May 062017

Published on Medium, May 5, 2017 — A friend and her husband traveled on a cruise ship to celebrate their April birthdays. A week ago my friend’s husband died near the Bahamas.

I do not wish this horror on anyone. Not do I speculate on the whys and wherefores. For the record, I don’t think things happen for a reason.

My friend is home now, surrounded by loved ones. She prepares for her husband’s wake and service, handles his business affairs, gets back into the routine of daily life.

We who love her have no idea how to help. I’ve ordered pies for next weekend when her extended family show up. I’ll make a huge kettle of vegetable soup she can use now or freeze for later.

I stumble over words for her and for her local family members. I listen and send “I love you” texts and ask what I can do.

Writers often tackle grief in all its glory. For me, the best description of this personal sorrow came from a non-writer who wasn’t trying to be introspective. After a nasty divorce, a family member helped me understand that I cannot walk in his shoes.

He asked me, “Do you remember how you felt when your basement flooded?”

I remembered. Until we got a commercial grade pump, we grappled with several basement floods. We spent thousands of dollars on special gutters, a systems dug into the floor, finally buying the Mother of All Pumps.

He asked me how I felt when I received little sympathy about my flooded basement. I told him it made me so angry because people didn’t have any idea what an inch of water can do to a basement, running under drywall, sometimes ruining the carpet and pad, dislocating tile, and even ruining appliances. Just an inch of water can spread out of an entire basement seeping into hidden places.

I got it. Grief is like that.

No one can see where all the water goes. No one but the person with the clean-up job sees the full impact of the event. One can easily overlook the veiled places. If your basement has never flooded, it’s easy to just gloss over the entire event.

By no means am I comparing a household mess to the loss of a loved one.

My friend will likely be okay. She has dealt with other horrendous losses in her life, and remains a strong person.

Over the next months and years, she will explore the hidden places and find the damage. I will listen and not advise. For better or for worse, my partner is alive. I do not walk in her shoes today. I will bring pies and make soup.

Sep 022016
Backpack Press, 2016

Backpack Press, 2016

Every life experiences loss.  Those with two parents for much of adulthood are blessed. Writer Anne Born pulled together a collection of essays about the loss of a parent during  adulthood. I am fortunate to have an article included, which I’m reprinting below.

If you have lost a parent in your adulthood or have a friend who has, please consider buying this book or asking your local library to purchase it. Here is the link for the book which will be available on Kindle in a few weeks

Anne is seeking essays and poems for a second edition for 2017.  For submission guidelines for the next edition, contact Anne Born at

This is what I submitted:

You are Just Like Your Mother

“You are just like your mother.” A college friend of mine tossed this pejorative my way.

My mother and I shared few common attributes.

She paced herself and moved with caution; I run. She did one thing at a time, always linear. I multi-task, weaving a path of destruction like a buzzing bumblebee. Mom focused first on her family. While I love my husband and child, I struggle to balance my career.

Mom’s last decade challenged the entire family. She had vascular dementia, a brain disease that stole her from us. We lost our companion, mother, sister, grandmother, aunt and friend, minute by minute, hour by hour, week by week, month by month, year by year. She was present, but not there. My father insisted we include her in everything, even when she could not take part.

When she died four years ago, I was relieved. Her quality of life had diminished. Dad found her daily care challenging. Close to the end of her life, Dad could no longer lift her from her chair. Mom moved to a skilled nursing facility for her final three weeks. Mom shook with tremors and tiny strokes.

On the evening she died, I felt like the next candy pellet in the top of a Pez dispenser. It was my turn now. I was the matriarch. Who am I now?  Who am I supposed to be? What can I take from the life of my mother?

That night, I made a conscious decision to let go of some of me and be more like Mom. How funny that 32 years before, hearing “You are just like your mother” offended me. Now I would give anything for some of her attributes. She was not perfect; we were and are both complex, flawed creatures.

Mom suffered from depression. Her troubles began shortly after I started high school and ended around the time of the birth of my son. Her first grandchild.

