My Scrambled Nest

An Almost-Empty Nest Journey of "Letting Go" With Laughter and Love, By Cathy Free

The word “drama” doesn’t exactly spring to mind when you think of a long-term care center for the elderly. But thanks to my mother Joy’s former roommate, Verna, Room No. 502 might as well have been an off-off Broadway theater for the past several weeks.

Recently, I shared a post on Facebook about how Verna complained on Mother’s Day that I visited too often, laughed too much and called out “bon jour!” more than her sensitive ears would allow. Everyone told me that I should tell her to stuff it.

So guess what? I finally did.

First, a little history. It took four tries, but my mom really lucked out when we moved her to her current care center a year and a half ago. Not only are the nurses attentive and kind with a sense of humor, my mother has a bright and spacious room with a view of the courtyard where we often sit to talk, read and watch the resident ducklings.

Because there is an extra bed in her room, every once in a while, a female “respite care” patient stays with my mom for five days, per Medicare rules allowing home-care families to take a little break. These temporary roommates have always been pleasant, even though many have dire health situations. Sadly, four of them passed away while sleeping in my mother’s room. My siblings and I believe that they were finally able to relax and take flight while staying with our  “Snowy Owl Woman.”

Although the situation isn’t perfect, my mother has always been fine with having a roommate now and then.

Then she met Verna.

At age 93, Verna is mobile and doesn’t appear to have any serious medical issues. Even so, her family wanted to move her permanently into a care center, and we quickly learned why. They’d simply had enough.

Because the nursing home was full and the empty bed in my mother’s room was the only one available, Verna was moved into Room 502 with the idea that she could be there for the duration. Her family even brought in Verna’s favorite  La-Z-Boy — a frayed chair that would put the ratty recliner on the sitcom “Frasier” to shame.

As soon as Verna put on her slippers and bathrobe and sat in that chair, she lit up her call light like a radio station contest hotline. Her grilled cheese wasn’t “melty” enough. Her overhead light was too harsh. Her comforter wasn’t warm enough. Her favorite shows on the big-screen television that she shared with my mom weren’t as “high-def” as they should be.

On and on it went. At first, during my thrice-weekly visits, I tried to be patient, thinking that perhaps Verna just needed a little time to settle in. But then I discovered the real issue: She didn’t appreciate me visiting my mother. Whenever I walked into the room, she complained.

“Another movie! Weren’t you just here?”

“Do you always have to talk when you visit?”

“Stop saying ‘bon jour’ when you come into the room. You’re in America, not France!”

The clincher came on Mother’s Day as my mom and I had a good time goofing off with photo apps. “Stop laughing! You two are always laughing. I need my peace!” Verna shouted.

Well. We all know how THAT went over. While my mother gave Verna a third-finger salute behind the room divider, I filled out an official complaint and demanded that if Verna couldn’t be moved to another planet, a room around the corner would suffice.

Finally, last Thursday, my request was granted. When I arrived to visit my mom (“Bon jour! Bon jour! Bon jour!” I sang as I waltzed into the room), two aides were packing up Verna’s things to move her in with an unfortunate woman in the 400 Hall.

“See what you did? I hope you’re happy!” Verna told me, shaking her finger.

I turned around and smiled. “You know what, Verna?” I said. “I’m not just happy. I’m thrilled! It’s no wonder that you’ve lived such a long life. You’re a real BITCH.”

As my mom applauded from her bed, Verna’s eyes widened and she pursed her lips.

“Takes one to know one!” she quipped.

Of course, I had to laugh. And when my mom started laughing and neither of us could stop, I thought that Verna would have a stroke right there. As a smirking nurse’s aide ushered her out, Verna couldn’t resist one more zinger: “You’ll live to be 103!” she shouted. “Count my words! I know it!”

My mother and I laughed for the rest of the afternoon. Who said that life in a care center is boring?

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My daughter is going to her last high school prom tonight and she’s handling it much better than I am. I’m almost tempted to put on a wig and sneak into the dance hall for some poignant pics, but I know that I’d be as welcome as a bill collector at a funeral if she saw me. So I’ve asked my husband to hide the car keys. A quick snapshot when my daughter’s boyfriend picks her up will have to do.

