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Wednesday, August 9th - "Unable are the Loved to die - For Love is Immortality." ~ Emily Dickinson

I have been in Philadelphia since last Tuesday (August 1st), after receiving the phone call that my mother's health had taken a turn for the worse. She remained conscious for several hours after I arrived, and I felt my heart break into a million pieces as I said goodbye to her. The hospital staff expected that she would pass during the night, but she is still here - fighting with all her might to stay in the mortal world.

I've spent just about every moment of every day at the hospital, catching a few hours of sleep each night in a recliner next to her bed. I hold her hand and talk to her, even though I know that she may not hear much of what I am saying. When she moans, I stroke her head and whisper soothing words in her ear.

I spend hours talking to her about all the wonderful memories I have of childhood, and how amazing a mother - and woman - she is. Sometimes her eyes open for a split second and she sighs.

We continue to encourage her to let go of the pain so that she may rest peacefully. I pray every day that God will take her. I talk to my father and ask him to come to her. But still, she hangs onto this world, even though the woman so many remember and love, is gone. My eyes fill with tears when she moans for her mother, and yet I expect that I will moan for my mother when it is time for me to leave this world.

Some days I feel numb. I move through the day in a fog, too tired to cry. Other days, the tears fall constantly and I wonder if they will ever stop. Some days I am still in denial - expecting her to open her eyes and be miraculously healed. And other days, I stand over her and reality hits... I am losing my mother.

My heart hurts.

Thursday, August 17th - "Where there is love there is life." ~ Mohandas K. Gandhi

Mom is still hanging on. The nursing staff is incredulous. Her morphine dosage is higher than anyone has ever seen in their career (56ml drip), and yet she has had more episodes of semi-consciousness lately, than she had in the first week. Despite these moments of awareness, her body is failing as her kidneys shut down and her heart loses its strength.

The experience of watching my mother waste away is very painful. And yet, even as I look into her cloudy eyes, I still remember the sparkle that was always there. Even while stroking her thin arms, and holding her tiny hands, I remember when those arms used to envelop me, and those hands used to take a hold of mine.

I don't spend the night at the hospital any longer, although I do visit every day. Most days, Mom is unconscious throughout my visit, but once in a while, she'll open her eyes and shift them to look in my direction. I don't think she sees clearly any longer; perhaps she sees the shadow of my face, or my silhouette. When I ask her questions that require only a yes or no answer, she sometimes responds. She has said my name aloud on several occasions, after I've identified myself to her. I hold her hand, and sometimes when I try to let go, she'll tighten her grip on me. She'll sometimes speak full sentences - things that don't really make a lot of sense, but that we try to interpret regardless.

She has said on several occasions: "It's so beautiful". Once she asked for her shoes. (For a trip?) She speaks of her dad (my grandfather passed away in July 1981). One of the nurses on the staff believes that Mom is somewhere between the physical world and heaven, but not quite ready to let go of her body.

At times, Mom responds to me when I talk to her about things from my childhood. Yesterday, I asked her if she remembered when my brothers and I used to set up an ice tea stand in front of the house, and I saw the corners of her mouth turn up in a small smile. I continue to talk to her and tell her how much I love her. I believe she hears me.

I am in the process of creating a slide show type presentation to be played at Mom's memorial. I spent hours combing through the many boxes of photographs I found throughout Mom's house. I chose many photographs which I feel accurately display my mother's spirit. There are photographs of Mom as a young adult, photos taken while she was dating my dad, photos of Mom after we all came along. There are so many photos of Mom laughing. And making cute faces. And hugging and kissing my father. And cuddling her grandchildren when they were infants. And still more photos of Mom, after Dad passed away, when she began attending senior dances and making friends. Everyone who knows Mom, loves her. She has touched so many lives!

I will be including the photo below in the presentation. It was taken on their wedding day in January 1959. I love this photograph because it shows my dad and mom on one of the happiest days of their lives. I believe that they will be together again soon, and as sad as I am to say goodbye to my mother, I am also happy that she will once again be with the love of her life.

