Make it Count and Do it Well

Her Last Adventure…Part One

Grand Tetons National Park

I do not enjoy suspense. I like books and movies where you know right from the start that the hero makes it to the other side safely, happily, and in one piece. And, in all honesty, I also like to know up front if the main character will die before the final scene. So, in case you’re that kind of person too, I’m giving you a heads-up…the main character, the heroine of this tale, my mother, dies in the end. It is not a story of sadness and sorrow, although they unavoidably play a part. No, the tone of this story was set by the leading lady. My mother approached her death with acceptance, courage, curiosity, and humor.

“I think this will be a great adventure,” she said. Then she added, “I’ve never died before. I don’t know what it will be like.” The way she chose to face this final chapter was her last and perhaps most important lesson and one of her greatest gifts.


I had slipped into her room while she was sleeping, so Mom didn’t know I was sitting quietly in the corner when her doctor entered and wiggled her toe to wake her.

“I want to check out,” she said.

“Oh, I can see to that. I’ll get the paperwork ready. Then, if you wish, you can go home as soon as that’s finished.”

“No,” she explained. Then, with her palm parallel to the floor in a sort of horizontal karate chop, she gestured from her body toward him, emphasizing the words, “No, I want to…check…out. I don’t want any more treatments. I just want to go home.”

Immediately, an enormous unbidden lump rose in my throat. I couldn’t imagine life without my mother, but I understood her decision. She had been dealing with one medical complication and setback after another for years. She was stoic and cheerful for the most part, although she was often in pain. Her zest for living and her ability to make new friends wherever she went hid her daily discomfort. Even on that snowy January morning, her spirit wasn’t broken, and her love of life remained ever present, but the last challenge she had endured just two days earlier and the diagnosis of congestive heart failure that followed changed things. Sometime during the night, she decided that she simply wished to live out her remaining days in the comfort of her home without any additional medical interventions besides those required to keep her comfortable and free from pain. She had played the hand dealt to her skillfully, but now she was ready to leave her cards on the table and head for the door.

“You know,” she concluded, “I think 90-plus years is enough.”

While arrangements were made for her to be transported back to her assisted living apartment, I called my sister, who would meet us there. Then we let our other siblings and our spouses know of this development. Just like that…filled with emotion and the sudden perception of being untethered and carried along willy-nilly by the fickle and unpredictable direction of the wind…together with Mom, we began the last great adventure of her life.

Of course, Mom would be the only one boarding the train in the end, but we’d do whatever we could to help her prepare for the journey. We would pack her bags, make sure she had her ticket, and when the train pulled into the station, we’d help her up the steps as she climbed aboard. Then we would lean against each other as we stood on the platform, watching it pull away, leaving us behind as she ventured on without us.

As a teenager in the mid-late 1960s, I attended Lake Louise United Methodist camp near Boyne Falls, Michigan. One evening during a vesper service with the lake before us, the sun setting in the distance and flames of the campfire dancing into the approaching night, one of the adult leaders shared a message that has stayed with me through the decades. I’m unsure what prompted his reflection, but part of this homily left a lasting impression.

“It’s true,” he declared, “that you only have one life to live. So live it well. It’s also just as true that you only have one death to die, so don’t waste it, make it count, and do it well.”

Nothing else from that evening remains. There were probably verses of Kum Ba Yah and a prayer or two thrown in, but those words about dying well took up lodging in my brain… don’t waste it; make it count, and do it well. Of course, we aren’t all given the opportunity to put these admonitions into practice; perhaps few of us are. The time and manner of our departure are usually a matter of fate coming without warning rather than at a time and place of our own choosing, but it is truly a gift of grace when we can face our imminent departure, determined to do it well.

Mom thought that by simply deciding to die, it would be just a matter of days until…in her words…she flat-lined; however, that wasn’t how things worked out. No, dying wouldn’t be quite that easy. Instead, like once brilliant sidewalk chalk drawings on a rainy afternoon, she would slowly slip away. Observing this process wasn’t easy, but I am forever grateful for that brief gift of time.

Two years earlier, when Mom moved from her condo to her apartment in the assisted living facility, the task of emptying and selling her house fell to her children. It was difficult for her to know that the possessions, treasures, and minutia of her life were being sorted, divided, and disposed of without her supervision. One day during this process, she asked, “Do you know what happened to that little wooden box I kept on the marble-topped stand? Do you know the one I mean?”