Last weekend was a mixture of joy and wistfulness as I accompanied Lily once last time to Dillard’s formalwear department to take photos of her posing in more than a dozen prom dresses as she narrowed them down. On our first excursion in the 9th grade, she accused me of treating her like Laura Ingalls Wilder (the author of “Little House on the Prairie”) when I told her that one of her choices, a low-cut, black cocktail dress, was “perhaps too revealing.”

I’ve since learned to keep my mouth shut. My daughter’s friends now drive themselves to the department store to pick out dresses sans mom, so I consider myself fortunate to still be included. I believe it’s a ritual that my kiddo came to look forward to as well, even though she still said, “Not gonna happen” to most of the fancy frocks that I handed her over the dressing room door last week.

This year, Lily ended up with a sleeveless, baby blue dress covered with peach and cream blossoms. It’s the very essence of spring, and it was fun to pick out earrings to match. (I’ll be sure to share a pic tonight.)

After our shopping spree, we headed to the performance hall at Day’s Murray Music on State Street (I took tap lessons there upstairs as a girl), for another last: Lily’s final piano recital with her teacher and our longtime family friend, Kira Merzhevskaya, still an extraordinary concert pianist at age 83.

After my daughter performed a Chopin waltz and Tchaikovsky’s “April,” there were hugs all around and more than a few tears, as we realized the next time we all gathered would be for Lily’s high school graduation. It was particularly emotional for Kira, who has patiently and lovingly taught Lily since she was 6.

“Katusha (Little Catherine),” she told me as Lily waltzed off with her boyfriend, “the piano in your home is going to be lonely. It’s time for you to take up lessons again.”

I kissed her on the cheek and smiled. I just might take her up on it. : )

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Pausing to wipe the dust from my eyes in a dirty storage unit jam-packed with memories and mementos last Saturday, I soon added a few tears to the mix when I was suddenly struck by a sad reality: After more than 78 years of learning, loving, writing and collecting, my mother’s history had come down to three hours.

That’s how much time my sister, Karen, and I had to salvage whatever was important to us when the manager of the storage company where we’d stashed our mom’s belongings after she moved into a care center finally decided she’d had enough of our alcoholic, meth-using brother. Whatever we couldn’t get before closing time, she said, would have to be hauled away to the city dump.

I thought about renting a truck and taking everything to another storage unit, but our mother didn’t want that. I’d planned to get together with my siblings later this spring to sort through everything anyway, in a careful and orderly fashion. Karen and I didn’t have that option last weekend, but we didn’t blame the storage manager. We understood her anger and frustration. If anyone could manage to get evicted from a pre-paid storage unit, it was my brother.

When I received a phone call from the manager, advising me to come and retrieve my mom’s belongings because my brother had broken the expensive lock on their mechanical gate after staying past closing hours and getting locked in — not once, but twice — I have to confess that I wasn’t surprised.

For more than 30 years, I have dealt with my younger brother’s appalling, addiction-fueled behavior, beginning with the time he “bought” my old VW Beetle with the promise to make payments (he didn’t — instead, he sold it and kept the cash) to the time he left a bunch of messages on my home phone threatening to kill me and my husband and blow up city hall (I called the police and he spent two months in jail), to the day just a few months ago when he showed up in a rage at our mother’s care center, high on meth, and came after me.

Although I thought he might actually try to kill me, I stood my ground then and I’m standing my ground now. So much so, in fact, that I’ve decided to write about it, damn the consequences. I know there are countless others who have experienced the same horror and heartache of having an addict in the family, and if I can let them know they’re not alone, it’s worth it to me. Besides, writing has always been my way of working things out. It’s my therapy.

It’s important to note that things weren’t always so bad with my brother. Even now, there are glimpses of the gentle, softhearted person who left a box of chocolate cherries on my doorstep last Christmas Eve when he couldn’t afford them, because our grandfather used to give us each our own box every Christmas. Or the brother who I spotted softly reading “One Writer’s Beginnings” to our mother one night, and the brother who purchased a $2 Goodwill copy of Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire,” and left it in her room at the care center for my husband last month, so that Russell would know he was thinking about him after his heart surgery.

“My favorite book — thanks for grading my English and being a companion and friend to ‘C,'” he wrote inside the front cover. “Peace, M.”

When I look at the book now on our end table, I want to smile and cry at the same time. I love my brother, but I don’t like him. I miss him, but I can’t bear to be around him when he is drunk or high. I want to help him, but he refuses to acknowledge that he has a serious problem — one that will eventually take his life.

