While my mom was sick, we were operating in crisis mode. Day to day, worry to worry. It’s hard work, dying. And not just for the sick person. It’s hard work. Lots of hours. Hours on the road, hours in the hospital. In hospital rooms, in hospital halls, waiting rooms, elevators and parking ramps. Hours at her house instead of mine. Much of it is just stupid. But we had a mission, and we were on it.
The stupidest thing I think we had to do was plug the parking meter while we were visiting my mom. Visiting isn’t even a good word. We were being with her. Hours and hours every day. But the meter doesn’t care how important my presence is. I suppose it was a good break, a reason to go outside. But sometimes looking for a goddamned quarter is the last straw on a very heavy and precarious load.

But I digress. The caring time was drudgery. It was work and it kept us all busy. But after my mom died. After all the trying, and thinking and working was over; there was something else waiting. And it wasn’t something better than work and exhaustion and sadness. It was fear. I can’t remember exactly when it was in the saga of this part of my life that I started to be afraid.

But I remember what it felt like. I remember waking up gasping and terrified. Abject horror and doom prickled my skin and made me sweat. I just woke up scared. The kind of scared I haven’t been since I was a kid. But when I was a kid, there was usually a bad dream preceding the scary feeling. And if I yelled loud enough, my mom came down and I felt safe.

This scared was new. There was nothing solid to hang it on, no dream to talk myself out of. Not to mention no mom to holler for. Sometimes when I was in bed and feeling really scared, I’d just reach out a hand or a foot and touch Andy. Just touch him. And it made me a little less terrified. Until I fell asleep and woke up scared again.

Maybe a month after my mom died, I got sick. I had had a nagging sort of pain in my side for months. My doctor said it was not a big deal. But it worried me. I do lean towards hypochondria. But all of a sudden I was really sick, projectile vomiting so hard I wet myself. I couldn’t keep a couple sips of water down without being sick. I think I went a night and half the next day without eating or drinking.

I was dehydrated and miserable. Dehydration is one of the worst feelings in the world. Everything feels bad and wrong. My head hurt, my joints hurt, I couldn’t stand up without feeling nauseated and dizzy.

I was terrified. Looking back, I had the flu. But I was certain I was dying. I was sure that what I had was related to the pain in my side. And the fact that my mom was dead. Funny leap there, isn’t it? But I made it. In my defense, all my mom’s sickness started with a pain in her side that woke her up in the night. She went into the hospital and 7 monthes later she died.

I insisted that Andy call my doctor’s office and get me in. They told him I probably had the flu and to keep trying fluids. I laid on the floor and cried. I told him to keep calling, call another clinic. We found somewhere that would see me. I imagine I looked like a sad, sad puppy. I couldn’t keep my head up. I shuffled and I carried a barf bag.

When the nurse brought us into a room, she was very nice to me. She asked if I wanted the lights off. I did. I wanted them so off. And she turned them off and wrote by a little nursey-light. But when she asked meif I’d like the lights off, I almost wept. And as she asked me about my symptoms, I answered her questions, but the thing I wanted to tell her was, “My mom just died. She seemed fine. But something inside her was killing her and we didn’t know. She didn’t know. It’s killing me now. Please understand me, I’m not crazy. I’m not whining. I’m scared and sick and I need you to help me.”

The thought had ricocheted around in my head that what I was afraid of for the last weeks was death. But everyone (except Kwai Chang Caine) is afraid of death. I wasn’t prepared for how toothy, ugly, lurking and real death becomes when it takes a real person from you. I imagine it’s different when someone dies young like my mom. When they seem OK, and then they just aren’t. It made me scared for myself.

If someone dies after a lingering illness or a few close calls, I imagine you get fear, maybe even abject terror in the night. But I also imagine it takes a different iteration; less sneaky and toothy and more deteriorating and haunting. But I don’t know. I only know how it was for me.

Like I said, I had the flu. I (with the blessing of my doctor) took one of the leftover cancer anti-nausea pills and started to be able to hold liquids down. I recovered.

But I had the side pain checked out again and found out I had a cyst on one of my ovaries. It’s funny, but although it worried me (only a couple months after my my mom died from “metastatic adenocarcinoma of the ovary”), it wasn’t as scary as when I just had the flu.

