottom of the glass. Reason tells us there’s no way someone can eat thousands of cookies and drink gallons and gallons of milk in one night and still function, let alone deliver toys! But that never occurred to us.

We never questioned. Because that was the mystery and the magic of Santa Claus. Eventually, though, we all figured out there wasn’t really a Santa Claus. Our parents had made it all up, just like their parents before us, and probably their parents’ parents as well. But it was a huge part of our Christmas tradition. And we never got upset that he didn’t really exist when our parents told us he did. We accepted it just as one of those rites of passage of childhood into adulthood. And we made sure we didn’t let on to our friends’ younger brothers and sisters and spoil it for them!

Today some of my friends don’t believe in telling their children about Santa Claus. They’re worried that if they tell them about Santa, when they discover later on it wasn’t true, they’re afraid they won’t believe other things they’ve told them. They don’t want them to miss the true meaning of Christmas. And that’s their choice; they have a right to believe that way if they wish. But personally, I can’t imagine not growing up without my dreams of Santa!

For all of us who grew up with him, the love and mystery of Santa Claus is always going to be alive and well in our hearts, whether we’re four years old, forty years old, or even eighty-four years old.

And do you know, to this day, I’ve never figured out where my mother hid those presents that were marked “From Santa”, and how she managed to get them all under the tree to surprise me without somehow waking me up!

I wonder…….??? Is it somehow possible……..???

A New Thanksgiving

This year’s Thanksgiving meal was truly extra special. In several ways. For the first time, our daughter and I actually cooked it together. In her kitchen, in her house. With some help from her husband who deep fried the turkey to a golden brown delight while my husband supervised.

And our 6 month old blessing, our first granddaughter, was right there watching, smiling and laughing, and wearing her “Gobble til You Wobble” shirt. And I’m sure anticipating next year, after her first two teeth have been joined by all the others, and she can actually eat a real Thanksgiving meal (I don’t think the banana baby food she had really counted)!

I have to say, this Thanksgiving was the first one in the ten years since my mother passed away, that I truly enjoyed the day without having a moment in which I wanted to cry. Because I was surrounded by the most special family ever. My husband, our daughter and son in law, and their first child.

I did remember Thanksgivings past, from the time Ashley was just a baby and my own mother was more interested In holding her granddaughter than eating dinner. I remember her feeding baby/toddler Ashley from her own plate when she was old enough to eat regular food, and how proud she was of her when she enjoyed it and clapped her little hands for more!

cooking-with-grandmom-age-2I remember my mother letting Ashley help her make the cinnamon buns for the first time, watching her get flour all over the floor as well as herself and her grandmother, and my mother not caring a bit! And she always let her have a bite of the raw dough, no matter how much I said not to.

And as the years went by, one tradition held firm…Ashley always helped her grandmother make the cinnamon buns. And they were always delicious! Because they were made with such love.

After dinner was over, the leftovers put away, and over slices of pumpkin pie, we’d all go through the newspaper ads to plan our shopping for the next day. At first my mom and I would pick out things we wanted to get, but it wasn’t long before Ashley took over the ads, even as a little girl, and picked out all the toys she wanted Santa to bring her. And also telling her grandmother what she could get for her as well!

The next day was spent with the three of us at the mall, three generations, happily planning a Christmas to remember, going through beautifully decorated and crowded stores to find the gifts we wanted, and waving at Santa until Ashley could get up her courage to go talk to him. We’d come home exhausted and let Ben bring our shopping bags inside and warm up the leftovers. Another ritual successfully completed….!

And this year, we began those traditions anew. With myself as grandmother to Baby Rachel who sat happily beside me in her high chair during dinner. And looking at all the newspaper ads after dinner as we enjoyed our pumpkin pie, with my granddaughter sitting in my lap, not quite sure what we were doing, but somehow understanding it meant fun was coming!

Yes, now I have taken the place of my own mother as matriarch of the family. Yes, I still miss my mother dearly, and certainly had moments where I wished she’d been there, but our family once again proudly has three generations of strong women to love and nurture each other. To pass along family traditions, family stories, and yes, even family recipes. And to make our own new traditions as well.

And we will surely enjoy every moment of making those new traditions.

I hope you and your family had a wonderful Thanksgiving, and made a lot of wonderful memories as well!

The Thanksgiving I’ll Never Forget

I may not remember the year, but I sure remember what happened. Because it’s not often you get a second chance to have more time with your mother.

