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reality settling in

As a new year unfolded in 2006, I took stock in all that had been for the past two years. I had survived a divorce, moved to a new state, and faced cancer once again with my dear mother. And she was still here, two years later. Quite the fighter, she was determined to live her live as she saw fit. And she was still with us largely due to her resolve of guiding her own path of healing, versus a path designed by traditional western medicine. As I reflect on this time, mom remains today the strongest and most courageous woman I have ever known.  I was amazed that she was still around although also aware that this could not continue forever.  A couple of weeks into 2006, I was reminded that something was changing. My reality was settling in.

It was January 11, 2006, and a stormy night in Nashville with lightening and strong winds and rain. As I walked to my bedroom, I passed the familiar pictures on the wall of my mom as a child, my father and his brother as a child, my parents wedding picture, and a picture of my maternal grandfather’s garage. Something I did several times a day without notice. Not this night. Something was different. Could have been the wind shaking the house, not sure, but all of a sudden mom’s baby picture fell off the wall onto the rug in front of me.  Shock filled my body as I had not been aware of something that seemed so purposeful before, yet quite scary. I was already unsettled by the storm and the picture falling down in front of me really frightened me on some level. On another level, I was calmed by something familiar, the feeling of my maternal grandfather, Grandpa Pat. It brought back fond memories of spending time with him when I was little in Indiana near his house, catching fireflies and fishing. I didn’t get to see him often but he always made me feel loved and calm. I remember being excited when I was five when I learned he was coming to live with us, only to be crushed when I learned he was sick. He passed away when I was six. Now, it seemed like he was trying to get my attention, but I didn’t understand how.

The storm passed and I was able to fall asleep. That night I had a dream. It felt so real, like I was wide awake. Grandpa Pat told me he had come to take mom with him, that it was time for her to go. The next morning, I talked to one of my sister’s and found out she also had a dream about mom and death. I started to feel in my heart that the time was nearing, when she would pass from this physical life. The letting go I had been practicing was serving me well, trying to trust the bigger picture called life and trusting that what came forth, was what I could handle. And that I would always have everything I need.

Despite my practice at letting go, the sadness started to catch up with me. I was not ready to say goodbye, especially because I finally was experiencing the relationship with my mom I had always wanted, one where I felt her deep love and where I knew she felt mine now as an adult. My sisters and I were in the planning stages of a big birthday celebration for mom in March at this time. Somehow, I knew she would not be around much beyond that. Her body was showing signs of fatigue. Her blood pressure had been irrative as of late and had shot up to 180 as her heart rate escalated. It reminded my father that this time was different, she may not be around much longer. He opened up to my sister that he didn’t know what he would do without mom. How in the world would we help him prepare for losing the love of his life, after 55 years of marriage? And help ourselves at the same time. Not sure we knew at the time, but each of us seemed to be moving to a place of acceptance in our own way.

I went to Austin to spend time with mom, something I was doing more often. Wanting to enjoy the time, however long I had. Our time was precious and lovely, difficult and tearful at the same time. I was also able to spend time with my dear friend Corinne then, who lived in Austin. She had lost her mother as a young child and was able to support me from a place of empathy, which felt different and comforting. Such amazing support she provided me, along with good advice. She said one of the things she wished she had now were some clothes of her mother’s, so she could make a quilt or something soft. Great advice for me and something valuable I tucked away in my memory for later. I was not quite ready to process such a thought.

As I moved into February, I felt in a state of limbo. Kind of numb, not feeling much. Probably had shifted into my detached state as the sadness and pain in my heart was increasing. I was moving through my days without much feeling, kind of going through motions without much intention. We were finishing the planning on mom’s birthday celebration, now just a few weeks away.  More news from the doctor confirmed what I knew in my heart. He said it was time for us to think about Hospice for mom. And then he said something more, put words out there that made it real. He said that ‘his thoughts and prayers were with us as we endured this time, that mom was not going to be with us much longer.’ One more example for me of my reality changing, a proof point guiding me to what was to come.


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treasuring each moment

My children and I went to Austin for the July 4th week, one of mom’s favorite holidays. We enjoyed the lake with full abandon, allowing the days to unfold and following mom’s lead. Not knowing the timing of when mom would leave us, we wanted to enjoy this time to the fullest, as if it would be our last 4th of July celebration with her. Mom always loved seeing the children’s eyes light up with various fireworks we set off from their boat dock on Lake Austin. She always had sparklers, ‘dancing’ chicks, rainbow fountain fireworks and every year we would try other kinds. Mom baked a special cake with my children and decorated it, keeping most of the icing on the cake.

I was able to spend some quality one on one time with mom, most days going for her usual 3 mile walk around her neighborhood. I was amazed to see her still walking, and while slower in her pace and with some added stops, nonetheless an incredible feat for someone in mom’s condition. I was finally able to ask more questions, continue my journey to learn more about mom. I started with asking if she had ever thought about her greatest accomplishments. Surprisingly, her first response was that she was able to raise the five of us without anything major happening to any of us or without much help or support. It was nice that she could feel how tremendous that was at this point in her life.