I should say, I still have some lingering fear that I’ll die young. But that “doom feeling” has faded. The night terror has abated. I’m getting to a new normal and it’s OK. It didn’t last forever.


I think I wrote something very similar before ( Maybe you can tell me what the best parts of each one are and I can combine them.

What kind of person was my mom? My mom was the kind of person who people relied on. Anyone falling on hard times ended up at our house. If hard times came to you, Susie might show up, watch the kids, clean the house from stem to stern and bring dinner made from scratch.

My gramma used to say, “Susie can clean a room in the time it takes other people to think about cleaning it.” Don’t get me wrong; she was no Susie Homemaker at home, but she knew how to help in a crisis.

She was the kind of person who inspired loyalty. A peculiar and fierce kind of loyalty that, as far as I can tell, comes from having an unpredictable depth of or breadth of emotional responses. People loved her best not because she was so good, but because they knew she could be so good. If only she weren’t hounded by so many demons.

If only she weren’t so emotionally volatile. The kind of love and loyalty that always comes with a fear both of a person and for them. I guess for a while the way to describe the kind of relationships people had with my mom was to say they were co-dependent. I found that to be too limiting, too simplistic and judgmental to describe anything so real and complex.

Most of the time she was the kind of person who scared little kids for the first ten minutes and then won them over with her sheer uninhibited goofiness. She was like an alternative, anti-Mary Poppins. Sure she read your kids a story, but she’d also cut up her own clothes without hesitation to make a Zorro costume. Then she’d drill them on the different parts of a sword, or types of knives. My preschool kids came home and sprinkled daily conversation with words like scimitar and scabbard.

She’d take them on treasure hunts and send them home with a wicked grin and a bag of the most bizarre and worthless crap. The kind of stuff kids loved, but most adults would have thrown away. Broken watches, animal teeth and bones, ribbons, buttons, plastic swords and drink umbrellas.

My mom could usually out-gross any kid. She was the kind of gramma who would chide a kid for picking his nose by telling him, “Don’t wipe that on your pants. If you’re not going to eat it, give it to me!” This won over both my boys, but she couldn’t always turn the crass off, and sometimes it got embarrassing.

On a good day my mom would call up and without any introduction say, “The hairy patch on the rear leg of a horse!” to which the proper response was, “fetlock!” She’d say, “Thanks, Bye” And you might not hear from her again that day. Calling your kids was not cheating on the crossword.

On a bad day she might call and say, again without niceties, “I sure don’t know why you’re punishing me, but I think we’d better talk about it.” Sometimes I knew what she was talking about, sometimes I didn’t. It didn’t matter. The only way to avoid a long angry spell would be first, admit that you were punishing her. Pleading ignorance would only get you in deeper.

Secondly, you needed to tell her why you were doing it. That admission, to be fully valid, needed to entail why either a deep character flaw in you, or deep relationship problem (husbands preferred) caused you to mistakenly take it out on her. If you cried, which wouldn’t be hard, because she had a gift for making people cry- If you cried and followed all the above guidelines, you might get a call the next day like nothing happened. If you didn’t, her anger could last for months.

And that’s the thing. Life with my mom was messy. Sometimes it was fun, sometimes it was icky, but it was intense and imperfect. When she got sick, it didn’t fit in with the rest of her life. It didn’t seem to have anything to do with her at all except that while she was sitting at a green light waiting to make some weird or wonderful left turn; while she was daydreaming about the crossword or how mad she was at somebody; while she was being herself, cancer blew through a red and none of that stuff mattered.

More Food

If you plan to have any of us over as my mom used to say, “You pays your money and you takes your chances”. The truth is if we love and respect you, you’re home free. We’ll eat what you serve and smack our lips. But remember this, “Anything you serve, can, and will be used against you when you’re not around.”

And here’s the worst part: We secretly like some of these foods. We just would never try to pass them off as real food at a social gathering. I am including a list of the food products we consider fake and therefore unacceptable.

First and foremost is Margarine. Margarine is an abomination before man and God. Butter is a little bit of God. Margarine is a graven image. Cooking with it is unthinkable. Eating it is a sin and can leave your reputation sullied for years. I know that 15 years ago my grandpa ate margarine on a plane. I wasn’t on the plane, but certain people were, and word got out. It won’t be forgotten.

