Family · Lucky Eleven · Mom

“*Supermarket Flowers”

Rita Marie O’Connor
12-31-1926 to 3-7-2022

Last year I thought my mother was dying. We’d put her on hospice in June of 2021 and watched her decline over a few weeks. And then she rallied. She didn’t come back a hundred percent, but she did come back. She had lots of visitors between June and year’s end, and we celebrated her 95th birthday along with the rest of the world on New Year’s Eve. A month later we discovered a water leak had caused lots of damage and excessive mold in the house, and with that, my siblings decided it was time to bring mom back to Michigan. Within a very short time, we met my brother and his wife at the airport, and mom left us to go to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to a very nice apartment in an assisted living facility where, at 95, she would live by herself for the first time in her life. Even with lots of family members nearby, it did not go well.

Confused, disoriented, looking for her family, she only seemed herself when one of us was with her. She had her walker on hand, but left alone, she would always push it to one side and then hold onto furniture as she made her way around her little place. She couldn’t remember what the SOS bracelet on her wrist was for. Day to day she could not seem to remember why she was there, saying she felt like she was just dropped off and left. Her forgetfulness grew even worse, and though she had visitors every single day, until they came, she was lost. My sister had cameras in place to check on her, but it was heartbreaking to see and hear her confusion at night, knowing there was little to be done but call in and ask someone to please check on her.

And finally she fell. Twice. The first was just a scraped knee. She was shook up but quickly forgot about it. A day later, in the early hours of the morning, either her bad leg gave out or she had a slight stroke. They found her on the floor in the hallway near the bathroom, her left shoulder dislocated. At the hospital, under sedation, they tried to put the shoulder back in, but due to a fractured humerus and her extremely fragile bones, all they could do was strap her in a brace and send her ‘home.’ That day, Monday, February 28th, was the beginning of the end.

I was already scheduled to fly up to see her the following weekend. But after my sister called on Wednesday and asked if I could come sooner, I got on a plane the next day to offer her some much needed relief. Mom was confined to her hospital bed. It took nearly 24 hours, but with Kindred Hospice’s help, we found the right medicinal cocktail to ease the pain and anxiety her ordeal had caused. She had difficulty forming words with enough breath to speak them. She’d stopped eating and drinking.

It was a fast decline from there. All my Michigan siblings came to see her along with many nieces and nephews. She would ask what was happening, and we tried to be honest with her. I slept on the couch in her living room not wanting to be too far away from her. On Friday she kept trying to get out of bed, pulling herself up, saying the word, ‘pee.’ I told her she was not able to get up, she had hurt her shoulder, but she was insistent. When she tried to move further, the pain in her left shoulder would stop her. I talked with my nurse friend back home who suggested she needed a foley catheter. I immediately called hospice, and within an hour a nurse came out to give her relief. She filled the bag, poor thing, but her agitation finally stopped. Friday evening I was sitting next to her bed, my head resting on my arm on the half rail combing her hair with my fingers the way she did when I was a child. She turned to look at me and said in her garbled speech, “I love you so, so much.” I said, “I love you more.” She smiled and said, “We could be sisters!” I laughed and told her, “That works for me!” Then she smiled and made a low, breathy, “Huh-huh” laugh. Saturday and Sunday there were lots of visitors, but mom was rarely alert enough to do more than squeeze a hand. Nurses and aides asked if she had said her goodbyes to everyone. We assured them that we had told mom repeatedly that we were all going to be okay and that she can go be with dad. “But has she heard from them all?” She had not.

So Sunday evening I contacted each of the three siblings in Florida and told them we would be calling them and putting the phone to mom’s ear so she could hear them. And this woman, this mother of 11 who had not moved for close to 36 hours, turned her head at the sound of her child’s voice and listened as each one said their separate goodbyes.

Everyone went home, and I eventually went and laid on the couch. I fell into a deep sleep only to awaken suddenly about 12:35 a.m. I quickly got up and went into mom’s room finding her in the same position, but not breathing. I sat down, put my fingers on either side of her throat and felt a faint pulse. I attempted to sing to her the same song she sang for dad before he died, “Goodnight sweetheart; well, it’s time to go…” In less than 10 minutes, her heart – her big, beautiful, loving heart – stopped beating, and she died at 12:45 a.m. I sat there with her, combing her hair back, so grateful for being woken to be with her at the end, smiling through my tears thinking about the glorious reunions happening in heaven.