I then asked about the people that had influenced her most. Again, her response caught me by surprise. She said her mother and father influenced her most for encouraging her to go to college. That was in the late 1940’s and many women were encouraged to focus on getting married and having children, versus going to college. Mom then shared how she considered college to be a turning point in her life, for many reasons. I then shifted the questions to the present and asked if she had thought much about how she would want to be remembered when she did pass. She talked a little about wanting to be cremated and her ashes spread over the lake, but she spoke of it somewhat in the past tense, and I could tell by her reaction it surprised her.

So I transitioned to a different type of conversation. One where I was able to give her some feedback, share some things that amazed me about her. Mom listened very intently as I described how incrediblly amazing she was to me. She asked that I share more details, what was amazing about her. I continued with detail about her as a woman, a mother, a grandmother, a working mom, a student, a wife, a Stephen ministry representative and as a self-healer. Mom sometimes struggled with receiving praise or being called out in a setting of more than one person for her incredible gifts, but this time she was soaking in every word. I told her I would write it down so she could read them again and she smiled. I found a journal entry from about this time in her journal that sums up her desire to be worthy and to accept the best, ‘I am willing to release the need to be unworthy. I am worthy of the very best in life and I now lovingly allow myself to accept it.’  While outwardly we could see that she always wanted to be in the background, just quietly and selflessly give to others, I didn’t realize the magnatude of how inside she had deep feelings of unworthiness.

Over the fall of 2005, we continued our talks about her childhood and things she remembered. Mom grew up in a town of 600 in Indiana. Her father owned the only garage and gas station in the town and her mother was on the city council. Mom felt like her mother went to extremes to not have her only daughter grow up spoiled, and the pain still seemed real as mom described it. Mom learned how to smock and make quilts from her grandmother, Annetta. Mom experienced many wonderful memories from the time she spent with her and her eyes lit up as she described more.  Mom also shared how I reminded her of Annetta and how she wished I could have known her. Annetta died in the very early hours of the morning I was born.

Learning more helped me feel closer to mom, more connected, and helped keep the fear at bay, at least for a while. It helped me give to mom in a way she could receive and filled my heart with joy in the process. During the last months of 2005, the reports of the cancer markers increasing continued. Nothing any of us could control or change. Just a process we were to respect as it unfolded. Mom didn’t seem very interested in the reports. She mainly wanted to enjoy each day to its fullest. A great model for me, even in this situation. She was always teaching, always seeking to enjoy life.

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learning how to cope

Two weeks went by and I began to settle into my new home a little each day, now with my children at my side. I chose to spend the weekend connecting the stereo so we could enjoy music and unpacking the children’s toys. They were much happier once they could see their toys and things in their new space, appeared more relaxed and secure. I caught up with one of my sister’s and heard some unsettling news. Something I knew in my heart but had been keeping tucked away as I managed through the move and new job. Mom’s doctor had shared with my sister that mom’s cancer was fast growing and there was nothing any of us can do, except love her and spend time with her. Appreciate all that has been. Wow. The reality of an ending shaping up without knowing how or when. It was special to be able to talk openly with my sister and I was grateful for the candor. While not what I wanted to hear, something I knew I needed to face.

A few more weeks of unpacking and settling into our new lives went by and I had cleared out a few more boxes. As I made my way through another box, I came across an article that stopped me in my tracks. A well of grief formed in my throat and heart as I started to read. It was an article on grief, given to me in Boulder. And all of a sudden it hit me hard, the reality that my mom was dying. I reached out to my sister for support. We both cried as we discussed the change and loss that was about to come. Something I had been able to detach from for the past several months. Crying and talking with her helped me realize that I had sunk into somewhat what of a depressed state as I had put these feelings on hold for months. Now that I was in my new space, the physical transition complete, I was able to be still, and let the sadness flow. Allow my feelings and fear of the unknown to have a voice. And I felt in my heart then that I probably needed to reach out for help, and start to learn how to cope.

I went to the computer and started researching about cancer support and ways I could get support locally. From the research, I discovered a local resource and ventured into an unknown space for me, a cancer support group. Growing up in a family with five children, most of life happened in groups of some form or fashion. It was the reality of numbers and my sisters and I outnumbered our mom and dad. So off I went to a group that I thought would help me, a great resource called Gilda’s Club. As I started to introduce myself, I barely got five words out and the tears started flowing. Just introducing myself.  The good news was I was not alone, not the only person feeling sadness and pain. I listened to the other five people in the group share their story of how cancer had impacted their lives, where they were in the journey. Then it was my turn. I spoke of the reality that my mom was dying yet no one was able to tell me when it would happen. I reflected on the past six months and shared how special it was for me to be at her side when she learned the cancer was back. To be able to share the special memories with mom of each experience from month to month, since that moment of truth. How it touched my heart to be able to be present and love her with my heart wide open. As I shared these stories with the group, the heaviness in my gut, fear of the unknown, started to slowly dissolve.