Today is my brother Steve's birthday. He's on vacation this week. I'd like to bake him a cake, if I can find some mix in the cabinets. Either that, or I'll go out and pick up a cake for him. Even though the mood around here has been pretty somber, I know that Mom wouldn't want him to be sad. After all, he was always her favorite. *grin*

I changed my return tickets to Fairbanks. I'll be staying here in Philadelphia until the 28th. Oh how I miss my husband! Speaking of my husband, things look pretty good that he will NOT be returning to Iraq. I am so thankful. I'm going to need him more than ever soon...

Thursday, August 24th - Still Hanging On
I'm going to use my return ticket and go home as scheduled on Monday (28th). That is, unless Mom decides to leave this world before then. It isn't easy to make this decision, but I need to go home and see my husband. I miss him and need to feel his arms around me.

My brother and SIL totally understand. I certainly haven't worn out my welcome here, but I'm so homesick for Steve. School starts here next week, and things are going to be very hectic. I don't want to intrude.

There's always the chance that Mom will pass soon after I leave here, and I'll have to turn around and come right back. I know that it will be an additional expense to incur, but at least I'll have Steve's company when I return.

As always, we are amazed that Mom is still with us. Obviously God has different plans for her.

The day before yesterday, Mom had a fairly *lucid* day. While she did spend many hours in a comatose state, she also woke up several times, opened her eyes, and spoke. Dee and I visited in the early afternoon. When we got there, she was totally unconscious and unresponsive. I wiped a sponge stick across Mom's lips. I opened her mouth, and gave her a quick teeth brushing. When I was done, she opened her eyes and looked right at me. I said, "Does that feel better, Mom?" And she whispered, "Yes. Thank you." Then she went back to sleep.

I told the nurse about Mom's response. The nurse then told me that she came by to check Mom's vitals that same morning, and as always said, "Good morning, Florence!" Mom said "Good morning" - and not in a whisper either! The nurse said she nearly had a heart attack. When she tried to talk to her some more, Mom was already fast asleep again.

Later that night, my brother and my niece went up to visit. My brother called us from the hospital and told us that Mom was actually having bits and pieces of conversation with the two of them. When my niece asked her if she wanted to go shopping, Mom's eyes opened and she smiled. (My niece and Mom loved to go shopping together)

I asked him to hold the phone up to Mom's ear so I could talk to her, and I told her I was going to come see her the next morning. She said, "I'm going to be out of town all day. Maybe we can do it another time." Obviously she's suffering from a degree of delirium, but this is the most she's responded since I arrived in town more than three weeks ago.

I later found out that my other brother was up visiting with his wife a few hours prior, and the two of them were talking between themselves about what could be keeping Mom alive. Mom opened her eyes and said quite clearly, "I'll go when I'm good and ready, and not because you tell me to."

When things like this occur... when we see a glimpse of "Mom"... when we hear her voice speaking determinedly and strong... we begin to wonder: perhaps a miracle can occur? I know that might sound like wishful thinking on all of our parts, but how in the world has she survived this long? The doctors can give us no answers. They are stumped. The nurses just keep saying, "She's a strong one".

But the facts are that she's been without food since July 30th, and without a saline drip since August 11th. And I've seen her wound. The tumor that began penetrating her abdomen a few months ago is now huge. And she's on 65ml of morphine/hour. How long can someone survive without nourishment? And how high can a morphine dose go before a person OD's on it? We have questions that no one can answer, because they've never seen anything like this before. Everyone around us just watches and waits.

So, after talking to my family and my husband, I've decided to go home. Some people may not understand this decision, but it is what I need right now. I can't continue at this pace, in this mental and emotional state, indefinitely. I need to feel the support of my husband's loving arms around me. I need to take care of myself.

I'm going to tell Mom what my plans are today. If she hears me, I hope she understands.

Tuesday, August 29th - Home Again
How wonderful it is to be home! More than that, how wonderful it is to feel my husband's arms around me again. I have missed him, and my bed, and my furkids, and the cool Alaska weather, and the fresh air...

I had an interesting trip home, to say the least. I arrived at the Phila. airport three hours before my flight because I was worried the lines would be long getting through the screeners. I was totally wrong, and it took me only 20 minutes from curb to gate. I settled into a chair and pulled out my book. My schedule had me flying from PHL to Minneapolis and then changing planes to continue to Fairbanks. I only had a 40 minute layover, and 40 minutes in Minneapolis isn't a whole lot. That airport is insane, and it never fails that I have to run from one end to the other to make my connecting flight, so I was pretty nervous about that. And then I looked up at the info board at the gate and saw that my flight out of PHL was delayed an additional 30 minutes. With only 10 minutes between flights, I knew I'd never make my connection.