How did I get so lucky, out of 11 kids, to be the one to be there when this sweet, wonderful woman left this earth?

*In the words of Ed Sheeran’s “Supermarket Flowers ©,”

“Hallelujah! 

You were an angel in the shape of my mom. 

You got to see the person I have become. 

Spread your wings, and I know that when

God took you back, 

He said, ‘Hallelujah, you’re home.

Childhood · Family · Lucky Eleven

Tradition: the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation.

Sixty-plus years ago at a small cottage built by my maternal grandfather on a bluff overlooking Lake Huron, my siblings and a handful of cousins marched in an impromptu Fourth of July parade put together by the various adults in attendance. My dad, belting out some of the traditional patriotic songs and waving a large flag, led the small contingent of children around the cottage while the grown ups sang “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “You’re a Grand Ole’ Flag,” and any other marching-type song they could think of. Everyone trailed happily along waving little flags totally unaware of why, just having fun marching behind the big guy. This went on year after year after year. As the family grew, the parade – eventually nearly 30 strong – became a favorite tradition along the beach shore. Somewhere along the line someone furnished a long string of gas station flags that we all held onto while dad would holler, “Tighten up that line!” Lining up in front of the flag pole, our hands over our hearts, we would then recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Years later, as we all got older, the parade finally culminated with the bravest of the brave marching into the cold waters of the Great Lake, dad marching on until his hat floated on the water.

And now we see my brother Terry carrying on the family tradition this past Fourth of July at his own cottage on Lake Huron with his own kids and grandkids. I clipped these pictures from a video he shared where we could hear him singing the same songs he learned so long ago. Just for fun, he’s the baby in the last picture at the top, where mom is carrying him, more than 50 years ago, at the end of the parade line.

I know there wasn’t a single kid, myself included, who didn’t look at his video and smile. We’re all so grateful to see dad in Terry. It brought back such happy memories of times so long ago; times gone by, but certainly not forgotten. Tradition.

(Pardon the grainy images clipped from old 8mm movies thankfully filmed by my uncle all those years ago.)

Family · Lucky Eleven · Mom

The other side of hospice

My mother may be dying. Five words that, when said to myself, feel like they don’t mean anything; at least not anything real.

My 94-year-old mother has been living here with us in Florida since last Thanksgiving. She had previously lived with my brother in Michigan for the past 14 years, minus the winter months with me, since my dad’s passing. But circumstances brought her to us for longer than the typical winter months, and now she is in her bedroom, in a hospital bed, and for all I know, she is dying.

Did I mention I work for hospice? I know about people dying. I’ve talked to them or their caregivers and I’ve offered words of reassurance. But what did I know? My dad was on hospice in the hospital where he died, but only for a few days, and it seems far removed from this. This is different.

Mom is now on our hospice. She has an angel of a nurse and a wonderful aide. She has all the accoutrements of a hospital room, but she’s home, with us. And instead of hearing the reassuring words I’d uttered to others, I have tunnel vision. I feel inept. Like I’m not doing enough, but I don’t know what enough is.

She surprises us. She’ll be totally wiped out and barely able to get up enough strength to use the bedside commode. She’ll be in bed all night and all day eating and drinking little to nothing. And then suddenly I’ll see her dressed, coming out of the bedroom smiling, saying, ‘Hi, Honey!’ She has raised 11 children, worked tirelessly in and outside the home, traveled near and far. She is part of that generation that feels she’s not supposed to stop.

I’ve been trying to keep my 10 siblings updated as much as possible. The challenge seems to be, though, that my dire narration is often followed by a ‘never mind’ report making me feel foolish, like I’m jumping the gun or something.

She says this is dumb. “This is so dumb.” “I just wanna feel better.” “If I’m gonna kick the bucket, I wish I’d just kick the bucket.” I have no response to that. Part of me wants her to join her beloved Charlie, whom she has had to live without for 14 years. Of course, the selfish part of me wants her to rally once again, to go to breakfast with us, to drive to the ocean and watch the surf. And it could happen.

