Family, Personal

Memorial Day — Utah Style

Memorial Day in the Washington, D.C. area meant a sea of flags waving brilliantly through Arlington Cemetery.

It meant Rolling Thunder motorcyclists descending upon the nation’s capital to bring public attention to prisoners of war and those missing in action.

And, it meant one of our favorite traditions of gathering with friends on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol for the annual Memorial Day concert.

There is nothing quite like a Washington, D.C. Memorial Day — especially sitting on the lawn of the Capitol, listening to patriotic music and then watching an array of fireworks light up the city from the Washington Monument.

Utah, however, has its own style of Memorial Day.

The first year we lived here, I took my mom to the cemeteries about a week before Memorial Day to place flowers on the graves of our relatives. It was a sweet, tender tradition that she kept up her entire life. I didn’t realize then that I’d need to decorate her grave the following year!

Last year, after she died, I went to the grocery store and saw massive amounts of mums lining the sidewalks leading to the grocery stores. I wondered why mums were out so early. I thought they were fall flowers. (Obviously, I’m not always very observant.)

As it got closer to Memorial Day, my sister, who lives about three hours south, said, “Don’t forget to decorate the graves now that mom’s not here to do it.”

I had so many questions. I hadn’t paid attention to all the details of this new job.

Whose graves? Where do I get the flowers? How do I keep them from blowing over in all the Utah wind? How do I find all the graves?

“You know all the mums you’ve seen everywhere? Those are the flowers you buy,” she said. “You take them to all the family graves. And you go to the dry cleaners and buy hangers, straighten them out, cut them into two pieces, and shape them like hooks. The hook end goes in the plant and the other end goes in the ground. That keeps them from tipping over in the wind.”

We were such Memorial Day rookies last year that we actually went on Memorial Day. The cemeteries were packed. It was hard to drive on the streets and parking was scarce. Some families took lawn chairs and had picnics near their family graves. There were reunions everywhere as family members met and reminisced. This was something we’d never seen before.

So that’s why mom went earlier in the week, I thought.

I realized too that I hadn’t paid close attention to the locations of all the graves as I drove my mother to the cemeteries. So, Doug and I did a lot of looking at maps, calling relatives, and traipsing around, trying to find our family graves.

We vowed to be better prepared this year. So, as soon as we saw the mums for sale, we bought them. My brother got in on the tradition and gathered up and “built” (his word) the hangers to secure the plants to the ground. Then, last Friday, we went to the graves. It took some time to find them all but we did it.

And, I have to say, it was a sweet, new tradition. I felt more connected to my family and my Utah roots.

We did a lot of reminiscing — remembering how mom threatened to haunt us if we ever put plastic flowers on her grave, and how she took a watering can and a broom to clean off the debris around the headstones. I realized how much I never noticed about this family tradition.

As you know if you’ve been reading my blog, it’s been a year of loss. So, we had a couple more graves to visit, including my mom’s and my older brother’s. But there was something tender about going to these family graves and honoring them — their lives and legacies.

As I saw all the flowers, flags and wreaths on all the graves and the crowds of families gathered together to honor their ancestors, it reminded me of the power and lasting love of families.

It was not be like seeing the Rolling Thunder motorcyclists roar down the DC streets.

It wasn’t like seeing 14,000 flags waving at Arlington Cemetery.

And, it definitely wasn’t like listening to a concert on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol or seeing the fireworks burst over the city.

It wasn’t a national celebration on a grand scale this year. But, it may have been a little more personal, intimate and sentimental than other Memorial Days I’ve celebrated.

So, while we paused to honor the armed forces who have protected us on the world stage and on the front lines, we also paid tribute to the family members who have loved and protected us on the most basic level of the home front.

It made me deeply grateful for both.

Family

He’s as free as a bird now…

In mid-July, my older brother, Kelly, ended up in ICU. A few weeks later, he left with a stage IV lung cancer diagnosis and days/weeks to live.

