In Brief Rembrance: A Gift of Family

My mother passed away yesterday.  My brother and sister are both in shock and though we have been close through the years I am always the one who stands back, emotionally reserved.  It’s hard for me to share my feelings openly, although I seem to have no problem writing about them (in part) on this blog.  I feel numb and a deep loss, although my mother did not have a healthy life the past few years.  I will not dwell on those details because, as inevitably happens when you lose someone close, my thoughts have been flooded with memories.  I recall good times, bad times, hard times, and just random idle moments that seemed to mean nothing when they happened.  It’s funny what your mind chooses to remember.

One of my nieces wrote this on her Facebook page.  It deserves to be shared on a better medium than Facebook:

Heaven just received the most beautiful angel my beautiful grandma. This is the hardest goodbye ill ever have to say. You were my world and still are. I know you’re going to watch over me and my baby. I love you so so so much more than words could ever describe. Carolyn Sue Miller you are so loved more than words. I love you and now you are no longer suffering and get to be with Popper.

MomPopper was my stepfather.  I was with him just after he suffered a fatal fall.  I looked into his eyes as they put him into the ambulance.  They were sedating him and he closed his eyes with a sort of relief.  I was the last person he looked upon, which is so unfair because he loved my mother dearly and she should have been the one he saw last.  Mom got to the hospital in time to make the dreadful decision about whether to try and save him.  He had suffered much and the doctors were not sure what his quality of life would be like; he was already suffering from dementia and had asked us to let him die many times.  I could not have made that decision.  I don’t know how she did.

My brother was with her as she breathed her last.  I wanted to be there very badly but could not travel this weekend.  I have chronic vertigo which strikes without warning, usually after I have a cold or a sinus infection.  Last November I came down with a typical sinus infection and though that ended quickly the vertigo set in.  I have been dizzy ever since.  It can be debilitating but you learn to live with it, and to nearly function at 100% in many ways.  You’re just slower about doing some things, you tire easily, and you may not remember what happens from one day to the next.  You tend to ramble a lot as well.

Travel is a really bad idea when you have vertigo.  Sometimes I can handle short trips in the car, but to be with my mother would have required a six-hour car trip.  And there is no knowing what condition I would be in at the end of the trip.  We kept hoping that I would be able to travel to see her one last time before she died, but at the end all we could do was have my brother hold a cell phone to her ear as I spoke my last message to her.  “We love you, mom, and we only want the best for you.  I hope to see you again very soon.”

My sister, much farther away than I, had to settle for no more than that as well.  She had set out by car over a week ago to visit Mom, but the icy weather in Texas turned her back.  By the time she had pulled together the money for plane tickets it was too late.

When my brother called to tell me she was gone, he described her last moments.  It’s almost like she waited for his wife and daughters to leave so that she could go peacefully.  That was how my great-grandmother died.  We drove for 7-1/2 hours to see her as she lay on her final bed of rest, and arrived in time to speak briefly with her.  “How are you?” she asked with her eyes closed.  “We’re fine,” Mom said.  “We’re all here.”

Five minutes later as we sat down with my grandmother and her two sisters the nurse came in and said, “She’s gone.”  Just like that.  No more walks on the beach.  No more hugs.  No more happy memories to carry forward.  She was gone.

Growing up I had other elderly relatives pass on.  Some I had known better than others.  Some died when I was very, very young.  I have always been touched by the death of my great-great Aunt Edna.  We were visiting her and Uncle Charlie when I was about 3-4 years old, staying in a “cabin” on the shared family estate (a legacy from great-great-great Aunt Marie), and a tornado touched down just beside us.  The tree standing at the very corner of our little cabin was ripped out of the ground and tossed aside.  The mobile home where Aunt Edna was sleeping as she recovered from a serious surgery was picked up and turned upside down in almost exactly the same spot where it had stood.  She was permanently disabled and spent her last few years in a nursing home.

My mother was in a nursing home, robbed of her last few years of enjoyment by dementia.  We don’t know what caused it or whether it will be passed on in the family.  No one else has it (my chronic vertigo is due to an illness I experienced over 12 years ago).  She should have lived a much richer, fuller life.  But she’s gone now, and people will say, “She isn’t suffering any more.”  No, she’s not.

With my brother’s help she sent me a Christmas card this year.  She could barely sign it.  I loved receiving it and regretted not sending her a card.  And because I was dizzy after Christmas I just let it go with all the other Christmas cards that we toss every year.  This morning I asked my wife if she had saved it for me.  And, of course, it was too late.  Just like that, it’s gone.  Not because we were thoughtless or careless, but because I couldn’t put all the dots together.  Of all the useless things I have saved through the years, none would have been as special to me as that last Christmas card.

