Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Still with us

We sit by my mother's hospital bed in shifts. We often wonder whether she will take another breath.
It has been eight days since my mother made her decision to terminate medical care. We thought she would leave us sooner. But she lingers on, with intermittent and often labored breathing. She knows we are by her side.
Music plays in the background. Her favorite CDs on her Bose. Rod Stewart, Mary Beth Carlson. Wintersongs, Lakeside Retreat. Soothing for Mom; soothing for us.
The hospital offers gentle massages and music therapy. We are so appreciative of their care. They ask if there's anything they can do for us. They bring us pillows, food, offer us coffee.
The days pass. Friends and family call for updates. There are none. Still sleeping, we say. Not responsive, merely breathing, pulse steady.

We have been taught that God's timing is perfect, but still we find ourselves questioning. She is no longer with us but in another place, an in-between place, it would seem. We have all told her to go in peace; that we would be okay and her work is done now. We'll take over, we reassure her. We have thanked her for the character and virtues and values she has given us.
Then trust takes over. It is not our journey, but hers. Not our moments with God, but hers. We have had our turn having her with us. We are not in control. A hard lesson for us, but we acquiesce.
We continue to be amazed at her grace, beauty and courage. And we are so grateful to be here to share Mom's last days.
We are blessed.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas past

Christmas was a very special time for our family of eight growing up. We were involved in a number of festive activities throughout the season.

Since Dad was very active in the American Legion, there was always a lively Christmas party at the Legion clubrooms on Selby Avenue, with Santa Claus making an appearance and passing out bags of candy, apples and popcorn balls. We wore our best holiday garb to this event. Swishy dresses, petticoats and black patent leather shoes. A bowtie for my little brother. New hats and furry muffs.

Then there was our Sunday School program at church, requiring us to memorize and recite our “pieces” - portions of the Nativity story as recorded in Matthew, Luke or John; and singing “How Glad I Am Each Christmas Eve.” We were rewarded for our efforts following the program when we would each get a red mesh stocking filled with hard candy.

Our wrapped Christmas presents were kept in Dad’s den, off the dining room. Only once did I sneak a peek at one with my name on it, carefully loosening the cellophane tape from a gift sent through the mail by Aunt Loretta (who always sent us walnuts from their Oregon orchard, along with my gift as her God-daughter).

I slid the little box out from its wrapping very slowly so I could return it without looking like it was ever disturbed. Imagine my disappointment to discover a book to record birthdays in, with a cross and Bible on its plastic cover.

Now, at ten years old, what did I care about recording people’s birthdays? I was crushed that it wasn't something amazing that I really wanted.  But, it cured me, and I’ve never peeked at another gift in advance since.

Our Christmas Eve family celebration began with dinner, served in the dining room, not the kitchen. Rice pudding was served first, a Scandinavian tradition. Served warm and topped with cream and a cinnamon-sugar mixture, what made it really special was that it contained one almond, randomly hidden in one serving. The randomness of this was called into question as we grew older and wondered how winning the almond seemed to rotate so evenly among us from year to year.

But with great anticipation, we quickly dug around to inspect our serving of rice pudding. When the nut was found and the lucky recipient shouted out, a prize was awarded, usually a small toy or candy. Those of us who didn’t get the nut that evening somehow knew there would be another year and our turn was bound to come around.

Then it was time for gift opening.

The nut recipient was awarded the honor of doling out the gifts under the tree. Wrapping paper flew, ribbons were broken, and I don’t remember a time when we were disappointed. Mom always knew what each of us wanted.

There were dolls, games, skates, Tinker Toys, doll furniture, doll dishes, cars and trucks gleefully opened and exclaimed over. One year, the doll of the season was “Tiny Tears” and you could actually feed this doll water from a baby bottle and it would wet its diaper. Then there was the "Ginny" doll.

One year, my sister, Christine, and I each got a doll that looked like a little girl, not a baby doll. As we searched for names for our new dolls, I decided on Linda.

But as Tine was still pondering a name for hers, she noticed a wrapping around the dolls head that said it had genuine saran  hair. So her doll became Saran.

