Walking With My Mother

“Instructions for living a life.

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.”

Mary Oliver

A view of Mt. Adams in Washington State from the deck at our new home in Hood River, OR

A view of Mt. Adams in Washington State from the deck at our new home in Hood River, OR

My mother passed away in the summer of 2007. She was 91 years old. It’s been nearly six years since she died. So, it surprised me when recently, while out walking, my thoughts turned her way.

I’d left my home at the south end of Hood River’s city limits and headed north, downtown. The sun hunkered below the horizon. A pale cloudless sky hinted that later it would be warm and windy.

I had an appointment at the hospital. Each month, the maintenance drugs I am on require lab work related to my cancer, multiple myeloma. The noxious mix of steroids and oral chemo stabilizes the disease but can, among other things, upset the balance between the red, white, and platelet blood cells. Since myeloma already suppresses my immune system, the reaction to the drugs must be closely monitored.

Hood River's downtown is a walker's delight with secret stairways and mini-parks.

Hood River’s downtown is a walker’s delight with secret stairways and mini-parks.

I ambled along, but instead of stopping at the hospital, I ventured into the familiar neighborhoods on the east side of town. Their character remains similar to that of the early 80s when I walked these same streets delivering mail. With the passing of time, though, some things have changed. Over the years, when I lived and worked in the upper valley, the town’s economy evolved. It moved from one supported by farming and a declining forest industry, to one supported by small business owners attracted by the area’s recreational opportunities.

The allure of mountains and rivers beguiled a slightly wealthier demographic. They infused the county with new ideas. Subsequently, the look of the already pleasant neighborhoods improved with tasteful renovations of older homes. Professionals, as opposed to homeowners, upgraded the landscaping and pruned the stately trees.

On a short side street, however, I discovered life succeeding outside of the orderly yards. The roots of an oak tree buckled the sidewalk. The upheaval created a network of cracks. Dandelions and alyssum prospered in the fertile gaps.

Remarkably, this unruly assertion of life also triggered a memory of my mother from more than 60 years ago. We were out together on a sunny spring morning in San Francisco visiting the gardens at Mission Dolores. Outside, in front of the Basilica, dandelions overflowed the seams of the sidewalk. What attracted my attention, though, was the sweet smell of alyssum blooming alongside their opportunistic brethren. To this day, their fragrance reminds me of my mom.

Mom with my brother Tom

Mom with my brother Tom

She, Lillian, was a nurse and for some of her adult life did not drive. Often, she worked nights. She bussed to her job in the afternoon while my father toiled as a body and fender man at a Lincoln/Mercury dealership. At night, however, my dad would pick her up at the end of her shift. Occasionally, I accompanied him. At midnight, on the wards, a monastic calm subdued my youthful energy. My impressionable childhood consciousness was awed by what I considered “her” hospital.

Much of what we learn from our parents occurs inadvertently. My mom introduced me to the whimsical world of cats by inviting them into our life. I enjoy classical music because when I came home after school, it played on the radio while she did housework. My love of books stems from her shooing me off to the library in the summer months when I dared to act bored.

She died several months before I was diagnosed with cancer. Whatever composure I can muster with respect to myeloma is something of a tribute to her attitude. Raising four wild-haired boys, a daughter, and being widowed in her 50s came with a never ending set of trials. Yet, she persevered with aplomb.

The ever whimsical Spanky …

Eventually, whilst reminiscing about broken sidewalks and the survival skills of dandelions and alyssum, I arrived at my destination. The blood draw went well. I barely felt the needle stick and, until I hear otherwise, think my blood looked good. At least, it’s still the right color. I drank some water, then left. The day fulfilled its warm and windy promise from earlier in the morning and a brisk northwesterly breeze propelled me from behind all the way home.