The Wind

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“For what is it to die, But to stand in the sun and melt into the wind?”
– Kahlil Gibran

A great blue heron stands sentinel in the creek at Plum Creek Cemetery, hunting, his elegant, long blue neck feathers rustling in the wind. He doesn’t flinch as I drive by, intent on the small fish darting among the shadows, eyes laser focused, the wind not even noticed.

But I notice. It is a welcome respite from the summer heat and humidity. It tells of storms coming, of the energy soon to be barreling down upon us from above, as so many of our storms have been recently. It blows the purple plastic windmill on my wife’s grave at full speed. I wonder if it will uproot and take wing in the gale.

Nobody is here this early in the morning.  I am only here at this time because I’ve just dropped the boys off at football practice. I’ve got a couple hours to myself; I like that. I like being here now too, and Deb’s tombstone posts a permanent reminder that it is very close to the two year anniversary of her passing.

I have all the windows down on the Camry, the sunroof open too, and my “Grief Songs” cd playing at full volume. Jackson Brown, Cat Stevens and Scott Miller’s voices fill the air and ride the thermals, the volume undulating with the gusts, wafting over the tombstones and flowers. I imagine Debbie listening to the songs with me, as we often did, curled up in front of the stereo with a glass of wine and the lyric sheet on a Friday night after a long work week.

I have this annoying habit, of really digging into an artist that catches my attention, that strikes a chord with me. Warren Zevon was such an artist, an offbeat, eccentric dude, full of faults and warts and surprises that many didn’t like or understand, probably because it takes time to appreciate his subtle genius. I devoured everything Zevon, spending hours with each disc, with every song that spoke to me.

And I would share these passions, these discoveries way in the back of the catalog, these gems most people missed, with Debbie. I’m not sure she appreciated them as much as I did, but that’s not the point – she sat and listened, let me ramble, let me gush, and recognized and shared my joy. Big smile.

I miss that, though…

Warren Zevon floats with the wind now, over the cemetery grass. Warren died in in 2003, of cancer, too, at age 56. The cancer gave him ample warning, and took its long, slow, sweet time, debilitating his body one cell at a time. But it allowed him time to write and record one last album, on which the song that is playing now closed the disc. “Keep Me In Your Heart For Awhile,” from his last disc, entitled simply, “The Wind.”  I think Warren understood Gibran’s words.

I remember distinctly the wind the night Debbie died. Same as today, violent storms had washed away the oppressive summer heat. I remember watching the tops of the cherry trees dance in my yard, I remember the feeling of being free, released to the winds, I remember thinking Debbie was dancing with the white butterflies that flit through the branches. I am sure the wind tossled the herons’ feathers that day, too, and I am sure he didn’t notice it then, either.

A yellow butterfly floats by now, going the breeze. which has settled a bit. The butterfly is noticed by a silent, cross-legged observer, sitting barefoot in the grass, acutely aware of the wind moving through him…

Sometimes when you’re doing simple things around the house
maybe you will think of me and smile.

Warren Zevon

A Smile Set in Stone…

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Pause, stranger, when you pass me by,
For as you are, so once was I.
As I am now, so will you be.

It’s a bright, sunny day, even a bit warm, the first nice day we have had in a long, long time, following a long nasty winter.  Is it coincidence that Debbie’s marker is finally installed today?

It has been a long and meandering journey for this stone, so far now from it’s quarry.  It’s traveled two oceans and two continents, sat for months in an unheated shop, too cold to carve.  This color stone, a warm reddish that cuts pink, comes only from the other side of the world, and had to be custom cut in India before beginning its journey to its final resting place.  The angel design is custom and proprietary, too.   And there were hours spent sorting through thousands of images and pictures – and tears – to find just the right one.

It has been six months since it was designed and ordered.  It is important to get it right.  I think I did.

But there are few things in life harder than getting a tombstone for your spouse…

The sun was warm on my face this afternoon, the day as bright as Debbie’s smile.  And her smile, now etched in stone, still makes me happy.

And that is a good thing.  The memories, they bring smiles now, not tears, rememberance of the warmth and sunshine of so many good times, so many big smiles and laughs shared.  The tears will still crop up too, I suppose, but like making it through a long hard winter, I have paid my dues, I have done my grief homework, and I choose now to enjoy the sunshine with a smile of my own…

God bless you, Debbie.  Love you always and forever.

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Grace, Courage, and Dignity

It has taken me an entire year to digest the events that unfolded over the days from Trevor’s ninth birthday party up until Debbie’s passing on July 8th, 2012.  It was an extraordinary eight days, the most amazing spiritual experience I have ever had, and it is a story that needs told, that needs shared.  That is why I started this blog, because these big issues, life and death and all meaning in between – they are easier to bear when shared.

Time has diffused and distilled this account – it was too raw to even be touched at first, but it has cooled to the right time.  I don’t know how time and fading memory have shaped this account and I know that others who shared in this incredible week will remember things a bit different, but this is what has remained with my heart, where it matters.

And this is my account – I strongly encourage others who remember this week to post their thoughts, their feelings, what remains in their hearts today.  “Grief shared is grief lessened”, that is why I am writing and sharing, and this blog has been a tremendous healing tool for me; I have found a voice I didn’t know I had.

Please add your voice, your perspective, your tale, and we can all remember and perhaps even rejoice, grieve and heal and, most importantly, honor Debbie, who taught us all so much…

Debbie Last

Can you hear me crying?
I’m right here, my love
The unknown is frightening
I’m right here, my love
Worlds far apart can’t separate us
And I can hear you crying
I’m right here, my love

July 2, 2012 – 5:30 am – Good lord it’s still dark, the first hints of gray are just now on the horizon, and the birds haven’t even started singing yet; why is Deb waking me up now?   I know we have a big day planned; it is my first non-duty vacation day of the year, despite the year being half over, and we are both exhausted from hosting a 9th birthday party the day before for little Trevor, so we agreed to sleep in a bit today.

And we both went to bed excited about our plans – a celebratory chocolate chip pancake breakfast at Pamela’s in the Strip, followed by some shopping and then an afternoon Pirates game at PNC Park.  We have never been to Pamela’s, and life was way too busy this month; we didn’t get a chance to properly celebrate Deb’s 45th birthday on June 5th or our 19th wedding anniversary on June 12th, so today is to be a catch up day.  Debbie always enjoyed the simple things in life, and wanted just a pancake breakfast with her boys for her birthday and anniversary.

