I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, March 28, 2010

My mama

This is a picture of the two of us, me a newborn, and Mama a young mother. Sometimes in my writing, I call her"Mom" or "my mother," but in reality I never called her anything but Mama. Just look at those beautiful dark eyes! The only one of her children who inherited those eyes was my brother Buz. All the rest of us have our father's blue ones, no mixtures of hazel, but distinctive blue or deep, fall-into-them brown. Mama obviously loved me, look at her expression as she proudly held her child while looking into Daddy's camera.

She didn't know at the time this picture was taken that she would have seven children in her lifetime, six of whom are still alive, and one who was born prematurely and died soon after birth. The six of us all have different memories of our mother, but one this is certain: she was very special, and not just to us but to many others. I know more about how strong and brave she was now that I am older, now that I am approaching the age she was when she died.
This picture was taken when Norma Jean was little, and I was maybe five or six. When I was seven, my sister P.J. was born, so this was taken sometime before that, around 1948. The war was over, and Mama and Daddy were living in Fairfield, with Daddy stationed at Travis AFB. I especially love this picture for two reasons: Mama looks so radiant and happy, and I laugh at my bangs in the picture, because I can still remember when she cut them. Notice that they are distinctly shorter on one side than the other, and she simply could not get them straight. They were already dangerously short so she gave up. I was mortified.

Mama gave birth to P.J. in 1950, and much later had the last four children, starting in 1959 and continuing annually until the youngest, my sister Fia, was born in 1962, almost twenty years after I was born. She made a home for us wherever we were living,  and became an expert at moving us from place to place. In the mid-1960s, Daddy retired from the Air Force and they bought their first home in Fort Worth, Texas. This allowed my youngest siblings to be raised in one place, but then all of their lives changed.

In her forties Mama contracted breast cancer, a rare kind that doesn't form a lump and only has a 5 percent survival rate (inflammatory breast cancer). She had a lump under her arm that she said felt like a rolled-up newspaper, and even though her doctor didn't want to do a biopsy, she insisted. And guess what? Cancer. They knew that the cancer was either in her breast or her brain, so they opted to remove the breast. They found the cancer in the breast tissue as they looked at it slice by slice. Because of the aggressiveness of this form, they took every last bit they could, and Mama was in the hospital for a long time recovering. The doctors at the time treated her with cobalt radiation, and they ended up giving her what was later known to be three times the lifetime limit. She was burned on her back after each treatment, right through her chest.

What was also not known at the time was the damage the radiation did to her heart. That didn't show up for a while, but Mama began to have heart attacks. She would spend so much time in the hospital when her younger children were growing up that they became accustomed to it. She was now on quite an array of medications. I remember the pharmacy that was her medicine chest.

But she prevailed. She could have given up, but she didn't. She wanted to live. She wanted to be with her children and her husband. Then, in 1979, Daddy died, and he was only 62. The same age her own father was when he died, and Mama was devastated. She suffered, as did we all, but her life partner was gone, and I will never forget the depths of her grief. All of us worried about Mama and had no idea how we could help. She still had kids at home, which was probably a blessing, because that gave her a reason to keep going, and she did. By the time Fia got married and left home, Mama decided to move out of the house.

Mama was definitely a "nester." I never saw anyone put as much energy as she did into making a home, even after everyone had left home and we only visited occasionally, she still created a home for us. It was amazing what she could accomplish, and how beautiful and tranquil a place she created, each time.

Then she had a really bad heart attack, and we were all called home to be with her before the end. I remember being in the hospital waiting room. There were always so many of us that we were given a separate room, and I remember being there when the doctor told us that he had detected just the faintest movement in her heart muscle, and that a bypass might save her. She was helicoptered to the Heart Center in Houston, and we went down to be with her. She survived a quadruple bypass, thought to be impossible because of the damage to her from the cobalt.

I was with her when she finally traveled home from Houston, she in a wheelchair and me her caretaker. She was not doing well, but we didn't know why, since they told us that she was fine. Well, she wasn't. Her chest did not heal, and she developed a terrible infection that ate away her sternum. Back into the hospital she went. I spoke with her on the phone for long periods every day, hearing about her day and trying to cheer her up. She lay in the hospital for almost a year, a long period of that time with her chest wide open, antibiotics running through her veins and flushing out the wound that was her chest.

Eventually her doctor was convinced they had gotten all the infection out, and she endured yet another operation, with a muscle from her stomach grafted into the place where her sternum was, and skin taken from her leg grafted over the whole thing. It wasn't pretty, but she fought and struggled for her life, and eventually she walked out of the hospital.