As we reeled from this news, just a few months after my mom’s unexpected death, Kelly said, “Here’s how this is going to go down.”

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Kelly giving my daughter Annie some of his old fishing gear

Then he told us all how he wanted to spend the last few weeks of his life.

“First, there will be a no-sadness, no-mourning zone around me. I’ve had a good life. I have a lot of good memories. We’re going to reminisce, laugh and remember the good times. We’re not going to cry and be sad. My goal will be to make everyone around me laugh and smile until I roll out of here.”

And, that’s exactly what he did.

He wanted me to help him get his affairs in order, write his obituary, stay positive, and make him my mom’s favorite family meal — cheesy meatloaf, baked potatoes, and salad. 

My brother Mark asked him if he was afraid. He calmly said, “I’m not afraid of dying. I’m pretty sure about where I’m going. I’m just a little nervous about what it’s going to take to get from here to there.”

Luckily for him, it didn’t take much.

He lived about three weeks after coming home from the hospital, and then died peacefully in his sleep.

So, in that three weeks, he entertained us with his endless stories, jokes and funny memories.

He also had time to tell us exactly what he wanted in terms of his end-of-life services.

He wanted an outdoor celebration of a life well-lived, not a solemn, sad funeral in a church.

He wanted a catered lunch in the canyon, a live rock ’n roll band playing Free Bird by Lynyrd Skynyrd, and everyone sharing happy stories and good memories.

 

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I’m as free as a bird now…

He also wanted us to share his real life story, not the  varnished, polished, perfected, version of his life.

He wanted people to know his life wasn’t easy, but that he “played the hand he was dealt.”

He was dealt a pretty tough hand, including a leg amputation that left him disabled and wheelchair bound for the last 12 years.

For an avid fisherman, hunter, outdoorsman and builder, learning he would spend the rest of his life confined to a wheelchair was a devastating blow.

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Even with that crushing news, however, he never complained.

In the beginning, he cycled through his share of sadness, grief, and shock, and even had a significant heart attack not long after the amputation, but he took it all with remarkable courage, optimism, and characteristically good humor, even to the point of always sporting one red converse high-top sneaker as he signature shoe style.

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He epitomized the life Hunter Thompson described when he said, “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, worn out, and loudly proclaiming… Wow! What a ride!”

That was Kelly.

Life is definitely not the same without him. It is quieter, less fun, and a lot more lonely.

Kelly and I were Irish twins — just 10-months apart. We spent our lives explaining that even though we were in the same grade all through school and just happened to look very much alike, we were not twins.

And after all those years of saying, “No, we’re not twins,” I have an inkling of what it must be like for one twin to lose another and to feel like a twinless twin, like you’ve lost a part of yourself.

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While my religious beliefs assure me that he is in paradise, resting from his troubles, cares and sorrows,  I don’t think he’ll rest for too long. In fact, I’m sure the heavenly angels weren’t quite ready for him when he skidded into heaven and started reporting on the wild, rambunctious ride that was his life.

I bet they haven’t had a quiet, dull moment since he got there. 

And, lucky for them, because we sure miss him down here …

 

 

Family, Home, Memoir

Welcome to Utah

Since moving to Utah, we have noticed a few things that are uniquely Utah.

Take this…

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Just a mountain lion in the back of someone’s truck. I’m guessing a taxidermy craft project…

Or this…

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This is an invitation to the our church’s summer activities for women. Yep, hand-delivered to my porch because nearly everyone in my neighborhood is Mormon.

And this…

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American flags lining the streets for every patriotic holiday.

And one of my all-time favorites…

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This sweet lady rode her scooter to Swig for a soda on a 112 degree day in St. George. Utah is the Soda Capital of the Universe.

I am slowly getting educated on the soda culture in Utah.

I’ve seriously never seen anything like it –places like Swig,  Sodalicious and Fiiz everywhere. These are small soda shops (sometimes nothing more than a small shack) with drive-thru windows that sell sodas with flavor shots.