When I was small, my mother was the perfect stay-at-home mom, as if plucked from central casting for a situation comedy. With her delicate features and porcelain skin, my petite mother had classic Jackie Kennedy looks. From birth I was heavy, a chubby infant never outgrowing baby fat and towering over the elementary school boys until eighth grade.

Mom never said anything bad about anyone; I am gifted in the art of acerbic sarcasm.

I only heard Mom swear once. A cousin called during dinner to report her father’s death. Mom said, “Sue called,” and burst into tears. My dad, brother, and I laughed because we had no idea what Mom meant.

Mom said, “Damnit, Sue’s father, Mr. McLaughlin, died today.” We all knew this was serious. We were insensitive and wrong. I’m working on the colorful language, being less colorful, that is. As a sales rep, I channel Professor Harold Hill from The Music Man and the players from Glengarry Glen Ross.

Mom’s sweetness didn’t always roll over to her only daughter. She often told my brother and me: “Be kind and good.” Her greatest diatribe on another person was “They are not kind and good.”

Being kind and good meant thinking of the other person first. Mom mailed handwritten notes and “cheer cards” to acquaintances in nursing homes or homebound. She took food for friends after hospitalizations, and she remembered birthdays. Her family was small, but she acknowledged the birthday of every distant cousin. She tried, sometimes oddly, to engage me in family history. After returning home to Florida from our honeymoon, the mail brought a wedding card from Mom and Dad. At the bottom, Mom wrote, “We buried cousin Beulah today.”

I kept the card.

Mom’s kindness resulted in lifelong friends. She was in a literary sorority, volunteer groups, church groups. She supported my father’s work and community activities. Mom led Brownie and Cub Scouts, chauffeured us, baked school cakes and cookies, and hosted slumber parties.

She was often silly and loved silly songs, poems, and stories. She colored with us, played Hide and Seek, and read from the scary Fairy Tale Anthology with the gory color pictures of ogres and trolls.

Mom was a second-grade teacher with a reading specialty degree from Indiana University. When she was pregnant with me in 1956, the Swayzee School Board retired her at mid-year. How untoward for second graders to see their teacher in a hatching jacket. She had married my dad a scant eighteen months before.

In the past four years, I’ve worked hard to channel some of Mom’s excellent attributes. As a social media user, I often know when someone has died or is ill. So, I send the card or flowers or make the call for the entire family.

I make a point to nurture my lifelong friendships. What is better than the comfort of talking with an old friend? I stay in touch with some of my mother’s friends.

Mom was always the first to suggest a party; I’d rather stay home and write. So, for my dad’s 85th birthday, I phoned my brother, and we planned a party for December. I did the invitations, and my brother took care of the photographer and the catering. After the party, I sent pictures out to family and friends, just as Mom would have. On Dad’s 50th birthday she had a surprise party for him and rented a wheelchair. She thought it was hilarious.

Mom was a good listener; I’m a terrible listener. It’s hard to hear what the other person is saying when I’m talking about myself, or talking about my writing. I am working on it; I’ve made myself more self-aware.

Two profound legacies come from Mom’s illness. Witnessing my mother’s decline, my husband and I decided now is the time for travel. We don’t know if the clock is ticking for me, or for any of us, for that matter. Since 2011, we’ve visited ten European countries. We’ve ridden in a gondola on Venice’s Grand Canal, eaten paella cooked outside in Spain, watched the Changing of the Guard in London, and viewed Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” in Amsterdam.

The second legacy is the completion of a circle I did not foresee. When I was 25, my mother was at her worst with her mental illness. I lived in Florida, hundreds of miles away from my parents in the Midwest.

On an ordinary spring day, Mom was unsuccessful in a suicide attempt. I immediately flew through the night to her side. Mom was in a medical hospital and dismissed to a psychiatric center twenty miles away. My father had a difficult time with this. During his childhood, a family member had a breakdown and was removed by force to the local jail.

