28 August 2012

Last Words

My comments at VJC's funeral Mass and memorial service.  I think they're worth sharing.

Thank you all for attending Virginia’s funeral Mass, and for your love, prayers and support for us and for each other as we today commend her to God.

My mother was an extraordinary woman. She was complicated. She was compassionate. She was demanding – of herself and of all of us. She was broken. She healed and was herself healed. She taught and she learned. She gave us all many gifts of herself – for which we are deeply grateful.

I’ll share three stories from our life that for me capture Virginia’s spirit and being.

In 1977, the Oregon Health Sciences University School of Nursing received their first computers. No one –faculty, staff, or students – knew what to do with them. I’d been taking programming classes at OMSI for some time, so I was drafted to help set up the two computers and find ways for students to use them – which I was able to do, thanks in part to watching Virginia prepare for and teach her students. After I’d set up the computers, I asked my mother if she’d like to learn to use them. She looked at me with a certain contempt and steely resolve: “No Scott. What on earth could a machine do to help me or my nursing students take care of patients better?”


That look, and her tone said a lot, as did the words. I’m sure that some of you will agree, 35 years later, that Virginia was at least in part correct.

One thing about Virginia that many of you may not know was her love of speed. She loved moving quickly – running, swimming and skiing when she was younger, walking and driving when she was older. In 1985, she bought a new car – a maroon Saab 900 – and we were driving to San Francisco to visit her sister. Driving down Interstate 5, just past the California boarder, Mom turned to me and said, “Let’s see how fast the car will go.”

Cat, Catnip. I pushed the pedal to the floor. The car accelerated and soon we were traveling over 100 mph. The stereo was playing Ella Fitzgerald and Andre Previn performing Gershwin. Not surprisingly, we soon saw flashing lights in the rear view mirror. We pulled over, and the California Highway Patrol officer walked up to the car. I rolled down the driver’s side window, and spoke to the officer.

Officer: “Hello. Did you know how fast you were going?”

Scott: “Officer, I believe we were going about 110 miles per hour.”

Virginia – leaning across me to speak to the officer, with a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye: “Officer, I asked my son to see how fast the car would go.”

Officer – trying to contain his laughter: “Ma’am, I see. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

We received a $25 ticket for exceeding the 55 mile per hour speed limit. We immediately paid it at the Shasta County Courthouse, and continued to San Francisco driving no more than 60 miles per hour.

But Virginia knew how fast her car could go.

One other moment to share: My mother’s body was truly a broken vessel – she had broken her neck, she was a cancer survivor, she had osteoarthritis, and had multiple surgeries and joint replacements – but she wasn’t about to let any of that stop her. Until very late in her life, she kept up a schedule of activities that would make many younger people – including me – exhausted.

Mom loved Mt. Hood and Timberline Lodge, and spent many hours in the lodge while I was skiing as a child. My partner Graham and I were visiting her five years ago, and had planned a trip to visit Timberline Lodge with her – knowing that it was far from the most friendly place for someone with significant limitations in mobility. After arriving there, Virginia was bound and determined to revisit most of the places that she knew and loved from long ago. And she did – ascending and descending stairs that we thought would stop her.

When we asked her how she was able to do all that she did without assistance, she said with a twinkle in her eye, a smile, and a hint of the pain she was undoubtedly experiencing: “Oh, I save up my energy for those things that are really special.”

And again: Well.

While we have lost Virginia’s physical presence, her spirit and her indomitable energy will always be with us. We owe it to her to find and express our spirit and our energy, and to teach our families and students and colleagues how to be so engaged, and so part of the world as was Virginia Jean Cory.

24 August 2012

Going Home

Home is moving with the motion of Delta Flight 1664, as Graham and I are respectively in Seats 6 and 5 D. We’re somewhere over Michigan, and Aimee Mann’s “I’m with Stupid” is entertaining me as I write this. Tick Tock bin Trouble will need to wait one more day for his human companions to get home.

Virginia died eight days ago. In the last nine days Graham and I have: organized and endured traveling across country; dealt with the disposition of Virginia’s body and remaining personal effects; planned and announced not one funeral but a funeral Mass and a memorial service; learned the difference between a funeral Mass, a funeral Mass with Rosary, a funeral Mass with Eucharist, a memorial service, and random remembrances of the dead; made endless phone calls to people I hadn’t spoken to in years, if ever; fought with the funeral home and the funeral director; ate absurdly good food at some of Portland’s finest restaurants; used Facebook to inform the world of my mother’s life and death; broken a quarantine of my mother’s community to have a punk rock memorial service lead by an 83 year old Benedictine priest; greeted and consoled more than a hundred mourners; visited Mt. Hood and Hood River; and occasionally slept.
I’m confident that none of the above can be described as grieving.

There’s more to do closing out the details of Virginia’s life. There’s a life of our own to resume – reboot, even – as my mother’s increasing infirmity over the last three years had by the end of her life all but consumed our lives.

I know that’s not grieving, either.

