The Baggage We Tote Around

In this phase of my life, I sometimes find that I am a bag lady. I often spend an entire day away from my house in meetings with other writers, in workshops and webinars, and in many other activities. For example, last Saturday, I attended a writing workshop from 9:00 am until 4:00 pm. And yesterday I was a poll worker from 5:00 am until 8:00 pm—a longer day than normal, but so be it.

On days when I’m going to be away from home, I gather all the belongings I’ll need—my laptop, a notebook, lunch and drinks, and the newspaper or a magazine or my tablet in case I have downtime and want to read. This time of year, I’d better pack a coat as well. All this stuff gets crammed into a tote bag—hence the reason I call myself a bag lady.

Recently, I’ve been using an old tote of my mother’s. I have a nice black leather tote, which looks more professional. But it’s heavy and the handles sometimes fall off. I have lightweight bags, but they are getting pretty worn (I’ve sewn the strap back on one of them with ugly brown stitches, and I no longer trust the straps on another bag) and are too summery for this time of year.

So my mother’s tote it is. It’s a good quality bag, with leather handles and trim, a heavy upholstery fabric, a nice lining, and a zipper pocket inside.

But it is definitely no longer in style.

I think I gave it to Mother one Christmas back in the 1990s. The label inside the bag says it was made for the Smithsonian Institute, and I recall doing a lot of my holiday shopping from the Smithsonian catalog back in the day. Perhaps it was in 1995, the year I did all my shopping from catalogs while sitting in the back of my minivan while my daughter took horseback riding lessons.

In any event, my mother was not hard on the bag, and it was still in good shape after her death. I recall her using it some, but not a lot.

On one of my visits shortly after Mother’s death, my father and I cleaned out her clothes from the closets in all three bedrooms of their house. He kept handing me things, saying, “Here. Can you use this?” And, “Take this. It’s brand new.”

I took a few items—a sporty jacket, a raincoat, a couple of purses, and this tote bag. Most of the items I’ve since given to Goodwill. My mother and I were close to the same size, but not exactly. Plus, many of her things were too far out of style to be wearable. And our tastes were not always similar.

But I kept the tote bag. And recently, I decided to start using it.

When I carry the bag, I think of my mother. I remember her in good times and in bad. The good times include her using this or a similar bag for knitting projects, back when she knitted baby sweaters for grandchildren. The good times include her writing years, late in her life, when she joined Questors and won an essay contest for local writers.

The bad times include her last couple of years at home, after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and before she moved into an assisted living facility. During those years, she wouldn’t leave the house without three purses or totes, all crammed full of her “necessities.” These necessities included wadded up tissues, little notebooks, saltine crackers, and whatever else caught her fancy. She carried a wallet, but it didn’t have any cash. She didn’t carry car keys, as she no longer had a driver’s license.

It drove my father crazy waiting for her to gather all her bags before she would go wherever they were going. He was always early everywhere, and he fretted she would make them late.

In those bad years, she didn’t use this tote (stuffed full, she might not have been able to carry it). But she had a purse about half this size made out of a similar fabric. Even that purse weighed a ton. And she carried two other purses as well. We could usually talk her into leaving most of her bags in the car when she reached their destination, and my father would carry her “real” purse (the one with the empty wallet) when they went places. But she wouldn’t leave home without all her bags.

When I use my mother’s tote, I am reminded of these and other events marking the passage of time. Of ability and disability. Of making the best of the time we have, each day that we are given. And of the baggage that everyone carries every day—most of it inside of us, and not in the bags we tote.

What baggage do you carry?

Different Forms of Grieving

I did not plan to write this week about losing my parents—that’s a subject I’ve covered many times in this blog (see here and here for examples). But this week is the third anniversary of my mother’s death, and the topic is on my mind. Three years sounds like a long time. I’ve published two novels and drafted a third in those three years. And yet at times it feels like yesterday.

My parents at their wedding, 1955

I am bothered sometimes because I do not grieve my parents in the same way. My father’s death just six months after Mother’s was a raw wound—sudden, at a time when he still had plans for the future. He was an interesting and interested companion and conversationalist until the day he died. His death made me and my siblings orphans, and it thrust me into becoming the executor of both parents’ estates, which at times was overwhelming even for someone with a law degree. My life changed in the middle of the night when I got the call that he had died, and his passing left a gaping hole in my life.