My learning to cope had begun. I had reached outside of my inner circle of family and friends for help. As I drove home from the cancer support group that night, I felt a warm feeling of gratitude in my heart. I realized that I was appreciating mom for who she was, in the moment, fully present. I was honoring her journey and accepting her path. I decided I wanted to ask her more, hear more about what life was like for her each day. Then I thought about the support group experience. I was relieved for the ability to sit with people like me, to learn that I was not alone. Many people were also facing tough situations and trying to cope. But did I really feel comfortable in a group setting, I asked myself. Not really. I realized I was sharing details about my situation with them, but not talking about my feelings of sadness and impending loss. The greatest loss one can experience, a deep loss of the heart. In the group setting, it felt complicated to describe my story of cancer and how it was impacting my life. All I wanted was to fall apart and have someone dear hold me. Not to have someone fix me or make it go away. Or to have to listen to someone else. For now, I learned that I needed my support to be all about me. I went to sleep thinking about my experience and decided I would start looking for a grief counselor to support me through this journey. I awoke from a dream in the early hours of the morning. I sat straight up in bed. In my dream, I saw mom die in her sleep, sometime before dawn, so very peacefully. It gave me comfort to know something about the how. Just still no answers to when.

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a new chapter unfolding

I made it to Austin in early March 2005 to celebrate Mom’s birthday with her. We were able to go hear the live music she was enjoying and spend quality time together. I was able to share the exciting journey I was on with work.  One of the sales leaders in another state had asked me to take on a certain role, a valuable strategic consulting role, in another state. The reality of my life situation would not allow for consistent weekly travel and facing a move for a one year job was not a value equation I was willing to consider. However, it gave me pause for thought. The role was intriguing enough for me to evaluate and I ventured to push the edges a little in my mind, wondering if the role could be expanded into something more, something that was worth a move to a new state. I realized in that moment as I was sharing the story with mom that facing the disappointment of losing the previous job opportunity actually had furthered my practice of letting go of outcomes and following the process of my life experiences, asking questions along the way.

Mom was delighted for the promise of a new chapter unfolding for me and we agreed to meet for spring break in the city where the job could be based, in Nashville, TN. My children and I met mom and dad in Nashville in mid-March, sharing a wonderful and yet emotional time together. I was grateful to have the gift of mom and dad helping my children and me explore Nashville together, grateful that mom felt strong enough to travel and healthy enough to be playful with my children. We went for a walk in Centennial Park one day and went house hunting another. Mom was strong until the third night. She became very sick, unable to leave the bathroom. With all the excitement and activities of my big life change unfolding- a new job, moving to a new state, a new home- I was managing to stay somewhat in my detached state. It was a rude awakening to experience mom being so sick all of a sudden, kind of like one of the deep lows of a rollercoaster ride. We had enjoyed moments of highs- pure joy and love, celebration of this new place we were discovering and excitement of mom being able to be here with us. That night, mom’s body reminded us all that cancer was spreading through her body and our joy quickly transitioned to deep sadness. My heart grew heavy as I struggled with how to help her, how to be supportive. The reality was I just needed to be patient, and hopefully she would regain her strength. Mom awoke the next day strong enough to explore some more. We visited a church and enjoyed lunch at a locally owned restaurant. As we flew home to our separate cities, I put my sadness in a box and started to make my list of all the things required to move my children and me to another state.

As I reflected on this new chapter unfolding for me,  it held so much promise, such expansive joy of a new start personally, and the exciting chance to awaken my strategic mind again. For the first time in my life, I chose to be fully engaged in the process of the transition, asking questions and seeking to understand more details, while trusting that the best outcome was unfolding for all. And while I was busy going through the motions, the universe moved some very large mountains to clear the path for my new chapter to begin. Mountains that my friends and even my lawyer said could not be moved. I convinced my former husband to let me move with the children to Nashville- yes I was capable if I allowed others to help and influence. And I convinced a couple of executives at my company to create a new position for me, pay for my move to Nashville, and allow me to start a new advisory services consulting practice, with me as the leader. I knew I had help in all of this, and much of the help was unexplainable in words. It was an expansion of my faith, a journey beyond the edges of all I knew- at least that is how I came to explain the clearing that unfolded over a mere month’s time.

Over the next month, I started my new position and traveled back and forth as I looked for a new home. I was blessed with some valuable advice from a co-worker Don, a Nashville native, on where to look for homes and how to navigate the city. After many tours in several neighborhoods, I finally landed on the house I wanted, one that did not fit my ‘criteria’ but that filled my heart with peace and felt like home the moment I stepped onto the original hardwood floors. I closed on the house in early May and mom agreed to come share mother’s day with me, in my new house, just the two of us. I knew she was not strong enough to help with boxes. That was not important to me at the time. Being able to share the beginning of my new life chapter in this lovely new city with my dear mother and enjoying each experience without any other distractions was the treasure I was after.