Mom and Dad always allowed us to take one new thing, but only one, to bed with us on Christmas Eve. My mother laughed as she checked us all sleeping in our beds. One of us would be curled up with a doll, another with a cash register, one with a toy phone, another with ice skates, and my brother a Tonka truck.

To this day, there has never been a Christmas gathering without the traditional rice pudding being served, and there has never been a Christmas without our family gathering together.

This year, we'll have rice pudding in a hospital room as we're gathered by my mother's bed, speaking in hushed tones so as not to disturb her resting and slightly irregular breathing nearby.

And we'll remember Christmases past, with joy and gratitude for the rich memories we share.

Silent Night, Holy Night. 
     All is calm. All is bright.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas tears again

Last year, on December 21, to be exact, I wrote "Christmas Tears" - a story of losing my sister-in-law, Mavis, only days before Christmas.

Doris (Roed) Steffen
Who would know that one year later, I would be losing my own mother. Christmas tears, once again.

We sit beside her hospital bed, my sisters and brother and I, gently rubbing her hand, offering her sips of water, watching her sleep. Taking care of her as tenderly as she cared for all of us in days past.

Each of saying goodbye in our own way.

A New Year's Eve baby, Mom was born almost 88 years ago in New York City, the youngest of three in her family and the only daughter of immigrants from Denmark and Sweden.  After a World War II-era romance with my father, stationed in Brooklyn with the U.S. Navy, she moved with him to Minnesota to start her married life. Children soon followed.  Six, in fact. Thus began her motherhood career.

It was a role from which she never retired. She has taken care of all of us through good times and bad. She planned weddings, rocked grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and even one great-great grandchild. Buried her beloved husband of over 60 years.

I sit and gaze at her hands resting across her blanket on the bed. I think of the work those hands have done in 87-plus years. And the exquisite needlework those hands have created. And the tears those hands have wiped.

But mostly, how often those hands have been folded in prayer. Blessing, asking, giving thanks, perhaps even sometimes pleading.  But always trusting.

And those hands are trusting now, that soon they will be stilled and she will know the joy of the great reunion she will have in heaven. Perhaps they will clap as she sees the face of her Lord and Savior.

We wish her a safe and happy journey and don't deny her right to make her exit now.  Our sadness is all about us, of that we are clear.

So if you will help us all through this journey with her, we will remain strong and keep our focus on the joy that awaits her soon.

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Christmas and cactus

Since this is our first holiday season in Arizona, we were wondering what it would be like.

No snow. No icicles. No Parkas. No winter boots, mufflers, and fleece-lined mittens. Surely it would be so different.

Well, we've discovered it is....and it isn't.

People are out decorating their houses in grand style. Icicle lights, twinkle lights, wire reindeer, Santas, angels and snowmen, all lit up at dusk. The evening news on television features houses not to be missed when you're out and about at night looking for dazzling holiday light displays.

Malls are decorated with giant Christmas trees. Holiday music is playing everywhere from grocery stores to department stores to post offices. Shopping specials are offered everywhere.

Eggnog is on the grocery store shelves, along with red and green sprinkles for cookies, candied fruits, pecans, specialty bread mixes and holiday cookie cutters in star, reindeer, gingerbread men and tree shapes.

Toy drives are being held. The Nutcracker Suite ballet is performing at the Mesa Arts Center. Holiday baking is going on in kitchens everywhere.

Just like home in Minne-snow-ta.

Except the twinkle lights are wrapped around palm trees. Wreaths are draped around Saguaro cactus plants. Holiday shopping is done in short sleeves and Capri pants. Christmas trees are all artificial. Outdoor decorating is done leisurely, with bare hands.

Neighbors are greeting one another stringing outdoor lights, without frost coming out of their mouths. Baking is done with patio doors open so all the aromas drift into your house, providing inspiration to get going yourself.

On our block, each house has a wooden Santa standing in front. So when you drive down the street, you are greeted by twenty Santas waving at you.

This is our own Santa.
And our snowman sits in our rock alongside our home.

So you see why Christmas in Arizona is at once the same and then again different than Christmas in Minnesota.

It is still the same special, magical time of year when spirits are kinder and gentler, and where the birth of the Newborn Babe of Bethlehem is celebrated.

Let it begin. Both here in Arizona, and wherever this season finds you.