Saturday, May 13, 2017


Little Liz Ready to Show Up

            I lost the ability to use my left arm 5 days before mom’s last Christmas.  I was sitting at my desk at work, desperately trying to get through the stacks of files before we were due to head to California for what we all knew would be her final holiday.  She was dying.  And the weight of that knowledge hung on me like one of those lead x-ray jackets they drape over you at the dentist’s office.  One moment my left hand worked, the next it suddenly lacked the dexterity necessary to flip through my mountains of police reports.  I ignored it.  I had too much work to be done in order for me to head to my home town the following day.  I couldn’t be side-tracked by the nuisance of a lazy hand.  I felt foggy.  As if a cloud had descended on my brain and smeared my concentration.  I pretended it wasn’t happening.  I chalked it up to the stress of a recently completed Grand Jury, the pressure of an impending 14 hour drive with three young children, and the need to have all my Christmas preparation finished before we left.  I was just tired I told myself.  I just needed to power through these last files and get home to finish that daunting pile of laundry and the massive packing.  I would be fine.

               Except I wasn’t.  By that evening I couldn’t walk without dragging my left leg behind me Quasimodo-style.  I was dizzy.  And I eventually had to admit something was very wrong.  A phone call to the doctor resulted in a trip to the emergency room where they treated my stroke-like symptoms and admitted me to the neuro-ward for a terrifying stay.  And that was only the beginning.

               The good news is that it was not a stroke.  I was 37 for the love of Pete and in otherwise great health.  The bad news is that what it was instead was the life-long debilitating auto-immune disease of Multiple Sclerosis.  The worst
news was that I was about to ruin Christmas.  As if having a mother being ravaged by cancer wasn’t bad enough. 

               I remember my mom calling me while I lay in my hospital bed.  I held the phone with what would now be referred to as my “good arm”.  We didn’t say much.  We just cried.  We cried because vocalizing our actual fear was impossible.  She was dying and I was a shell of the self I had been just 24 hours earlier.  We couldn’t speak of what might be because the reality of the unknown was just too devastating.  But I remember her asking me to come home anyway.  Telling me. 

And there is MOM’S LIFE LESSON #13.


Most times, that’s the best thing we can do as parents.  As friends.  As people.  Mom was the most reliable attendee at any and every event.  All seven of us could expect her at our boring dance recitals, our soccer games, our church events, our choir concerts.  Her entire weekends were spent supporting us.  Her weeknights were typically devoted to schlepping us around to wherever we needed to be.  We made a lot of plans for people who had no way to get ourselves anywhere.  And so she never had a free minute.

She gladly drove as many kids as could pile into our giant van to Santa Cruz once a week all summer long.  She “decided” she enjoyed camping at the beach despite the sand in her mayonnaise by day two because that’s where her children found joy.   {I opted out of those trips as soon as I was allowed to stay home by myself.  Camping has never been my “happy place”.}  If she was invited to a wedding, an anniversary party, a bar-b-que, a Quinceanera, a briss (ok, I made that last one up) she went.  And she’d bring some brownies, help you set up, and then clean the joint long after all the other guests had called it a night.  She was there.  She didn’t miss a moment.  She was the ultimate shower-upper.  She did this because she understood the value of just being present.  She didn’t need to be the best dressed, decorate the most elaborate cake, or arrive in the coolest SUV.  She was enough.  And she knew it.  I watched her do that my entire life.  I had learned.
So we went.  To California.  I shoved my drooping arm into a sling, dragged my spaghetti leg behind me and we drove.  And that drive was miserable.  My broken body was mostly unwilling to cooperate in any way that could’ve made it comfortable.  I was sad, utterly terrified, and exhausted.  But we made it.  I showed up.  Less than myself.  But present. 

And my weak body continued to show up that holiday at every event mom had planned for our huge crew.  We rode a Christmas train, went to see the Oakland Temple lights, watched the grandkids cooperate in a rather irreverent way to perform a nativity play, and had more family meals than I can count.  I wasn’t the life of the party.  I wasn’t the best dressed (sweats were all I could manage to pull over my failing frame).  I was barely ambulatory.  But I showed up.