I felt in my heart that this might be one of those moments in life that would never be repeated, no real idea of what the experiences would bring, but sure they would be etched in my memory forever. And how deeply moved and touched I was with what unfolded that weekend. Mom and I were able to talk about what it felt like for her to wake up each day, not knowing if it would be her last. Before she came, she asked me what I wanted of hers, preparing for the day when she would pass from her physical state. What I wanted most were things she wanted me to have, something special to her. And she so incredibly touched my heart in a way that words could not express with what she chose. She brought me some special jewelry pieces that she wanted me to have, and shared the stories of each as she handed them to me. It was way more special that anything I could have thought of, anything I could have chosen on my own.

Over the weekend, mom helped me unpack and arrange my kitchen, something she wanted for me to feel settled, to be prepared for the children moving in after school was out. Somehow when we had gone to the store on mother’s day, she had snuck away from me and bought me something. I guess I was a little distracted with learning a new city, navigating new roads and learning the layout of stores that I didn’t notice. When we got home, she handed me a present. It was a coffee mug, with the inscription ‘The soul would have no rainbow if the eyes had no tears.’ The thought was so deeply touching to me, so loving, and straight from her heart. The words on the mug reminded me of one of the most valuable perspectives mom had raised me to believe: that I should embrace the challenges in my life as opportunities for personal growth and to always trust that difficult times yielded new beginnings and blessings. And how true those words would ring out over the next year.

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seeking to understand

In late January 2005, mom bravely endured yet another test, a bone scan, the week following her biopsy. The results were good and tough at the same time. The good news was the cancer was not present anywhere on the bone scan results. The tough part was she needed to be on chemo drugs for the rest of her life to stay alive. The same drugs that made her so sick, sick enough to go to the ER with dangerously low potassium levels. Mom decided she would try chemo again and if it made her sick, she would stop. She also chose to embrace alternative medicine, going to weekly acupuncture treatments and taking Chinese herbs daily.

Many people would have taken the news over the past couple of weeks of early 2005 hard and could have caved into a deep depression. Not Mom. She rose above it. The weekend following her bone scan, she spent a day outside building a new open space trail with one other person in her neighborhood. Part of mom’s passion was giving back, and what a great place to do it out in nature which she loved. Her strength and determination seemed to always overpower any illness, even cancer.

As Mom started the chemo, she became sick again. She was considering stopping the IV portion. Her doctor offered up an experimental drug as an option so she researched the outcomes. Even if this drug was effective, it would only prolong her life for about four months. No thank you, she said. With the alternative therapies, mom’s energy increased and she starting walking again. She researched special diets that might have helped prolong her life. She considered changing her diet, but saturated fats were such a favorite food of hers, and she was not willing to give that up. Mom wanted to live her life the way she wanted, even if it meant her time on earth would be shorter. She was so very strong, every step of the way.

Another avenue Mom pursued during this experience with cancer was trying to understand what the dis-ease in her body represented, especially since she had faced the evil ‘c’ before. She was an avid learner, always seeking to understand, and a voracious reader.  Through her process, she captured thoughts in her journal. She came to believe that any discomfort in her body was a direct message to her about where she was out of alignment with her true self. That ‘guidance came in the form of discomfort, if she would only be still and listen’. Mom uncovered that maybe the quiet negative voices in her ‘noisy mind’ were part of the reason for the discomfort- negative self talk about what she needed to do, should have done, always second guessing quietly inside. On her journey to heal her body, she continued to learn about and try different types of healing and even visited with a Buddhist Monk who visited Austin that year.  Along the way, Mom brought in new ideas and considered them, while balancing them with her strong faith and Christian upbringing- to her, faith was the great lever of life, and without it, man could do nothing, and with it, even as a grain of mustard seed, all things were possible.

I wanted mom to come visit Boulder in February 2005 but the chemo was making her hands and feet cold, so probably not a great idea. I knew I wanted to see her again soon and decided I would plan my next trip to Austin to be over a Thursday night so I could go with her and hear live music, at a new place she had discovered. In addition to spending more time in nature, mom was filling her heart with music more and in different ways.

As I processed the news of the first month and a half of 2005, I felt a little detached. I was still trying to understand why this time was different, how it was that mom was suffering quietly inside. And so unfair to happen to someone who gave so much, who loved deeply from her heart. As my reality sunk in, a new job opportunity surfaced within the company I was working for, one that held more promise than the last. A better fit for my skills. I welcomed the distraction and the promise of using my strategic mind again, and ventured into another interview process.