Thanksgiving was always a time for our family to be together. My aunt, her two sons, their wives and kids. Plus my husband and daughter, of course. I’m not even sure how old Ashley was that year, but it was probably no more than 10 or 11.

She was old enough to understand what was happening, and old enough to be afraid. Not just for her grandmother, but she’d never seen her own mother fall apart and not be in charge of a situation before.

That Thanksgiving started like most of the others had for the past several years. Ben, Ashley and I arrived at her house the night before so we could help with the preparations. We’d set the table in the dining room that night, with my grandmother’s antique china and my mother’s brightly polished silverware. After all, it was going to be a special holiday feast!

The next morning we all got up early, put the turkey in to roast, started the cinnamon bun dough, made pumpkin pies and began putting together the other side dishes to be cooked at the last minute. It was always a special time, Mom and me in the kitchen, while Ben and Ashley watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on TV.

Just another normal Thanksgiving. Or so we thought.

My aunt arrived later with her contributions to the meal, followed shortly afterwards by her two sons and their families. We had our appetizers, and my mom and my aunt started bringing out the side dishes. Mom was just pulling the turkey out of the oven when she suddenly dropped to the floor.

No warning. No time to say she didn’t feel good. She just passed out and fell to the floor.

And my world suddenly stopped.

I had no idea whether she’d suddenly died, or just fainted. She’d never had an incident like that before, at least not one that I’d known about.

What did I do? I’d love to say I rushed over to her, checked her out, and calmly told my family to call 911.

What I really did was panic and scream and start crying. Mature, right?! But fear took over. You don’t know how you will react in any given situation until you’re in it. You can say you’d do this, or you’d do that, but until you’re actually facing that moment, you truly have no idea.

Fortunately my younger cousin’s wife Joanne is a nurse, and she immediately took over while my other cousin called the rescue squad. All I could do was cry and pray that my mother was all right.

And, oh, I sure prayed! Ashley was crying and sobbing. My poor husband was torn between trying to comfort both of us and helping my cousin’s wife with my mother.

I cannot remember ever being so scared. I do remember thinking, though, and praying, “Lord, please don’t take my mother yet! Please, I can’t handle this…!” And I tried to put the memory out of my mind of a Thanksgiving many years previously when my mother’s mother had died early that morning, right in that same house.

Most of the tragic events in our family have happened on holidays or birthdays.

After what seemed like forever, which I’m sure was just a minute or less, my mom came around, found herself laying by the stove on the kitchen floor with a pillow under her head, and a blanket over her, and everyone standing around or leaning over her, with worried expressions on our faces.

Joanne was certainly visibly relieved, but her nurse’s training was still in full swing, as she calmly talked to my mom and asked her how she was feeling, taking her pulse, visibly checking her out and assessing her memory.

At that time we had no idea if she’d had a heart attack, a stroke, or what. All we knew was, she was still alive, and seemed to be ok, if just momentarily confused. Who wouldn’t have been after passing out?

But my mother quickly seemed to return to her normal self, getting upset because everyone was fussing over her and not getting dinner on the table. “I’m fine! Just let me get up and finish getting the food on the table! And no, I don’t want any water!”

She’d never have listened to me, but she did listen to Joanne, who’d certainly had similar stubborn patients in her nursing career. So she didn’t try to get up right away.

But then the rescue squad got there; we hadn’t told her we’d called them, and to say she wasn’t happy about it was an understatement!

Since she still lived in the same small town where I grew up, where everyone knew everyone else, I wasn’t surprised that I knew a few of the EMT’s. Of course, Mom knew them all, including one of her neighbors who lived a few houses away, and whose children she’d taught in kindergarten! And she immediately told them she was fine, and we shouldn’t have bothered them!

They checked her over, and asked her the normal questions, like her name, what day it was, and heaven forbid, her age! Which she promptly told them was none of their business! So I did feel a bit better, but still, something was wrong. And convincing Mom to let them take her to the hospital was, to say the least, a very difficult task. But after everyone promising they’d clean up the kitchen and put the food away, she (very) reluctantly agreed.

Riding in the ambulance with her that night was an experience I’ll not forget either. I couldn’t be in the back with her, so I rode in the front, turning around constantly and checking to be sure she was ok. Yes, I trusted the crew, but my MOTHER was back there, and I was still scared. Even listening to her telling them how she’d ruined our Thanksgiving (which she didn’t!), and then asking if they’d eaten, still didn’t convince me she was all right.