But Deb is not excited about the world famous greasy cakes now.  In fact, something is wrong, terribly wrong.  She has been up a while, it is obvious she is upset, and has been crying; she has a bag packed.  A dark foreboding comes over me, as if the day should be getting darker, not lighter.  “We need to go to the hospital” Deb says, her voice cracking, trying desperately to be strong.  But her bottom lip quivers, betraying her fear…

Deb’s cancer went Stage IV in August of 2011.  I study statistics, study the odds, study the studies; I knew immediately what that really meant.  I knew there was only a 20 percent chance she would survive two years, less than 10 percent chance for five; especially since the cancer had spread to her liver.  The day in August when she received the Stage IV news, when she showed up at the batting cages where Trevor and I were working to rectify his batting slump, when I saw that look of terror on her face – that day will remain one of the worst days of my life.

But Deb is a fighter, she is so strong, she has an incredible faith and she has an army of prayer warriors, and the best doctors in the state are on her side.  She is consulting with a nutritionist and drinking green tea and green veggie shakes and seeing an energy healer and visiting the old sacred places in the high New Mexico desert with her good friend, and has been to the world’s best MD Anderson Cancer Clinic in Houston – she is doing everything she can to fight, and she is doing everything right.  Surely she will be the one to beat those small odds if anyone can…

But the news at the hospital is not good; I don’t need to be told, it is etched in the furrowed brows and slightly hushed tones and more gentle mannerisms that the harried hospital staff and caregivers display around us that is more telling than anything they say.

And Deb’s belly.  Since April it has started to swell; it was not very noticeable at first, a muffin top that too many American girls sport now anyway, but completely out of the ordinary to someone who rocked a six pack abdomen her whole life up until kid number two.  By the time of Trevor’s party, Deb had taken to wearing a sweatshirt tied around her waist to hide the bump, which was now in the 3-4 months pregnant size.  I wonder if the party guests understood why she was wearing a sweatshirt around her waist when it was 90 degrees and sweltering outside…

But of course that is how Deb is – she is very prideful about her appearance, the good pride, the kind that comes from hard work and appreciating all that she has in her life and the pride that comes from doing a good job, from doing the right thing, including taking care of your appearance.  Even when you have cancer.  Even when your hair falls out four times through chemo.  Even when you are really, really sick, but you want the all the attention of the day to be focused on your beautiful little nine year-old and you want him to have the best birthday party ever, as every one of his birthdays has been.

The news that Deb is in the hospital shocks most people.  Again, on the outside, her sunny ever present smile and pleasant disposition never even remotely hinted at her internal turmoil.  And so to see her in a hospital bed, connected to IVs and in a hospital gown and now mostly wearing her pink coyote hat, this is not the image that most expect when they stop up to the hospital.  And her belly, it has now swelled to 7 months pregnant…

Of course there is a battery of tests, lots of confusing information, and Deb’s regular doctor is out of the country on vacation, adding to the mess.  There are people in and out of the tiny little hospital room, it is always crowded, and people close to Deb have come in from out of town.  It is chaotic, and everyone struggles to make sense of how this can be happening, here, now, right now, when just a couple of days ago we were all laughing and celebrating and everything was fine.

I can only speak for my own struggles to come to grips with it, and I am sure everyone was at a different place on the spectrum during this time.  But at first it is a very detached scene, surreal, with a dreamlike quality, slipping in and out of focus and in between hope and despair.  And at this point the prevailing expectation is that things will get better for a while and Deb will come home.

But that is not what I feel now, a couple of days later, and not what I sense from Deb.  Her belly is huge now, 9 months pregnant.  Her vitals are still okay, so I go home to sleep (okay, to rest, sleep is very difficult) the first two nights she is in the hospital.  And that is another surreal experience, pedaling my bike home from the hospital at dusk because I have lost my driving privileges at the most inopportune time that could ever be imagined.

I am pedaling hard, making my heart beat harder just to know its still there, making myself sweat, making myself breathe faster to quickly get rid of the toxins, trying desperately to come to grips with what is happening so fast, trying to come to grips with everything that I knew would one day come but until it is actually upon you, you cannot even imagine how you will react, trying to out-pedal my fears, which are roaring like the giant trucks on the highway right behind me, ready to overtake me, ready to flatten this crazy guy riding a bike along the highway in the dark now.  They are just so much bigger, so much faster, than I can ever be…

Can you taste my kiss?
I’m right here, my love
I wish life was endless
I’m right here, my love
But living costs something and pay it we must
But I will keep your kiss
I’m right here, my love

There is a sense of calm that begins to emerge out of the chaos the next day, believe it or not.  Do not think this is an easy calm, for we are discussing topics that are life’s hardest – palliative care versus hospice, more aggressive chemo or none at all, whether to install a drain to relieve the swelling, which is now 10 months overdue pregnant.  One would think the chaos would escalate, but it does not.  It is a duty calm; it is important.  And it is calm because Debbie is so calm.

Certainly she understands the gravity of the situation.  In a rare private moment Deb confides in me that she knew way back in April that she was getting worse and would not be recovering.  In the time since then she has continued her heroic fight, but she has also worked with God and herself on acceptance.  She is truly not afraid.  It is clear now, with her calm amidst all this chaos, that acceptance and peace have been earned.  I am amazed and humbled, but keep it to myself.  Others who know and love Deb are not ready for this yet.

But she declares it with a grace and courage and conviction that can only come from having truly made her peace when the doctor tells her that there is nothing more that can be done, and that she is dying, and that it is only a matter of time.  Debbie stares at the doctor, her belly bloated but her smile still there, and with the utmost calm and conviction, tells him that “that’s okay, because I am alive now, and it’s beautiful  Life is beautiful.”  My mom and I, the only others in the room with Debbie and the doctor, are stunned and blessed at the same time…

Debbie doesn’t see the behind the scenes discussions amongst the family with the doctors and staff; things are just happening too fast, the news and the numbers are incomprehensible.  The hurt and the anger and the confusion is palpable.  We have the discussions again, because these are hard issues.  The oncologist is blunt and curt, directly to the point, perhaps because he is not Debbie’s normal doctor and hasn’t fallen under the spell of her smile, or perhaps because he has studied the charts and the numbers and the options and is staring right back at the insurmountable wall that modern medicine cannot climb when faced with cancer at this point.  But other hospital staff exhibit extraordinary patience and caring; I recognize that they do their jobs with love, and I am thankful, it is one less burden that we have to bear.

