Remembering My Mother on Her Birthday

There is something incredibly special about birthdays. They mark our time here on earth in years, each one representing a specific set of memories that get stored in our hearts and minds, pulled out when something happens to trigger one. And, within those years, there are certain birthdays that are even more eventful. Some are recognized by society, such as 18 and becoming a legal adult. Others are only special to those with whom we share our lives and us. The candle we wish upon at the end of a trying time or the celebration of joy to mark the year ahead as we look forward to something big.
As children, we look forward to the day when everyone around us comes together to celebrate with cake, balloons and presents. We feel special and deeply loved. Teens view it as a milestone, one year closer to being adult and free to make decisions without the approval of surrounding adults. Then we hit adulthood and often develop a love/hate relationship with that one particular day. On one hand, it’s a reason to gather with friends for dinner and drinks; while, on the other, it’s a reminder that we are getting older. Each year we find ourselves taking stock of all the things we accomplished, often paying more attention to those goals we didn’t meet. For some this becomes the push we need to change, others fall into a depression and start to focus on the passage of time rather than the time of their journey. Regardless, we see the moment of death as the moment in which our birthdays stop being celebrated, and we will be forgotten.
Yet, this is not necessarily true. We live on in the memories of our loved ones and often our birthdays are remembered for several decades into the future. Those left behind share their memories of us and that keeps the person we were alive for others. How we view our birthdays while we’re here can often determine how we are remembered on our birthdays long after we’ve celebrated our last.
I am writing this on the anniversary of my mother’s birth. During her life she always acknowledged her birthday, but never enjoyed getting older, preferring to hang on to an image of herself as a young woman. For many years she claimed to be 39, until I, the youngest, turned 40. I don’t really know what changed for her but it’s as if having to acknowledge I was aging forced her to face her own mortality. We never discussed it; one day I realized my mother had gone from being terrified of death to having made peace with it. With that peace she was able to embrace her true age and, rather than worry about the future, she began living “in the moment”. When I was with her I noticed her energy seemed significantly lighter and her usual sense of humor came even more apparent. While I obviously loved my mother before, I really came to appreciate her as a friend and companion after this.
I have no doubt the death of my father became a part of this process, since he died shortly before I turned 40. The death of someone you’ve loved and lived with throws you into a tailspin of anger, depression, denial and acceptance. For some it results into a lifetime of bitterness and anger at the inevitability of death. For my mother it became a catalyst for coming to terms with the temporal nature of life. In the end, it not only made the rest of her life a time to enjoy what is here and now, it made her ability to slip away when it was her own time easier. She was ready, she had said her goodbyes, and she looked forward to finding out what was beyond this “mortal coil.” As a result, it also made it easier for me to cope with her loss.
So, on this day I can remember her. While there may be a certain amount of grieving involved, it is more a celebration of the life she led, the stories she shared with me, and the knowledge that I absorbed her lessons. The anger at the things left unresolved is gone, the depression and loneliness subsided, and I am left with gratitude. I hope I leave my own life and legacy in the same state.

An Introduction to Dusty

Dusty’s favorite was the sunflower

 

Have you ever met someone and recognized them at first glance? No, you’ve never met before, at least not in this physical time and place. There is an instant soul connection and you realize you’ve known each other forever. You fall into a relationship that is as comfortable as your favorite jeans and as awe-inspiring as your favorite work of art. That’s how it was when I met Dusty.

Some would call us twin souls. Whatever it was, it was destiny.

Dusty was already gravely ill when we met. In fact, the friend who connected us was reluctant to do so because she didn’t want me to be hurt. Robin was a dental hygienist who saw Dusty in the office and, when she read her long medical chart she told her she had a friend who was looking for answers to similar symptoms. Dusty agreed to talk with me and answer any questions I might have.

“She has advanced Lupus,” Robin said when she called, “and she’s not going to make it. I just don’t want you to develop a relationship knowing she will die. I don’t want you to be hurt.”

“I’ll be okay,” I promised. “Besides, it’s unlikely to be more than a phone call.”

It did take me a couple of days to make that call. One, I have always disliked talking on phones and, two, what if Robin was right? Did I really want to take the chance of developing a friendship I knew would end within a short time? Yet, that still small voice within me kept telling me I needed to do this.

The moment we spoke we both felt as if we’d come home. By the end of that hour long phone call we were finishing each other’s sentences and there was no way we weren’t going to meet in person.

What followed over the next three years of her life changed me at my very core. This was a woman who knew how to live, and how to die. She challenged my belief system and opened up new avenues. I didn’t even realize I was stuck until Dusty pushed me to free myself of my self-limiting beliefs. We discussed everything and we knew all there was to know about one another. It was Dusty who helped me to find the doctor who would discover what was really wrong with me.

