Saying goodbye and finding meaning

The writer Robert Green, author of many books on human behavior, shared these words that make me think of Mom. Green wrote: “But despite what you may think, good luck is more dangerous than bad luck. Bad luck teaches valuable lessons in patience, timing, and the need to be prepared for the worst; good luck deludes you … making you think your brilliance will carry you through. Your fortune will inevitably turn, and when it does you will be completely unprepared.”

Mom at the Seattle Wooden Boat Festival, July 2004.

Like all of us, Mom had good and bad luck. Unlike many, she always learned from her misfortune and knew exactly when she finally found the tide turning. And she also knew good luck simply didn’t happen. She worked hard for it.

Mom was a child of the Depression and the daughter of an immigrant, who was fortunate to leave Germany before a much worse misfortune befell her homeland. Those immigrant lessons were passed down to Mom from her mother.

Being a child of that era, it shaped Mom and her generation. She spent her early years in a working class community of New Jersey—something that I think taught her about working hard and knowing that others around you could be less fortunate. She never forgot this her whole life.

Mom also grew up in the shadow of a great city, the epicenter of culture, and finance. The Big Apple’s glow could be a draw to anyone, particularly a woman like my mom who had an abundance of great looks. Those looks, however, never went to her head.

Mom attended Bronxville in NY (Concordia College, Bronxville, today) to pursue professional studies that the sexist workplace of the 1950s offered single women of lesser means. She made lifelong friends there. One became the godmother of one of her children (me). They were called the “Triple Threat.”

Mom, when she would turn heads during her college years in New York.

I don’t know the full story how Mom moved from greater New York to soggy Saginaw, MI in the mid-1950s. My guess is she needed work. When she had to work, she would always “crack on.” I learned this from her early on.

In 1958, she met her first husband. They moved to Detroit. They adopted my sister and I and raised a family. They moved to Boston for a spell in late 1965 and then to Clayton, Missouri, in late 1966. The pair divorced in 1973 and she re-entered the workforce as a teacher, eventually in the St. Louis Public School System and the University City Public Schools system.

She was a lifelong teacher, completing her career in University City Public Schools as a reading specialist. She devoted her professional life to the wellbeing of young people, many of whom were lower income, minority, and had higher needs.

Despite Mom’s great looks, she was remarkably grounded in the world around her, in people, her church, her community, and her family.

She was profoundly spiritual. She didn’t need to tell the world about her faith. It resided in her. She was devoted in the fullest Christian sense to her Christian identity and the congregations she belonged to. She dragged me and my sister to church. She knew better than we did why our nearby Lutheran church would be good for us. She was right. Her faith stayed with her to her last days.

Mom always had style. I never saw my mom look shabby. It’s the style the world saw on the show Mad Men, of women of that era. Mom always carried herself this way.

Mom had style, always

Mom also had an artistic side. Her creative outlets included fixing furniture, making beautiful outfits with her hands by sewing. She could throw herself into project and be unmoved by distractions. The house she purchased together with her second husband became an art gallery. They both loved great art and had impeccable taste.

Mom was very smart—like all her family members. She loved crossword puzzles, which she did for decades. I could never keep up with her when she’d work them out on the kitchen table.

Mom managed the impossible: navigating a divorce, reinventing herself, raising two kids, switching jobs, buying a home on a teacher’s salary without any help. And then, with two kids in tow, she found her lifelong soul mate, who she married in 1983.

Mom may have felt she didn’t see the world, but she did.

With her second husband, they travelled nearly everywhere in the United States and Canada. She even travelled nearly 50 miles up a dirt road outside of Cordova, Alaska, in the pouring rain, just to see a glacier and laugh at how beautiful and crazy that was.

Mom and her second husband lived for a short spell in England, where he had a position for a short term. They also travelled to multiple destinations in Europe together: England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Belgium, Italy, Greece (I believe a couple of times).  They always looked like there were glowing in their holiday pictures. Snap, here we are in Paris. Snap, here we are in in Florence. Snap, here we are in in Rhodes. Wait, here’s Thurso, Scotland and Bruges, Belgium.

Author, Rudy Owens, and Mom, about four months before she finally succombed to Alzheimer’s disease.

