Tag Archives: disruption

the spinning wheel

I have been quiet lately, as I have been undergoing a challenging transition.  Amidst the tears and the pain, I know that I am growing and becoming. My life is going to be entirely different than I imagined, and my future is unknown.  But today the sun is shining, the birds are chirping gently, and despite the emotional storms of the past few months the morning breeze is gentle, as though the breath of a higher power is caressing me gently with the soothing reminder: yes, Katy, you will be okay.

And I know I will be.

Life cycles forward.  There is comfort in this spinning wheel of destruction, death, rebirth. It is the natural order of everything. We break down so we can begin again.  We fall so we can fly.


the return

Dear Mom,

You’ve been gone six months and we did it, the final step in the formal mourning process. We brought your ashes back to Minnesota.  Everytime I return there, something inside of me cracks open. The plane touches down and I feel a ball of emotion I can only experience in Minnesota.  Peace, gratitude, longing. Years can fly by, but its still my home, your home.  The lush trees wave “hi” with huge, loaded branches that shimmy in the wind. The lakes sparkle in the sunshine. Its so very, very beautiful.

We had a service at First Universalist.  Our old church in South Minneapolis.  The stained glass windows from the years as a synagogue are gone, and the century-old building has been adapted to be more ADA friendly.  Still, there is no question, its the same place that you passed out fliers to congregants, and sipped black coffee with your friends, and cooked for fundraisers, and listened to my harp recitals in the basement.

People shared beautiful words about you.  They not only loved you, they really knew you.  Your life was full, yet you were so very present for everyone you encountered.  Perhaps the finest achievement in your life were the relationships you tended. They blossomed perpetually and the roots ran deep.

You wanted to return to LaSalle,  where your father was born and is buried.  The day after your memorial in Minneapolis, we drove through hours of cornfields to this lovely little town on the prairie. From the cemetery, you can see the grain elevators, a beautiful tree, and the big, big sky. Reflecting these sensible Scandinavians, this cemetery is also where people plan ahead.  It seems like every other headstone belongs to the living, with their death date remaining blank. For now.

Your family gathered in the cemetery. Many of them I don’t know, a casualty of your father’s early death. Still, we stood together under the prairie sky, united in the experience of loss. Your uncles had moved headstones so there would be enough room for you next to your dad. We put your ashes deep in the rich, black soil.  The wind was powerful; it whipped up skirts and blew the tears right off my face.  We retreated to the church basement in a small white chapel where your family has married and buried their dead for generations.    Your cousins served bread and sweets and coffee. I visited the home of your aunt and uncle, and rubbed my hands along the bedpost of a bedroom set that your father refinished before I was born, before lymphoma took him away far too young, like you.

Not all of your ashes went into the ground.  I took some away with me.  I thought about keeping them, but the pale, grainy powder seemed to have nothing to do with you.  The ash isn’t your smile, your light, the way you moved or laughed or sighed.  This is what we are reduced to, in the end, but a life is so much more than this. I can understand how religions around the world developed the concept of spirit.  We are more than the carbon leftovers of our physical body.

So, I put your ashes in Lake Harriet, on the 6 month anniversary of your death.  I know this isn’t what you asked for, but it felt right to me, to bring you back to the lake you pushed me around in my stroller as an infant, and where we walked side by side as adults. This is where it began for us.  I released you as kids fished nearby.  Your ashes clung together in the water for a while, like a cloud, then slowly disappeared as small waves lapped against the wooden dock.

I feel some relief after burying you in Minnesota.  But I also know that its not over for me. I won’t be eating sweets in church basements with strangers that loved you anymore, but the road without you stretches out before me, and its long.  If you were here, you probably would grab my hand and murmur “Oh, Lamb.” Because there isn’t much to say.  No cure for this, no expiration stamped on the bottom of my grief.  But if I can walk this road ahead with half of the loving grace that you did, well, I’d be living this life well.


at the lake with Mom

a flare

20120607-180528.jpg Sometimes, we manifest our emotional state physically.  I am covered with a red, bumpy ,somewhat-itchy rash. Dermatitis disgustingus. Mom’s Funeral Part Two is this weekend, and I have been struggling with agitation that I don’t know how to express.  I have to go to work, do the laundry, and act normal when what I really want to do is pull out my hair and scream and break a plate or two.  So.  I try to behave normally, and smile, and be a good wife or nurse or grocery shopper, whatever the situation calls for.

But oh, the body does rebel.  There is fire on the inside and, now, on the outside too.  No hiding it anymore.  You can look at my wrists or my thighs or behind my left ear and see the truth,  even though my lips will tell you I’m fine, I’m great, I’m doing well.

Maybe this is doing well.  Maybe this flare of emotion and skin is part of the release, part of what will set me free.  I can only hope so.  In the meantime, I’ll be perfecting the art of scratching myself in public without being noticed.


dreams unlimited

I just smeared on the last of a bottle of lotion my mom gave me.  It was from the Body Shop,  “Dreams Unlimited.” We were shopping the weekend before they left for Houston, seeking a cure at MD Anderson. Grandma wanted lotion, and it was the only scent she liked.  I liked it too, so along with the bottle for Grandma Mom bought me one as well.  Its hard to believe I won’t get more gifts from her, and when things that remind me of her wear or run out I feel the loss all over again.

Its just lotion, and too perfume-ey at that.  It seems silly to cry about the end of a bottle of lotion.  But I can’t help myself.

I tried to save it.  I didn’t use it that often, but it started to evaporate in the bottle. Some things just slip through your fingers, no matter how much you try to hang on.

I wish dreams really were unlimited.  But sometimes they run out of gas, hit a wall, die on the vine, go up in flames.  Sometimes new dreams grow from the ashes of those that burned to dust, and sometimes not.  But there are dreams that just aren’t meant to be.  Heartbreaking, isn’t it?

growing up

I’m back in the home that used to be my mother’s.  My stepfather, who is the full-time caregiver for my grandmother, is in the hospital.  He has a skin infection that will be easily treated, however without his care there is no one else for my grandmother.  We are working on options so I can return to work soon, but for now I am on grandma-duty.

Fortunately my mother married a man who was willing and able to care for her mother after she passed.  I don’t take this for granted; he certainly could have declined this role. Yet even with his devotion I feel an added responsibility I never felt when Mom was alive. I am Grandma’s closest living relative, and there is only me. She has outlived both a husband and a longstanding romantic partner, as well as her only child. She is not able to care for herself independently, and I have a responsibility to ensure that her needs are met.

This is the source of some anxiety.  I haven’t yet recharged my batteries from Mom’s long illness and I worry about meeting Grandma’s needs if and when my stepfather is unable to do so. I also feel the burden of a small family.  I have no sibilings with which to share caregiving; my stepsister lives in another country. At many junctures during my mother’s illness I felt alone. Not to minimize the losses of my stepfather or Grandma, who arguably have had their daily lives more disrupted than I by her death. However,  nobody else was losing my mother in the same way I was.  No one else was watching this mother die of cancer.

Maybe grief is always lonely.  Maybe a brother or sister would have been disruptive, angry, drunk, high, unavailable, busy doing other things or otherwise a total pain in the ass. Any wishes I may have for more help in caregiving aging relatives is not only pointless, it illustrates the impossibility that I wish for: that my mother wasn’t dead.

Her passing has made me grow up.  I don’t have children, so with this loss I entered a new realm of responsibility for another human being. It also has provided a taste of getting older. I now understand the sting of watching the generations before me die, removing the meaningless yet symbolic distance between myself and the end. And I understand how difficult it is to say goodbye, to let go.  And what is getting older, if not a process of letting go?



a life’s purpose

A certain school of thought purports that everyone has a life purpose, a mission, something that one must learn or do in this lifetime which illuminates a fundamental truth about his or her existence.  Its a nice idea, isn’t it?  It gives some order to the chaos, and clarity during the murky hours of life.  You could probably fill the Library of Congress with books, audiotapes, magazine articles with titles like “Identify Your True Calling” or “Finding Your Life Purpose (and then following through!).” This attractive concept garners some consumer spending.

I don’t know if we all have a life purpose. It can be hard to identify a unifying theme that ties together a long, complex and dynamic life.

My mom had a purpose, however, and hers was crystal clear: to be of service.

I naturally didn’t know her as a child, but suspect in many ways she took care of her mother from the very beginning. She dedicated her career to raising money for a range of causes she believed in, from providing family planning services in the 1970’s and 1980’s to community wellness services to seniors during the 2000’s.  She was almost always smiling, a big, infectious smile that made others feel good.  Blessed with tons of energy, she pumped it into her family, her friends, her colleagues. Kind, reliable and hardworking, she unfailingly did whatever needed to be done for everyone else. She listened, she gave, she shared. She had little inclination towards religion, but was more Christ-like than most anyone I’ve ever met.

Her own needs often fell away in the face of serving others, and this continued after she was diagnosed with cancer.  Until the end.  She pushed Grandma’s wheelchair until she couldn’t walk.  When she was actively dying, she tried to eat soup so Grandma wouldn’t worry about her.

During her illness, qualities that I often admired also frustrated me, pissed me off.  I wanted my mother, the constant caregiver, the ridiculously generous, to finally take care of herself a bit.  I had nightmares that all this outwardly focused kindness was depleting her, and if she could harbor some for herself perhaps she could beat that lymphoma.  She naturally attracted a lot of needy folks, and I would glare at the other patients in the clinic waiting rooms who would hone in and start blabbing to her about their problems: leave her the fuck alone. And then I’d shoot daggers at Mom: stop encouraging them!

