Category: Stories About My Mom

Smoking Cigars

The summer after my freshman year at Michigan State, in 1985, was the last one I lived in Grayling.  Some time during that summer, mom and I launched my grandfather’s canoe into the Au Sable at the same place where several canoe liveries gently pushed canoes full of tourists onto the river.

She didn’t trust my steering skills so I sat in the bow and she piloted from the stern. A casual trip from the liveries to our destination of McMaster’s Bridge takes about 8 hours and we spent most of the time in silence and floated at the water’s pace.

We ate lunch under the canopy of several trees that arched over the water, their roots having lost most of their purchase from the soil of the river’s edge. She was quiet and present with me yet withdrawn into her love for the water and the woods.  The Au Sable was her holiness. The murmurs and surges of the water, the cries of birds and the wind pushing the boughs of trees, her scriptures.

When we pushed back into the flow of the water, we talked in short, quiet phrases of observation, questions and brief responses. There were times during our trip when I felt like I was an encroachment on her spirituality, just as I had constantly felt like an accidental imposition on her life. Yet, our time together was easy and without the tension that extended time together usually created.

As our canoe angled to navigate a bend in the river, I smelled the odor of cigar. Not much of a fan at all of cigars, I looked over my shoulder to find the man who fouled the air. Yet, it was not a man smoking but my mom. She looked at me directly to make clear that voicing my opinion was unwelcome.

I turned back toward the bow, confused. I thought I knew her, that lost woman, unsure of herself, easily manipulated. She had become more of herself in the 9 months I had been in college than all the years before. The pilot of my canoe had become the strong woman she might have become earlier had she never met Jay Reynolds.

In 1976, we came back to Grayling because of the circumstances of her marriage and because Grayling was a haven. I suppose that even if she had finished her degree, and married a different man and birthed a different child, she would have come back to Grayling because she loved the woods, she loved the Au Sable and she loved the people who lived and fished there.  Maybe someone better suited for her than my dad would have provided her with comfort in another place more urban than Grayling.

Or perhaps, in this theoretical other-version of her, she wouldn’t have needed any man nor wanted any child and would have been content with a small house near a glorious river. For that was the state of her life when she died. The northern woods of Grayling were not merely a refuge for her. The woods were the sinews of her soul; the river, her heart; the dirt road that led to her house, the only path that mattered.

It is unfortunate that I was unable to recognize and value her preference for the woods, the water and wildlife until it was too late. I judged her on the basis of my preference for the city, for activity, for skillful work and a comfortable paycheck. None of that mattered much to her. She never made much money because she didn’t need nor want much of it. Though her life was often hard, she found her way to the organic life she wanted. My mom lived in the house her father built, where she and her brother and sister were raised.

Unlike most people today, mom died in her home, the same place her mother died. It is easy for me to imagine my mom and my grandmother surrendering both their souls to the woods, to the animals and to the river. It is easy not because I am perceptive but because their love for the woods was obvious. I never fully understood that love and it is for this reason that I misunderstood so much of who my mom was.

When I gathered with my family, some friends and a few strangers to spread my mom’s ashes into a small stream of water near her house, I said to everyone that we came from dust and we return to dust. I said it as I looked at the plastic bag full of her ashes. I felt amazed that we are unquestionably dust and unquestionably souls and no one ever knows where the dust and the soul go.

Sometimes, though, I think of her dust floating down the little creek into the Au Sable. I wonder if, though the cycles of rain and snow, she fell back to the river and drifted past that canopy of trees where we had lunch and if she smiled when she passed that place where she smoked her cigar and defied me to object. She sought the organic life when she was alive and I hope that she still lives in the Au Sable, feeding the woods with her dust and her soul.

Ripped Off By Snarky Mom

Mom and I enjoyed our daily conversations and we became very close friends after my first trip to Michigan. We enjoyed spending time together. We no longer repeated the pattern of fighting in order to keep a safe distance from each other. We had little time left and we spent it on enjoying each other. We had a few disagreements but we focused on what mattered rather than what didn’t. 

The most important parts of my days were when we talked in the morning and in the evening during my commutes to and from work. We talked about memories from the past, what we had been learning, my work, her experiences with declining health, some robust political and philosophical discussions, and many conversations about God and faith.

Our relationship had deepened and I genuinely enjoyed knowing her. I had never bothered to notice that she possessed a keen insight into life, was delightful, witty, and had a great sense of humor. I had not looked for these parts of her because I always saw her as the negligent, abusive, unmotivated mom. Every time I discovered something new about her, I became more enamored with her. She had become a treasure I  never knew I had.