She was a great cook. I loved her Christmas stollen and cookies. She taught me this art. She kept learning new recipes and growing with her expanding love of food outside of her St. Louis world.

Through thick and thin, Mom was devoted to my sister and remained generous to her. Mom was always about doing.

Mom was tough. Her friend from college shared some stories about that with me, and I can see that throughout her long life. I call it grit. It’s the virtue I respect the most in people who matter.

I think all that she confronted in life–stuff that might bend or break others–did not push my mom down.

She could weather storms because she always knew something good was ahead.

Mom during one her several moves in the mid-1960s

Mom was right, of course, and her marriage to her second husband was the highlight of her life.

The thing she said the most to me, for the last seven years of her life, when her illness took hold, was, “I have the best husband in the whole world.” I would always say: “I know mom. He’s a great guy.” She was would always laugh and smile. We had this conversation literally hundreds of times. She last said it to me on Thanksgiving Day, on the phone. I said, “Yup, mom. You are a lucky woman.”

Mom was the best friend and loving wife of her second husband for 37 years. She welcomed his family as her own and devoted herself to their shared relations. In the end, her marriage was the enduring happiness and the good luck that came in her life. She earned it and knew how to live it well, only the way those who know the fickleness of fortuna can.

Mom, I salute your memory. Thanks for making us richer.

Saying Goodbye

In December 2019, my mom began her stay at the Barnes-Jewish Extended Care facility in Clayton, Missouri. The place is close to my stepfather, who decided at last to put her into a care home. He has been my mother’s primary and dutiful caregiver for years. The decision was entirely his alone to make.

He felt good about the facility and its staff. It is partially owned and managed by the most respected medical system in metro St. Louis — Barnes and Jewish Hospital.

I first arrived at my mom’s new and likely final home on the first night of my four-day trip in late January 2020. I had flown out from my current home on the West Coast, in Portland. My plan was simple: spend as much time as I could with my ailing mother.

From the outside, the place looked remarkably plain, testifying to its focus on function. The three-story brick building has a gated courtyard and no fancy design features. It mostly resembles thousands of other care homes, where families, loved ones, and our society place our sickest, frailest, and oldest residents to live out their final days and die, hidden from public view.

My trip here also marked the final arc of my family’s life, not far from where we spent our early years together. Over the course of four days, I visited my mom daily, spending a couple hours each day with her.

My mom turned 83 last fall. When I came, she was at the end of her long, seven-year odyssey since she was first diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s in 2013. That diagnosis changed everything. Those who care for patients with Alzheimer’s, like my stepdad and my mother’s husband of more 35 years, travel in the deep and dark valley of this horrible disease for intolerably long periods, with few moments of joy.

Though I lived nearly 2,000 miles away, my life also changed completely. I stopped taking vacations. Nearly all the free time I could pull from my work schedule went to trips two or three times a year to see her. I ceased to care about petty squabbles at my job, wanting to conserve my energy and health to focus on my family. It probably allowed unhelpful situations at my job to get worse because I refused to waste time on inconsequential issues and people who were not important to my life.

Every time I saw my mom, her conditions had deteriorated more. By time I came out this January 2020, my mom had already had two emergency room visits the previous month. She first stayed at another care facility nearly 30 miles from her and my stepdad’s cozy home, where her offered loving care for years. He found the Barnes-Jewish facility after lots of rejections and queries. It offered extended care, and he immediately liked it.

This is an expression I had much of the time during my four-day visit to see my mother at her new care home.

Over my four days in St. Louis, I visited my mom’s room on the third floor, where I got to slightly know some of the patients. Most of them were mentally sharp. Some had severe cognitive disabilities. Many were old and friendly to me. I had several conversations with mom’s neighbors during two lunches.

For those lunchtime meals, I spoon fed my mom what little amounts of nourishment she could swallow. When she did, she would smile at me, but not really see me because of her eyesight had long since failed.

I also befriended some nurses and nurses aides. All were cheerful and caring. They lovingly helped my mom with her basic functions: showering, eating, being wheeled in and out of the recreation and dining room. They were pros at moving her around. They also did the diaper changes and clothes changes. I couldn’t do that. Most were African American.