“The box that was carved and had inlaid ivory on the top? I queried.”Lined with blue velvet? Is that the one you mean? I gave you that box for Christmas when I was in High School. I bought it at the Grand Rapids Museum. I don’t know where it is now, though.”

“Well, it’s probably right there on the stand.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that my brother, who had been promised this piece of furniture, had already taken it to his house.

“What made you think about that box, Mom?” I asked.”

“Well,” she said with just a slight hesitation, “It has my thumb in it.

Decades previously, while working on one of her many projects, Mom had cut off her thumb at the joint with a table saw. She was home alone at the time, and although she searched for her thumb, the force of the blade had flung it out of sight. Finally, giving up her search and bleeding profusely, she wrapped a towel around her hand and drove herself to the hospital. Thinking that perhaps the neighbor’s cat had found the wayward digit Dad was surprised when months later, he discovered the desiccated thumb in the woodpile. Evidently, unbeknownst to me, Mom had kept her thumb in the ornate wooden box.

“I’ll keep an eye out for that box, but I bet you brought it here, and you’ve just forgotten where you put it.”

Now, with the end of her journey in sight, her attitude to the sorting and redistribution of her things suddenly changed. She was no longer interested in who had what or what became of which. Shortly after returning to her apartment from the hospital, she directed us to do whatever was needed to dispose of her remaining possessions. Since she was now confined to her bed, we tried to make the process less difficult for her by working outside her line of sight. I reminded her of how painful it had been disposing of her things earlier.

“Well, I don’t feel like that now. No, I want you to work on emptying this place. Then, if I die before the end of the month, you can be out of here without paying another month’s rent.” Everyone thinks their mother is unique, but mine was an original…truly one of a kind.

During those precious days, my siblings and I were each granted time alone… one-on-one time…private time…personal time…with Mom. Since I wasn’t working, I was able to spend quantity time as well as quality time with her. We reminisced and laughed as she shared memories and oft-told tales…teaching my aunt…famous for her infectious laugh…how to drive, and the night she delivered her grandson when he arrived before I could make it to the hospital. I listened, too, while she recalled deep hurts from years long past that still haunted her and the disappointment that she felt knowing that there were still things on her to-do list that wouldn’t get checked off. We also discussed the memorial service she expected me to lead. “It would be nice if there were a few tears,” she admitted, “but I really hope the memorial will be a joyful celebration of the wonderful life I’ve had.” We were all blessed by the gift of time, but eventually, as we knew she would, she began to slip away.

Wolf Neck, Maine

Her Last Adventure…Part Two

In time, Mom began to sleep more, speaking infrequently, with many hours between verbal interactions.

When I was young, my paternal grandparents lived across the street from an old cemetery. Without television or much else to amuse us, my brother, my cousins, and I would entertain ourselves by wandering the garden of stones, reading epitaphs and last words chiseled into the sandstone and slate, so when Mom did speak, I was careful to mark her words, just in case they were her last.

“One afternoon, one of the caregivers from her assisted living facility came in a sat at her bedside. Mom was one of the favorites, so it wasn’t uncommon for them to join us. In gentle tones, she spoke quietly to Mom, who hadn’t been responsive for a long time. As she rose to leave, Mom said softly, “I love you” How wonderful, I thought, if her final words were, I love you. Mom would end most conversations with the words, “Know I love you,” which would also appear at the end of written conversations as KILY. How appropriate that she would leave us with words of love.

“If we’d been in a Hallmark movie, those would have been her final words, but..real life isn’t scripted. One morning a few days later, I assisted a hospice volunteer as she gave Mom a sponge bath. The attendant was kind and caring, but Mom had cried out several times in pain. It was upsetting and traumatic for all three of us. On her subsequent visit, the volunteer spoke soothingly, explaining what she would do.

“Jean, I will help you bathe and do my best to keep you pain-free. If you disagree, you can just tell me to shut up.”

Suddenly, after an extended period of silence, in a solid clear voice, Mom said, ” Shut up!” Oh! No! Her last words would be shut up!

There was no sponge bath that day.

Luckily, however, those weren’t destined to be her final comments. One evening, a hospice worker we hadn’t met before arrived to check in on Mom and to see how we were holding up.

“Hello, Jean. My name is Alex.”

Before he could continue, our mother, who hadn’t spoken or indicated that she was aware of our presence in what seemed like days, interrupted. “Oh, Alex. Alex.”