Being on this side of hospice is eye-opening and humbling. I can do this part, caring for her, making her comfortable, accepting the thanks from my brothers and sisters for something I’d have fought them for. This part is easy.

I’m not sure about the next part. She’s the last of them. She deserves to go peacefully to her husband and loved ones gone before. My mind knows this absolutely. I want it for her, too.

But my heart…

I hope I’m as strong as I need to be.

Family · Florida Fun · Mom

A salute to flying.

I was 19, working at a securities firm, and wondering what to do with my life. I felt no driving force urging me towards a particular career. I worked every day and spent less and less time with my dead-end boyfriend. I still lived at home with eight of my ten siblings. My best friend had moved on with my older brother, and I felt driftless.

Driving around in what was then rural southeast Michigan, I would sometimes come across a sign saying, ‘Airplane rides, $5.” (Yes, it was a long time ago.) Whenever I did, I’d stop and go flying just for the fun of it. It was typically a small four-seater, and the pilot, always a guy, would offer to let me ‘fly’ it. One evening I was talking about it at the dinner table while my aunt and uncle were visiting. My uncle mentioned there was a flight school in Traverse City and said there was only ONE girl in the program. ‘You should look into it,’ he said. Never in a million years did I dare to dream that particular dream.

But look into it, I did. I went and toured the school and discovered they offered a two-year flight program that would earn me an Associate of Science degree in aviation. I applied for FAFSA, saved as much as I could, and the following August I moved myself into the dorms at NMC (Northwestern Michigan College) with the unbelievable anticipation of learning to fly!

It took me three years rather than two, but I eventually earned my commercial/instrument ratings through the FAA. Being one of only two girls in the program, it’s no surprise I eventually married a fellow pilot. A seaplane crash the summer before the wedding caused me to become ground shy and put an end to any hopes of my own flying career. But it turned out for the best as we ended up following my then-husband’s very successful career as a 747 captain.

I wouldn’t trade those college memories for anything in the world. I barely remember any of my academic classes I so thoroughly enjoyed flight school. Every aspect of flying both by myself and with others was always a thrill. Circling over the family home watching everyone run outside waving towels and racing to the car to come to the airport and pick me up; flying ‘formation’ with fellow students over to Sugarloaf’s grass strip or sneaking my boyfriend up to Mackinac Island; learning aerobatics, getting checked out in a taildragger, soaring with a friend and even flying into Oshkosh for their annual airshow; these memories are all tucked away to be pulled out frequently and enjoyed.

I do miss it. I was young. I was invulnerable. I knew no fear when it came to flying. I trusted my fellow pilots, my little airplane, and myself.

Mom’s cousin Rene, long-deceased, had been a pilot, himself, and she talked of him often as she shared his daredevil flying stories. Not long ago I surprised my then 89-year-old mom with a ride in an open-cockpit Waco bi-plane over St. Augustine, Florida. Mom has always been up for anything, and I knew she’d love it. Mike, our pilot in the back seat, was pretty pumped about taking his oldest passenger flying, extending the usual 20-minute flight to 45 minutes. I’ll never forget Mom’s face mirroring my own cheek-to-cheek grin as we took off feeling the wind and the power of that Waco. Over the oldest city, circling this way and that, out over the Atlantic we flew, entirely thrilled. Turning towards the shore, I leaned over to my mom and said, ‘Let’s tip our hats to Rene!’ And with a smile on our faces and sheer joy in our hearts, we saluted the sky.

Childhood · Family · Lucky Eleven

Christmas Eve Magic

This original post was from a year ago but bears repeating as Christmas Eve approaches along with one of my fondest childhood memories.

Growing up, there was a Christmas Eve tradition in our home that began when we were small children with the reading of T’was the Night Before Christmas.