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this time felt different

Over the previous eighteen months, mom had been very forthcoming with new information about her health status, every time she had new test results or saw her doctor. This time felt different. Mom had waited almost a week before sharing her pet scan results in January 2005.  At the time, she told me that she had spoken with my sisters also so I assumed they were aware of what I knew. The results that 20 tiny tumors were scattered throughout her left lung and something abnormal was showing up in the lining of her lung.  My heart was breaking as I felt how scared she must be of this news. My dear sweet mother who always gave 100% of her heart and soul to everyone was not well.

I made it through the weekend staying busy, enjoying my children and trying not to think of the news the next week would bring. I spoke with some of my sisters but we stayed away from the topic of mom and her health. On Monday, I went to work and was let down by the news that the job I was being considered for was offered to someone else. I had allowed myself to feel the life giving energy that this job process was feeding me, the chance to use my mind in a strategic way. All signals were that the job was for me. Every time I had interviewed and asked for feedback, all reports were glowing. As I processed the news, my heart sank and felt like it was breaking in two. Here it was, a promise of something new, a fresh start, and all of a sudden, the door was slammed shut. Or so it felt inside. Mom had taught me that when doors were closed or my dreams were not realized, it was God’s way of protecting me from things that were not right or could have been harmful. As much as I knew in my mind that something was not right for me in this job, tears of disappointment flowed down my face. As sad as I was for me, I knew I needed to turn the process over to a higher power, let go and focus on mom.

I awoke Tuesday and imagined holding my mom in my love as she headed in for her biopsy. A few hours later, one of my sisters’s called very upset. Mom’s biopsy was not even finished yet. All of a sudden I felt the depth of fear my mom must have been experiencing. Mom had only shared details of the test results with me and my sister had just found out.  This time was for sure different. I realized that if mom was that scared, she needed support but probably wouldn’t ask for it. When I checked in with mom later that afternoon, I offered to be at her side when she went to her doctor for the biopsy results. Mom was delighted with my offer and I flew in on Thursday.

She allowed me into her inner world, so very close the next two days. Mom picked me up from the airport alone, a first. I helped her cook dinner that night, something I never had really done before. I had always enjoyed baking sweets and my other sisters would help mom with dinner. She wanted it to be different that night and asked me to help her. So I did. It felt like we were in our own little pocket of space, spending time while the world stood still. As we were walking out the door to go to the doctor’s office the next morning, I learned mom had told my father he did not need to come. She really wanted him to go play bridge and enjoy his morning. I was quite shocked as I followed her out to the car. Wow, this time was different.

Mom and I drove alone to the appointment. We were led into the examining room by the nurse and one of my sisters’s joined us. As mom’s doctor entered the exam room, I could see the concern in his eyes. Mom sat on the table and I stood at her side, with my arm around her shoulder. I was facing her doctor as he lit up the xray on the box on the wall, displayed for us to see. Those 20 plus little tumors were cancer and it was spreading through her lungs. If only this was her breast cancer, he said, he could treat her with hormones. But he had checked that with her doctor in Houston. It was the rectal cancer, now metastasized. And radiation was not an option, because of the multiple tumors. Chemo was the only course of treatment, and he only had one or two drugs to offer. The same ones that had made her so very sick the year before.  I held her in close as we processed the results. One more test was needed- a bone scan. My heart was breaking but I knew I needed to be strong, needed most to focus on supporting her.

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letting go

Mom and Dad returned home after a lovely visit built on lasting memories. It was early January 2005 and I was awaiting results from mom’s tests. She had already shared the results from a pet scan, results that showed some activity in her lungs. We were in a holding pattern as her doctor had ordered more tests, a cat scan and some blood work. Here I was again, two potential life transitions taking shape at the same time, one I was definitely not ready for. As my breathing shortened and the muscles in my neck tightened, I braced for what I knew in my heart was not going to be good news from the second round of tests.

At the same time, I was facing a transition to a new role, in a new state. Before that was possible, I first needed to negotiate and secure agreement from my former husband to let me move with my children.  As I processed these experiences unfolding one right after the other, I reflected for a moment on how I was doing. In this moment, I was actually feeling a little stronger, a little less like the sky was falling. After surviving the events of the previous eighteen months combined with the continued expansion of my heart, I realized now that maybe I was strong enough to handle more.

I thought about this new role that had been created seemingly out of nowhere and realized that something about it gave me energy, made my heart sing. When I checked in with my lawyer on the likelihood of securing court approval to move with my children, he informed me that the Colorado Supreme Court had blocked two similar cases, even situations where the mom was the primary provider for the children. His recommendation was to convince my former husband directly, bypass the court system, and figure out something that mattered more to him to make this work. Wow. My lawyer really thought I was capable of negotiating an agreement with a man who had chosen opposite sides from me of any topic related to the children since our divorce a year ago. Not so much I thought. That type of agreement was legal and binding and seemed like quite an insurmountable task, definitely not in my direct control. I paused and closed my eyes, asking for answers. I knew my best chance for agreement was to focus on following the job process that was unfolding in front of me, let go, and rely more on my faith that this situation would work out, in the best way for all of us. Maybe my stubbornness and strong will was learning to listen a little more, take a back seat,  let my heart lead, and be comfortable expanding my edges beyond what I knew possible.