Next is Cool Whip. Such a common item as to be almost a matter of punctuation in the prose of a truly bad meal. Any permutation of whipped topping is bad. Adding the prefix “lite” will only make things worse.

Dehydrated food is almost always verboten. I can’t think of any exceptions except maybe beef jerky. This means the following shall not cross our lips:

Potato Buds, aka potato butts. Unacceptable in almost all situations, although there are those of us who really don’t care about the starch course in a meal. Whatever the white stuff is, it’s merely a vehicle for the sauce. Good gravy or butter can redeem almost anything.

Onion or garlic powder or salt: my mom could smell it blowing in from the neighbor’s kitchen. If it’s cooked, I hardly notice, but I still wouldn’t dream of serving it to guests. Especially my family.

Any food that was once in an envelope. Unless it is lipton onion soup and you are putting it in sour cream to make dip. This exception exists because my mom said so.

Lemonade: Don’t even bother if you don’t have lemons. And lemons are not plastic.

Jell-o or anything made with it. Don’t get me wrong here. Secretly I like jell-o. I just have enough pride to not bring it out in public. If my mom or siblings were to look in my cupboard, I’d tell them it was for in case someone gets sick. Jell-o is only officially sanctioned in the context of a clear liquid diet.

Once recently when I asked my dad (whose ideas of decent food are much more flexible, and probably honest) if I could bring anything to a family gathering. When he told me I should bring something made with Lime Jell-o, I had to wonder if he was just trying to torture me. He wasn’t. But after my siblings smacked their lips at my jell-o and cream cheese concoction, they told my mom on me. Rat finks.

In this instance I violated a number of food taboos. The jello one was just the most obvious, but the worse sin was mixing real food with fake food. Cream cheese is one of the staffs of life. Mixing it with anything fake is disrespectful to the cream cheese and makes people think you don’t know any better.

With a few exceptions, almost anything that started out in a box or a can will be ferreted out and take you down. This includes, but is not limited to BisQuick, StoveTop, Betty Crocker potatoes of any kind, Rice-a-Roni, instant pudding and boxed cake mixes (Much to my dismay, because I just don’t like cake enough to make it from scratch. Cake is all about the frosting,which should be made from scratch).

The punchline here is that my mom (the matriarch, creator and enforcer of this strange system of beliefs) loved Raspberry Zingers. If things ever got ugly about what someone bought, made or served, those two words could put her back in her place.

Turkey Soup, continued

It was a welcome home gift from my mom one year. A year when I spent Thanksgiving in Mason City with my husband’s family. A big pot of Turkey soup on my back steps.

I love my family, but Thanksgiving is, was and always will be (really) about the food. Maybe food and family are inseparable. Food is serious business. If you do it right, that is. And it can put a permanent black mark on your reputation if you don’t. If you are a generous and strong spirit, you could think of any food screw-up as a donation to the well of teasing and torment that keeps our family together.

Eating at any other family’s table is at once an endless ordeal and a fabulous opportunity to trash-talk at a later date. I realize now (on some level but not all) that there are really no objective criteria that made how we ate the “right way’. But we believed it to be true and so it was. The way other people ate gave our family great pleasure, if not in a culinary sense. (And please, those of you who have invited me to your table in the past, don’t stop. I cannot stress enough how secretly, I love to eat trashy food. Just don’t tell my sisters)

A truly worthy and good meal the likes of which I have only had away from home about a dozen times; this kind of meal, while it gives me enjoyment at the time, left us feeling disappointed that the only story we’d have was of sufficient quantity and decent quality. I suppose we fed our self-esteem with our perceived culinary superiority. Other people having good food left us wondering what we were good at.

The meal I had in Iowa was nice; the Morgan family was gregarious. The house was a cozy eighty degrees. It was one of my first away from home. Gramma made her signature stuffing, which was a delight, dark brown and crumbly, caramelized and turkey flavored. With the occasional raisin thrown in to confuse me. She won’t share the recipe, but I think I made it by accident once. I wish I could remember how.

The immense turkey was not at all dry. In fact, the turkey was quite moist, because it had been coated in orange marmalade and steamed in a covered pan for hours and hours. The skin was slipped off and the naked bird was ready to go.