“Mom, this is a different, Alex, not the one you know,” my sister interjected. Then turning to Alex, she continued, “Alex, my mother would want you to know that this is not how she planned her demise. Her plan was to die in her own home, in her own bed…,” and before Kelly could finish, Mom interrupted again with the words that would indeed prove to be her last.

“…making love to a much younger man.”

Oh, Perfect! Mom, true to form, chose to leave us with a reminder of her humor and her joie de vivre. The moment was complete and even more poignant when Alex leaned over and kissed her tenderly on the cheek. Truly perfect.

Shenandoah National Park

The hospice nurse advised us that we were probably entering the final hours.

Penny, Kelly, and I summoned our brother; our spouses had returned home to wait; the caregivers no longer joined us in singing at her bedside as we had often done; the hospice volunteers sat unobtrusively down the hall, and with her four children gathered around, Mom’s journey…her final adventure was nearing the end.

Throughout the day, as she slept, we continued to clean cupboards and prepare the apartment in anticipation of her departure.

“Hey, Kerry, would you like this box of arrowheads?” I asked, offering my brother the collection we had discovered in a closet.

“Sure,” he replied. Then, as his smiling sisters extended the lovely wooden box with an inlaid ivory lid to him, he recoiled suddenly. “Wait a minute! Is Mom’s thumb in here?”

Impishly we replied in near unison, “Yep, and now it’s yours.” Gee, I hope Mom heard that!

As the day became evening became night, we found ourselves all sitting around the bed. We were on holy ground, sharing a sacred, intimate, profoundly spiritual moment. In this prayerful attitude, we passed the last carton of her favorite Breyers Strawberry Ice Cream between us. “We’re finishing the last of the ice cream for you, Mom,” my sister said as we shared this impromptu ritual of an ice cream communion.

One of the most disturbing, soul-crushing cinematic scenes in all of moviedom is the death of Bambi’s mother. “Your mother can’t be with you anymore. Man has taken her away. Now you must learn to be brave and learn to walk alone.” For most Baby Boomers, it was the first time we realized that our parents could and eventually would leave us. Unlike Bambi, however, I was not alone in the forest as I had feared all my life. When she took her final breaths, we were holding her hand or touching her arm, creating a chain that linked us to her, each other, and the untold number of people she had affected throughout her long life.

Early in the morning of January 25th, 2018, my mother, Jean Ethel Trueman Daab, with all her earthly tasks completed…a life well lived and a death full of grace, gratitude, and wonder… boarded the train and took her leave.

I miss my mother every day, and I often think back on this profound experience. I am so grateful for her example and her constant reminder to “celebrate being alive. Thanks, Mom! Know I love you…Always.

Star Island

The Promise on My Ticket

“The three most exciting sounds in the world…anchor chains, plane motors, and train whistles.”

George Bailey…It’s a Wonderful Life
The Jacobite Train…aka The Harry Potter Train
Glenfinnan, Scotland October 2021

I don’t know if I could reduce all the beautiful sounds of the world down to just three, but I would certainly agree with George Bailey that the sounds of travel are some of the very finest. I simply love to go adventuring! Although still cautious, after two years of Covid restrictions, I am encouraged and delighted by the fact that the world is slowly beginning to open up once again. Ironically, as fate would have it, just as it’s getting safer to throw a suitcase in the back seat and hit the road, gas prices are at an all-time high. Nevertheless, I continue to scour travel guides and maps, planning the perfect route for future trips, tours, and adventures. Studies confirm that planning, booking, and anticipating a trip are beneficial to our health and wellbeing.

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

Ursula K. Leguin

Philosophers, poets, and writers stress the importance of the journey, not the destination. Experienced travelers know the value of being open to unexpected challenges, changes, detours, as well as unplanned joys, discoveries, and glimpses of rainbows. It’s not only about where we arrive but how we get there.

The Road to Killin.
Along Loch Tay, Scotland, October 2021

Of course, it’s important to enjoy the flight. We take pleasure in the wee bag of pretzels, the cola in a plastic cup, and we choose the window seat so we can dream above the clouds, but we also need the gratification of eventually getting off the plane. I can’t think of anything worse than constantly traveling and never arriving. I love the journey, but occasionally, like a little kid, I want to ask…Are we there yet?

