Wednesday, October 23, 2019

A Tribute to My Magnificent, Flawed Mom

Mom never felt a need to be important. Rather, she was strongly motivated by a need to reach out and serve others, as well as a desire to develop and nourish relationships with others. Mom was always juggling a hundred different things to meet our family's needs and to bless the lives of others. I'm told that this started when she was a little girl who took frequent opportunities to care for nieces and nephews.

Being the 11th of 12 children and growing up during the Great Depression likely prompted Mom's lifelong obsession with fairness. A few years ago I found a small notebook that included a list of prices under the names of my brothers and me for the Christmas when I was 13 years old. The sums of the columns differed by only a few cents. Dad thought that fairness had more to do with customized individual needs, but Mom's version of fairness seemed to be more a matter of mathematical equality.

Despite never needing to feel important, appearances were important to Mom. While in high school, she worked three jobs in the summer and then worked at the local drugstore during the school year to earn money. More than a little of that money went toward clothes much nicer than her parents' family economy could afford.

When I was young, our family's approaches to matters were more than a little bit governed by what the neighbors might think. More than one of my brothers chafed at the idea of being controlled by some nebulous group of "they" out there. I now believe that we sometimes got Mom wrong on this. She was likely more concerned about being charitable to others than about trying to superficially look good.

Mom was not afraid of difficult things. She might grouse about it along the way. But she would still forge ahead and deal with whatever the path brought. I was around seven years old when I became aware that Mom had suffered her third miscarriage in a row. Years later I learned that following my birth, Mom had carried a son to full term, only to have the child stillborn. I could tell that Mom was a little melancholy following her third miscarriage, but she took all of these things in stride and moved on with the normal duties of life. Only when I was much older did I realize how devastated she might have been.

Since hard things were not to be avoided, Mom extended this sentiment to her five sons. We tried to grow vegetables in the back yard a couple of years, but Mom had a distaste for the Wyoming farm life of her youth and Dad had grown up as a city boy in Germany. So our agricultural efforts fell flat. But every single time a neighbor called during harvest season to ask if Mom wanted whatever it was they had growing, Mom would say, "I'll send my boys over to pick some." I liked to eat some (but not all) of those things, but I never liked picking any of them.

My oldest brother got a newspaper route when I was a kid. This was back in the day when news carriers had to go door to door to collect subscription fees each month. They also had to manage the finances for their routes. For the next decade, that route and the neighboring route cycled through the boys in our family. Who do you think was the main support staff for us? You guess it: Mom.

In a remarkable occurrence, Mom served a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Germany at the personal invitation of Gordon B. Hinckley when she was two years younger than the minimum age for sister missionaries. Toward the end of her mission, she met a young German man who joined the Church. They corresponded after she returned home. He eventually emigrated to the States, married Mom, and became my dad. So, I guess I owe my very life to Gordon B. Hinckley.

Mom was not above being manipulative to motivate her sons to do the right thing, or at least what she thought was the right thing. I was scarred for years after Mom told me as a young child that I would sustain a skin crease between my eyes if I didn't stop pouting so much. It took many years before I realized that this was a genetic trait that would be little affected by the faces I pulled as a kid.

As a young adult I took a break from the rigors of college for a few terms so that I could pursue other opportunities. In her desire to get me to go back to school, Mom once embarrassed me in front of some of my friends who were still in college. That hurt. But it didn't get me to go back to school at that time. Only my wife's gentle persistent encouragement and sustained confidence in me brought that about years later.

There was no internet during my youth and the TV shows we watched were mostly inane and uninformative. So when we were young, Mom was often our chief source of information. I could always tell when one of us broached a topic that was dicey for Mom to deal with. She would sometimes avoid direct answers, but most of the time she would parse through a children's version using terminology with which we were familiar.

I still remember the time she responded to my question about what rape was when I was young. Her child-level explanation was roughly factual but was crafted to shield us from the horror of such a violent act. Despite my youth, I can remember thinking about Mom's words and developing a strong sense of revulsion to sexual violence on my own.

Mom had her own vocabulary for many sensitive things, such as certain body parts and bodily functions. I recall coming to the realization at one point that this was private family jargon that was foreign to my peers. Being boys, we often wrangled these terms into newfangled lingo that was usually intended for comedic or insulting effect. Mom frequently complained about how every family gathering at some point ended up devolving into scatological discourse. Such is one of the problems with living in a house full of boys. My poor mother.

When I was five years old, Mom took a seasonal swing shift job as a data entry clerk so that she and Dad could save money for a dream trip to visit Dad's family in Germany. They wanted to take their children with them, but they ultimately realized that the kids would be grown before they could save enough money. So when I was eight, Mom and Dad farmed us out to gracious neighbors and spent a month in Germany.

I hated the seasons when Mom had to work her swing shift job. She would be gone by the time I got home from school. She would get home so late at night that she would still be in bed when I left for school in the morning. After we went to bed on Sunday night, we sometimes wouldn't see Mom until late Saturday morning.

I liked it better when Mom moved to the day shift. But she didn't, because her part-time seasonal position suddenly shifted to a full-time job. It later became a career, at which she excelled. Dad once told me that the day Mom went to work was a good day for us kids, because prior to that she had a penchant for micromanaging our play and activities. All with the best intent, of course. After going to work, Mom had to leave us to our own devices much more. But that doesn't mean that we left her to her own interests.

Mom was always there to help with every school project that arose. I was never very good with that stuff, so Mom usually had to provide a lot of ideas and do a lot of work. She would never take over. She would insist that I make the decisions (with her careful guidance) and that I stay in charge every step of the way. My projects never looked as slick as those of other kids who were more creative or whose parents did more work on their projects. But I felt like each project was mine.