This person who was my mother had the will and the determination to survive, to live when others would have given up completely. She moved once again, to be near her beloved son and daughter-in-law and made her final home. It was a beautiful place, as usual, and I visited there several times before her final illness. She had another heart attack, and of course we all expected that she would pull through, but it was not to be. She knew it, too. My two youngest sisters, Markee (who by this time was an RN) and Fia came to stay with her during this time, and each of us came home to visit her. She gave away her jewelry and fur coats to her daughters and told us all to be strong, and what she wanted more than anything was for each of us to be happy. I can still see her sitting in her bed, looking like the picture of health, really, but she knew.

A few days after my last visit with her, she slipped into a coma. We all knew it was just a matter of time now. And then, a few days later, I got a call from my sisters that Mama woke up from the coma! I couldn't believe it, I thought I would never see her again on this side of the veil. Markee put her on the phone, and Mama told me that she was indeed dying, but that God told her she could come back and say goodbye to her beloved children. She sounded weak but lucid, and I remember crying so hard and not wanting to hang up the phone, because she said that when she put her head down that night, she would not wake up again. That's just what happened: she slipped back into the coma.

Although I had just visited her a few weeks prior, Smart Guy and I got in our car and drove back to Fort Worth, not expecting that she would survive until I arrived, but she did. Surrounded by flowers and her children, Mama looked peaceful as she lay there in bed, eyes closed, breathing peacefully. Because she wasn't able to take her medications, she was given a morphine shot every 12 hours. I elected to sleep in her room the night we arrived, and when I woke at midnight to give her that shot, I noticed that her breathing had changed, erratic and uncertain. I took her pulse and it was thready, sometimes almost not there. I called out to my sisters to come quickly, because it was time.

I watched her take her last breath, and then she stopped. By this time we were all there in the room, crying and gazing at her for the last time. We took all the cut flowers from the vases and put them around her face, and she looked beautiful and at peace. After a while we called the appropriate people and they came and took her away. My mother is gone from this earth, but she will never be gone from my heart. I love her and look forward to the time when we see each other again. I know she is with her loved ones, except for those of us still here.

That is my mother's story. She was only 69 when she died. (You can click to enlarge the obit if you want to read it.) She was strong and brave, and this tells you a little about how strong, how brave.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Time out

I'm going to wait until next week to write about my mom, because I woke up last night and thought about all the comments I've received here and decided to address some of them. I am also considering the nature of my desire for approval. It's an insidious thing: I promised myself when I started this blog that I would not seek out followers and that I would write only for myself. Easier said than done.

Some of the comments have been thought-provoking, and some people have asked questions I want to answer. I also realize that I have created an opportunity here that can lead to personal growth, if I am willing to do it out here in public like this. And with the anchoring comments of my brother and sister, I have pretty much stayed on a nice linear path, getting out the main events that have shaped my life.

I sometimes spent an uncomfortable couple of days thinking about how to write down the hardest memories to recall, the loss of Stephen when I was so young, and the loss of Chris much later in my life. The memories I dredged up of my failed marriages were also hard to think about sometimes. But once I got here, to the present day, the content of this blog began to founder. I'm here, now, and I need to steer this boat into the direction I want it to go. One can't do that without some serious introspection, I've discovered.

So this "time out" post is basically for me to regain the momentum of what I began here: to write for myself and to answer some questions that won't let go of me until I answer them. The intricate dance of blogging and getting feedback, sometimes immediate, has given me a unique opportunity. We are in a very interesting moment in time and space, because the explosion of blogging and the blogosphere (and its impact) is a brand-new phenomenon.

Nancy asked if I feel any less emotion about some of these events now that it's down on "paper." Yes, it feels different, but my emotions are apt to change from one moment to the next. When I think about Chris, I don't feel the same way I did five years ago, but something will remind me of him: a story of another mother's loss reminds me of my own; a laugh in a crowded room that startles me because it sounded like his laugh -- and the pain will come flooding back. Now it's like an old wound that has healed up imperfectly and I live with it, but I will never be like I was before the injury. That's life. It doesn't matter who we are, we have to deal with loss and sometimes devastation. Troutbirder left a comment about the loss of his son 17 years ago, and I could feel his continuing pain. It never really goes away, and it shapes who we have become forever.

About my paternal grandmother, Mommy. Two questions were asked that I ponder the answers to: why did Mommy disown her only daughter? And why did Robert, my grandfather, walk out on his family? I don't know. These events were discussed over the years, sometimes with my parents when they were alive, sometimes with my siblings. Kids hear conversations not meant for their ears and wonder about it. The truth is, I really don't know why my grandfather left, because my parents could only guess themselves. Daddy was twelve, and I do remember the tone of his voice when he told me about his father: wistful and sad. He missed having a father.

