The Terri Bear

Many years ago, I started a tradition of giving my mother a present on my birthday.  I figured she was the one who did all the work.  I just showed up.  One of the first of these gifts was a teddy bear dressed in a pink sweater.  My name and date of birth were embroidered on the sweater.  It was the perfect “It’s A Girl” present for a new mother.  The “girl” in question was in her late thirties at the time.

My mom kept that bear safe for many a year.  She moved the bear from travel trailer home to mobile home.  The bear also made the trip from California to Florida. I think my mom got a kick out of my furry little avatar.  She would sometimes play whimsical little tricks on me, featuring the Terri Bear.  I’d sometimes find her in unexpected places, accompanied by notes from my mom telling me to have a good day or to remember to eat.  Once, when I walked into my mom’s house, she had the bear wrapped up in a fuzzy blanket, snuggled in the corner of an overstuffed chair.  When I laughed and pointed at the bear, my mother exclaimed, “well, it was freezing last night- I didn’t want her to get cold!”  Heaven forbid.

When my mom moved to the rehab facility after her initial hospitalization, I brought some things from home.  I brought her a blanket and some clothes and her wheelchair cushion. I also brought her the Terri Bear.  I told her that, when I wasn’t with her, the bear could keep an eye on her and report back.  We both enjoyed that idea.  The bear was also a good conversation starter for anyone who came into her room.

As my mother transferred around to different medical facilities, we did manage to retain the blanket.  Everything else ended up staying at the rehab place.  There seemed to be many more important things to worry about than retrieving a bunch of stuff from a place where she would no longer reside.  Basically, we were just talking about a bunch of old blouses and slacks.  She had plenty of them and I could get her more, if need be.  Somehow, the little Terri Bear got lost in the shuffle.  It took a couple of months for me to realize it.

Once Terri Bear meandered back onto my mental radar screen, I felt sad that she was gone.  I knew that I could probably make phone calls to the rehab facility or go over there and see if someone could look for her.  The idea of actually talking to anyone there just seemed overwhelming to me.  Actually, it seemed pretty impossible to me.  I kept trying to convince myself that it wasn’t important enough to force myself to deal with the issue. Every time I thought about the bear, which was often, I felt sad, though.  On the other hand, I just couldn’t seem to muster the energy to contact the rehab facility.

Why did it seem so hard for me to resolve the issue?  I told myself that I have been spending so much time and energy doing things that are actually required to take care of my mother, the idea of taking on a task that was not absolutely necessary was just masochistic.  I told myself that it would likely be an insurmountable chore to convince the rehab staff to search for the bear, especially given the length of time that had passed.  I could foresee having to have multiple conversations, meeting with resistance, and finally being told that the rehab facility could not be responsible for items left unclaimed for so long.  None of these stories that I told myself felt completely truthful, however.

Despite my arguments with myself, I could not bear to let the bear go.  My brother had asked several times during my mother’s illness if there was anything he could do to help from California.  My brother has a big heart and wants to do whatever he can, but he is not always able to follow through.  He has struggled with that propensity frequently during this difficult journey.  The other day when he asked again if there was anything he could do, I thought about the bear and decided to take him up on his offer.  I explained that I really wanted the bear, but just couldn’t seem to make myself call the rehab facility or go into the building.  I asked him if he could contact them and have them mail Terri Bear to me.

Bless him… he did contact the facility.  Somehow, he ended up talking to the owner and she found Terri Bear right away.  She wouldn’t agree to mail her to me, but did offer to keep her safe until I could pick her up.  That would still entail me having to actually go into their building, but my brother worked with her so that I could simply go to the reception desk and pick up the bear without having to get into conversations and explanations.

Today, I felt a surge of emotional strength when I awoke and decided to try to retrieve my bear.  After visiting my mother in the nursing home, I drove to the rehab facility.  I sat in the car for a while, marshalling the necessary fortitude to get me inside the door.  Finally, I took a deep breath and marched into the entrance.  I saw the Terri Bear sitting behind the receptionist and said, “Oh, good…. You have my bear.”  After looking at my identification (because of course there would be tons of other people who would want a twenty-something year old teddy bear wearing a sweater emblazoned with “Terri 09-30-59), she gave me the bear and I bolted to the door.