Some of my earliest memories revolve around Mom sewing with her antique Singer sewing machine. In my mind, Mom had a love-hate relationship with sewing. She insisted on making matching shirts for Dad and all of the boys. She sewed book bags for us to use for school and crafted toddler sized boy dolls. In the 70s when bizarre leisure suits were all the rage, Mom literally sewed leisure suits for all of us boys.

Mom must have loved sewing, because she worked so hard at it, often late into the evening. But she also seemed to hate it because she knew that her projects never quite matched the quality of store bought clothing. It particularly chagrined her when better fitting store bought clothes started becoming much cheaper than lovingly hand sewn items.

Even after Mom got a swanky newfangled sewing machine, she often pulled out the ancient Singer machine to do certain types of stitches. When my youngest brother married, Mom gave him and his wife her old Singer machine. My sister-in-law didn't sew, so they saw no use for the machine. They donated it to charity, only to later learn that Mom had hoped to sell it for the antique that it was.

Speaking of machines, Mom was a master of the typewriter. I remember when Mom got her first electric typewriter that had a correcting function. Her typing speed was very high and she rarely needed the correction function. Mom was also an early adopter of the home PC and the word processor, at which she learned to excel.

When I was a young adult, a family that had a long term relationship with our family invited us to enjoy an evening of swimming at their backyard pool. Mom and Dad had always been quite conservative financially. So it shocked me to the core a week later when a local firm was in our back yard digging a hole and installing a real in-ground swimming pool with a diving board.

My parents later explained that they had been thinking for years about how to keep drawing the family together as the children got older. They had gone back and forth between getting a pool or getting a boat. After the swim party, they went with the pool. And it really did work. Over the next three decades the family spent many days gathering, swimming, cooking out, and hanging out.

When grandchildren came along, Mom threw herself into blessing their lives, especially after she and Dad retired. Sometimes this meant spoiling them with more birthday and Christmas gifts than their parents gave them. One of Mom's specialties was making personalized birthday cakes for each grandchild each year. As the number of grandchildren grew, this task started to become overwhelming, although, the grandchildren loved their cakes.

Several years after they both retired, Mom and Dad served a mission for the Church in Hamburg, Germany, the same city where they had met many years earlier. Mom tried to keep close tabs with family members while they were away, just as she had written each of her sons weekly while they served as missionaries. Upon arriving home, Mom and Dad felt somewhat disoriented, like they had just climbed off a wild carnival ride and were suddenly standing still.

3½ years later when Dad suffered a debilitating stroke, Mom became Dad's main caregiver, just after having serious surgery on her foot. The next year and a half were nightmarishly overtaxing for Mom, who continued unwaveringly devoted. Dad wasn't always able to express himself and he often behaved irrationally. It wasn't always clear how much of this was due to the stroke damage or the complex array of medications they threw at him.

Mom made the best of Dad's situation. But in trying to cope with this new reality, she tried to help Dad by putting him on a healthy but miserable diet that might have helped prevent congestive heart failure had it been implemented decades earlier. Following Dad's second stroke, Mom almost never left the hospital until Dad passed away a week and a half later.

On his deathbed, Dad had me promise that I would get Mom out of the home they had moved into 4½ decades earlier. But Mom wouldn't go. She had difficulty relinquishing anything Dad had touched, including the home, his truck, his clothes, etc. That's one common way that some people deal with grief.

After several years, aging (both Mom and the house), arthritis, etc., Mom finally relented and allowed us to sell her house. We moved her into a lovely single level home that was more manageable. Mom continually complained to everyone she encountered about the new home's shortcomings. It wasn't really the home that was the problem, it was widowhood and aging. The house was just a scapegoat. She still continued to reach out and serve others as much as possible even as life became increasingly challenging.

I now realize that Mom was already several years into vascular dementia by the time Dad had his first stroke. Mom never had significant heart problems, but we later discovered that she had been experiencing regular cerebral microbleeds.

We were told that doctors have little understanding of the causes and treatments for this condition. They do know that each microbleed results in a small amount of permanent cognitive impairment. While most episodes are hardly noticeable, the cumulative effect can be debilitating. That's how it worked for Mom.

Over time it became increasingly challenging for Mom to manage her own affairs. We were glad when she admitted that she could no longer safely drive a car. But cognitive impairment also impacted Mom's gait and stability. My wife became Mom's principal caregiver and companion. She also became Mom's service arm, performing many acts of service on behalf of Mom. But my wife couldn't be with Mom all the time.

After 5½ years in the new home, it became clear that Mom was no longer safe living on her own. Our home is full of stairs and was completely unsuitable to Mom's condition. Mom ended up moving to a nice smaller assisted living center just a few blocks from her home and our home. She again made the best of the situation, although, it bothered her to be there with many people who were obviously more impaired than she was.

Over the next 2½ years, Mom went from being one of the lesser impaired residents of the facility to being one of the more impaired residents, both physically and cognitively. She eventually moved to the cognitive care unit that provided a higher level of care. Several small strokes resulted in Mom becoming confined to a wheelchair.

During the final half year of Mom's life, she declined fairly steadily both cognitively and physically. She would have periods where she would stabilize and other periods where she seemed to improve briefly. Following yet another small stroke, which didn't seem much different than previous small strokes, Mom's condition deteriorated rapidly until she passed away peacefully a week later.

After 87 years of living Mom didn't leave behind any notable things, other than her posterity. She didn't write music or create serious artwork. She hadn't accumulated nice collections of things. If her life could be boiled down to two words, those words would be work and service. Underlying those two words is really one word: love. Her way of showing love might differ from the way others do it, but it's who my mom was and is. I know that she is continuing this pattern. She is busy working and serving even now.