I was not really looking for a chance to change jobs at this point. My current role was increasingly requiring that I travel more, work more in California at the company headquarters. Traveling often was something I was not able to manage very well. At least not while giving my children love and support they needed and a strong foundation to heal from, with me around. While the role I had been in for almost a year had afforded me the grace of space and time to heal, I was learning to adjust to my new way of life. I was mastering the balancing act of competing demands and juggling my many roles – as a mom, sister, friend, marketing director, house cleaner. In the meantime, my mind increasingly felt like it had fallen asleep.

I was not feeling intellectually challenged in my current job and my creativity seemed stifled. My passion had faded and taken a back seat to day in and day out responsibility. My life was kind of leading me I guess. I had somewhat accepted that as my norm and was not so sure that anything needed to be different.  And as I considered this new opportunity that had fallen into my lap, my heart was jumping for joy and guiding me to let go, let something bigger than me reveal the path, if I would just get out of the way and let God lead. My part was taking the action I needed to and becoming clear on what was important to me. My priorities seemed so very simple at this point in my life- what was becoming more important was to be present in each moment and passionate about what I was doing, how I was feeling, versus achieving some feat or conquering the world.

My thoughts shifted back to mom as she awaited more results. My earlier feeling that mom was not long for this world all of a sudden resurfaced from the box I had tucked it away in so neatly. The box was shattered wide open as I listened to her share the news. There were nodules in her left lung that required a biopsy the following week, she said. I could hear the fear in her voice as it cracked when she read the report to me. It didn’t look like cancer on one report but did on another, she said. What did that mean, I wondered, how is it they couldn’t tell? I could feel that mom was in shock and didn’t want to talk anymore. I hung up and imagined wrapping my arms and love around her, prayed that God would fill her with grace. On one level, I had been preparing for this day, on another, I was in complete denial. My heart knew I had to let go and honor mom’s journey as it unfolded, that I had no control and couldn’t change the outcome. In that moment, I was grateful that mom was still seeing her oncologist in Houston who had guided her so successfully through her breast cancer and recommended the surgeon who had operated on her a year before. When mom had returned from our visit a few weeks earlier, Dr. Smith had recommended the tests and now the reason for mom’s pain was being revealed, one test result at a time.

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some firsts and lasts

Now entering my second Christmas season as a divorced mom, I was feeling a little more healed and a little more settled.  Wow how much had changed and shifted over the past year. Seemed like a lifetime almost. Snow was falling gently outside as I welcomed mom and dad for a visit in Boulder. Mom had enjoyed the past few months feeling stronger and spending time doing what she loved, putting herself first a little more. Dad was doing well also, felt very authentic. He had been funny, nurturing, supportive and loving recently. What a heartwarming Christmas gift to have them both in my home, and to have been able to enjoy some days with them alone before my children returned.

I treated mom and dad to an anniversary dinner out and we enjoyed reconnecting and laughing a lot. It helped my heart expand a little more, celebrating the special relationship they had created through more than 50 wonderful years together. The next day, Mom and I went for a walk in the snow. It was peaceful and crisp. Dad joined us to go see the movie Kinsey, about a professor at Indiana University. I had not been keeping up with movies very well and had no clue what I was stepping into. Quite shocked when I learned Kinsey was not just any professor, he was a sex researcher! It was quite eye opening to see such a provocative movie with my parents. To them, it was fascinating to see the story of a man they had known, it was personal and real. Mom and dad both saw Kinsey’s work as scientific, feeding the intellect in both of them. Kinsey was working at IU in Bloomington around the time I was born. How fun for me to learn through mom and dad’s perspective what life was like back then, a time when my father worked at IU.  My parents also knew Herman Wells from the movie, the IU President at the time. Wow, such an interesting a little window into my parent’s life as young adults. Later, we enjoyed a lovely dinner together and talked fairly openly about the movie, a first for me. I slept better that night than I had in several months, so happy to have both of them around, to share and learn more so openly.

On Christmas morning, I awoke to a feeling of tightness in my chest and heart as I was sad to not have my children back yet in my home. One of the things I loved most about Christmas was waking up and seeing the gleam in their eyes. The look of surprise and excitement. How supportive it felt to have mom and dad there, helping me through my first Christmas morning in my new home, without my babies.