When my mother (aka “Snowy Owl Woman”) suddenly lost her mobility and required a care center in late 2017, it was hard on everyone in my family. As I’ve written before, she nearly died from low potassium when she was sent into hospice with a wrong diagnosis of sepsis. But perhaps nobody struggled more than my brother, the third of we four siblings. My mother had taken him in several years before, knowing full well that he was an alcoholic with a drug problem who couldn’t hold down a regular job and had a long trail of evictions (at least 30) for not paying his rent.

They worked out a deal: he would run errands for her, fix things up around the house and take care of the yard, and she would let him live with her. It would have been fine, except for my brother’s addictions. As it turned out, they enabled each other. And when we had to move our mother’s belongings into storage and put the house up for sale (it cost more than $6,000 for a company to clean up the meth residue), my brother took up residence in the garage and refused to move out until finally, as my mother’s power of attorney, I had to deliver an eviction notice.

I’ll never forget that chilly early spring night, when my husband and I taped a notice to the front door of the house. Suddenly, the garage door opened and there stood my brother, illuminated in the driveway like Freddy Krueger. All he needed was a chainsaw to make my nightmare complete.

But then, something unexpected happened.

“Cathy — I’m sorry. I know that I deserve this. Don’t worry — I’ll be finding an apartment soon.” He hugged me and I burst into tears. “Please, please — get the help you need,” I told him for probably the 20th time. “I’ll go with you to detox and help you to get some counseling. We’ll all help you get through it. But you have to want to do it.”

“Yeah, I know,” he replied. “But I don’t think I need that. I’ll be OK. Don’t worry.” Then he changed the subject. “What a beautiful night — look at that starry sky,” he said as we all tilted our heads back to take it in. “Remember when we were kids and Mom taught us about the constellations? Those were fun times.”

I couldn’t help think of our childhood last Saturday as my sister and I looked through the pieces of our mother’s past, jammed into a 10-by-20 storage unit, along with my brother’s belongings. Evicted from his latest apartment the month before, he’d been spending his days at the storage unit between odd jobs, and his nights in the van I’d signed over to him, knowing that he’d need it. He’d sent me, my sister and my other brother a rambling text and a photo of a dark and snowy landscape a few days afterward, telling us that he was enjoying the night, looking at trees and drinking whiskey at a golf course. He’d parked the van behind a fire station near one of the apartments my mom had rented when we were kids.

“I love fire stations — this is where my life is at now,” he wrote. “I got my philosophies — you got yours. We all need to get together.”

He was lonely. We all knew that. After my mom’s health crisis, I tried to include him in my family’s traditions, making sure that he got Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner and a present or two. But his addictions had worsened. It became difficult to carry on a normal conversation with him about anything. That reality made it even more difficult for me and my sister as we opened one box after another in the storage unit last weekend to quickly sort through the things that meant the most to us and our mother.

Signs of my little brother were everywhere: cigarette butts littered the floor, his sleeping bag, books and CDs were piled in a jumble with the clothes and household items he planned to retrieve after we left; and a small American flag fluttered from a luminary vase that our mother had made from a coffee can. It was the same flag he’d displayed in the garage next to one of his favorite keepsakes — a painting of a young Abe Lincoln that had hung in his bedroom as a child.

It was difficult to put those memories aside as Karen and I worked on deadline to save what we could. We’d already stored our mother’s most important valuables in our homes during the move. But should we keep her collection of sage smudge sticks or toss them? (Karen took a few.) What about the Christmas snow globes that her six grandchildren loved to play with when they were little? (I couldn’t imagine them going to the landfill.) How about her favorite dishes and miniature porcelain boxes? (We each selected several.) We uncovered a few personal treasures as well: Karen came across a silver locket with her baby picture inside, and I found a drawing my son had done when he was 6 of his Grandpa Clint.

After posing for a selfie inside the storage unit, we loaded everything into our cars and fought back tears, knowing that we were leaving so much of our mother’s life — and ours — behind. But as our mom had said before our expedition: “They’re just things. They can be replaced. They don’t matter like memories do.”