By contrast, my mother had been declining for years as a result of Alzheimer’s. I had lost her piece by piece for several years—at least since her diagnosis in 2010, and in retrospect as far back as 2007 when I first noticed symptoms of her cognitive decline. In many ways, her death was a relief. And yet my feelings of relief provoked guilt, though my rational self told me that they should not. Her quality of life was poor, and she had been suffering physically as well as mentally.

When my maternal grandmother died in 2003, also from Alzheimer’s, I told my mother I was sorry she’d lost her mother and tried to console her. “I’m all right, Theresa,” Mother said to me. “I’ve already done my grieving.”

My parents in 2005 on one of the cruises they took, after 50 years of marriage

I understand now what she meant. I, too, did much of my grieving for my mother before she died. I remember returning home from one visit to see my parents and bursting into tears as I walked into my kitchen after the flight from Seattle to Kansas City. “I don’t have a mother anymore,” I told myself out loud. At that point, she was no longer capable of sharing her wisdom and experience, of mothering me in any meaningful fashion. Instead, when I was with her, I was her caregiver, as she had been mine in my childhood.

So my parents’ deaths affected me differently, and I have grieved them differently. This week, my realization is that grief comes as it comes, in the form that it takes, with each loss meaning something different. And that is all right.

Ecclesiastes 3:4 says there is “[a] time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” But Ecclesiastes doesn’t promise these times will occur in a linear fashion, just that “[t]here is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens.” Eccl. 3:1. (NABRE)

Another thought that comes to mind this week is that the meaning of each loss I have suffered is likely to evolve for me as time passes. But it may take many more years before I can internalize that idea, before I can see the larger patterns of weeping and laughing, of mourning and dancing in my life, and how these patterns have changed over time.

What have different losses meant in your life?

On Pillboxes and Parents

One of the things I found as I went through my parents’ memorabilia recently was a little white pillbox made of stone. I had a matching blue pillbox already on my dresser.

It wasn’t until I saw the white one that I remembered—my mother gave me the blue version many years ago. It has sat on my dresser ever since, ready to fill with pins or buttons or whatever other tiny items I needed to stash out of sight. At one point, my little pillbox contained one of my children’s baby teeth, but I don’t remember which kid or which tooth. Presumably, I got the tooth after the Tooth Fairy did.

Mother’s white pillbox, after I dissolved the pill

When I opened my mother’s white pillbox a few days ago I was surprised to see that it contained . . . a pill! I don’t know what kind of pill, but it was a white pill and it was stuck to the bottom.

During her last couple of years at home, after Mother was diagnosed with dementia, she resisted taking her pills. She took a lot of medications for a variety of physical and cognitive problems. Every morning my father put her morning doses at her place at the table beside her breakfast. And then she started a little dialogue.

“What are these?” she asked.

“Your pills,” my dad said, or if I was visiting, I’d pick up the routine.

“Do I have to take them?”


“Which should I take first?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Why do I have to take them?”

“Because the doctor said.” We found that was a much easier answer than explaining what each pill was for.

“Should I take the big one first?”

“That sounds fine.”

“Now why do I have to take these pills?”

The conversation would go on for several rounds, but ultimately, after much coaxing, she took her pills. Usually, she began with the two big fish oil pills, which she swallowed together.

At least, most days she ultimately took her pills. Occasionally, we would discover a pill she had secreted in a drawer somewhere. Or perhaps in a little white pillbox.

By the time she moved to the assisted living unit, Mother was more compliant about taking her pills. She took whatever the nurse gave her. And she was taking fewer pills by that time. It didn’t seem worth having her take the huge fish oil pills to help her high cholesterol, nor several other medications for minor ailments.

Later yet, during the last few months she was alive, she had trouble swallowing. She could only take her pills if they were mashed up in applesauce. By then, she was down to taking a blood thinner and a couple of other medications deemed essential.

Then Mother died, and my father died six months later. After his death, I went through my parents’ bathroom to clean out the cabinets and cupboards. Between the two of them, they had amassed quite a collection of prescription and over-the-counter medications. I consulted my physician brother, and we decided which OTC pills he or I could use and which should be discarded. I spent an evening flushing pills down the sink.

I inherited Mother’s tendency toward high cholesterol and triglycerides, so I brought home from that trip in early 2015 four big bottles of fish oil pills. Their expiration dates ranged between 2015 and May 2017. I had just bought two large bottles myself, so once I was home, I had enough to open my own drug store. I lined them up in order of expiration date and took them daily, as prescribed.