I’d never ridden in an ambulance before. And that normally 30 minute drive from her house, that probably took only 15 minutes that night, seemed like forever. Because I figured if she’d actually agreed to this, Mom was either scared or felt a lot worse than she was telling us!

As fast as the ambulance was going, a car suddenly came up from out of nowhere and passed it! Little did I know until we got to the hospital that my older cousin was driving Ben there in his sports car, and as Ben told me later, “All I could do was hang on and pray we’d get there in one piece! When he passed the ambulance to get there first, I just closed my eyes!” Well, they got there in one piece, and ahead of the ambulance, and Ben was standing outside waiting for me.

Fortunately my mother was all right. They kept her overnight, and never really found out what had happened. Perhaps she’d gotten overheated while cooking in a hot kitchen, or maybe she’d been dehydrated. Her heart was fine, thank goodness, at least as far as they could tell.

She got her Thanksgiving turkey sandwich about 10:00 that night from the hospital kitchen, after telling all of us (our whole family of course ended up there with her – where else would we have been!?) to leave and go eat our Thanksgiving dinner! And of course she apologized again for ruining our day!

We brought her back home the next day and the four of us celebrated a day late with her delicious Thanksgiving leftovers, which tasted even better than they would have the day before, because we truly had something to be quite thankful for.

As I’ve written many times, tomorrow is not promised. We do not know from day to day what our lives will bring. We do not know who could be taken from us, in the blink of an eye, suddenly and without warning, and how quickly our entire world could be changed forever.

As Thanksgiving approaches, take the time to truly count your blessings; to appreciate your family members, even the ones who may drive you crazy, because one day you’ll miss that craziness, those irritating habits that drove you nuts, and long for just one more day….

Happy Thanksgiving, and enjoy the many blessings around you!

If I’d Only Known.

If we could only know for sure that final visits are really final visits, what would we do differently? What more would we say? How would we feel?

“I should’ve said this…..”

“I should’ve asked her more about my dad, about their life together before I was born, and how their lives changed after I was born, and how she really felt about finally being a mom.”

“I should’ve taken her a basket of flowers, or a tray of her favorite cookies.”

“I should’ve said I was sorry for what I said years ago that caused us not to speak for so long.”

“I should’ve been a better daughter/son…”

“I should’ve said ‘I love you’ one more time….”

For me, with my mother, I should’ve asked her how she was really feeling about what she could be facing. I wanted to know – but I really don’t think I could have handled it at the time. I thought it was a conversation that could have waited. I wanted it to be a conversation that could’ve waited. So we never had it.

Unfortunately we don’t usually know the exact day and time of that last, coherent visit. The last time we’ll be able to have a conversation with them. Only God truly knows, although we can certainly get a feeling in our spirit, that we know that we know. That we KNOW. In retrospect, it’s a good thing. Could we actually bear it at the time, knowing it was the last time we’d have a conversation with our loved ones? Sometimes we know. And sometimes we don’t.

Recently a good friend of ours lost her mother. Without any warning. She had their regular conversation with her mom on Tuesday night. On Thursday afternoon she received a call that her mother had been found dead. Fortunately their last words to each other with that last call had been “I love you.”

I was fortunate enough to have talked to my mother on the phone a few hours before she left us. I’d had a good conversation with her, and was quite hopeful that she was finally doing much better, and she was so looking forward to our visiting her the next day. My last words to her were “I’ll see you tomorrow. I love you.” And two hours later she was gone.

Many people are fortunate enough to be with their loved ones when they leave and graduate to heaven. But so many more of us are not. The Lord has His reasons. Or perhaps our loved ones wanted it that way. Who are we to question, even though we do? Questioning doesn’t make us any less faithful. It doesn’t make us hurt any less. It just reminds us that we’re human.

And in our human-ness we can’t help but think of all those conversations we wish we’d had. We play them over in our minds and try to imagine what our loved ones would have said to us. We can almost hear their voices in our minds, answering our questions.

We just can’t make out their words anymore.

The Lost Grandmother

About a month ago a very close friend of mine lost her mother. Theirs had not always been the best of relationships, and she always told me she’d envied the relationship I’d had with my mother. Last week I received this letter from my friend in an email, and she has given me permission to share it to show that even a badly broken relationship can be healed, as long as both parties are willing to work towards it.