I approached the agent standing at the counter. An elderly lady was already up at the counter. I couldn't help but hear her conversation; she was upset that she wouldn't make her connecting flight to Fairbanks. (She was on a Holland Cruise Lines tour) I stepped forward and told her (and the agent) that I was also going to Fairbanks. We stood together as the agent tried to find alternate flights for us. At one point the agent suggested we get on a Delta flight to SLC with a connect to Fairbanks, but that would be a very tight schedule with a short layover. After my SIL's experience playing "Groundhog Day" in SLC, I told the older lady that we'd have a better chance getting to AK from Minneapolis than we would SLC. We decided to stick with the original itinerary and deal with the problem when we landed.

The agent called ahead to Minneapolis and got a verbal commitment that the departing plane to Fairbanks would wait an additional 10 minutes for us to arrive, but couldn't guarantee they'd hold the plane any longer. That would give us about 20 minutes to get from one plane to the other. Not impossible, but certainly no easy task. Marilyn (the older lady) requested that a cart be waiting for her, since she is disabled and walks with a cane. I told the agent that I would be riding that cart with Marilyn.

I had a seat in the exit row which I paid an extra $15 for - this premium seating charge is a crock, but I wanted the extra leg room. Marilyn and her husband were in row 5. I got in line to board, and my pass was scanned. That's when the beeping started. The agent stopped me and took my boarding pass. He crossed out my exit row seat number, and wrote in a seat number in First Class. I don't know why, but I'd wager that the counter clerk I talked to with Marilyn had something to do with it. Perhaps she wanted me in a seat closer to the exit so I'd make my connecting flight? *shrug* Whatever the reason, I took advantage of my elevated status and indulged in three glass of complimentary merlot.

When we finally lifted off, the pilot made an announcement that we would be ONE HOUR late landing in Minneapolis. I just knew I'd be spending the night at the airport, and hoped that I'd be at least given a motel room. I decided that I'd visit the Mall of America while I was stuck overnight.

An hour into the flight, the flight attendant approached me and said, "I've never heard of this before, but the pilot of the flight going to Fairbanks just called and said he would hold that plane until you and the others got there."

When we landed, a airport *golf* cart was waiting for us and it whisked us to the other plane. The plane was packed with aggravated passengers who were wondering why the heck they were stuck at the gate for 45 minutes. I wasn't going to be the one to tell them.

We made up time while flying, and I arrived only 40 minutes later than expected. What a joy to see Steve's smiling face when I got to the top of the escalator leading down to the airport lobby. It's so good to be home!

Warning: the following paragraphs may be considered a bit graphic or descriptive for some readers, but I want to write my feelings/observations out, as a record of this sad time in my life.

I visited Mom the night before I left Philly. There isn't much change. As always, we're amazed/shocked that she's still hanging on. As time has passed, I've hated going to visit her. Each visit leaves me more and more drained, and I found myself crying harder in the later days, than I did in the earlier days. I think I've somewhat comes to terms with her impending death, but it is so hard to see her in the condition she's in.

After laying in a bed for a month, Mom's muscles and tendons have wasted and shortened. This has caused her arms to pull up close to her chest, with bent elbows, wrists, and fingers. The shrinkage of her achilles tendon has pulled her feet into a pointed position - much like a ballerina standing on her toes. The tendons in her neck have shrunk, pulling her lower jaw downward, so that she always has her mouth open. Breathing constantly through her mouth dries out her tongue, lips, and throat. The little bit of saliva she makes, dries quickly, and solidifies. Every few days, I used a swab to remove this debris from her mouth.