Since it is a holiday today, most people go home for the night, including the boys, who are well taken care of by my brother- and sister-in-law.  Only Deb’s parents and her sister Diane and I remain at the hospital.  It is clear to Diane and I now that we will need to stay at the hospital for as long as Deb is here.

It is the Fourth of July.  We roll Deb into the family room in a wheelchair, her belly huge, her discomfort felt by all of us, but mostly by Deb.  She does not complain however, but her smile is forced, and it doesn’t appear often now, usurped by the pain.  Two walls of the corner room are windows, allowing for a panoramic view, and the room is ours tonight, no one else around.  The hospital is quiet on the holiday, too quiet, visitors reduced to only those most directly affected by their loved ones illnesses and a skeleton crew.  We attempt small talk, but it is hollow.

There is a weird silence that fills the room.  Fireworks are exploding all around us, far off on the horizon, like watching a battle from the command center, far removed from the carnage.  Normally this would be a joyous time, celebrating the birth of our nation and summer and fun, feeling the thunder rumbling through bones and the seeing the lightning flashes reflected in wide open eyes, sharing ohhhs and ahhhs.  But not tonight; there is a heaviness in the room as thick as the fireworks smoke that certainly fills the air.  It is a silent movie, and the fireworks are not real tonight.  No body-thumping thunder, no smell of acrid smoke, no lightning flashes that light up the sky with excitement; just a sterile empty hospital room.  We watch detached, as if in a bad dream.  Deb asks to go back to her room…

Can you feel me tremble?
I’m right here, my love
Does it feel like you remember?
I’m right here my love
The future’s assured in the pulse of our blood
I can feel you tremble
I’m right here, my love

It is a bad night.  Deb is in serious discomfort and pain, drifting in and out of consciousness like the waves of a bad fever.  She needs help going to the bathroom and is tangled in tubes and IV drips and ill-fitting hospital gowns.  But Diane and I attend to her every need, keeping her as comfortable as we can.  There is very little rest for any of us.

It is agreed that a drain will be installed into Deb’s belly in the morning.  And when the procedure is done it does do a world of good, relieving the pressure and the discomfort Deb has been feeling the past few days.  It relieves pressure on us, too – her swollenness was to the point where we cringed to look at her, wondering how she could possible bear this burden.  Of course she is back to smiling her pretty smile, even with tubes protruding and the overall situation unchanged.  We are able to talk with her again without the obvious pain that she tried to hide but that her slight grimace and lack of smile gave away.  It is a small gift, and allows everyone, mostly Deb, to rest a bit.

But we are clearly not out of the woods, and everyone is unsure what to do next, and there is a permanent surrealness that has settled in, especially for Diane and I, as we have not slept in days now.  Visitors come and go, and Deb comes and goes too, drifting in and out of consciousness, and our reality ebbs and flows between the adrenaline which is keeping us on our feet and the bone-tired physical drowsiness that is constantly trying to drag us down to unconsciousness.

The nights are the worst.  Diane and I take hour and a half shifts, trying to grab cat naps in the public lounge in between sitting in the uncomfortable chairs next to Deb in her too small room, stuffed to the gills with the plethora of medical equipment, and the bright flowers and gifts have taken a back seat to the seriousness of the situation.  In the lounge the periodic screams of suffering from another older cancer patient pierce the normal beeps and blips and alarms of hospital equipment, and in full consciousness it would create an atmosphere of foreboding.  And perhaps the screams register somewhere in our foggy brains, but mostly they have been reduced to the background noise that lulls us to sleep for 45 minutes at a time. Diane no longer even hears the screams.

But we take care of Deb.  We get her to the bathroom while she can, clean her messes when she can’t, always keeping her pink coyote hat on her head when she tries to pull it off in her moaning delirium, mindfully and respecting her hard earned pride.  We sit by her as she weaves in and out of a coma, the cancer and the drugs suspending her halfway between life and death.

She always knows someone is near her.  And in the daylight her extended family and friends take on the same roll.  She is surrounded at all times by love, and is comforted as best we can, even if her semi-coma lends doubt as to whether she knows we are there.

And it is an honor to take care of her, a true honor.  I have watched others take care of people who are dying, wondering where in God’s name does the strength come from to do so?  I was just a teenager when I watched my mother take care of my father as he struggled with this same evil disease, as the cancer racked his body and robbed him of his pride and whittled him down to 80 pounds of bones and bedsores.  And I watched Debbie nurse our cat Mickey through his last two weeks, tenderly changing blood-stained furry bandages and making him as comfortable as possible.

Now I understand, I know where the strength comes from.  What I didn’t understand before is that this strength is a gift, a gift from those who are dying, a gift from God, a gift to the caretakers.  And there is incredible beauty in serving those who can no longer help themselves, and this beauty outshines the mess.  Diane agrees with this, and we talk extensively about this later, and it is a lessen that we will both keep close to our hearts, and it is a bond that Diane and I will forever share, and a tribute to Debbie…

And bigger gifts are yet to come.  Out of this chaos, out of the confusion and mess, out of the biohazard and sterility, between the screams and the prayers, where all of these things stand side by side in the oncology wing of any hospital, somewhere between the hard cold facts of science and the comfort of bedrock faith, between biology and Spirit, somewhere between Life and Death, emerges a miracle…

Just after sunrise I awake from a brief sleep, sticking to the vinyl chair next to Debbie. When my eyes adjust and I shake off the exhaustion, I realize she is awake and smiling at me.  “Hi!” she chirps, with a little wave and that beautiful smile. I am shocked; where is the coma, the delirium?  Instantly any drowsiness disappears, and adrenaline puts every nerve ending on alert.

I hold Debbie’s hand and look deeply into her eyes; she is there.  We talk in hushed tones, with a respect reserved for sacred places.  The small talk is quickly replaced by heartfelt conversation.  I ask if she is okay; she is; if she is afraid; she is not.  She tells me she knows she is dying.  My memory retreats to the dark places that all couples who have shared 27 years have; I bring up a specific fight that I wish now I could take back.  She remembers and offers forgiveness before I can even ask.  I start bringing up another episode, but she squeezes my hand and stops me; I am forgiven for all my shortcomings.  But did I love her enough?  Her journey will be cut short, way too short, it is not fair, it wasn’t supposed to end this early and had we known would we have done things different?   Could we have loved each other more?

