Read at Mom’s Celebration of Life Memorial in Tucson, Sept. 29, 2015
I’m Ellen O’Connor Sauer. I’m married to Barb and Dick’s son Joel, AKA #5, so Barbara has been my mother-in-law for the past 30+ years.
I was pretty young when we got married – 21 years old – and so I hadn’t really contemplated ahead of time what it would mean to join a family or have in-laws. Over time, I found that they served as another set of parents, filling in the gaps where I needed it. To qualify, please know that I have wonderful parents, no complaints, but it takes a village right? One set can’t do everything for you. And so I am very grateful to have had two, particularly in those early years.
My first introduction to this new version of parenting came when my daughter Alexandra was born and Mom came to visit for a week. That wasn’t the custom in my family so I wasn’t sure what to expect. As it turned out, it was one of the best, most nurturing weeks of my life. She wasn’t there to just dote on a baby, she was there to pamper all of us and herself in the doing. The three of us girls in our pajamas until noon, taking naps, doing everything slowly, nothing to do but take care of ourselves and each other, relishing in the uniqueness of the time and savoring it – all things I had never done or had modeled for me.
My favorite memory from that visit was the first day when she set the stage for what the week would be like. I can still see myself sitting at the kitchen table, wearing my pajamas, a cup of tea in front of me, over-eager to hear the ‘agenda’. If you know me, you know I love a good agenda. She said, “Today we’re going to have apple spice cake, tomorrow sweet rolls, Wednesday apple pie, Thursday leftover cake with ice cream, Friday leftover pie with ice cream, Saturday pound cake with strawberries, Sunday the baptism cake. Does that plan sound ok?” Ummm…yes, please. That was the entire agenda and I embraced it with her and embraced another version of ‘Mom’ – a nurturing soul, with the ability to slow down and be present.
We tease a lot about Mom’s love of dessert as a family, but I really saw it as more than just a propensity for sweets. She wasn’t like me who will snag a cookie every time I pass through the kitchen or straighten the line of brownies eating slivers rather than a full piece to ‘get away with it’. Eating dessert for Mom was truly a deliberate, joyful, in-the-moment experience. She planned desserts carefully, really looked forward to them, and waited until the right moment to savor them. I have this vision of her at the dining room table in Kaukauna, Wisconsin or at either of our homes in New Haven, Indiana at the end of a meal when dessert was served – sitting at her place with her hands in her lap, patiently waiting until everyone was seated again and the coffee poured (half a cup) to address the plated goodness. She’d comment on its look and smell, always complimenting whoever made it, and then she’d eat it slowly and deliberately, focusing on every bite, not conversing during it. She knew how to savor dessert without guilt and without apology. It was something she fully enjoyed and she didn’t compromise that joy.
That deliberate action, that focus, the ability to slow down and do one thing at a time – whether it be eating dessert, rocking a baby, or thinking through a tough issue – really defined her for me. It seemed to come naturally to her. I’m not sure actually if it was by necessity or choice – probably a little of both. She needed to really concentrate on a task to complete it AND she had a little rebel in her so the outer world was not going to make her move faster than she wanted.
I on the other hand, was born into family of fast-moving multitaskers so I had to learn and exercise the skill of focus. There aren’t many natural opportunities to do that – life expects us to move quickly – so I always considered it practice when I was with her. When shopping together, we walked and moved at her pace. We’d go out for lunch and I would eat at her pace and take my time. Cooking together, her pace.
When talking to her on the phone, I’d make myself sit down in a chair and just talk and listen. This is primarily because one time she busted me as I was walking around while talking to her and doing something else like watering plants. She was so willing to just sit and listen and talk, focus on me, and take the time to hear everything. She is the only person I have known who when asking about a person or topic, really did want to hear everything you wanted to share and then some. So rare.
Of course she wanted to always hear about each kid in full detail and with her quiet on the other end I’d find myself sharing not just their latest actions, but also my worries and frustrations about them. And she’d often answer with “You’re doing such a good job with them” exactly when I needed to hear that. Or when we were renovating our home, she’d say “Tell me about your house” – I’d sit on the top stair in the attic and lie back onto the floor, exhausted, far away from the 20 contractors below, and relay every detail to her and she’d ooohhh and ahhh and commiserate all the way through.
But she also wanted to hear about me – what I was working on, how I was feeling. She would often interject an “I’m so proud of you” here or there, usually when I was completely unaware that something I was doing was even worth acknowledging. The perk of being with someone who focuses on one thing at a time is that they are really focused on you when you’re with them. They’re intent on you in that moment. They really try to see you fully.
Sometimes there was a little too much focus on me. One of those times, I wrote a letter to Mom explaining my feelings, my “side” so to speak. (I didn’t tell Joel until after it was sent.) And in return I received a letter equally thought out, equally expressive, that acknowledged my feelings, explained hers, apologized, and forgave. Again something I had never experienced or had modeled. She told me years later that that letter had meant a lot to her and she felt it changed and deepened our relationship. She made such an effort to understand- she stuck with you and processed you until she could find peace and a conclusion.
Later on in our relationship, I realized that her incessant determination to understand was linked to an underlying trust that there was indeed a resolution and an explanation to be found. Otherwise why take the time? This underlying trust became another defining trait of hers of which I was in awe. She trusted her faith never wavering or questioning. She trusted the future when diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. As we rode home from the doctor that day, mostly in silence, she quietly said, “I don’t know what this is going to bring, but I’m going to keep living each day the best I can and it will be fine”. She trusted Dad from the very beginning and through these years for her care. She knew he was going to be a great caregiver before we did, trusting that he would act in her best interest always. And he has.
An amazing example of her trusting for me was their decision to move to Arizona full time. They had been looking at how to minimize the stress of owning two homes with their snowbird routine. All ideas were on the table – full time in the Midwest, full time in Tucson, or keep two homes and downsize in Indiana. Mom really loved the Midwest and considered it home. Back in the early days she’d actually count off six months exactly on the calendar – 182 ½ days – and wouldn’t move back to the desert even one day early. So this decision was a big one. One day, she and I were riding in the car home from something like a doctor appointment or an errand, and she was quiet so I knew she was focusing on some issue and trying to resolve it. Then she finally said, “I’ve decided that we’ll move to the Arizona house full time. Pretty soon it won’t matter to me where we live and Dad will have his hands full taking care of me. He needs to be someplace with a home and activities and friends he loves. That’s Tucson.” All said calmly, without any tears, just a matter-of-fact declaration of trust and love.
I’m going to miss her. I have missed her these past years as parts slipped away. But the thing about Alzheimer’s – a beautiful thing about it that mom taught me – is that when you strip away the behaviors and the words, the outer shell of someone, you get to see their inner core more fully. You get a glimpse of the impetus or driving force for all that nurturing and slowing down and deliberate action, that focus on us and the desire to spend uninterrupted time, the listening and processing until she could understand tough situations and viewpoints, the decision to live in Tucson full time. Under all of that was that she unconditionally loved us. She was pure love. I am so grateful that even as an in-law, I could call her Mom.