It turned out to be not quite so easy.  I must have arrived at the end of a shift.  As I walked back out into the parking lot, several different nursing aides who cared for my mother approached me to ask how she was doing and where she was.  It was incredibly nice that they remembered my mother and recognized me, but these were still difficult conversations.

When I finally got back into my car, safe from further questions and explanations, I broke into sobs for the first time in a while.  I think I finally understood what it was that I dreaded so much about facing the rehab facility again.  The rehab facility was the first place where the spotlight shone on the reality of my mother’s condition.  It was where both she and I most acutely and painfully mourned the loss of the kind of life she cherished.  The rehab facility was also the last place we had hope that she would be able to recover enough physical and mental ability to live a new kind of life she could learn to love.  In retrospect, I think the rehab facility was probably the place my mother decided not to try to prolong her life although it took me longer to come to understand that she had made that decision.

I think I’ve stabilized my grief about my mother’s illness.  I am more able to handle myself and live life without being debilitated by sadness.  My encounter at the rehab today showed me, though, that I still have a reservoir of pain dammed up in an area of my gut. It was suddenly so tangible. I could actually feel that pocket of pain on the right side of my abdomen, just about at my waist.  It is kind of like an inflamed appendix that bursts, releasing lethal toxins into the body cavity.  That reservoir of pain overflowed because of my encounter at the rehab facility, causing a kind of emotional peritonitis.

I really do appreciate that folks at the rehab facility still remember and think fondly of my mother, even months after she left there.  It touched me when they asked about her.  It reassured me that the people there did truly care for her while she lived there.  On the other hand, the rehab facility does not hold happy associations for me and never will.

Still, I am happy to be reunited with Terri Bear and I am grateful to my brother for easing the way.

It’s your turn now.  Do you have anything so wrapped up in emotions and memories that it has become more than just a piece of stuff?  Have you ever lost that item?  Please tell us about it!  Please share your perspective by leaving a comment.  in the alternative, you can email me at terriretirement@gmail.com.

Have a wonderful day!

Terri 🙂

The First Man I Remember

I have many warm memories of my father.  Most of them are as vivid and dimensional as if they happened just yesterday.

I remember waiting in line to go on the Matterhorn at Disneyland with my father when I was a little girl.  I was the only one who would join him on this first Disney thrill ride.  Thinking back, I can almost feel the anticipation and adrenaline building as we got closer and closer to the front of the line.  I usually had enough time to get good and scared by the time it was our turn.  I always came very close to backing out at the last minute, but I always boarded the ride… and loved it.  I knew, if I was with my Daddy, it was going to be okay.  The ride was always wild and frenetic and absolutely entrancing to my young self…. partly because it was an experience that was special for just the two of us to share.  My father was brave.

I remember my brother and I waiting in the car with my father while my mother visited my dying grandmother in the hospital.  It seemed like we were in that parking lot for hours and hours at a time, night after night.  I’m not sure what all we did during that time, but I have a very clear memory of my father entertaining us by singing navy drinking singing songs.  My father was funny.

I remember visiting the Kern River when I was about nine or ten.  I was a little fish as a child and loved being in the water.  Little fish can get carried away with the current and survive.  Little girls, not so much. I have a picture of my father sitting on a flat rock on the river’s edge.  He is holding three lengths of rope.   One is attached to me, one is attached to my brother, and one is attached to Baron, our dachshund-ish puppy, as our squirmy little bodies whooshed down the river with the current.  It still gives my mother fits that all that stood between her little darlings and certain death were the ropes my father tied around our tummies.  Since I lived to tell the tale, it is proof that my father passed basic seamanship.  He could tie sound knots and haul small bodies out of the brink.  I’m not sure anyone in the navy quite envisioned him using these skills to keep his children and dog from meeting a brutal end crashing against the rocky banks of the Kern River.    My father was innovative. 