Mom was a force.  But even she couldn’t ignore the cancer that was winning a battle within.  By Christmas day we sat next to each other on the couch, content to watch the chaos of 20 grandkids circling around us and in complete recognition of our pathetic pairing.  Her with her deadly disease.  Me with my self-attacking brain.  But for that Christmas, that was going to have to be enough.  We showed up. 

By the following day, I could no longer walk at all. 

              The next couple of months were dominated by me learning to use a wheelchair, struggling through occupational therapy (which is what they tell you to do when they assume you aren’t going to get better) and beginning a regimen of daily injections to “lessen” the effects of my MS.  It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  And the fear didn’t subside until my symptoms started to.  But just as my body’s betrayal began to lessen, my mother’s began to get worse.  As I got stronger, she got weaker.  I was forced to take a significant amount of time off work and though I was not at my best, I was thus able to trade weeks with my sister back home in Livermore to be with mom.  I was upright and walking again.  And so I would be present as she was losing the last battle of her life.

It’s because of my MS that I was present the moment she died.  Together with my brother Jared, I held her hand as she slipped from this life into the next.  It’s because of my MS that I was not at my desk reading police reports or in court prosecuting some bad guy, but instead I was by her side.  It’s because of my MS that I showed up one final time for her.

And I wouldn’t trade that for anything. 
Me, today, showing up at the grocery store with two of my crazies.



Monday, November 18, 2013

Big Trouble Mister

Paige & Jared

Growing up, my brother Jared was probably closest to my mother. Not necessarily closest to her emotionally (she loved us all equally, right?) but closest in proximity. For Jared was always grounded. Always making some goofy decision. Always in trouble. And thus always by Mom's side. Perpetually her slave due to some recent malfeasance for which he got caught and then inevitably folded like a cheap tent when confronted by her laser-like interrogation. The rest of us siblings used to watch in horror from the sidelines as Jared would immediately confess to everything. Even those things Mom did not, could not, know. And we would whisper, "Jared! Shut up! Save yourself!" He never heard us.

And so throughout his most formative years, Jared found himself pulling weeds, scrubbing toilets, and vacuuming stairs. Mom was unyielding. If she grounded you, she meant it. When she said something, she stuck to it. She was nothing if not consistent, even when it would've been so much easier for her to relent, back off,  and give in to our whining and complaining and begging to be released from our servitude and able to go to that dance. C'mon. Just this once.  Sorrrrrry.  I won't do it again. Promise. (Okay. Maybe Jared wasn't the only one of us that ever got grounded).

Sometimes we didn't like her so much. Her and her steel fortitude. Her impenetrable tough exterior of commitment. Her immunity to our various attempts to manipulate the consequences could be maddening. And we told her so. I tried the "I hate you" mantra more than once when sent to my room. She would just smile and say, "Fine. You can hate me all you want. From right there in your room." Dang it.

So we may not have liked her. But we knew she loved us.  For that was the genesis of her dedication to our discipline. And we always loved her. Always.

That's what taught me Mom's life lesson #12:

Sometimes big trouble is just big love. 
Stick to it. 
Your kids will thank you for it.

Somehow we all survived. We all managed to get off restriction. Even Jared. And not a single day of those extra chores, those missed parties, those hours spent in our room thinking about what we did, could diminish the affection we felt for her. As full-fledged grown-ups we can now recognize the big love in our big trouble. We can fully see the genius in keeping the consequences clear and simple and close to home. For the consequences of the world are so much worse. So much more cruel. And so devoid of the love with which her homemade ones were brimming. We learned our lessons in that safe place. And it made us better when we stepped out on our own.

Proof We All Survived.

Jared and I were the only ones with her when she died. He was literally by her side, one last time, at the very end. She laid her head on his shoulder and held my hand and slipped quietly away. It was a moment full of proximity, both actual and emotional. One that I would not trade for anything. One that only accentuated for me that her dedication to those childhood consequences never pushed us away but only drew us in. Forever.

Jared and Lia on the Big Day

Recently, Jared got married. It was glorious. And it was a long time comin'.  We were all there (save Erin who was a  little too knocked-up to fly). As was Mom. She was there because she wouldn't have missed it. She was there because that boy who spent all those days grounded and slaving away at her side, that boy who could have had every reason to hold a grudge, held her close to his heart instead. She was there because Jared's sweet bride took a photo of Mom and created a charm that hung from his boutonniere. Literally over his heart.  Evidence that trouble can turn into something beautiful.