Two and a half years later, I am just now finishing the last bottle of my mother’s fish oil pills, the ones with the May 2017 expiration date (I’m sure taking them a month or two past that date won’t kill me). Every time I open the bottle, I think of my parents.

Two pillboxes, side by side

And when I found my mother’s little white pillbox, all these thoughts of parents and pills roamed through my head yet again.

I dissolved the pill that was in her pillbox and placed the little container on my dresser next to the blue one she gave me. They look sweet together.

What little objects do you have that bring odd memories to mind?

A Story I Couldn’t Tell Before: It’s Okay to Stop

2013-2 LSCHristmasBuffet046 (touched up)

The last picture of my mother

The last time I saw my mother was in mid-June 2014—just over two years ago. That was the trip during which she spit out the Communion host, which I then had difficulty disposing of. This week-long visit gave me my last memories of my mother before she died.

Mother had been hospitalized for a gallbladder issue the week before I visited. Surgery to remove her gallbladder was not an option because her physical and mental disabilities would not allow her to cooperate in the post-surgical care. So, while her infection had been healed, she wasn’t eating much and was physically frail. Moreover, her mental acuity had ratcheted down even further, which often happens when Alzheimer’s patients get ill. She was not well.

Every morning during my trip, my father and I went to see her in the dementia care facility where she lived. Dad liked to be there when Mother was brought to the dining room for breakfast. She couldn’t feed herself any more, and his daily routine included feeding her breakfast, then sitting with her for an hour or two.

On the first or second morning I was there, Dad left Mother and me in the dining room and went to talk to one of the staff. Mother had barely touched her breakfast, so I continued to try to feed her.

“How about a bite of pancake?” I suggested, placing a piece on a fork against her lips. I coaxed her to eat. She rejected the food or took a bite and then didn’t chew it.

She kept saying, “It’s too much.”

Did she mean the pancakes? I asked her what was too much.

“Stuff,” she said. I couldn’t get her to explain any further.

A bit later, she said, “I can’t take it any more.” And she told me she was tired.

“What can’t you take?”

“You know. It.”

Because her verbal abilities were so limited, she couldn’t explain what she meant. I didn’t know whether she was expressing normal fatigue, whether she didn’t want any more breakfast, or whether she was trying to tell me she was ready to die. I suspected the last, and I didn’t know what to say.

Mother repeated similar comments throughout my week-long visit.

“It’s too much.”

“I can’t take it any more.”

And she shook her head when I asked her to explain further.

It seemed like she was telling me she was done with her struggle, that she was ready to let go of life. But I didn’t know whether to ignore what she was saying or whether to soothe her with promises everything would be all right.

Or whether to tell her it was all right not to fight any more, that it was all right if she wanted to slip into death.

I wanted to tell her it was okay to die. I wanted to tell her we would miss her, but if she was ready, she should go. I wanted to tell her I loved her, and I didn’t want to see her tired and in pain. Her quality of life was poor, and her family’s love should not keep her in a struggle she did not want.

“It’s okay to stop,” I wanted to tell her. “If you can’t take it any more, it’s okay to let go.”

But if all she wanted was a nap, then how could I tell her any of this?

So I said nothing.

When I left to go back to my home halfway across the country, I kissed her cheek. “Good-bye,” I said. “I love you.” I wasn’t planning to return for several months, and I thought I was probably seeing her for the last time.

The week after I left, my father placed her into palliative care. Two weeks after that, she died, and I returned to help my father with her funeral and other plans.

I’m sure now that she’d been trying to tell me she was finished. And I wish I’d told her it was okay.

When have you left something unsaid you wish you had said?

First Signs of My Mother’s Dementia

2007-1 MFC TTC in DC May 2007

My parents, May 2007, in Washington, D.C.

I think about my mother’s early signs of dementia a lot in May, because I first wondered whether she was getting Alzheimer’s in May 2007.

It was the weekend that my daughter graduated from Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C. My parents had joined my husband, my two children, and me for the celebration. We spent a long weekend in D.C. and had time to visit some of the Smithsonian Museums. Early one afternoon, some of us were walking from one museum to another on the Mall. As we crossed a busy street, cars whizzing past from both directions, my mother seemed frightened. I grabbed her hand, as if she had been five years old, and I towed her along behind me. It seemed so natural to treat her like a child, to guide her as if she were unable to get herself through the traffic.

