Holidays, Mass, and Memories

The holidays are here and that means it’s time for me to write about my most favorite subject ever – My mama! 🙂

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So holidays for my Mom and my family were simply the best. My Mom could be described as “Festive to the Extreme.” To give you an idea, she decorated our house for Fourth of July and Memorial Day and Labor Day with little flags everywhere. I mean, lets face it, most people will celebrate by enjoying the day off work but my Mom would get out her flags and put them in the potted plants outside and in the yard, she’d get on her Flag sweatshirt and grab her Flag Tote bag and would just LIVE for stuff like that.

Christmas was always a bit over the top, and Mom just made it really special. Her last Christmas was no exception. In fact, we considered it a miracle (and looking back, I think Mom just WILLED herself to get enough of her strength back) to be released from the hospital in time to celebrate Christmas.

One of my last memories of that final Christmas was walking down the stairs to the kitchen and stopping on the landing halfway, to just take in the smell of baked cookies and her famous sweet bread baking in the oven and thinking, “This is the last time this house will smell like this. It won’t be the same anymore. I’ll never hear her fiddling in the kitchen, I’ll never hear her playing her favorite Christmas CD’s, I’ll never see her smiling to present her bread.” And I don’t remember crying or anything, but I remember just inhaling that smell before I walked all the way downstairs into the kitchen. And just saying to myself,

“Damn. That was it. This won’t ever be this again.”

And you know what? That first Christmas was really rough. I won’t say it was awful but it was really hard. We tried to decorate the house like she would have but I had zero desire to even put up the tree or anything.

One day in the fall of the year that she passed, I think around Thanksgiving, I just decided to pick up her digital camera and see what was on it.

And the first picture I see is of the interior of our house…at Christmas…the year before. And then another. And another. And another. She took about 20 photos of the entire house with the Christmas decorations because she knew we wouldn’t know how to decorate quite like her. It was basically a Tutorial of How To Do Christmas Like Mom.

I pretty much lost it and called my sister to tell her about Mom’s picture-by-picture guide and she came over and we began to unpack the boxes and started to decorate the house.

And we found a note in one of them. I can’t recall what it said, but something like “Take care of each other.” Mom wrote it apparently when she was feeling well, in remission. We thought “How neat! Mom left us notes!”

We kinda forgot about it until Christmas time and started to unpack those decorations and found..you guessed it – more notes! (I wrote about this whole thing in greater detail in a blog post here). <—Get the Kleenex ready if you start to read that one.

My point with today’s post was to give some sort of solidarity to those who are about to experience their “first” holiday post-loss of a loved one. The first holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, Mothers Day/Fathers Day, etc are not really…enjoyable.

I mean, let’s just be real  – they suck.

I hate that word, but it’s just so true. You’re always thinking about THEIR last holiday and how they looked, what they said, what they wore, what they made, where you went with them. And it’s just not the same. Nothing is ever the same.

And people will always try their hardest to make you feel better by saying, “Their memory lives on forever.”

Gag me.

That’s straight out of a Hallmark Channel Movie! So lame. Yeah yeah, their memory lives on. In our minds. Yes.

But that’s not good enough – we want our loved ones here in the flesh. I want to be able to hug my Mom right now, ya know? I can’t hug a memory. (I had the BEST dream about her the other day where I DID hug her and it was so great!)

I want to smell that bread again (IT’S THAT GOOD okay? Trust me, everyone RAVED about my Mom’s sweet bread. Thank God my sister bakes it now and it’s just as good although she’ll read this and say “No, it’s not as good as Mom’s. No one made it like Mom.”)

I want to hear her play her favorite Christmas music and hear her wrapping gifts and complaining that she had to scour the internet looking for that one obscure rare gift my brother always asked for every year, and couldn’t find (but she always found it! Sometimes at the last minute, but she did.)

I want to see her, in her recliner, reading her little devotional books, ask her how she’s feeling, and hear her voice and talk to her.