It was up to me to handle the paperwork, talk to the admitting people. I worked in a hospital, and I knew the drill. It was not easy for me, either. I didn’t understand the concept of the locked facility. I hardly handled it when we left her behind in the sterile, concrete building. The metal door slammed shut and locked us out – my petite, beautiful mother left inside.

Mom got better. Before she died, she enjoyed watching her grandsons grow up until dementia stole her memories.

I lost my long-time job in 2009, and when faced with the rotten economy and lack of employment, I freelanced for five years. This gave me more time to help my father with mom.

The economy improved. I needed full-time work. In February 2014, I started working at a psychiatric hospital and addiction treatment center.

This is mom’s last legacy to me: when a family member picks up that phone and calls my office for the first time and asks for help for their loved one, I feel their pain. I have great empathy for the patients we serve. Our facility is beautiful and has amazing therapists. I wish Mom could have benefited from it.

Once in a while now, someone I’ve known all my life will say to me, “That’s something your mom would do.” Nothing pleases me more.

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Apr 212016

Aging brings expected and sudden losses. I think it’s in the contract, and we can’t do anything about it. From early on, we know none of us is getting out of here alive.  And the longer we survive, the more reminders we get of how precarious and fragile our earthly bonds are.

We lose dear ones,  family and friends, acquaintances and co-workers, and beloved pets. With each birthday, our list of those losses grows exponentially. My father, at eighty-five, spends much time at wakes, memorial services, and funerals. Often, on our daily phone conversations, he’ll tell me about someone who has passed.

The irony of life with much love is the continued burden of much loss.

Here’s the thing: loss is difficult to write or talk about. Nothing is more personal. How one person deals with a tragedy may be completely different for another person in that same circumstance. Or what one calls a tragedy, another may see it differently. Our job is not to judge, but to provide comfort.

When my maternal grandmother died, I was devastated. Now, I know I was fortunate to know three of my four grandparents until adulthood. My maternal grandmother, though ill with dementia, held my child when he was an infant. When my grandmother Enz died, I was 37. My husband was 25 when he lost his father. I feel guilty about grieving my second-generation loss, but I know that a loss is a loss.

When I was younger, and someone I cared for had a loss or was in trouble, my immediate reaction was to swoop in and try to solve the problem. I now call this “The Big Gesture.”  Now, I’m aware of how little I can do. I’ve climbed onto the moving sidewalk of people who bring food and keep my mouth shut.

What people want are your arms around their shoulders, your touch, your tears, and your open ears to hear them. And not much else. Most individuals who love you will tell you what they need. You must respect their wishes, and understand what they are saying, with words and without. And, a Dutch apple pie can’t hurt.

Our family lost a friend this week. It will happen again. I hear the voice of God calling my name loud and clear. She is saying, “Amy, focus on what is important. Time is short.”

Though I love the sound of my voice, I’m ending this piece with today’s Facebook post from my cousin Bob Montgomery.  He is a wise man. God bless you, Bob.

I learned to smell Lilacs. Seems funny that I would have to “learn” how to smell them, but that is the best way to describe it. On April 21, 2003 (13 years ago today) I had quadruple bypass open heart surgery. I spent the next 10 days in the hospital dealing with complications. On the day I came home I remember the sun was shining and when I got out of the car I smelled a sweet, citrusy, almost like heaven scent. When I asked what the smell was I learned it was from the lilac bush in my own yard. It had been there for years, but until that day in 2003 I had not smelled it. The scent from the lilacs were such a contrast to the hospital smells; those sanitary smells of death and despair that I experienced over the previous 10 days. Maybe I had just always been in such a hurry that I never noticed the smells from nature around me. Maybe a lot of us get caught up in day-to-day issues so that we don’t notice the smell of heaven around us. If that is the case, then today is a good day to slow down and enjoy the beauty and smells around us. I think I will grab a cup of coffee and sit on the patio to smell the virburnum and be thankful. — Bob Montgomery, Plainfield, Indiana, April 21, 2016