Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ten: My Parents' Last Gift

It’s November. Here in the Pacific Northwest, that means autumn is hanging on for all it’s worth while winter stomps on its fingers. Warm wet storms spiral up from the south, icy arctic air blows down from the north, and somewhere around my back door, they duke it out.

As of November 2007, the blustery, schizophrenic weather will forever remind me of my mother’s last months. I always believed that it took the winds of a powerful Oregon storm—in fact, it’s gone down in history as the December 3rd Hurricane—to carry her recalcitrant soul into the light. Much as circumstances had dictated an unwelcome distance between me and Mom in her final years, her passing nevertheless left a jagged hole in the fabric of my life.

My parents—mundane, predictable people that they might have been—broke that mold with the manner of their passing. Dad had always been fairly meticulous about his health, consulted physicians on a regular basis, followed doctor’s orders and lived a pretty damn clean life—didn’t smoke, rarely drank, stayed mentally engaged, preferred spending time in his workshop, garden or fishing boat to sitting in front of the boob tube. Mom, on the other hand, smoked, drank, never went anywhere near doctors and watched television religiously. In 1991, Mom fell and broke her leg, refused the surgery that might have properly mended it, and ended up dependent upon a walker for the rest of her life. At that point, Dad became her primary caregiver as well as her mate. Not a one of us children had ever thought in a million years that Dad would die before Mom. It was simply an inconceivable scenario, not just because of the differences in their lifestyles, but because Mom would not survive without my dad.

But Dad did go first. When he died in 1999, he left behind his handicapped, utterly dependent and, at the time, extremely ill wife of 54 years; a small nest egg, a couple of negligible life insurance policies, and a house with no mortgage. Evidently, even he had never considered being the first to go; because, lifelong bean-counter that he was, he had never formulated a plan for how Mom should go on, financially, without him. We four bereft, shell-shocked daughters were left to figure out how to make what Dad left behind provide for my mother for however long she needed it. I remember saying at the time, “Who knows, she’s a tough old bird. She just might live another ten years.” Which, given the delicate state of her health when Dad died, none of us really believed. But, by damn, she was tough. She didn’t live another ten years; she came up just a little over a year short. And we were grateful that The Universe, or my Dad’s spirit—or kismet or karma or her guardian angel—stretched her resources enough to keep her comfortable for that last almost decade of her life.

In true “loaves and fishes” fashion, there was even a modest amount of cash left over to be distributed among the family when Mom left us. And so we found ourselves, in the manner of countless generations of finally orphaned fifty-somethings, sadly looking down at our little fistfuls of money and wondering what to do with it. Sure, it’s nice to have that extra ten grand…but when you think of where it came from, there’s no joy in it. And no real desire to run right out blow it on something outlandish.

Also, in our case, the money came with an unspoken commission. My parents had always been thrifty, saved more than they spent, did without things they couldn’t afford for years while they raised their brood, used credit wisely… The money that we held in our hands after their passing had been acquired and nurtured through a practice of fiscal conservativeness for which we have neither the understanding nor the patience, in today’s world. I felt a responsibility to spend—or not spend—their money in a way that would honor the two who had worked so hard for it and stretched it so far.

So it sat in the bank, that money, for almost two years. Because I couldn’t think of anything important enough—anything worthy enough—to use it for.

Eventually, I realized I wanted a car. A used car, slightly better than a beater, that was not a giant, noisy, smelly white pickup truck that consumed mass quantities of the most expensive fuel available. And I knew Dad would approve of paying cash for my little silver van that I picked up for $2000 below Blue Book.

And then, as I anticipated the arrival of the very weather that whisked my mother’s soul to eternity, I decided on a second purchase. Something that I have wanted for a long time, but never quite had the extra resources to justify the splurge. I realized that now I did have the money; and though the thing I wanted did not fall into the category of “necessity,” I could justify the purchase by the fact that it would still leave me with nearly half my parents’ money safely squirreled away.

So now, in my bedroom—the place I tend to crash and burn after long hours toiling away at the restaurant—where once was an empty firebox and a forest of candles assembled to approximate a cheery blaze, there now resides a genuine gas-log fireplace. Outside, the wind howls, the branches whip, the rain swirls, and I am warm and safe and mellow in front of my instant fire.

I am enchanted. And grateful.

Thanks, Mom and Dad.

I miss you.


  1. I think those are two good choices to spend some money on...enjoy, Sheila

  2. I think they would definitely approve. Excellent choices.