Deb stops me, tears streaming down my face, but hers still calm and peaceful and smiling.  She starts telling me about her best memories, the birth of our two sons and the pure pleasure she took in being a mom and raising them; we reminisce about some of the wild, out of control times with friends at bars and concerts; and we are suddenly whisked back to the perfect glow of a week without work and duty, where we laid in bed in our new house and made love the entire week, and just talked and read and only got up to do the bare minimum for Jake and then immediately rushed back into the comfort and peace of each other.  We gaze at each other like we did when we first met, when the spark and promise of love was all we needed. Mutual smiles, shared comfort, the tears are just tracks now, real, true forgiveness, real, true love, and peace, genuine genuine peace…

I know enough from my research and reading about death and dying to know what is happening here, and I know that this gift is not just for me.  I practically run through the hospital to find Diane, whisking her hurriedly into Deb’s room, and leaving just as quick, shutting the door behind me.  And I am working the cell phone frantically, getting people up here.

It is amazing, in hindsight, how everyone Deb wanted and needed to see was on their way.  Her sons, her mom and dad, both of her brothers, my mom and sisters, and they all arrived staggered but in perfect order, as if being guided by the Grand Organizer.  Everyone gets 20 or 30 minutes with Debbie; what gifts or goodbyes she gave them, what gifts they gave her, are I am sure forever etched in each other’s hearts.  But the way this morning played out, the perfectness and the organization and the heartfelt gifts and the peace and the love that happened in Room 6523 at Forbes Hospital in Monroeville PA – it was truly a miracle.

I have read extensively of these awakenings, from a scientific and medical perspective, and from a spiritual perspective.  They are not uncommon; in fact Kubler-Ross estimates that around 50% of the dying patients she has spent her life studying experience them.  We can measure increases in brain waves, in areas of the brain associated with beliefs and emotions, and there are changes in body mass and a rejuvenation that “normal” disease progress doesn’t allow.  Kubler-Ross cannot explain it any better than science, but she, a scientist and a spiritualist, is 100% sure that they are gifts from the dying, to the living, a comfort to those left behind.

Perhaps these souls have straddled the divide between death and eternal life, and know the comfort that awaits them – that explains their calm and serenity.  Yet they continue to want to comfort those that they love, they are hesitant to leave those that they will always love, those who will be left behind temporarily, even though they know where they are going is better.  So they muster up a reserve of spiritual strength that science cannot explain, to say goodbye, and to offer whatever gifts their recipients are willing to receive.

And so Debbie blessed us all one last time…

Can you sit closer?
I’m right here, my love
Now watch me pass over
I’m right here, my love
We did not give in and we did not give up
I’ll watch you cross over
I’m right here, my love

Deb’s awakening lasts only a few hours, soon she is tired and falls back into a semi-comatic sleep again, and the fire in her eyes from the morning does not return.  Deb does not get any better, but those of us around her have changed, we are calmer and even a bit refreshed.  But there is still so much work to do.

It is agreed that Debbie will be released in to hospice care and taken home.  This is what she wants, we all know it now.  As with anything involving hospital bureaucracy, it is a maze of confusion and phone calls and organizing that is herculean.  We are all on full alert now, and all the family members are around, and we are working as a team.

Getting Deb home is tough, and it hurts to see her carried into her house in such a frail condition by the beefy ambulance driver.  Of course Deb tries to make light of the situation, but the loss of strength is now a permanent feature that she has to consciously fight; when she does drift to sleep there is an uncharacteristic frown of exhaustion.

The confusion of being left alone at home, caring for a dying loved one, without any professional help until the morning, sets off a panic.  We have been given cryptic instructions for administering 6,000 types of medications all the way up to morphine, and we are unfamiliar with the oxygen machine and the hospital bed and the portable toilet and all monitoring all that needs monitored.

It is a MASH unit right after a battle at 210 Gibralter Drive, but we are here out of love for a spouse a sister a daughter a friend; once again out of this chaos Love rises.  Everyone’s strengths are utilized, and the curtain goes up between the family room and the dining room for privacy, and computers are fired up and spreadsheets emerge to chart the medications and the internet is humming on cell phones as we track which drug is which and when it should be administered and who can run to the store for more Ensure and pick up a pizza on the way, will you, and can someone make sure the boys are okay, I haven’t seen them all day and oh my god just a couple of hours ago we were all a mess but the Great Organizer has shown up again and after many frantic phone calls and very patient medical providers, there descends a sort of equilibrium over the Walko household as the last of the days’ light filters into night.  Enough organization that I am able to lie in a bed sometime after midnight, for the first time in a week , knowing that Debbie’s family is gathered close to her for the night.  We all get some very fitful but so needed rest, however brief, sleeping on leaky air mattresses and uncomfortable sofas and the too thin carpet.

In the morning the situation is not good.  Deb takes only a few sips of Ensure, and has not urinated in over a day; I know from the hospice folks what this means, and call them out first thing.  And indeed, the hospice worker confirms that the situation is dire, and we are instructed to keep the morphine up as needed.  Two hours, two days, two weeks – the timetable of passing will forever be a mystery.  Once again we are left to ourselves.

Later in the morning it is obvious that Debbie is entering the final stages of dying.  Every breathe is labored and uneven; she is not responsive.  We struggle with when and whether to give her more morphine.  Everyone is summoned.  And just like a few days before, when Debbie gathered everyone to say her last goodbyes, we are all gathered around her bedside.

Debbie’s hospital bed is in the middle of our living room, so there is room for everyone to circle her.  The room is bathed in light, from the sunlights and sliding glass door that leads out to the deck, to the designer window that looks out over the woods and is flooded in green.  White butterflies flit through the green, and it again is peaceful.

We are all together, Deb’s entire family, my entire family, but we also experience this separately.  Everyone reacts to this in their own way, the culminations of years of experiences and beliefs that are as different as fingerprints.  Some pray traditional prayers passed down for generations; others sit in silent reflection and personal prayer; some keep busy checking on the kids and taking care of everyone’s physical needs, which don’t abate even in these dire times. Some weep openly, others in silence.