This sign decorates the rec room/lunchroom at my mom’s care home.

I particularly liked a day nurse, a man with tattoos covering his arms and about my age. I also liked another nurse, a South Asian woman who helped me get my mom out of bed and ready for lunch one day.

Since I last saw my mom in September 2019, she appeared to have aged about five years. She now had nearly totally gray hair. She was so weak, she was unable to walk.

According to my stepdad, on most days, she slept. Sometimes the TV was left on. Other times my stepdad said he put on music, which she liked. He set up some pictures on her bureau of happier times for all of us and put one of my mom’s favorite posters, from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, above her bed.

My stepfather has arranged a loving display on the bureau in my mom’s room.

During each visit, I talked to her. I held her frail, withered hands. Sometimes she smiled. I liked that a lot.

The last morning of my final visit, a Sunday, began as a beautiful winter day in St. Louis. I awoke at 6:30 a.m. I took a brisk walk to clear my head. During those three miles I exchanged friendly hellos to friendly Midwesterners. I wondered to myself how many of them might have family members who were ill or experiencing dementia like my mother.

I arrived at my mom’s facility shortly after 10 a.m. It was quiet. As usual I signed in and walked to the elevator upstairs, through the institutional hallways.

I first went to my mom’s room and it was empty. I briefly panicked. I thought, she might have died the night earlier. I went back to the recreation and lunchroom. There she was, in her red sweat pants, a red sweater, and curled in a fetal position on the chair next the table below the blaring TV. I walked up to her and told her it was Rudy. I could see her smile, but I knew she did not see me.

That morning, a woman minister in her late 60s, wearing a blue turtleneck and blue pants, was leading a Protestant church service in the same room. About 10 of the mostly older patients participated.

I heard the minister speak the Lord’s Prayer, and half of the patients said it with her. She came up to me and asked if we wanted communion. I asked mom, and she agreed, likely not understanding what I asked. She ingested about one half of the wafer.

Mom began to curl up, wanting to sleep again. I ran to her room and grabbed a pillow to give her something more comfortable than a wooden chair arm to rest her head on. The minister, having finished her service, then sat at the piano and began to play hymns. She played and sang How Great Though Are, Go Tell it on the Mountain, Down by the Riverside, Amazing Grace, and other hymns I didn’t recognize immediately. At that moment I couldn’t think of a better thing to be doing for those here, and for visitors like me.

I started crying when the minister and an older African American patient sang Amazing Grace.

This was it, I realized. This was the end. I knew I would never see my mom alive again. My eyes were turning red and I wiped away the tears on my jacket.

I told my mom I was leaving. She smiled and asked where I was going. I said, I’m going to Portland. She smiled. I don’t know if she heard me. I blew her a kiss, not wanting to give her my minor throat illness. Then I got I got a nurse’s aide to punch in the security code to open the secure elevator to leave.

Alone, I started to cry. I mostly kept up my straight-faced appearance in the lobby as I signed out. Once in the small parking lot, I bent over and wept. It has been years since I cried like this. I must have been a pitiful sight to someone looking out a window.

I got in the car and continued to weep. I turned the ignition and began to leave the parking lot, still crying.

Enough of this, I told myself. I wanted to be strong. So I pulled out my stoic shell and put on my public mask. It is the face I show the world, even when things go very, very bad.

I turned my rental car onto Forest Park Parkway, turned north on Interstate 170, and headed to St. Louis International Airport to catch my flight home.

Letting go of the living

During the last six years, I have been forced to confront the collapsing health of my family. Not by coincidence, my reflections on these changes and death itself led me to writers like Viktor Frankl and branches of thinking such as Existentialism and the Greek and Roman school of philosophy known as Stoicism.

The Stoic philosophers from ancient Greece and Rome provide a roadmap that remains remarkably relevant today. The most famous ancient stoics—Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius—did not focus on abstractions. Rather, they wrote about the most pressing realities of life and issues of what define us and how we live each day.

At this point in my own life’s journey, I found comfort in old ideas that embraced questions about death. As Seneca wrote, “A man cannot live well if he knows not how to die well.” Stoic ideas helped me think about how all of us can prepare ourselves for misfortune and navigate through the worst possible events, in order to confront what inevitably lies ahead.

