October and November are autumn months, and autumn has always been my most favorite time of the year. But even though I love the change of colors, and putting on sweaters, wool outfits and even gloves and hats, the season holds some challenging moments.
Why? Well my Dad’s birthday is in October and my Mom’s birthday is in November. And they both passed away in the autumn. So, I have bittersweet memories when autumn rolls around. My Mom passed away last November, and my Dad passed away during the last week of September in 1996. This means that my memories of my Mom are more recent and thus, more vivid. But I have great memories of both that are helping me manage and I hope at some point perhaps even stare down heart failure.
Since Thanksgiving is today, I felt it was the perfect time to express how much my Mom and Dad helped me throughout the years, and how they shaped me as a person. Yes – maybe a bit of an obsessive-compulsive person, but I would like to think also a person who tries to be kind and faithful and caring. So, Mom and Dad, even though you are not on this earth, I’m writing this because somehow, I think you’ll be able to gain access to this post. It haunts me that maybe I didn’t let you know enough when you were here how very much I appreciated and admired you. I know I rolled my eyes and probably sassed you when I was a teen. But some of those very things that I used to mimic when I was a teen, I now realize were the best pieces of advice I ever received.
Of course, my parents did a lot of things that other parents did. They made sure their children were fed clothed, and had good holidays. The clothing part was especially awesome. My Mom was a phenomenal seamstress. She made almost all of my outfits, and even my doll clothes. She had the gift of being able to adapt a pattern to give it some extra features, and a bit of dash. With her old Singer sewing machine that looked like it should be a relic in the Smithsonian Museum, she could sew on any type of fabric and just whip up a new outfit in record time. My friends were always envious of what I wore to school. In my sixteenth year, I started to put on some extra weight but thanks to Mom’s sewing talents, I remained a very chic albeit chubby girl.
I am the youngest of four children, the others being 5, 7 and 9 years older than me. The running joke was always that I was an unplanned accident. However, my Mother told me several times that I was actually very planned. My Dad travelled a lot when my 3 siblings were growing up and he missed out on some of their younger milestones. When his job stabilized so he wasn’t travelling for long term training or other assignments, he and my Mom discussed having another child and voila, Melanie entered the picture. So sorry folks, I was not an accident but a deliberate event, so enough with the jokes!
However, my siblings might also tell you that I was a bit spoiled as the youngest. I do have to confess that this probably has credibility. Since Dad wanted a child to enjoy the growing up process with, I suspect I did become a bit of a “Daddy’s Girl.” Being cleverly manipulative as little kids can be, I also confess to having wrapped him around my finger on some occasions.
So, you want an example? Well there was the time that my Mom was in the hospital to have a tumor removed from her ear. Dad was totally in charge of me, which made meals a little chaotic. But I leveraged the quality time with Dad to get him to make a fashion purchase for me. I told him that I needed this pair of black “faux” suede boots that I saw in a catalogue. They were really cool – they went up to your knees and they laced up the side. They were the perfect complement for this really great purple velour top and purple wool hot pants that my Mom made for me – so she contributed to the delinquency of this fashion extravaganza. It was the ‘70s and I probably looked like a mascot for a motorcycle gang. But I thought I was the coolest thing walking around the high school, and I thanked my Dad for enhancing my fashionista image.
My first year of college, I did fairly well. I liked my major, I did well, and I was able to exercise some independence as I was five hours from home. But the second year, a dangerous cycle began that was out of control before my family realized what was happening. When I went back to college for my sophomore year, I weighed about 140 pounds. On a short young woman with a very small frame, that was definitely overweight. I started a diet, and between walking around a big campus and eating less, by the time I came home for the Christmas holidays, I weighed about 108 pounds which was a good weight for me. But what no one realized is by that point, losing weight became an obsession, probably anorexia.
When I came back for the summer break, my family, friends, and colleagues at the government agency where I worked as a clerk-typist were shocked. I weighed 84 pounds and thought I still needed to lose weight. Thank God all of these people were able to start to break through and make me realized this was not normal. By the time the fall quarter at school began I started to eat more. But I will never forget saying goodbye to my Dad as he left me at my dorm. When he stopped hugging me, I saw that there were tears in his eyes. He was so afraid that I would lapse back into dieting and slowly die.
As you know now, that did not happen. I had a roommate who could closely observe what was going on with me and helped me realize I needed to eat. But there was also my Mom who wrote me each and every day. Those letters were my lifeline to her and to my Dad, to let me know that they were with me at all times to overcome this challenge that had started to ruin my health. Sometimes I wish I had those letters now, but I think they are keeping in touch with me. I say this because during some of my most anxious moments, a really good memory of them will flash through my mind and I know they are cheering me on.