My discovery that my mom was an amazing, wonderful woman had a downside though: I felt an increasing level of anger.

I wondered, “Why am I so angry? Everything is going great.”

Gradually, I realized that I felt ripped off.

Sure, we had wonderful times together after we reconciled but part of me resented that I had to experience 46 years of snarky mom and only had a few months of awesome mom. Why couldn’t we have had this kind of relationship sooner? Why did it take cancer for us to focus on what mattered about each other? How unfair was it that cancer brought us together and cancer would soon separate us? For the better part of forty years, we were at odds. For just a few months, we were best friends. And cancer would inevitably bring that friendship to an end.

Friends often asked me how my mom was doing and based on whatever the current news was, asked how I was handling it. I described the anger I felt about having a snarky mom instead of a friendly mom and a few friends said that I was lucky. Like me, they experienced distance in their relationships with their parents. In several cases, one or both had died before the relationships could be repaired.

Several of my friends knew that my dad had mostly been absent from my life and that he and I had resolved the past to the point where I was with him when he died and assured him that I no longer felt resentment toward him.

I heard variations of the same message: “I’d love to have with my parents what you have with yours. We can’t talk to each other without fighting. You’re really lucky to have this time with your mom.”

I didn’t consistently feel lucky, though. I felt gyped.  After hearing some friends say I should feel lucky, I felt like I was being greedy by wanting to have had more closeness with my mom and dad. Feeling greedy led to feeling selfish and guilty.

I tried talking myself into a sense of gratitude but I didn’t feel thankful that I had an absent dad and a snarky mom. I was happy to have worked things out with both of them before they died but I couldn’t get past resentment for having crappy parents.

Mom and I talked about this. She regretted the lost time as well but her focus was on enjoying as much of her remaining life as possible.  Every time we talked, she told me what was new to her about the things she had seen so many times before. She saw how the sun shone differently through the tall pine trees in her yard. She enjoyed how her cats, Ollie and Teddy, hunted and played in the grass. She sat on the porch and listened to the breeze. She had friends over and laughed about forgotten stories. Her intent each day was to separate herself from her suffering and enjoy what life presented to her. She had no time for regret.

Maybe because I thought I had the luxury of time or maybe because I’m a slow learner, but I couldn’t get a quick handle on my resentment. It didn’t matter what my friends did or did not have with their parents. Their perspectives were instructive but the fact that I had what they didn’t made little difference in my ability to accept 46 difficult years.

One of the best decisions I made was to be open about this with mom. She too had wished we could have worked things out sooner but, it was her knowledge that her time was short that persuaded her to spend her energy and time on thankfulness and goodness instead of rehearsing all the coulda-woulda-shoulda scenarios that, if she had just acted differently, things might have been better.

We constantly deny our inevitable death. Part of that denial is the belief that the horizon of death is far beyond our view and that time is abundant. It’s entirely different when you know for certain that your time is short. I read once that denial makes us think that we have a lot of time left but when a person becomes progressively in touch with their mortality, they think of their death every day. Not in an obsessive, fearful manner but in a way that leads them to recognize that death can come on any day in any form. Living with death as a potential part of one’s immediate horizon is what allows one to more easily set aside hard feelings and focus instead on what is good.

Isn’t that strange? You might think that you see things more clearly when you perceive that lots of time remains. It may be instead that you see life more clearly when you are pointedly aware that time is much shorter than you would like it would be.

Mom Reconciles With Her Brother

Where My Mom and Her Siblings Grew Up

I’ve always thought of my uncle as a man’s man. He was a hard worker, principled, loved hunting and shooting, and had a jovial sense of humor. Some of my favorite memories of my childhood involve shooting guns with him.

Mom and Lewis, however,  had a difficult relationship at various times throughout their lives.  Fault can be laid on both sides at different times in their history.  By the time mom was sick, they hadn’t communicated for many years. She and I had daily conversations and occasionally, her relationship with her brother was a subject of the calls.

I encouraged her to contact him to let him know that she was dying but she wouldn’t do it. She was scared of him and didn’t want the drama of an overt conflict. It was safer to have distance than to contact him and let him know of her cancer.

Mom made so many positive decisions that were focused on dying well that I couldn’t take issue with her position even though I disagreed with it. I wanted her to have an opportunity to reconcile with him but she was blocked from willingness by a lot of fear about being with him at the end of her life. 

Two days before she died, I pressed mom a bit more insistently to let me make contact with her brother for her.

“No. He hates me and if he came over he might hurt me.”

“I don’t know if he hates you or not, mom. He might be very angry with you but it’s hard for me to imagine he is so angry with you that he wouldn’t come see you.”