Seriously, I’ve seen cars lined up there at 8 in the morning. And, it’s not as simple as ordering a Diet Coke at McDonald’s.

And each shop has its own lingo. Try saying, “I’ll have a 32-ounce Big Al with extra ice” or “Give me an 16-ounce Endless Summer please.”

What you’ll be ordering with the Big Al is a Diet Coke with a shot of coconut and lime. An Endless Summer is Mountain Dew, Powerade with a shot of coconut.

Yes, Utah is Soda Land. 

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Oh, and this cute lady rode up a pretty steep hill, waited in the line at the window on her scooter, secured her drink in her lap, and then drove back down the hill and into her rehab center. (Yes, we followed her!) Then, she sat under a tree and enjoyed her drink in the shade. I told her she was my hero of the day. She said, “Hey, I can’t drive so I take my scooter and go to Swig every day!”

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My daughter Annie (right) even worked at Sodalicious, but since I didn’t know how to order, I rarely went there. Trust me, I’m learning…

And finally, there’s this…

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The scenery is so different from one end of the state to the other. We can see lush green mountains on one end of the state and red rock canyons on the other. And, it’s all uniquely beautiful.

Welcome to Utah.

Change, Community, Family

A Gradual Goodbye

I realize my blog can sometimes carry themes — depending on what I’m experiencing in life.

Loss is the theme for my recent blogs because that is what is consuming my life right now.

Of course you know, my mom died suddenly in March. And while the grief is profound, it is eased by knowing she was ready to go, and that I’ll see her again someday.

A lot of my time since her death has been spent cleaning her house and getting it ready to sell.

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It’s been exhausting and sometimes sad, but also it has been tender, therapeutic, memorable, and sweet.

As I’ve stood in each room  of that house– steaming off wallpaper or cleaning out cupboards, I’ve been swept up in a lifetime of memories.

There is a memory in every corner of that house.

It’s hard for me to believe that Doug lived in 18 different homes before graduating from high school.

I lived in the same home until I went to college and I’ve been returning to that home ever since.

Standing in the small upstairs bedroom, I remembered being in first grade and learning to read. I thought of the thrill I felt running upstairs to sit in my bedroom with a new stack of books.

I remembered going to the public library with my mom every week and gathering armloads of books and hauling them upstairs to that bedroom.

That reminded me of returning mom’s last library book just after she died.  I knew I had to get it back to the library as soon as possible! She never, ever had an overdue book.

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Cleaning out her kitchen cupboards, I thought about her love of dishes. She had her own wedding china, a great grandmother’s china, and various sets of dishes she had purchased over the years.

I remembered the “club” meetings she had with her high school friends and how she pulled out the china for some of those dinners. Then, I remembered that for one Easter, she had a brown bag picnic lunch in the house and moved all the furniture back and put quilts on the floor. I tried to imagine her 12 lady friends sitting in circles on the floor enjoying their brown bag Easter picnic.

In the kitchen, I remembered Mom’s reaction when she found a Playboy magazine in one of my brother’s dresser drawers. Oh, that was a classic Mom Moment. You can check out that story here.

While sorting through her Christmas decorations on the patio, I looked around at her sprawling back yard and remembered how many parties I held back there over the years.

I could hear her saying, “You always begged me to host your friends’ last-night-of-school parties in the backyard, and you swore you’d only have about six friends coming. And, every year, the whole school showed up!”

It’s true. I couldn’t help myself. I invited every friend I had every year. It was the perfect backyard for big parties!

That house was my mom’s “corner of the world.” She always said she just loved sitting on the porch watching the world go by.

She was a homebody if there ever was a homebody and she never understood what she called my “go-go-do-do” ways.

Nate Berkus said, “Your home should tell the story of who you are, and be a collection of what you love.”

My mom lived by those words.