Jared's Two Moms, close to his heart.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

How to Grow. . .

It’s amazing that anyone would let me be a mother.  Judging from my complete and utter lack of skill in nurturing a plant, one would assume that any living thing in my care would wither and die.  I cannot keep anything green alive.  I want to.  I mean well.  But my good intentions are belied by the inevitable browning of leaves and wilting of flowers that hang like candy canes and mock me.  Truth is, I don’t know the first thing about growing a garden.  My eyes glaze over and I’m pretty sure I go at least partially deaf when the helpful nursery expert starts talking about what needs sun, when to prune (the definition of which, I will freely admit, I really do not know), and how to fertilize.   

“What grows best in ignorance?” I think to myself.  “You know, something that prefers complete inattention and ineptitude?” Funny I’ve never found a plant with those words written on a cute little tag dangling from its gorgeous blossoming buds. 

Which is why the shrubs in my back yard must grow in spite of my best efforts to murder them.  It’s also why things get a little out of control with ugly. 

So, just like the trooper that she was, Mom would come to see us in Oregon, dig out a pair of gardening shears from wherever she left them the last time she visited, and head to my back yard.  We would stand sipping lemonade in our air-conditioned kitchen and watch her slave away.  It was tradition.  And it was the only thing standing between me and a weed jungle. 

On one such occasion, she asked whether I wanted a particular bundle of stems and leaves to be a tree or a bush.  I was stunned that I even had such an option.  I thought decisions such as these were made long before someone like me ever got involved.  Further, it was just a small shrub.  And though I liked the idea of a tree standing where this little bush was, that simply seemed impossible given its stunted height and stubby shape.  But Mom and her shears went to work.  Together, they cut away the numerous lower stems and branches that hid what was eventually revealed to be something that looked very much like a trunk.  It was small, and slight, and certainly not too sturdy, but by the time she was finished, that hedge resembled a tree.

That was nearly 6 years ago.  Today, that little bush is a towering Cherry Tree that shades our backyard and provides hours of climbing enjoyment for Liz’s granddaughters.  See evidence here:

 Kelby Defies Gravity in Our Tree

And when I look at it, I am reminded of

 Mom’s life-lesson #11

Sometimes a little loss is required 
for a lot of growth.

Like that tree, we must sometimes lose part of ourselves in order to grow into what we were meant to be.  A little pain makes us stronger, sturdier, more impressive versions of ourselves.  A moment of adversity, can shape for us a future of beauty. 

I can’t help but think of my mom when I look at that tree.  I think of the many ways she shaded me throughout my life. I think of how she shaped me into who I am now and who I still hope I can grow to be. I think of her example of strength, and endurance and heart.  And I think about how I miss her. Still.

And I remember the end of her life, punctuated by pain and suffering but surrounded by love. And I know those fleeting moments were necessary for her growth, for her future of eternal beauty. And how they were necessary for mine.  And I’m grateful for my knowledge of those things.

So on this Mother’s Day, I will stand at the base of my tree.  The tree she shaped.  The tree that stands tall in spite of my inattention to it.  And I will think of her.  And know that I still have some growing to do. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Confessions of a Smoker

I used to be a smoker.  When I was 10.  At least once a week, my bestie Suzanne and I would climb on our bikes and take the mile-long ride across busy streets, sans helmet and without adult supervision down to Ernie’s liquors (that’s right…a LIQUOR store) to buy a pack.  We could hardly wait to get our fix and we would’ve smoked ‘em right then and there if we weren’t so excited to scurry back home to choreograph our latest music video in my front yard.  We had things to do, and that sweet feeling of the sleek stick between our lips helped us power through our creative challenges and really freaked out the neighbors as we exhaled the smoke.