During my junior and senior years, my weight started to stabilize, and I even gained a little weight. At the same time, my Dad had gone to night school to get a degree in criminal justice. He read some of the same books that I was reading in college and we had some good discussions. He also found a lot of joy in taking Mom and I out to lunch at some great restaurants in the summer, as we all worked in Washington DC. During my senior year I was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa and my parents came for the ceremony, a time I will never forget
After college I entered law school in the Washington DC area. While I lived in an apartment near the law school, I would come home on weekends and visit my parents. It was then that my Mom and I started to detect some abnormal behavior which turned out to be signs of an early onset of Alzheimer’s disease in my Dad. By the time I graduated, my Dad had experienced some physical decline. He was bedridden and the dementia was pronounced. He could not come to my law school graduation, but we took pictures. At that point, the dementia caused my Dad to brag about how he had a law degree. In fact, he thought he had about every degree that was available. We would just agree with him because it just seemed cruel to rob from him whatever joy his mind let him have, and no one was being harmed by his fantasy.
When the Alzheimer’s became advanced, my Mom had to put my Dad in a care facility so that he would get the medical attention he needed. It was hard for her to do this, and this was when I really realized how strong their love and commitment to each other was. For ten long years she visited the facility every night after work to make sure he was okay. She would feed him, stay with him and make sure he was comfortable. I remember calling her one evening to find that she had walked to and from the facility I the dark in a snowstorm. The facility was at least a mile from her home. She just always wanted to make sure he was okay. It didn’t matter that his mind was pretty much gone, and he did not remember her as his wife.
I still remember the call from my Mom when I was living in New York. The attendants at the facility had found him slumped in his chair, turning blue. I believe they put him on oxygen and a morphine drip. I went to bed that night knowing that he was not going to be alive much longer. I woke up an hour later with a distinct feeling that someone was in my room and was putting hands on my stomach. But instead of feeling scared, I felt an aura of calm and peace overtake me. My Dad died the next day, but I will always believe that his spirit had exited his body already. I believe it came to calm me and let me know he was okay. Others in my family had experiences when they felt his presence after he died. Once he was gone, the good memories came flooding back and I could remember my Dad from happier days.
My Mom spent a good portion of her last weeks in the hospital, and then in the health care section of her retirement facility. She was also slowly slipping away from us, but I have some good memories of talking with her in the hospital. In the last five days, you could see that she was just deep in thought. A friend gave me a pamphlet that she received when a parent was in hospice. It explained that the person is preparing for the trip to the next life, and it was becoming at peace with the process.
I had come to Richmond for Thanksgiving, but unfortunately, I had an important heart failure doctor’s appointment the Wednesday after Thanksgiving. One of the nurses in the facility had previously worked in hospice care. On Sunday night I let her know that I was torn and did not know what to do. I wanted to be there for my Mom, but we had no idea of knowing when she would pass. On the other hand, if she had known that I had heart failure and an important appointment coming up, she would have told me to go home. The nurse said I should take care of my health. We all knew that was what my Mom would have wanted. So, I said goodbye to her on Sunday night. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do. I went back to my sister’s house to get some rest before the drive home the next morning.
At 6:30 the next morning I was about to take a shower when my sister’s phone rang. It was the facility letting us know that Mom had taken a turn. My Mom did not look like she heard me when I said goodbye to her on Sunday night. But I swear that woman did hear me, and she said – "You’re not going anywhere yet. I want you to know that I’m going to be okay." So, we went to the facility, and within four hours she was gone. But she had gone very very very peacefully, and I think she wanted me to see that.
So how do I feel now that I have lost both parents? Of course, I miss them terribly, and their birthdays and anniversaries of their death are can bring a few tears. But they gave me the gift of knowing that they are okay and in a better place. Probably the most important thing is that they continue to care about me and watch over me. Just as they were there for me when I was in the clutches of what I believe was anorexia, I can feel them here with me as I try to manage heart failure.
I may not feel the tightness of the hug as my dad dropped me off at college, or I may not be receiving physical letters from my Mom each day to help me over the rough spots. But I very definitely feel the message they are sending: "You are doing well despite the obstacles you must overcome. Always remember that as bad as you may feel, to be positive and to be kind to others. Follow the path the Lord has left for you." Because when all is said and done, I think they are telling me that the path will lead me to a place that is more precious than any treasure I can find on earth. And it will also lead me to them again.
So Happy Thanksgiving Mom and Dad, and know that I admire you, appreciate everything you did and are doing for me, and I love you more than I can ever say I words.
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. Since that time, she has been learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth.