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With Dignity and Grace

She fed me, bathed me, changed my diaper, and gently held me.

I fed her, bathed her, and held her to my heart, until her pain-filled journey ended. And mine began. 

I know I should be thankful for every day I had with her, and I am. But when I least expect it, comes a missing so great that it takes my breath and sends me to my knees. I bite my knuckles to stop the sobs, and tell her I miss her, love her, and want her back. But God makes no deals.

My Mother was a magnificent woman with dignity I can only dream of having. She never complained. Pain seized her organs and held them hostage for three years. From time to time, I could coax her to take a couple of aspirin. No drugs, right until the end. Cancer claimed her body, but she would not let medication claim her mind.  

At her knee, I learned to love all living things, cook, sew, and make something out of nothing. Dad often worked away from home or was busy breaking horses if he was home. Mom was never too busy for any of her ten children.  

Rising before the sun on a desperate farm in Idaho, she brought life to the land. She watered it, tended it, and willed it to provide. She gathered eggs, made breakfast, and baked bread, all before the sun began to bake the land. Later, she smiled as we slathered butter and honey onto golden slices of bread. It was steamy from the oven and laden with love from her hands.

We talked about those hard but good times, in those final quiet mornings. We sipped coffee, and laughed like girls, and pretended that things were not so bad. 

From piles of photographs, I met my aunts and uncles before life wore them down. She breathed stories into images pulled from drawers and a sacred wooden photo box. Using the pictures, I heard funny and warm stories from her childhood. One was my favorite. She and her older brother Ralph sold carrots from Grandma's garden to make a dime that would take them inside the life of Hopalong Cassidy in a darkened cinema smelling of popcorn. 

They were very close, even through high school. One morning, that shook the world, changed everything. The Japanese dropped a bomb on Pearl Harbor. Mom and Uncle Ralph promised to visit each other and stay close as adults. They hoped their children would be close cousins. Uncle Ralph did not make it home from America's fight for humanity. That was her first big heartbreak.

When the twinkle in her eyes changed to tears, I steered her back to silly pictures. My favorite was a snapshot of her with one foot up on the running- board of a car. She was beautiful. And that smile, oh my!

She tried to talk all her girls into being cautious about life; she didn’t want any of us to dive into relationships too soon. We would all grin at that. After all, Dad and Mom met after all the young men started coming home from war. They eloped eleven days later! Grandma did not approve. But she also knew it would stick. 

There was hard, hard work on our farm laced with tragedy. Mom gave life to Susan, a delicate baby with black hair and big brown eyes. She was a fussy baby and doctors did not discover that she was born with a hole in her heart. One short year later, God called tiny Susan home, and Mom’s smile was never as bright. 

We buried two more tiny souls in the following years, Lu Ann and Lisa Joy. Once, when I was eight, I angrily asked Grandma why God took away Mom's babies and made her cry. She gave me an answer that gave me strength and acceptance. She said they were too perfect, that they did not need time on earth to be tested. During those mornings when the sun first painted the Butte pink and gold, Mom and I talked about our tiny angels. She said Grandma’s words comforted her as well.

Mom gave me the strength to understand that we are all a sum of our experiences, and the people who love us are with us in spirit forever. I sometimes look into the mirror and try to discover bits of her in me. I see them in my sisters.

I wish every child could live in the radiance of a woman with such quiet dignity and intuition. With more people like her, the world would be better, a far more giving place. And she was funny! A dry sense of humor and quick wit helped us through many a crisis and helped make her last journey more bearable.

One afternoon I helped her out of her new-fangled electric chair and into her wheelchair. We rolled into the bathroom, and I tried to help her onto the seat. I sort of lost my balance, and all but sat in her lap. Instead of panicking, her dry wit took over. “I’m sorry, Connie, you will have to wait your turn. I am afraid this seat is taken.” 

Indeed, the seat was taken by one of God’s favorite children. There was never a stray that she did not take in, whether it was an animal or a child. To know my mom was to know unconditional love and acceptance. 

When time ran down, cheating us of tomorrow, it was no less painful just because doctors told us to expect it for months. One day, Mom told my sister that she was tired. She was ready to go. And she was.

There were no machine-engineered goodbyes, just the loving hands of family, the caring hands of hospice, and four daughters at her side. She knew we loved her. We told her, told her, and told her. And she told us that during her time to complete this last leg of her journey on earth, we had given back way more than we took from her. 

It was the only lie she ever told. She was a woman filled with goodness and grace, right up to her last breath, her hand in mine. 

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