My journey, with my family, was now one confronting inevitable loss. This chapter of my life story, with my family, will perhaps soon end in the death of the remaining two members of my nuclear family—my mother and sister.

Losing my Mom

My father died in 1985, when I was 20, and I can scarcely remember him as a person. He was an alcoholic and unimportant in my life. I unfortunately lost my mother more than six years ago, but this loss is ongoing.

In 2013, she was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The illness has been especially cruel to her husband, my stepfather, who saw his intimate partner and best friend of 30 years slowly lose her mental abilities and her ability to function as an independent adult. I have observed her slow decay, mostly during short visits and on phone calls that always got worse with each week, month, and then year.

My mother changed from being someone with a razor-sharp mind and who loved crosswords to a woman who could no longer remember the names or even faces of her neighbors and family.

On this last trip to St. Louis in September 2019, we were alone. I asked her, “Who am I?” She gave me a long look with that blank stare, created by the destruction of her neurons and the accumulation of amyloid plaques in her brain. She replied with my stepfather’s name. I said, “No, mom, it’s your son, Rudy.” She didn’t reply. She then asked me a question she had asked half a dozen times earlier in the last 15 minutes.

I have spent these last six years flying back and forth from Seattle and then Portland to her home in the St. Louis area. My trips were motivated by personal concern for her and her husband caregiver and a sense of duty to help as her son.

I have shed tears. I have felt anguish. I have gnashed my teeth. I have cursed scores of times to myself as I walked alone after work, daylight or dark. I have felt powerless. I have felt my desires for my own dreams bend and be extinguished, just so I could be there for her, albeit from afar.

When I read about my friends’ lives, involving travel or a life where the future is filled with promise, I compare it to my stepdad’s world. His involves non-stop and constant care for my mom.

I have, in the end, simply abandoned thoughts of vacation and time alone that don’t involve flying halfway across the continent, so I can spend time with her. On past trips we have held hands and took walks. We could even squeeze in visits to the St. Louis Art Museum and Missouri Botanical Garden. Even those stopped on my last trip.

On this trip, like the ones before, she asked me questions she had asked dozens of times before: Where do you live? Why do you live n Portland? Why won’t you live here? Do you have a girlfriend?

My mom often chastised me, saying, that’s too far away, you should be closer, even when she has no idea who I am or that she even had a son.

Losing my Sister

During these last six years, and for at least a decade earlier, I have also watched my sister slowly spiral out of control.

She has battled addiction, obesity, mental health issues, a long spell of homelessness, and finally the collapse of her body. Her obesity finally made it nearly impossible for her to walk. After living on the mean streets of St. Louis for months, and then in an unsanitary drug house in a very unsafe St. Louis neighborhood, she rebounded with the help of my mom and stepdad. My sister found a low-paying but stable job with Missouri’s welfare office.

Yet each visit, from 2000 on, turned into a portrait in loss. By the last time I saw her in January 2019, just before she had a heart-attack, she was out of her job, living in squalid conditions alone, and having no contact with anyone or any person except a former drug addict neighbor in a poor south St. Louis suburb.

Each time I came, her apartment looked dirtier and more cluttered and chaotic. I am choosing not to share the details. They are too depressing and also private.

Finally, in July 2019, she called for first responders who discovered her collapsed on her apartment floor, unable to walk. She had deep and open pressure ulcers and was immediately taken the emergency room at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. From there the hospital managers and social workers placed her in skilled nursing facility in the city that accepted Medicaid eligible patients. She moved into the facility that month and has been bedbound and no longer able to walk.

Her new home is a facility for indigent patients, all eligible for Medicaid-paid care. The population is a mix of mostly older African Americans and fewer whites. When I visited in September 2019, more than half appeared bedbound. Patients with mental illnesses wandered the halls, without interference from staff. The front door was coded, and no one but staff could get out without the punch key.

To me, it felt like a madhouse from the Victorian era, with staff unconcerned with the patient wards in their care or visitors from the streets who could walk in the facility without even signing in.