The CANDY smoke, of course.  They weren’t real.  They were the product of a misguided marketing scheme that somehow determined that giving faux cigarettes to small children was acceptable.  You could never find such a bad idea on the shelves today.  But we loved them then.  We got a real kick out of them.  And it wasn’t a secret.  We were open and notorious with our habit.  Mom saw us prancing around holding them daintily between our middle and forefingers and pressing them to our lips like a saucy, but irresistibly attractive protagonist in an edgy Hitchcock film.  She watched as we brazenly relaxed on the front steps with our smokes and puffed the afternoon away (before we would turn around and fully consume them).

And looking back on that, I can appreciate my mom's LIFE LESSON #11


I shudder to think how I might overreact should my kids saunter home with candy cigarettes.  I would probably swipe them from their little misguided mouths and launch into a tirade about the dangers of nicotine, the gateway effects of smoking, and next thing we know, they will be cooking meth in our basement should they keep marching down this perilous path to perdition (you see where I’m going with this). 

But I remember how mom would just laugh at us (though I am quite certain that had those been actual Marlboros, there would’ve been nothing to laugh at for a very long time).  She was secure in her righteous example.  Sure that the lessons she lived everyday would act as my guiding principles. 

And so I have never been a smoker.  Never has actual nicotine passed my virgin lips.  I’ve never ventured down a dark alley looking for a fix or headed to anybody’s mobile meth-lab to help mix up a batch.  I turned out pretty all right despite my brief foray into candy-fueled rebellion.  {I should add here that Suzanne could say the same…she turned out pretty stellar herself}.  

Most things are not worth freaking out over.  You have to pick the important stuff.  I try to keep that in the back of my head when I am convinced that my lack of parental oversight is ruining my children.  I think of my mother laughing at our poor, albeit fake, smoking decisions when I let my four year-old stay up way past midnight to play the Wii with her crazy cousins.  I try to envision how she might have even encouraged the fact that my sister and I trek to the convenience store at 10PM for fountain sodas in order fuel our kids for their late-night ‘Just Dance’ parties.  See evidence of sugar crash HERE: 
Caris & Chloe at 2 AM-ish.

We must choose our battles wisely (Mom said this to me more times than I can remember).  With our kids.  With our friends.  With ourselves.  We must pick the big things to really lose our minds over.  How is anyone to discern what matters to us most if we can’t help them out with a little restraint and a little laughter in lieu of loud voices? 

I must work on this. I must strive to follow her example today, just like I did back then when I chose health over cigs.  So I try to let the little things go.  Freak out less.  See the humor more.  That's what Mom would do.

But so help me if my daughter comes home pretending to smoke a cigarette…


Friday, November 23, 2012

Gratitude Found.

I’m a thankful person.  Really. I am.  It’s just that the difficult business of life often gets in the way of me remembering that.  Or showing it.  Or saying it.

It’s just that my blessed life gets bogged down by criminals, and laundry, and dishes, and the little people in my house who sometimes act like criminals (who keeps stealing my good kitchen scissors??) then make me do their laundry and their dishes.  My lucky existence is interrupted by the most mundane of tasks, the most boring of chores, the repetitive nature of raising children up to be respectable adults (and trying to maintain that whole ‘career’ thing on the side).  Wash, feed, clothe, clean, homework, repeat.  It’s exhausting.  And I’m supposed to add. . .rewarding.  This is the part where I’m supposed to say how it’s all worth it.  Every last little snotty nose, disgusting diaper, and sleepless night pays off ten-fold at the end of the day.  And I’m so grateful for it all.  But truth is, most days I’m not.  Most days I’m too tired to look at my cluttered house, my demanding children and my stacks of work files as life’s greatest blessings.  I’m ashamed to admit they are all too often just tasks to check off my list. 

But then, something will remind me to snap out of it.  Like a friend’s terminal illness, my own stint in a wheelchair, or most recently, it was this. . . 

That’s mom and my mother in law, Edna, three years ago at Thanksgiving.  This photos hangs in my kitchen.  And this year as I flitted about with my hand in the business end of a turkey, and my head spinning with a list of things to do, make, purchase, and decorate as the holiday season lands upon me, I caught a glimpse of it.  I love this picture of them.  I love how happy they seem together, caught in a moment of chatting.  I love how they unknowingly coordinated with color and pose.  I love how they are sitting in my kitchen.  And I love how alive my mother was.  And I’m struck with the void left by her death.  And in that moment, I’m grateful.  I’m grateful for her loss.