I asked myself a few days later in my journal whether she had Alzheimer’s—her own mother had died of the disease a few years earlier. But in my journal entry, I noted her increasing physical frailties also, reflecting at least as much concern for her physical ailments as for her mental capabilities. I reasoned that the distress I’d seen in her could have been due to her fear that she wouldn’t be able to walk fast enough across the street.

My husband told me after our trip to D.C. that he had been shocked at how much my mother talked to herself. That hadn’t bothered me—she had always talked to herself! She had that propensity even when I was a child, and my children had remarked on it when they went to visit.

I also knew my mother had had a panic attack in the Vatican in the spring of 2006—a year before our graduation trip. My parents were attending an Easter Mass celebrated by the Pope, and the crowds overwhelmed my mother. She felt faint, and a policeman found my parents seats near the altar. My mother believed it was divine intervention—her anxiety got them a great view of the Mass. But I wonder now if her panic in the crowd was an early symptom of Alzheimer’s.

But we ignored these early signs. And we ignored them for a couple more years. When I visited, I noticed she repeated herself more and more. My worries deepened, but they didn’t really become significant until 2009. In early 2009, she had some serious back problems and a blood chemistry imbalance. My father attributed her increasing forgetfulness and inability to think rationally to the medications she was on.

She got worse—more repeated conversations, less ability to work household appliances (like the microwave), forgetting phone numbers and daily tasks.

My father finally took her for an neurological evaluation in early 2010, and that’s when the dementia was diagnosed. It was downhill from there. By 2012, she couldn’t be left alone. In January 2013, she moved into assisted living. She stopped walking a few months later. She moved into the dementia unit where she lived in late 2013, and died in July 2014.

From the first time the possibility of dementia occurred to me in 2007 until her death was just over seven years—fairly typical. I’ll always wonder whether she would have survived longer had I spoken up sooner, had she been diagnosed earlier and been treated sooner. Probably it wouldn’t have made much difference. The medications that are available can slow the progress of the disease for a bit, but typically not for long.

Alzheimer’s is a dreadful disease, stealing personality and capability bit by bit. I remember coming home from one visit and sobbing as I realized I didn’t have a mother any more—her ability to counsel and console was gone. I regretted the years when she was healthy and I didn’t enjoy her presence more.

Yesterday, on Mother’s Day, I thought of my mother and wished her last years hadn’t happened the way they did. But we don’t get to choose how or when we pass from this world. She bore her illness with more patience and fortitude than those around her, and she mourned the possibility of passing the disease to her children as much as her own decline.

When have you been reluctant to recognize a medical problem?

My Mother’s Last Doll

Mother's little guy

My mother’s little guy

I’ve written before about my first doll. I’ve written about my mother’s Storybook Bride doll that I could never play with. And I’ve written about the sewing doll that my grandmother and I made clothes for. This post is about my mother’s last doll.

It wasn’t really a doll. It was a knitted humanoid figure stuffed with cotton batting. My mother’s college friend made it for her, along with a matching hat and scarf. She sent these items after my mother moved into assisted living because of her Alzheimer’s Disease.

By that time, Mother wasn’t walking and stayed in the building almost all the time. She only went outside to go to doctor appointments and an occasional wheeling around the premises in good weather. She didn’t need the hat and scarf.

But she kept that stuffed creature with her always. She called it her “little guy.”

“Where’s my little guy?” she asked whenever it wasn’t in her lap.

My father always gave it to her before he wheeled her out to meals. “Here’s your little guy,” he told her.

Many Alzheimer’s patients need a lot of tactile sensation as their more complex cognitive abilities diminish. They rub at their clothes or pick at furniture, or find something to keep their fingers moving. Some adopt dolls or stuffed animals as “loveys”, just as toddlers do.

Before Mother had her little guy, she ran her fingers over the tablecloth at meals and on her trousers when she wasn’t at the table. The soft yarn on the little guy seemed to fill a need. I don’t know if my mother realized that her good friend had knit the doll for her or not.

The two friends met for the last time in Monterey, California, in February 2011. My parents had rented a house in Carmel that month, and I spent a week with them there. While I was there, Mother’s friend, who lives in Sacramento, California, drove down for a visit.

Mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s by then. Her abilities had diminished significantly, but she knew her friend well on that visit. We had lunch on Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey, and afterward the friend and I shared a few tears at Mother’s decline. I know it hurt this fifty-plus-year friend of my mother’s to see how much Mother had lost. My mother had been the smart one in their college group, while the friend was more artsy. But she was far more competent than my mother that February afternoon.

It was about two years later that the friend sent Mother the hat, scarf, and doll.

MTH first doll and little guy

Mother’s last doll and my first doll

After my mother died, my father and I packed up most of her clothes to give away. But a few things didn’t find their way into the Goodwill bags. When my father died just six months later, my siblings and I found the knitted little guy, together with the doll I later determined had been my first doll.

I don’t know how these two dolls came to be together. As I wrote in an earlier post, I didn’t even know the origins of the other doll until I saw the picture of my first Christmas.

But somehow it seems fitting that my first doll and my mother’s last doll stayed together. I’ve kept them both. They are still together.

March 4 would have been my mother’s 83rd birthday. I will be thinking of her, and of her friend who knit the little guy.

What “lasts” do you remember about a loved one?

A Year of Firsts: On Losing and On Finding Again

My mother died on July 4 last year, so I am completing a year of firsts—the first Thanksgiving without her, the first Christmas, her birthday in early March, St. Patrick’s Day (a big holiday for her), Easter, Mother’s Day, and now the anniversary of her death.

In many ways, I lost her several years ago, because of the long, slow deterioration that Alzheimer’s causes. When I sent her cards and phoned her on holidays and other occasions after her diagnosis, we didn’t really communicate. She didn’t write back to me. She didn’t speak well on the phone, making our conversations very brief. So the firsts this past year often have not felt like firsts—just more of the same, but with less effort on my part.

For the past several years, the only times I felt we communicated were when I visited in person. Even then, she didn’t talk much. And once she moved into assisted living, we had only an hour or two a day together when my father and I went to her facility, usually over breakfast.

On one visit about a year before she died, I sat with her after breakfast in a lovely sun room in her facility overlooking a bay on Puget Sound. She stared at me.

I remembered my mother’s stares well from childhood, when she glared as she chastised me. That morning in the sun room, I was uncomfortable with her hawk-like gaze fixed on me, just as I had been when I was five.

“What are you looking at?” I asked her.

“I don’t want to lose you,” she said.

I laughed. “You won’t lose me,” I said. “I’m right here.”

She kept staring.

Later I wondered whether she knew she was losing her memories, one by one, and was trying to imprint my image on her brain so she would remember who I was. (I think she knew me all the way through my last visit to see her just a few weeks before she died.)

With her death, of course, we have lost each other, at least for the time being, even if the “firsts” have not always hit home with me.

But through this past year, I have found my mother as well. Her laughter has sounded in my head like I hadn’t heard it in years, and I have felt her contentment, her freedom from Alzheimer’s.

My mother giving me an early reading lesson

My mother and me in my “Boom-Boom Bunny” days

I’ve read what she wrote in my baby book and those of my siblings. What she wrote seemed silly to me—she filled out my baby book from the point of view of me as a baby:

“. . . my very special pleasure was to laugh and ‘talk’ to the bunny rabbits on my bedroom curtains. Mummy named them for me: the yellow bunnies were ‘Sunny Bunny’, the pink were “Honey Bunny”, and the blue were “Funny Bunny”—but I was the fourth bunny—“Boom Boom Bunny”.

But then, she was just 23 when I was born, and still 24 when she had her second child, so I suppose she was entitled to be silly.

My youngest brother told me our mother used to sing “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” with him when he was a preschooler. I never knew that—or had forgotten, and I was glad to know she still had some silly left in her when he came along in her mid-thirties. My memories of her in those years were of the glaring disciplinarian, so I found her silliness again through my brother’s story.

I have also found her this past year in the travel journals she kept and in the paper she wrote on Eleanor of Aquitaine for her Questers group. I found her in notes she left in books. I found her in sympathy cards from her friends after her death, in which they wrote about how much they always loved getting her letters. I found her also in the stories my father told between her death and his, and in the many pictures of both my parents that I pulled together for first her funeral and then his.

So this year, a year of loss, has also been a year of recovery. As will be the next year and the next. I imagine I will feel both loss and recovery for many years to come. If some friends are correct, perhaps for the rest of my life.

How have you recovered from the losses in your life?