The rumors about Aunt Edith were of a different sort. I never met her (at least not that I remember), since she was long gone by the time I was old enough to wonder. But the story I remember was that she was married with two small children, and one day she ran off with her lover, leaving her two children alone in their house, no one to care for them. Just abandoned them. They were alone for DAYS before they were discovered. Is this a true story? I don't know, but I remember the communicated outrage by whoever told me about it.

One thing about having alcoholic parents: you would hear plenty of stories when you became the willing listener while either Mama or Daddy reminisced about the past and their own histories. Once, long ago, I remember my dad telling me that I have a sister the same age as Norma Jean, the offspring of a young woman he was living with while overseas on TDY. I don't know if it's true or not, or whether my mom knew about it. But the shock of hearing it has never left me.

By the time you get to be my age (in your late sixties), you will have many memories buried by the sands of time. Most of them, I am convinced, are still there to be dredged up and examined. If that examination leads to self discovery, then I am all for it --  although a tiny little frisson of panic rose up in me when I wrote that.

When I was a little girl, I remember coming home from my Brownie meetings to listen to my favorite radio show: The Shadow. I heard the theme song in my head when I wrote that down, it affected me that much. The show began with these words: "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows."

Maybe the shadow is what I felt just then.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

My parents

My parents were pretty good-looking, don't you think? This had to have been taken when they were first married, so Mama must have been eighteen or nineteen in this picture, and Daddy, six years older, maybe 24 or 25 here. Daddy was a warrant officer in the Air Force and became a commissioned officer after World War II. I am hazy about the actual time, but I remember being told he was one of the oldest NCOs (noncommissioned officers) to earn a commission.

Rita Rice and Norman Stewart met at a wartime dance hall. These dances were all the rage during the war and the buildup to it, and I remember Mama telling me once that Daddy was instantly smitten. (She didn't tell me how SHE felt, but I'll bet it was mutual.) They got married in November 1941, and I was born in December 1942 in Hanford, California.

Mama dropped out of high school just before graduation and never did get a high school diploma. I think she always felt a little embarrassed about that, and the fact that she never held a job outside of the home, other than volunteer work. But she was very smart and well read nonetheless. All my life I can remember her constant trips to the library on whatever Air Force Base we were stationed at, bringing home a box of books every week, and she read every one.

Since it was wartime, I think Daddy was gone a lot of the time, but these early years of their life together is lost in the mists of time. Norma Jean was born in Denver, Colorado in 1945 when I was not yet three. One of my earliest memories is of the tar-paper shack we lived in at that time, a long row of houses for military families. When I was three, we moved to Puerto Rico, where Daddy was stationed at Ramey Air Force Base. We lived off base, and my first playmates were Puerto Rican children, so I learned to speak some Spanish at a very young age.

Daddy was in and out of our lives, going away for long periods, which I now know were TDY (temporary duty) assignments. As a kid I heard the words but didn't know why he was gone. It must have been hard for Mama, since she had two little girls to take care of by herself. I remember a picture of us at a post office with Mama and other mothers sending packages off to the soldiers.

My parents were drinkers and entertained lots of other military couples over the years. They bought a bar and barstools when I was young, and I remember that the bar was one of the constants in our many moves. The top of the bar had pictures and cartoons that my parents had placed under a heavy glass cover, which occasionally changed as other pictures were added. The pictures were of us children, parties, friends, and pictures of them playing golf. Mama took up golf, and Daddy also began to play the game. I'm not sure which of them began to play first, but those two additions to their lives stayed with them for many decades: martinis and golf.

When I was six, we moved back to the mainland, to Fairfield, California, where Daddy was stationed at Travis Air Force Base. We were there during the accident described here:
On August 5, 1950, a B-29 bomber crashed shortly after takeoff. The impact occurred in the northwestern portion of Travis AFB. About 20 minutes after the crash, 6,700 pounds of explosives on the plane detonated. The explosive, cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine ("RDX") is an explosive used in nuclear weapons, as well as conventional artillery. Nineteen fatalities and numerous injuries resulted from the explosion.
It was at night, and I slept right through it. I do remember the anxiety that was communicated from the adults around me, but I don't remember much else about it. My sister P.J. had been born in March of 1950, so now we were three children, all girls (much to the dismay of my father). Daddy was stationed at SAC (Strategic Air Command) bases, and he flew many missions as a navigator on B-36 aircraft and then KC-135 air refueling jets. I remember pictures he brought home from his first successful joining of aircraft that were refueled in flight.