So besides some beloved knickknacks, photos and scrapbooks, I drove away with my mother’s UFO book collection; a treasured set of illustrated dictionaries and poetry books that I’d enjoyed thumbing through as a girl; an antique brass bud vase that my mom had used for 60 years; a snowy owl needlepoint that she didn’t finish (I’m hoping she’ll take it up again); piles of mysteries that I know she’ll enjoy rereading; three mint-condition manual typewriters, including the one that my mother took with her into the woods in the 1980s to live in a tent and work on her first novel, and dozens of files filled with typed pages and notes for a second novel that I didn’t know she had written.

“What’s the book about, Mom?” I asked her that night when I visited to report on what we had rescued. My mother’s cheeks flushed, then she smiled.

“It’s about a woman who leaves her boring life in the suburbs to become a telephone sex worker in Las Vegas,” she deadpanned. We laughed and laughed.

Mother! Who knew?

Before I left her that night, she reached for my hand and told me there was something else that she wanted me to do.

“When I pass away,” she said, “I hope you will still include your little brother in your family gatherings and take him out to dinner now and then. I hate to think of him being alone.”

My eyes filled with tears. “It’s hard, Mom,” I replied, “but I’ll try. I promise that I will do what I can, if he’ll let me.”

I don’t like him, but I love him. He’s my brother. 

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By the time most of you read this, my husband, Russell, will be undergoing double bypass heart surgery today. We are both surprisingly calm, as are our children, Rory and Lily. Nobody in our family has had surgery before (unless you count childbirth without an epidural), so this is a first for all of us. We figure that since we’re starting with a BIGGIE, anything that pops up in the future (tonsillitis, anyone?) ought to be a cakewalk. 

My husband’s surgery is happening at the same hospital where my daughter made her entrance into the world 18 years ago, so there are many happy vibes there. And across the street is where we had a Greek breakfast at Nick’s Cafe after my obstetrician three floors up stripped my membrane to finally put me into labor with my son more than two decades ago. When Russell and I sat down and heard “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash playing on the radio in the cafe, we both burst into joyful tears. We’ve called it “Rory’s Song” ever since.

 As I look out at the snow falling outside my home office window on a fresh Sunday morning, it’s hard to believe that just a few weeks ago, Russell was running several miles on the treadmill and shoveling two feet of heavy snow off our sidewalks and driveway. It’s a miracle, really, that he went eight months without a heart attack after first noticing a sore throat that flared up after exercising. It was his only symptom. 

 My husband has always been a mellow, kindhearted and poetic guy — kind of like John Lennon, for those of you who tell me that he resembles the beloved Beatle. At our meeting with the surgeon on Friday, Russell flashed me “the look” when I pulled out my notebook and asked the surgeon a long list of questions, including what kind of music he liked to listen to during heart surgery. (Some people become quiet during times of stress, while others might cry or panic. But I’ve always put on my reporter’s hat to get me through.) 

 Dr. Jim Stringham, an affable man in his early 60s with white hair and a steady handshake (good qualities for heart surgeons and airline pilots, I’ve always thought), smiled and told me that he and his team like to listen to just about anything: classical, country, jazz, bluegrass, you name it.

 “What about Neil Young?” I asked. “Russell loves Neil Young. Can you put some of his classics on?”

As if I needed to ask.

You’ve got it,” said Dr. Stringham. “Neil Young it is.”

 So imagine this: After Russell is wheeled into the operating room this morning and introduced to the team of medical experts that will extend his life, he will close his eyes and drift off to Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.” 

 I can’t think of a better new beginning for the next 20 years of his remarkable life. ♥️

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It must be my daughter’s year for strings. Not shoelace strings or apron strings or puppet strings, but B strings and G strings — the kind attached to a musical instrument.

First, when Lily turned 18 on New Year’s Eve, her boyfriend gifted her with a beautiful acoustic guitar. Already, she’s playing it like a young Judy Collins, accompanying some of her favorite bands on YouTube, singing and strumming like a pro. When I asked her if she wanted lessons, my daughter quickly said no.

“It’s like playing the cello, only without the bow and you hold it differently,” she said. “No lessons for me. I’ll teach myself.”

Then about a week after Lily’s birthday, the doorbell rang one night and her second stringed surprise arrived. Her friend, Jessica, stepped inside the doorway and held out a mint-condition cello.