I Wanted to Say Something about Our Family

My mother was fostered and adopted by two loving people but we knew her birth parents.  I met them both and consider myself blessed to have known them.  Mom had five brothers and sisters.  They did not have the happiest of childhoods but they loved each other, and tried many times to be a family when they had grown up.  What she could not have in her own childhood my mother tried to give us in ours.  She succeeded in many ways, but there were also unexpected difficulties.  It probably did not help that I chose to drop out of school in the 9th grade.  I evaded the authorities until I was sixteen and no longer “had” to go to school.  My parents were not proud of me but they did not disown me, as would have been done by many families in some eras.  And when I was 18 and lost without any means of supporting myself my mother came to visit me and said, “I’ll put you through school if you just come home and take the G.E.D.”  It was a deal that I couldn’t refuse.

When I was about 9 years old, I think, I started asking questions about my mother’s birth parents.  I had met her birth-father and his last wife a year or two before.  They had an adopted daughter, Pam, who was my aunt but only about a year older than me.  I loved teasing her by introducing her to my friends as my aunt.  Everyone looked at me like I was crazy and she looked like she wanted to slap me silly the first couple of times.

Mom put me in touch with her birth-mother.  She taught me what she knew of her family tree, which went back a few generations.  As it turns out she did not have all the details right (or maybe I remembered them wrong) but she knew the names.  I can trace my ancestry back through her family for many generations now, thanks to the Internet.  Apparently we have been in this country a long, long time.

Although my birth-ancestors may not have done much of note during the centuries, my adoptive family traced its roots back to Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.  He has many American descendants but in my adoptive grandmother’s part of the family that descent only passed to us by adoption.  She had no birth children of her own; nor did her sisters have children.

One of my biological ancestors did stir some controversy among amateur genealogy buffs, as it turns out.  Last April (2014) this blog post about Charles Axsom filled out some of the details of my family history.  My aunt Barbara (my mother’s sister) has a picture of Charles and his two brothers standing on or by some trees they had helped cut down.  I have always wanted a copy of that picture but she was always reluctant to take it to a photo processing service (those old services sometimes damaged the photographs).  I don’t know if it has been digitized.

Charles Axsom married Nancy Jane Hall.  Their daughter was Ruth Opal Axsom.  Ruth was my birth grandmother.  Her name sometimes appears in genealogy databases but not always.  I lost touch with her a long, long time ago and I don’t know if she is still alive or not.  You would be hard put to trace my ancestry back to Charles Axsom but I believe there is enough data online now to put a lot of the missing pieces of my family history together.

Nancy Jane Hall’s father was Levi Hall.  Grandma Ruth told me that he was “a Dutch man”.  I always assumed that meant he had immigrated from Holland in the 1800s, but as it turns out the Hall family had been in North America since the 1600s.  I feel old just knowing that.

The Axsoms were apparently closely related to the Halls (as often happened back in those times).  Charles Axsom’s father was Joseph Axsom, and his wife was Eliza Hall.  I don’t know how closely she was related to Levi Hall.

Our Memories are Our Legacy

I have watched many relatives pass on; and through my father and other relatives I have heard of various cousins (some whom I knew personally) passing on.  It is a fact of life that we lose everyone eventually.  I have always fought not to dwell on the mysteries of mortality but some years ago when I was still directly involved in Dragon*Con I had a conversation with the actor Michael Sinelnikoff.  He played Professor Summerlee on the syndicated television show Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.

My adoptive grandmother had recently passed away, the last of her immediate family whom I had known and grown up around.  Michael and I were talking about that and what it means when you lose a parent or grandparent.  He made a comment that I have always remembered: “Your parents are the last barrier between you and your own mortality.”  That image has always stayed with me.  As long as my parents were alive, I felt, I had a barrier between me and my own mortality.

My father is still alive.  In fact, he is in his 90s (almost 40 years older than me).  He was much older than my mother.  I don’t know how much longer he has but he is not yet in a nursing home.  My sister watches over him but he lives in his own place.

There are so many things that my parents lived through, even though separated by many years in age.  When my father is gone their memories will only survive in what has been passed on to us.  Only two generations removed I can tell you hardly anything about the life of Ruth Opal Axsom or her family.  There was a summer when I was 15 where we stayed in a house in the town where my mother grew up.  It was a boarding house owned by an elderly woman.  I never met her but my mother was talking about her one day and suddenly assumed a stunned look on her face.

“I think I know who she is,” she said quietly.  Being 15 I had a witty reply: “I should hope so,” I said, “because you write her a check every month.”

Of course, Mom chuckled at that.  But she told me we had an uncle who was killed during Prohibition.  Someone took an axe to him and chopped him up.  The landlady was his widow.  So Mom said.  I never found out how true that story was as I was far more interested in the nursing student who lived in the building and sunbathed in the backyard.

My earliest memory is from when I was about 2 years old.  It was a Christmas morning and we were staying with my adoptive grandparents.  I was wearing a red jumper, very warm (because to me it seemed a very cold day).  We were living in south Florida so I can’t imagine it was that cold but to a 2-year-old everything seems large, cold, and totally awesome.

