The Driver

IMG_3341

Helping me through the memory ‘haunts’ of last October, a ‘new’ creative passion, needle felting. Lots of tiny pumpkins showing up!

With Halloween a few weeks away, my thoughts cannot help but think of last year’s holiday, strange as it was.

The day before, October 30, I was at Swedish Hospital. It was a dark rainy day, one of those days that never looks like day. Cancer had already been found in a lymph node a few weeks earlier, now medical personnel were looking for where it came from. Multiple breast images that day resulted in two painful biopsies. We lingered in Seattle to be sure all the bleeding and swelling would subside. Sitting in the car in the rain, the ice packs in my bra thawing, I called the hospice nurse who had seen mom earlier that day. She told me mom was stable and assured me she was not likely to die soon, though maybe in the next few days. Having seen her myself the day before, I wasn’t so sure, but we were planning to see her on our way home and I could do my own assessment.

After waiting an hour in a ferry line, having just missed the one we’d hoped to be on, we were driving off the ferry when the call came. Mom had died, the person calling was surprised I hadn’t been called. She died around 8:30. It was now after 9:00.

Stunned from the events of the day and the call, on autopilot I called the number on the little orange card I always carried with me. Mom had given it to me years ago. Since her mid-70s she had been a volunteer participant in an Alzheimer’s research study through Group Health and the University of Washington. Her brain was to be autopsied upon her death, whether she had Alzheimer’s or not. As it was, she had been diagnosed about 6 years earlier.

A woman answered the phone. She said it would take the ‘driver’ (who, it turned out, was her husband) an hour, maybe more, to get to where mom was. Okay. We would be there, we would wait.

After more than an hour (it was now past 11:00) no one had come. The staff in the care home were changing shifts and gently as possible asked me what was going to happen when. Sitting in the dark stillness of mom’s room, where she lay even more still, I called again.

head

one of my unfinished needle felted ‘heads’, though a little older looking, might be my version of ‘the driver’!

Finally, around 11:30, a young man walked in. In a black style-less suit, thin fabric, narrow lapels, with a white shirt and a thin black tie, he had no facial expression, in fact his face was very pale…no kidding, he was white as a ghost.

In a low, whispery monotone, he asked me to sign some papers. He expressed no words of condolence, there was nothing ‘warm’, or kind, about him, he barely spoke at all, he was all about the task at hand. With the most flat affect I’ve ever heard, he answered a few questions with short replies. I asked them mostly just to have conversation, but there wasn’t going to be any conversation with him. I made a comment based on a previous experience about a body bag, he said he does not use a body bag, he uses a shroud, and implied body bags were uncouth. Oh-kay.

We decided to leave, it was getting very late. As we went out the door of the care home parked in front was a Toyota van just like ours, only black. I had never seen a black Sienna, have never seen one since. I’ve looked. There was no sign on the vehicle, I thought there’d be some business name, though not sure what that would be: “Body Transport Services, call 567-4321” ? He had no one else with him, though he was a skinny, slight built person. We wondered, how was he going to do this? What if mom had weighted 150 pounds? (at 93, she was in fact tiny and light, having not eaten for a week).

The bigger question: was this guy of this world and was she really going to get to the UW morgue?

The next morning, Halloween morning, after only a few hours sleep, I received two calls. The first, very early, from a cheery doctor at the morgue who had performed the autopsy. He was done, where did I want Ruth sent? (at least I knew she had arrived.) He was chatty, upbeat, as polar-opposite from ‘the driver’ as two people could be. (that was a little strange too, she had not been dead 12 hours and this guy was talking to  me about her brain dissection. But at least he was friendly.)

The next call was the doctor at Swedish telling me they had found two types of cancer in my breast. Happy Halloween eh?

Mom's own funny Halloween face, 2010. She is much livelier here than the Halloween character who attended to her at the time of her dying!

Mom’s own bright eyed Halloween expression, 2010, is much livelier than the Halloween character who attended to her at the time of her  death!

Footnote:

The person at the ACT study who I knew, and who knew mom well, was out of the country when mom died. Not knowing this, I had called her cell phone that night, which she had told me to do if I needed any help or had any questions, day or night. She called me the day she returned, on my birthday, two weeks later. She told me the drivers were contracted, she did not know this guy and had never heard his name before nor a report like mine. She was a little ‘spooked’ too!

That strange night, exhausted, stressed, anticipating all that lay ahead, I called my brother as we drove home and told him the story of the driver. As we laughed about it, my brother said “he watched too many undertaker movies.” We decided he was in the right line of work. Either he got that way hanging around with dead bodies, or perhaps he had some form of autism which made communicating challenging and this was a job he could do as it did not involve much interaction with, well, living people.

out sweeping the leaves with her broom is a little purple witch with her purple cat

out sweeping the leaves with her broom is a little purple witch with her purple cat

Fires, fall, funk and faith

IMG_3064Following in the news the fires east of the Cascades this summer, like most, my heart sunk imagining the devastation and thinking of the people whose homes and lives were being destroyed along with the fragile environment of central Washington. I imagined it burned beyond recognition. Dramatic photos showed all consuming flames engulfing trees and everything in their path. I didn’t want to go east again, I wanted to remember it the ‘way it was.”