For some, the idea of destination may imply…an end…the finale….the place we hope to arrive…eventually…death, perhaps….but not without first going through the hassle of Detroit Metro, Logan or Schipol. Instead, I prefer to think of destination as the promise on my ticket of places I’ll stop along my journey. Sometimes I’ll get out of the car and tramp through the woods, paddle my kayak, or ride the Hop-On, Hop-Off bus. Other days will find me stuck with a long layover, a flat tire by the side of the road, or waiting for lost luggage.

Reunited with Old Blue
October 2021

Last October, I was separated from my suitcase for the first eight days of a vacation. Ultimately, my wayward luggage was delivered to our condo hours after we had checked out. This frustrating experience required a complete reworking of our planned route so we could return to collect it. While definitely NOT what we had anticipated or desired, the new course brought us near two great sites we would have missed had we followed our original path.

Kilchurn Castle
Loch Awe, Scotland, October 2021
Packhorse Bridge…1717
Carrbridge, Scotland, October 2021

Sometimes the destination we reach is better than the one we were seeking. But, of course, that works with opposite results too. I remember very well the afternoon my GPS took me to a deserted gravel pit instead of the bridal shower I had intended. In the end, I was a tad late, but after turning my car around and adjusting my route, I arrived in plenty of time for cake. We can always turn the car around, plot a different course, buy a new ticket, or rearrange the furniture where we land.

Throughout life, we have many destinations…places we go for adventure, locations we seek for refuge and answers, regions that are dark, depressing, scary, and seem to take our very souls, and ports of great joy and happiness. However, we don’t stay in any of these places for long, for we must always journey on.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a Seeker. As I’ve traveled through life, my destinations have included the search for answers, the quest for truth, and the hope of finding a light to guide my path. I have journeyed through the land of love and friendship, the valley of loss, regret, sickness, pain, sorrow, and the sunny meadows of bliss, wonder, and amazement on my trek. I’ve carried no passport on this pilgrimage, but each stop along the way has placed its own stamp of entry on my soul.

Once the hotel is booked, the tickets purchased, and the itinerary confirmed, anticipation and anxiety come together in what the Swedes call resfeber (RACE-fay-ber). Resfeber is described as the restless race of a traveler’s heart in anticipation of a trip or that tangled feeling of fear and excitement before a journey begins. Most travelers know that feeling well as we double-check our lists, secure our passports and wallets, and check once more that the stove was indeed turned off. So, I mark the days until my next adventure. I have a confirmed reservation, my suitcase lies open waiting to be filled, Covid tests are ready, and resfeber is beginning to set in.

“You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting so get on your way!”

Dr. Seuss
The Golden Highway
Isle of Harris, Scotland, October 2021

My adventures no longer find me on the crest of the hill. Now I am wending my way slowly down the steep western bank. This pace allows me to enjoy the wind on my face and the flowers at my feet. It gives me time and space to recall, relive, and relish those backroads and safe harbors of my past journeys. However, as the path becomes more challenging, I simply have to plan more stops along the way, discover new destinations, and buy as many tickets as possible. 

Eventually, I will reach the coastal plain, and the final destination will appear before me…but…until then, I am savoring each moment of the journey and delighting in all the destinations that lie ahead. Whoo! Hoo!

Scott’s View
Hawick, Scotland, Near the English Border, October 2021

Laughing Death in the Face

“Remember me with smiles and laughter, for that is how I will remember you all. If you can only remember me with tears, then don’t remember me at all.”

Michael Landon, Little House on the Prairie

I am becoming quite the movie buff. My new condo is literally only five minutes from the local multiplex and I’ve discovered that going to the movies is a rather enjoyable solo activity. In fact, I’m pleasantly surprised to learn that I almost prefer going by myself. I can decide to go at the last minute, I can sit wherever I choose, no one talks to me during the feature, and if I decide to leave early, there’s no one to disappoint.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, however, I went to the movies with my sister’s family which was great fun. After purchasing our tickets, drinks, and popcorn we moved to the butter and salt station where my nephew showed me a trick he uses for making sure the butter is on all the kernels not just those on the top of the bag. He took an extra straw, put it into the bag, pushed it down near the bottom and then deftly placed it under the spout for the melted butter. As he released the warm liquid into the straw he carefully pulled the straw up through the popcorn and voilà the butter was distributed evenly throughout. Great idea!

Movie Popcorn is the Best!