No staff member required me to present my ID or sign in. So I could wander the facility without interference, startled that no one cared who I was. In one of the community rooms, I saw silent, elderly, and sick patients gaze blankly at their television. Others sat in the courtyard, silent and hunched over. Still others in their rooms lay silent, with their televisions blaring reality shows and their faces staring blankly at the blue light. I imagined this was like hundreds of others similar facilities nationwide.

My sister looked like she had aged 10 years. She had lost one of her front top teeth. She had a bad rash and dirty, unkempt hair. She remained unable to walk.

The hardest part of my trip was visiting my sister’s cluttered, dirty apartment that had long gone to hell. Amid the clutter that littered each room, I found evidence of her past life. I located her diaries she had kept from the time she was in her 20s, still with dreams of living a good life, even as it was slowly going sideways from her substance-abuse problems. I found her jewelry she made as a hobby for years, as her mobility began to decline and her world closed in on her.

I spent about two hours finding all of her legal documents and her writings. That was my plan from the start. I put those in a pink plastic tub and filled another with her nicest dresses, pants, and shirts, even though I knew she likely would never wear them again.

We had a falling out when I refused to help her rent a storage locker to put her stuff. She cried, feeling betrayed. I knew from all I had seen she would not leave this place or another. She still believed she could walk again and live on her own with her public assistance.

On my last morning in St. Louis, I visited her room again. Her roommate, who is in her 30s and likely had a mental health disorder, was there. I held my sister’s hand and said I was happy I had come to see her. She looked at me, and said, “I love you.” I responded the way I always had in the past, with a smile.

I then left her room and found one of the young, African-American nurses dressed in purple scrubs. She smiled, punched the code, and the door opened. I walked out into the fresh-smelling fall morning and the sunshine on a beautiful St. Louis day. It was time to catch my flight and leave behind this warehouse for the infirmed.

A tie is not just a tie

Recently, when picking out a tie for a formal event, I was overcome with sadness. So many of the ties are gifts from my mom. She always knew what I might need to look professional, and she kept at that for decades. She was mostly right all of the time. She knew my taste—basic but proper. Now, she can’t even remember a conversation that happened five minutes ago. I wasn’t ready for that. I still feel that well of feeling when I see my ties hanging in my closet. It’s not just a tie. It’s a connection to a relationship that has been disappearing now for years, and that journey is not over.

Why We Embrace Traditions of Denial and Sacrifice

Tonight is Ash Wednesday. It is an important date on the traditional Catholic and Protestant church calendar. It marks the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period before Easter. The period mirrors the reported 40 days Jesus of Nazareth spent  fasting in the desert.

Observant Christians mark the season attending Ash Wednesday services. There, they will have a cross marked on their head with the ashes made from palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration. The marking of an ashen cross on the forehead is often accompanied with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Catholics will practice fasting, repentance, and abstaining from some foods, like meat. Protestants, like the Lutherans I grew up with, would focus on self-denial or charity work. Most Christians are supposed to contemplate on the coming of Easter and its meaning.

Tonight I attended my first Ash Wednesday service in more than 35 years. I needed the quiet time, in a quiet place, with quiet and thoughtful people, to contemplate my life and sacrifices that some people I know are making for others.

The sermon by the Rector at the Episcopal Church I attended focused on the importance of not running from our grief and contemplating on the world’s problems and the individual’s relation with God. Though I am not a true believer in any faith, I found these words comforting, and I had a few tears because of all that is happening with those close to me.

For those of us who have far more than we need, the idea of purposefully sacrificing something and denying one’s self pleasure seems incongruous. What would you do if you had to give up your smart phone? Your email account? Your morning coffee? What about something more radical, like running water or medicine?

We live in a world where many don’t have these luxuries, and yet we who have them are even afraid to consider life without them. So let those thoughts stay with you as we head into this period of Lent. It is one of many religious traditions that demands sacrifice. There is a good reason to practice this to think of others and not ourselves.

An Unhappy Birthday, Celebrated Apart

My sister and I, taken in August 2008 at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, Missouri

Today is my sister’s birthday. She is celebrating it in a sick bed, in a large hospital in St. Louis. I am 1,800 miles away in Portland. I wish I could be there with her.