Last week we celebrated All Saints Day and All Souls Day. All Saints Day is a Holy Day of Obligation but All Souls Day is not. I feel like they both should be obligatory.  All Saints Day mass was exactly what I needed. The incense, the chanting, the lighting…it was incredible. All Souls Day had the same feel and although it’s a solemn mass and lots of tears are shed, the homily filled me with hope.

I LOVE going to the mass and feeling my Mom there with me.

After all, mass itself is heaven on earth. It’s where we encounter Jesus and it’s where we pray to the Saints and to Mary and it’s where I feel closest to my Mom and all of my relatives and friends who have passed on. They are where I want to be someday (hopefully not soon) but I know it’s where I’ll see her again and hear her laugh and see her smile and give her the biggest hug ever!

And when I’m on my knees in prayer after the Sanctus (the Holy Holy Holy…) I really try to envision all of the saints right there and my Mom too, hovered around the altar, kneeling with us before God on His throne.

I know it can be a chore and really tough to picture this when you’re at mass where there’s crying babies, fidgeting kids, people’s cell phones going off (come on people, it’s been 10 years can we please learn how to turn them off!?) or an off-key singer in the choir or just distracted by your random thoughts, but if you shut your eyes and just listen to the priest, you CAN do this.

Even if it’s just 10 seconds of being truly present at mass, it’s a game-changer. It may be the most peaceful moment you’ll have that day. And if you keep experiencing that peace, I would be willing to bet you’ll want to keep coming back to get those peaceful experiences again.

My prayers are with all of my friends and family members who are experiencing their “first” holidays without your favorite person in your life there with you this year. But you’ll see them again. And it won’t be from a memory.

It’ll be real. 

Can’t wait to see you again, Mom! Save a slice of that bread for me will ya? 😉

The Gift of: A Happy Death

O Blessed Joseph, who died in the arms of Jesus and Mary, obtain for me, I beseech you, the grace of a happy death. In that hour of dread and anguish, assist me by your presence, and protect me by your power against the enemies of my salvation. Into your hands, living and dying, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, I commend my soul. Amen

March 10th 2016 will mark three years since my Mom passed away.

I’ve written about Mom in the past – this one is the fan favorite.

I wanted to write about so many things today in an effort to celebrate this most blessed anniversary of hers.

But after several drafts and re-writes, it seems I’m supposed to write about those 3 days. A Friday, Saturday and a Sunday 3 years ago.

Clearly, this will be a brief version with just the highlights.

There were many of us in the family that were there those 3 days but in an effort to protect their privacy, I’d like to just share my own views of those final days of my Mom’s life.


 

She requested hospice on a Friday and was gone by Sunday. 3 days…just like someone else we know.

“I hope I’m making the right decision.” She just kept repeating that…over and over. How do you even respond to that?

She was incredibly lucid in those first hours, especially that first day, to the point where we were in disbelief that the hospice nurse said she wouldn’t last more than 2 more days.

“But it’s Friday! What do you mean she won’t make it the weekend? This IS the weekend!”

It’s incredibly surreal – The hospice nurses instruct you when and how to administer the morphine and it’s like watching a movie, almost like it’s happening to someone else’s family.

“Will she tell us when she needs the morphine? How do we know if it’s too much? Or not enough?”

But then it becomes too real and you just want it to be over. But you can’t wish for that because this isn’t your battle. This is hers and you just have to be there.

We were told that she is going to go through a “life review” which at first you don’t quite believe but then you actually witness it. And it’s heartbreaking and mesmerizing and awesome and awful all at once.

By Saturday we had to laugh at certain points because if we didn’t we’d go nuts.

“She’s going to be so mad when she sees what she’s wearing and that we let the hospice nurses see her like this.”

The worst moment for me – I sat at her feet when she was in the recliner (before she had to move to the hospital bed) and just looked up at her and realized this was it. I cried at her feet and I can still hear her saying and repeating, “It’s okay, it’s okay. It’s going to be okay.”