The last time she said anything coherent was about three days ago. I was there visiting with my brother and SIL, and Mom's boyfriend (who stands vigil at her bedside every single day for hours). She opened her eyes and I saw her eyes move from side to side as if she could see me on her right, and my brother on her left. I asked her if she was in pain (she gets a direct shot of morphine in addition to the drip if she's in pain), and she looked into my eyes and said, "I just want to die". In that moment, I wished for the strength and the courage to take her bed pillow and hold it over her face. Does this make me bad? Am I evil for having this fleeting thought? I don't feel bad or evil. I can't stand to see her this way! This is what she DIDN'T want! She is lingering in pain, and all she wanted was to pass quickly and easily. I was always a supporter of assisted suicide (as was Mom), and I wish today, more than ever, that she lived in Oregon - where it is legal. It is cruel to make anyone go through the pain and suffering that she has - especially over the last 30 days. We put our pets down mercifully, but we can't put our loved ones down? WHY NOT???!!!!

I slept in this morning. I didn't open my eyes until 8am. Since I was still pretty much on Eastern Time, it felt like noon to me. I was fast asleep last night before 11pm. After a month of sleeping in a warm, humid bedroom with a fan keeping me cool, falling asleep with the windows open and an overnight temp in the high 40s was absolutely heavenly. At one point during the night, I must have been shivering. Steve got up and grabbed a quilt and tucked it around me. I really missed being cared for.

Steve called the Major this morning and asked him if he could take the day off and spend it with me. Since there wasn't much going on, it wasn't a problem. After a scrumptious breakfast of scrambled eggs with cheese and bagels and cream cheese, I grabbed my camera, leashed up Sedona, and we took off walking in the woods.

What a gorgeous morning for a walk! The air was crisp and fresh. The sun was shining. After a month of humid and sweaty days in the 80s, heading off into the cool, moist trees behind our house was like being on vacation. The mushrooms are coming up everywhere. The leaves are gradually changing on the birch and aspen trees. There are a few golden trees here and there, but most still have their green leaves. The smaller bushes (prickly rose, high bush cranberries) have already begun to make the color change. There are a few fireweed bushes with some magenta flowers still blooming, but for the most part, they've already got the cottony wisps entwined around the stems. I took some photos along the way, which I'll share later.

And then we decided to walk the small path that winds through the trees near the approach strip here on base. That's typically where the moose live. We were halfway through the woods, when we came upon a cow moose. She was grazing and saw us first. Steve put Sedona's leash back on her and we stood watching each other. I took a few photographs before she decided to move off into the thicker woods. We continued on our way. What a joy! I have missed the wildlife so much!

I got a supportive and sympathetic email from my friend Jan (the musher) a few days ago. She emailed me when she read about my mom in this journal. Her own mother passed away suddenly on August 18th from a suspected pulmonary embolus. Jan feels she never got the chance to really say 'goodbye'. But she also didn't have to watch her mother suffer. Is one way worse than the other? Jan feels she missed the chance to say a proper goodbye. I had that chance, but wish my mother would have died suddenly, rather than to linger and suffer. No matter... we are both dealing with the grief of losing our mothers. There are no words to adequately explain the sorrow.

Don't let one minute pass. Say what has to be said. Tell those you love how much you love them. Now. Before the chance is gone and it's too late.

Wednesday, August 30th - Picture Time

I finally had a chance to download the photos I took while I was in Philadelphia, as well as those I took yesterday while walking with Steve.

But first, I want to publicly thank my brother Steve, and my sister-in-law Diane, for opening their home to me while I was in town visiting Mom. There is no other place I'd rather stay while in Philly, than with them. I enjoyed their company, and the company of my niece Rachel, and my nephew, Sean - as well as the furry goodness of their two cats: Katie (top) and Myles (bottom). I love you guys!!!!

As for Pennsylvania wildlife, I had to settle for the surprise visit of a baby possum on the back patio. This little guy discovered the bowls of cat food and water, and decided it was much easier to help himself to the buffet! We spent more than 30 minutes watching him eat and drink his fill, before scampering back under the deck.

The weather in Philadelphia was hot and humid - especially when compared to the weather here in Alaska. At first I had a hard time tolerating it; always feeling hot and sticky. And my hair with all of that humidity? What a frizzy mess! It rained for a few days here and there, which I rather enjoyed. Especially the few nights when there was loud thunder and lightning. I've always enjoyed thunderstorms, and we don't get too many of them here. The sound effects made for good sleeping.