“Happy late birthday — my mom and I want you to have this,” she told Lily. “We bought it when I was in the sixth grade and I only played it for one year. Since then, it’s just been sitting in our basement instead of being played and appreciated. It deserves someone like you.”

Lily and I stood for a moment in stunned silence. I’d given my son a double bass as a high school graduation gift, and now I was saving up to buy Lily a cello this spring to replace the one we’d been renting from her high school. But the instrument Jessica was offering wasn’t a factory-built, “standard issue” cello for students. It was the real deal, crafted by hand from maple wood and lustrously varnished. It shined under our dining room chandelier like the well-polished fender of a ’56 Chevy.

“Wow! Are you sure?” I asked Jessica. “We’d be happy to pay you something for it. Seriously.”

Jessica vigorously shook her head no. “My mom has heard Lily play and she insists that she have it. She won’t accept payment and that’s that.”

The cello was Lily’s, she said, no strings attached.

Literally.

“Because it sat unused for more than six years, the strings dried out,” said Jessica with a smile. “So you’ll have to buy new ones. Otherwise, it’s perfect.”

Lily and I both gave her a hug and wiped away happy tears. “We’ll always remember this moment,” I told Jessica. “It’s the most wonderful present ever.”

“I can’t wait to play it,” said Lily. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

After Jessica left, Lily wondered what she could do to thank her and her mother for such a generous gift. “How can I possibly repay them?” she asked.

“How about if you bake them something and write a nice ‘thank you’ card?” I suggested.

So that’s what she did. That night, Lily whipped up a batch of blueberry muffins and made two dozen little “thank you” flags with musical notes to stick in each one. The next day, she took them over to Jessica’s house and gave her mother a hug.

At a time of ugliness and uncertainty, how wonderful to see an act of pure selflessness and joy — a reminder that life is still full of kind and gracious people.

It’s said that these things happen in threes. At any moment, I’m half-expecting a harp to show up. 😉♥️🎶

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The unveiling of Melania Trump’s creepy blood-red Christmas trees at The White House this year has me thinking about my old next-door neighbor’s wacky decorating schemes in East Midvale, where I grew up.

Every year, “Mrs. K,” the mother of George, the Greek kid I had a crush on, flocked her Christmas tree a different color to contrast with her pristine white living room, which as far as I knew, hadn’t actually been used since her family moved in.

Whenever Mrs. K would hire me to read to her two daughters (they didn’t appreciate books as much as I did), she’d ask me to take my shoes off, then quickly usher me across a long, clear vinyl rug to the kitchen in the back of the house. My feet were never allowed to touch the wall-to-wall white shag carpet, and I doubted that her kids spent much time running their toes through the snowy drifts either.

Every Christmas, though, you could count on Mrs. K to add a little color to her blinding white-on-white decorating scheme. She’d send her husband to pick up the tree she’d had flocked at the Allied tree lot, then proudly trim it with tinsel, shiny baubles and blinking lights and put it on display in her front picture window. One year, she’d have a purple tree. Another year she’d have pink or blue. As I recall, there was even a bright red tree one year, similar to the trees Melania decided to really, really care about this holiday season.

Of course, I was jealous that George’s family always had a colorful tree.

“Why can’t we do that to OUR tree?” I’d ask my mother. “Why do we always have to get a plain green tree?”

“Because trees are green,” my mother would say. “When’s the last time you saw a blue tree in the wild?”

Finally, when I was 8, my mom relented with a sigh and decided that we could have a flocked tree. But it had to be white, she said,  so that it would look as though it was covered with snow, not pink bubble gum. After my dad strapped the street to the top of his station wagon and brought it home, he and my mom carefully removed the plastic, set it in a corner of our living room and told me and my siblings that we could go to town decorating.

Did we ever. By the end of the night, the tree was dripping from floor to ceiling with silver tinsel, red and green ornaments, sparkling white lights and shiny strands of beads. But there was one problem: we were dripping too, with glittering artificial snow.

We were flocked.

“Go wash off,” said our mom, “and I’ll get out the vacuum.” She kept it handy until after Christmas to suck up the trails of white that we’d leave every day all over the green shag carpet. “THIS,” said my mother, “is why trees are meant to be green.”

