Weep for Anne

In March of 1978 I left the house at 30 Green Street and taking nothing but a guitar and a suitcase, flew across the country for a week of VISTA training in Seattle, Washington. A week after that, I took a train through snow-covered mountains and crashing waterfalls to Boise, Idaho.

Two days after arriving in Boise, I reported for my assignment at the Adult and Child Development Center. The director led me to the office that housed three other VISTAs. It was there that I met Paul. One look at his smoky eyes, and I knew I was a gonner. We were engaged by June, and set a wedding date of August 31.

When the week of the wedding arrived, Paul and I traveled back to Massachusetts by train. I had briefly met his parents during a side trip to Tucson in June, and they arrived a couple of days before the wedding, along with Paul’s brother John, his sister Anne and her husband Jim.

At the rehearsal dinner, my future in-laws were much subdued- and no wonder. My family was big, loud, and outspoken. Our family dinners were rambunctious events where teasing one-liners were hurled across the table like dinner rolls, and bursts of laughter erupted every few sentences. Paul’s small family had set its roots as mid-western farmers. Dinners were eaten quickly and quietly, punctuated by minimal small talk, so they could return to their work. I looked across the table at my fiancé and wondered if trying to meld our two families would be as successful as a spaghetti and ice cream casserole.

Paul looked more bewildered than I.  I couldn’t tell if he was nervous about his family’s visit, or the wedding ceremony, or if he was having second thoughts about the whole marriage, but he silently shoveled food into his mouth, avoiding eye contact, saying nothing. I stole a glance at my mother, who returned my gaze with questioning eyes.  My stomach churned and I couldn’t help but wonder if our families would end up like the Hatfields and the McCoys.

anne stoutimore spencer0001Suddenly, an unfamiliar voice rose over the din- a happy, celebratory voice, filled with laughter and warmth. It was Anne.

Anne was beautiful. She was vibrant and well-educated and articulate. Her smile lit the room and her eyes danced. She engaged my younger siblings in conversation and joined in the teasing, and by doing so, bridged the gap between the two very different families. And in the early years that followed the wedding, she and I shared clothes, opinions and conversation during family reunions and phone calls. She gave birth to two chocolate-eyed children during the years that I delivered three with eyes the color of the sea. We exchanged gifts at Christmas and cards containing snap shots of our growing broods.

And then one day, Anne called and calmly informed me that Hitler was residing in her refrigerator. She knew this because he spoke to her. She was dead serious and my heart sank.

The next years were a steady downward spiral of my husband’s beautiful sister. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, her laughter turned to bitter accusations and her conversations were peppered with claims of abuse and outlandish threats. She went in and out of hospitals, and endured countless trials of medication but her glow was never to return.

A few days ago, I learned that  Anne passed away in her sleep, and although I am relieved that forever her torturing voices are silenced, I weep that she and her family were relentlessly tormented for so long. I weep because when we don’t know how to respond to those who live in a different world, we say nothing.  I weep that we speak candidly about cancer and chicken pox, but we whisper about mental illnesses. I weep because for yet unknown reasons, a bright star was extinguished far before its time.

But God does not let us linger in anger and sadness. I was reminded of this when I read an email that Anne’s son Joseph so eloquently wrote:

“Well, my Mom died yesterday around 4AM.

In life she suffered from Paranoid Schizophrenia and bi-Polar disorder. I never really had what most would call a normal relationship with her. The first half of my life was spent suffering from the stress involved with her illness, the last half was spent coming to terms with it and finally getting rid of any bitterness in my heart that built up over the years. Nothing short of God helped me through that.

She was the most giving person I’ve ever met. Never had I met anyone that would give like that. Even when she had nothing, she would still find something to give. I’d get hot chocolate packets in the mail from hospitals that she would be confined in. I’d get letters from her as well. I’m happy that I made the best efforts I could to reach out to her. In the end though, death was the most liberating thing that could ever have happened to her. I’m glad we were able to see her before she passed.

Life is so short, and before you know it it’s over. She passed away so suddenly, in the middle of the night without anyone knowing anything beforehand.

Love those you’re close to, rather or not you’re on good terms with them. Before you know it it’s over and the only thing you have to look back on are memories.”

Well said, Joseph. Well said.

