Friday, December 11, 2009

"I will do my part" -- giving the Christmas gift of a good death

This Christmas, my sisters and I are giving my mother a good death. Preparing for a present like this has taken us many years. Once we knew Mom had Alzheimers, we also knew we wanted her to stay at home for as long as imaginable to be supported by and supportive of my father. They live in a Victorian house and sometimes my older sister Nancy said it was like balancing everything on a toothpick. When my mother had a stroke six months ago, we moved to twenty-four hour care instead of the daytime care we then had in place. And now the work of caregiver interviews, the work of responding to emerging needs over the years, the work of being committed to them living an old age of dignity and as much independence as possible, is coming to fruition. I don’t know if we ever thought of it as having a point of fruition, but now in this bleak midwinter, in these days of windstorms that snatch our electricity away and snowstorms that challenge anyone on the road (except our intrepid caregivers), as our village is blanketed by beautiful white flakes and the ground is buried by the snow, now my mother, when she needs it, can have it – a good death.

She’s in a bed, not her own, a hospital bed, but it’s her own bed right now. And she has her family around her. My father sings songs to her, when able. We hold her hand and we talk to her, and we are reading from Mama’s Bank Account, about a Norwegian-American mother at the turn of the twentieth century. And we know this is our Mama, the archetypal Norwegian-American Mama, resourceful, funny, determined Mama, whose recipes have names like lutefisk, yulekage, leftsa, rumegrat. I know a Mama who prepared hot chocolate and spritz cookies; a Mama with a daughter with a desire to be a writer.

So we read these stories, we take turns, each sister, one holding her hands, and one reading, and one sitting in a rocking chair as the snow falls outside, snow on snow. We know that out mother is comfortable, and we know that our mother is loved and experiencing our love, and we take our tears to another room, where we decorate the Christmas tree, and we clothe this old Victorian house in more Christmas lights than its ever known. And we think of how some of the Christmas carols that talk about welcoming birth could just as easily be talking about giving a good death.


I wake up early in the morning and look out my window at a winter wonderland, and I know that because I’ve slept through the night, all is calm downstairs. And I feel the intersection of mythic stories and the Christmas story. The tender loving care that a babe in a manger needs, a dying person needs. Like birthing, dying is a holy time. We struggle to accept the mystery of it. Our primary caregiver, Freddie, is now a midwife of the soul. She is teaching us all. Each night here, is a holy night. And as this silent night passes into a snowy morning, I know I can go downstairs and do again the things we did yesterday and the day before. The things that all together are giving my mother, I pray, a good death.

In the bleak midwinter, what can I give? I will do my part. I give my heart to this, to this gift that my mother most needs: a good death.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Leaving Our Mothers


Of all the anonymous people who have influenced my life, a special place is held by a Norwegian immigrant farmer who hired my grandmother to help with household chores. My grandmother, Nellie, had been orphaned at eight and raised by an elderly childless aunt and uncle. She was a teenager, when, around 1910 or so, she went to work for the nearby farmer, helping to cook and clean up. What happened exactly, I don’t know. When I interviewed my mother and her sister in the 1990s about their childhood, they each reported that the farmer had chased their mother around the kitchen table. He influenced my mother because he terrified her mother. This early experience of sexual harassment made Nellie extremely suspicious of men and, when she married, extremely protective of her two daughters born fourteen months apart.

Protective is perhaps too kind. Her mother saw the world as a dangerous place for women, and she kept her girls near her, suffocatingly so. Add to that, she was strict. She allowed her son, Robert, the third child, the freedom to roam; with his bicycle he could wherever he wanted after school. My mother and her sister had to come straight home. He could invite friends over; he could go to friend’s houses. Toni Morrison in her elegant Playing in the Dark says that the enslavement of African-Americans in the first part of the nineteenth century heightened the meaning of liberty for whites. It’s as though whites needed to illustrate how free they were by how enslaved others were.

My mother and my sister experienced the reverse: they knew how homebound they were by their brother’s freedom to roam. Their lives seemed all the more restricted in the face of their brother’s freedom to exit and return. If there had been no brother, Margaret and Muriel would still have had to come home after school, would still have had an overcautious mother, but they would not have been reminded daily that it was because they weren’t boys that their lives were so constrained. My mother had an abiding sense of the injustice to women at being treated differently.

I read somewhere that we are always leaving our mothers. Our arrival in the world is also a departure from their body as our world. Both Margaret and Muriel were bright girls. Muriel was valedictorian of her class. St. Olaf offered her a scholarship, but it was the Depression, her parents didn’t really understand how such funding worked, nor even how college worked. College was not a way out.