Mom’s life lesson #10  There is gratitude in loss.

Most of mom’s life lessons were taught in her grand, loud, laugh-filled, presence.  But this one has come from her absence.  For it is her absence that has made me appreciate all that she was.

Not that I didn’t know how amazing she was when she was here.  I did.  She was a hard one to ignore. It’s just that in living my life without her, I feel grateful that I had such an amazing person to lose.  I am thankful that her presence was so tangible, so real, so large in my life that it cannot possibly be filled.  I am so blessed to have been so loved, so served, so led by my mother’s example, that her absence is continually noticed.

It’s not sadness.  It’s really a measure of my joy.   

The void is proof positive of how lucky I was. . .  I am. . .to have been raised by her. And when I slow down long enough to appreciate the loss, I feel grateful, truly grateful.  And I am reminded that I really do appreciate the rest of it.  Every snotty nose, every long-day at work, and every other little moment that requires my undivided attention.  Because I too want to live large, love big, and lead well so that my children know I’m here.  Really feel it.  It is in my greatest loss that I find gratitude for all that is present. 

I will inevitably get side-tracked again. I will most certainly climb back on my hamster-wheel and let life fly by for a while.  But then I will use her giant metal bowls to make a batch of cookies, or find a note she penned for my girls on the inside cover of their favorite picture book, or hear her words in my own yelling voice. And I will feel her loss.  

 And I will be grateful again.   

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Olympic Moments

                        A few of Liz's granddaughters showcasing their Red, White & Blue Spirit
                                                             Chloe, Caris & Kelby

I am suffering from withdrawal.  Olympic withdrawal.  The games are over but I wish they weren't.  I love everything about that two-week sporting-fest; from the elaborate opening ceremonies  (though the Brits had me a bit baffled with their giant creepy baby this time around) to the tear-jerking athlete profiles (which is why I was cheering for a runner from Grenada) to the final heart-pounding moments of every last contest (those badminton athletes really know how to hit a slow-moving basket over a low net).  And I find I get just a tad bit obsessed causing my overwhelming need to see it all to supersede my need to sleep.  This leaves me wandering around for two weeks in a drowsy haze.  I’ll catch myself speaking in delusional exasperation like a drug-addict seeking her next fix. "Does anyone know what happened in air rifle???" I will utter, hoping someone can fill me in on what I've missed while I had to attend to some meaningless task like using the restroom.  Doesn't my bladder know this is the Olympics?  Misty May-Traenor will not wait while I pee!!!

This time around, I was mesmerized by something called single-canoe-white-water-slalom during which the observant commentator noted, "this is one of those sports you only watch once every four years."  Or apparently,  once every thirty-eight years, because that's how often I've seen it.  I didn't even know it existed.  And you can bet I'll now be setting my DVR for 2016.

But if I'm being honest, the real reason I love those games so much is not the spirit of competition or the perfect physical specimens that partake of it (though clearly that's why I watch water polo).  No,  I love the games because of the nostalgia.  My mom loved her some Olympics.  And some of my fondest memories are of summer vacations sitting in front of the TV rooting for Mary Lou Retton.   Mom would bite her nails down to the quick, hold her breath and grab my leg in excited anticipation as we silently prayed that Mary Lou would stick that vault.  Then she would yell and clap and laugh in anxious relief when Mary Lou landed solidly on both feet.  We would talk about it around the dinner table and use vernacular as if we were experts in the finest complexities of every sport.  "Hopefully Louganis can hit that full-twisting-double-pike with a clean entry."  What?  Nobody cared that we were totally making stuff up. We thought we were brilliant and that's all that mattered. 

Mom would get so excited for those games and her excitement was contagious.  We all caught it.  And like a virus that lies dormant only to reemerge to wreak havoc on your life in four-year increments,  I'm still infected with it.

And it made me realize Mom's Life Lesson #9:


It's not like we were competing in the Olympics.  We never knew a single athlete. Never had any money riding on the winner of table tennis (you know, that pastime we call Ping-Pong every other time of the year?).  But Mom still treated those two weeks like they were something really special.