Mom and I went for a walk after the presents were wrapped and the food was in the oven. And then I noticed it. Those little breathing exercises mom used when her symptoms first appeared, about 18 months ago. My heart sank. No, it can’t be. God I am not ready for this. I had just finished enjoying several months of peace and now realized I had allowed a false sense of security to settle in. Several times out of the corner of my eye, I could see mom breathing short breaths again. When I asked if she was in pain, she quickly said no.  Suddenly my focus shifted, from my sadness to mom. Something more important than my grief. In that moment, I could feel that she was not ok, but she would not talk about it. How scary it must have been for her to be in pain and not feel like she could tell me. How alone she must have felt. When my children came home a few hours later, mom wrapped them in her love, but still seemed a little short tempered. Mom had always focused so intently on my babies, making life all about them when she was around. She indulged them in reading or painting or whatever they wanted to do. All of a sudden something was different.

We enjoyed a lovely Christmas meal together as I tried to remain calm, act like everything was ok. In my heart, I knew it wasn’t. As I processed the unfolding of the day, I realized our best option was to enjoy the rest of mom and dad’s visit to its fullest, do things we had never tried, and create lasting memories. Christmas lights were a favorite in our family so we ventured out to see the light display at the Denver Botanical Gardens, a first for us since living in Colorado. We all enjoyed the walk through the gardens at night, bundled up in coats and gloves as it was 40 degrees outside. My children squealed with delight as they played hide and seek in the lights. The display through the gardens was spectacular and magical. More amazing than I had seen in one place before. Seeing the joy light up on mom’s face gave me some peace. I felt grateful in that moment for something I knew I would always have, a lasting memory etched in my mind.

We awoke the next day to a sunny, warmer day so we all ventured out for a hike at Chautauqua Park. Another first.The trail followed alongside of the striking Flatiron’s, a series of iron ore hills sticking straight out of the side of the mountain in Boulder. As I walked along these magnificent pointed rocks, I was lost in the beauty natured had created. Happy to be experiencing this for the first time with mom and dad. Pearl Street Mall in Boulder was one of our favorite spots to window shop and enjoy ice cream. Mom had always wanted to go so we headed there next. The children played on the statues along the mall with dad while mom and I checked out a couple of stores.  We discovered some amazing talent, many handmade items crafted by local artists. We bought four hand painted Christmas ornaments mom and I both loved, matching in style yet each in our favorite color.

When we went in an art gallery next, a painting on the wall across the room grabbed my attention. My eyes zeroed in. I had been looking for some art work for my new home and here it was, seemed like the piece I needed. The painting had three panels of hand painted aspen trees, positioned amidst stones of several bright colors. The trees seemed to pop out of the painting. Aspen trees were so Colorado. And the bright stones were so Boulder, very whimsical and fun. Mom helped me negotiate a little and now the painting was mine. I had really wanted a local painting as I was pretty sure this would be my last Christmas in Boulder. I was talking to the company where I worked about moving to a new position, in a different state. As such, it would likely be the last time my parents would come to visit me there. Our time together was filled with firsts and lasts. Little did I know one of the lasts I experienced was spending time with my mother in her cancer-free state.

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a passion for learning

Over the summer of 2004, mom continued to gain her strength and energy back. She was able to start walking again around her neighborhood on Lake Austin, something that fed her soul. The past year had jolted me enough to believe mom might not be here much longer and I realized, if she were to pass on, I was not sure that I would know much about her life. I decided I wanted to know more, committing to myself that I would ask her questions on each visit.

What I did know was mom grew up as an only child, in a very small town in Indiana. Her father owned the town garage and gas station. Her mother was on the city council. Mom was born in the Chinese year of the snake, which represents the intuitive, introspective, refined and collected of the Chinese Animal Signs. Her favorite colors were purple and pink and her lucky number was two, representing duality and duplication. Mom was always ready to chart out new and undiscovered territories, jump into any new activity with enthusiasm and was fascinated by endeavors that spoke to her intellect and filled her spirit with light.

During my visits over the fall of 2004, I explored more about mom’s college years and experiences that she felt influenced her life most. What I learned was amazing but not surprising. Mom was honored with Mortar Board membership in her senior year at Indiana University. That same year, she was one of the founders of the little Indy Bicycle race, a bike race that still runs today. Quite the overachiever, as she also founded her sorority while at IU. Mom and Dad met soon after college and married a few years later. Dad’s work took them to several new places. One of those was Lubbock, Texas. I laughed out loud when mom told me one story about living in Lubbock in the ‘70’s. A generational type of story, I suppose. She shared that she had to dress up and wear a skirt to do the laundry. Mom thought this was quite extreme, but followed along nonetheless. While in Lubbock, mom helped found Mortar Board at Texas Tech University.

Mom’s most influential teacher was Maxine, her piano teacher. Mom spent ten years learning piano under this gifted teacher, starting at age nine. She spoke of Maxine as someone who provided a safe place spend time, a woman who was very spiritual, and mostly, someone who allowed mom to be herself. From an early age, I remember the calming feeling of hearing mom play piano. She could master any new music in short order and could play some music by ear. While growing up, I never quite understood how she managed to raise five girls, all close in age, while working full time and cooking us breakfast and dinner every day. She had a thirst to learn and grow and was an avid reader. When I was in eighth grade, she enrolled in a master’s program in child development, an on-the-job program that was in conjunction with where she worked at the Texas Medical Center.