This is an excerpt from her story that has been included in my book, “Memories in a Daughter’s Heart,”  due to be published by the end of November.

“Dear Children, I wanted to write a little bit about your grandmother who passed away.

As you know she was my true mother, and the mother of Ken, Craig, and Elaine. She was blessed with four children. She lost custody of my brothers and me when I was five years old, and Elaine had short terms in foster care.

Through the years, and with Grandpa’s multiple marriages and long term relationships, you met a few “mom’s” who were actually stepmothers. You called them “grandma.”

My real mother loved her children; however she had multiple emotional problems that made mothering too challenging and overwhelming for her. She suffered, among other things, from mental illness, narcolepsy, and manic depression which actually required shock therapy several times in her life.

Back in the 1950’s, mental illness was not fully understood, and most people were not equipped to deal with a young mother who was so depressed she was unable to properly care for her babies and young children. We went hungry; our diapers were often unchanged; and the house was usually completely unkempt or not cleaned.

Unfortunately my dad did not have the patience or understanding to help my mother or cope with her problems. She became addicted to prescription medications, specifically amphetamines and barbiturates. When our dog had puppies, they were named after the drugs. Isn’t it weird that I remember that?

My father was not easy to be married to; he had a very harsh side, and was cruel to my mother. He must have taken her to a doctor for her to have gotten those medications, and tried to get her help, but she needed much more than that.

My brother Ken, being the oldest, remembers the most of it, and the traumatic childhood experience left scars on all of us as well as a sense of fragmentation.

My parents divorced when I was about 5 years old, right after my kindergarten year. My dad was awarded custody of us. At first we were able to see my mother, but not very often. After one of our visits to see her, something bad must have transpired, because after that visit I did not see my mother for 9 years until I turned 15.

My mother did finally marry again to a nice man named Tom, and they had my sister Elaine.

Through either my dad’s own doing, or whether on advice from an attorney or psychiatrist, he stopped allowing visitations with my mother. To my knowledge this was not done through any legal channels or court order.

I sneaked around to try and communicate with her, and when I was in high school, I had her send her letters to a friend’s address.

Growing up, I never heard a good word ever spoken about my real mother. I grew up afraid I would be like this person who was spoken about so negatively. I tried to overcome it all and prove my stepmother wrong.

grandmotherWhen I turned 18, I could openly begin communication and establish a relationship with my mother, and finally get to know my sister.

Many years went by where we only talked by phone or through letters, but not many personal visits, as I didn’t have finances for such travel. Though we didn’t see each other often, we became better and better acquainted; while we didn’t have the “normal” mother-daughter relationship, but we had a love for each other.

When my father died seven years ago, I had to sort through all of his papers. My dad had saved everything. Among those papers were letters from my mother to us; beautiful, eloquently written letters that were never given to us. If we had been given our letters, we would have known our mother loved us; that we weren’t abandoned, like we’d been told. I truly believe it would have made a big difference in our growing up to have had that security and knowledge. Why he kept them, I do not know.

There was even a letter from my mother’s mother to my father begging him to not take the children away from her. In that time period, that was how people handled these situations, and they believed it was best to sever all ties.

Yes, my mother was flawed, and did not have the easiest personality to live with. She could be difficult and self-centered; she certainly had had a hard life, and had to do many things to survive and sometimes made the wrong choices.

When Elaine called me and told me the medical team that had been caring for her had said nothing more could be done, and were recommending palliative care for her; I was compelled to go there to be with her. My mother and I had come a long way in building our relationship, and I wanted to say goodbye to her, and be there for Elaine, too. Your dad encouraged me to go. So I went. And I’m so glad I did.

Alone in my mom’s room holding vigil, I had a compelling moment; I needed to forgive my mother. I laid my hands on her forehead, and said, “Mother, I forgive you, and I love you.”

My mother passed away the next morning; I will always believe she was waiting for me, and waiting to hear those words.

I called Ken and let him know that our mother had passed away. Regardless of their broken relationship, I wanted him to know. The next day he called me and said, “I’m not a praying man, but I said a prayer for her that, “I hope she is in a better place, and I forgive her.”

The power of speaking those words of forgiveness cannot be adequately expressed with my words.

I am sorry you could not have known her as your grandmother, and become more acquainted. My mother always asked about all of you; she was interested in your lives’ and cared very much about you. All of your pictures were in her room. She was proud of each of you.

