As I was packing a few days ago at our other house, I found a note pad, and took a few minutes to journal some of what I was feeling as I packed:

March 23, 2017

We’re moving. Again. And this time, for the first time in my life, I am moving without my mother – without her help, opinion, presence. She will never set human foot into our new home. I don’t think she would have liked it much, anyway. It’s old and too small for her tastes. Mom craved elegance and light. She would have loved the huge live oak trees in the yard, but not the shadows they perpetually cast over the house – inside and out. But she would have put on a bright smile, told me the house was great, and organized my pantry for me.

This move is particularly difficult for me, also, because we are leaving behind the last house my mother ever lived in. The last place she left her physical imprint. I know I will hang the family photos differently, and there are many of her old original watercolor paintings I will not hang at all.

We’ve donated dozens of her books on Catholicism to our parish library. We just don’t have room for them all. I’ve packed up most of the pictures and nic-nacs she had in her bedroom. Alex has agreed to take her bedroom furniture. Kendall and Alicia already have a lot of her kitchen stuff. Abby has claimed the lion’s share of her clothes. The rest are going to Goodwill or consignment.

Mom’s old coffee pot. . . so many memories. .

But today . . . this afternoon . . . I am alone here, packing up her old kitchen stuff that didn’t sell in last weekend’s  yard sale so that Gaylon can take it all to Goodwill. And the wind is blowing outside like crazy. I hate the wind! Growing up in Southeastern New Mexico, on the edge of the Great Plains (the Llano Estacado) gave me a deep loathing for wind. It blows there so often, and so hard! And today it reminds me that this was the time of year that Mom would take me to Lubbock during Spring Break. Granny would go, too. We’d go to the Great Plains Mall and buy clothes for Spring and Summer. We always ate at a restaurant called Brittany’s – with little red telephones at each table where you could call in your order. (I understand they’ve closed down now.) I loved those little red phones! When we were done at the mall we would always stop at a huge toy store called “Kiddie City” and I would get to choose a special toy. (I was horribly disappointed when I learned to read and discovered that this magical place was not actually called “Kitty” City! LOL)

Those trips were always so much fun, but the wind always blew like crazy. I remember it would often blow so hard that the sky would turn brown and we would have trouble seeing the road. It wasn’t unusual for mom to have to turn on her headlights!

So the wind blowing today makes my task particularly nostalgic, as I hold in my hands old mixing bowls, Tupperware, coffee cups and pots, even carving knives, that bring memories of my childhood flooding back to me. Flashes of my mother baking her famous apple pie or chocolate chip cookies. Memories of her in our kitchen just doing everyday “Mom stuff”. It’s hard for me to stay focused on my work – I should be done by now, but my mother’s ghost won’t let me finish. Not yet. I have to pause, to bask in the warm memories of my mother’s love as I was growing up. Even when these tangible mementos of those sweet childhood moments are long gone, her love will remain.

Yes, of everything my mother left behind for me, the greatest of her gifts was love.

“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
1 Corinthians 13:13

 

Today it has been one year since Mom took her last breath on this earth. So much has changed, and so much is the same. I still haven’t gone through all of her stuff, but I did finally manage to do her laundry about a month ago. I was sort of stunned to see it still sitting there in her closet. I figured she would appreciate me washing the clothes and putting them up, even though she’ll never wear them again.

Gaylon, Kendall, Abby and I went to the cemetery this afternoon. Kendall brought a dozen yellow roses, and we all just sort of stood there stupidly. I mean, what do you do? I honestly don’t know what to do at a grave site!  Do you tell them you’re there? Seems sort of silly, since they are not there! Do you say some sort of prayer? Do you have a moment of silence? I talk to Mom all the time, so it seems surreal that I’d have to go all the way out to the cemetery to talk to her. And yet, it seemed very necessary that we should go. Pay our respects. Somewhere, somehow, I think it mattered. Probably to us more than to her. It was cold and dreary, which also seemed fitting.

The last year has been a blur, and I don’t really remember a lot of it. At least not off the top of my head. If someone asks me about something in particular, I can usually recall it, but no guarantees. I’ve been really focusing on my midwifery studies, and that has been a Godsend. I think without my studies, I might not have gotten out of bed. But instead, I’ve attended 10 births and almost 100 prenatals! I’ve gone to three workshops. I am now certified in Neonatal Resuscitation and have started learning venipuncture! And, in experiencing birth again, I’ve realized that birth and death are both very much alike, in that they are both journeys that, once begun, must be completed. No matter how painful or terrifying, one must finish. There is not other way out but to go through it.

