Well, it’s been quite a while since I have posted here, and a lot has happened in my world. I’ve been up front about my own chronic health issues. But what I did not share, by request, was the other matter taking up much of my time and energy.
About a year ago, my dear mother returned from a trip to Sicily, a place she had wanted to see for a long time. The trip was wonderful, but she remarked to me upon her return that she thought she might be coming down with a cold or the flu. Some of the walks were a little more difficult for her because she was feeling short of breath. It wasn’t an infection though.
It was cancer, metastasized once again. In 1994 she discovered she had breast cancer, which was treated, went into remission for over a decade, and re-surfaced for a time in the mid-2000s. Then, in 2010, the cancer metastasized for the first time in her liver. She had this treated both conventionally and holistically, and it went into remission for a time. When it returned last year, the tumor was in the lung.
For the past year I’ve watched my mom slowly being robbed of her breath, and again approaching treatment from all angles. But it did not work, and during the summer her condition worsened. I spent a few months working full time, taking care of her as much as I could while not working, and not telling anyone what was happening. But the treatments did not work. She never gave up, though, and she lived as fully as ever. On Veteran’s Day, November 11th, my mother passed from this life. The world, and for certain the community here, is a dimmer place without her in it.
But instead of focusing on her death, I want to tell you about her life.
My mom was born in Sweden, not long before the start of World War II, and the second in a family which would grow to be 8 children. Her family did not have much money growing up, and even though she lived in a neutral country, the war still touched her life. Food was not the commodity it is now. Chickens were a rare treat. One winter her parents bought a whole hog, sharing the cost with another nearby family for the winter. Where now this way of buying meat is coming back, in those days it was often the only way for a family to ensure they had enough to eat during the fallow season.
She grew up, spent summers working and living on a farm to the north of Göteborg, started working part-time at 14, excelled in school, and, in 1958, came to the United States for what she thought would be a year. One of her aunts passed away in May of that year, and she wrote her uncle a letter when she found out, suggesting that perhaps she could come over for a year to help him out with the house and such?
I asked her a few months ago why she stayed after that first year.
“I didn’t have the money to go back home.”
Well, I can’t say that was a bad thing, because had she not, I would not be here now to write this post. She arrived in early October, and before the month was out had a job working in a local bank. Why a bank? She had trained in finances at secondary school in Sweden, a school which would be something like a mix between U.S. high school and college, and also worked as a teller before taking the boat over here.
And she would stay working in that bank for 40 years, through multiple name changes and mergers, becoming a vice president in her branch and breaking barriers on a regular basis. In the 1970s or ’80s she became one of the first female members of the local business(man)person’s club, and in 1994 became the first female president.
Yes, my mom was a little piece of local history.
And she loved history. It was one of her favorite subjects in school and often a topic in whatever she chose to read. She was also skilled in languages, a skill I have inherited. She remained bilingual in Swedish and English her whole life, speaking English better than many Americans. (And without any noticeable accent, I might add!) She also studied French, Italian, German, Latin, could function in the other Scandinavian and Romance languages, and even studied Greek at one time.
Before her first retirement in 1999, she said one of the things she eventually wanted to do was become a docent at one of the local cemeteries. Being in New England, we have some rather notable people buried in the area. This dream would come to fruition in the late 2000s, and ended earlier this year, only because the growing tumor meant a shortness of breath. Not something you want when you have to walk around a sizable cemetery and tell people who is buried there.
Her community service was one of her most notable traits. She served on several boards and organizations starting in the 1970s. Her work helped women in business, young people in urban areas, people with severe mental illness, and the community at large.
This was my normal growing up and I now find it weird when people just go to their jobs and do not do much else outside of that, or perhaps a small social circle. My mom’s life was filled with meetings, theatre, dinners, and times out with a wide range of friend and acquaintances. Even in retirement and dealing with cancer at different stages, it did not stop her from having a full social life. And if she could not go out to see people, they would come to see her.