The next time I ventured off to the movies I thought I’d try the new butter technique. I place the bag of popcorn under the dispenser and then positioned my straw into the bag and aligned it with the spout. It was a tight fit getting my straw in the proper position. It looked easy when my nephew did it, but eventually, I had everything in position and pulled the handle forward and began to fill the bag with rich, creamy butter. It was then I noticed the butter dispenser to my right. I wasn’t aligned with the butter. I was filling my bag of fluffy white popcorn with Vitamin B & C-Pomegranate-SoBe-Water! Yes, the entire bottom of my paper sack was filled with vitamin water!

Not to worry, I put some butter on the still fresh kernels at the top of the bag and headed into the theatre. It’s true, most of the bag was really wet and soggy, almost to the point of saturation, but hey, the top third was delicious!

“If you can laugh at yourself, you are going to be fine. If you allow others to laugh with you, you will be great.”

Martin Niemoller

One day, not long after the popcorn incident, I was baking brownies to take to my brother-in-law. The scent of chocolate filled my small kitchen with the promise of deliciousness. Near the end of the baking time, I took a peek into the oven to see how they were doing. Something was very wrong. There was a pool of oil floating on the top of the semi-solid brown batter. What had I done? I reviewed the directions. I hadn’t added too much oil as I first suspected. I had omitted the egg! Quickly, I retrieved the brownies from the oven and stirred the half-baked mixture with a fork. They were still wet enough that I could easily add the eggs and then return the pan to the oven. Without hesitation, I cracked first one egg and then the other into the warm chocolatey concoction. Do you know what happens when you add eggs to something hot? They begin to cook! OMG! I began to stir frantically in an effort to combine the eggs with the brownie glob before they turned to scrambled eggs. I’ve come to terms with chocolate wine, but huevos con chocolate…I don’t think so. Never fear; I beat those eggs hard, fast, and with great determination. In the end, the only evidence of my culinary blunder was a few very small white flecks of egg marbled throughout an otherwise perfect pan of brownies.

He ate them with delight.

“Never be afraid to laugh at yourself, after all, you could be missing out on the joke of the century.”

Barry Humphries
Remember the Eggs

My late husband, Dave, would have loved those stories. Humor and the ability to laugh at ourselves and each other sustained our marriage for forty-three years. In many ways, the two of us led parallel lives. We had very different interests, attitudes, and styles, but we both loved to laugh, and we considered it quite an accomplishment when we were clever enough to get the other to “fall for” one of our many jokes. Not to brag, but I “got” him most often. Laughter was a very important part of who we were as a couple and who we were…are…as individuals. For many people, the trauma of loss has them questioning whether they will ever laugh again. Many people wonder if, in their grief, it is inappropriate or unseemly to smile or laugh. Thankfully, that wasn’t my experience. Telling Dave’s stories and jokes is a way to keep his memory…and him…close and alive.

As much as I wish it were otherwise, Grief has become an omnipresent fixture in my life. It hides in the shadows and rises unexpectantly with the specter of Death, his co-conspirator, to fill me again and again with unspeakable sadness. I have learned, however, that I am pretty resilient, and when I can look Death in the face and let loose with a hearty guffaw, Grief can not defeat me, and Death does not win!

Finding the ability to laugh isn’t always easy. There are days when joy can remain an out-of-reach, unattainable goal, but Happiness and Laughter also live at my house, where they constantly work to keep the sadness at bay. Often when I least expect it, I’ll find a picture, or remember a funny situation, or come across an object Dave unintentionally left behind for me to discover, causing me to smile, chuckle, or dissolve into fits of laughter.

“Ah! To be able to make someone I love laugh years after I’m gone, that is all the immortality I could ever ask for.”

Kate Braestrup, Here If You Need Me

Soon after his death, my sisters and my daughter-in-law were helping me pack Dave’s clothes for Goodwill. “What is this?” my daughter-in-law asked incredulously. The look on her face was a mixture of bewilderment, disbelief, and hilarity. Pinched between her thumb and index finger, she held a piece of navy blue knit material. Suddenly, right there, in the midst of this very sad task, the four of us began to roar with laughter. She was holding the remnants of a long-forgotten practical joke….her father-in-law’s rather ample…underpants with “Chick Magnet” emblazoned across the bottom.

Chick Magnet Undies

Thanks, Dave!

And…Take that Death and your little buddy Grief too!