If you’re not retching over the slippery skin, maybe you won’t appreciate this story. Move on. Turkey is all about the skin and the gravy. Skin should be crispy and brown and gravy should be made in the kitchen. If you screw those up, you might as well have canned chicken and gravy from a jar. And if you eat gravy from a jar, I feel sorry for you. Gravy is so easy and delicious. MMMmmmm, it’s the best part of meat.

The vegetables were the highest quality green beans and carrot medallions available from the frozen food section. They were served with a sprinkling of dill, no butter or salt to muck them up. They made a nice squeaky noise as I bit into them and freezer flavored water squirted out of them.

The table conversation didn’t linger on unpleasant topics like the politics of drug enforcement or gun-owners’ rights for more than half the meal. The word “tits” only came up a couple timesl (at least at my table with Gramma, but who’s to say what happened over in the living room). And only once was anyone actually talking about MY tits. Whew, It could have been worse.

After we drove back from Mason City I found on my back steps a pot of Turkey soup and a batch of home made rolls. That was my mom’s MO. I can’t count the number of times she dropped off entire meals in a covered cake carrier. Meat or soup, gravy, a veggie and hot rolls were the staples. They arrived after babies, when I was sick, when we had been traveling or whenever she knew we needed help. God I miss that.

If you plan to have any of us over as my mom used to say, “You pays your money and you takes your chances”. The truth is if we love and respect you, you’re home free. We’ll eat what you serve and smack our lips. But remember this, “Anything you serve, can, and will be used against you when you’re not around.”

Turkey Soup

Basic Turkey Soup

  • Turkey bones or pieces
  • Water
  • Celery (a couple stalks or the tops from a bunch)
  • Onions (one the size of your fist or so, cut into quarters)
  • Carrots (one or two)
  • Salt, peppercorns and fresh parsley

Put your bones and vegetables into a nice big stock pot and cover them with water. The more bones you have the stronger your flavor will be. Chicken is as good as turkey, just a little different. The wings, especially the tips, the necks and incidentally, the feet, have lots of gelatin and are especially great for making soup. The meat can be leftover from a cooked bird or plopped right in raw. The flavor will be different, but both are good.

Bring the pot to a boil and simmer for an hour or more, I have boiled soup for as long as 3 hours, it’s fine. It makes your house smell good and you feel like you’re multitasking as long as it’s bubbling away.

Add your salt, pepper and parsley after it starts to boil.

Strain all those icky, mushy veggies out of the broth and pitch them, pick the meat off your bones if there is any.

Now you have broth. Throw in your leftover gravy if you want, and whatever vegetables you like or have on hand. You can make it into Cream of Turkey Wild Rice Soup (recipe to follow), Asian soup, Chicken and dumplings or some variety of Noodle Soup. Fresh Parsley is a wonderful topper.

Here’s your recipe for pinch noodles to go with your soup.

Pinch Noodles

  • A cup of flour
  • A large egg
  • Water
  • A pinch of salt
  • A little oil

Sift together your salt and flour, make a well in your flour mixture. Add the egg and a couple teaspoons of water. Mix it all together until if forms a ball. If it needs more water, add it. You want a nice ball of dough that holds together without being too sticky or too crumbly. Once the dough is good, coat your hands with olive oil and rub it into the ball of dough. Let it rest while your stock comes back up to a boil (like 5 minutes). Coat your fingers with flour.

Pinch off chunks about the size of a quarter, something that will fit on a spoon is a good size. If it sticks to your fingers too much, coat your hands with flour. Drop the noodles into the boiling soup.

They should be thinner in the middle than on the edges, but at the thickest part they shouldn’t be any more than 1/8th of an inch thick. They’ll sink and then float to the top as they get done. Just keep dropping them in until the dough is gone.

Add your meat if you want it, some chopped celery and carrots and some parsley and pepper. Pinch noodles make people happy.

Turkey soup is great for lots of occasions. It works with a batch of rolls, to warm up your family on a cold night. It’s a meaningful and practical get-well message, an expression of sympathy and a really nice welcome home.