She eventually she had to be moved to the hospital bed. She just kept looking at it. She knew her own mother died shortly after being moved from the recliner to the hospital bed. I’m sure that’s what she was thinking. I know she was trying to prolong her stay here as long as she could. Not for herself, but for us. To spare us the pain of seeing her die.

She said goodbye to my nephews who recorded a beautiful voicemail for her that we played on speaker so everyone could hear. The look on her face as she listened was pure joy. I had never seen her smile like that in weeks. It was probably the most heartbreaking moment of all as we realized this was the last time she’d hear their young voices. Her grandsons were her source of joy. Hands down, they were her world. Especially Sean since he was so young and so oblivious to what was happening to “G.”

Time for a sidenote/side story:

Just two weeks prior to her death, she had ended up in the hospital again to drain fluid from her lungs. I was having a particularly bad time dealing with this and went over to my sisters to see the boys. Sean (the younger of the two) was hanging out with my brother-in-law. Out of the blue he pointed out that “Daddy has a cut on his head from shaving.” I glanced and saw, yes indeed he had a tiny cut on his head. Sean was asking me to look at it. I said I saw it but was clearly preoccupied with my Mom’s illness to not particularly care all that much.  Sean looked me in the eye and said in his sweet little 4 year old voice: “I’m going to pray that my Dad is healed from that cut. Because you know what auntie? God hears my prayers. Did you know that? He hears my prayers.”

Twice. My nephew said this twice and looked at me in the eye as if he was channeling someone.  I just looked at him and almost started crying. I wanted to tell him, “God DOES hear your prayers. And right now can you please pray that G is healed? Please?! I don’t want to lose my Mom!”

But I didn’t. I just remember that moment as being so surreal. How innocent a child prays. It wasn’t even a question – “Do you think God hears my prayers??” It was a STATEMENT. “God hears my prayers Auntie.” I will never forget that.

Sunday – I remember that morning as the one that my Mom saw her Dad. She spoke to him and said things like “Daddy, I’m afraid.”

“Afraid?  This wasn’t in the brochure! She’s not supposed to be scared!”

She also said things that were incomprehensible as she flowed in and out of lucidity. Sometimes her eyes were opened and she spoke but you could tell she wasn’t talking to us. I don’t recall responding too often so as not to confuse her. But I also felt like if I spoke or responded to her, that would be…rude. 🙂  She was clearly having a private conversation with someone and I was not about to interfere with that.

It was a sunny day and I thought “What a beautiful day to leave and go home!”  However, things didn’t progress that well. In fact, we called the hospice nurse on call to tell us what to do. We were concerned she was in pain! After all, she kept saying she was afraid. So that must mean she’s in pain, right?

“She’s in spiritual pain. Have you prayed with her?” – the hospice nurse asked.

The look on my face was complete embarrassment.

Had I prayed with my mother on her deathbed?  NO! Duh!!! What the heck was wrong with me?

I prayed with her as best I knew. I think many of us said the Our Father because that seemed to be the only prayer we all knew.

“How do you pray with someone who can’t hear you and can’t speak?”

I was clueless.

Sunday evening – We called her priest to come and give her last rites. He also managed to ask a question I was all too embarrassed to NOT know the answer to –

“What’s your mother’s favorite prayer?”

I went from feeling like a decent daughter to being the worlds worst. I had never even bothered to ask my Mother’s favorite prayer.

We ended up praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet at her bedside which I think she would have approved.

Shortly before she passed, I ran out of “prayers” and instead took all the cards anyone had ever sent her and read them all out loud to her. I took her hand, told her it was okay for her to go and said I would see her in the morning.

My dad took over the “shift” change.

I went up to bed and prayed and cried to God to please ease my Mom’s sickness.

An hour later she passed away with my Dad at her side.

I don’t even recall crying. I immediately thought God heard my prayer just an hour before.  (Thanks to Sean for restoring my faith in prayer).


 

My Mom was always happy and forever smiling during her life and in countless pictures.

As her body lay there, I stared at her. She looked so….GOOD! As if she would just sit up and say, “What are you looking at? Be happy for me! I’m home!”

