Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Goodbye Mom

When my Dad died, I was seven years old. It was devastating. I fell into a hole of grief, from which, I thought I could never escape. At the funeral home, I remember seeing his body, dressed nicely, and prepared for viewing. I was certain that I saw him move...that I saw his chest rise from a breath. Gently, I reached out to touch his face and wake him. I thoroughly expected him to stir, then sit up with a smile, hold me and my sister, and explain how there had been a misunderstanding. But when my fingers touched his skin, it was cold. I retracted my arm quickly, it was a shock. Understanding my Dad to be gone, I crumpled to the floor, crying. Family tried to console me and my younger sister, but our grief was wild and uncontrollable. It would not submit to taming. As adults swarmed to comfort me, I stood and sprinted into an adjoining room where I fell into a chair, sobbing. My body writhed with each sob and I felt certain that I would die from heartbreak, right there in the mortuary.

My Uncle, John Quincy, walked in and gently placed his hand on my back. Moments later, he scooped me into his arms and held me as I cried. He held me, as my mom pulled herself together, pushing through a thick cloud of her own devastating grief, she walked over to hold me and my sister.

That was my mom, stronger than anyone I've ever known. She lived a difficult, but amazing life and to me, she was a superhero. On that day, in the mortuary, some 42 years ago, she was only twenty-nine years old and already a widow, a divorcee, and a domestic abuse survivor. In spite of all of that, my mom, both figuratively and literally carried my sister and me, while she also completed two college degrees, worked as a LASER technician for a National Laboratory, learned to program computers, and remarried a man with whom she shared her life for more than 34 years. My mom was amazing. She volunteered as a teacher for decades, spoke at assemblies and inspired other women to become teachers and technicians. One woman completed college and went on to teach science at a Navajo reservation in Arizona, inspiring a whole generation of Native American youth in Rock Point to pursue education. Later, that same woman contacted my mom and invited us to visit Rock Point and serve as science fair judges. We did this annually, for several years.

My mom was a member of the American Indians’ greatest generation and in my estimation, she was one of them...one of the greatest. They were the generation who were stripped from their families and tribes but overcame that to fight for justice and build something for the rest of us, who have come after. They were the people who saw friends and family killed at Wounded Knee, but who persevered to bring sweat lodges into prisons for Native prisoners so they could find a path to sobriety and right living. This generation faced down incredible odds in their quest for equality and equal protection under the law. They forced through the Native American Child Welfare act so that the US Gov. could no longer kidnap native children from their families and tribes, which had been done to my mom. They built the foundations of a movement which we see blossoming today in a new generation of Native American activists. They came from ashes and built something beautiful. My mom was a part of that in her job and community.

My mom took her last breath just before 9:00 am Mountain time, on Saturday, February 2, 2019. She had been admitted to the ICU at Saint Vincent's hospital in Santa Fe, and on Friday, the day before she died, she saw visitors and seemed both happy and upbeat. I made a point of visiting her and bringing my thirteen-year-old son. We joked and spent time talking. No one thought she was hours from death, so as I left when visiting hours were over, I told her that I was going to drive the boy back to Albuquerque for his award ceremony and then to his Jazz retreat at Hummingbird Music Camp. I said that the camp should wrap up around five, the following evening and that I'd try to drive back to Santa Fe for a visit with her. She smiled and said, OK. I gave her a hug, and a kiss then left.

In Albuquerque, my son took 3rd place at the National History Day competition. I photographed him with a giant grin on his face as he proudly displayed his ribbon. I sent the photo, via text, to my sister and my mom. It was one of the last things my mom saw. My sister reports that mom saw the picture and received the news of a 3rd place finish and she grinned, saying "I'm so proud of him." A little while later, she started hallucinating. By the time I started my ascent into the Jemez Mountains, I received a text from my sister, informing me that mom had started hallucinating and that the hospital staff planned to sedate her. That she'd be unconscious and on a ventilator for a few days, while they let her rest, and let her heart and lungs heal. I was uneasy about the idea, but it sounded like they had a solid plan, so I kept driving to Hummingbird music camp, because I was a chaperone, but I planned to visit mom the next evening, even if she was unconscious.

When I arrived, I discovered that there was no cell service. After some time, I was able to connect via WiFi and I successfully placed a WiFi call and received a text message, so I felt confident I could be reached in an emergency. Next morning, my mom took a serious turn for the worse and my father tried to reach me, unsuccessfully over the course of about 20 minutes. He called my wife, who was already in Santa Fe, and she called the Hummingbird main office, which had opened at 8:30 or 9:00 am. By the time my wife reached me, however, my mom had already passed, and again, like when I was seven, I crumpled, sobbing, uncontrollably.