My mom was a perfect example of harmonizing the old and new. She embraced technology and new ideas while also retaining her own level of Swedish-ness and tradition. From her I learned to cook, the importance of family and friends, a love for ancestry, hand-made items (though I confess in my youth the clicking of her plastic knitting needles drove me batty… so I do my knitting with bamboo!), good food, and travel.
Oh travel. I mentioned her trip to Sicily last year. From her I also got my love of travel. My first international trip was at the age of 2, when I got on a place with her and my dad* to Sweden. As a child I saw a nice portion of America, accompanying her on her business trips as well as trips to see family. This is how I got to hold Rita Moreno’s hand in the fall of 1982. Why I think I ate frog’s legs when I was little. (Hey they looked and tasted like chicken, if they were indeed that!) How I got to see the Grand Canyon, giant meteor crater in Arizona, went to the top of the Sears Tower. And for fun we went Disneyland and Disney World. Epcot Center when it was first open. Washington, DC several times. Canada, to visit cousins I had there. Multiple trips to Sweden. France. England. Italy. Denmark. Finland. Iceland. Why I so much want to go to Egypt, Central and South America, Australia. About the only travel she did not do which she’d wanted to was south of the equator.
She taught me to care for myself and a house. How to be responsible in life, even if it took me many years and stumbles to apply those lessons in full. How to cook and enjoy food. How to be a good friend. She was always a good host and had a generous heart, opening up to the people I got close to. To give you an idea, when my best friend was about to move to Florida with her family in the spring of 1993, mom offered for her to live up here in our old house, stay in the same school system, and near the best friend. Alas this was not to be, but now is not the time for regrets. (I just found out about THAT occurrence in the last few weeks.)
It is because of mom that I developed an interest in holistic health. While she did use and ascribe to conventional Western treatments, she also felt strongly that they were not the only way to good health. So we ate well (though the ideas around that changed over the years, eventually morphing back to the way she ate as a youth in Sweden), would also take herbs for different ailments, and even bought me a neti pot which has probably been the biggest reason why I was able to kick my regular sinus infections. I give a great deal of thanks to her naturpath of 15 years, Dr. Dana Myatt, for doing so well in keeping my mother in quite good health. Were it not for her, it is likely my mom would have passed away many years before she did.
On the 8th of November, after her health had started to make a quick decline in the preceding weeks, my mom decided to enter into hospice. We didn’t know how much more time she had, but she was not well then. Mandy (the best friend) and I had discussed her coming up here at some point when mom’s health declined, to help support me and take care of the house and other such things. Bless her husband, who said she could stay for up to a month so long as she brought their one year old daughter along. Soon after I arrived at hospice and started to handle the logistics of her entry, I called Mandy to say it was time to implement her coming up.
She, and her sweet daughter, were here in 24 hours. She also got to say her goodbyes to the woman who was her second mother. And her daughter charmed and delighted the other women present in the room.
When I got the call on Veteran’s Day from hospice, that sweet little girl saw me sitting on the floor, with my cheeks flooded, and offered me a cookie since I was obviously so upset. I just hugged her and felt so thankful for that.
Mom did not want most people to know she was sick while she was alive. She didn’t want the attention and likely not the pity either. But it has been difficult for me to sit on the knowing and not be able to share it. I want people to know about her and her life, and apologize that I do not have any photos ready to post here. At some point later, I promise to add some. Right now I just can’t.
If you take any inspiration from her story, I hope it is this: LIVE. Don’t want around for some ambiguous conditions, which may or may not manifest, to do the things you want. Use your money wisely so you CAN do all those things in your dreams. Help others. Be involved. Never stop learning. Love the people in your life with everything you have.
If you feel so moved, she asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the facility where she worked and served on the board, which helps people with major mental illness. Contact me to get that information.
I have also decided, and started to get the wheels moving, on upgrading my blog. I hope to debut the new site in early 2014.
Hail to you, Mom. May your star in the sky shine brightly. I love you.
*To explain, since he is notably absent from my account: My father passed away in 1982, less than two weeks before my 8th birthday. I loved him, and still do, but he was not a very active person in my life.