My Mom: Memories of Love and Loss

My mom made the biggest impact on me from anyone I have ever known. She has been gone for six years and I haven’t written anything about her, not even notes.

Why?

Grief.

I couldn’t handle jotting down ideas. It’s still too fresh, but at the same time it feels like it’s been a million years without her.

Today is Mother’s Day.

I am ready to share.

I think.

Violets hold strong memories for me. It started with a violet that first belonged to my grandma. The porch off the kitchen of my grandma’s farmhouse was a greenhouse of sorts during the summer months. The light was perfect to grow an assortment of plants, one being violets. One such violet came to my mom when my grandma died from cancer. It was already huge but continued to thrive for another fifteen or so years. My mom had a knack like my grandma. It went uncared for when my mom was so sick and I thought it was past help when I discovered it. I took it to a local gardening store for a second opinion with the hope that I was wrong. Unfortunately, they agreed with me. However, I decided to give it one more try before I gave in to what I thought was inevitable. Do you know what happened? The violet came back! It had more blooms on it than ever. I started many new plants from the grandmother violet. Many of those have been redistributed to family, friends, and former co-workers.

Eventually, the grandmother violet stopped thriving. Its stem arched and twisted like an arthritic finger. It was very old and long past its expected lifespan. Being so twisted, I didn’t notice when the stem broke away from the roots. By the time I did, it was too late. I struggled to throw it out. I rescued it and had kept it going for years. It was a visual reminder of my mom and grandma. I couldn’t lose it on top of all I had already lost. One day, I finally accepted it was gone, and took what was left and buried it, figuring it was better to return it to the earth than chuck it in the garbage. Something that held so much value didn’t belong in the trash, discarded like it meant nothing.

It meant a lot.

I also needed to reframe how I thought about this magnificent violet. It was a life-giving plant. So many new plants came from one plant, much like the offspring from my grandma in my family tree. Friends and family still send me photos when the violets I’ve given them bloom. In this way, I feel like small parts of my family live on. Maybe the memories are just mine, but good memories deserve to keep blooming. Violets in bloom do this for me with fond memories of two of my favorite people.

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These are two of the many violets in my home.

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Now that I’ve chosen to write about my sweet mom, allow me to share a couple more memories.

I remember one summer day when she was mowing the back lawn. My father was still alive and not yet retired. I was also out in back reading and not being helpful. Yes, I know I should have helped more. The mower had stopped. She restarted it and the mower lurched forward with remarkable speed and headed across the lawn. It was a self-propelled model. My mom grabbed it and held on as her little short legs hurried to keep up with it. She regained control so it didn’t careen into a tree. I know I probably shouldn’t be smiling right now, but smiles are better than tears.

Another time she was outside gardening in a flowerbed I had encouraged her to start. I was older and home visiting for the weekend. This memory finds me once again out in back not being helpful. She stood up a little too fast from weeding and lost her balance. With surprising agility, she jumped over the flowerbed and just kept running across the yard until she slowed to a stop. I didn’t know she had that athletic ability in her! The flowerbed was a source of enjoyment for many years. Black-eyed Susans thrived and prospered.

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Black-eyed Susans took over the garden.

When I moved back to my hometown and got a teaching job at my former elementary school, my mom was there to help. I would bring her to school to help set up my classroom at the end of summer. She was my number one helper. Truthfully, she was my only helper. My mom did a good job cutting out laminated materials, putting up bulletin boards, and other small odds and ends that were huge time savers. She was great company. I’d stop by and visit a bit after the first day of school and let her know how the day went. I have countless memories of her being in my corner.

Another frequent memory I have of my mother is how she’d expect me to know answers to her questions without providing me much (any) information. She called me up so many times to ask, “Who’s that person that we saw at that place doing that thing?” I knew her so well. Most times I could figure it out. We talked every day. I miss that a lot. Whereas I can still talk to her, the conversations are not quite the same. I wrote to her in a grief journal for a few years after she died. It provided a much-needed connection that was part of my grieving and healing work.

