By Dave Boyle
“The first thing to go from my memory after my dad died was his voice. The second, his laugh.”
Denise was only twelve years old when her father, Richard, passed away in 1987. She still remembers the sterile, unfriendly atmosphere of the hospital room, the tubes, and the unnecessary ambulance rides. She knew, as much as any 12 year old can know, that this was no way to spend the last days of your life.
Her grandparents had met in the Philippines; her grandfather an American in the U.S. Army and her grandmother 100% Pilipino. Her dad was born in 1949 and immigrated to the United States in 1967. He was a great dancer, had an infectious smile, and owned his own business. He was just 37 years old when he passed away from cancer.
“When you lose a father at twelve years of age, you just don’t lose him at twelve,” Denise says, “you also lose him on your 13th birthday. You lose him on your 16th birthday. You lose him when you get your driver’s license. You lose him when you graduate from high school. You lose him when you graduate from college. You lose him at all the milestones, as you try to make sense of your life through the lens of his absence.” Denise has memories of her dad, happy memories, and loving memories. But there are not enough of them and the ones she has are not as clear as she would have liked them to be.
Her mom and dad had divorced years earlier, but this of course was way different. Now she, her brother Ryan and her mom Linda were truly on their own. Denise’s mom was a very strong and courageous woman, and time does not permit the thousands of words it would take to do her justice. The best way to meet Linda Carson would be to read Denise’s book, “Parting Ways.” I usually find myself choosing relatively unimportant sporting events or inane political shows on television over getting lost in a good book, but this book I polished off in a few days. Denise’s depictions of her mom captivated me and made me feel like I know her. I also got to know Denise better, which is one reason why I wanted to celebrate her today.
After her mom was diagnosed with cancer, Denise decided that it wasn’t going to be like it was with her dad. This would be different. Mom would be celebrated. If it’s true that you only die when the memory of you is gone from people’s minds and hearts, then Linda Carson was never going to die.
The first thing Denise did with her mom was Life Review, learning many things that she hadn’t known before and understanding her mom liked she had never understood her before. Denise could feel her heart melting as she listened to her mom share her pain and admit her shortcomings. Life Review also led Denise and her mom to do something that most people in that situation don’t even think of doing, cleaning out the closet, while the person is still alive. In her book Denise writes the following. “Cleaning out the closet is usually a task performed after a person dies. The ritual marks a state of acceptance that the deceased will not be returning. After the funeral and after everyone stops coming around, you are left to enter the wardrobe wafting with scents of your loved one. And by then the clothes are just clothes, and the books are just books. But what if you cleaned out the closet with the person there? I believe the life review helped us together reach this revelatory stage of acceptance before her death.”
The second phase was the Last Wish. It was now November of 2001, three months before her mom’s passing. How do you celebrate the last Thanksgiving? The last Christmas? The last birthday? For Denise it was going through recipes with her mom and cooking Thanksgiving dinner. It was trimming the Christmas tree as Linda entertained with stories of the history of the ornaments. And it was inviting close friends over for a birthday celebration complete with cake and candles, as well as a surprise visit from the pastors and members of the choir of Linda’s home church, saying a prayer and singing Amazing Grace for her.
The final part of the journey with her mom was sitting vigil at her bedside in her last days and hours. Scripture passages were read from her well-worn Bible. Instrumental praise music hummed on the CD player. Prayers were said, and a sponge bath was given followed by a fresh pink nightgown. A last “I love you” from Linda to Denise, and a sunset. And then at 2:07, Sunday February 10th, 2002, Linda Carson went into the arms of her Heavenly Father, surrounded by family and friends.
Denise writes in her book, “They say hearing is the last sense to go. I recited the Twenty-Third Psalm by heart. Then I opened her Bible and read Psalm 139. As I read the first verse, a song came to me, a song I hadn’t sung since I was a girl in Sunday School. The song was Psalm 139 called ‘Search Me of God.’ I sang loudly, like a sorrowful siren expelling my grief from the depths of my soul with every note.”
Search me, oh God, you know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there be any hurtful way in me and lead me in the everlasting way.
Which brings me to why we’re here today. Four years after her mom’s passing Denise crossed paths with Donna Miller, who was then the Volunteer Coordinator with Solari Hospice, and who would soon become the Director of Volunteer Services here at Hospice Care of the West. Denise followed Donna around for two years, interviewing her and chronicling the things that Donna and her volunteers did. And then in 2010 shortly after her own mother had passed away, Deb Robson accepted the position as our Executive Director, and immediately hit it off with Denise. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in some of those early meetings as the two of them bantered back and forth about the ideas that they could bring to their new endeavor.
As I go over Denise’s book “Parting Ways” in my mind, I can’t help but be taken by the fact that Denise did a life review with her mom. Denise gave her mom a last wish. Denise sat vigil by her bedside in her last hours. Life Review. Last Wishes. Sitting vigil. Do any of those sound familiar? Shannon, Jay and their team do a fantastic job with the Life Review videos with our families. Caitlin Crommet started the DreamCatchers program four years ago through Hospice Care of the West, providing last wishes for our patients. And our Volunteer Department provides Vigil Volunteers, so no one has to die alone. Celebration was conceived because Denise and Deb thought it was important to celebrate us as we care for our patients and their families. These are some of the things that make our hospice a fulfilling and very unique place to work, and these are things that Denise, along with Deb and Jay, have helped bring to the fore-front at Hospice Care of the West.
Denise held a celebration for her mom before she passed, and Linda was able to hear all of the wonderful things that people had to say about her, and hear about all of the lives she had touched. We hold Celebration every other month, so we can share our stories of touching the lives of our patients and celebrate each other. Denise has done such a wonderful job of celebrating us, so I wanted to celebrate her today. Thank you Denise, for bringing us your heart, your soul, your wisdom and your experiences. Your story is truly your gift to us.