Virginia said that her death would allow her to go home. There’s still work for me to do to accept that she’s gone home, and to reorganize life so it can support our home – which is wherever we are.

15 August 2012

“She died peacefully in her sleep.”

I’ve imagined hearing those words for a long time about my mother. I’ve wanted to hear those words. Frankly, anyone who loves a friend or family member or spouse should want to hear those words.

I woke up to those words this morning. Racing against my mother’s failing strength and will, the cumulative delays of travel kept me from reaching her side before she died.

I have no remorse, guilt, or regret at not being at her side when VJC died. For the last five years, we’ve agreed that every time we said good-bye might well be the last time we would see each other. Living in where we did, with lives that we loved, meant that it would take extraordinary luck to be in the same place at the moment of her death. Having said good-bye last Thursday, and spoken on Sunday afternoon, there was no sense of anything left unsaid by either of us. We touched, we connected, we parted physically, but never emotionally or spiritually.

For every time my mother asked and cadged at moving from Oregon to Washington, DC to be closer to Graham and me (and the prompts were frequent, unrealistic, and not intended to produce any result but more frequent visits to her), fear of being alone at the moment of her death was not ever discussed or hinted at as a reason to move closer. Both Virginia and I knew that regardless of the cause, her natural death was likely to happen quietly and without us being present.

Virginia’s death happened as we both thought it would: it was quiet, peaceful, and painless.

Given her dementia and lung cancer, a quiet, peaceful, and painless death could not be guaranteed. I’m grateful to the medical and social support team from Silverton Hospital, Willamette Valley Hospice, and Mt. Angel Towers who worked with both Virginia and me – and with whom Virginia occasionally crossed swords – and who made the last six months of my mother’s life as safe, secure, and satisfying as possible. Their effort and compassion and skill allowed me to keep living as my mother was dying.

My grieving began in February, and felt strained and extended as I previously wrote. With my mother’s death, I can now grieve in earnest, knowing she is at rest and at peace. And I will grieve, but at the same time am truly grateful that my mother is at rest and peace, on her terms, surrounded by spirits of friends and family who have preceded her in death.

Rest in peace, Virginia Jean Kuehner Fusick Cory.

June 7th, 1923 – August 15th, 2012.

14 August 2012

The price of grief

Virginia Jean Kuehner Cory has been dying for a while, now. We all are dying, but the imminence of death differs for each human and living creature. In my mother’s case, the sense that death is close first became manifest last year. Somehow, somehow, the sense that living mattered disappeared from her, and she shifted from grasping life – mind you, with limitations – to existing. When a trip to Silverton Hospital in February 2012 lead to a diagnosis of stage four lung cancer and post-ischematic dementia, it confirmed the sense that Virginia’s dance through life was to end, and end soon.

But this isn’t about her. This is about me, and how my mother’s impending death costs me, and how it affects the way I see the world.

Dr. Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross brought grief as a process to us in “On Death and Dying.” I grew up with that book, knowing that as an only child I would have to face the deaths of my parents at some point, and that loss would be incredibly painful. My father’s death was unexpected, unfortunate, and untimely, but was also fairly conventional in its course and duration. Grief presented itself, I endured it, and it passed, with much of what passes for “normalcy” in the processes of grieving.

My experience with my mother has been entirely other. It’s far from unique – I’ve heard from friends and colleague of similar stories with their parents and grandparents. I’ve watched and walked with other friends through similar grieving with their friends and parents.

What makes this long grieving hard is that you’re constantly giving – giving one’s time, routine, and hope. There are small and great comforts along the way. For me, it’s been seeing Virginia happy when we’re together on drives in the country and walks around the grounds of Mt. Angel Towers.

At the same time, the loss of other things we’ve shared – talking about politics and society, enjoying art, books, food, and music together, and causing all sorts of trouble – feels like a void for me. I know my mother is now beyond those things. And in a real sense, I’m grateful that she is beyond them, as being aware and perceptive enough to engage at that level would mean she is equally aware of her disease, and the diminution of her life and body.

But there’s a part of me that longs for being able to call her and hear her rant on the sordid spectacle of modern United States politics, or complain about how nursing as a profession has been ruined by the use of computers. I want to get in a car with her and go to the downtown Portland Nordstrom’s, shop for shoes and clothes, and go to lunch afterward. I want her to complain that I’m driving too fast.

One of Virginia’s friends recently told me that my mother was at peace, and was much happier as her dementia and cancer progressed. Which is fine, except that I’m most decidedly not at peace with the loss of the woman and mother that I know and love.

The price of this grieving – this constant giving up – is that there isn’t anything to replace what’s lost, at least in the short term. The small and large kindnesses and grace that I’ve encountered can’t fill the growing void that the cumulative loss creates. Yes, the balm of love and thoughts and prayers help – but they’re a balm, allowing me to keep going without ultimately healing.

What may be the highest price is that I’ve stopped growing, and stopped moving forward. I’m desperate not to get pulled into the growing void, and must keep running not to fall in – even when I have not energy to do so.