Cicatrízes part 2

The realization that death comes… The pervasive seeping in of darkness through the shattered windows of my soul? That’s the kind of scar that I don’t think there is a fair trade for. I’ve heard that some people are able to get close to God, or are able to live every day like they were dying, or tell people around them that they love them or find a new peace… Resolved longstanding problems. I don’t know. I can’t imagine such a thing. It feels like all I’ve got are scars.

As an aside, there’s a song about someone diagnosed with some terminal condition that they eventually overcame, how they changed by being terminal,“ I went sky diving. I went Rocky-Mountain Climbing. I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fu Manchu. Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying”. Personally, I like any song that can work the word Fu Manchu into the lyrics. But it was playing one day while I was driving my mom back from somewhere (and if I was driving, ‘somewhere’ was usually a medical somewhere). But that song was playing and my mom said, “They don’t know. It isn’t like that. Of course you’d do that stuff, but when you’re really dying, you just can’t. You don’t feel good.” Oh my mom, that’s the thing, it wasn’t meaningful. It wasn’t a profound last shot to live with joy and grace. She just died. But I digress.

Anyway, here are my scars, in case anyone cares. Or in case you’ve been there and you want to compare scars, or maybe you haven’t, but you might someday. It’s not altogether bad to have some idea of what you’re in for. On second thought, if you haven’t watched someone die, live without knowing about it. Stop here. It doesn’t add anything good to your life as far as I can see.

I have a scar, a hole shaped like my mom. In my days and all my dreams from now on. Like a cookie cutter shaped like my own mom went beserk through all the calendar days and years, and moments.

Here’s one, In shape of knowing my turn will come, and I won’t be ready. There is no terror like it. A hulking, sweaty suffocating sense of doom.

Then there’s the scar of fearing something is wrong inside me, something killing me. Something I won’t know about until it’s too late.

I have a scar of realizing many people I love will die, and I will be powerless to help them. That, or I’ll die first. No other options.

My soul has been stretched out of shape by watching my mom suffer. It hangs damaged around me. I can gather it up and stuff it into the clothing of my daily life. But naked, it was more beautiful before and I forgot to appreciate it.

Some day that’ll be a poem. What an inadequate consolation prize.

I suppose I will know I am back to my new normal when I can go a day, or a quiet moment without thinking, “My mom died, I lost my mother, Mom’s gone, Susie, She’s gone, that thing happened.” My psyche is working every day, every hour, defining the new normal. Retelling my story. Because I have to keep marching through my days, writing my story. Knowing more and more about what I can survive.

But I tell you what. I sure miss my 17 year old body and my 35 year old soul.

Cicatrízes part 1

Having my first child left scars on my body. I would never be the same. For God’s sake, for the first couple days, I thought I’d never feel human again. I felt like walking, talking, lactating, bee-stung, meat. Like one big ouch. Then I’d look around me and see women who were walking normally, wearing jeans, and sitting in chairs without cushions. There were masses of women on the street and I’d think, “She had a child, and she’s fine. No scars or anything I can see. She’s even beautiful.”

It gave me hope. It let me know I would be human again. By the second child, I could tell myself, “remember, you felt like swollen hamburger last time, but you recovered. You Will Recover.” I still had trouble believing it days afterwards, as I lowered myself, shaky and weak, breasts swollen to the size of my head and hard as rocks, genitals split and re-stitched, tummy stretched out and now empty, into the tub. I had survived it the first time, so the odds were good that I would be back to normal eventually.

My ‘normal’ changed. With both boys I got new scars and stretches that will never go away. But I got these great little consolation prizes. I’d like to be able to go comfortably without a bra or run a sprint without wetting myself, but would I trade these things for my kids? Most days, no.

My mom’s sickness and death has left me with different scars, they’ll never go away either. They’re scars on my psyche, on my soul. Realizations that I will never be able to un-realize. I guess I’ll get used to them and make them part of the new me. I’ll start to feel normal again. I don’t have that terrible stinging pain, like when I had my kids. It’s more of a general achiness, a void.

I did have a bit of a breakdown a couple months after she died, where it all came crashing down on me. The enormity of someone I felt such a connection to being no more. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t good, it wasn’t right and it didn’t even make sense for a person who was so completely human, three dimensional and alive, to simply not be. It cracks open your mind, destroys it for a while. Then you start to rebuild, but it’ll never be the same.