“I’m tired, David. I need to get some sleep.”

“Okay, but I’m going to ask you about this tomorrow.”

She was dismissive but I could tell the idea was gaining traction. Her issue wasn’t with a lack of desire to see him and to have some kind of forgiveness. It was fear of what his reaction would be.

The first thing the next morning, she said, “Okay, give me a few reasons why I should meet with him.”

I explained to her that if she died without giving him an opportunity to meet, he would lose the chance to make things right before she died. She had little to lose because she would be dead but he would have no choice but to live with permanent silence between them.

“Okay, that’s one,” she said.

“You would lose the opportunity to pass into whatever comes next with a clear conscience.”

There was silence and I felt an implied prompt to come up with reason number three.

“You might actually work things out.”

“What if he hurts me?”

“Why do you think he might hurt you?”

“Because of that night in the winter when he sat in his truck.”

She had told me this story before. Grayling is a small town nestled in what is essentially a large forest.  Especially during winter nights, her house can be an eerie place. It is located at the end of a dirt road that branches off a blacktop road. It’s a fairly isolated location and if there was any kind of violence, help would be at least 20 minutes away.

She said my uncle parked at the edge of her driveway with his headlights on and engine running. He didn’t come to the house but sat there for quite a while. She believed his motive was to intimidate her. Eventually, he turned around and drove off.

“Mom, what if it was something completely different from that? What if the reason why he sat there was because he was conflicted? What if he longed to see you and talk with you but was also very angry with you? What if he couldn’t decide what to do? What if he was torn between love and anger?”

She sat quietly for quite a while.

“I think he’ll hurt me.”

“Mom, here’s the deal. He’s in his 70’s. I’m pretty sure that if he threatened violence toward you, I could keep him from attacking you. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll try reason. I’ll say, ‘Lewie, you don’t need to kill her. If you just wait two days, she’ll be dead and you won’t have to go to prison.’”

She laughed and got quiet for a few moments.

“Okay…”

“Okay, what?”

“You can call him.”

Again, I was amazed by her courage as she faced her death. She had so much angst and anxiety in relation to her brother and yet I could tell it was deeply important to her that she see him before she died.

I called her brother to tell him of the situation.

“Hi Lewie, this is Dave Reynolds. How are you?”

“Hi David, I’m good. How are you?”

“Well, I’m okay but I’m calling you to tell you that my mom has lung cancer and will die within the next few days. She would really like to see you before she dies. Would you be willing to come visit her?”

It took a few moments for him to process what he had heard.

“I will come to see her.”

“She knows you’re mad at her and she’s worried you’ll hurt her.”

“There won’t be any trouble,” he said.

We agreed to a time that evening and hung up.

Mom heard the conversation but she didn’t quite believe it.

“So, he is coming over tonight?”

I confirmed the plan with her and assured her that he didn’t sound angry and that he promised there would be no trouble.

I think mom felt relief that one way or another, their relationship would have some kind of resolution before she died. Through the rest of the day, I tried to gauge how she was processing her reactions. She still had anxiety but there was also a loss of heaviness in her attitude.  Their relationship would no longer be based on doubt, fear and shame but on whatever they managed to work out together.

I looked forward to seeing my uncle. Though I hadn’t seen him for many years, I still had a lot of affection for him.

He and his wife Kay arrived on time. He had aged well and looked not much different from when I last saw him.  I was happy to see him and even in his 70’s, he was still a solidly-built, robust man. I was dreaming to think I could have stopped him if he decided to attack mom as she feared. My uncle could have easily kicked my ass.

Mom was wrapped in a blanket in her favorite chair. The sound of her oxygen machine made its assuring pumping and hissing sounds. I sat on the couch with Kay as Lewie drew a chair close to mom. I wanted to hear what they were saying,  but this was a conversation between a brother and sister. It wasn’t at all important if I heard any of it. All that mattered was that they talked.

He sat with his body oriented intently toward her. There was no defensive body language from either of them and the tone of their conversation was easy and conciliatory. I admit that I was a little disappointed when I heard a few snippets of their conversation. Throughout the day, I had played a fantasy in my mind where each of them explicitly acknowledged their own part in their estrangement and asked each other for forgiveness. Those words were never spoken.

Instead, it was a simple reunion of siblings who, after all their conflict, still loved each other. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen two humans do. They set aside their disagreements at an important inflection point to accept and love each other with unstated forgiveness.

The two of them talked for ten or fifteen minutes before Lewie hugged her and stood up to leave. I walked with him and Kay to the door and hugged him again.