I couldn’t help but think …

…that’s how you die a happy death.

 

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Mom Comes Home

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My mom passed away one year ago today and ever since, I have been adding a little bit here and there to this blog post, knowing I’d want to publish something on the anniversary of her death.

At first I was going to write about her life.  And maybe someday I will.  But now right now.  Today I want tell you the journey she took to her final resting place.

She was diagnosed in August of 2009 with a rare type of T-cell lymphoma.  She had already been displaying strange symptoms since March of that year but it took months of tests to finally diagnose her.  After 6 rounds of chemotherapy, she was declared to be in remission by her oncologist.  We celebrated that Thanksgiving.  It seemed it was a miracle, although we were warned this type of cancer could come back in a few years and chemo might not work.

That news did not deter my Mom from living her life as “wild” as a 62year old could.  She spent as much time doing things she enjoyed and said YES a lot more than she said NO.  She would babysit my nephews more often.  She would attend my nephews baseball games and come with us to Cedar Point and went to every wedding and graduation party she was invited to.  Lots of lunches and dinners with friends and family as often as possible.

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In June of 2012, she started having symptoms again.  This time, all the tests came back negative for lymphoma.  But it was obvious to all of us, and her, that something wasn’t right.  This time instead of a cough and a rash, it was stomach pain.  And back pain.  And loss of her voice.  Although her voice never completely went away, it was probably one of the worst things to happen to her.  See, she was quite the gabber.  She talked to my sister every morning over the phone for years!  She’d chat with friends over lunch, she’d chat with her customers at the bridal store she worked at.  That was all gone once she lost her voice.  Not to mention the pain she was in was heartbreaking to witness.

Now, I’d come downstairs to see her in the recliner, sleeping, or trying to sleep, and in pain.  The worst was the feeling of hopelessness as you watch someone in pain and there’s nothing you can say or do to help.  Too sick to go to work.  Too tired to go anywhere.  Too weak to even move off the recliner.  This went on for most of the summer until August when removal of her lymph node confirmed that her cancer was back.  It had been a frustrating time since every other test did not show the cancer.  But her oncologist said it was the type that hides.  Well, it stayed hidden for months.

The chemo this time around was changed slightly to treat the cancer.  And after a few treatments it seemed to be working.  As anyone who knows someone or is on chemo will tell you, it’s like a rollercoaster.  She had her good weeks when she was able to have enough energy to shop and visit with friends and she had bad weeks when it took many days to recover from the chemo.

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By the time Christmas came around, it seems as though she took a turn for the worse.  It became harder for her to breathe and she seemed weak.  She didn’t want to sleep for fear of not waking up.  She slept downstairs in the recliner and there was always someone with her at all times.  A few days before Christmas she went into the hospital and it didn’t look good.  We weren’t sure she would be home for Christmas at all.  But she was determined.  She knew the situation wasn’t good but she also knew she didn’t want to die in a hospital.  She insisted to her doctor that she was going to go home.  I believe his initial reaction was, “We’ll see.”  But my Mom was quite stubborn.  There was no way she was going to miss Christmas.

The situation was so grim, that she actually sat with me in the hospital and told me her final wishes.  It wasn’t really a conversation.  It was definitely one-sided as she spoke and I cried.  She told me the dreams she had for me, she told me how she knew everyone would be okay but that we should look after each other.  She did say something quite funny actually:  “Michelle, oh you don’t need any man in your life so you’ll be okay.”  🙂  Thanks Mom, ha!

But she also said some sad things like “I don’t think Sean will remember me.”

“I don’t have any regrets in my life…but I do feel like I’m being cheated a little bit.   I really wanted to watch Matthew play baseball one more time.”

“I’ve never been afraid of dying and I’ve always been a faithful person…but I’m wondering where is my faith right now?”

“I know this last round of chemo won’t save me.  But if I could just have a few more months…”

Well, God heard her prayers, all of our prayers.  Because the next day she got the all clear to come home.