Dusty had Lupus, a disease that isn’t necessarily a death sentence today. However, when she first got sick, like me, she went through doctor after doctor who insisted she was either hysterical or just on a mission to aggravate them. By the time they did the right testing there was too much damage and she was placed on high doses of steroids. I was too, at one time, but I was able to get off them and she was not. Our lives were not only intertwined spiritually and emotionally, but also physically. She was eleven years older and had been on the very path I was currently traveling.

There’s a lot more to this story that I need to write, and will write, as time goes on. However, the purpose of this post is simply to introduce you to someone who deserves to live beyond my memories. Yesterday, on May 20, it had been 24 years since she passed. When I talked to her that morning she had said goodbye. She was tired, she was ready and she knew I was strong enough to move on without her. Besides, she wasn’t really leaving, she assured me, merely moving on to a different dimension. She would be watching and waiting for me. At noon she was gone and at that very moment I felt both a sense of release and a strong kick in the stomach.

Yes, Robin, it still hurts. But the pain is so very much worth those few years of love.

A Letter to My Younger Self

Beth at age 14

During my thespian days

 

Dear Beth,
At fourteen, you know very little about the world. You are growing up in a small insular community where everyone you know has known you since birth. Until this year you’ve been relatively healthy, so the mysterious pains and exhaustion are overwhelming you. There’s so much you want to see and do, but the physical problems make you feel as though you are going to die soon. It doesn’t help that no one seems to believe you’re in pain. Well, except your kindly doctor who believes it’s Rheumatoid Arthritis and declares you’ll be in a wheelchair by the age of 25.
It’s going to be a rough life as you get older; however, there will be some really awesome points as well. You’ll end up floating between doctors for 23 years looking for answers. But you’ll also have some incredible opportunities in writing and theater in the meantime. Not many writers can say they attended workshops with John Irving or took a class from Jane Smiley. Just as not many budding actors can say they won a trophy at All-State Speech contest. You really do have talent, kid.
Do you remember when you were seven and you thought Grandpa Ferree showed up to see you the day after he died? You remember what he told you, don’t you? He said you would one day have a great deal of influence, but you’d be much older before you realized your potential because it was something that required a lot of wisdom you don’t yet have. I now know for certain that event really happened because your life is going to unfold in such a way as to make it undeniable. Right now, you think it was just the silly dream of a child. But, that’s because the adults around you told you it was.
At this time, you’re looking to Mom and Dad for answers they don’t have. Unfortunately, it will take years for you to come to terms with this and realize they are just as human as you. It’s okay, you’re a kid and you still think the adults know what’s going on. Can I tell you a secret? They don’t know any more than anyone else when confronted with a new experience. Your illness is a new experience for them. Hell, I’m pretty sure YOU are a new experience for them. You’ve always been strong-willed; even more so than your brothers. Well, most of them anyway. I’m pretty sure at least one of them gave them more than a few “Come to Jesus” moments.
I really want you to know it’s going to be all right. Do you remember when Grandma said you have some very special gifts? Those gifts will be what gets you through some of the toughest times of your life. Not just your ability to read people; but also, your determination to fight for the underdog. That sense of justice will lead you to fight for what’s right while your intuitive abilities will get you out of some very tough situations.
When you reach your fifties, you’ll discover that everything you’re beginning to go through now is necessary. All the pain, and the joy will lead you to a place where people will not only accept you for who you are, they will embrace you. Incredibly, they will listen to your wisdom and learn from what you share with them. Just as Grandpa told you that night in 1968.
Right now, you want to be famous. Later you’ll learn that fame is relative. While you might not be recognized on the street by strangers you will be recognized by those who are most important. These are the people with whom you will change the world.
Oh, and don’t worry so much about religion! Being saved has nothing to do with accepting Jesus and everything to do with accepting yourself.