But we share many things in common too.  We all want to hold on to Debbie, and the jockeying for position has reached a lineup that allows everyone access to touch Debbie.  Her mouth is now open and her eyes are partially rolled back into her head, and there is a quiet fear that has joined us, too; we don’t know when death actually occurs.

This is not my first experience with this moment.  When I was fifteen, on an early May evening, I had a feeling that I should not go to bed, despite it being a school night. Mom was okay with this for some reason.  And I went and sat next to my dying father, and I watched his breathes quit coming, and I watched what was left of him sink into the same type hospital bed as his soul left his cancer riddled body…

And now I am faced with the hardest part of the inevitable – do I bring the boys out to be with the mother as she passes?  It is a horrible dilemma, it is true torture.  I am so glad that I was with my father when he passed, but I was older; I don’t know how this will affect a 9 year old and a 12 year old.  I look around at the worried faces who are gathered around Debbie; I am kneeling, holding Deb’s hand, asking her what to do one last time, but she doesn’t answer.  I look up to the faces around me, pleading for help, pleading for advice – do I bring the boys out or not?  No one can help me, for there are no right answers; I must make these decisions on my own.  And although I don’t know it at the time, it is this precise dilemma that is the single parents’ greatest crisis, it is why we can’t sleep, why it is so hard – the decisions I make alone will affect my kids deeply.

I decide to talk honestly with Jake; I tell him his mom is dying.  Would he like to be there while she passes, or at least come and say goodbye?  Jake opts for the later, and kneels by his mom and says a prayer and tells her goodbye like he is telling her good night.  All of our hearts break…

Trevor is different; he is younger, he is more sensitive, he carries on Debbie’s gentleness and her big heart.  I truly do not know what to do with him.  I pray silently outside his door for a sign, for guidance. And when I enter his room he is asleep.  I decide this is a sign that he should not be there when mom leaves.  But I carry him out to see mom one last time, and again we say a prayer and he gives her one last kiss, and the scabs and scars of the heartbreak of just a few minutes ago when Jake said goodbye are torn open again in fresh agony.  It is the hardest thing I have ever done…

And then there is a long period where nothing happens.  Deb enters into a period of suspension between life and death, and nobody has any idea how long it will last or what we should do.  So we continue our vigil, waiting for signs.

And then Deb’s parents’ priest arrives.  His simple entrance breaks the pall, and his authority on these matters lifts everyone.  He is serious but not somber, and his faith that this is okay is comforting to all.  Especially to Debbie.  Last rites, given before, are given again, and we all join in prayers of the sacrament.

There is a sense that Debbie has been waiting for this.  But Father Joe knows that those gathered around are in need too.  His spirit is light, almost jovial – not what I expected.  After the sacrament, he even makes jokes, lightening the mood, trying to make everyone feel better, trying to make everyone happier.  Just like Debbie would have. Just the escort she was waiting for.

Debbie passes five minutes after Father Joe leaves…

I do not remember how I felt right then; I do not remember what went through my mind, what I felt in my heart.  It is like a dream again, and I am in a tunnel, and reality is at one end of that tunnel and the unknown at the other.  I am pulled in both directions at once, and caught in the middle, suspended in a state of disbelief.  I can hear crying and wails, and I think I am even making some of those sounds.  But it is like a scream that you cannot hear…

I don’t know how much time passes, a minute, five minutes, an hour, before I am pulled from the tunnel into reality.  From my knees, at Debbie’s bedside, I ask everyone for some privacy, for one last moment alone with my wife.

And the tears are unstoppable.

And my wails fill the house.

And the screams fill the space in everyone’s tunnel.

And it echos out into the yard and into the trees and the green, where the white butterflies fly.

And I hold her one last time, and I sit with her until the wails stop, until the tears are no more, until I have to let go…

Can you hear me crying?
I’m right here, my love
Thunder and lightning
I’m right here, myl ove
Worlds far apart can’t separate us
And I can hear you crying

I’m right here, my love

The evening Deb died there was a spectacular sunset, and a cool breeze swept away the oppressive summer humidity that had added to the pressure of that week.  A line of thunderstorms had rushed through earlier, though we barely noticed. In its wake was a 15 degree temperature drop and a refreshingness that was palpable.

I sat on the bench that Deb and I made, in the yard that I have molded to my dad’s plans, looking at the house that Deb and I made into a home.  The days’ confusion is gone, thankfully.  It is a Sunday night.  No more coroners or medical supply people or pizza delivery persons; no more crying relatives and friends, all with the best intentions but also wrestling with and adding to the confusion.

Death is not an easy topic.  Dying is not something we like to discuss.  It is shrouded in sadness and pain, and mostly, fear.  And these are all appropriate, and necessary – for we all need to work through these issues, as we inevitably experience the death of loved one, and as we inevitably will experience our own death.

All of these emotions that we carry through the process of dying teach us something.  As I sit on the bench in the Evening’s Light, filtered through the trees, the cool breeze lifts up my spirit and carries me along with it.  I know, certainly, that this loss will hurt, it will hurt bad, and it will affect me in ways that I cannot even begin to fathom.  I know this will haunt my boys for the remainder of their days, and I know that so many special people, people that are so close to me and meant so much to Deb, I know they are hurting in ways that only they understand.

But there is a calm tonight, a calm that I cannot explain and that I certainly did not expect.  Perhaps it is because I am emotionally spent, spiritually carried through an adventure of epic proportions.  I am tired, exhausted, and completely hollow; I have nothing left.

But at this moment I do not need anything.  At this moment my boys are okay; they have constructed offerings and tributes to their mother that will forever touch my heart.  They are still kids and glimpses of still being kids as they play in the yard bring me strength.  And my sisters and I have said our prayers and constructed our own offering to Deb and her spirit; and it is good, the acknowledgement coming from the Spirit that flows through the cherry trees now, the wind that takes away our sadness, at least for this moment, the sound of only the leaves rustling and the sense that even though things change, it is all okay.