“The Reading” about 25 years ago

Each year on that night, we would all get into our pajamas and make our way downstairs for “The Reading.” Dad would lie on his belly at the foot of the tree surrounded by all his children with mom standing somewhere behind. He would masterfully and with great relish read from the pages of that well-known book. After concluding with a very dramatic, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!” we would suddenly hear, “Crack! Crack! Crack!” and from the ceiling, huge walnuts would fall to the floor! At the same time, dad would leap up and run to the window yelling, “I see him! I see Santa! There he goes!” As we searched the dark skies for any sign of the sleigh, mom and dad would tell us to hurry upstairs so Santa could come back. We would then race up to bed and wait until morning to descend the stairs and behold the many presents under the Christmas tree.

As we got older, of course, we were quick to figure it all out. But with such a large family, and always with little ones, it was great fun to see what our parents saw, and it made us want to duplicate it in our own families years later.

The tradition continues.

This is a photo collage I put together on Christmas Eve a few years ago. These pictures started showing up on Facebook as the evening progressed, and I just had to collect as many as I could and put them together as a small tribute to a cherished tradition that started over 60 years ago. I was lucky enough to experience this great mystery as a child, and it has been passed along to my children and now my grandchildren. My nieces and nephews and now great-nieces and great-nephews are delighting in the same excitement. I’m sure my parents never dreamed their idea for a little Christmas Eve magic would be repeated for generations every night before Christmas. But I know when it is, they, along with all our missed loved ones, are smiling down on these scenes.

Family · Thoughts

Weddings, families, and mantras.

Last year my Goddaughter, was married in a lovely ceremony with lots of family and friends in attendance. This past weekend, another niece was married in what apparently will be forever referred to as a ‘COVID’ or ‘RONA’ wedding. While they were both beautiful events, they each left me a little sad for reasons I won’t go into. Suffice it to say, one of my favorite sayings by David Foster Wallace was certainly brought to mind:

“You’ll worry less about what people think about you when you realize how seldom they do.”

My friend Sarah and I love to hash things out about relationships, personalities, and other deep-thinking subjects. For instance, in a particular scenario, I might act or react in an entirely different way than perhaps she would. And in trying to understand someone else’s actions, we have to remind each other, ‘Me … NOT me.’ Meaning, the way I might treat someone isn’t necessarily the way someone else might treat me in the same scenario. It’s actually very helpful when you’re on the receiving end of a situation where you simply cannot comprehend someone’s actions. It removes the burden of trying to understand the motivation behind their decision and simply realize that just because they may believe what they did was right, that doesn’t make it right for you. And that’s okay. It’s not you. It’s them.

That’s where I am with these weddings. I struggled last year, and I struggle again this year because I do not understand the thought process behind certain events. I’ve hashed it out with a few friends and even some family members, and frankly no one ‘gets’ it. And so I struggle finding the high road knowing that’s where I need to be because we are, after all, a polite and friendly bunch. But I will continue to repeat the mantra, ‘Me … NOT me’ until these feelings fade away.

And they will.

Childhood · Family

Close to heaven.

When my sister and I were in our early teens, we were lucky enough to have horses. Well, a horse. We boarded several, but we owned Clancy, a sable-brown thoroughbred with the temperament of a big lab. He was tall and gentle and surprisingly patient with a couple young girls learning to ride bareback through the fields around our home. Our neighbor friends boarded a couple of their horses, as well, and one of them was really smart. Clipper could open the door to his stall at will. Thankfully there was a paddock around the small barn that housed him and the others. But every once in awhile, it didn’t matter.

More than once the phone would ring in the middle of the night, and the convent nuns would be calling to tell us our horses were in their field again. Mom would come wake Kathleen and me and tell us to go get them. We lived in a very small town at that time, quiet and rural. This particular summer night, Kathy threw on some shorts under her PJ top, and she and I, in my kelly-green baby doll pajamas and tennis shoes, walked the half mile, bridles in hand, to the church yard where we found our two errant horses nibbling away on the green grass.

I have the sweetest most vivid memory of she and I atop those two horses climbing the hill towards home, hooves slowly sounding their ‘clip-clop’ down the dirt road. It had to be near midnight, but we didn’t need flashlights. Back then, with few lights for distraction, the dark sky had set off the brilliant stars and the Milky Way, creating an atmosphere so peaceful, I never wanted it to end. Letting the horses find their way, our heads tilted back looking at the deep, vast, star-filled sky, it was probably as close to heaven as I’ve ever been.