She was aware of her life purpose. We talked about it once on a walk outside of MD Anderson Hospital.    I think I was lecturing her to go to a yoga class, get away from caregiving Grandma for a bit so she could focus on healing.  We sat down next to a fountain, surrounded by a bed of flowers.

“You know, this sounds kind of funny, but I’m here to take care of others.  You can best support me by letting me do that, because its what makes me feel good.”

I’ve often struggled with loving people as they are, and not as I want them to be. During Mom’s illness I was challenged again.  I wanted her to be someone more selfish, more normal.  But that wasn’t her. She needed to stick with her mission, her purpose.  It was the only way of being that worked for her.



We aren’t all meant to be servants during this lifetime– I know I’m not.  But we can be inspired to follow our own path with the unwavering dedication that my mother followed hers.

her clothes

Mom died three days ago. I think in other cultures there would be some formalized grieving process still taking place to occupy and support the mourners.  But instead of chanting, sitting shiva, prostrating or staying in bed all day, my sister and I have started to go through her clothes. It feels good, running my hands through the fabric that so recently touched her skin. Mom wasn’t one to keep clothes for years on end (except, bewilderingly, a dress I wore to my eighth grade graduation ceremony), but I’m still flooded with memories when I go through her things.

The shawl she wore to her last birthday dinner

The dress she wore to my wedding

The favorite necklace she purchased in San Antonio   

I’ve picked out many articles of her clothing that I’d like to keep, and I feel closer to her when I wear them.  But of course, this going-through-the-clothing business is also hard work, and I feel fatigued in a way that sleeping more simply cannot remedy. Way tired, deep down inside.

back in the everyday

Everyday life… I’m back to it: working a busy job, tending to the chickens, and padding around the kitchen in my spare time.  My hubby and I spent Saturday night at a football game with friends.  Things are quiet, after the rollercoaster that was August.  

In a vacum of the ordinary, I don’t feel like I have much to say.

But underneath it all, I am holding my breath.   Waiting for a crisis, I guess, which is no way to live.  This was my first weekend away from my mom in over a month, and its been a wonderful refuge, this time back in my normal life. But anxiety is seeping in.

In the past,  I tried to cope with fear and uncertainty by making plans, but in a place where we can only make a reasonable guess at what the next few days will look like (and no further into the future than that), plans mean nothing.

Keeping my hands and body moving feels good, though.  So does being outside, in the sunshine.  Its still very warm, hot even, but I smell hints of autumn when the breeze blows just right.

I’m trying to recharge — the next few weeks are essential, with some of the very most important people in both my mom and my own lives making a visit to Arizona.  It will be time of unification, coming together.  My mom’s illness has lead to fractionation- moving to Houston, coming home, splitting up the days with doctors appointments.  Disability paperwork and blood draws and tubes in body parts and more doctors appointments.  I too, feel a sense of being split, going back and forth and always missing the place where I’m not.  So we both are in need of the good medicine of friends and family.

why it sucks to have a parent with cancer: reason #79

It goes something like this…

Your head hurts.  Correction– its killing you.  Trobbing pain, over your right temple and shooting to the eye.  Its making your morning cup of coffee feel like a chore.  The sheer prospect of suffering with this thing for the rest of the day is bringing on a serious depression, and its not even 8AM yet.

Prior to taking any analgesics, you do what any self-respecting, independent young professional would do: whine.


She turns her bald head to you, facial features chisled from her recent weight loss.  She is nauseated from her recent chemotherapy but trying to choke down breakfast anyway. “Yes, honey?”

“I… uh… nevermind.”

After a lifetime of complaining to Mom about innane little problems that generally self-resolve within an hour, I’m not always sure what to do.  I could whine to her, and feel like an ass.  I could not whine, and feel I’m somehow being disingenuous.  Plus, I’d miss out on the satisfaction of voicing  a problem to Mom and getting soothed with a honeyed tone reserved just for her child– even if she happens to be well into adulthood.  

Thanks a lot, cancer!


Cancer is disruptive. The major ways don’t deserve much elaboration.  We all understand the tragedy surrounding lives cut far too short. 

But treatment and survivorship involves disruptions on a more minor scale.  This weekend, I helped my family prepare for their 3+ month stay in Houston.  They are putting their lives on hold, with all the associated costs and stresses of setting up a new, temporary home.  Is my mom worth it?  Of course!  But I still felt the pain while watching my mom gaze at the cat she is leaving behind, felt the stress while my stepfather arranged for all of Grandma’s medications to be available in Houston. 

Recently, my mom sent me the copy of a job posting that would have been a great opportunity for her.  She can’t apply for it.  Our time share might stand empty this year–no fun family vacations this year.  These all pale in comparison to my mother’s life, of course, but they are small losses. 

I am mourning the simple life for my family, with its average goals and moderate challenges.