by Caroline von Fluegge-Chen
Almost 15 years ago, my mother passed away from an unexpected and brief bout with lymphoma. Always hiking, teaching yoga, owning a spiritual bookstore, living in Vermont, mowing 10 acres of grass like it was no big deal, going on travel adventures, concocting evil looking but ever so healthy green smoothies, chasing down my sisters to get them to take their vitamins – mom was always a healthy super dynamo.
One summer, she had (what she thought) was a cold or just a mild cough. The cough didn’t go away so she went to the doctor who thought her cough was a symptom of bronchitis. The doctor prescribed antibiotics. The antibiotics didn’t work. So he prescribed stronger antibiotics. They didn’t get rid of the cough either. This back and forth dance went on for weeks. Finally mom went to the local hospital where someone had the smarts to take a chest x-ray. The docs now thought she had pneumonia and gave her even stronger meds. The weeks rolled on without relief. Mom felt fine, she just had a cough, or everyone thought until mom had a full physical – the usual female stuff like pap test, blood work. She got a call from a hospital nurse the next day asking to come back for a follow up visit. Begrudgingly, mom went, even though she had an art gallery opening to attend in the afternoon and an Aretha Franklin concert scheduled for that evening.
At the hospital, mom was informed that she had cancer of the lymph system and she needed to start treatment immediately. Why didn’t those local town docs think outside of the box weeks earlier instead of wasting time on countless rounds of antibiotics? At least on the surface, mom’s attitude was always optimistic. “I am going to lick it,” she said. Even the chemo treatments couldn’t keep mom off of her mini John Deere lawnmower, much to the chagrin of the nurses who had to check on my mother periodically. After a month of chemo, the MRI showed just a tiny speck of cancer in her liver and in her lungs. The family was excited. Maybe mom really was licking it. Two weeks later, mom had a friend over for dinner. Suzi remarked that my mother looked a little feverish. She put her hand on mom’s forehead to check her temperature. Mom was burning up. Immediately the two set off for the hospital to see what was going on. As my mother was being wheeled into the hospital room on a gurney, she was doing her yoga stretches.
All of this was happening right before Thanksgiving. Mom and I had plans to spend the day at home cooking a small feast. As the days passed, it became more unlikely that mom was coming home. Cooking a feast was downgraded to bringing food from a local restaurant to the hospital. I spoke with mom daily after her original diagnosis. I would call her at her house in Vermont on my way home from work and talk to her while driving north on West Paces Ferry. She hated the fact that I was driving and talking on the phone, but she loved me so it wasn’t such a big deal as long as I kept my eyes on the road.
I was supposed to fly to Vermont on the Tuesday of Thanksgiving week. I had spoken to her just a few days earlier and she didn’t sound too good. I offered to bring some books to her or burn some CDs. She wasn’t interested, as her (unusually meek) voice suggested. Music and books were part of my mother’s DNA. Her lack of interest was not a good sign. Mom, the eternal optimist, was not firing on all cylinders. We ended the short conversation with mom telling me quietly that she loved me. I tried to deny what I knew was true…a thought that was burning a sickening hole in my stomach. I couldn’t book an earlier flight because it was Thanksgiving week and getting any flight at all was a challenge. The fact that this was autumn of 2001, just a few weeks after 911 when airline schedules were in disarray, made the task of getting to mom even more difficult.
My phone rang at 2 am. I wasn’t surprised. It was my sister from New York who had managed to charter a flight to Vermont the previous day. She informed me that mom had died. There was certain sense of calm relief that I felt. Perhaps the true gut-wrenching emotions had not made it yet to my conscious mind. I called my father (my parents were divorced) and told him. He was quiet and calm. The next day, my sister who lives in Atlanta and I flew to Vermont. I kept on looking out of the plane windows – as ridiculous as it sounds – trying to find my mother. Where is she? On a cloud? Disappeared? Vanished into thin air? I cannot see her but I felt her.
Fast forward: When people ask me about my parents, I say that my mother died of cancer eight years ago. I am kicking myself on the inside when I hear myself telling the story of how she passed away. I almost hear mom saying, “I am still here!!” I KNOW mom is still with me spiritually, if not physically. I feel and see evidence of her every day in one way or another if I am listening and watching. Read the blog entry about the ladybugs.
My brother-in-law found a black and white picture of my mother recently. He asked my sister who had taken that picture of Caroline. We were all surprised (and shocked) to realize how much I look like my mother. I never saw a resemblance or considered it before until that moment. More so than ever, I see the similarities – our love of art, music, adventure, physical activity, laughter, learning about foreign cultures and spiritual beliefs, our ability to shed a tear when our heart strings are pulled by compassion, our tendency to bend conventional rules and figure out our own ways of doing things, our inability to sit still because we are always up to something, our ability to make kids laugh and feel loved.
Are you wondering what this story has to do with my mother’s rug? Next time you step into my office at Balance Atlanta, go to the children’s play area. You see that brightly patterned oriental rug? This is the rug that was in mom’s living room. Tiny patients have taken their first steps on that rug while clinging onto the toy chest. Other kids don’t want to leave the office because they are busy lining up plastic animals and Matchbox cars on the patterns of that rug. When I look at the rug I think of how happy my mom would be knowing that a new generation of kids is scooting around having fun on her living room rug while hanging out at Balance Atlanta.
That rug means a lot to me because it is a symbol of my mother’s love. And though the colors of the rug are fading slightly from the sun shining on Pharr Road, the memories of my mother, along with my enthusiasm for helping another human being live a healthier life, will not fade anytime soon. I often look at the rug out of the corner of my eye and smile. Thank you mom, for leaving a tangible piece of yourself in my office reminding me of your love.