My Other Mother died Friday. Helen was enjoying a wonderful week in sunny Mexico with our friends, Mari, Frank and sons, Ari and Marco. A small sore on her leg, where the doctor had removed a mole three years before, had never healed and was vulnerable to a virulent and opportunist bacteria that took her life in 24 shocking hours. 12 hours into it, at the hospital, Helen reassured Mari, “I had a Grand time!” 12 hours later our Helen was gone.
My Mom (R), me and Helen (L).
Shock, disbelief, confusion. Also, a strange new thought that comes with age; her suffering was short. A better death than many. Bitter reassurance sticks like gall in the throat quickly followed by anger at such stupid sentiment. I want her back. I want to do something to light up her day again and again, not once a month while I’m home from my travels. But again, in her last week she felt great, was surrounded by the love of a family of dear friends who treated her like a queen, as their family, too. She was honored by their happy and gracious natures, by their respect of elders, by kindness and hospitality of heart. She was so happy to go and so happy to be there. Hard for them, but glorious for Helen.
Helen added so much kindness.
Here’s Helen and Jeanne enjoying Gairm’s comedic genius after
his high school drama performance.
Our family was SO much better for having Helen in it.
My sister, Kathy, and I talked about Helen, her gift of love, her goodness in our family, but also about serial losses, slashing at the heart again, intensified by the grief of losing our Helen.
How does one find oneself again when life’s landscape changes so radically after a series of losses? When family, friends, even work or talents change, leave or actually die, how do you recognize your self when these defining anchors of “self” let go?
“Follow the Love”
Meaghann, my late niece, and Kathy talked about maintaining happiness and purpose in life.
When trying to do what we should becomes disjointed and disappointing the stress and strain, the pain of life, bursts out in a big, “Why!?” “Is this mess really what we’re here for?!”
There is actually purpose to the pain. And that painful awareness shows how far we are from the point of being here. Circumstances can be painful, it’s evident. But there are people in difficult, even tragic, circumstances that find a serenity and peace with life. Some people call it acceptance. Its a way of navigating the troubles of life.
But how do we get back to our inherent serene center? Every person holds the key to their own solution within their own bodies, souls, and minds. Because we have a brain, we contain the power of the brain. Because we have a heart, we possess the power of the heart. Because our thoughts and feelings can change, we can initiate the change in our lives to climb out of miserable circumstances. Some will climb a higher, steeper slope. Some will slip, but all can climb. And it is in climbing we come to the top. Or, maybe, we just start at the top.
We activate different parts of our brain with thoughts and feelings. When we smell, feel, or talk some unique part of our brain lights up the MRI imagery. When we remember, a different part of the brain lights up.
If that same part of the brain is artificially stimulated with electricity, a memory, smell, or sensation could flash into the subject’s awareness. So it seems that brain stimulous can come from our own action (by our intention or habit). Or, it can come from outside, through medical experimentation – or divine intervention – or even perhaps by the foods, substances, and chemicals we ingest, breath or absorb.
These discoveries tell us that healthy thoughts can build a habit to focus on more good thoughts. Thoughts are associated with the release of brain chemicals into our blood. Hormones, and their associates. These chemicals create feelings. So in this way, thoughts create our feelings. And so, happiness can be learned.
This good news gives us inspiration – and a reward – to change our thought habits.
We do need an avenue that makes sense to us. A new pathway in our brain to light up.
What made sense to my niece and sister when my niece’s brain tumor thrust a terrifying change into our lives is that we’d follow the love. Could my sister give up her job to care full time for her daughter? Could she change her work hours and pay bills? Should they move in together so my sister could care for her adult daughter? (Easy answer!)
Meaghann, the Spring before the tumor returned.
Each decision began with one priority. Follow the love. If love was protected, nurtured or increased by any choice to be made, that was the choice to make.
The questions of how the bills could be paid were answered when love was upheld. Kathy’s apartment management company transferred her to an office in apartments that had wheelchair access where she could work on site.
Love opened possibilities. The resentment of the disease and hopeless resistance to change pushes away opportunities that, when offered, seem impossible or too uncomfortable to consider.
That is the response of the stress chemicals. “No!” “Get me outta here!” “Go away!” Even if said this way, “Oh, that’s ok. We’ll be alright,” which is “Minnesota talk” for not having a clue how to include another into the emotional vulnerabilities of life’s struggles.
With Meaghann and Kathy’s “Follow the Love” motto, when help was offered, the love mission statement gives an immediate “Yes!” “There’s room and appreciation for your talent!”
The brain immediately begins lighting up the circuitry for possibilities towards more and more “Yeses.” We all love “Yes!” That is, when we lower the level of stress chemicals in our blood stream so our brains can find oxytocin.
Oxytocin building events become easier. Sharing a meal, sharing a task. Even saying good bye becomes a life shattering, heart wrenching, soul searing act of love.
We didn’t run, we stayed. We didn’t curse (as much), we prayed. We saw hope for a future, not one we chose. We couldn’t sustain oxytocin in the grief consistently or even very often, but we had a previous pattern and our brain more easily recognized “good thoughts” when we came up for air later on. Then we could climb up upon our resolve and find a life in which purpose and happiness are one and the same. A life that moves forward, not inspite of Helen or Meaghann’s deaths, but inspired by the lives they made. A life which shows us how to “follow the love.”
Helen was all about it. I will miss her every day, every holiday, every kindness. But it will be knowing that she lived the fullness of her self and gave her kindnesses to others everyday.
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