During the height of the Depression, these two young women plotted how to escape their mother and their small town. Margaret hit upon an idea: Mom would teach and put Margaret through school; then Margaret would get a job and put Mom through school. My mother went to work in a one room school room in rural Minnesota, and sent money to Minneapolis to support Margaret as she went through business college (secretarial school). After two years my mother was going to join her in Minneapolis, and Margaret, armed with her degree and a job would put my mother through business college. My mother quit her job, and then learned that Margaret had not yet earned enough money for Mom to come to Minneapolis. So my mother had to take a job in another town, another one room schoolroom. It was a miserable year.

Finally, she was liberated into life in the big city. What a grand time they had. We need more stories about single women and the lives they led at the end of the 1930s and the early 1940s. They each landed great jobs for women at that time. They golfed; they played bridge; they had women friends. The world of Minneapolis was theirs!

When World War II broke out, Margaret joined the Women’s Army Corps and Muriel the Red Cross. Mom was sent to Hawaii. When the war was over, Margaret was stationed in Japan, and Mom was engaged to be married. She was coming home. She wrote to her parents telling them of her arrival time at the train station. She got off of the train and looked for her parents. No one was there. She waited for a while, watching to see them arrive. No one showed up to pick her up. She was confused. She had sent the time of her train’s arrival. What happened?

Finally, she grabbed a taxi and took it to the house. She asked her mother why her father wasn’t at the train station. Her mother told her she did not send her father to great her at the train station because she had disapproved of her going to Hawaii, because Muriel had not asked for permission to join the Red Cross. (At the time, she was thirty years old!).

My mother encouraged her daughters to leave home early and often – if we wanted. We all went abroad as teenagers. We knew a warm welcome was always awaiting us. And we all know where we want to be right now. They are there; I’ll be joining them soon.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Life She Has Led

Her life, now, is constrained by dementia, age, and a recent stroke. But my mother’s fascinating and full life stretches from the beginnings of the Great War to the mess of Afghanistan, 2009. The daughter of a Norwegian immigrant, one of her jobs at General Mills in the early 1940s was answering letters as Betty Crocker. She knew the whirlwind nature of a World War II romance. In 1957, as the United States was fretting about the implications of the Russian launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, she designed a Sputnik Halloween costume for her first grader. In the 1960s, she helped women get abortions and advocated for migrant workers. By 1970, she participated in the Women’s Strike for Equality (and wondered if my father noticed she hadn’t cooked dinner that night). Without the resources of Facebook to keep her family connected, she wrote wonderful letters (in triplicate – one for each daughter). Now, she is in a fragile state of health. But this simply means it is not too late to celebrate this American woman – who never accepted “No” as a final answer. I say “Yes!,” a resounding yes to the life she has led.

Let me plunk her down in the middle of the 1960s in a chicken coop. She’s gone there with Willard, a physics professor and a Quaker, his wife Laura, and Tom, a Methodist minister. They are there to clean it. Dried, flaking chicken shit is flying everywhere. All of them have been very involved in improving the living conditions of the migrant workers who arrived in Western New York every summer to pick crops. Each year in January, farmers would fly to Puerto Rico to hire laborers. Then, when they were needed, the men would be flown to Buffalo and from there be taken to lodgings the farmers provided. Mom and her friends had learned that a local farmer planned on keeping his migrant workers in an old chicken coop. They went to inspect it and were shocked by its condition.

That day they returned with buckets, soap, rags, and determination. With my mother (and the others as well) determination always prevailed. After hours of cleaning, they felt the place was habitable. And for many, many years, they laughed about the day that they returned home covered in white.

My father was a local attorney, and represented many of the farmers whom Mom was encountering in her work to improve migrant camp conditions. On another occasion, Willard and Mom went to the migrant camp of one of the large growers in Chautauqua County. Each spring, he brought about thirty-five men up from Puerto Rico to help him plant the tomatoes and vegetables. In the summer, he would add more men to help with the picking. By the fall, when the grapes had to be picked, he had about eighty-five men in his lodging. The rooms that housed the men were each about 8 by 10 feet, with double bunks. The little stove they had to cook on was an open gas flame burner. The cook slept on one of the bunks in the second tier, and had hung a blanket from the ceiling to keep the light from the open gas burner out of his eyes. The blanket was suspended perilously close to the open flame. Willard and Mom saw this fire trap and Mom reported it to the gas company. The gas company came and replaced the open stove with vent pipes and an enclosed heater.

The farmer was really angry about that because the gas company immediately sent him the bill. The next time the farmer saw Willard he referred to my father, who was the farmer’s lawyer. The farmer complained, “he’s such a good lawyer, if he could only control his wife.”

I love these two stories! Before anyone claimed that shit happens (and caregivers know that fact for a truth better than anyone!), we kids knew that chickenshit happens, hazardous conditions exist, and as a result advocacy and good buckets are always needed. Yes, Mom showed us how chickenshit happens. It’s what you do about it that matters.