Liberty Bell mountain at Washington Pass along the North Cascade Highway

Liberty Bell mountain at Washington Pass along the North Cascade Highway

But the economies of the towns that lost so much to the fires, including tourist income this summer and last summer, are dependent on people coming again. I changed my mind and we headed east over the North Cascade highway, a trip we had not taken in many years, and which brought back memories of previous trips, the first ones long before Mike and I were married.

IMG_3181When I moved back to Washington in my late 20s I assumed I’d be backpacking and hiking and doing all those wonderful outdoor recreational activities the Northwest environment beckons one to do. A busy life ‘homesteading’, including the daily routine of a milk cow, gardening, and a full time job, left little playtime. Then the health challenges started – 3 years of mononucleosis, followed by a ruptured disk in my neck, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, etc., etc., blah, blah, blah. Early in life I began to grieve the life I’d dreamed of but seemingly wasn’t going to have.

IMG_3076But I would not give up my desire to be in the mountains. I discovered the Cascades offered many opportunities for ‘climbing high’ without having to backpack and hike. I took my troublesome body to the Cascades and fell in love. I got to know the passes, those high places one could soak up sub-alpine air and silence. I found Forest Service campgrounds, which, week days and ‘off season’ would often be empty, and along with Pan, my sweet collie compainion, we created our own mountain adventures.

Though our recent trip over the North Cascades brought back fond memories of previous trips, the views, the silence, the mountain air all seemed as exhilarating and awesome as the first time I drove that extraordinary highway, when it was younger and so was I! (officially opened as a highway in 1972, the Department of Highways provides a timeline of this historic, remarkable route here: North Cascade Highway.)

IMG_3096

The ‘naked mountains’ surrounding Pearrygin Lake outside Winthrop.

Once on the ‘east side’, we soaked up, as folks living on the ‘wet and woodsy’ side do, the open sky, pine forests, and vast views of what I call ‘naked mountains’, the ones where you can see the lay of the land because the vegetation is relatively sparse.

IMG_3068

A variety of trees in Pearrygin State Park in Winthrop provided brilliant colors.

There was no evidence of recent fires around Winthrop, where we watched the super-moon lunar eclipse, drove the godawful road to Hart’s pass, (that’s another story! Built in 1909 and not seemingly improved since!), and enjoyed blue skies, crisp air, warm days and the vivid reds, yellows and golds of fall color tucked in amongst the seasonally browned autumn hillsides and pine tree stands.

Then we drove south through the beautiful Methow Valley and saw the erratic path of fire, as forgiving as it was destructive. Hillsides and mountainsides as far as the eye could see had standing burned pine trees. In places the fire burned down to the road leaving black sticks where roadside brush once stood. But most remarkable was where it burned to the edge of homesteads and stopped…stopped at houses, the edges of yards still green with grass, the edges of orchards, whose trees often showed stress, with some outer trees scorched, but were still standing in their orderly rows of green. Looking at the scorched hillsides there would be patches of green, sometimes a few trees, other times a whole area, where the fire, for reasons only fire understands, went around, leaving behind live pine trees to give birth to the next generation.

Burned hillsides and spared green orchards following the wildfires of this past summer.

Burned hillsides and spared green orchards following the wildfires of this past summer.

Those oases of green, the islands of human habitat left untouched, were mostly due to heroic efforts of firefighters and homeowners. One can only imagine the thoughts and emotions of literally fighting an inferno to save home and hearth, your own or someone else’s. Signs of gratitude are posted every where thanking the firefighters, whose endless efforts over the past months resulted in people being able to move forward and go on with their lives. Of course there were homes lost, and tragically the lives of three firefighters. There is no consolation for those losses. But the sights of what was spared, either by human effort, or some strange design of Nature, is quite moving.

How nature restores itself is evident in these areas of the Cascade were fire or logging left open areas. The first trees to grow back are quick growing decidious trees, vine maples, providing a palette of autumn color.

How nature restores itself is evident in these areas of the Cascades where fire or logging left open scars. The first trees to grow back are quick growing deciduous trees, vine maples, providing a palette of autumn color.

IMG_3158As we continued our trip, after a night in Leavenworth, we were treated to the most vivid of autumn color going over Stevens Pass. I said to Mike “We all revel in this show of color, but it’s the color of death, leaves drying up and dying”. Chuckling at my funky pessimism (fueled by my poor sleep and debilitating foot, ankle and knee pain that dominated our otherwise delightful mini-vacation), he replied, “They aren’t dying, they’re storing up energy for the coming spring.”

I replied, “They are letting go.”

IMG_3173Of course I know falling leaves are part of the cycle of life, the cycle I thought of throughout our drive through the Methow Valley. I imagined the hills ‘greening’ up in the spring, wild flowers blooming amongst the burn. Outside Chelan we saw thousands of tiny pine trees on the hillsides of an old burn. There are always signs, some immediate, many subtle, of Nature’s restoration of life.

IMG_3194Nature, in the form of animals and plants, does not ‘think’ of these things, it does not doubt, it just ‘knows’ it to be so. The tiny pine seedling does not lament the dry, burned hillside around it, or the decades ahead before it becomes a tall, stately, ponderosa pine, it grows in the ‘faith’ that what it needs will be provided.

IMG_2939We have so much to learn from Mother Nature.

IMG_3114

Sleeping Lady, the lovely mountain form along Icicle Creek in Leavenworth. Next to this rocky mountain is evidence of an older burn which has begun to grow back ‘naturally.’