“If life was found to be agreeable, then so should death be. It comes from the hand of the same master.” – Michelangelo

redbud

I’M RIGHT HERE MY LOVE – written by Scott Miller, duet performed by Scott Miller and Patty Griffin

Can you hear me crying?
I’m right here, my love
The unknown is frightening
I’m right here, my love
Worlds far apart can’t separate us
And I can hear you crying
I’m right here, my love

Can you taste my kiss?
I’m right here, my love
I wish life was endless
I’m right here, my love
But living costs something and pay it we must
But I will keep your kiss
I’m right here, my love

Can you feel me tremble?
I’m right here, my love
Does it feel like you remember?
I’m right here my love
The future’s assured in the pulse of our blood
I can feel you tremble
I’m right here, my love

Can you sit closer?
I’m right here, my love
Now watch me pass over
I’m right here, my love
We did not give in and we did not give up
I’ll watch you cross over
I’m right here, my love

Can you hear me crying?
I’m right here, my love
Thunder and lightning
I’m right here, myl ove
Worlds far apart can’t separate us
And I can hear you crying

I’m right here, my love

Post Script – Jake and Trevor and I went downtown, by bus, in August, to Pamela’s, and to a baseball game, just like we planned.  And mom and mom’s hat went with us.  And the aroma of the world’s best pancakes and ballpark hot dogs and the laughter of children and the sound of life, beautiful life, floated on the summer breeze…

For A Christmas Dancer

“And can it be that in a world so full and busy the loss of one creature makes a void so wide and deep that nothing but the width and depth of eternity can fill it up?” — Charles Dickens

Picture 244

Well there is no way around this, there is only through it…Christmas…

Debbie loved Christmas.  She loved planning for it, would start before Halloween; she loved decorating and baking and shopping for it, getting the tree up and the house ready and getting the kids excited.  Debbie smiled all year, but at this time of year it took on an even brighter glow.

I can’t say I shared in Deb’s Christmas enthusiasm, certainly not starting in October, but by Christmas Eve, after getting home from work, usually a few hours earlier than normal and with a few days relief from duty on tap, I’d finally let the Christmas spirit in.  Although the house had been decorated for weeks, it often felt like I was seeing it for the first time on Christmas Eve – I’d actually have the time to appreciate the extra effort put in to the stockings hung with care above the fireplace, the smell of cookies and other goodies baking, the beautiful tree that took two days to decorate, each ornament carefully placed to let those who bought the special decorations know how much she appreciated it (and also to keep them from becoming Boo’s Christmas presents!), and to feel the love that Deb planted throughout the house.

And the Christmas Eve party itself was always an exercise in Martha Stewart perfection – every menu item carefully planned and choreographed with the drinks and the festivities and the theme of pure joy.  And though the juggling act of keeping sixteen appetizers warm, all the drinks filled and the laughter and smiles non-stop would have left most exhausted and frazzled, this was the pinnacle of Deb’s love – this was her best dance, and she pulled it off with a grace and ease that would leave all applauding, a standing ovation every time.

Deb still found the energy to clean the entire house after the party in preparation for Santa’s arrival, and then we’d get the boys gifts’ together (this was usually the first time I even knew what they were getting) and she’d spend half an hour perfectly placing them under the tree while I nodded off.  And finally before going to bed in the wee hours, the plate of cookies had to have just enough crumbs and lip marks on the residual glass of milk to make believers out of even the most skeptical of boys.

Morning would come too early, but Deb was always just as excited as the boys.  And her payoff was just simply the smiles and excitement of two young boys romping through the most anticipated morning of the year, with all their wishes fulfilled perfectly.  It was truly a work of art; Christmas was Deb at her very best, a ballerina dancing a pirouette of pure joy.

Christmas will be different this year.  Christmas is not my dance; I will do my very best to make sure the boys have the best possible Christmas I can give them, and in the end it will be enough.  My boys have impressed me beyond my wildest imagination with their ability to handle the challenges they have been given, and they have lifted me up on angel’s wings too many times to count the last six months.  They won’t find perfection under the tree this Christmas morning, but they will certainly find all the love I can muster for them, and they will understand in time that it is good enough, though it will not be even remotely close to the splendor of Christmas’ past.

Christmas won’t be the same this year – it will never be the same again – and when the last present has been unwrapped there will still be a gaping hole in our celebration, in our hearts, a hole that no one, no thing, can ever fill…

I worry how the boys will deal with this.  I try to recall my Christmas’s after dad died, but I can’t, those memories have been lost.  I can still remember some Christmas’s from before dad died, though, when Santa was magic and still real; they are good memories, memories of waking up before dawn, of my sister riding her rocking horse in the glow of the Christmas tree, her hair flailing and her silhouette visible to the neighbors across the street still putting toys together for their own kids.

And I remember most that Santa brought me a train set every year, even though I didn’t ask for a train set, I didn’t want a train set; but dad did.  He loved trains, and wanted to share that love with his son.  So its funny, the gift dad got for himself is the one I remember the most out of all those years of presents; and for that I am now grateful, even if I wasn’t at the time.

I have only one gift that I want to give the boys. I want to convey to them this Christmas how much their mom loved them.  And I want them to keep that in their hearts always.

So I’ve asked the boys to write down a favorite memory of mom from Christmas, something that we can share, and reminisce about, something we can hold on to when it sinks in sometime, in the quiet part of the day, when it becomes too obvious that it is just us boys this Christmas.  I hope we will share these memories, and that we will laugh, and we will cry, and we will hold on to each other and to the memories of this beautiful woman, best friend, wife, the most loving mother a boy could ever ask for.  And then we will burn our gifts, and let the offering waft up to the heavens; I want this to be something we do every year.

I will share the stories of mom’s Christmas dance, of what the boys didn’t see; of the love and effort and caring that she put into even the tiniest of her Christmas preparations, of the thought that went in to each gift, and how she got blacklisted from Target for taking things back too many times even before Christmas, trying to get it just right.

I will share that Christmas represented mom giving her all, her unconditional love, to her beautiful boys.  A child doesn’t understand love, but cannot thrive without it.  My boys are doing so well, are such strong spirits and good souls, because Debbie loved them with all her heart, unconditionally, the way only a mother can.  She may be physically gone now, but that will always be Debbie’s gift to them, and to me, and it needs to live on in our hearts.

And I will share that Deb’s presents were wrapped in her hopes for everything that the boys could ever want, fulfilled.  Her decorations were put up far in advance to prepare their hearts to graciously receive gifts, and she steadfastly kept them on the right track in preparation for this day, for it’s gifts are worth the straight and narrow way, and the wait.  And her Christmas Eve party was her glorious way of sharing this love with all those she cared about.