“It was really great to see you. Thank you for coming. I’ll call you as soon as she dies.”

I explained that there would be a memorial but no funeral and made sure he understood that mom wanted him and Kay to attend.

It was dark when they left and the woods were covered in a blanket of snow. As I watched them pull out of mom’s driveway, I was struck by how that night looked similar to how I imagined mom’s story of her brother sitting in his truck during a dark, snow-fallen night. I was thankful to have witnessed a reconciliation that was quite a bit different than a story of late-night intimidation. I was thankful to have been witness to my mom and my uncle embrace each other with love and forgiveness.

When I turned off the outside lights, I turned around to see my mom beaming happily. She opened her arms to me and I knelt down to hug her.

“Thank you,” she said.

Dying With My Mom

In the final moments of life, we die alone. Others may be near us at the moment we pass but it is uniquely our own death. Getting to that point, however, does not necessarily have to be an isolated experience, especially if there is a period of time during which you and the people in your life have forewarning of how much time could remain and the time is used to reconcile yourselves to the inevitable.

I had eight months of awareness that my mom would die soon. Her friends and our family also had time to absorb and accept that she would die and leave us behind.

I died with my mom. I was with her throughout her process of dying. Her friends and our extended family died with my mom because they too were involved in her life. Up to the moment where mom’s death became solely her own experience, everyone in her life died with her.

Many people told me that she taught them how to live and how to die. There was something about having a known horizon that motivated her to pivot toward a different approach to her life. That approach was primarily characterized by her progressive willingness to accept her death and move toward it rather than to fear it and deny its inevitability with questionable hope. There were many times when she told me that she was scared but she was more afraid of physiological decline than she was with the actual experience of dying. This is true for many other people as well. Opinion surveys have shown that most people are less afraid of the moment of losing one’s life than they are of the process that leads to their death. We fear suffering more than death.

The day she died, her body was still fighting the cancer and the consequences of 50 years of smoking. After a prolonged coughing fit in the morning, she dislodged a horrendous mass of black phlegmy gunk. I nearly retched when I helped her get it out of her mouth and I had an intense feeling of outrage when I saw tangible evidence of the disease that was killing her. I felt the warmth of the black mucus through the Kleenex and the only reason I avoided vomiting was because I didn’t want her to feel any shame for what she had coughed up.

She smiled weakly and said, “I’ve been working for three days to get that out.”

Mom punctuated her decline with a number of projects, many of which involved the logistics of distributing her possessions to loved ones and ensuring her beloved house would be properly shut down. Many of our daily conversations were about the statuses of her various projects. She found comfort and control through her projects and the work infused her life with purpose. Their scope narrowed as the weeks passed and occasionally, I tried to steer her away from ones that seemed to give her more stress than a feeling of control. Usually, she resisted my counsel but occasionally, she made decisions to scale down.

Expelling that dark phlegm was my mom’s last project.

I sat next to her throughout the day and was mostly silent but sometimes, I talked to her. I didn’t think much about whether this was “it” and time seemed quite fluid, in the sense that I wasn’t much aware of it at all. I was aware of feeling a sense of peace and contentment, as well as a deep connection to my own life.

In contrast, many times during the previous months I felt intense rushes of dread surge through my chest. I felt as if my heart and lungs were compressed by a heavy weight from inside my body. One moment I would be at work or laying in bed sleeping and dread would wash over me. The pain was staggering. During a shower one morning, the pain of the dread hit me so hard that I ended up on my hands and knees until enough of the pain dissipated for me to finish getting ready for my day.

On the day she died, though, there was no dread. I felt comforted and the only explanation I had for that comfort was that I had accepted that she would die.

I think she became comatose some time after lunch. Her heart rate rose to 160 beats per minute. By this time, her lungs had little functional surface area left to absorb oxygen into her blood so the faster heart rate was her body’s attempt to increase the flow of oxygen. When I ride my bike hard, my heart rate can get to 165 bpm but I can’t sustain the pace for very long. Her heart pounded at that rate for five hours until she died.

At the same time her heart was desperately pushing poorly-oxygenated blood through her arteries, she was still working to expel smaller globs of black sludge from her lungs. When I heard the rattling sound of phlegm, I cleaned her mouth with a pink sponge on the end of a stick. When she was still conscious, I joked with her about its resemblance to a Dum-Dum sucker.