Mom was a noteworthy seamstress. When I was in high school, she indulged me with my desire to design fancy dresses for formals. I had seven such dances my junior year, and each time, I would draw the type of dress I wanted, then we would chose the fabric together and she would make the dress for me, always effortlessly and so happily. Mom was a great example to me and always indulged me in my wishes and dreams.

Following graduation with her master’s degree, she became the director of the child care center, for all employees of the Texas Medical Center. Starting out in a couple of temporary trailers, mom had a dream to make it more, serve more of those in need. She convinced the medical center leadership to buy some land and build a state of the art child care center. She joined the board of National Association for the Education of Young Children and studied designs of centers and play grounds that facilitated healthy learning a development for young children. Mom developed the business case and led the design of the new center with the architects, paying attention to each meaningful detail that would make a difference in the day of a child. She led the opening of the center with hours that mirrored the needs of the medical center employees. It was the first child care center in the US to be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year. The center became a model for others to learn from.

In her retired years living on Lake Austin, mom explored new hobbies and talents, and increased her focus on things she loved, like spending time on the water. Her journal entry sums up things that made her heart sing: canoe rides, boat rides, playing the piano, painting with watercolors, listening to music, reading, getting a massage, sharing with her women’s group, talking to her loved ones and simple abundance. Mom was a loyal church goer and while she had a very strong faith, she also found a way to blend her spiritual beliefs with traditional Christianity. A passionate learner no matter the subject, always synthesizing seemingly unrelated topics together to help expand her beliefs.

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inching forward

As I was settling into my new life in March of 2003, the fog of depression started to dissipate. Clarity started to settle in. I had a little more energy to make it through the day. I started to hang pictures on the wall and had unpacked all the boxes in my new home. My job situation had become clearer with some focus. . One of my new job requirements of raising two children as a single mom was to limit my travel, a challenging need to fulfill working for a company based in another state. I relied on work contacts as I considered options and continued to try and let go of where I was to work next.

And then it happened- I was offered a new role in a new division with the same company, just three days before I was to be laid off. A corporate marketing role, something I knew well from my work experience and tasks that came easy for me. What a gift, a job that was not very demanding on my focus or energy, allowing me the grace of space and time to grieve and heal my broken heart. A life giving experience of trusting in the bigger picture unfolding. Trust that whatever path emerged, it would unfold just as I needed it to and just in time.

With my work situation clear, I was able to continue moving into my home. I painted the main bathroom, finished hanging the pictures, and completed the basement organization. Wow. Felt good to do something with my hands. Something I could control, I guess. Up to this point, I had made it through each day feeling like I was in somewhat of a holding pattern, not able to bring myself to start something new or finish anything completely. With clarity and success, I was able to inch forward again, make progress.

In parallel, mom was progressing through her post-surgery chemo, day by day, with minimal energy. Her normal mode of energizer bunny was put on hold as her body succumbed to the poison. Poison from drugs that were killing off the cancer cells, while also having a noticeable impact on her healthy cells. Impacting her ability to eat, causing her tear ducks to clog, and more. As she struggled day to day with the effects of the drugs, mom began to try and understand what she was supposed to be learning from this experience.  In her journal, she wrote- ‘cancer is about claiming your space, having a right to be here on this earth and appreciating the contributions I make.’ She kept track of her feelings each day, what she was able to manage and whether she had any energy. One entry, the day after my birthday, she wrote ‘what did I learn today? to be aware, notice things in my life, notice that I had a wonderful marriage, a warm feeling in my heart to know the power of love.’ Mom continued to focus on healing and on May 13, she wrote ‘no more chemo!’ A triumph for sure to end the poisoning of her body, create space for her energy to inch back little by little. The downside was she stopped short of the recommended amounts of treatment.

By June 4, mom’s energy had increased more. She wrote- ‘1st time more energy after watching TV in evening! played bridge, had dinner and cleaned up! energy returning, thank you god!’ As my home life started to feel more settled, I knew it was time to focus on mom again. Mom’s journey was taking its toll on my father and he was experiencing some health issues. I needed to connect with mom, see what was going on with dad, so I headed back to Austin for a visit. Mom and I were able to get out of the house for a while to have a pedicure and go shopping. We caught up and the bond in our hearts expanded further. She shared her feeling that she was ‘cured’ of the cancer. Wow. Could it be she was triumphant again of the evil ‘c’? I was supportive but inside felt different, felt more like maybe she was healed. I was relaxed and at peace as my mom and I enjoyed some time being totally who were, authentic from the inside out. My father was ok, he just needed his medication adjusted. At dinner, dad was able to laugh and tell jokes, like a stand-up comic, something I had never experienced before.