The holidays are over, and we’ve gone through our year of ‘firsts’ without Mom. Without Nana. We’ve all hung on to each other, and we are moving forward. We didn’t want to, but here we all are, a year later, still living and loving and laughing. It’s what she would have wanted for us. While the pain will never fully subside, I know it will never be as searing as it was at first. We’ve all learned to live again in a world without her.

I miss her more than I can ever express, and I know that will never change. But I no longer cry myself to sleep every night. As Abby said, I’m now able to talk more about her life than her death, to remember her living, not dying. That’s huge. So many people have tried to be helpful and tell me how to feel. I can tell within a few words whether or not they’ve ever lost someone really, really close to them. Whether or not they’ve lost their mother.  My friend, Rebecca, said that she, too, is a ‘motherless child’. Yes. I am an adult, I have my own (grown) children. Yet I am now a member of that special, secret club of motherless children. It is a bittersweet hazing, and while I don’t wish it on anyone, it’s apparently unavoidable. But there are so many precious people in that club, who have reached out to me, held me, supported me, and gently guided me through this first year. My debt to them is incalculable.

My husband and children have been beyond amazing, and without them I don’t know where I’d be. Gaylon has been so good to just hold me and love me and let me just BE. He was, without question, closer to my mother than to his own, and yet he’s stood strong for me. Kendall, Alex and Abby have all walked through this with me, while painfully journeying through their own grief. I have a very special place in my heart for my beautiful and tender daughter-in-law, Alicia, who manage to transcend her crippling pain and grief and be there not only for my son, but for my mother, and, for me. My extended family has also been there for me in so many tiny little ways that mean so much. My friends are amazing, still calling and texting me and checking on me. I pray that I will someday be as faithful and true as they are. And mom’s friends have been checking on me, too!

So, yes. Life does go on. A year ago, I couldn’t imagine it. And somehow, it seems more vivid, more colorful, more. . . real. Maybe that’s because I am so much more aware of how very fleeting it is. We had no idea that we were going to lose Mom so soon or so quickly. I have learned, a little bit more, to savor every moment. I want to make every word count, and to say it in love. I want to take risks and have adventures. Because, as trite as it sounds, it’s true: we really are never guaranteed tomorrow.

April Westbrook 1942-2015

April Westbrook
1942-2015

My precious mother passed from this world to the next at 2:30 in the morning, on January 2, 2015. I realize that I had promised to post funeral information, but somehow, that got lost in my haze. I’m sorry. Her Visitation and Rosary were held at Beck Funeral Home on January 5, from 5:00 to 7:00. Fr. Noah Carter, our dear family friend from Salisbury, North Carolina, led the service. Allen Hebert, our close friend and fellow Catholic Homeschool Dad, led the rosary for us.

Fr. Noah officiated at Mom’s funeral mass the next morning, at St. William parish, at 10:00. My sweet friend, Tiffany Gallozzi, also from North Carolina, sang the Ave Maria, Mom’s favorite song, before the service began. Mom was laid to rest at Our Lady of the Rosary Cemetery in Georgetown, Texas. At the end of the graveside ceremony, my precious daughter-in-law gave my mother one last gift, and sang the most beautiful song. I just cried.

Mom’s grave is in the Marian Garden section of the cemetery, along the Rosary Walk, between the Glorious Mysteries of the Assumption and the Coronation. The Resurrection Cross towers gloriously overhead. Kendall and Abby chose the spot. I know Mom would have approved.  Her obituary is online, and can be viewed here.

I have sat down to try and write this post several times, and never seem to get very far. Once, I actually did finish the post, but it was mysteriously deleted, and so, I must begin again. I can only assume the missing post was not meant to be. People keep asking me if I’m okay, how I’m doing. Honestly, that changes from moment to moment, from day to day. Mostly, I’m numb. Occasionally, I can’t stop crying. I’ve been doing the next thing, and trying to wrap my mind around the fact that my mother is gone.

But I know I’m not grieving alone. My mother had so many friends, and so many people loved her! Sometimes it feels like the whole world is mourning with me. I cannot begin to convey how humbled I am at all of the love and support we’ve received from our friends and family! I have gotten countless phone calls, emails, Facebook and text messages, letters and cards. A few folks have dropped by the house, and many of our homeschool friends have brought meals. I have never felt so loved in all my life, and am honestly stunned at how many people care. And not just about my mom. They care about me. I didn’t expect that, and I truly do not have the words to express how very much it means to me.

As sudden and shocking as it all has been for all of us, even (especially?) for Mom, I know that she was not afraid of death. She told us that many times. She even said she was excited about getting to Heaven. And she told us that she felt peace. Her childlike faith in her Lord is such an inspiration to me. There was no doubt in her mind that Jesus was waiting for her. Her faith has inspired me and given me an even greater desire than ever to grow in holiness, to seek the face of God, so that when my own time comes, I will get to see my mother again. All of us feel that way. Alex has even started attending church again.

