Yesterday was my grand-niece Jillian’s first birthday. Six weeks after she was born, Mom got a visit from the whole tribe: my brother Darryl and his wife Janet; my niece Jenny and her husband Mike (I performed their marriage ceremony); my other niece, Tracy; and my other brother, Dale, and his wife Nilda. All so Mom could meet little Jillian. Jillie, as everyone calls her.
Mom was already starting to fade by this time last year. Dale and Nilda had tried to visit every other week, but sometimes Mom didn’t feel up to letting them come, and when they did visit, often she felt she needed to “tune out.” I think family visits just overwhelmed her.
The day everyone brought Jillie to see her great-grandma, Mom wasn’t feeling at all well, but she wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip by. I think she had willed herself to hold on until after she met this precious gift of a child. Everyone crowded into Mom’s bedroom, and we all oohed and cooed and made baby noises, and then Mom got to hold her:
I recently found some photos I snuck of Mom three and a half months later, about two weeks before her death. I was shocked to see how bad she looked—exhausted, face lined, ill. I just didn’t notice the change when I was with her. She held on for my birthday, and for Darrie’s, but died eleven days before her own.
One of Jillie’s birthday gifts yesterday was a bag full of Mom’s stuffed animals. Actually, they’re to be shared with Jillie’s older cousins, seven-year-old Molly and ten-year-old Hannah, the daughters of my nephew Erik and his wife Rayna (I officiated at their wedding too). Mom loved her stuffed animals. She had big ones, small ones, tiny ones; dogs, tigers, rabbits, and a moose.
Her most precious stuffed animal was Bear. When Hannah was to be born, Mom and I went shopping for a shower gift for her. We ran into a selection of stuffed animals, and one was a floppy polar bear with the softest fur imaginable. We ended up getting something else for Hannah, but I had seen that look in Mom’s eyes, and I got her the polar bear for Christmas, which fell just a few weeks later. Bear slept with Mom from that day on, and when Mom was buried, Bear accompanied her in the casket.
In many Native American cultures, the directions on the Medicine Wheel are represented by different seasons, colors, and animals. The West is represented by autumn, when the shadows are lengthening and the world is growing cold. It is where we learn the lessons that Death can teach us. Many tribes assign black or dark blue to the west, and Bear is freqently its animal symbol. Until the drive home from Jillie’s birthday party, I didn’t make the connection about Mom’s Bear being her constant companion even as she crossed from this realm to the next, nor that Mom died just past autumn’s midpoint.
I should probably mention that the idea of giving away Mom’s stuffed animals popped into my head unbidden and refused to be ignored, even after several days. If anything, it became more insistent. Somehow I don’t mind Mom nagging me these days.