My parents loved each other, it was obvious. Although they fought and had some major disagreements, my memories of their life together was mostly positive and harmonious. I think it helped that they had long periods of separation, so Mama could become her own person without Daddy's influence. And they had their military social life that revolved around drinking.

Just before my 13th birthday, Daddy was again stationed at Ramey in Puerto Rico. Our furniture was shipped to Puerto Rico while we made a trip from California to Charleston, South Carolina, in a station wagon, and our grandmother Ernestina (Mama's mother who was now a widow and would live with us) joined us in that car taking us across the country: Daddy drove, Mama was in the front seat with P.J., Grandma in a single seat behind the driver, and the rest of the back seats were folded up and a mattress was placed in the back for Norma Jean and me. It was an exciting trip with all of us in such close quarters for close to a week. These days everyone needs to be in seat belts, but I don't think there were even any installed in cars back then!

We lived in base housing this time in Puerto Rico, and as a teenager those years are filled with the social life you develop in high school. I didn't think much about my parents except when they kept me from doing what I wanted, but they were always having gatherings of friends in the evening that revolved around the bar, and they played golf whenever they could. Mama was quite good and began to win golf trophies that were prominently displayed. Daddy teased that they all had skirts on them for some reason.

When we left Puerto Rico, Daddy began having several short postings at different air bases, and we moved around a lot during my final years in high school. Just by chance (it seemed to me anyway), I graduated from high school in Ft. Worth, Texas, while my dad was stationed at Carswell AFB. While we were in Texas, Mama got pregnant, and my brother Buz was born when I was sixteen. You can imagine how happy my father was that he finally had a son. He was so pleased that he went out and bought a new car, a big long baby blue station wagon!

Just a few weeks after I graduated in 1960, we moved to Albany, Georgia, close to Turner AFB. While they lived there, I married Derald (being pregnant and all) and was not home when Mama and Daddy had their final two children, my sisters Markee (short for Mary Katherine) and Fia (short for Sofia). When Mama had me, she was 19, and when she had Fia she was 39. One daughter was born prematurely who did not survive (Tina Maria). I think she was born between Markee and Buz, but I am not sure.

The main thing is that my parents had seven children over a span of twenty years. I realize that most people these days don't have a legacy of having their parents as role models showing how two people can have a good, full life together. I know some people stay together for the children but don't really like each other. Others get divorced and start over. But sometimes a marriage lasts until one of them leaves through death. After Daddy left the Air Force, they returned to Ft. Worth to live in a house on Lake Worth. This allowed my younger siblings to grow up in one home, so different from the experience I had. Daddy worked for several years at General Dynamics in Ft. Worth.

Both of my parents had heart disease, with high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Daddy was a lot sicker than I realized, and I remember learning that he had a stroke but recovered. When I was called home when he had a severe heart attack in 1979, we hoped for the best, but it was not to be. All of us children were able to get there before he died at the age of 62. My youngest siblings had not even left home yet. It was a very sad time, and I remember that I and my sisters were allowed to go into the room after the efforts to revive him had not succeeded and say goodbye to him. I will never forget that moment, I can still see the sweat on his forehead as we stroked him and made our farewells.

 Mama lived as a widow for another 14 years, but she was never as happy as she had been when he was alive. After Fia got married, Mama sold the home and had a house built near Lake Texoma. Not being particularly happy out there in the country all alone, she moved back to Ft. Worth to be near her children and their families.

In writing this, I realize that telling the story of my mother's heroic strength in her life and in her passing is worth a whole post in itself. More about her life alone and her medical trials will take up this spot next Sunday. Until next week.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

My father's parents

Very little is known about the early years of my paternal grandparents' life together. This is an old photograph of my grandmother, Dorothy Billings, obviously taken in a studio when she was young. There are no pictures of my grandfather, Robert Stewart. My father told me once of watching his father walk out the door and knowing he would never return. Daddy was 12, and it was at the beginning of the Great Depression, in 1929.  Before that, however, they had had four children: Marlow, my dad's older brother, then Daddy (Norman), Edith, and the baby, Jack. I never knew my aunt Edith, but I remember Marlow and Jack very well.
Although you can't actually tell in that first picture, Dorothy was quite tall. We, her grandchildren, were not allowed to call her Grandma, but instead all of us were told to call her "Mommy," as her own children did. In this picture you can see that Marlow was the tallest, and Daddy, next to Mommy, is almost six feet, and then Jack is over there on the right. That look on Mommy's face is what I remember most about her. I don't think I saw her smile very often, but I saw that stern expression regularly. By the time this picture was taken, Mommy had disowned her only daughter. If asked about Edith, she replied, "I have no daughter."