I fortunately learned to embrace the good things about my mother these last few years, and learned not to dwell on her shortcomings. After all, we all have them. I am so thankful I was able to do that and finally enjoy a good relationship with her in these last years. We had so many fun, memorable days together, and I wouldn’t have traded any of them.

My beautiful children, there is always something good, and very much to be thankful for.”

Nothing more needs to be said after this, except, “It’s never too late.” Thank you my dear friend, for writing this to your children, and thank you for sharing it so that perhaps someone else may be able to salvage such a relationship before it’s too late.

In a Little Country Church

There’s just something about those little country churches. Small. Intimate. Simply decorated. No fancy sound systems. No orchestra; not even an electronic keyboard or guitar. And certainly no PowerPoint presentation to display the words to the songs.

This one had just a simple spinet piano, with no microphones to project the music or the preacher’s message; the church was too small to need them. There were about ten rows of old wooden carved pews seating only 6-7 people per row. With hymnals and Bibles nestled in a shelf in front of us. Obviously everyone knows everyone else. Because they’ve been worshipping there for decades. And have probably worshipped there through several different preachers.

This is the type of church I grew up in, as did many of my friends.

The other day we once again visited this quaint little country church to celebrate the life of the 90 year old mother of one of our dear friends, who had advanced to her heavenly reward and joined her beloved husband, who had been called home four years previously.

Sarah Lee and her husband had been married for 67 years when he passed into eternity. Now she is with him once again. Although I’d only met her personally less than five times, I knew her through her daughter, and wished I’d had the opportunity to really have gotten to know her.

She and her husband were blessed with four children, six grandchildren, thirteen great-grandchildren, and three great-great-grandchildren, and most of them were in attendance to bid her farewell. She had lived her entire life in this little farming community, raising her family, working alongside her husband on their dairy farm, enjoying being a homemaker, doing her share of volunteer activities, and faithfully serving this little church as a teacher, pianist, and eventually as the first female elder in the church.

As we sat there waiting for the service to begin, listening to the pianist playing some of Sarah Lee’s favorite hymns on that old, but well-tuned piano, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of nostalgia for these beautiful country churches with their small congregations. Everyone, including those of us who didn’t know hardly anyone at the service, were made to feel like part of the family, and felt like we had known them all for many years by the time we left.

Sarah Lee’s service reflected her life and the family she had adored. Held in the same church where she and her late husband had been married seventy years previously, it was obviously planned by loving family members who will always remember and honor the matriarch of the family.

A number of flower arrangements were placed around the casket, and one in particular caught my eye. It contained a stuffed Dalmatian and two toy fire trucks, sent from the county fire auxiliary of which Sarah Lee had been a charter member. I couldn’t help but remember a similar arrangement that had graced the floral remembrances for her husband a few years earlier…an
arrangement of flowers in the shape of a tractor, as a symbol of the farm life her husband had loved and been devoted to.
Her son-in-law spoke about the woman he had obviously loved dearly, and recounted the story of how he’d once asked her who her favorite child was, and she’d told him a mother has no favorites. “I love them all equally!” Then he asked her who her favorite son-in-law was. He said she had to think about it for a few seconds before she answered, so as not to leave out anyone, “why, it’s you!” Of course, it was, since he was the only one at the time.

Nine of Sarah Lee’s relatives had formed a family choir for the service, beautifully singing three of her favorite hymns, including one of my favorites, “Amazing Grace”. And how fitting it was to have her three great-great-grandchildren “sing” along at various times; I could just imagine her watching from heaven, and smiling in approval, her beloved husband by her side once again.

As we took the short ride to the cemetery I couldn’t help but remember the last time we’d been on this drive, when her husband had been in that same hearse, which had been led to the cemetery by a huge John Deere tractor, and followed a few vehicles back by another tractor pulling a wagon with a model of a cow on it, each symbolizing the dairy farm he and his wife had worked and loved so much.

It was a small cemetery. Just as I’d remembered from the last time, the headstone already in place and marking the location of Sarah Lee’s husband, the ground already prepared to receive Sarah Lee. No amount of camouflage could disguise the preparations that had been made for the casket to be placed in the ground and covered over, after the graveside prayers had been said.