But mostly this Christmas I will share with the boys the grace and beauty of mom dancing her most glorious dance, her Christmas dance, the dance of her love for her two boys, which she lived her life to learn, to share and to pass on…

For a Dancer – Jackson Brown

Keep a fire burning in your eye
Pay attention to the open sky
You never know what will be coming down
I don’t remember losing track of you
You were always dancing in and out of view
I must have thought you’d always be around
Always keeping things real by playing the clown
Now you’re nowhere to be found

I don’t know what happens when people die
Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try
It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear
That I can’t sing
I can’t help listening
And I can’t help feeling stupid standing ’round
Crying as they ease you down
‘Cause I know that you’d rather we were dancing
Dancing our sorrow away
(Right on dancing)
No matter what fate chooses to play
(There’s nothing you can do about it anyway)

Just do the steps that you’ve been shown
By everyone you’ve ever known
Until the dance becomes your very own
No matter how close to yours
Another’s steps have grown
In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone

Keep a fire for the human race
Let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down
Perhaps a better world is drawing near
And just as easily it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found
Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around
(The world keeps turning around and around)
Go on and make a joyful sound

Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive
And the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive
But you’ll never know

Merry Christmas, Debbie…Love you, Always and Forever

Wake Me Up When September Ends

Here comes the rain again, Falling from the stars

Drenched in my pain again, Becoming who we are

The lightning bolt this time came from the radio.  I thought I took only upbeat songs for my long morning drive to Akron that started well before dawn – I need to stay awake and focus on my upcoming presentations.  Figured Green Day was a safe bet, but here I am alongside the road, tears flowing as hard as the pelting rain in the dark night.  Forgot about this song, and it hit me like a ton of bricks…

It was a beautiful September day four years ago, a Friday evening, not a cloud in the bright blue sky, a crispness in the air hinting of fall.  Normally we’d be enjoying the end of another work and school week with the excited release of two days to do what we want.  But I remember that day spinning at the treetops, spiraling, not quite out of control, but certainly this couldn’t be reality.  We held on to each other, the four of us, two not even up to my chest, way too small to be experiencing this, all of us scared, devastated by the news delievered coldly, over the phone, to Deb – yes, you have cancer.  Stunned and stoic at first, the fear built in my head until it couldn’t be contained; I cried out loud in anguish, outside on this beautiful day, and held on to my family, my wife, knowing all too well that this wasn’t good, and for a brief moment my tears grew to unrestrained wails.  I’m sure I scared the shit out of all of us, especially my two boys, because I was scared shitless, so composure was quickly demanded.  But all four of us are shaken to the core…

I don’t know what Deb felt that day; I don’t know how she thought of that day looking back, either.  But certainly it scarred her.  Maybe the first time it was an anomaly, and certainly the odds were in her favor that she could beat this.  A round of surgery, radiation and chemo; certainly things will be looking up.  But two Septembers later, and it is a repeat, again another Friday, again another cold conversation with a rushed doctor heading out on vacation while we are left devastated, this September the news worse – it’s spread to the lymph nodes.

I didn’t notice it at first.  Jake and I had tickets to an upcoming Green Day concert; it would be his first concert.  We were listening to as much Green Day as we could to get psyched for the show.  Deb would always disappear without a word when this song came on.  I didn’t make the connection until later, when I caught her hiding her tears and I finally put two and two together.  We didn’t listen to this song again from then on…

But of course the cancer got worse.  The next round, it couldn’t even wait until September; we received the Stage IV news on a hot steamy summer August day, by far the most devastating and ominous of the three bell tolls.  By far the hardest body blow…

As my memory rests, But never forgets what I lost

Wake me up when September ends

This September, Debbie is no longer in pain, she is freed of her nightmares and the fears that accompany this disease; for that I am grateful.  But this September has been horrible for me.

The boys and I, we are still here, still trying to understand this, still trying to come to grips that life still goes on when there is no way it seems it should.  Look, there are people on their way to work, people smiling and laughing and carrying on as if nothing is wrong – but everything is wrong, everything has changed, and there is nothing good at all about this September, either.

The entire month is hell for me.  I can count on one hand the nights I have slept since late June.  I am learning all new jobs, packing lunches and doing homework and getting the kids to baseball and football and CCD and to school.  Most days I haven’t even 15 minutes to myself, or if I do, the to-do list screaming at me guilts me into cutting short any rest.  Worst, am I back to work, and the deadlines and pressures have not changed an iota; in fact they feel that much worse because I no longer have the time to do my job to the level of quality I have for the past 25 years.  I feel like I am failing at everything, my nose just a millimeter above the water, just one big wave away from drowning.  The culmination of this month from hell is September 26th, when I have two big presentations in Akron.  My sanity is held together this morning by shoestrings, and they snap when this song comes on…

Summer has come and passed, The innocent can never last

Wake me up when September ends

Where did the summer go?  Where did the spring go, or this whole year for that matter, easily the worst year of my life.  What has happened, why am I being tested like this, how much can I bear?  Wake me up when this entire year ends…

But somehow we soldier through the month, somehow I’m surviving still employed, the boys are doing well in school, and baseball season has ended and I have a week off in October.  At the vague edges of my consciousness I also aware of a growing understanding of the questions I have been asking, and recognizing that we are not the only ones going through hell, and that maybe you have to go through hell for reasons that won’t be clear for a long, long time.  It doesn’t make it any easier when you’re reduced to an emotional puddle and stretched bare to the universe, but you begin to feel that you will make it one more day, and that that’s an accomplishment to be proud of…

Life Comes at You Fast

Eventually all the pieces will fall into place, until then – laugh at the confusion, live for the moment and know that everything happens for a reason.

Remember the Nationwide ad campaign, Life Comes Fast?    Guy driving down the street, out of nowhere a wrecking ball smashes his car?  Life changes fast, I certainly get that now.  And I certainly wasn’t prepared for the wrecking ball that hit me this week – back to school.

Certainly I knew it was coming, and certainly I prepared as best I could for it.  Getting supplies and backpacks packed and haircuts and figuring out schedules and who will get the kids after school and get them to baseball and football and what happens if it’s raining and omg what the hell will I do if/when the kids get sick (that’s easy they are NEVER allowed to get sick, I’m secretly spiking their orange juice with massive doses of Airbourne every morning.)