The sound of running water coming from the two garden ponds that Steve meticulously maintains, is also quite soothing. In his front yard, he has a metal birdbath with a fountain. One of the highlights of my stay was seeing a brilliant yellow goldfinch bathing there, along with dozens of other sparrows and finches and robins. There's even a hummingbird who visits from time to time, sucking the nectar from the flowers in the garden surrounding the pond.

In the back yard, there is a gorgeous koi pond, just teeming with fish. Steve knows them by their personality and liked telling me which ones were the aggressors and which ones loved swimming through the bubbles made by the fountain and the hose when he adds water to the pond. The fish are huge and I am amazed that they survive the winter months and come back to life each spring.

I spent the first nine or ten days sleeping at the hospital next to Mom's bed, and didn't do much of anything else except to make a few trips back to the house to shower and change. Exhausted, I finally made the decision to begin spending nights at my brother's house. Over the course of the month, we did find some time here and there for a little downtime, and we took advantage of those hours.

One afternoon, Steve and Diane (Dee) and I decided to take a drive to Bristol to do some walking in the historic district.

From Wikipedia: First settled as Buckingham (for Buckingham, England) in 1681, the borough of Bristol, Pennsylvania is one of the oldest settlements in the United States, and is about 15-30 minutes north of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was originally used as a port and dock. Bristol is rich in history, boasting many historic and restored houses that line the streets of Radcliffe and Mill.

When I lived in PA, I used to go to Bristol from time to time to look at the old houses and walk through some of the historic cemeteries. I love the architecture of homes from that period, with their brick or stone exterior, shuttered windows, ornate cornices, and in some cases, wide porches. We walked through two cemeteries, reading the names and dates on the headstones. Considering how 'new' Fairbanks is, I can't help but be amazed when I see dates from the early 1700s carved into the granite.

After walking for awhile, we stopped at a tavern and had a cold beer while sitting out on a veranda overlooking the river. It was nice to relax and chat in the cooler air of the early evening. We all needed some downtime to boost our spirits. Here are some photos I took in Bristol:

Ornate porch

Blue shutters

Red shutters

Headstones in a row

Sailboat on the Delaware

Fire escape flowers

Window boxes

Old warehouse and ivy

SeanOne afternoon , I took my nephew Sean to Pennypack Park after visiting Mom at the hospital. When I lived in Philadelphia/Bucks County, my sons and I used to go to the various parks along Pennypack Creek to skip stones, hike, explore the little man-made waterfalls, and to enjoy the peace and quiet. Sean and I took a short hike along a path until we got to the first little waterfalls. There were lots of butterflies flitting about, and at least a dozen ducks taking a swim. While Sean skipped stones, and made his way out into the creek by jumping from rock to rock, I looked for things to photograph.

From Philly H2O: Pennypack Park was created beginning in 1905, and protects one of the few watersheds in Philadelphia that was not either obliterated (after the burying of the streams) or badly encroached upon. With miles of bike, hiking and horse trails, the Pennypack is one of the gems of the Philadelphia park system.

Cabbage white butterfly

Pennypack Creek waterfalls

Resting ducks

Reflections in the creek

On August 17th, my brother Steve celebrated a birthday. At his request, we had dinner at Carrabbas - one of his favorite restaurants. It's also one of mine and Steve's favorites too, and every time we make a trip to Philly we always plan to eat at least one meal there. I had delicious veal piccata, accompanied by warm, crusty bread dipped in olive oil and herbs. When we told the waitress it was Steve's birthday, she brought him a piece of chocolate cake and gathered some of the wait staff to sing to him. Earlier, I baked him a cake, so we indulged in even more dessert when we got home. Note the use of only one candle. At Steve's age, we certainly didn't want the fire company to come out to the house! *grin*

Located outside of Philadelphia, is a remarkable structure: the Bryn Athyn Cathedral. The cathedral is the headquarters of The Church of the New Jerusalem, more commonly known as "Swedenborgians." The cathedral was begun in 1913 under the direction of John Pitcairn and William Fredrick Pendleton, the Bishop of the Church. The main building was dedicated in 1919. Structural building ended in 1929. The stained glass was completed in the 1960's.

