When Holidays Suck

When Holidays Suck


On our last Mother's Day together, we celebrated with a cookout at my house.  My mom and stepdad drove from Grand Lake to Tulsa, and my brother showed up with a gift.  We grilled food in the springtime sunlight while discussing plans for the summer.  There would be days on the lake, evenings in the hot tub, and nights eating dinner and watching movies.  None of us had any idea an aggressive tumor was spreading like wildfire in my mother's brain.

Upon retiring five years earlier, my mom and stepdad purchased a bank-owned house that had seen better times before foreclosure.  The house had a solid foundation, though, and it was enough to start a new life.  They remodeled it, adding a rustic living room, a sunroom, a storm shelter basement, and a deck overlooking the woods.  I loved every season there.   We found a higher level of peace and happiness in the new lake lifestyle, walking the dogs to the boat ramp and eventually getting our own boat.

The lake was made for adventure.  We explored its miles of shorelines and anchored in coves to swim.  Pelicans, cranes, herons, bald eagles, and other birds flocked to the shimmering water.  Nearby in the woods, deer, groundhogs, foxes, raccoons, woodpeckers, and chipmunks made their rounds.  A bobcat even showed up in the neighborhood for a while.  We went on many walks and listened to a neighbor's turkey mimic our laughter while strutting his stuff.  Barred owls called out across the trees with intriguing sounds I had never heard before.  My mom's cats intently watched everything from the higher view in the sunroom.  I frequently brought my own two cats to visit because they liked the scenery so much.  Indoors or outdoors, animals were everywhere, but my mom kept everything tidy.

Rustic livingroom

The more my mom worked on the house and the property, the more it became her legacy.  She had tenacity with each project she took on and kept an eye out for the neighbors and wildlife.  There was the time she left corn out every day for an injured deer who slept nearby.  The deer eventually recovered, bringing back her fawns to visit the yard months later.  My mom purchased a corn feeder and provided salt and mineral licks from that day forward.   When a fox had kits nearby, we would throw out the occasional milk bone from the deck and quietly wait for one to show up, grab it, and trot back to the den. 


One night, my mom woke up to the roaring sound of a neighbor's house on fire.  She took care of the neighbors and the firefighters all night by inviting them into her home while offering beverages and food.  Afterward, she relentlessly petitioned the city to install a fire hydrant down the street until they obliged.  My mom was proud of that fire hydrant.  She loved having a sense of accomplishment.

Another time, she chewed out a neighbor when he threatened to shoot another neighbor's dog for barking at him.  That man apologized and never made another threat to any neighbor.  No one messes with Mama Bear, as I liked to joke with her.

We spent the Fourth of July on the boat, staying out until evening, watching firework displays.  My mom said she was tired, which was understandable.  We took a day trip to northern Arkansas the next day, and I drove so she wouldn't have to stress about her low energy level.  I returned to my mom's lake house a couple more times that month, escaping the city for float trips and boat rides.

Grand Lake

Something is Wrong

My mom remarked how tired and occasionally sad she felt, which was uncommon for her.   While she sometimes acted like her usual self, some of her text messages were confusing with random remarks and questions.  In-person, she seemed fine, but I encouraged her to go to the doctor.  After some bloodwork and an anti-depressant prescription, my mom was sent home with instructions to drink more water and recuperate.  Then she became ill.

In early August, a weekend of headaches and throwing up led to more confusion and lethargy for my mom.  The following Monday, I checked my phone during lunch to find 17 missed calls from family members.  I learned my mom was en route to Tulsa for surgery because she had brain cancer.  I rushed to the hospital to meet her when she arrived.

A four-hour surgery confirmed my mom had grade IV glioblastoma, and the surgeon couldn’t remove the entire tumor.  Treatment was recommended even though she would only live another 4 - 18 months.

"I'm okay with it," my mother stated calmly about her prognosis.  I tried not to cry, but it was useless.

"What's wrong?" she asked me.

"You wanted to be a grandma," I explained.  I could only think about all the future plans we were going to lose.

After that, I focused on maintaining positivity.  I visited the hospital daily when my mother was nauseous and gave her encouraging words.  I started to wonder if it was useless, but my mom finally felt better and was able to eat.  She told me I was the reason she felt better and said I was giving her hope.

"You're the light of my life!" she said proudly.  

My mom

Our mother-daughter roles changed.  I became a caretaker when she was in Tulsa for physical therapy, radiation, and chemotherapy.  I took us out for pedicures, cut up her food to eat, and gave her medicine—all the things she had done for me when I was growing up.  My mom and stepdad stayed at my house during the week and drove home on the weekends. 