We took many trips to Door County in summers when it was just the two of us. It was so easy to travel with her. We walked on trails not knowing where they would lead. Thankfully, they were always circular and we ended back where we started. We indulged in cherry desserts at dinner. We savored ice cream at two particular ice cream establishments. Our pace was never hurried. Sometimes we just sat by the water and visited. We watched a couple of beautiful sunsets. One year she got three consecutive holes-in-one at miniature golfing. She didn’t mind the attention it drew. I am glad there are memories of her around every corner when I visit today.

My mom died from metastatic breast cancer. It was painful to watch her worsen for her last final months. Slowly. Irreversibly. All the while, I was recovering from treatments from the very thing that was killing her. Pain for her. Pain for me. The various benchmarks of death inching closer are not things I care to remember. It’s excruciatingly hard to forget images that haunt me. Trauma mixes in with grief. I look far too much like her. Most of the time I consider this a very good thing. I can even see how she looked like my grandma. It’s when I relive memories of my mom during her last days that I’m not so fond of the resemblance.

These gut-wrenching memories don’t help me. They serve me in no positive way. There is no beauty in them. I am never going to be glad for those moments. It’s really hard work, but I am trying to shift to happier memories when the bad ones get triggered. Happy times are the beautiful moments filled with joy that I’m glad to remember. I finally started my list of happy memories I don’t want to forget. They are nothing more than bullet styled ideas that I can add details to later.

Grief is a lot like paper in a paper shredder . . . the original piece of paper still exists but has changed to an unrecognizable form. It will never be the same again. It never can be put back together. Maybe the paper gets recycled and becomes whole once more, but it’s a different wholeness with different print and perhaps a different texture.

Another shredding is always possible.

That’s grief.

I still have moments where I feel completely shredded.

March and April are months that are filled with more grief for me than other months. May historically is a happy month for me. I am always glad when May arrives. Mother’s Day isn’t meant to be sad. It is for many though who have a sick mother, have recently lost their mother, yearn to become a mother, or may even be a mom herself who isn’t well.

Grief shows up on unexpected days as easily as on expected days like birthdays, anniversaries, or holidays. It comes and goes in waves. I can be okay at a funeral or visitation and then almost lose it in a grocery store. Whenever grief washes over me, I need to acknowledge it and let it pass. It washes back out to an imagined sea soon enough. Grief is ongoing. I swim in it, towel off, and am okay until the next wave. I work through grief and try not to get stuck there. No one should stay stuck in grief.

On Mother’s Day, I need to focus on good memories. The disturbing memories I have need to be banished, or at least minimized, so I don’t have a visceral reaction. So I don’t stay stuck. There is no point in remembering my mom immobile and unresponsive in a hospital bed, still breathing but unable to eat, speak, or open her eyes, and already gone in so many ways. When I look at photos of my mom in better days, she is happy. These remind me of pleasant memories. Even if I’m not in the picture, I go back and am happy in that moment again with her. Happy memories are the places I need to linger every day and not just on Mother’s Day.

I close my eyes and let the good memories fill my heart.

I see her stand in the front window where she’d always wave goodbye to me.

I hear her voice and uncontrollable laughter.

I smell the angel food cake she always baked for my birthday.

I taste her special cran-raspberry and lemon jello dessert salad.

If I try hard, I feel my mother’s hug.

I know how much I was loved.

That’s the best memory of all and never leaves me.

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Doom Dibbling or Hope Harvesting

Have you ever heard of a dibble?

How about a doom dibbler?

I was truly lucky to have my amazing dad in my life for 26 years.

I am equally fortunate that I carried over so many valuable memories and words of wisdom into my life today. Too many to share here, but there are a few that lend themselves effortlessly to being hopeful and resilient.

My father used many inspiring sayings that have stayed with me over the years. I don’t feel I experienced a lot of hardships growing up, but he would often fall back on the tried and true, “When the going gets tough, the tough gets going.” Apparently, this phrase is attributed to either JFK’s father or Knute Rockne. My dad would say it whenever I needed a little extra encouragement and the impossible loomed. My dad thought most things were possible. Sending the tough on its way has a lot to do with resiliency. A resilient person has the courage to bounce back and deflect tough things because he or she is tougher. Being tough and strong is the only choice. Some see this as stubbornness. I take those words as a compliment because the tough has to get going. So long, tough. You are not welcome here. Get going and be gone. My inner toughness will prevail.

My father was one of the pivotal hopeful figures in my life. He made me feel like I mattered every day. His positive outlook and upbeat attitude were repeated over and over from people who knew him at his visitation and funeral. I already knew these things, but it is so important that he spread hope to others. I believe that it’s part of his legacy. What qualities did he have that made me feel like I mattered? He was always in my corner. He spent time with me every day and sang me bedtime songs. He read to me. He loved watching me play tennis, win or lose. He drove me back and forth from home to college almost every day during my fifth year so I could live at home and save money. He drove me to job interviews and waited in the car until I was done. We had good talks. He made me laugh. He really believed I could do anything.

Another one of his key phrases was not to be a doom dibbler. JFK’s dad or Knute had nothing to do with this one. It is an original Dad concept! Really, I never thought dibble was even a real word. He had a way of mispronouncing things and getting some words wrong. He was raised in a German-speaking home so this was typical for him. I figured he had made it up, but I knew what he meant. Much to my surprise, dibble actually is a word! As a verb, it means to make a hole in the soil with a tool (from the noun called a dibble) for seeds or young plants. His background was in farming and agriculture, so now I understand doom dibbling on a whole new level.

He knew exactly what he was saying.

My dad didn’t just want me to stop whining about something and have a positive outlook.

He didn’t want me to plant that seed of doom that would grow larger and larger.

Doom dibblers get bogged down in negativity and worry. Constant emphasis on what undoubtedly will go wrong becomes toxic and central to their world. Are you thinking Debbie Downer? Womp-womp. Nothing is or ever will be right. What if the worst happens? It becomes central to their identity as a doom dibbler. Doom is quite an ugly word. Do not be a doom dibbler.

Become a hope dibbler instead. Perhaps a hope harvester better expresses the sentiment. Emphasis on the positive spreads that energy in the world. Use whatever dibble you have to plant the seed of HOPE and watch it grow. What if it all works out? Imagine all the wonderful possibilities. My dad knew a lot about hope. Yep, he definitely was a hope harvester.

My dad also had a habit of writing me notes that I’d discover tucked away in my slippers when I was home for the weekend or he’d mail them to me in college. Little stick figure sketches of himself, our dog, or Bucky Badger were included. A twenty-dollar bill was usually clipped to the notes. Little words of wisdom were also included. We were a close family who spoke regularly and saw each other every weekend. Yet, he’d still send weekly letters filled with words of hope and wisdom. Hope was a message in almost every note I saved. Usually the notes began that he hoped all was well. He was so eager to hear about school and support my studies in any way he could.

“You are such an outstanding young person. Do share with us all your accomplishments.”

Well, shucks. See what I mean about him being in my corner? These notes were my own personal cheering section. I cherish them now more than ever. Yes, I’ve kept them. His hopeful words and messages transcend time.

On one note he wrote that smooth sailing didn’t make good sailors. (I don’t know the source for this advice. It probably isn’t JFK’s dad or Knute.) He owned a recreational motorboat before he married my mother. He kept the boat after they married, but it was used infrequently. I remember playing in it when it was stored on one half of our home’s garage. I never thought of my dad as much of a sailor, but I’ve often come back to his comment about sailing.

Sailor or landlubber, the point was that hardships help us learn and grow.

In the end, they shape our character and strengthen our spirit. Hope plays a role because you land on your feet a stronger person after going through the struggles.

Another repeated theme in his weekly notes was on the value of saving money. I always thought I had been good at saving money, but maybe I’ve been good at it because of his influence with his notes. On some notes, I’d find articles attached on investing. In one note he wrote, “You’ll find a short article on the value of investing early for retirement. I know you’re young and still going to school, but it doesn’t hurt to have your ideas focused for future investment moves. Enclosed are a few dollars.”

I hope you hit the jackpot when you were given your father. I know I did, and even though he’s been gone for over twenty years, he’s never left my heart. Some of you reading this may have had the good fortune to know him. My words really can’t do him justice. Maybe my memories have made you smile with some of your own about special people you’ve known in your life. Thank you, Dad, for all the love and hope you gave me, and for everything.

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