Steve took me to the cathedral one day after leaving the hospital. The structure is absolutely gorgeous! The main building is of the Early Gothic style, while the adjoining structures are of a transitional period reflective of a combination of both Gothic and Norman styles. The exterior appearance of the Cathedral itself is reminiscent of Gloucester Cathedral in England.

Bryn Athyn Cathedral

Amazing architecture

Gardens around the Cathedral

Praying mantis and bee

On my last day in Philadelphia, after visiting Mom, the three of us decided to take a drive up to New Hope. The primary industry of New Hope is tourism. On weekends the streets are crowded with tourists visiting the many restaurants, antique shops, art galleries, or just strolling along the river and the Delaware Division Canal. The canal was built in the middle decades of the 19th century, to carry coal, limestone, cement, and lumber from the northeastern reaches of Pennsylvania to Philadelphia. There have been mule-drawn barges providing rides for tourists and chartered private parties running from the locks at New Hope, Pennsylvania to a point about a mile and a half above Centre Bridge since the late 1950's. (The photo at left is my brother and sister in law)

When I lived in PA, I used to visit New Hope and nearby Peddlers Village several times a month during the summer. The shops were always fun to explore, and wandering the streets was always good exercise. My sons were more interested in the canal so I had to keep a sharp eye on them to make sure they didn't decide to take a swim.

Steve, Dee and I stopped at The Landing Restaurant for a bite to eat and their signature Bloody Mary drink. (I'm not a Bloody Mary gal, so I opted for a couple of glasses of Merlot) We decided to eat outside on the terrace. The views of the Delaware River were beautiful, and we were entertained by a family of ducks who were obviously used to being fed by diners on a regular basis.

After lunch, we took a relaxing stroll along the canal to burn off some calories and to clear the alcohol from our brains before heading home. I had a wonderful time, and for a little while I was able to forget the reason I had come to Philadelphia.

Delaware Canal

New Hope falls

House on the canal

Bird hotel

House on the canal

Canal locks

Shops and galleries on canal

Secluded courtyard

I already wrote about how happy I am to be back in Alaska, so I won't repeat myself. But after being away for so long, I was amazed at the visible changes in the foliage and couldn't wait to capture some of the more intense colors with my camera. Stumbling upon the cow moose while out on our walk was the biggest thrill of all, and I was glad that she was comfortable enough with our presence to stick around long enough for photos.

In addition, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my other dwarf sunflower plant has bloomed! It's a Teddy Bear Sunflower and looks great! There appears to be two more blooms on the plant and I hope they have a chance to open before the weather gets too cold and kills them. Now I'm really excited about owning my own home and having a nice garden someday.

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.

~ Albert Camus ~

I spent a few hours with Shawna and her babies (Courtney and Collin) today. We went to lunch and then to Pioneer Park to play for a little while in the playground. The weather was beautiful today - sunny and not too warm. I'm glad I got outside.

I'm still feeling really down though. I guess it's to be expected, but it's not something I'm happy about. I don't like feeling so 'blah'. I feel like tears are right there - just under the surface - and it doesn't take much to make my eyes flood. A song... a memory... a photograph - that's all it takes to make the floodgates open. I'm happy to be home, with Steve here to comfort me, but even he can't take away the immense sadness which fills my heart. This is so hard...

Thursday, August 31st - Getting away for the weekend

Steve has a four-day weekend for Labor Day, so we decided to take a spur of the moment road trip to Valdez. We just got back from picking up a few groceries, and plan to get on the road tomorrow morning. We'll be back late Monday.

The weather isn't supposed to be so great in Valdez (rain, clouds, fog), and the temperature is only predicted to be in the 50s and 60s (with overnight temps in the 30s and 40s) but we both really feel the need to get away - even if we spend the entire weekend wearing rain gear and dodging raindrops.

This will be my first time camping this year, even though summer is pretty much over. Steve went camping once while my SIL was in town, but other than that, the camper has sat in the storage lot collecting dust. We're both excited about going, even though loading the camper is never fun. Fortunately, it's already stocked with cookware and utensils and dishes, so we only have to add food and our clothes (and my camera gear and Steve's fishing gear).

Nature and the outdoors is good therapy for me. So is photography. If all goes well, I'll come back feeling a lot better than I have lately.

With that being said, I'll see you in September. Have a great weekend!

Go to September

© 2006 Susan L Stevenson