I know that it will take time to heal, and that I will never fully get over this. I mean, when Mom was admitted into the hospital on December 16th, we didn’t even know she had cancer! Sixteen days later, it was over. We barely had time to say goodbye. But we did get to say it. I know that this is a precious gift that so many people do not get. Our family was very blessed to have what brief time we did get. But we are all still in shock, and it’s not real to us yet. Its surreal. Time will help ease some of the pain, but I do know that it will never be completely gone. I don’t expect it to be.

This is not my first experience with death, or even with sudden death. My grandfather died of a stroke when I was eleven years old. He was my hero, and that was really, really awful. My grandmother died of cancer when I was twenty. But we’d been expecting it for a long, long time. She had bone cancer, and she had been slowly fading from us for so long. I missed her like crazy, and still, almost 30 years later, I sometimes want to pick up the phone and call her. My dad passed away ten years ago. Also from cancer. Gaylon’s dad died earlier that same year. Again, cancer. I’ve lost aunts and uncles, and more than a few friends. Losing my dear friend, Bonnie Musselwhite to cancer when she was only 43 years old was devastating! But this is different. This time I lost my lifelong best friend. The one and only person who was always there for me, no matter what. I really do see her face everywhere I turn. And I suppose that’s as it should be.

Sometimes I don’t want to talk about it at all. Just the idea of talking is exhausting. Sometimes, though, all I want to do is talk about her, to rehash every minute in the hospital, to cling to my last memories of her life. And I never know which it’s going to be, at any given moment. I’m grateful to the friends who keep texting me, calling me. I need that so much! I am not likely to pick up my phone and call anyone. I’m pretty sure I really wouldn’t even know what to say when they answered. So again, I am so grateful to everyone who has reached out to me, and keeps reaching out. I’m not ready to commit to any big plans. But lunch or coffee, or just a brief phone conversation is perfect. If I’m not ready to talk, I won’t answer the phone. But I will call back.

So, thank you from the very bottom of my heart to all of you who have been here for us in any way, shape, or form. Thank you to those of you who are still reaching out. Words cannot express our gratitude. <3

 

My mom’s cancer is far more widespread than even the oncologist realized at first. When we first got to the hospital, they were telling us we had 12 – 18 months, maybe more with her. Then the biopsy results started rolling in, and we learned that she had cancer in her lungs. Stage IV. And in her adrenals. And lymphs. And esophagus. And her left hip. It seems to be a plague that has invaded her body.

But, she still wanted to try chemo and radiation. So, first they had to drain the fluid off of her lungs, so she could lay down for the procedure to put in the chemo port and then also a feeding tube, because she hasn’t been able to eat or drink anything for WEEKS. So around 11:30 on Tuesday the 23rd, she went into the procedure smiling, and we both were thinking okay, things are going to get better after this! I was told that this procedure would take about 2 hours, so I went to grab some lunch. About an hour and and fifteen minutes later, I got a phone call from a nurse, telling me the surgeon wanted to see me. I threw my lunch in the trash and made it to the Medical Tower in record time. My Uncle Steve and his wife Gretchen were able to get there right after I did, and just before the surgeon came to meet with us in the Consultation Room.

Dr. H. looked really worried as he sat down to tell us that they had had to “abort the procedure”, because to do it, they would have to lay Mom flat on her back, and as soon as they started reclining her, her oxygen level would drop to 30% in 40 seconds. He said for reference, most of us could hold our breath for a couple of minutes, and still have 100% oxygen. My heart sank. He said that the only way they’d be able to get the port and the feeding tube in would be to put her on a ventilator, but he was very afraid that she’d be on it for the rest of her life. 🙁 He asked us what the oncologist had told us, and I said “Twelve to eighteen months.” He said that he was concerned about the next 24 to 48 hours. I think I quit breathing at that point. I knew she would not want to be on a ventilator.

After talking to the surgeon, we went back to her room to wait. It took a really long time, and my Uncle and I began to really worry. I called all my kids and asked them to come immediately, and they did. (Alex ran out the door of the automotive shop so fast that he forgot to leave a customer’s car keys behind, and we had to send someone to return them!) When they finally brought Mom back to her room, her whole family was waiting for her. She looked so weak and disoriented! I mean, she hadn’t looked fantastic when she left for surgery, but she’d been in great spirits, smiling and alert. This was so different and disheartening. We called Hospice, and started trying to reconcile ourselves to the fact that Mom is not going home.