After my mom had completed radiation, we took a ride out on the boat in early autumn.  My mom spent time in the sunroom and marveled at how much she loved her house.  We soaked up the good moments and silently braced ourselves for darker days.

Watching someone die from cancer is like watching a long car wreck in slow motion.  There's nothing you can do to stop it.  I gradually lost my mom to a relentless tumor through cognitive and physical decline.  Her personality dwindled after brain surgery until she became childlike and forgetful from dementia, a side effect of treatment.  I couldn't ask her for the final words and handwritten letters I wanted.  All I could do was be there for her.

That November, my mother ended up in the hospital again for several days as we waited for a hospice bed to open.  Only one person at a time could stay overnight with her in the hospital room, so we all took shifts.  One evening, another family member stayed at the hospital so my stepdad could get some rest at my house.  I would then stay in the hospital over the weekend.  I told my mom that I loved her and would see her tomorrow.  

Later that night, I was asleep at home and dreaming of a distant white light.  My mom's distinctive voice suddenly popped into my mind, loud and clear.  She urgently called out my name in the dream, but her voice was quickly fading.  I woke up startled and worried that something was wrong.  Did my mom have something else to tell me in the dream?  A few seconds later, my stepdad opened the bedroom door.

            "The hospital called.  Your mom is dying, and we need to go right now." I jumped up and put my shoes on, but it was too late.  The hospital called back and confirmed she had passed.  Her death happened at the same time her voice startled my dream.

The Aftermath of Loss

Hawaii Tubing

            On Christmas morning, while holding back tears, I boarded a plane to Hawaii to visit friends and escape a dreary reality.  I blissfully swam in the ocean, kayaked a river, and went tubing down a mountain irrigation channel.  Arriving back in town on New Year's Eve, I went home and slept through any chance of going to a party.  The rest of winter was a blur.  I remember my brother and I hugged and talked about how unfair it was that our mother died from brain cancer.  He said he had been partying like "a bad boy" but promised he would do better.

Months after the sympathy cards waned, hospital bills continued to arrive in the mail.  Nothing had turned out as planned.  By spring, it was clear that even more change awaited.  On the first Mother's Day without her in 2018, my stepdad and I took the boat out for one last ride.

We spent that summer saying goodbye to the house, the lake, the neighbors, and the wildlife.  Her legacy was sold off in pieces instead of remaining in the family like she had intended.  I kept what I could, but it didn't feel like enough.  When it was all over, I sat down on her outdoor furniture in my backyard.  I felt lost, wondering what to do next.

I avoided Mother's Day for the next two years.  No social media, no television, and no shopping in early May.  I experienced other traumatic events and losses that further compounded my grief during that time.  My brother died in his house during what must have been a horrific acid trip.  I didn't know until two nights later when the police were banging on my door to wake me up in the middle of the night.  As soon as they asked if they could come inside, I knew my brother was gone.

The process of letting another family member go was a shocking setback.  His house was the one we lived in as teenagers, but he had stopped taking care of it.  The home looked like a disaster inside.  My dad and I sorted through family heirlooms and things from my childhood, determining what we would salvage.  I couldn't help but wonder if my mom was still alive, would my brother still be here?

My brother

Each time another loss occurred, many people would respond with vague sentiments like, "Let me know if you need anything." Was I supposed to know what I needed?  Even when I found the courage to make direct requests for help, people rarely followed through. 

Some wonderful friends and family members stepped up, attending funerals, sending comforting gifts, bringing me food, or providing a helping hand.  They were my cherished allies, my 'ride or die'.  But they were also busy with their own lives, and I couldn't expect people to take shifts with me to fill the emptiness. 

During so much time alone, I turned to various forms of self-care.  Whether traveling, working out, or playing music, I found movement and creative expression to be healing.  There is no cure for grief, but there are ways to create comfort and survive.

Knotted Inspiration

Revisiting old passions can open new pathways in life.  During the pandemic, I rediscovered my teenage enthusiasm for macramé, an ancient textile art that uses fibers to create knots and eye-catching patterns.  Back in high school, I made and sold hemp jewelry.  Now in my thirties, I dusted off my cases of jewelry supplies in the garage, picked up the bundles of yarn from my failed attempt at knitting, and began to create macramé wall hangings.