That Christmas one of the toys I received was a little race car set.  The car worked by gravity.  That is, the track wound its way up so that you placed the car at the top of the track and it rolled its way down.  My mother came up with a camera and said, “Michael, look up.”  I remember the flash of the camera.  Months later (or maybe weeks) she showed me the photograph she had taken (she did not take many pictures, so a roll of film might have stayed in the camera for a long time).  She held on to that picture for many decades.  I don’t know where it is now but I think it may still exist.

Another memory from about the same time frame was when we were dive-bombed by a parrot that escaped from its cage.  My mother took me under the dining room table and grabbed the phone cord.  She pulled the phone over to us and called my grandfather.  I remember her arguing with him to come and catch the parrot.  When he came in the front door I was excited to see him.  He teased Mom endlessly about that parrot.

I have other memories about that house.  I used to stand in the kitchen and look out the back door when Mom was putting up the laundry to dry.  And she always left the door open so I could see her (or maybe so she could keep an eye on me).  Years later I went by that house to see what it looked like.  It was still pink, as I had recalled, but it seemed smaller.

When my brother and I discovered that Google was taking pictures of every street in the USA we both looked up old homes where we lived.  Our grandparents’ house now has a bus stop in front of it.  I don’t know who lives there now but they should be enjoying one of the first swimming pools in that neighborhood.  I spent many a lazy morning listening to the sounds of construction crews building houses around us.  I remember when the area was still mostly “woods” (wooded lots large enough to handle a dozen homes or more).  Mom would come in at night and read the Bible to us.  Grandpa would let us sit up and watch Red Skelton.  It was a house filled with love.

Those are the strongest memories for me.  I don’t know why.  I certainly remember many, many other times and occasions, such as taking Mom to see “Raiders of the Lost Ark” when I was visiting her one year.  She had not seen a movie in the cinema for several years, and I thought she would enjoy it.  She did.

She was a den mother in the Cub Scouts for a while.  She was a nurse and a lab technician.  She worked for Dr. Gerald Alexander in Miami Beach for many years.  He was, she assured me, one of the leading cardiologists of his time.  And she used to give injections to famous people (his patients), including Jerry Wexler.  He told Mom that Aretha Franklin was his favorite performer.

I can’t begin to document all the things that should be remembered of her.  She always had a reason for doing things and never seemed to be without something to do.  But right before the dementia set in that all changed.  Everyone around her had grown up or died off and she no longer had anyone to take care of.  Mom’s greatest strength was in giving to others, no matter what that might mean for her.  She was lost, I think, and floundering without any real purpose.  She had settled down on the family estate and taken in a boarder, a young family.

One day a girl called me to let me know that she had found my mother passed out on the floor.  I had her call 9-1-1 and then I called my brother.  He rushed down to take care of Mom.  When he arrived at the hospital later that day he called me and said, “She looks 90 years old.”  I had seen her just 3 months before.  In fact, there was a story behind that visit I am not ready to share.  But when I said good-bye to my Mom she was the vibrant, strong person I had always remembered.

One of the saddest memories I have is of my adoptive grandfather’s passing.  He died of cancer.  I was the last member of our family to see him awake.  I said good-bye to him just before I left.  I had to drive back home to go to work the next day.  He told me he was ready to die.  I asked him not to let go of life just yet, but he said it was time.  As I watched the nurses gave him a sedative.  I walked over to the elevator and when the door opened my brother stepped off with his two young daughters.  They were carrying balloons for Grandpa.  They were about as young then as Rick and I had been when my Aunt Edna died.

I drove 8 hours to get home, went to sleep that night, woke up and went to work.  About 30 minutes after I arrived at work my sister-in-law called to say that Grandpa had gone.  He had never woken up to see Rick and the kids.  I had to fly down to Florida for the funeral.

When Mom woke up in the hospital she was no longer able to care for herself.  Rick took her into his home and she stayed with him for several years until she could no longer be cared for in a family environment.  And we moved her into the nursing home.

She used to work in nursing homes and always hated them.  She always told us she never wanted to be put in one, but when the time care there was nowhere else to go.  Through the years as her condition worsened I would watch the scientific literature and see hopeful treatments.  But they were never offered to normal nursing home patients.  The miracle drugs that showed promise are never available.  The therapeutical exercises and experimental treatments are always in human trials.

You just watch and hope that somehow, some way, the patients find their ways back from wherever it is they have gone.  They have lucid moments.  When I introduced my wife to Mom she asked if Mom would remember her.  “Probably not,” I said.  “For five minutes she will know who you are.  Then you will be a stranger again.”

We spent the afternoon with her.  I kept coming and going because Mom always had to have a cigarette in her hand; although I had grown up around cigarette smoke as an adult I have lived a smoke-free life.  I can’t tolerate tobacco smoke for long any more.  But in some way they got to know each other a little.  And when we left Mom looked at my wife with a clear expression and she said, “Be good to Mike.”  She was there for a moment and I missed it, just as I missed saving the Christmas card.

But I have the memories and I’ll do my best to make sure they last.  I love you, Mom.  Everyone loved you.  And you will be missed.