We never again had a flocked tree, and ironically, Mrs. K took my mom’s advice. The following year, we laughed when we saw the tree in her front picture window. It had been flocked a brilliant shade of avocado green. : )

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A couple of weeks ago, my 17-year-old daughter surprised me with the announcement that she’d found a new passion: roller disco. Yowza. A 2018 roller disco queen! When she showed me the snazzy new periwinkle skates she’d just bought with some of her summer ice cream shop earnings to prove it, I knew that my mothering skills had finally double-axeled to new heights. Although she’d never admit it, I knew that my kid had ACTUALLY LISTENED to me talk about my days as a weekend roller disco queen and how video games and Instagram couldn’t come close to the fun I had at the roller rink with my friends as a teenager.

From age 12 to 15 in the mid-1970s, everyone always knew where to find me on a Friday or Saturday night. If I was at home with my dad in Midvale, he’d drop me and one or two school friends off at the Murray Roller Rink on State Street in old downtown Murray to skate around an authentic hardwood maple floor. And if I was spending the weekend with my mom, I’d take a quick walk up the railroad tracks with my two brothers from our apartment to the Ritz Classic Skating Rink in South Salt Lake, where for $1.75, we could zip around beneath a giant disco ball for more than four hours, breaking only for cheese pizza and cherry-lime slushies.

After my first year of skating, I became so comfortable on wheels that I could skate backwards blindfolded, “shoot the duck” on one skate and land a single axel with the ease of an alley cat, barely putting a ripple in my long feathered shag. In my baby-blue satin bellbottoms and watermelon-flavored Lip Smackers, I confidently asked boys to skate during “girl’s choice” and tried not to whip them around the floor, roller-derby style, as we skated hand-in-(sweaty)-hand.

As a regular at both rinks, the disc jockeys soon came to know all of my favorite skating requests, from “Pick Up the Pieces” by The Average White Band and “The Hustle” by Van McCoy to “The Loco-Motion” by Grand Funk Railroad and “Play That Funky Music” by Wild Cherry. Probably the most popular song at the time, though, was “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks.

What did a depressing song about death have in common with the vibrant young lives circling around and around a room splashed with shards of silver light? Who knew? But whenever that song came through the loudspeaker during guys’ choice in 1974, my friends and I swooned and sighed and made eye contact with any available boys hanging on the rails (shoulder-length hair, Angel Flight pants and Elsha cologne a plus), silently praying that we’d be asked to take a slow spin.

My daughter tells me that many of these old songs have now made a comeback at the rink in Sandy where she’s secretly been skating on weekends with her boyfriend. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked her. Of course, I already know the answer. She’s afraid I’ll want to come along, and she’s right. With a laugh, she tells me now that she’s mastered a few new moves, I’m welcome to tag along sometime.

“But there’s no way you’re borrowing my skates, Mom. These beauties are mine.” : )

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One year ago today, I saved my mother’s life. Here’s a copy of the story that I wrote about Bright Friday for The Washington Post. : ) 

By Cathy Free

A year ago, several days before Thanksgiving, my mother was sent into hospice care to die. She was weak and declining by the hour. Three doctors told us that a nasty blood condition called sepsis would soon stop her heart.

I had a hunch they were wrong.

The facility near her home in Salt Lake City was short-staffed because it was Thanksgiving weekend. I couldn’t persuade a doctor to come in and see her, and I felt as if my window to help her was closing fast.

So I spun into action: I called a mobile phlebotomist (the people who stick you to take a blood sample) to come over right away to do an independent blood panel. It was the best call I ever made. We found out that my mother wasn’t dying of sepsis at all — instead, she had critically low potassium.

My mom, as it turned out, needed bananas.

While the day after Thanksgiving is traditionally known as Black Friday to most people, my family now calls it something else: Bright Friday. It was the day we saved my mom.

Since last Thanksgiving, I’ve had 365 days with my mother that I didn’t expect to have. Now 77, she was greatly weakened by her ordeal and requires a long-term care center. But her mind is still active, and her sense of humor is as quirky as ever.

In my three-days-a-week visits, we’ve settled into a comfortable routine: After I bring her a homemade peanut butter smoothie (with extra banana), I settle in next to her bed to read the day’s headlines and fill her in on my two kids’ latest dramas. Then we’ll vent about politics while I spritz her with her favorite “Alien” or “Joy” perfume, give her a manicure or rub lavender lotion into her fragile skin.