Thought I had a handle on all of this, but I really only had a dad’s handle on it, not a primary caregiver (aka, military precision planner) perspective – someone who dots the i’s and crosses the t’s and actually makes things happen.  Thank god I’ve got an army of insurance agents (Insurance Angels?) looking out for me, steering the wrecking balls clear for now.  A flurry of phone calls and texts descended over the weekend and got me back on track for things that just magically happened in the past – money on the kids lunch accounts, understanding this new 5-day schedule (6 day at the junior high – or is that the other way around?), bringing those gym shorts and calculators we got last fall to school, and even knowing what time I actually have to have them there.  I think I’m in good hands (another insurance tag line pun, get it?) and I feel like I’ve got a whole army of Progressive Flo’s out there (alright that’s the last insurance pun, I promise!)  But seriously, thank you all, and please keep it up!!! 

But all this logical preparation couldn’t stop the emotional wrecking balls.  The emergency contact cards are probably bubbled with tear stains – that was just a major bombshell, crossing off Debbie’s name.  And Saturday night, cleaning out their backpacks, I found a handwritten note from Deb to one of the boys…lightning bolt thru the heart.

And how do the boys feel?  What is going through their heads?  Are they afraid everyone is whispering about them because “his mom died”, a completely normal thing for kids to talk about but the last thing a grade schooler wants to hear?  What happens on Muffins with Mom day?  What will they feel when everyone else is making Mother’s Day cards?  And where is mom’s smiling, comforting face, like a lighthouse in the stormy sea of the after school pick-up madness, after they’ve had a bad day? 

All I can do is my best.  I’m sure my little guys’ lunch won’t be as good, but there’s a special treat right under his three tiny carrots (at least two of which will probably come home with him.)  Some tic tacs in their packs, you know, for when the girls talk to him and he realizes he didn’t brush his teeth despite me telling him three times to do so.

So I release them into the stream of school and friends and new classes and new faces and all the challenges of growing up.  I so don’t envy them, but I so hope and pray I’ve equipped them the best I could to navigate their own wrecking balls, especially the emotional ones.  It feels overwhelming…

But I’ve got lots of help, and my Insurance Angels are everywhere this morning.  The boys’ teachers and administrators all know of the situation and sincerely pledge their help and understanding, and I know they will keep their watchful, expert eyes on them.  T’s friend’s parents help me find his room after my little guy ditches me like a hot potato as soon as he spots his friends.  And the boys’ friends will certainly provide a level of comfort and normalcy to them that I simply cannot.

And it’s these limits to what I can do that drain me on the walk home, and the day feels dark.  I want too much to be there to take care of them when they need it – but I know that I won’t always be, that I will be at work and they will be coming home with someone other than mom.  I’m feeling incredibly alone and a thousand miles from Holiday Park on the walk home.

But I’m not alone, and neither are my boys.  I run into a friend, and I realize we all go through trying times – that’s life.  We are all given crosses, but we are not alone, and things have a way of working out.  You just gotta let go, trust in God, trust in the universe, trust in the people around us, the angels in our midst – things will work out.  This is a hard lesson for me – I’ve tried so hard for so many years to plan and maintain some “control” in my life.  I can hear the gods laughing at me now, loud and clear – maybe it’s time to listen this friend’s advice.

And suddenly I realize that it is just a beautiful morning; the sunshine and blue sky is intensely in focus, the air is crisp, my heart is lighter, and angels are everywhere…

PS – Heartfelt apologies to all you moms or dads out there who handle these back-to-school duties; I get it now, it IS a tough emotional time.

Mom’s Hat

“Mourning is love with no place to go” – Anonymous

In American culture, after someone dies, there is an incredible dissension of chaos that is bestowed upon those who grieve.  It is all well-intended and probably necessary, but it creates a din, as friends and relatives, medical supply delivery persons and coroners, funeral home personnel and pizza deliveries invade the house.  The phone rings constantly, everyone vies for attention, trying to lend comfort to the most aggrieved, trying to come to grips with their own grief and incredulity.  The result is entrance to a dreamlike state, a bad dream, too, where you retreat further and further from the reality swirling around you, falling back deeper into your psyche, trying desperately to find a place in your mind that still makes sense.  Above all, you just want to be left alone to grieve.

Out of this necessary chaos I found my boys, and we huddled together alone in my darkened bedroom, the blinds shut, the door locked, just holding on to each other; and we cried.  When we were done crying, we ordered food, and we ate our sugary donut comfort food on the floor, just the three of us.  A sense of calm emerged, like being in the eye of a hurricane.

Of course we couldn’t stay locked in the room forever, despite wanting to.  The din had died down and the crowd had thinned, but I still kept my boys close, not really knowing what to do or say, but just feeling the need to be near them.  Jake asked for some alone time and went into his room: T and I could hear him softly crying, but he emerged a bit later the better for it, and we shared his feelings and tears.

Trevor, forever looking up to his big brother, asked if he could spend some time alone, too, and he closed my bedroom door behind him.  I tried not to go in, but the sound of his crying was almost unbearable.  I burst in only to have my heart truly broken – my sweet little T, only nine year’s old for god’s sake, was on his knees, crying, clutching his mom’s purse and her pink hat…

Mom lost her hair four times through her various chemo treatments, and struggled to find a wig or ball cap with a ponytail that she was comfortable wearing in public.  Eventually she found her blonde bob wig that became her trademark, and made her appear even more sunny.  But around the house she mostly wore a pretty pink hat with a coyote on it that we picked up on a family vacation in Joshua Tree National Park, the first place she actually lost her hair.  We used her hair as tinder for our campfires on that wonderful vacation, and mom in her pink hat was as comfortable to all of us as a pair of old slippers.  It was a part of mom.

Trevor clutched her hat in his tiny fingers and I wrapped him in my arms and held him close.  Our wails brought Jake, who joined our embrace, and together we let loose the belly ache cries that we needed.  When we were done mom’s hat was still there, wet with tears, and we all took turns holding it.  It still held mom’s smell, which was calming, comforting, to all of us.

Little T had led us to a gift; the next day I gripped mom’s hat at the podium while I delivered her eulogy, and Deb’s strength helped me through it.  That night, Trevor slept next to me, one arm hugging care bear, the other mom’s hat, and we made it through the night okay.  Since then, we all take turns keeping mom’s hat with us, to help get us through the night, or for strength when we have a difficult task ahead, or when one of us is just feeling lonely.  It’s a piece, just a little piece, of mom that we can still hold on to…