Watching the pallbearers bringing their precious responsibility to the site, I was reminded of a scene in my own life ten years ago, when my own precious mother was laid to rest. It’s a surreal feeling. You’re there, but you’re really NOT there. Unless you’ve sat in one of those graveside family chairs, you can’t comprehend.

Prayers were said, more tears were shed, for a well-loved mother, aunt, grandmother, great- grandmother, and great-great-grandmother. One by one, each of the pallbearers took off their boutonnieres, kissed them, and laid them on top of the casket; their final duties completed.

It was then time to begin to heal, and continue family traditions with those who were left behind, remembering, and never forgetting this very special woman.

Whether we attend a small rustic country church, a modern lavish cathedral, or something in between, it doesn’t matter where we worship, but Who we worship. Because God is God. He knows our hearts. He knows we love Him. And when one of our loved ones leaves this earth for their next, and final, everlasting life, He knows our pain. He knows our sorrow.

But He also knows how the story ends.

Why did this service at this little country church make such an impression?

Because of its simple, yet poignant, reminders that when our loved ones leave us, we must remember not only the essence of who they were and how much they were loved and will be missed, but, as Sarah Lee’s preacher said during the service, “Death tries to have the last word, but it does not. We belong to God in this life, and in the life to come.” We say goodbye for now, but in reality, it’s “See you later.”

Sarah Lee, we’ll see you later!

Ten Years Later

It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years. So much has happened since I got that phone call from my mother that Wednesday night ten years ago. Little did I know what that one phone call would mean; what events would be triggered. And how all our lives would be changing forever.

Sure, it was to be expected eventually, but to me eventually didn’t mean then. It meant a time somewhere in the future, or so I thought.

But the future comes at unexpected moments. Tomorrow is today’s future, just like today is yesterday’s future. And on it goes.

Sometimes it feels like just a few weeks ago. Sometimes I still feel like I can pick up the phone and call her. And sometimes I don’t think about it. That is, until I happen to see a photo that reminds me of that other part of our life, back in the past.

There will always be reminders, and moments I wish we could recapture. And I really wish I could tell Mom all about our lives now; the things she missed:

Our daughter Ashley’s college graduation.

The excitement of Ashley and Chris’ engagement, of planning their wedding and shopping for wedding gowns, and I believe Mom would have joined us on that shopping trip.

Sitting beside me, holding my hand, crying together, as Ben proudly walked our daughter down the aisle on her wedding day.
The excitement of Ashley and Chris announcing their pregnancy to us; with my first reaction being, of course, “I have to call my mother!” But there are no telephones in Heaven.

The fun and excitement of Ashley’s baby shower, and how proud my mother would have been to be the expectant great-grandmother!
Words cannot express how much I wish she could’ve shared the wonder and amazement as Ben and I saw our beautiful granddaughter for the first time, and how I briefly imagined I saw my own mother’s eyes looking back at me as I looked at baby Rachel for the first time.

And I so wish I could share my feelings with my mother about being a grandmother, because she always told me one day I’d understand.

We still ride through my hometown on our way to my favorite beach, but unfortunately we don’t go there nearly as often as we used to.

I still look at the house on the left on that road going into town, the house where I used to live, and wish it were still ours, even though I know we did the right thing by selling it. It doesn’t look the same, of course, and I’m sure it’s been remodeled on the inside as well. I prefer to keep my memories of it as it was. It wouldn’t be right to go through it now; it would be too painful.

One thing I don’t do very often is visit the gravesite. I don’t feel the urgency to do so. My memories live on in photographs and other rooms in my heart; the cemetery is not a place where our memories will ever live. It is not the place where my parents are now.

I also don’t regularly put flowers or wreaths on the grave anymore. That first year after we lost her, we did that regularly. And we’d talk to her, tell her how much we missed her. But it didn’t feel right. She wasn’t there to enjoy the flowers or hear us talk to her. We’d given her flowers for lots of occasions over the years, and she’d always told us flowers died, and not to waste our money on them. And trust me, I heard her in my mind telling me that each time I brought flowers to that grave!

We still honor her memory at Christmas by hanging her “Grandmom” stocking filled with the red silk roses she loved so much. This year there will be another stocking beside that one, one with the name “Rachel” on it, and my mother’s legacy will continue.

Yes, it’s been ten years. A long ten years. But I can honestly tell you, even though you may think you will never recover from your loved one’s death, you will. You will not forget them, and your heart will heal.

But you will always miss them, and remember them.