I remember camping out in the backyard in a teepee my father made out of bedsheets he dyed the color of buckskin.  He decorated it by having each member of the family make a handprint with a different color paint on the fabric.  My father, for some completely unknown reason, just decided he was part Native American sometime in the late 1960s.  There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that this assertion was true, but my father willed it so.  I think he felt his interest and passion for Native American culture should have been enough to entitle him to at least some connection.  Even if there was no true bloodline connection, he loved his way into the tribe.  He and my little brother became extremely active in Indian Guides.  My father tooled leather and created war bonnets with feathered trains longer than he was.  He did intricate beadwork designs on moccasins.  He read everything he could find about Native American history and culture.  Long into his retirement, he and my mother rarely took a vacation that did not involve travel to some ancient Native American tribal location.  When my brother “aged out” of Indian Guides, my parents actually came very, very close to adopting or fostering another child so my father could continue.  When they decided that action might be a little too extreme, my father just continued his exploration of Native American lore, culture, craft, and history on his own…. a sort of independent study version of Indian Guides.  My father was passionate. 

I remember being honored at an academic awards ceremony in high school.  In my time, mothers were usually the ones who attended these kind of things.  By the time high school rolled around, it was even rare to glimpse a mother watching the principal award her offspring with yet another certificate indicating “big fish in a small pond” excellence in something or other.  In my family, my mother and father both held jobs outside the home by the time I was in high school.  My father had more vacation time.  My father was the one who always came to school to watch me receive awards.  He was always freshly showered and shaved and wearing his “good” clothes.  I remember the lime green velour pullover shirt with thin violet and turquoise pinstripes (remember, it was the 70s!) that he wore to “dress up.”  I wore that shirt for years after he abandoned it.  My father was never a demonstrative man or lavish with praise.  In fact, some would say that he was too critical.  However, I knew how proud he was and how happy he was with his family, especially on those award ceremony days.  I could see the huge smile that came from the very core of his being.  It was one of the moments that occurred from time to time that made me certain that my father believed that the best and most important touchpoints about his whole life were his wife and children.  It defined him.  My father was loving. 

I remember moving into the condo I purchased on my own.  My father came and stayed with me for about a week when I first moved in.  While I was at work during the day, my father painted things and replaced things and fixed things in the condo.  When I came home, I could hear him whistling and humming as I came up the stairs.  He was busy and active, truly shaping the home where I would live for the next 23 years.  At night, we would go out to dinner, talk about things that we had never talked about, laugh together, and watch television.  My father was a fixer. 

I remember standing by my father’s bed in intensive care as he was dying twenty years ago.  He was only 72 years old.  He had been fine when my mother went to work in the morning.  He was fine when she came home at lunch.  He was laying on the floor in pain from a sudden heart attack when she got home in the early evening.  At the time, I lived about 70 miles away from my parents.  By the time I arrived to say good-bye, he had been unconscious for some time and I don’t know if he knew I was there.  My mother said that he was waiting for the priest and for me before he left us.  When I got to the hospital, the priest was in his room.  I went in and told him I loved him and didn’t want him to go.  While I was there, he passed away.  My father was gone.

I’ve always said that my father could fix anything.  I believe that, had he been conscious enough to open his own chest and wrestle his heart from his body, he could have jerry-rigged some way of keeping it going.  Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. 

When my father died, my life changed forever.  That was one of the pivotal moments of my life when I could literally see my world transforming as it happened.  It was the end of being a child.  I was in my thirties.  One could certainly argue that I had not really been a child for a long time.  I had graduated college, married, supported myself, advanced significantly in a career, gotten divorced, and bought a home on my own.  Still, as long as my father was alive, part of me was his little girl.  My parents were a safe place to land if things did not go well.  They were the safe haven to protect me when being a grown-up got too difficult.  Once my father was gone, I not only lost his protection, but I also became the one who had to protect.  My mother has always been a strong, capable person.  Still, her loss of her life’s partner was even greater than my loss of my father.  It was now my role in the parent/child relationship to let her feel her loss, absorb as much of it as I could, and provide her with the safe haven she and my father always provided me. 

It has been a lifetime since my father’s lifetime ended.  I have continued to grow and change.  The way I look at life and death and joy and grief and protection and support continues to evolve.  That is as it should be.  Still, some part of me still mourns for that last bit of childhood I lost the day my father died.  I hope, even in Heaven, Daddy sees a part of me that is still his little girl.

Happy Fathers’ Day to all the fathers out there!  This Sunday is a dedicated time for us to thank “the first men we remember” for being our dads.  What are your best memories of your father?  Please share your perspective by leaving a comment.  In the alternative, you can send me an email at terriretirement@gmail.com. 

Have a wonderful day!

Terri 🙂