Mom, Me and Jack Daniels

   Yesterday, my cousin Mark sent a very sweet email to our family in remembrance of my mother.  Her birthday was January 7th- one day after her mother’s, my Grammie Dow.  Because my birthday is also in January, my mother and Grammie told me I was special like them.  I believed them and to this day, January is my favorite month.
   To celebrate our January birthdays, my mother and I often “split” a gift.  We took each other out for lunch to celebrate.  In reality, it was just an excuse to sit across a restaurant table and catch up, but it was a nice way to give each other a small gift.  Mark’s email reminded me of how much I miss sharing that birthday lunch, and also reminded me of how I have chosen to celebrate my mother’s life on her birthday.
jack daniels   A week or two before my mother passed away, my nephew Jason brought a small bottle of whiskey to her at the hospice house.  She liked whiskey, and when I was growing up, she and my father often would enjoy a drink before dinner.  My father drank Jim Beam or Jack Daniels on the rocks with soda and my mother drank hers with water.  I never understood how they could drink the stuff.  To me it tastes like medicine, and the only time I could swallow it was when my father mixed a teaspoon with honey and lemon to quiet my coughs.
   It was against the rules to have alcohol in the hospice house (I guess they were afraid that dying people might get drunk and rowdy) and the nurses asked me to take the bottle with me when I left for the evening. I took it to my house and stuck it in the cabinet.
   After Mom died, I decided to drink a toast to her on her birthday, and on January 7, alone in my kitchen, I poured a shot (more like a half shot) of the whiskey and after toasting her, drank the entire thing down in one swallow.  I shuddered for almost fifteen minutes, and while I can’t say I enjoyed it, the warmth that followed the shudder made it tolerable.
   Last year on Mom’s birthday, I did the same thing, with the same reaction of shuddering for a good  fifteen minutes.  Maybe it was the whiskey, but I imagined that I could hear her chuckle at me.  I have to admit that I imagined the warmth that spread from my stomach to my toes was more a hug from my mother than a blast of alcohol.
   You would think that after two years, I would be used missing my mother, but I am not. Not a day goes by that I do not think of her- miss her soft gray eyes and warm embrace.  I see her in my children.  I see her in myself.  But when I feel  my eyes become hot with tears and my heart wrings with loneliness, I remember her last hours.  As she hovered between this life and the next, I saw her exert great effort to raise her arms toward Heaven.  Again and again, she would raise her hands to the sky and then, not strong enough to hold them up, she allowed them to drop to her bed.  I knew that she was transitioning- that her eyes were no longer set on earth and her loved ones here, but instead on the God who had steadfastly guided her through the past eighty-two years.  And as much as I wanted to call her back and beg her to stay a few more hours, I could not.  She had taught me well.  Part of loving is letting go.
   The bottle of whiskey still remains in my cupboard, untouched since January 7, 2012.  Tonight I will again pour a half shot (guess I will never be much of a drinker) and toast my mother, and her mother. Heck- I’ll toast all our mothers, since they are more alike than different.  Perhaps you will join me.  Pour a shot- whiskey, wine, rum…even milk.  It doesn’t matter.  Raise your glass, think of your mother and thank God for the time you had with her.  If you shudder like I will, and listen very carefully, you might hear a tinkle of laughter from on high. That’s Grammie and Mom, waiting for the rest of us.

Bringing Mom Home

Last Friday, I took the day off from work.  It was a beautiful spring day with brilliant sunlight peeking through new leaves and cheery forsythia branches nodding in the cool breeze.  Just the kind of weather that makes you glad you’re alive and living in New England.  But my heart was heavy.  My job for the day was to take my mother home.

When Mom passed away in December, the weather was cold and snowy.   We had her cremated with the intention of burying her ashes next to my father’s when spring came.  This was to be the weekend, and I had volunteered to pick up her ashes from the funeral home.

While driving from Concord to Northwood, I noted how ironic it is that I was taking her home in the car she had given to me shortly before she died. She loved that car, and the independence it afforded her, and in November, when passing the keys to me, her eyes acknowledged the sad realization she would not drive again.   I drove slowly, but when I turned a corner, the urn fell over on the seat next to me.  I reached over to right it and found that I couldn’t let go.  Silent tears splashed on the steering wheel, while I cradled the urn for the remainder of the drive. 

For the past twenty-seven years my mother lived in an old farm house with my sister Martha-Jean, her husband Robert and their ten children.  I remember the day they found the house and how my mother loved the magnolia tree by the front door.  Now the tree was in full bloom- just beginning to shed its pale pink blossoms. They fell upon on the ramp to the entry, as if a carpet set out for her return.  In the back field my nephew mowed the small cemetery where my father and two nephews lie at rest.  I cringed at the idea of covering my mother’s remains in a dark grave. She was sunlight and smiles, full of laughter and loving touches.  I could not imagine her covered beneath the earth.

I stood outside for a moment, watching the emerald grass wave in the breeze. Usually at this time of year, my mother would be in the yard, planting her garden. She loved to garden.  When I was a teenager, she transformed our dusty back yard to a jungle of peas, beans and tomatoes.  When she moved to Northwood, she and my sister planted rows upon rows of vegetables.  Her gardens grew like her children- robust and abundant, and there was nothing she liked better than to get down on her hands and knees and play in the dirt.

“Play in the dirt.” I almost said it aloud.

Burying Mom’s ashes was not hiding her from the light. It was laying her in the earth she loved so much.  The warm earth that transformed a few seeds to a bountiful harvest.  The rocky earth that fed her children, and their children.  The earth of her home.  This was where she belonged.

So the next morning, surrounded by my siblings and our children, I tenderly placed my mother’s ashes next to my father’s in the rich New Hampshire soil that she loved so well.  Together we covered the grave. Together, we wiped each other’s tears.  Together, we kissed each other’s cheeks.  And together, we brought Mom home. 

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