But we tried make the best of it. After all, it’s Christmas, right? My lovely and amazing daughter-in-law sang Christmas Carols to Mom. The hospital staff came in to listen to her angelic voice. Mom was delighted, even through her weakness.

I stayed with her all night, as did her friend Janet, and Gaylon. It was a super rough night. She choked and gagged for much of it. She was so weak, and having so much trouble breathing! I cried. A lot. We all cried a lot. When morning came, the oncologist came to see us, I guess for the last time. She said that the cancer is just so widespread and invasive, that there is nothing anyone could do. She said it might have been a blessing that we didn’t find it sooner, because we might have been able to try to ‘fight’ it and it would have prolonged her suffering. She recommended we watch “Christmas Vacation” and try to get some rest. (I knew I liked her. . .) Mom had a much more peaceful day, and seemed to rally a bit.

I went home for a shower. Alex texted to say that he thought we should all get together and watch the Muppet Christmas Carol in the hospital room with Nana. So we all gathered in the hospital room to watch a movie. That never came to pass, because we just got distracted, but our sweet friends, Michael and Margaret brought Holy Communion to Mom. She lit right up!  I spent the night with her, alone, and she slept most of the night, fairly peacefully. It was good.

Later that night, Abby spent the night with Kendall and Lishi. Alex went over there most of the night, as well. My children, without any direction from us, got together and nurtured each other. They loved each other and clung to one another in this difficult time. Yes, a true Christmas Miracle. My silver lining in this dark and terrifying cloud. Abby set up all the Christmas stockings before she went to Kendall’s. He helped a bit. They kept some small piece of Christmas alive for all of us.

Christmas Day, I got to be alone with my mother, for what is very likely the last fully alone-time, lucid conversation I will ever have with her here on this earth. She told me she felt like she was just laying around, waiting on God. I agreed. She said she’s peaceful, and ready to go, just not ready to leave all of us. I gave her permission to leave. We talked about funeral arrangements and where she wants to be buried. We talked about how there will NOT be a viewing or an open casket. And she wants flowers. Lots and lots of flowers. Caveat: No Easter Lilies. . . Mom has always hated them. They remind her of death! No donations to the Cancer Society or anything like that. If someone is just determined to donate some money in her name, then she wants them to give money to the Capital Campaign at our church, St. William Catholic Church, in Round Rock, Texas. So. Flowers or donate to our church. No Easter Lilies. Pretty simple. We discussed how our angel, Lishi, would never make it through the Ave Maria, so we asked our friend, Tiffany, if she could come and do it. She said she’d be honored to do it.

And then I told Mom that she needed to talk to all of the kids and give them her final blessing. She thought maybe she could divid that out over two days. I told her I thought she needed to do it all yesterday. I had a feeling. She agreed, and she did it. All the kids came, and they each got private, one-on-one time with Nana. She blessed them all. It was sacred and precious.

Today she’s been very non-responsive. She can barely wake up, and can no longer talk, or even write on her notepad. I’m glad she blessed everyone yesterday, and I know she is too. Tonight, Gaylon, Kendall, Alicia, Emily and I gathered around her bed and prayed the rosary. My sister, who is not a Christian, joined us with respectful and understanding silence. Lishi sang the Magnificat in Latin, and a couple of other lovely songs before they went home. (Alex came to visit earlier in the day, so he missed the rosary).

I don’t know how many more moments I have left with my precious mother. This has all been so horrifyingly rapid, and I’m barely able to keep up with it all. I know when it’s over, I’m going to go home and sleep. For a week. And then maybe I’ll have the energy to cry. I really did think I’d have her for at least ten to fifteen more years. She thought so, too. It’s inconceivable that she’s almost gone. Yes, I believe in miracles, but it just really seems like God wants her to go home to Heaven, not to our little house in Round Rock. I don’t know why, and I’m sure it doesn’t matter. I will miss her until the day I draw my last breath, and every day I will be surrounded by the myriad things and memories that weave their way through and permeate my life, making me who I am. And yes, my world will be so empty. It already is. I understand that this crushing grief will eventually pass, but nothing will ever replace the space my mother has filled in my life, in my being. I am grateful that she showed me how to be a Christian, how to love Jesus. Her faith, her steadfastness and child-like trust in Our Lord is the glue in our family, and it will be forever. We are all who we are, because of her, because of her tireless and selfless love to all of us.

I do not know when I’ll have the chance to blog again about all of this, but I will make it a point to post funeral information, when the time comes. I cannot express how much we all appreciate all of your love, prayers, texts, phone calls. We are feeling those prayers, and that is what is sustaining all of us. Thank you. <3

 

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