Halloween

Many cultures believe Halloween is the one night of the year when the veil separating the physical and spiritual worlds is lifted. Since ancient times people have believed that, for a brief span of hours, the living and the dead could interact. The ancient Celts wore masks to avoid this interaction so the spirits could not drag them into Hell. And so began the tradition of finding the best costume in which to hide.
We modern humans like to believe we’ve moved beyond all that superstition. We wear the costumes for fun and watch horror movies with the intention of being scared. Scary movies are for entertainment; they don’t represent real life and the evildoer always ends up dead. It’s okay, we tell ourselves, he deserves death. Those who abhor Halloween based on religious beliefs are sidestepping their own fears. It’s often about finding some way to control an irrational fear of the unknown.
Yet, in reality, it’s the very direction each and every one of us is headed. We will all face that moment in time when our body becomes an empty shell left here to represent who we once were. If the death of a villain represents retribution, what does our own impending end represent? How is one death better than another? How do we rationalize the idea that we may possibly end up in the same place as the villain we detest?
In other societies, death does not represent an end to existence but a transformation to another dimension or an alternate life. On The Day of the Dead, celebrated November 1, it is a time to honor those who have passed on. It is a time to gather ancestors and have a wonderful celebration with the soul of the person who passed when memories must be sufficient through the rest of the year. Death becomes not something to fear, but something to celebrate. The world is decorated with skulls and bright colors to welcome the spirits.
Death is like any other unknown in life. We have two options: we can welcome the shift from one reality to a new one or we can fear it. The problem with fearing that transformation is that it’s going to happen regardless of our reaction to it.
Dylan Thomas wrote :
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

It was obviously written by a man desperate to avoid the loss of someone he deeply loved. Although his own death is debated, it has often been connected with an addiction to alcohol. I often find myself wondering if Thomas would have written a much different poem had he been able to find a way to embrace the unknowns in his life rather than fear them. Would he have found the need to drink himself to an early death? We will never know for certain, but I do know that at the end of someone’s life they rarely fear that moment of transition. Almost always they greet that moment with relief and a welcoming. What if we all looked at our own death with that knowledge? How much time and anxiety would we save while we’re here on earth if we simply dealt with the inevitability of our death first?
Not everyone is going to believe in the ability of the spirit world to meet the physical world, even for one night, and maybe that’s not what’s important. The essential question should be: What if that one last breath in this world became the culmination of years of loving life rather than fearing death?

The Things We Hold On To

From the moment we’re old enough to grasp something we are trained to value our material possessions. While the tattered teddy bear or worn blanket is eventually discarded for something else it has left a place in the heart and the hurt at giving it up is real. It represents a part of our being we can never recover, the moments of comfort we felt nestled against the cloth while we cried for love, food or in simple frustration. We are older now and what lies ahead is unknown.
This desire to hold on to the tangible continues throughout life. We leave for college or adulthood with something from our childhood home. It might be that same worn blanket discovered boxed up in the attic; it might be a book that is linked to memories of sitting next to the fireplace reading. Whatever it is, it is a symbol for what has grounded us for so many years.
For some that need to hang on becomes entangled in the driving urge for money, cars or houses. Without fully realizing what is hidden behind the want they strive to reach old age with material possessions that show everyone else how wealthy they are. They live by the adage, “he who dies with the most toys wins.” They are desperately trying to replace the emotional needs that were never met with what they see as material necessities. It becomes a desperate climb up a ladder that only ends when they reach the time of death and realize they wasted their time and energy.
For others, it might be the desire to collect. Knickknacks, fabric, art or anything else that represents a piece of who they are and who they wish others to see. While it may start out as an expression of self it can easily end up taking over their life. At that point, it becomes a serious issue with hoarding.
Psychologists believe we collect material objects because we’re lonely, feel the need to control our environment, or a combination of both. If you’re lacking connection with the people around you turning to “stuff” seems to fill that void. It actually distances us from others and we’re judged by what we have rather than who we are.
A vast majority of people reach the end of their life with a need to purge all these possessions. When faced with the reality of death they come to realize what they accumulated in inanimate objects is no longer important. What is important are the people with whom they spent their life. It becomes a time to let go. The knickknacks, cars, and money are no longer symbols of a life well-spent; often they become reminders of time wasted. The time that should have been spent making memories with those they leave behind. Life becomes about showing, and receiving love, making amends and laughter.
If there is a lesson in all this for those still living it’s that what you have isn’t that important in the end. It’s about loving, laughing, and crying with those you love. It’s never too late to get your priorities straight.

My Motivation

I have had many opportunities to spend time with the dying, beginning with my grandfather. I remember very little about his illness other than discovering he could no longer tell his seven-year-old granddaughter stories and I was often chased away before I could wear him out. I do remember his death. The night he died he came to see me in the early morning hours to tell me I had a special purpose. It would require a good deal of wisdom and I would be much older before I realized what I needed to do. Eventually, my long winding life path led me here to help others learn to embrace death so they could embrace life.

Although I’ve had many experiences that might have led me down other paths I always seem to end up helping someone find their way to a death that enables them to face life head on then embrace the new adventure.

As a writer, counselor, ordained minister and life coach I am here now to help others embrace dying so they might live.