Macramé is a form of meditation for me.  This crafting technique provides mindfulness, and I sometimes work on knotting designs together until my fingers have rope burn. As other people started hanging my creations in their homes, a somber thought emerged: if my mom was still alive, I could have made one to hang in her lake house.

Macramé Wall Hanging

Grief often pops up in the small reminders of how we want things to be.  I still yearn to pick up my phone and see a text message from my mom, take road trips with her, and exchange gifts.  In the spring of 2021, as I dreaded the upcoming Mother's Day—the fourth one without her alive—my mourning over not being able to buy or make gifts for my mom was increasing.  Advertisements were capitalizing on Mother's Day weeks in advance, catching me off guard.

            As I worked on a macramé wall hanging one evening, I found myself having a conversation with my mom in my head, as I sometimes do.

I wish I could make you a macramé wall hanging for Mother's Day, I lamented.

I heard her enthusiastic voice spring into my thoughts:

Then make one for me!

            She had a point.  Over the next few weeks, I prepared for my upcoming Mother's Day macramé project.  The colors of yarn and suede would be reminiscent of her rustic lake house décor and include lots of browns.  As I searched for suitable materials to create my symbolic gift, I could feel my mother's presence with me.  It made sense—after all, she was an avid shopper and stealthy negotiator in her lifetime.

            Designing the gift idea kept my emotions in check.  I found a cream-colored branch, smooth as driftwood, next to a sidewalk one day.  It was two feet in length and less than an inch in width—the perfect size for the wall hanging.  I carried it home.  The following week, I bought a ball of yarn on sale at a store.  It had fall-like colors that reminded me of a top she purchased on a trip together.  I imagined creating something that—in a better life—could hang in her home.

Searching for a Sign

The morning of Mother's Day was unusually cloudy and somewhat cool compared to recent weather.  I bundled up in a cozy sweater and sat outside on the teak patio loveseat that once belonged to my mom.  It was spring, but it felt more like the type of cloudy fall weather she appreciated.  I softly spoke aloud, hoping the breeze would carry my words to her.  I explained I was making this macramé piece for her today as her gift, thus setting the intention for my crafting ceremony. 

"Maybe you could give me a sign that you're doing okay?" I asked out loud, but I wanted to be more specific. 

I thought about any wildlife at the lake that could also be available in my urban neighborhood.  Red cardinal sightings were too frequent, although they certainly reminded me of her.  Maybe a woodpecker, I thought, but they were a common sighting anytime I threw out birdseed.  It had to be less common wildlife, preferably not a bobcat.

"An owl," I declared.  I only heard owls a few times a year in my neighborhood, and it had been months.  However, an owl sighting was still obtainable in a city environment.

Owl figurine

All morning, I measured and cut various lengths of yarn: brown, gray, tan, golden orange, and touches of vibrant purple and pink.  I knotted and blended the strands of colors along the wood branch, adding some suede and a glass bead reminiscent of polished wood. In the afternoon, I had others plans which concluded with eating dinner at a restaurant my mom liked in honor of her memory.

I stayed up late that night feeling grateful that I celebrated Mother's Day without falling apart.  It had taken me a few years to reach that point, and it was a satisfying accomplishment, even if I wouldn't be able to achieve the same feat in the future.  Her macramé wall hanging was complete.  I gazed at it and thought, Happy Mother's Day.

At 11:50 p.m., I finally felt ready to go to bed.  The house was dark and quiet.  I walked back to the bedroom, making my way to the room's far end.  Just as I was about to crawl into bed, I heard the far-away sound of an owl hooting outside.  I stopped moving, stunned by the sound.  I had forgotten about asking my mom for an owl sign earlier.

The sound was so low at first.  I wouldn't have heard the owl if the bedroom window had been completely closed, but it was cracked open a couple of inches.  I couldn't even remember opening it that day.

The noises sounded just like the barred owls my mom and I listened to at the lake.  I couldn't believe it!  I grabbed my shoes and stepped out the door and into the night.

There was little moonlight amongst the clouds as I swiftly walked halfway down the street.  I followed the lively sound of two barred owls calling out across the trees.  I couldn't see them, but I could hear their swooning hoots, mid-range monkey cackles, and staccato trills blending into an exotic language.  I stood outside for several minutes in awe while recording the sounds on my phone.

I knew there would still be difficult days of grief ahead of me, but I was elated at that moment, standing in the street in the middle of the dark, listening to the owls.  Whether it was merely a coincidence or not, I believed my mom had sent me a sign just before the end of Mother's Day.  It was her gift to me.

Barred owl