Her house was a collection of everything she loved –cherished notes, her life story in a scrapbook, stories, family memorabilia, photos, photos and more photos,  flowers, and plants, books, books and more books; and more thread than I’ve ever seen in my life for her embroidery projects. She loved decorating for every holiday, especially Christmas.  I think I counted five Christmas trees!

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She had some of her favorite quotes in places where she could see them regularly.

One of her favorite quotes that has become one of my favorites was a quote from Ezra Taft Benson:
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More than anything else, cleaning out her house has been like a gradual, tender goodbye.

I have felt wrapped up in her “corner of the world” for the past couple months — folding her quilts, steaming her wedding dress, discovering the baby quilts she made for her future great grand babies, dusting off her dishes and boxing up her china, sorting out her Christmas tree ornaments and collecting her mail.

It’s been like a slow goodbye and while it’s been tiring, it’s been kind of a sweet melancholy, a last chance to feel her around me through her perfectly personal home, and all of her belongings.

The more I take out of her house, the more I realize she is gone.

And, while I don’t enjoy the goodbye, I certainly savor the way that cleaning out her house has kept her here for just a little bit longer…

 

Change, Family, Memoir

Goodbye to the Mom of All Moms

Some blogs are easy to write and some blogs are hard.

Today’s blog is the hardest one I’ve ever had to write.

I’ve started it about 10 times.

The thing is, my mom died.

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At 82 years old, she just didn’t feel well, had a weak pulse, went to the ER, and died.

Doug and I were vacationing with friends at the Outer Banks in North Carolina.

My mom and several other family members were in southern Utah to help my sister, Sallie, move to a new home for a new job. 

At the end of the day, I called to see how the day went.

Sallie said, “Well, we’re actually in the ER with mom and the doctors said things are going south fast.”

“What?”

“What is even wrong?”

She said they didn’t have a diagnosis, but eight doctors were in her hospital room trying to figure it out.

I quickly made plans to get back to Utah as soon as possible.

This involved getting off Hatteras Island, a remote strip of land in the middle of the ocean, and to an airport where there are no direct flights to Utah.

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I got to the hospital the next day — in time for a doctor to ask me for a copy of her living will and for me to tell her goodbye.

She was calm, serene and fearless as she told me she was 100 percent ready to go.

No regrets. No unfinished business. No questions about anything other than, “Are you okay with this?”

My head nodded yes while every emotion in me vigorously shouted, “No!”

That was on a Monday afternoon.

On the following Thursday, she took her last breath.

I was surprised at the word that came out of my mouth after she died.

“Congratulations,” I whispered as I kissed her cheek for the last time.

And that’s really how I felt — like she’d given life everything — left it all on the field to use sports vernacular.

There was nothing morbid or morose about it. 

In fact, the few days with her in the hospital were sweet, tender, and sacred. We talked about how lucky we were to have her as a mom.

She was the mom of all moms — loving, smart, tough, fun, hilarious, just the whole package. We couldn’t ask for more. She was everything.

As we shared stories about her life — her sayings and crazy antics — sometimes we couldn’t stop laughing.

Oh, there were tears — plenty of them because we wondered how we will live without her, but there also was so much joy because we knew she was ready.

She knew where she was going and she was looking forward to it.

She couldn’t wait to see her husband again and the son she lost when he was an infant.

She was tired of the world and she didn’t like that her body wasn’t cooperating with her anymore.

And don’t even get her started on Donald Trump.

The doctors probably still regret that while testing her mental acuity, they asked her if she knew who was President of the United States.

For months, she warned us that she thought she would die soon. We just didn’t believe her.

She told my brother he needed to go into her basement and find her funeral insurance policy.

She told her friend at the church library to get her own library key because she didn’t think she’d be back the next week.

She told her walking partner she didn’t think she’d live after my sister moved.

I think she really saw it coming. We just didn’t want to believe her.

On the day she died, I posted a picture of her on Facebook and said, “It was the honor of my life to be her daughter.”

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And, it truly was.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

I hope every heavenly reunion is even sweeter than you imagined.