Life is full of those little things.  The trick is recognizing them.  Mom could spot them a mile away and in doing so she taught me that if we don't get excited over those small moments, then it's all pretty much going to be really boring.

She was that way with everything.   Her motto was,  "It'll be fun!"  And most of the time when she said it, she was talking about something that nobody actually believed would really be any fun at all.  Road trip with seven kids?  Sounds like fun!  Two-hour board meeting?  Sure, it’ll be fun!  Dentist?  C’mon, it’ll be fun!  So in order to humor her, or perhaps to avoid disappointing her, we all jumped on board.  And it usually turned out, well…fun.   

It’s true that Mom’s absence makes it more difficult for me to find those exciting moments sometimes.  I’m not the natural she was.  But I’m trying.  So, when my three girls ask if we can go to the grimy county fair in the 100 degree heat or play a 19th round of ‘Guess Who’, what I’m really thinking is that I would rather take a nap.  But I can hear my mom.  And she thinks that it would be fun.  She would be excited about it.  I can always nap another time.  As long as the Olympics aren’t on.  

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Favorite One

I’m pretty sure I was her favorite.  I mean, how could I not be? I’m chatty (if not a tad mouthy and a little sarcastic), I’m a ready and willing lunch buddy (a requirement if you wanted to hang with Liz) and I’m always up for a Target-run at 10:55 PM for plastic storage totes and a label maker for an all-nighter closet cleaning party (she really adored organization).  So out of all seven of us kids, I’m confident she loved me best. 

Only problem is, we ALL thought that.  Ask any of us (in the absence of the other six) and we’ll tell you in a hushed tone so as to accentuate the importance of this honest moment, that we were her favorite child.  It was obvious by the way she made us feel about ourselves.  Like we were the most talented, most important, most cherished person on the planet.  Like we were the only thing that mattered to her.  Really mattered.  Like we were capable of anything we set our mind to and she would be there to support whatever that thing was.  Cheering us on.  Giving us a knowing nod, a wink and an embrace that said, “I never doubted you.” 

This is what a good mother does.  She makes her children feel like they are better, smarter, and more talented than they really are, even in the face of evidence that probably suggests otherwise.  She leads them to believe they are the preferred sibling.  And after years of that subtle ego-boost, her children actually start to believe it.  They think they are amazing.  And they try amazing things.

Mom’s Life Lesson #8
Make People Feel Important.

For people will forget the words you say.  They will forget the things you do.  But they will never forget the way you made them feel.

Mom understood this better than anyone I know.  And it didn’t stop with her children.  If you were her friend, chances are you thought you were her best friend.  If you were her sister-in-law, chances are you thought you were closer than all those ‘others’.  If you were her co-worker, you undoubtedly thought she liked you just a little bit more than anyone else.  And if you just met her while in line at the grocery store, you surely felt like you just saved a couple of hundred bucks on your therapist’s couch.

And you would be right.  For Mom loved people.  Really cared about them. And when you were with her, you truly were her favorite person on the planet.  It was a gift.  One that came naturally.  She didn’t even have to work at it. 

 Liz's Favorite Grandchild

The rest of us are left to just try to emulate her.  I admit, I have to fake it a lot.  I want to believe that my daughter’s talent show song is American Idol quality, but when I don’t, I have to make her think I do.  I really strive to be interested in my neighbor’s grandson’s college plans, but I’m not.  So I feign interest and ask another question, “So how did Danny do on those SATs?” I like the idea of befriending that total stranger at the airport, but hiding behind my Kindle and pretending I’m hearing-impaired comes more naturally.  But I branch out anyway and strike up a conversation.  I can tell you all about the sheet-metal business started by that lovely lady and her father who sat next to me on my last Oakland-bound flight.  Because that’s what Mom did.  And the world could use a little more of Liz’s style, Liz’s sincerity, Liz’s friendship.

And certainly, my home could use a little more of Liz’s parenting style.  So everyday, I strive to make each of my three girls believe they are my favorite. That they can do anything, be anything, create anything. Even though I might have to fake it.    

And so, on this Mother’s Day, even in the face of evidence that probably suggests otherwise, I persist in believing that I was her favorite.  You can too.  And we’d both be right.