On sunny days, I’ll wheel her outside to look at the mountains and check on the family of quail that has set up house in the shrubbery ringing the courtyard.

When she was close to dying last fall, I thought often about the last trip I’d taken with her just seven months before. For more than a decade, my mother had invited me to join her during her annual trip to the International UFO Congress in Arizona every February, and I’d always laughed and declined.

Then last year, when I could see that my mother’s step had drastically slowed (she needed a cane to get around), it hit me that our years together might be numbered.

We weren’t always close. When my parents divorced and I was 11, my brother and I, the oldest two, went to live with my father. My mother kept my other brother and sister, the youngest two.

Old wounds had healed with time, and I thought attending the UFO congress together might be fun.

And it was. For three days, we attended seminars about spaceships, crop circles and alien abductions and shopped for E.T.-themed merchandise, including little green alien necklaces, “I Don’t Believe in Humans” T-shirts and “Fifty Shades of Greys” books.

Mostly, though, we laughed and sipped bright green margaritas and just enjoyed being together as a mother and daughter for the first time in years.

Our getaway took on new meaning in late September last year when my mom’s left knee collapsed while she was preparing for a yard sale. She ended up in a rehab center, then the hospital, and my siblings and I were told that sepsis in her knee had moved to her kidneys. She needed immediate dialysis.

The treatment boosted her kidneys’ function, but her outlook was still poor. Three doctors said it was time to move her into hospice and say our goodbyes.

In her hospice room at a care center near the hospital, my brothers, sister and I took shifts in a cushy recliner next to her bed. As she cycled in and out of sleep, I talked to her about her final requests.

“Nothing fancy,” she told me. “Let’s keep it simple.” She wanted sunflowers at her memorial service and lots of family photos. “Champagne,” she said, “would also be nice. And happy music.”

I rested my head on her chest to feel her warmth.

“Mama, I love you. This is hard, but I will try to be brave,” I told her.

“I love you, too,” she replied, taking my hand. “Think of the happy times. Remember your pink canopy bed? I can still see you sleeping there.”

I went home Thanksgiving night, but, unable to sleep, I went outside in my pajamas and looked at the stars, clutching the snowy owl necklace that I’d worn since my mother’s diagnosis. She always loved snowy owls and collected memorabilia as far back as I can remember. I’d bought this one for my mom at an English sorcery shop in 2015 and carried it with me to Stonehenge, where my family had a tour at sunset. When the sun appeared in the middle of the Great Trilithon, I held up the necklace, knowing that my mother would love that I’d performed a small ritual. At that moment, I felt connected to her and smiled, wondering whether the necklace would now have some sort of power.

As I stood in my chilly backyard last year and searched the stars for the Pegasus and Pisces formations the way my mother had taught me, I was overcome with a feeling that the medical experts were wrong. I decided my mother was not dying. I left several messages for the doctor on call at the care center to come and see her, but he didn’t respond.

After I ordered the blood panel on my own, the phlebotomist called later that night. “I’ll fax the results in the morning,” he said, “but I need to let you know that your mom’s potassium is the lowest I’ve ever seen. It’s critical. She could have heart failure.”

My mom’s nurse said she couldn’t give her potassium without a doctor’s approval. So my brother, who was taking a shift in the recliner, rushed to the grocery store for potassium pills, which he crushed up in water for our mother.

Early the next morning, I was there when the fax results came in showing that if my mother ever had sepsis, it had mysteriously vanished. I immediately called an ambulance to take her to a hospital.

In the emergency room, a doctor said my mom never should have been in hospice care. After nearly a month in the hospital, she was sent to a new care center, which was worst than the first. Finally, on the third try, we got it right.

The staff where she is now is attentive and caring and nobody bats an eye if my mother says, “The lunch today looks like cat food.”

It’s not a perfect life (she’ll never walk again), but my mom is happy on most days and thankful to be alive. I can’t stop smiling when I think back on the recent afternoon when a priest came to her room by mistake to deliver last rites.

“Oh, hell no!” my mother exclaimed. “I’m not going anywhere!”

We laughed until she nearly fell out of her bed. On this Bright Friday, I’ll toast her again with her favorite champagne. My mom says she’s up for two glasses. And maybe a banana.

Cathy Free is a Salt Lake City-based journalist and former newspaper columnist. She contributes regularly to Inspired Life and is writing a book about saving her mother’s life.

