NOME — She was wonderful. She loved getting people together for food, laughs and stories. She got a kick out of being around those she loved, and her ebullience, smile and laugh made those around her feel good, valued and relaxed.
We lived happy days with that woman. She made a perfect, flaky, tender pie crust. She didn’t wear earrings or necklaces, only her wedding ring. She knitted socks and gave them away. She liked following my dad when he went hunting even though she cried every time an animal died. She didn’t like fishing, but could eat fish every day. She subscribed to BMG and every month received new CDs in the mail to add to her ’60s and ’70s collection. She made mixed tapes for friends, and when I missed the feeling of home while away at college she’d send a small box with a tape in the mail.
Lena was really tiny, and it added to her charm. At 5-foot-2, she was a sprite full of life. She danced in the kitchen. Whenever I hear “Bad Moon Rising” or “Creeque Alley” I picture her in the moment, eyes squinting, knees bending, arms moving, feeling totally relaxed, taking time from making her homemade pizza or chopping onions to dance and thoroughly enjoy her music. My brother, sister and I laughed at her when she did this, but collectively, it’s probably our favorite memory.
She once received a trophy from some of her best friends. The cup on top held a plastic fork, knife and spoon. At the bottom of the trophy were the words, “Picnic Queen.” I used to look at that beauty and marvel that my mother earned it and that she was a queen of some sort, not realizing my parents’ friends made the gold (I thought it was gold) and wooden honor from an old Iditarod Basketball Tournament trophy. Every single nice day, Mom wanted to be with her favorite people outside, and she pulled people together. I’ve talked to her friends and they laugh saying they’d see the nice day, wait for the call from Lena and get their coolers ready to go all because of the excitement and pull in the voice of the Picnic Queen.
A graduate of her beloved Covenant High School, Mom raised us going to church. She and I stood together and sang soprano in the volunteer choir every year in the Christmas Cantata. I loved picking out her voice when the Covenant High alumni sang.
She absolutely loved teaching kindergarten Sunday school. She believed in the work she did, but also got a kick out of the honest and innocent expressions of 5-year-olds and we often heard the stories after church, during Sunday brunch. “Giaana was at Sunday school today and recited her memory verse from last week. Problems 17:17 — A friend loves at all times.” She’d laugh hard at those stories.
Toll of lupus
This lady gave and gave to her family and community. And when I was about 10 years old, I remember she and my dad traveling to Anchorage a lot and I remember the quiet talk of doctors and medication. She was diagnosed with lupus, and it caused her a lot of pain and fatigue. Lupus is a disease where your white blood cells, the warriors that kill viruses and bacteria, misbehave and attack the body. The linings of her heart and lungs were inflamed. She had a lot of joint pain. Headaches. Heartburn. The butterfly rash on her face made her cheeks rosy and warm. She was able to manage the disease and continue to dance, sing, teach Sunday school, host pizza parties and love on her grandkids until her brain was attacked.
And we quickly learned the brain could get sick just like the heart or lungs. She sank into a deep, dark depression and became someone we didn’t know or know how to interact with. She sought help and the doctors gave her antidepressants. The little pills made her illness worse and in a few months she was gone.
It’s been 10 years to this day I am trying to heal from her death. While my brain understands the act was due to her illness, I still have broken pieces in my heart that clang around and cause a pulling pain now and then.
What’s difficult is knowing I’m not the only person who has walked around with this pain and anger. Alaska is a small community and most, if not all, of us have known someone close who died this way. While I won’t pretend I have the answers to deal with the pain, I do know what kept me walking through hell to reach a brighter place.
Too heavy a burden
- I found the source of my anger. It may seem silly, but about five years after her death, I was living with intense anger and was blind to the source. Once I realized and accepted the truth of why I was pissed, the wound received air and healing could begin.
- I let myself feel the pain of that wound. I cried hard. And a lot. Not only is it OK to do, it’s necessary. It helps to find a person who will hold and hug and be there for you.
- I forgave. It wasn’t magic. All I said was, “Mom, you hurt me badly and I still hurt today. I know you loved me. I love you and I forgive you.” This wasn’t easy, but it was crucial.
- I replaced the lies I started believing after her death with truth she raised me to believe. I’m worthless became I am worthy. I am unloved became I am loved. I am insignificant became I have important work in this life. I did think of Saturday Night Live and Jack Handy during those moments, but I said the words anyway and the wound in my heart began healing.
- I pictured myself whole, loving and with a smiling heart and I picture it to this day, every day.
My mother committed suicide. She was beautiful. She was loving and loved. She was sick.
It’s been 10 years. Now and then I have to tend and try to clean the complex wound. I’ve chosen to focus on being grateful every day for my beautiful mother, what she gave and who she was when she was herself and when she was truly alive. Living with bitterness and anger is too heavy a burden.
Author’s Note: If you are in a bad place, please call someone. You are worthy. You are loved. You are significant.