One thing I know for sure: every one of the siblings was above average in intelligence. And they were all alcoholics. I don't know how old Marlow was when he died, but he took an overdose of Seconal along with his usual evening three liters of wine. Nobody knew if it was intentional or not. But I think 50 Seconal along with all that wine was at least suspicious. I was too young to know, but I remember overhearing conversations between my parents about it: Mama thought he did it, and Daddy thought it was an accident.

But this is about my father's parents, which boils down to Mommy by default. Who was she? Well, my first name is Dorothy, after her, except it wasn't my mother's idea. Mama had decided, because I was the first granddaughter and my name had become an issue, to simply name me "Jan Stewart" with no middle name. I can imagine the arguments that must have taken place.

In those days a mother was kept for ten days in the hospital after giving birth, even with no complications. Somehow or other, Mommy was able to get into the hospital records and got her name on my birth certificate (really!). You can see that it's written in at an angle as if it was an afterthought. My mother was furious, of course, and she refused to acknowledge my first name at all. Being called by your middle name tends to be problematic, especially when you move from school to school on a regular basis.

Mommy never talked about her husband Robert or her daughter Edith. She lived in Burbank while I was growing up, in the same house as Marlow and his wife Mary Kay.  When we lived in California, we visited them occasionally, and I remember their backyard because, small as it was, it had a lemon tree, which seemed amazing to me. Once I remember cutting one in half and writing my name on the cement wall of the garage, and Daddy punishing me for incriminating myself by writing "Jan" all over the wall!

Mommy would also visit us, and I remember that she took care of Norma Jean and me when my mother was not around for whatever reason. She was with us when my sister P.J. was born: I was seven and remember that time vividly, since my father came home from the hospital devastated because he had another daughter instead of the son he craved. Mommy, Norma Jean and I tried to comfort him for his "loss." Sheesh!

Once, long ago when my dad was "in his cups," he told me about my grandfather, and that is when I learned that as an adult, he and Uncle Jack went into the California mountains to find their father. Robert lived as a hermit in a small cabin, and he came into the nearest town once a week for groceries and to frequent the local bar. That is where they met him and the three of them got drunk together. I don't know how they had found him. I also learned that some years later he had died of exposure, when he was out hiking and had broken a leg, unable to get back, or to get help.

Mommy was unforgiving of human frailties, and when I think of her, I remember that stern look and her no-nonsense ways. She had a stroke and came to live with us for a short while. She sat around in her housecoat (similar to the one in the second picture) and shuffled around in her slippers. I also remember whispered conversations between my parents, with us children unclear about what was going on. Mommy left after a short while and I suspect she went into a nursing home, but I really don't know. When I was told by my parents that she had died, Norma Jean and I were old enough to see the distress my parents were experiencing, but I never felt like I knew her well enough to grieve for her loss.

She couldn't have been really old when she died, but I have no way of knowing how old she was. Nobody knew her age, including my father. Now that I have written this all down, after writing last week about my unforgiving maternal grandmother, I wonder how much of this tendency lives on in me. Perhaps it's the cause of me wanting to think of myself as being "generous to a fault." I have given away possessions and refused to care about acquiring things, and now I wonder if this might be an unconscious backlash against being accused of having a "hard heart" like Mommy.

I think during this next week I'm going to read a little more in my journals that I kept during the 1980s, to see if I can find some clue to this particular pattern of my life. Now that I am probably nearly as old as Mommy was when she died, and my maternal grandmother lived to 79, it looks like they still live on in some semblance inside me, at least until I am able to separate out the ME from the THEM.

All those turbulent years of striving for happiness are behind me now. I have found it. As I spend my days blogging, writing, working out, hiking in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, conversing enthusiastically with Smart Guy about our respective interests, I realize that I have found something I was looking for during all my past years: contentment.

What lies ahead seems, like it must for most retirees, predictable. But as we all know, everything can change in the blink of an eye: an illness, a car accident, even external economic upheavals. So I am consciously saying to myself, and to you, dear reader, I am, at this moment, feeling pretty darn lucky. Yes, I have lost more than most people must endure, especially to the parents among you, but I am left wondering if I did indeed work through all that grief. I don't remember Stephen very well, but I sure do remember my son Chris, and I still miss him, but when he visits me in my dreams, he is happy.

Until we meet again next week, I will count my blessings and be grateful.