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As I wrote this long overdue blog post, my daughter was preparing for her high school’s annual Halloween stomp, which is always held on the Saturday AFTER All Hallows’ Eve. This year, my daughter and her boyfriend decided to dress up as Alice in Wonderland and the Mad Hatter. You can probably guess which costume my kid wore this past weekend. With her long blond hair and mischievous sense of adventure, she was born to play Alice.

For more than two weeks, my daughter searched high and low for an Alice costume that didn’t consist of a micro-mini skirt, plunging bodice, fishnet stockings and an apron that wouldn’t cover a white rabbit. She wanted Alice in Wonderland, not Alice in Hookerland, but alas, she couldn’t find anything appropriate.

So what did she do? My girl searched the deep confines of the basement for my sewing machine (which has been used exactly twice since the Cretaceous Period) and made her own costume, sans pattern, sans instructions, sans any sewing experience other than a summer class she took when she was in the fifth grade. As the machine whirred late into the night, I was in awe of her talent and determination, and also felt a twinge of sadness. This was her last Halloween before she goes off to college next fall.

On Halloween evening, as I crunched through dry leaves during my customary walk around the ‘hood to check out everybody’s costumes (it’s much more fun to see the ghouls in action, rather than wait for the doorbell to ring), I saw lots of superheroes, princesses, skeletons and vampires, but no Alices. I did see a girl dressed up as Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz,” though, with her dad accompanying her as the Cowardly Lion. They took me back to 2007 — the year my daughter decided to be Dorothy and I drove her to four toy stores in search of the perfect stuffed “Toto” to put in her wicker basket. And a preschooler dressed as a tarantula reminded me of Halloween 2010 when my daughter was “Queen of the Black Widows” and paraded with her pirate brother around the neighborhood with a red hourglass on her black velvet dress, a giant web on her back and an enormous spider “crown.”

When I returned home from my trick-or-treat trek, I wore that creepy crown on my own head to answer the door, half-expecting to see my daughter bound up the steps and ring the doorbell like she used to at the end of her happy rounds.

How delightful it was to watch her frantically brush her hair on Saturday night (“I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date!”) and slip into her Alice costume, finished just hours before. “Bye, Mom, gotta run,” she said with a Cheshire cat grin after posing for a few quick snaps with her Mad Hatter boyfriend. “I’ll be home by midnight.”

I smiled through happy tears, recalling a favorite “Wonderland” phrase as she hurried out the door. Life really has become “curiouser and curiouser.”

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Last week, I went shopping with my daughter for the third (and last) time for a high school homecoming dress. Although it was a bittersweet outing, we’ve certainly come a long way since our first trip to Dillards’ prom dress department when she was a sophomore. Then, she accused me of wanting her to dress neck-to-toe in scratchy calico like Laura Ingalls Wilder after I pointed out that a backless, midnight blue gown was a bit too “revealing.”

I made a quick save that day in the dressing room and explained that I meant to say the dress was “revelatory” about her personality. Perhaps too revelatory. In the end, it didn’t matter because my girl used her common sense and picked out a lacy black-and-cream dress that looked like something Grace Kelly would have worn to New York City’s 21 Club.

Since that first excursion, I’ve learned that the secret to shopping for teen formal wear is to casually sit back, snap pics of each outfit and offer more “wows” and “yowzas” than “hmmmmms.” I now trust my daughter to winnow her choices to the top three and keep my preferences for a slinky, golden Gatsby dress or ballerina-style layers of black taffeta and tulle to myself.

This is her fantasy, not mine.

Last week, after she settled on a merlot-colored, sleeveless gown with a midriff panel of sheer lace, my daughter turned to me with shining eyes as we took the escalator down to the jewelry department to pick out some matching earrings.

“Thanks, Mom,” she said, beaming. “I love it.”

I felt a little pang inside when I realized that there will only be a few more moments like these, with a holiday dance coming up and prom night in April. Perhaps I’ll help her to pick out a new dress to celebrate high school graduation. And then she’ll be off to college, on her own.

No wedding dresses yet, I want to tell her. No maternity dresses for the next decade, either. Take one milestone at a time. Instead, when we get home and she fans out her new dress on her bed to admire it, I give her a hug and tell her simply, “Nicely done, sweetie. Love you.”

She will always have my heart.

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