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The first thing she insisted on doing when we got her home was to finish wrapping the Christmas gifts.  She could barely lift the scissors and the tape but she insisted.  She was adamant about celebrating Christmas.  It was always her favorite holiday, especially to see the look on my nephews faces as they opened up their gifts.  And us too.

As we celebrated Christmas that year, it was clear this was going to be her last.  You didn’t want to think about it, you didn’t want to believe it.  But you knew.  And you knew that she knew.

January and February of 2013 were pretty good.  We actually had hope for a little bit.  The best was when her voice came back.  I came down the stairs to the sound of my Mom on the phone with my Aunt.  I said, “Your voice Mom!!! It’s back!”  She was glowing, she was so excited.  It was the first REAL evidence that there was some hope here.

But, most of the time, you could tell she didn’t want to get her hopes up too high.  None of us did.  I always prayed for her to be healed.  To be cured.  I couldn’t help but think, “Are my prayers just being ignored?  What gives?”

Mom had one more GREAT day.  She got to spend it with my aunt at the casino downtown and eating Paczki on Fat Tuesday.  She said to my Aunt,  “This was the best time I’ve had.”  She took this picture of her in the car, with her paczki of course.

Fat Tuesday with a Paczki!
Fat Tuesday with a Paczki!

It was literally a week or two later that she was fine one day and bad the next.  You always hear about how that happens and you always think, “Oh I’m sure they’re exaggerating.”  No really, she was really okay one day and the next day she couldn’t breathe.  She went in to get the fluid drained from around her lungs and her heart and while she was there she sent all of us a text that said: “Hospice worker coming at one. Can you come?”

Well that pretty much knocked the wind out of me.  It was one thing for one of US to think about hospice.  But when SHE is initiating it…that changes the ball game.

Ironically, when we all walked in around the same time, my Mom looked better than ever.  She looked like she never had cancer.  It was the strangest sight.  The hospice worker even looked at her like, “Ummm…are you sure you need hospice?”

But that was our Mom’s gift to us.  She knew none of us would ever recommend or even say the word hospice unless she said it first.  It had to be her decision.

It was clear from talking to hospice that Mom wasn’t quite there yet and she had options.

She came home the next day though and we thought, “Okay maybe she has more time than we thought.  Maybe this isn’t so bad.”

About a week later, she was back in the hospital again.  This time she couldn’t breathe again, and needed to be drained, again.  But as soon as they drained her, shortly thereafter, the fluid was back.  It was getting to be too much and they couldn’t keep up with the drainage.

She needed to be put into a wheelchair to get back into the car.  And when she came home we needed to help her into the house.  That’s when she changed right in front of my eyes.

Her voice became tiny and high pitched, and she said her legs felt “weird” and she said she was ashamed and embarrassed that she needed a wheelchair to get into her own house.  We told her not to worry about it but you could tell the life that was inside her was diminishing.  I looked at her for the first time and she looked like she aged 20 years in that minute.

Two days later she asked for hospice.  She sat there with me and told me “This is no way to live.  Call hospice, it’s time.”  I didn’t argue with her.  I don’t think I even cried.  I was more just in shock  that this was happening.

I stopped praying for healing or a cure.  I knew it wasn’t because God wasn’t answering my prayer, He was trying to tell me I was praying for the wrong thing.  This time, I prayed for her to go home.

3 days later, she took her last breath with my Dad at her side.  Those three days were quite possibly the most beautiful moments as well as the most awful three days of my life.  No one should have to see a loved one dying in front of them.  But there were moments from that weekend I will never forget and some day I will write a nice long post about it.

Until then, I take comfort in the memories I have of my beautiful mother.  The notes she left us that we found at Halloween and Thanksgiving and Christmas.  The pictures of her around this huge empty house.  The sound of her voice and her laugh that I still have on saved voicemails and videos.  And of course, the look on people’s faces when they speak about her.  I have given up trying to tell people how amazing she was.  They simply will never know her and as much as it hurts and pains me to know that YOU will never know who she was, it’s okay now.  She lives on in me and my sister and my brother and my nephews.  So if you ever want to get to know her, just ask me.