She had another hacking fit that resulted in a loogie that was larger than normal, so I told her I needed to get more sponges and would be right back. It took thirty or forty seconds to walk to the kitchen and get a handful of Dum-Dum sponges. As I began to clean out her mouth, I noticed that her chest was no longer moving, so I leaned down, put my ear against her chest and heard no breathing. I then checked her pulse and when I confirmed it too was zero, I smiled, touched her cheek and said, “I’m glad you’re done, mom.”

It is a common preference of people who are close to death to wait until they are alone before they let go. You can find many stories about friends or family members who briefly leave the presence of someone dying, only to return to find that their loved one passed alone.

My mom died at 7:20 PM on November 18. She had a good death. It was peaceful, it was without internal or external strife, she was not debilitated by the ravages of treatments intended to extend her life, and perhaps most importantly, she died mostly on her own terms. She was able to do this because she did the hard work of accepting her death. There were times when she was afraid but overall, she had the resolution to approach her death the way she wanted to. I’m convinced her acceptance of death, her renewed connections with good friends and family, and her vision for how she wanted to die all contributed to a peaceful, positive experience of death.

Tanya and I were the ones with her when she died. But really, all of her friends and family died with her as well. We all died with my mom and she died with us. We all lost a kind of life when she died and she was vulnerable enough to allow us to participate in the process of her death with her. When her life left her body, each of us lost something as well. That’s how we died with my mom.

That One Time I Got My Girlfriend Pregnant

Throughout my childhood, my dad was mostly absent unless he had a need for what I called “dad fixes:” times when his desire for independence and no accountability were trumped by his desire to connect with me. He was okay with having me spend summers with him and paying for my needs then but if I wasn’t with him, he had no interest in supporting me financially or emotionally. When I lived with mom, the spaces between moments of contact were often quite long. Several seasons could pass between the times he and I interacted.

He called me one August morning after my sophomore year in high school. He made sure to impress on me multiple times that he was working in Saudi Arabia, he was calling from a satellite phone, it was hard for him to get laid in a Muslim country and that the scuba diving was sublime. After he rambled about his life, he asked about me. My memory of what I told him fails me but I have a deep emotional imprint of the moment. I had finally pieced together that he had called me for a fix and that after he got what he wanted out of me, he would disappear for a few more seasons before he would contact me again.

It was at this time that I decided to get my girlfriend pregnant.

Dad often told me about how to be successful at getting girls into bed. One of the funniest strategies was a brute force method where he suggested I go to a party and just ask girls if they would like to go to another room to play. “You’ll get slapped nine times and fucked once.”

He used his past successes as supporting examples of how sure-fire his techniques were. I don’t doubt that he was able to get women into bed. He was good looking, articulate, funny and told great stories. It was clear that he wanted his son to take on the mantle of his sexual prowess.

During the call, I realized that my hopes of him being a consistent presence in my life were futile. I arrived at a level of acceptance that he would never be able to be my father in the way I wanted and needed him to be. I was too much of an obligation and impediment to the the lifestyle he wanted. This acceptance led me to abandon the childish hopes I had for our relationship and led to my first choice to play his game of seeking one’s own interest in our relationship without much regard for how it affected the other person.

The next day, I wrote a letter to him that expressed my relief that he had called me and given me his new address. I admitted that I had bedded my non-existent girlfriend — who I named Jessica Atkinson — and during one of our lusty romps, had managed to get her pregnant. I suspected this narrative would play well to his ego because he was intent on mentoring me in the art of seduction, he had wanted me to be successful in his ways and he too knew what it was like to have unintentionally made a girl pregnant.

A couple weeks later, I received a thick envelope with a long letter about life, recovering from mistakes and how difficult it is to “pull out of heaven once you’ve gone in.” There was also a check for the $350 I said would be the cost of the abortion. A couple days later, I bought a nice stereo for most of the $350 and jammed out to whatever albums I bought along with the stereo.

I was deliriously happy because I had played my dad to my advantage. For so many years, our relationship was on his terms and the stereo represented my success at shifting our relationship to my benefit. I had handled the scam with shrewdness and I was proud of that too. It marked the end of my unfulfilled longing that he would want to love me and help take care of me. I decided that he would no longer be able to toy with my desire for a consistently involved dad and my goal changed from getting his love to getting his money.

When mom came home from work, she heard music at a surprising volume coming from my room. She looked puzzled as she poked her head through my door and saw the stereo. Thinking I had stolen it, she asked, “Where did you get that?” I told her of my need for an abortion, the letter I wrote to dad and his response.

I like to think that mom really wanted to make the right parenting decision that day. I think what flashed through her mind was that I was going to return the stereo and give the money back.

Instead, she laughed at how I had rooked my dad and said, “David, that was a terrible thing to do. Enjoy your stereo.”