I have known for years that I would one day have to confront my mom's mortality. I have lived in fear of that day for almost as long as I can remember. I have to be honest, the experience was every bit as terrible as I imagined. I cannot communicate the depth of grief into which I plunged that morning. I'm not sure how I pulled myself together so that I could drive to Santa Fe with my son to say farewell to my mom. Even today, I struggle to focuse on life's demands. After sobbing for what felt like an eternity, I finally pulled myself together, and I asked another chaperone to enter my son's jazz workshop and send him out with his guitar and amp. When he came out, I paused, and then said to him, "I'm really sorry, but Grandma Valerie died last night in the hospital." He looked stricken and his gaze fell to the floor. I don't think he spoke for nearly an hour. There is no good way to tell someone that a loved one has died. I just held him and cried, while he stood there, essentially limp in my arms. This was the second grandmother that he has lost in less than three months. Both were very involved in his life.

We somberly collected his belongings, climbed into my car, and started driving home, so that I could collect some Native Tobacco, which my uncle had grown, in Canada. At home, I fashioned a small pouch, from tissue paper and a ribbon. In it, I placed a pinch of the native tobacco, and a pinch of sage that my son had gifted me a few years back. I collected several musical shakers that I have, and then my son and I got back into my car and drove to the hospital in Santa Fe.

When we arrived, my father was engaged in a seemingly endless phone call with the organ donation specialists. I took that time to tie the tobacco and sage pouch to my mom's left wrist, and when my father was finally able to finish the call, we gathered around my mom, I distributed the shakers and we sang the Lil'wat bear song. We sang it four times and we all cried. It is one of my mom's favorite songs, and we are members of the Bear clan. My son is named Mikalh, which is based on the Lil'wat word, Mix'alh, meaning black bear. A few years ago, I learned that I'm named after my mom's little brother, who died as a child in an abusive foster care situation, she remembered his name as Michael, but it turns out he was named Mix'alh, too. After we finished that song, I sang a Lakota song, which I learned from an Earl Bullhead CD. It was a song that my mom always asked me to sing when I visited her in the hospital. Then we sang Blue Boat Home, one of my mom's favorite UU songs.

Then we made arrangements for a mortuary to receive my mom's remains and we went to eat lunch before going to our respective homes. That night, I visited my sister and father. We talked, and laughed, but we did so through profound sadness. A couple days later, we traveled together, to Santa Fe, to return my mom's medical equipment. At the clinic the staff were sad. They cried and hugged my sister and father.

Then we went to the mortuary, where we made final preparations for mom's cremation. Just prior to that, I had received a call from family in Canada and we found that my tribe, the Lil'wat, Mt. Currie Band, were planning traditional rights for my mom. They rang the bell, announced my mom's death and began the rituals that they do when they lose someone. This news made my father and sister cry. it was unexpected but welcome. We all plan to travel to Lil'wat with my mom's ashes and complete the ceremony with the tribe.

I'm grateful for all of this, for the closeness in my family, for the support of my tribe, who we barely know, but who accept and embrace us as family. I am grateful for all of that, but ultimately, more than anything, I really just wish, with all of my heart that I could have my mom back. For another year, or two. Just to build some more memories and to prepare a little better for her leaving us. I find that I want her and my mother-in-law to see my youngest child grow up. I want both of them to see me graduate college, but that won't happen. I want to discuss Star Trek Discovery Season Two with my mom and travel to Mesa Verde with my mother-in-law, but that will never happen. They are gone.

Grandmas together. Maybe they'll walk among the stars too
On Sunday, I found a paper that my mom wrote when she was completing her second college degree in 1998. It explored traditional Lil'wat stories, and in one section, she describes how, for my people, the Lil'wat, the Milky Way is the ghost path. It is the road that our deceased travel to the land of the dead, a beautiful place, which is warm and lush. It is filled with fruit, and all of the people you've ever loved, or who loved you. Some people stay there and some become star people. I am an atheist, but I like the idea of my mom walking the ghost path, among the stars, to see her dislocated Lil'wat family, and her little brother who died when she was so young, and anyone who she has ever loved or who loved her. It is a comforting idea and one which I'm extending to my mother-in-law, who passed only a few months earlier, in October.

For me, it feels like this is too much grief...too much loss. I am bearing it as best I can, but my heart is heavy and my smile unwilling. I'm doing what I can to carry my son through this, and to walk with my wife as she grieves the recent loss of her mom. I'm doing my best to walk with my father as he grieves the loss of his wife of 34 years and my sister who is having very similar experiences to me.

I loved and admired my mom so much and I can't imagine a world without her. She volunteered as a teacher in local schools. She put together homeless bags and gave them out to homeless people when she went to Santa Fe. She put together care packages for our servicemen and women, who are overseas. She served as President of the Board for the Jemez House Youth Ranch. She worked on National Security projects when she was younger and employed by a National Laboratory. She volunteered at the visitor center near Bandelier, she often carried random gifts with her just so she could give people a gift when she saw that they needed someone to be generous with them, she made small children feel welcome, and she made people feel loved. My mom made this world a better place, in spite of her difficult life.

I hope only to have an impact which is a fair measure of that which my mom had in this world.

In heartbreak and love, I say "goodbye, Mom."

Valerie Rose Adams was Born Jan 27, 1950 and died Feb 2, 2019.
She lived an amazing, difficult, and blessed life
This world is better for her having been here!