I could talk about her forever.

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All About Mom

May 22nd, 1948 - March 10th, 2013
May 22nd, 1948 – March 10th, 2013

My Mom was my biggest fan. You can see how she commented on quite a few of my posts and was my photographer for my progress pics. She was very supportive of my endeavors and always found an opportunity to say “I’m so proud of you honey!”

Although I know she probably cringed as I became the Tupperware queen as I would leave some of my empty containers all around the kitchen, she did express to me many times how she loved that I cooked and prepared all my meals. “There’s my cooking daughter, cooking up a storm in there!” she would say.

These last few weeks of my mother’s life were especially difficult. She knew her health was deteriorating and although she said she was trying to remain positive, I think she knew something was terribly wrong. Instead of focusing on the negative feelings and the horrible things that happened, I’m trying to remind myself of all the good things that took place, especially these last three months. I can’t help but smile a little as I reflect on them today:

– I was able to make my Mom some delicious smoothies every morning, some of which she said “This is the BEST one yet!”

– When I would come home from the grocery store with food from my meal plan from my nutrition coach, she actually asked if she could eat some of it too.  It was such a joy to be able to cook for my Mom! The orange roughy I baked was her favorite by far.

– Wednesday night, just two days before she asked for hospice, she looked over at me and said “I’m tasting for something but I don’t know what…maybe some oatmeal. Do you have any oatmeal?”  DO I HAVE OATMEAL?!  I have a membership to Costco and stocked up on the stuff, I HAVE Oatmeal Mom! 🙂  She wanted butter, milk and some sugar in it.  I brought it over to her and apologized for not making it very “mushy” and instead it came out “watery.”  But she gobbled it up anyways.

-Thursday night she asked for oatmeal again.  “This time could you make it less watery?”  I whipped up the butteriest, milkiest, sugariest oatmeal anyone could ask for.  It was the last thing she ate.  I was honored to do it.

-She was able to celebrate Fat Tuesday and have a paczki with my Aunt just a couple weeks ago. She told my aunt it was “The best time I’ve ever had!”

Fat Tuesday with a Paczki!
Fat Tuesday with a Paczki!

-I drove her to my nephews basketball game a few days later which would be the last time she was out of the house.  And what a game! Triple Overtime and they won! 

– The last thing I said to her before she passed was reading to her from her own book, “A Grandma’s Book” that was given to my nephews.  It’s all about her.  I read an excerpt from her “Favorite Things.”  For those that didn’t know her, here are a few of them:

“I love my friends, I love my family, I love them more than life itself.  I love hummingbirds, I love CHOCOLATE.  Especially Lindt Truffles.  I love Tote Bags, I have about 20 of them!  …I love baking bread and giving it to my friends at holidays.  I love the smell of freshly cut grass.  I love when it’s thunderstorming outside and I’m safe and sound in my house.”

I know I’ve said it before but my Mom was simply the best that there ever was.  Her smile was the biggest, her heart was the largest, her love was the greatest.

October 17th 2012 - 42 Years of Marriage
October 17th 2012 – 42 Years of Marriage

I had toyed with the idea of throwing in the towel on this competition.  I even thought about giving up on eating healthy, on working out in general.  But after talking to my sister and a few other folks, it’s pretty obvious Mom would be PISSED if I gave up.  She’d especially feel guilty for being the REASON to give up. 

So I’m back on it today.  I started back on my meal plan a couple of days ago but today is the first full day of getting my habits back in line.  It’s rough…but it’s not nearly as rough as she had it.  I have to remind myself my Mom had quite a tumultuous 6 months.  I try to live each day for her now. I only hope I can be a reflection of what she was like.  I definitely have some big shoes to fill, I’m sure I will never fill them.  But I will try to live each day with that bright smile on my face. 

Love You Mom!

"Light The Night" Fundraiser for LLS
“Light The Night” Fundraiser for LLS