It must be scary to be alone in a hospital, not knowing what may happen tomorrow, knowing that your health is bad. Maybe there will be a respite, but things could get far worse. That is a heavy weight to carry for my older sibling.

My sister and I have now shared more than five decades of birthdays. This was the saddest I can remember. We perhaps had six happy years together, until that tumultuous time when my parents divorced and our worlds turned upside down.

After that things never were quite the same. There were good times, yes. But I never saw my sister smile the way she used to when we were young and far more innocent. She still smiled, but it was not a child’s carefree smile of joy. It was a little different. I changed a lot too. I don’t really talk about that stuff.

There were times in my life when she was the only person who had my back, particularly after the divorce. We were alone, in situations I refuse to share as stories with others. They are my secrets. They were terrifying moments, and not in a “make you stronger” way, but in a “wow, this is pretty damn bad” way.  Because we were a team, we pulled through, many times. I can’t ever forget those days. I guard them as treasures.

Those memories have kept me invested in the bond we have shared over the years. It hasn’t been the gentlest of rides. In the end, the journey was not as easy on my sister, I think. A series of decisions led to forks in the road, and then other decisions, and then, finally, a visit to the hospital.

My sister and I, when we laughed and had few worries as kids

I wished her a happy birthday today. I had sent her a card. It probably didn’t arrive before she was admitted. It was a way I expressed love, as much as I can in a card. It was a strange feeling, wishing your sibling the best as they faced uncertainty over the days ahead.

While we were talking, I could still hear her laugh with the hospital staff. Machines and monitors attached to her made noises in the background. Nurses popped in her room to check on her. I asked if she was aware she could contact a hospital chaplain if needed. She said she was. That comforted me. I don’t know if she would do that.

I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, the day after, or the weeks ahead.

I tried to remember our youth, and all I could find were a few pictures of our innocence. That seemed like a different life. We are different now, and we lost our innocence a long time ago.

I realized that I too will one day face the end. I realized that I too may not be ready. I realized that I too need to change while there is still time. This felt like a paltry consolation prize, and nothing compared to my sister’s experience on a cold, February day.

With time, we may find greater meaning

Sometimes you have a to wait a long time before you find a good outcome.

In my case it took nearly a decade. It involved a woman, who I met in Alaska. She did not share what I felt for her. This is an old story. It has happened likely millions of times before, so it was nothing special.

In my case, the story was simple. She rejected my interest. This in turn inspired what I still think is a good set of poems. At this time, I also found Bob Dylan. I took long overdue guitar lessons. And, then, in 2010, I finally left the Great Land, Alaska, for Seattle.

I saw this person twice after, and very briefly in 2011. A few years later, I wrote to her with what I call my mindset of humility and said I could be have been a better person with the words we shared in private.

I had assumed that was that. But it was not quite over.

Because of perhaps fate, we reconnected online this week. I wrote: “I hope that my last words expressing my shortcomings to you mattered. I’ve been spending time the past few years contacting old contacts and sharing how I may have come up short.”

I told her about how my mindset of humility had enabled me to connect with an old college friend last winter. That reunion mattered a great deal. In fact, that friend just sent me a lovely holiday card with a picture of his new wife.

Reconnecting after decades

It was nice to learn that time can be an ally and friendships can endure over decades.

I wrote in my email that practicing honesty and humility provided opportunities I could not fully predict. Because life was short, I wrote, it was best to live each day as if truly mattered. That is something Stoics wrote more than 2,000 years ago, and I believe this in my bones.

I still have no idea what this person is doing with herself. She remains cryptic. She is now into meditation. To my surprise, she replied with a similar point of view. She wrote about no longer being that previous person I once tried to court in the north.

I am fairly certain I will not see this person again.

At this point it does not really matter. It simply took longer than I thought it would to find this point of repose. The experience reminded me of what the late writer and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl had written in his classic book Man’s Search for Meaning

Frankl wrote that the meaning of events may change measured over years. What had once been a negative experience in our lives may later be remembered as an important event we grew from.

With time, in this case, I had matured. I finally felt free from this burden of memory and could turn my energy to what truly matters in my life now, with all of my purpose and devotion.